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A tangled, buggy mess.


THIS IS THE war people never had. The national emergency amid a global crisis that gives them permission to feel, in their own small way, heroic. To assure themselves that their life has meaning beyond mere personal concerns. It gives them a sense of national identity, so they can join in the collective slogans of pulling together, clapping together, doing their duty, and joining in the rituals of NHS worship. Along with all the stupid little dancing videos on social media and the Blitz-inspired we’ll-get-through-this-together-so-let’s-bake-sourdough-type articles in the magazines and on television, it’s a saccharine attempt to make people feel good about being, in truth, passive and willing victims of panic. It helps mask the unpleasant truth that a large chunk of the populace have allowed themselves to become no better than frightened children.

And to many who have a conventional view of even unconventional wars, it’s not a war at all. Any more than the frequent outbreaks of influenza are wars. The profligate use of martial language, exploited with consummate speciousness by Boris Johnson himself when in full ersatz-Churchill mode, is embarrassing as much as anything else. You don’t beat a virus, you don’t defeat it. You cope with it and hopefully survive it. The embarrassment was doubled in Blighty by the fact that the 70th anniversary of V-E Day fell bang in the middle of all this. A nation too scared to leave its homes celebrated its ancestors who fought and died around the globe without once asking if it was safe to go outside first.

The darkest of times still have their bright spots, though, and the one we got was the unmasking of Neil Ferguson, architect of the lockdown policy, as a gold-plated hypocrite. He was rumbled breaking his own isolation advice by meeting up with his mistress, a Mrs Staats, for intimate cross-London meetings. Mrs Staats, like Ferguson, is a gold-plated, bourgeois, champagne socialist with all the environmental and open-marriage trimmings. Ferguson immediately resigned from a couple of his important posts, a few words were briefly expressed by the government, and just as briefly the affair dropped from the broadcast media after initial coverage. He has remained out of the spotlight since. Many people rightly raised the question that if Ferguson did not think lockdown that essential for himself and his mistress then why should anyone else? A question that remains unanswered.

Ferguson has form — very bad form — in this area. His predictions about deaths from Mad Cow Disease (BSE/JCD), Foot and Mouth, SARS, and Swine Flu, were all wrong.

What has not been erased from public discussion is the code for the program Ferguson and his colleagues used to predict the apocalyptic number of corpses that would accrue from not placing the whole country under house arrest. Ferguson has form — very bad form — in this area. His predictions about deaths from Mad Cow Disease (BSE/JCD), Foot and Mouth, SARS, and Swine Flu, were all so wrong, you wonder why nobody in government raised this in discussions. Now, too late, the code he used has been looked at by various experts and the judgment is the same: it is atrocious beyond belief.

David Richards and Konstantin Boudnik, for instance, both successful software developers, have damned it in the most caustic words I have yet read on the subject:

Since publication of Imperial’s microsimulation model, those of us with a professional and personal interest in software development have studied the code on which policymakers based their fateful decision to mothball our multi-trillion pound economy and plunge millions of people into poverty and hardship. And we were profoundly disturbed at what we discovered. The model appears to be totally unreliable…

Try unravelling Ferguson’s tangled, buggy mess, which looks more like a bowl of angel hair pasta than a finely tuned piece of programming. In our commercial reality, we would fire anyone for developing code like that and any business that relied on it to produce software for sale would likely go bust.

Richards and Boudnik also say it appears to have been written in Fortran, which was one of the major programming languages in use when I learned programming forty years ago.

A “tangled, buggy mess” is as apt a description of this fiasco as anything else. Boris Johnson emerged from sickness to announce the government had a plan for an exit, and some of the restrictions were going to be loosened, stage by stage. Even more importantly, the slogans had been changed. Gone were the admonitions to stay at home and protect the NHS, to be replaced by “Stay Alert (too vague for definition), and “Control the Virus” (misguided and hubristic.)

It was clear to me that this signalled the lockdown was over and we were now in government-damage-limitation mode. To openly admit the panic was over would, ironically, have sent some people deeper into panic, so infantilised by fear have they become that they would not be able to believe they were safe until every trace of the virus has been eradicated from the country. Others would see this as an admission by the government they had over-egged the panic pudding and things had turned out better than they had thought. All that sacrifice would have been virtually pointless. And no doubt there were others who would have thought the British public would stupidly stampede back to normality, reinfect each other and cause the fabled second spike — another petard on which ministers have hoist themselves.

To carry on giving the impression they were on top of things, they released a sixty-page document setting out details of the new-found freedoms of the British people — and the restrictions to which they were still bound. Unfortunately this only provided more fodder for confusion.

Ministers are trying to straddle two camps: the timid who want to keep lockdown indefinitely, and those who want restrictions lifted as soon as possible before we all go mad and the economy collapses. The government needs to acknowledge this is not a war but a tangled, buggy mess that demands courageous action on its part to end it. It’s a Gordian Knot that cannot be unravelled. Boris Johnson is a classicist. He should have realised by now he needs to follow the example of Alexander and not Churchill, and just cut through the knot.

suxcoverCurrente Calamo columnist, poet and writer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. A Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Lincoln University (2005 – 2008), his poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent book is Albion Days (perennisperegrinator press). Sucks to Your Revolution is a collection of his Fortnightly columns.

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