Asking the Wrong Question


The narrative, it is clear, has been set. It may be several years, and untold millions of pounds, before the Covid inquiry reports, but its conclusion is now obvious. Not in the sense of what it actually decides, but of what it will be thought to have decided. For, after the past weeks of testimony, it is certain that Britain had a bad pandemic and Boris Johnson was the cause of it.

Lazy, rude, feckless, profoundly unserious, Britain’s Trump was the worst person to be in charge during that period (or, to many, any other) and it is at his door, and those of his charlatan fellow-travellers, that blame must be laid.

Whether the inquiry actually says this when, some time after 2026, it reports, matters not. Publication will be treated as an interesting curiosity, not the subject of wall-to-wall coverage (with attendant beeping and news-presenters’ apologies) as the evidence-gathering has been. The caravan of political journalists will have moved on. And our attention will have moved on.

It will not be the first time this has happened. The Chilcot Inquiry absolved the Prime Minister’s Office of “sexing up” the Dodgy Dossier, but few, if any, of those who had decided thirteen years earlier that Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell were a pair of lying war criminals felt the need to change their minds.

He who pays the piper gets to pick the tunes, and those who set up an inquiry play a substantial role in shaping its conclusions.

For they exist to answer a series of questions which are chosen by their creators. If something does not strike them as relevant, it is not a subject for the inquiry – the government does not appear to regard the experiences of children as germane, so they do not feature in the remit, much to the chagrin of campaigners for their rights.

One thing the government does appear highly interested in is the performance of the government. It will form a key part of all the modules, particularly module 2, for which the vocabulary-expanding evidence is now being taken (is “f**kpig” a reference to David Cameron’s alleged youthful indiscretion?). We can therefore assume that the government believes that the performance of the government is important to the management of any future pandemic.

Cast your mind back to that period a few years ago when the denizens of Twitter did an abrupt turn from being experts on international trade agreements to authorities on epidemiology. As the virus skipped from China to Italy and seemed poised to cross the channel, while these newly-minted adepts clung to the survey showing that Britain was the country with the best pandemic preparation, two concerns raised their heads. England has London, the best-connected city on the planet and a high population density. Not only was the virus (and any subsequent mutations) likely to get here, it would find it easy to spread once it did so.

The use of England in the previous paragraph is deliberate for while the pandemic preparedness would be common to the UK as a whole, only it suffered from those two handicaps. It would, therefore, be reasonable to assume that it would underperform the other home nations when the final reckoning was done.

The evidence gathered at the inquiry would seem to add weight to that assumption. In contrast to Boris Johnson’s evident discomfort at introducing lockdowns and the dithering which preceded them, Nicola Sturgeon stepped up to the plate (and the podium. Daily.) Boris may have been reluctant to ban people from the pub, Mark Drakeford was happy to stop them buying books in the supermarket. Not only did England have structural disadvantages, it had, due to its misfortune in being led by the blonde bozo, disadvantages in its government. Had it been led by a better, more activist premier, it would have performed better.

“The greatest tragedy of Science,“ wrote T.H. Huxley, ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ “is the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” For, in reality, England did not underperform. Excess deaths in the home nations range from 199 per 100,000 (N. Ireland) to 230 (Scotland). England comes in at 214. Despite having a population density 3x its closest rival (and 6x that of its northern neighbour). Despite having the country’s only hyper-connected megacity. And despite being run by a feckless ape who wanted us all to die.

In World War 2, America had a problem. Many of its planes were returning from missions with bullet-holes. Would it be possible, the brass wondered, to do something about this. The answer was obvious, add armour (or armor) to the planes but that would add weight and reduce manoeuvrability. The optimum solution would be to add the least possible armour to the best possible places. But where were they? A handy chart was produced, aggregating locations of all the bullet holes, showing the areas which were most likely to be hit.

The task of turning this data into a recommendation fell to a statistician named Abraham Wald. Which was fortunate. Because Wald had a flash of inspiration. The bullet holes that the military was seeing were bullet holes in planes which had made it back to base. That meant that planes could take damage in those areas (the wings and the fuselage, mainly) and still be able to fly. Rather, then, than adding armour to the areas where the holes were spotted, it should instead be placed in locations such as the engine cover where bullet holes were never seen, for it was the planes which were damaged in those sites which were not returning.

Concentrating on the failures of the Johnson government, as the popular narrative does, risks making the same mistake as the American military. For while the conduct of those in power may have fallen short of the Platonic ideal, we know that it did not stop England outperforming squeaky-clean Sturgeon’s regime. Nor, given its structural disadvantages, was its performance much worse (and it may even have been better once they are netted out) than the other home nations. The political processology and who swore at whom is, therefore, like bullet holes on the wings – it looks like a problem, but the country was able to cope.

If we really want to “learn lessons for the future”, we should, instead, seek out the holes in the engine cover. Ask not why England but why, despite their advantages, the other home nations did so poorly? What are the problems they have which England does not? Is it a problem of poverty? Is it lower general levels of health? Is it lifestyle choices? Because, whatever it was, it was not Boris.

Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.