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The secret diary of Patrick Vallance

Ivory Tower: Exclusive* access to the journal everyone wants to read (*totally made up)

“Sir Patrick Vallance’s full pandemic diary to be kept secret”.
The Telegraph, 13.12.23

From the week of 30 March 2020, seven days into the UK’s first Covid-19 lockdown

Here we go again, what a chore, starting the week with double maths.

“OK, pencils out and phones away,” I tell the class.

“Phwoar! Crikey! Have you seen these polls?” he says.

“Good to see you are becoming more familiar with graphs,” I say.

“I saw a couple in London Zoo once,” he says.

“I think you mean giraffes, prime minister,” I say, wincing. He looks at me like a confused haystack.

“I was referring to the pictorial representation of data, prime minister,” I say. Still nothing. I might as well be talking to Dilyn the dog.

“They help us make sense of large data sets by showing us trends within them,” I try.

“Like this one, in the newspaper. I have an approval rating of 45 per cent,” he says, holding up his phone.

“Well done, prime minister, I’m glad to see you are taking an interest in mathematical modelling.” I read the phone screen, “Who would you rather have a drink with: Boris Johnson or Prince Harry? I thought you were looking at… oh never mind,” I say.

“That makes me the most popular person in Britain,” he says, beaming.

“No, it doesn’t,” I say, sensing a learning opportunity. He looks at me like the Honey Monster trying do the Times crossword.

“It means that more people would rather have a drink with Prince Harry than you,” I tell him.

“To be fair, I bet Hazza would be a good laugh out on the lash. I wouldn’t mind going with him myself—best not to tell the missus though. Or his, come to think of it,” he says.

“You see, prime minister, if 45 per cent prefer you, that means 55 per cent prefer Harry, and 55 is a bigger number than 45,” I say.

“How many prefer Meghan?” he asks.

“Meghan is irrelevant,” I tell him.

“That’s what Piers Morgan says as well. Do you guys hang out?” he says.

“No, prime minister,” I say, patiently. “I was making a point about data”.

“Booooring,” he says, crossing his arms.

“Have you done your homework, prime minister?” I ask. He looks at his fingernails as if they have suddenly become the most interesting thing on the planet.

“Prime minister, have you looked at the latest data on the spread of the virus?” I ask.

“Are you married, Sir?” he says.

“I don’t see how that is relevant,” I reply.

“Are you married, though, Sir?” he asks.

“Look, have you done your homework?” I try, again.

“Do you have a girlfriend, Sir?” he says.

“This is not appropriate,” I say.

“Do you have a boyfriend, Sir?” he asks.

“Look,” I say, getting cross. “Will you stop this, and stop calling me sir.” 

“You are a Sir though.”

“Right, that’s it! I’ve had enough! I come in here every day to try to teach you the basics of maths—concepts that the average GCSE student has mastered—and all I get is this wall of obfuscation and resistance. I’m done, get yourself another chief scientific adviser,” I say, snapping the lid off my whiteboard marker pen.

He looks sad, like a golden Labrador that has just been left at the side of the motorway. He looks up at me with puppy dog eyes.

“I mean it this time, prime minister,” I tell him.

“But please, Patrick, all the other boys are laughing at me,” he says sniffing.

“Who is laughing at you?” I say, trying to be sympathetic.

“Rishi and Dom, they think they know everything about sums. They call me Mr Thickie Can’t Count for Toffee Thickweed,” he says.

“I’m sure they don’t,” I say, offering him a handkerchief.

“It’s written on the toilet door in the No 10 press office. And I saw Dom pass a very hurtful note to Lee Cain in a meeting last week,” he snivels.

“What did it say?” I ask.

“Boris doesn’t count,” he says, before blowing his nose into my best Italian silk pocket square.

“I’m not sure if that was about…” I start but he looks at me again like a blonde yeti going home to his wife having lost his job at the snow packing factory. “Very well, if I am going to help you then you must do your homework,” I say.

“I have, go on test me. Nine nines are ninety-one, six sixes are clickety click…” he says.

“Let’s start with something simpler, shall we. Do you remember the difference between relative and absolute?” I ask.

“A relative is a person you invite for Christmas lunch and absolut is the vodka you drink when they leave,” he replies, looking very pleased with himself.

“No, relative risk tells us how much more, or less, likely a disease—say, the coronavirus to pick an easy example—is to develop in one group of the population, compared to another. But absolute risk tells us the overall likelihood of that happening at all,” I say, slowing down.

He looks at me like a befuddled mountain of tagliatelle.

“Let’s take an example, prime minister. Think of a man…” I say.

“Can I think of a woman?” he asks.

“It won’t work for this example,” I tell him.

“Can you think of the man, and I’ll think of the woman,” he says.

“We can think about women later, prime minister, let’s stick to this example. So, there is a man…” I begin again.

“Is it Matt Hancock?” he asks.

“No, it’s just a man,” I reply, “Why would it be Matt Hancock?”

“I thought we were playing Guess Who? Like that board game when you flip over the pictures,” he says.

“Jesus,” I mutter.

“Was it Jesus? Wouldn’t have guessed that, didn’t know they could be dead people,” he says, crossing his arms again.

I take a deep breath, before saying, “It’s nothing to do with Matt Hancock, or Jesus, I was trying to give you an example of relative risk versus absolute risk. So, I’ll start again and this time, don’t say a word, listen all the way through before answering. Right?”

He nods.

“Ok, so imagine a man. In fact, imagine a whole group of men, white males, now in their fifties, who all went to Eton, followed by the University of Oxford, and who all write a column for the Telegraph. Among that group of men, the risk that one of them becomes prime minister is relatively high. But—and this is crucial—that does not mean that any of them definitely will become prime minister and that is what we mean by absolute risk,” I say.

He sits there thinking, then a glimmer of recognition creeps across his face. I think he’s got it.

“What if they were up against old Corbyn in an election, then the chap would be nailed on to become PM,” he says.

“No, that’s not what I meant,” I say.

“So, Corbyn is the absolute risk, and I am the relative risk,” he says, looking round for someone to hand him a chew treat.

“No,” I say, sitting down to emit a deep sigh.

There is a knock on the door. “Cabinet meeting in two minutes, prime minister,” says a voice.

“Same time tomorrow?” he says to me. “I do so enjoy our chats. Maybe you could write them up in a book.”

“A diary?” I say.

“No, one of those maths for dummies books. I’m learning so much. What about you?” he asks, heading for the door.

“It’s certainly taught me a lesson, prime minister,” I reply.

He leaves, shouting, “Tally-Ho! Pip, pip! Is that Dom sneezing? Here, use this handkerchief of mine. Just keep it, don’t know where it came from.”

Terms of use: this is a free email for fun on a Friday, it should be shared widely across the sector like negative budget forecasts. Want to pre-order a copy of the Secret Diary of Patrick Vallance (audio book read by Stanley Tucci)? Want to say hello? Email ivorytower@researchresearch.com