These are taken from the Local News columns from 2 April 2020 to 17 December 2020, which published every Thursday. Each also provides news and comment about most of West Berkshire (except the north-eastern part) and the areas around Wantage and Marlborough. To see the archive of these, including the most recent one, please visit this section of the Penny Post website.
Thanks to everyone whose brains I pick each week, particularly (and most regularly) Prof Anon, Prof Jon Crowcroft and Ed James.
The 2021 Further Afields can be seen here.
Thursday 17 December 2020
• Earlier this week, there was considerable media attention following the announcement by Health Secretary Matt Hancock that a variant of the CV-19 virus seemed to be on the increase in London and Kent. This led to fears that this was more infectious and more deadly than any previous strains and that the vaccines might be ineffective against it. Headlines like ’Super Covid’ and ‘Mutant Virus’ added to the sense of public unease. The impression was that, after having rattled along on the same tracks for the best part of a year, the virus had suddenly decided to change trains.
Viruses mutate all the time, the result of faulty copying of the RNA (the ‘computer code’ that defines what they are). Any type of virus might have billions of variations, some of which are successful and others not in any given circumstance. If the environment changes then one variation might then start to thrive. This is a random process that has built in to it the means for the species as a whole to survive in a changing world. Some viruses, like flu, mutate fairly quickly. Covid seems to do so more slowly.
Survive is all a virus wants to do (in the sense that it ‘wants’ to do anything). Killing its host is usually not an advantage, one reason why Ebola didn’t make a lot of progress. If any new variant is more infectious, this may not in itself be a bad thing. The common cold is highly transmittable but not fatal unless one has very serious underlying conditions. It’s far too early to say if this, or any other variant, is more fatal. Several weeks of tests will be needed, and from a reasonably large sample, to give any meaningful results (by which time this variant might have withered away and others emerged to take its place). The fact that this variant seems to have spread enough to catch researchers’ attention might be explained by the fact that this happened in a crowded part of the country just before Christmas, or to vagaries of the testing system.
The big question is whether this variant will be immune to the vaccine. So far there seems little reason to think so. The vaccines focus on teaching the immune system to create defences against the protein found on the outside of the virus which is highly unlikely to mutate into something else. To use an analogy, all these viral variations are written in English; and it is the English language as a whole, not a particular style of it, that the vaccine is attacking.
Viruses spread quickly: so too does news about them. There have been several comments from scientific experts saying, in essence, that the Heath Secretary’s reference to a new variation or mutation is really no news at all and that, in the words of Professor Jonathan Ball of Nottingham University, “it is premature to make any claims about the potential impacts of virus mutation.” This recent article in the New Scientist concludes that “many are asking is whether it was appropriate for a health minister to publicly announce these preliminary findings in a way that led to widespread concern.” The answer may well be that it was “appropriate” because it was expedient. As this variation was most prevalent in the parts of the south east that were about to put into tier three, it may have been decided that an eye-catching way of justifying the decision was needed: political, therefore, rather than scientific. However, if this, or any other variant, becomes a threat I shall wait for the scientists, rather than the politicians, to let me know.
• Earlier this month, the Health Secretary also seemed keener to make a political point than to tell the truth when he described the rapid authorisation of the vaccine as a “Brexit bonus,” a comment that the PM was, to his credit, keen to distance himself from. As Mr Hancock must surely know, the approval process was done under EU law, which still applies until the end of the month. Also, Pfizer is an American company, its partner BioNTech is German and the vaccine is is made in Belgium. The significance of the last point is that the way things are going, come 1 January, getting anything from Belgium or anywhere else in the EU might be a good deal more complicated than at present. Unlike the announcement about the viral variation – which might be justified as a piece of political PR – this Brexit-bonus claim seems little short of desperate.
• Infection rates in the UK, after two weeks of decline, have started rising sharply again, even in area where they were previously low: rural West Berkshire, for instance, has seen its seven-day rolling average of cases more than triple in the two weeks since 27 November. This may be because of infections that were picked up in the last few days since Tiers 2.0 was introduced. If the figures are growing now, many health experts are warning, just wait to see what they are like in mid January. Despite government exhortations to make Christmas celebrations ‘small, short and local’, the relaxation risks being a huge mistake. Many European countries have taken, or are contemplating, more robust measures. Our government appears to have decided that after nine months of restrictions, trying to enforce regulations over Christmas would be impossible and would turn a good part of the population into criminals.
• Meanwhile, opinion polls still seem to differ (as they always do) on how many people are happy to have the vaccine. ITV suggested on 10 December that 54% were “certain or very likely” to do so whereas six days later the BBC claimed that 79% of white people (but only 57% of BAMEs) would take the vaccine. More worryingly, the ITV article reported that 41% of anti-vexers were “selfish” or “stupid.” This seems horribly like the fault lines that opened up at the time of Brexit and which did so much to polarise the country, at least until the great leveller of Covid came along. Such an attitude doesn’t seem likely to improve the tone of the debate, nor to change anyone’s mind. I’m reminded of the MMR scare created by Andrew Wakefield. Penny and I completely fell for that because it was compellingly presented in sources that we trusted.
