I have been watching President Trump’s speeches on TV from here in Lake Placid. It is fair to say crisis communication is not an area of strength for the President who seems bored by the whole process. More locally New York state has directed restaurants to operate at only 50% capacity, which seems like a sensible innovation and easy to impliment as they are almost empty!
In UK, Boris and his team of scientists are doing well on TV. He appears with scientists who take the difficult questions, recite numbers with conviction and wear those heavy rimmed spectacles which since the Falkands War are associated with meticulously prepared bad news. The bespectacled scientists are clearly focussed on work not leisure and are exactly the kind of people you would want at the heart of this crisis. There are actually several such people and they are all Chief of Something, we do not understand, such as Science and Medicine. This is comforting although awkwardly one of the many the Deputy Chiefs of Something said if people are told to wear masks in public that is wise and useful; but if people decide to wear masks without being told to, the same masks are disastrous. The evident disgust at uninstructed mask wearing was rather Orwellian.
On two TV occasions, ex-journalist Boris asks his experts questions to which he manifestly knows the answers but realises he could not articulate in detail without reading. He sometimes forgets he is not supposed to know the answers which is fun but at least he has learned that anything read out has a tenth the value of something spoken with eye contact, no matter who says it. He spoils his new found gravitas with slightly random enjoinders to suffer it all as gladly as possible in the tone you might use to persuade a pantomime horse run a steeple chase. In short, the TV format is good but Boris has yet to find his Churchillian voice.
More attentive citizens are learning new terms like Herd Immunity, and an old friend, Reasonable Worst Case Scenario (RWC). Alas, the nation struggles to understand RWC as a planning tool and so the Reasonable Worst Case, that 85% of UK citizens get infected, quickly enters the public discourse as what ‘might’ and then what ‘will’ happen. There is a well tried route to this misunderstanding. Headline writers find RWC= 85% in a well argued, nuanced 45 page report, faster than a pig finds a truffle. Scarred by exactly this over Brexit, hapless authors of these reports insert not just Notes to deter idle truffle hunters, but now Important Notes and whole pages saying don’t pick out this bit and quote it without caveat. But they cannot help themsleves.
Even the most diligent have yet to distinguish between Case Fatality Rate, abbreviated to CFR, obviously, and Clinical Attack Rates, oddly seldom abbreviated. We are being gently nudged by the improbably named No 10 Nudge Unit that some who need medical care will be chosen to receive it and some will not. This is ironic justice since in our daily lives, the illusion of consequence-free choice underpins our happiness. It is now dawning on us that someone else will make an important choice we might not like. Suddenly, the altar of choice casts a shadow, perhaps a very long shadow.
Those who believe in the intelligence value of markets and the wisdom-of-crowds should reflect on the wisdom that flows from bog roll mania. Apparently, only those who lived in Asia and learned to wash themsleves with water will survive. Everyone else is stuffed.
BTW I think the Aussies, The State of Vermont, perhaps Alaska and UK are taking broadly similar paths and UK is not a complete outlier. We will see.