Monthly Archives: July 2013

Blood plasma, privatisation and falling vCJD

The government have announced they will sell 80% of the firm, Plasma Resources UK (PRUK). This firm manages the supply of blood plasma to the NHS, a product that cannot be derived from UK blood donations because of the risk of transmitting vCJD – a disease almost entirely exclusive to the UK, or to people who have lived in the UK.

This has led to some ill-advised headlines claiming the blood donor service will be privatised, criticised rightly by Anthony Cox, that has necessitated a hasty statement from the NHS Blood & Transfusion (NHSBT) service to avoid the risk of a decline in donations.

While it is understandable that those opposed to privatisation would want to protest this, no action seems more spiteful than depriving innocent people of a vital resource, especially as the result of misinformation.

However, although PRUK’s function is to source plasma from outside the UK, this is unlikely always to be so.

Rates of vCJD peaked in 2,000 and the last few years have recorded 0 new cases.

This means, assuming no new cases are recorded, at some point a decision will be made that it is safe to start using plasma from blood donated in the UK.

WIll PRUK, a now privatised firm, then be running part of the UK’s blood donor system?

This will then legitimatise concerns about privatisation of parts of the blood donor service.

I have asked both the Department of Health and NHSBT this question.

NHSBT answered promptly to state that they cannot answer this question as they cannot predict when UK blood plasma might be considered safe.

I am still waiting on a response from the Department of Health.

While I do, you may wish to give blood, especially as I have been unable to do so for some time.


Tests for 5 & 11 year olds – a silly idea

Nick Clegg has proposed testing 5 and 11 year olds to measure the success of schools in reaching arbitrary standards.

There is a considerable problem with this announcement.

Children are not born with adult capabilities, these develop throughout childhood, and, in the early years especially, there are massive changes in ability.

Any given class of school children will vary in age by just under 12 months.

At the age of 5, somebody on the cusp of their 6th birthday will be ~20% more developed on average than somebody just turned 5.

At the age of 11, somebody on the cusp of their 12th birthday will be 8.3% more developed on average than somebody just turned 11.

You expect, on average, younger children to perform less well in tests than older children in the same cohort.

Even if results are averaged across a class, variations in the distribution of ages in a given class will affect this result. 

This advantage narrows as children get older, making tests at later ages progressively fairer in terms of measuring ability, but it seems a profoundly silly thing to do for Primary School age children.




It’s what they really think

George Monbiot has a piece out in The Guardian today railing against libertarian/free market thinktanks that take tobacco money while lobbying for policies that favour tobacco companies. However, I think that Monbiot gets one crucial aspect wrong. The gist of the argument is as follows;

Tobacco companies are not allowed to advertise their products. Nor, as they are so unpopular, can they appeal directly to the public. So they spend their cash on astroturfing (fake grassroots campaigns) and front groups. There is plenty of money to be made by people unscrupulous enough to take it.

I don’t think it is helpful to assume bad faith on the behalf of these lobbyists. They appear to genuinely believe in their cause, and it can be argued that they don’t take money to believe in the freedom of tobacco manufacturers to sell more tobacco, but they believe that tobacco manufacturers should have the right to sell more tobacco so they take money from like minded people.

Otherwise it would be relatively trivial for rich activists, such as George, to collectively bung them £40,000 or so to change their minds. If, as he claims,

The institute has almost unrivalled access to the BBC and other media, where it promotes the corporate agenda without ever being asked to disclose its interests.

Then this would be a cost effective method of broadcasting an anti-smoking message using lobbyists for hire.

I would be extremely surprised if pro-tobacco lobbyists changed their positions in response.

Of course most of their arguments are hypocritical, damaging and rely on ignoring evidence, so should be opposed on these grounds alone.

But we should at least assume they are sincere.



Should a criticism be listened to if it is dishonest or ignorant?

Should a criticism be listened to if it is dishonest or ignorant?

Establishment journalist, Charles Moore, has a column today criticising the liberal bias and, in his opinion, lack of impartiality at the BBC.

In some respects his criticisms have merit, the idea that we can leave our biases behind and be wholly impartial when demanded to be wholly impartial is not an idea that has much basis in reality.

Indeed, much of the methodology of science and medicine requires as many biases as possible to be accounted for and reduced by blinding, if not eliminated entirely.

The assumption that journalists, whose methodologies cannot possibly be blinded, can operate without bias is not a sound basis on which to make decisions about the politics of journalists you wish to recruit.

However, bias is one thing, that can be accounted for, lying, deliberate misrepresentation or ignorance are worse traits in journalism, these suggest an attempt to deceive or a crucial failure of understanding that renders any argument or presentation so untrustworthy as to be useless.

Unfortunately for his argument, Charles Moore does at least one of the above.

On the Today programme yesterday, for example, it was reported that the Government has decided to delay any action to ban cigarette brand packaging. The official view was duly represented by a Tory backbencher, Mark Field. The banning enthusiasts were represented by Harpal Kumar, the chief executive of the charity Cancer Research UK. Mr Kumar made some pretty extreme assertions, such as that the tobacco industry was “entirely dependent on recruiting children” to addiction. This was unchallenged by James Naughtie.

As CRUK’s own figures show, 80% of smokers start before they are 18, while they are, legally, children.

Further to this, the numbers of children under 16 smoking has risen from 157,000-200,000 in the last year.

Mr Kumar’s ‘assertions’ were a simple stating of the research literature.

Mr Moore is either unaware of this, or choosing to ignore it, and this unfortunately damages whatever good points he might make. He is either dishonest, or ignorant, whether unwittingly or deliberately.

Why then should we listen to him?

Owen Paterson & Climate Change II

On ‘Any Questions?’ on the 7th June, the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, claimed that “the climate has not changed. The temperature hasn’t changed in 17 years”.

This caused some consternation as Mr Paterson’s views appeared to be inconsistent with the evidence that the temperature has changed and is increasing. 

I asked Defra, the department Mr Paterson is in charge of, for evidence supporting Mr Paterson’s claim, and if they supported it.

They have referred me to their public and previously published documents by way of an answer.

This includes this slide from a presentation given to Mr Paterson last year.



This clearly shows that the temperature has increased in the last 17 years.

The circumspection of British civil servants is world class at times.