These days, ‘trusted’ sources are likely to be social-media platforms which tend to re-inforce already established views and which are a lot easier to engage with than scientific journals. There’s also a deep-seated conviction that any official line is to be distrusted. Again, one returns to the Brexit referendum, the ‘leave’ vote almost certainly winning because all major political leaders wanted matters to go the other way. With the Brexit vote, there was no certainty about any of the claims made by either side, many of which have been shown to have ranged from gross exaggeration to bare-faced lies. With the vaccines, there is, however, plentiful evidence that they are safe: or, at least, that the risks are vastly outweighed by the advantages. If in doubt, talk to your GP. They have no incentive for you to come to any harm. Or, if you feel that they are merely following the NHS line, look up a few articles from reputable publications that demonstrate some sources.
• A wonderful piece of political theatre was enacted in the House of Commons this week when an SNP MP refused to sit down when ordered to do so by the Deputy Speaker and then picked up and attempted to remove the Mace (I think it demands a capital letter), a crime about as serious as helping yourself to the crucifix from the altar at St Peter’s. This contrasts with a scene in Taiwan’s parliament last month when, during a debate about meat imports, one side produced unfeasibly large quantities of pigs’ offal and started hurling them at their opponents. This may count as a lesser crime in the Commons than handling the Mace. I can still recall the furore when Michael Heseltine wielded it like a weapon after a contentious vote in the 1970s. Anyway, in this most recent incident, the MP in question was “named”, that most horrible of penalties. Despite this, I can’t remember his name, I’m afraid, but you can look it up if you’re interested.
• The Covid regulations are not always clear, even to those who have framed them, Tobias Ellwood being the latest MP to have been caught out after addressing a public dinner. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, was quick to act as judge and jury in the matter, telling ITV News that there had certainly been a breach of the regulations. If regulations are breached, on this or any other matter such as bullying, then those that breach them must certainly be held to account. No need for an enquiry to look further into this matter, it seems.
• I made a point last week about a recent debate at West Berkshire Council concerning the pay that councillors received. I contrasted the basic councillor allowances of West Berkshire (£8,154), the Vale of White Horse (£5,084) and Wiltshire (£13,833). WBC Councillor Graham Bridgman wrote to me to point out that the comparison is not fair as WBC (and Wiltshire) are unitary authorities whereas the Vale (which has Oxfordshire CC on top of it) is not. The workloads are not comparable. I accept the correction. However, my point was not that the councillors were overpaid given the work that they do but that encouraging more candidates to stand who were more representative of the area (ie non-white, female and younger) would need more than tinkering with the allowances. This article on the BBC website, published in late April 2019, shortly before the most recent municipal elections, suggested that the average local councillor was a 59-year-old white male called David. 26% are over 70 (up from 14% in 2004) and only 10% are under 40 (though this is up from 7% in 2004).
Several letters in this week’s Newbury Weekly News referred to this (and the issue is probably a live one in many other parts of the country). One correspondent, Peter Norman, made the point that had eluded me last week, that (certainly in West Berkshire) the only way you can get elected to the council is to join either the Conservatives or the Lib Dems which would, for a many, be a depressing choice. It’s perhaps significant that the two youngest WBC councillors, and the only ones under 30, were each already members of these two parties and so perhaps saw a seat on the council as a career move. This won’t work for everyone. As of September 2019, only about 10% of local councillors (excluding towns and parishes) are independent and only three councils are controlled by independents (though they are part of the ruling coalition in about 20 others). Clearly a good deal needs to change if 59-year-old Dave is not to be a constant feature of the local municipal landscape. Mind you, things are probably a bit better than they were: 100 years ago, the typical councillor would probably have been called Sir Dave.
• I never cease to be amazed at the ingenuity of those who argue that the numerous instances of suffering, pain and misery on earth are in some way part of a divine plan. There are two further attempts this week in the broad church that is the letters’ page of the Newbury Weekly News to fit the square peg of experience into the round hole of theology. One even suggests that the pandemic is an expression of God’s love because it has made us help others. I would love to believe otherwise but, looking around me and back in history, I can see no evidence of any divine plan which has done anything but cause ceaseless friction between those who interpret this in different ways, and plenty of evidence to suggest that any God is either not benevolent or not omnipotent, or both. If you get stuck at this point, as I and many others do, it becomes increasingly impossible to move forward without relying on faith, but unsupported by the evidence of our so-called God-given senses. It is, of course, possible that the whole thing is an fantastical logical paradox the true purpose of which will only be revealed to us in a lightbulb moment on day one of the afterlife. If so, it seems a shame that we should have been given enough intelligence to see the problems but not enough to spot the solution. The principle of Ockham’s Razor – that the simplest explanation is most likely to be correct – suggests that we, along with cats, and crabs, and coronaviruses, are just bumbling along for our allotted span, trying to survive. As Christmas messages go, this isn’t perhaps the most hopeful. Other theories exist, of course, each as unprovable as this one.
