Saturday, October 24, 2020
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Sir Humphrey’s guide to coronaspeak

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In a desperate attempt to persuade the public not to abandon the TV licence, the BBC is (allegedly) reviving the classic sitcom Yes, Prime Minister. Jim Hacker, hapless PM, tries to get his way over his smooth-talking Cabinet Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby whilst Bernard Woolley, Principal Private Secretary to the PM, attempts to make helpful interventions. TCW has obtained access to part of a new script.

Jim Hacker: But Humphrey, this is an absolute disaster!

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Prime Minister?

Hacker: This Covid business. Tens of thousands of people dead, our policy changing every week, lots of people think I don’t know what we’re doing.

Bernard Woolley: But you don’t know what you’re doing, Prime Minister.

Hacker: That’s quite enough of that, Bernard. Look at these projections that the Chief Scientific Officer made: 50,000 cases a day by mid October and 200 daily deaths. But here are the actual numbers, fewer than 20,000 cases and fewer than 140 deaths. We look like scaremongering nincompoops.

Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, I’m surprised you’re so worried about this. There are two good reasons why this is no cause for concern. Firstly, the numbers given by the Chief Scientific Officer were not projections, they were merely one illustration of what might happen in a given set of hypothetical circumstances. They were never a target against which the government could be held accountable – civil servants would never be so foolish as to commit to something against which they could be measured.

Bernard: Only politicians would do that.

Hacker: Bernard! No, that really won’t do, Humphrey. These numbers were the only ones presented, so it looks like this is what we believed was going to happen.

Sir Humphrey: Well Prime Minister, one can hardly be held responsible for how journalists choose to present information. If they put a set of numbers on the front page, even if it’s the only ones they’ve been given, the government can’t be accountable for Fleet Street hacks failing to understand their proper meaning.

Bernard:  Yes, you would think the press would know better than to believe government statistics.

Sir Humphrey: Thank you, Bernard! But that leads me to the second reason why the differences between the projections – I mean illustrative numbers – and the actual ones are not a problem. The fact that the actual numbers are so low proves the success of releasing the illustrative figures.

Hacker: You’ve lost me now, Humphrey.

Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, by releasing these high numbers, we have scared people so much they changed their behaviour and thus the 50,000 cases have not happened. It’s a marvellous policy success!

Hacker: But you don’t know that, Humphrey. You can’t possibly know how many deaths and cases there would have been had these numbers not been made public. So your assertion cannot be shown to be correct.

Sir Humphrey: And it cannot be proved to be wrong, so it comes down to the opinion of some so-called lockdown sceptics against that of trained and experienced government scientific and medical advisers. Anyone who challenges our claim can easily be dismissed as a crank.

Hacker: Well, we might just get away with that as it’s just projections – I mean illustrations – of the future, but we can’t explain getting historic data wrong. Look at this rule of six and 10pm pub closing. The Chief Medical Officer said these policies were a great success in Belgium, which is why they were introduced here.

Sir Humphrey: Indeed, Prime Minister. When Belgium introduced its rule of five and 10pm curfew on July 29, there were 234 cases a day but by September 1 this had fallen to 194. The policy has clearly worked.

Hacker: Well I’ve been on the interweb and have looked at the actual data from Belgium . . .

Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister! I must object in the strongest terms! It’s quite inappropriate for ministers and prime ministers to do their own research. It is the job of civil servants to identify policy options, collect and consider the data and present recommendations, which ministers then accept. Do you understand what would happen if ministers started doing their own investigations?

Bernard: They’d find the truth?

Sir Humphrey: Bernard! The whole system of British government relies on trust; ministers trust civil servants to advise them on policy and civil servants trust ministers to implement their advice. This strikes at the whole way in which government operates.

Hacker: Be that as it may, Humphrey, I’ve looked at the Belgian numbers. The truth is Belgian case numbers didn’t go down after July 29, they went up! There were only two days when case numbers were lower than on July 29: August 18 and September 1.  A couple of days before the Chief Medical Officer announced the rule of six, Belgium was having more than 600 cases and in October daily cases have been over 1,500 for the most part. They’re now around 5,000 a day! It looks like using the September 1 case number was deliberately misleading – cherry-picking the data to get the desired conclusion.

Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, the selection of data to support a decision is a skill in which senior civil servants receive decades of training so they can present a highly sophisticated picture of the policy landscape. But this is now all ancient history. Several new policy initiatives have been announced since then, which nearly always means that the effectiveness, or otherwise, of the old ones will be completely forgotten . . .

Bernard:  . . . until the public inquiry . . .

Sir Humphrey: . . . by which time ministers and advisers will have moved on, and their replacements will be able to fully agree that lessons have been learned from this crisis that can be properly applied to the next pandemic  . . .

Bernard:  . . . in a hundred years’ time . . .

Sir Humphrey:  . . . by which time the rule of six will, at best, be a minor curiosity that may make a mildly interesting question on a daytime TV quiz show. 

Hacker: I’m still nervous about this, Humphrey. Look at this analysis from SAGE, showing that there’ll be 75,000 extra non-Covid deaths in years to come – from cancer and suchlike – as a result of the lockdown and the fear that has created. Our policies could kill more people than they save.

Sir Humphrey: Again, Prime Minister, this is all forecasts, projections, illustrations, estimates. No one will be able to tell with any certainty how many people will have died from other diseases whilst taking measures to control Covid. The numbers of people dying in future years from delayed cancer diagnoses this year will be inseparable from those who would have died from it anyway. And the deaths will be spread over a number of years, so hardly anyone will notice, unlike the Covid deaths which have occurred in less than one year and so are politically much more significant. No, these extra deaths – if there really are any – don’t present any challenge to the long-established systems and procedures of government.

Hacker: Humphrey, when I met you in 1980 you were a master of verbal obfuscation, manipulation, professional jargon, circumlocution and evasion. And in all these years, you haven’t changed one bit.

Sir Humphrey: Thank you, Prime Minister!

Hacker:  You know, your antics would be really quite funny if their consequences weren’t so serious.

Sir Humphrey: Yes, Prime Minister.

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Vlod Barchuk
Vlod Barchuk is a former accountant, former Tory councillor and current chairman of Ealing Central and Acton Conservative Party Association.

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