In the run-up to the 2019 general election, I wrote a piece about Boris Johnsons’ strategy for dealing with awkward interview questions. This outlined comment from Johnson himself, where he sketched his dead cat strategy. When faced with an impossible argument, he said, “your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as ‘throwing a dead cat on the table, mate’. The logic was that the distraction of the newly added dead cat would divert everyone’s attention away from the awkward questions.
In my previous post, I used the dead cat strategy to explain the bizarre interview Johnson gave about building model buses from empty wine crates. The allegation was that this strange story by Johnson was designed to mess with internet search algorithms. Up until this moment these had insisted on returning ‘slighty awkward’ search results detailing the lies about spending £350 million a week on the NHS in a post-Brexit fantasy world.
Writing this piece, less than six months after the 2019 election, and during the pandemic lockdown, everything seems changed and changed utterly. Last week the Financial Times reported 50,000 excess deaths for March and April (an increase of 61% on usual mortality rates). This contrasted with official figures which put excess deaths at 27,000 (this is not an insignificant number either). The situation in care homes is even grimmer. Again, it is the Financial Times which is doing the serious journalism, reporting that between March 2 and May 1 2020, there were almost 46,000 deaths of care home residents (according to the ONS data). This number is twice the 23,000 figure for the same period in 2019. Yet the official cause of death was only listed as COVID-19 for 12,500 of these 23,000 deaths, leaving over 10,000 ‘unexplained’ excess deaths in care homes.
The impact of this excess mortality is overwhelming for all of us. When we talk about excess mortality, we mean people who have died who usually would not be expected to die. We are talking about lives that have been lost which should not have been lost. As such, we need to find an explanation for this loss of life that can be deployed later. If an accident had caused death on this scale, we would expect those who allowed it to happen should provide an explanation and be blamed if the accident was avoidable. This is the least that families and relatives of the dead deserve. As such, we need to find an explanation for this loss of life, so that when things settle down, those responsible can be held to account, both individuals and institutions. We need to ensure redress for the families and relatives of those people who should not have died. So, for examples, we might want to know what were the processes that led to the catastrophic failures in the stockpiling and distribution of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in the public sector, not to mention what happened in the privately-run care homes.
This is where we come back to the ‘dead cat strategy’. When politicians are invoking a national imaginary, bolstered by jingoism and rhetorical appeals to ‘take back control’ nothing is easier than throwing a dead cat onto the table when challenged about the fact that your numbers do not add up. After the Brexit referendum, Arron Banks insisted on telling anyone that would listen that the ‘age of facts’ was over, and that we were now in the age of the politics of emotions. For Brexit, and for the 2019 election, this appears to have worked.
But this politics of emotions does not seem to play so well when faced with a list of 50,000 people who should not have died. It is hard for politicians to throw a metaphorical dead cat into the mix in the context discussions of inadequate PPE and the in-service deaths of over 170 NHS doctors, nurses, porters and volunteers. This number rises to over 300 when deaths of care workers are added.
So the political strategy seems to have changed somewhat. Metaphorical dead cats are out, but challenging the evidence remains in. The initial reports of excess mortality were focussed only on hospital deaths, and it was only after sustained media pressure over several weeks that excess mortality in social care was included in the daily totals. There were reports that doctors were being pressured to record the cause of death as pneumonia rather than COVID-19.
All of this is redolent of the ‘juking the stats’ narrative in The Wire. In this clip, senior officers of Baltimore Police Department are told the crime numbers that will be tolerated (5% reduction in felonies, hold annual murder rate at 275 people). The point of these analogies is that these numbers are mainly outside the control of the assembled officers. As such they are left with no option other than to ‘juke the stats’, to ensure they can demonstrate to those who hold them accountable, that ‘they did what they were told’, that they met their targets and that the blame for any shortfall lies elsewhere.
This talk of targets brings us back to COVID-19. We had targets for reducing the r-value, we had targets for daily testing, we had targets for PPE delivery. But in all of these, we have also had uncertainty, rumour and counter-rumour. Take the r-value (the rate at which the virus is reproduced – how many people will one infected person pass the virus on to). For lockdown to be eased, we need this number to be below 1, and as close to zero as possible. Before the shift from ‘stay home’ to ‘stay alert,’ we were told that the UK r-value was between 0.5 and 0.9. I don’t know about you, but in terms of risk of infection, for me, the difference between 0.5 and 0.9 is quite large! An r-value of 0.5 means that every 10 cases will result in 5 new cases. An r-value of 0.9 means 9 new cases for every 10 recorded cases. This is a big difference.
We had targets for daily testing, which have consistently not been met. Indeed on the first day, the Government claimed to have met their target, it was alleged this was only because they had included around 39,000 tests which had been posted out on that day. In terms of PPE, there were stories that single gloves rather than pairs were counted as individual items of PPE; thus 10,000 gloves become 20,000 items of PPE. Similarly, there were stories that the politics of Brexit endured as Britain opted to stay out of an EU wide PPE procurement scheme. In early April, Matt Hancock even tried to blame NHS staff for the shortage because they were ‘overusing PPE’! All of these suggest evidence of juking the stats, as an alternative strategy to attribute blame elsewhere, to make someone, anyone other than the politicians accountable for the deaths of people who should not have died.
But there have also been metaphorical dead cats. The day that the UK became the European country with the highest excess mortality rate, (that is to say, the single European country with the highest number of people who had died who shouldn’t have died) the story broke about a chief scientific advisor being caught in a breach of lockdown rules. The day the UK topped the excess mortality tables, the principal UK media outlets led with a sex scandal. This leaves me thinking, the more things change, the more they stay the same. It also leaves me asking, what price for a new type of politics, one which functions with honesty, integrity and trust? It looks like that price is 61,900 (and rising), people who should not have died.