• Speaking of lightbulb moments, I can only recall two books where, towards the end, there was a statement which completely changed everything that you’ve thought about how the narrative was working, forcing you to turn everything through 180º (I’m ignoring whodunits as these depend on such a revelation to some extent, Agatha; Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd being probably the best example). The two books are The Valley of Fear by Conan Doyle and The Spy who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré. In both, the trick is superbly played but the latter is certainly the better book. Le Carré, of course, died this week at the age of 89. The BBC website on the day of his death referred to him as the ‘cold-war novelist’ which was later changed to ‘espionage novelist.’ The word the writer was hunting for was ‘novelist.’ Many, but not all, of his books were set in these worlds but all were forged with an all-round excellence and precision that many writers associated with more ‘serious’ genres have consistently failed to match. Fortunately, he has left behind a large and satisfying body of work for us all to enjoy. If you haven’t read any, The Spy… is a good place to start.
• The US election result seems finally to have been confirmed although the parallel universe that the President and his intimates inhabit still appears to feel that a successful legal challenge is (despite over 50 failures so far) just around the corner. The electoral-college system is truly extraordinary and open to just the kind of pressure that PotUS has been trying to apply: if the system permits it then he has the right to go for it. The rest of his time seems to be being spent playing golf and ensuring that as many death-row prisoners as possible are executed before 20 January, when Joe Biden – an opponent of the capital punishment – takes over the rather poisoned and tarnished chalice of President of the USA. For Trump, this must seem like a legacy, I suppose…
Thursday 10 December 2020
• In years to come, the question “what was Margaret Keenan famous for?” may turn up in pub quizzes. She was, as we know now but will soon forget, the first person in the world to have had a Covid-19 vaccination other than in a clinical trial, on 8 December in Coventry (the second was called William Shakespeare). The plan appears to be to get everyone over 75, front-line health and care-home workers and people with known vulnerabilities – about 15% of the population – vaccinated by the end of February and then work down the age bands thereafter. As nine out of ten people who’ve died from Covid in the UK have been over 65, this should make a huge difference to the mortality rates, the pressure on the hospitals and economic life. The result should be a kind of herd immunity, but without the 100,000 or so deaths that might have resulted if the virus had been allowed to run wild.
• All of this depends on how many people are unwilling to have the jab. By most estimates, an 80-90% take-up will be enough. This report by Imperial College suggests that, although confidence levels are rising, the likely acceptance is currently nowhere near this figure. Worryingly, ITN reports that, in August, only 53% of those questioned would be happy to roll up a sleeve. Those aged 16-34 were twice as likely not to want it as those aged over 55 (although this isn’t perhaps that bad as it’s more important that older people have it). The younger group is probably at least twice as likely to use social media, where anti-vac conspiracy theories of almost unparalleled idiocy can be found with alarming ease. “I wonder how Bill Gates is going to spend his first day in control of Margaret Keenan,” one recent tweet read: this refers to the accusation the the Microsoft tycoon turned health philanthropist is using the vaccine to inject mind-controlling microchips into our bodies. It’s impossible to escape the conclusion that the people who most fear someone taking control of their thought processes would be the ones who would most benefit from the intervention.
• Meanwhile, our government’s attention is being diverted at this crucial point by the final Brexit discussions. This might be no bad thing. The medical and scientific community seems capable of getting on with distributing and providing the vaccine without heavy-handed and ineffectual central measures. It’s also likely that government exhortations to do a particular thing can produce the opposite effect. (The Brexit referendum, called by the hapless David Cameron, was an excellent example, with all the then political leaders telling us to vote ‘remain’.) If, however, the vaccine take-up is less than needed, we might be seeing news of cabinet ministers getting the jab in their constituencies. Hopefully they’ll pick some people from outside the government bubble as well, to dilute the propaganda. Marcus Rashford, Captain Tom and David Attenborough might be worth calling up about this. The other worry will be if the supply chain breaks down. The army, Amazon, Tesco, the Loughborough Boy Scouts, the Tranmere Rovers Supporters’ Club – I would be happier with any of these delivering the vaccine than some company like Serco, appointed through yet another world-beating new organisation headed up by yet another of the PM’s Oxford chums.
• Although this is taking place on a larger and more urgent timescale than usual, the delivery and application of the vaccine should now follow the traditional routes which are used for all kinds of health deliverables. Key to this will be the local reaction and publicity from GPs, PPGs and the like. This is also encouraging as the local response has consistently been more rapid, targeted and effective than the big national gestures. West Berkshire Council has, I think, performed really well in its reaction to the pandemic and would have done even better if the test and trace had been handed over to it and its fellow councils sooner. Parish councils and voluntary groups have, proportionate to their resource,s done even better. This recent survey from the Public Sector Executive suggests that 56% of people trust local councils to make decisions for their local area, compared to only 6% which trusts the government. This is surely time for the government to step back on get Brexit sorted – whatever exactly that involves – and let the local councils and health professionals get the vaccine (and the anti-anti-vac messages) sorted. The next thing that Whitehall needs to do is make sure that all of these local groups are properly funded in the future, rather than have them scrape around for cash by investing in property portfolios and hoping for eye-catching gestures from centenarian ex-soldiers.
• In years to come, doctorates will be being written on the sociology and psychology of face masks in 2020-21. As a friend pointed out to me today, masks are altruistic: the greater benefit from your wearing them is felt by someone else (ie they won’t greatly protect you if someone sneezes in your face). Vaccines, however, are selfish. In case anyone wants to use my thoughts as raw material, here they are. Unless compelled to do so, I will not wear a mask in my own home, when driving alone or with my bubble or when outside, even if shopping at markets. Others take a different view. Most of my shopping is done at Hungerford’s excellent Wednesday street market where about half the people are masked up. I don’t feel the slightest qualm about not being so. If I go into a shop, however, my feeling is the exact opposite. If I need to visit someone’s house I’ll have a mask in my hand in case we need to talk by the doorway and they would prefer I wore one. Some of the masks one sees seem to of almost haz-chem standards but this doesn’t bother me at all: the better they work, the better for me. These might also be more comfortable than the cloth ones and avoid the very 2020 problem of having your glasses steam up.
Some people are opposed to wearing masks at all (particularly in the USA) but perhaps they should consider that it’s other people they’re protecting, not themselves. Not to wear a mask if the situation or person requests it is perhaps as rude as lighting up a cigarette indoors if you’ve not first asked it it’s OK. As for the business of shopkeepers whipping on their mask as you come into their shop, this is perhaps the new form of hand-shaking. Perhaps because I spent a lot of childhood holidays in France, this is a custom that I greatly miss. I doubt it will return. I loved the fact that it marked the formal start and end of the conversation and that, for a few seconds, you made a formalised physical connection. In a recent interview, Barak Obama recalls the two best bits of advice outgoing President George Bush gave him in 2008: trust yourself; and make sure you have sanitiser with you at all times as you’re going to be shaking a hell of a lot of hands. I bed Joe Biden won’t be.
• Going back to Brexit, it seems clear that the EU decided, with good reason, to make the exit process as difficult as possible for the UK, pour décourager les autres. With Poland and Hungary behaving the way they are, Brussels might now wish it had a swift and simple sanction for those who transgress and do not leave. The Week reports that these two countries have vetoed a €750bn Corvid rescue package because of the EU’s well-founded objections to their attitudes to human rights and democratic values (the ‘rule of law’ clause). The EU was formed to provide an alternative vision to the alternating and often overlapping waves of war and tyranny which overwhelmed many countries including these two for most of the 20th century. Both have been considerable beneficiaries of the EU’s funding and, ironically, would also have been under there deal which they vetoed.
The EU, however, isn’t a golf club or a political party – you can’t just throw a country out of such a complex and inter-connected body. But what sanctions does it have? Any display of diplomatic or financial pressure would probably lead to even more nationalist sentiment. Any watering down or compromising of the rule of law clause would undermine the EU’s central purpose. Any delay to the the grant would be a disaster for all the other countries. The EU has always existed in a state of intense contradiction in that many of its ambitions were those of a nation state while also itself being comprised of nation states whose sensibilities (never more clearly shown than in the way the UK was treated) had to be respected if the thing was going to work. If two of the states want to return to a form of authoritarianism then I’m not sure Brussels has a solution. This could prove a greater threat than the departure of its second-largest economy on 31 December.
• For the UK, there’s the question of how much Brexit is going to cost. The figures bandied about in 2016 were all either lies or have been since rendered meaningless. The Daily Express, normally the most rabidly pro-Brexit national paper, suggests £200bn, about the same as our net contributions to the EU since 1973. The cost of Covid is currently estimated to be close to double this but is likely to continue to rise. Covid will also create far worse longer-term problems than Brexit as a result of factors such as long-term redundancies and missed diagnosis of non-Covid conditions. (Mind you, Brexit has shown it’s still capable of creating its own bad headlines, “Food rots and factories shut as port chaos hammers UK” in the Daily Telegraph on 9 December being one recent example.) In so far as we are capable of agreeing on, or even understanding, such massive figures, this bad economic news is likely to be good for those, such as the PM, who have built a political career out of obfuscating the true costs of our withdrawal. Covid has utterly scrambled the picture. The moral is that, if you want to shoot yourself in the foot, the best time to do it is when you’ve just had your leg cut off.
• That’s not the only figure that’s got confused. One that’s fixed in my head from childhood is that Mount Everest is 29,028 feet high. It now seems that it’s about three feet taller. What else that I learned is wrong?
• One thing that does seem certain is that, even though we’re going to be able to see fewer people, nothing is going to stop us spending money on food. the Daily Telegraph reported on 9 December that supermarket revenue increased by over 11% on the three months to 28 November compared to same period in 2019. Sales of cream liqueurs, that most mysterious of alcoholic pleasures, doubled over the same period.
• The same edition of the same paper reports that Facebook, ever-zealous in its desire to encourage informed debate and prevent misinformation, recently closed down the pages of the Wimbourne Militia Re-enactment Group, which re-enacts battles from the English Civil War, on the grounds that it was a US right-wing vigilante organisation. I always thought Facebook had more sophisticated algorithms than this. “Delete all posts with ‘militia’ in the title” doesn’t give me any confidence that the social-media leviathan knows or cares what is on its network. After numerous complaints, Facebook has apologised to the re-enactors and restored the page.
• Click here to see one of the oddest goals I’ve ever seen, from a somersault throw-in in the Persian Pro-League. They all count…
Thursday 3 December 2020
• So here we are, re-booted in our new operating system of Tiers 2.0. There was hope of a last-minute upgrade to make it more user-friendly but Tiers 2.1 has yet to appear. The system is riddled with inconsistencies but, in fairness so would anything else apart from our all being able to do what we liked or our all being locked in solitary confinement for a month, perhaps in prisons converted from empty office blocks and operated by Serco. The measures could have been more severe than 2.0 currently requires. The latest Private Eye has, in the excellent MD column on pp8-9 a summary (‘Aussie Rules’) of how the Australian government and states have responded. ‘Ruthless’ hardly comes close. Yet it appears to have worked.
• The huge hole in Tiers 2.0 seems to be the Christmas amnesty, which Covid will not respect. No PM, particularly not this one, wants to go down as the grinch who cancelled Christmas. I suspect the restrictions were eased simply because they would have been all but enforceable. Christmas may have come at the price of another month of lockdown. Let’s see what the figures show in early to mid January. I hope I’m wrong but a rise in cases after twelfth night is possible.
• I do have the deepest sympathy for the hospitality industry. We have several excellent pubs in the area. Under the current rules, the only people I can have a meal with in any of them are my wife Penny and my youngest son Toby. I love them both to bits but I’ve eaten meals with them and no one else, with a few exceptions, pretty much since March. I’m sure they’ll understand (and probably feel the same way) when I say I’d prefer to go out and split a bottle of wine with almost anyone else. I can’t.
The pubs had all geared up for the expectation that I would be able to because the rule of six would still apply. Now all their expensively-made partitions are the wrong size. Who needs a table of six at the moment? The industry jumped through all the hoops that was asked of it. I hope that the government will recognise that now the rules have changed and provide compensation. “We’ve lost half our Christmas bookings since being placed in tier 2,” said Duncan Jones, the chef/owner of The Five Bells in Wickham. “Our first night was quiet and though the weekend is looking busier (we have our Christmas market on Saturday 5 December) the run-up to Christmas isn’t looking great at the moment.”
If we want them still to be this time next year, then do your best to support the services like takeaways each might offer – see this separate post. You’ll still be eating with the same old people but at least you won’t have to do the cooking, or quite so much washing up. There is plentiful local evidence that when a pub – or a shop – closes form more than a few months the chances of resuscitating it are fairly low. They have never needed your support more than now – even it involves your having a meal with your partner, look at it as an investment in the pub’s success for better times to come. Which they will.
• The big news is obviously the vaccines (note the plural), with most opinions currently supporting the views of this article I wrote, with the help of Professor Jon Crowcroft, on 9 November that these do not seem to have had corners cut in their testing. This won’t do anything to assuage the concerns of the vaccine deniers, for whom the issue seems to be more one of libertarian principle or conspiracy acceptance than scientific objection. This article suggests that anything above 80% of a population being vaccinated will produce a form of herd immunity so perhaps we don’t have to worry about them too much, though we do need to worry about their disinformation. The US’s Covid supremo Dr Fauci – a person who, more than most, has been on the wrong end of disinformation tirades, including from his own President – today retracted and apologised for his earlier suggestion that the UK had ‘rushed’ the vaccine. This kind of comment, from government minister Gavin Williamson, does nothing to help the collective effort either.
There is always an element of risk with any treatment, but there seems to be about as little evidence for safety-cutting as there was for election fraud in the recent US election. One possible, and more realistic, concern is that this is possibly the first time there has been more than one vaccine for the same disease, which makes the issue of monitoring the results all the more important. The deniers may see this as further evidence of a deep-state plot if they choose. Many of them are only alive because their parents had them vaccinated.
• The highlight of the government’s press briefing on 2 Dec was the moment when the PM took issue with professor Johnathan Van Tam’s statement that things such as face coverings may be needed for some time to come. “We want to get back to normal,” the PM interjected. Prof JVT, displaying with great skill a tried-and-tested political phrase, said that he welcomed the interruption as “it gives me a chance to clarify what I mean.” (He later claimed that the vaccine was like “scoring an equaliser in the 70th minute,” a precise image which gives a no doubt carefully considered clue as to where he thinks we are in the game. He didn’t say whether the match was a league or a cup one: if the latter, there’s the spectre of extra-time to think about.) There’s little doubt that face coverings, hand washing and keeping a respectful distance from others indoors has reduced the spread of numerous other diseases including flu. As for the PM’s desire that we need to get back to normal, if Covid is going to be around for ever – and why shouldn’t it be? – then the new normal may be more like JVT suggested than how BoJo might have us believe.
• And of course, Brexit is still lumbering and grumbling on, with reports of deadlines, matters going to the wire, red lines and the like. Private Eye points out that the Daily Express has been confidently predicting an imminent ‘critical’ period roughly every three weeks since June (and probably longer). What this is extraordinary newspaper is going to write about once we finally leave the EU is anyone’s guess. Like most people, I’m long past understanding what it’s all about and what the consequences will or might be. Let’s hope it’s all worth it (though I doubt it).
• The subject of correctly applying for an exemption from a Community Infrastructure Levy obligation is almost certainly something you will not have worried about before. Indeed, I can be fairly certain that, in all the long and tangled history of the world, this phrase has never been written or uttered before. This is, however, a potential pitfall for the unwary in the planning process whereby one form-filling error can lead to the arrival of a life-changing invoice. In this article I look at the matter in more detail and consider how West Berkshire Council and its neighbours in Wiltshire and the Vale handle the issue.
• As a result of heavy usage, a number of the letters on my Mac keyboard have faded away. As I don’t touch-type this is quite a problem. E, R, T, Y, U, I, O, H and N are invisible, ruling out a large chunk of the English language. I had been re-writing the letters with a black marker pen but each time this lasted about 30 minutes and spread a grey smear over all the other keys. I was horrified when I looked up the price of new keyboards: so yesterday I bought some white stickers, wrote the letters and carefully stuck them on the keys. All went well until I realised I’d got Y, U, I and O in the wrong places. I prized the labels off and found that one had got wedged in the gap: if it had torn off the whole keyboard would have been knackered. That took two anxious minutes with a scalpel to sort out. Now, one day later, all the previous bright white labels have turned grey so that the letters are only visible in a certain light. I’ve also discovered that it’s now almost impossible to remove them. The G is now starting to face as well. Anyone get any ideas? I know what you’re going to say – “buy a new keyboard.” However, the make-do-and-mend mentality now has me firmly in its grip…
Thursday 26 November 2020
• Last week, the BBC published a good article about the government’s pandemic response entitled Coronavirus: inside test and trace: how the ‘world beater’ went wrong. Before taking a quick look at some of its main conclusions, one statement struck me very strongly and I’d like to have a round of whack-a-mole with this first.
It was the government’s claim – made here to rebut criticism of the way contracts were awarded but which has also been applied to every aspect of the response – that the situation was “brought about by unforeseeable events.” This is simply not true.
I’m not pretending that I, or most of you, foresaw that a pandemic might arrive: but that’s not our job. There is ample evidence, including in this article published by GEN and this one by National Geographic, that scientists have been for decades, and particularly since SARS and MERS, been warning that species-jumping viruses were arming themselves for war but that not enough attention was paid to the concerns. The UK government took the threat seriously enough to stage a simulation, the Cygnus Exercise, in 2006. There are several views to how effective the subsequent action was. In a reversal of their normal opinions, The Guardian appears to accept that many of the recommendations were put in place while The Telegraph has a rather more scathing assessment. That the government claimed the current pandemic was ‘unforeseeable’, coupled with the early shortages of just the things that might have been anticipated, inclines me to the latter point of view.
The real problem would seem to be the lack of international co-operation. I don’t know anything first-hand about the way the scientific world works but my studies as a historian have taught me that there are only two reasons why humans co-operate, or even peaceably cohabit: if it is in their mutual interests or if they are compelled. In recent years, the trend towards divisiveness and competition has become more noticeable. This is partly because increasingly influential platforms like Facebook, Twitter thrive on division and discord; partly because a number of countries including the UK, the USA, China, Russia, India and Brazil have adopted policies that have very strong nationalistic aspects.
At times of crisis, it’s politically expedient either to blame another country for the problem, or to compare your own country’s reaction to the problem with those of others. Both tend to reduce rather than increase international co-operation, which is exactly the response required towards existential threats like pandemics and climate change. As recent events have shown, the scientific community, though to some extents a bubble unto itself, is capable of high levels of co-operation where this is prevented by governments. Its conclusions can also be subjected to empirical analysis, unlike those of politicians, management consultants or military experts, which are essentially expedient or reactive. (This article in The Guardian offers some insights into how we can all apply a bit of empirical analysis to the science and its often political interpretations with which we are being bombarded.)
The more money we spend on something the less inclined we are to doubt the wisdom of its opinions or its importance to our lives. According to the Office of National Statistics, the UK government’s expenditure on science, engineering and technology in 2017 was 0.59% of GDP. In the same year, according to Our World in Data, 1.83% was spent on defence: over three times as much. If these proportions could be reversed, so might their respective influences. If you spend that kind of money on defending yourself against enemies, sure as hell you’re going to find them. The largely invisible foes that science needs to fight are in some ways more difficult to combat than those from our fellow humans. It’s also interesting how much governments have, in the last nine months, payed fulsome homage to scientists, whose role in decision-making was previously at best invisible. ‘Following the best science’ has become one of the catchphrases of 2020. It’s all slightly like seeing a lapsed Catholic who, after a lifetime of profanity and dissipation, decides when, in extremis, that they would like quite like a priest by their bedside.
• So – back to the BBC article. The main point I got from it was that, in so many ways, any failures were caused by trying to over-centralise rather than trust local networks, for testing, tracing and general management. The article makes a point that we all knew, that local networks had been underfunded for years. The preferred solution, now largely abandoned, was to try to invent something new. This makes about as much sense as deciding to design and build a lorry from scratch just because your fleet of vans needs a service and a top-up of petrol. The main changeover, in mid-August, when the government admitted that local networks needed to replace or at least supplement the creaking and inflexible centralised tracing system, has not been without its problems as the local groups appear to be hampered by a lack of accurate information, resulting in much duplication.
All central governments have, by definition, a compulsion to centralise just as all nations states have, by definition, a compulsion to divide other nation states into friends and enemies. Neither of these seem particularly useful ways of dealing with genuine existential threats: but, even as the reality of these threats multiply, it seems to be ones we’re stuck with.
• Speaking of nationalism, few English football fans will forgive Diego Maradona for his ‘hand of God’ goal in the ’86 World Cup. The moment for forgiveness has, however, passed as the man died on 25 November, 15 years to the day after an equally flawed genius of the beautiful game, George Best. I don’t feel a huge sense of loss, football fan though I be. Even in his pomp there seemed something wrong with him, as there seemed to be with Best, as if all this talent had been shoved into the wrong person. Cruyff, Beckenbauer and Pele, on the other hand, always appeared much more at one with themselves. I know little of their private lives, you understand: I’m just saying how they strike me. I’ve never really gone for the idea of tortured genius in any case. Once established as a tenet about a person, it can easily become a carte blanche for all manner of self-indulgences. The phrase seems to describe most famous visual artists. Perhaps that’s why I’m completely indifferent to visual art. It also might explain why I prefer Iris Murdoch to Virginia Woolf, Blur to Oasis and McCartney to Lennon. Anyway, Maradona was a great footballer, so respect is due. But he wasn’t as good as Pele.
• West Berkshire, Wiltshire, Swindon and Oxfordshire are all in tier two as of 2 December – this ministerial statement has more information. This will be subject to fortnightly reviews, the first being on 16 December: perhaps before that there will be some clarification of some of the grey areas, so leading to Tiers 2.1, Tiers 2.2 and so on, each one hopefully more robust and less buggy that its predecessor. The first question is how these tiers have been allocated. Dividing the country into three parts, like Ceasar’s Gaul, is quite a blunt way of reacting to the subtleties of population density, infection and available hospital facilities. One might assume that recent infection rates would be a key part – but, as these maps show, apart from in the north-west, there’s little correlation between this and the tiers as they are at present. For hospitality venues, the blow is especially savage, as the limitations are more stringent than before. It’s also unclear whether the Christmas bubble enlargements will apply to pubs during that period. Finally, I can’t see any reference to whether swimming pools can open or not.
• There’s been quite a bit of confusion, which has only recently been cleared up, as to when the current lockdown would end. I could quote half a dozen different official sources that don’t all tell the same story. To say that the regulations will ‘last until’ or ‘end on’ a particular date leaves open the question of whether that is the the last day of the old arrangements or the first of the new ones. This ambiguity becomes increasingly obvious as the date/s get closer. It has now been confirmed that these new regulations – which, if it were a software release would be called Tiers 2.0 – will come into force on 2 December. Hopefully the government has amended the date of the previous regulations. If not, on 2 December (and perhaps on 3 December) two separate and in some cases mutually incompatible sets of regulations would be in force. One set of regulations at a time is quite enough to understand. If my brain were trying to run Lockdown 2.3 and Tiers 2.0 at the same time I think it would crash.
• The Chancellor’s Financial Statement on 25 November painted a moderately bleak picture of the immediate prospects for the country. The following day, he offered a more encouraging assessment: the forecasts “are not great. But they are not terrifying. We have had much bigger economic shocks and fiscal tightenings before. See the last decade.” The last four words will be the ones that worry many people most. The austerity measures introduced by the hapless David Cameron had, because of being more concerned with cutting spending than re-balancing taxation, a disproportionate effect on those least able to cope with it. We were told that we were “all in it together.” Some of us, however, were in it more than others, and may be so again…
Thursday 19 November 2020
• In February, when it realised that it had a situation on its hands, the UK government invited organisations that could provide things like ventilators, testing kits and PPE equipment to get in touch. Many did so but it appears that many of the emails were not responded to. (Private Eye 1535 reported that the Institute of Biomedical Science only received a reply to its offer of assistance (and that an automated one) six months after it wrote to Health Secretary Matt Hancock in April 2020.) Two months later, the government was still working through 8,000 offers of help (so someone must have checked the emails by then) and some companies were complaining that their offers of help were being lost in the red tape. In June, Medscape reported that the Doctors’ Association brought a legal challenge against the government for its failure to supply enough PPE for front-line staff. In August the news broke that 50 million face masks were faulty as they had the ear loops rather than head loops. All in all, the procurement system seemed to be in some disarray.
I know nothing about such matters so spoke to someone who does. “There are processes and procedures which are normally followed because it’s in everyone’s best interests to do so,” I was told. “The tendering companies are mostly happy to compete on a level playing field, while going through a proper system gives the procurer a good sense of what the market can offer, as well as ensuring that they won’t be sued for demonstrating favouritism.” I suggested this could be a process that involved more time than was available in the spring of 2020. “Not really, if it’s renewing a current deal or for a product that already exists, the second of which would have applied for PPE.” He then quoted the example of renewing a contract, worth about £20m a year, for supplying IT services to universities which went through in about three weeks.
One of the problems with sourcing anything Covid-related back then was that demand was outstripping supply, or was being presented as such. One West Berkshire-based care provider, Bluebird, told Penny Post that they were being quoted prices up to 20 times what they’d been paying three months before. The solution seemed to be to draft in extra help. The Guardian reported in August 2020 that that at least £56m had been spent on consultants, ‘mostly without giving other companies the chance to compete for the work.’ The same paper suggested in late October that the figure had since risen by £65m, although an accurate picture was hampered by many of these contacts being published later than the 30 days defined by law.
Given all this expert advice – some of which cost £6,000 a day – it seems odd that, as revealed this week, one of the ways the government tried to solve its procurement problem was through an unusual deal struck with Michael Saiger, an American jewellery designer, which was then outsourced to Gabriel Gonzalez Andersson, a Spanish businessman, to obtain PPE from China. The arrangement came to light recently because the two appear to have had a disagreement due to Andersson having pulled out of the agreement, leaving Saiger with unfulfilled orders to the NHS, as a result of which the matter might end up in court. Andersson is alleged to have made at least £21m from the £200m-contract: Saiger’s share is unknown but, as he was the contacting partner, was probably at least as much.
If, at least until the point they fell out, Saiger and Andersson were able to provide top-notch PPE then that’s great. They were asked to do something and they did it. What seems odd is why they needed to be asked at all. The decision has a last-throw-of-the-dice feel about it that suggests a depressing lack of faith by the government in conventional methods. The same desperation, or insouciance, seems to inform the increasing practice of awarding government contracts to Conservative Party donors and influential positions to personal friends of senior government figures without any particular process of tendering or scrutiny, something the Sunday Times on 15 November described as ‘the chumocracy.’ The newspaper also asserted that improper commercial use was being made of information which some of these advisors had received. The Daily Star on 18 November went further still, suggesting that “£10.5bn of the £18bn spent on 8,600 pandemic contracts by July 31 was awarded without being put to tender.” The Huffington Post reported, also on 18 November, that the government was “ripping up the rules” on PPE procurement with a “secret fast-track system for private firms personally recommended by politicians.” One small company was given a £32m contract even though it had been contacted in error. The concern is that this way of doing things might become the norm once the Covid tide has receded.
This is not new. Ever since the the eleventh century, patents and staples have been used by the government (ie the monarch) to reward friends and allies through preferential trading arrangements. Also, there has been a continual tension between the demands of the barons (cabinet ministers today) that the monarch (the PM today) regard them as his or her natural councillors: while the monarch (or PM) generally saw even twenty or thirty barons (or cabinet ministers) as being far too cumbersome a group and preferred a small, hand-picked group of close confidants through whom the royal or prime-ministerial will could be expressed. There is a direct line of descent from the so-called ‘new men’ of Henry I’s reign, Henry III’s one-time advisor Simon de Montfort (who later turned against him) and Edward II’s favourite Piers Gaveston, to Tudor and Jacobean operators like Cromwell, Cecil and Walsingham, to the likes of Bernard Ingham, Alistair Campbell and Dominic Cummings in our own time. The recent reshuffle at Number 10, with Cummings now seemingly out, will make no long-term difference whatsoever.
Unlike in the eleventh, or the sixteenth, century, we have some scrutiny of what these advisors do. No one can control, or perhaps should control, who our elected leader should or shouldn’t talk to and so be influenced by. Awarding contracts and making high-profile appointments without adequate process is a different matter. Drafting in Oxford chums or Miami jewellery designers or expensive consultants or companies like Serco, under the radar, is perhaps not a solution to anything. There are plenty of examples of countries where endemic cronyism has led to huge failures of governance. This needs to be watched. As Thomas Jefferson remarked, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
• Jefferson was the third President of the USA. The forty-fifth is currently not minded to concede to the forty-sixth, which may yet have serious consequences for us all. It has been suggested that the problems with the 2000 handover – which was delayed for more understandable reasons – contributed to the 11 September attacks less than a year later. This handover seems likely to be even more problematic for the world. When America farts, we all have to open the window.
I asked two wise women, a psychotherapist and a counsellor, to imagine that Donald Trump had spent an hour on their couch, perhaps as a bail condition, and to suggest a few things they might have put in their notes. These included a lack of empathy, a preoccupation with fantasies of power, an exploitative desire for admiration and attention, an inability to recognise vulnerability, the construction of a world rigidly divided into friends and enemies and a denial of error or defeat: in short, a narcissist. This is a much over-used term but its technical meaning describes, as I understand it, a state of mind that is about as impossible for most people to engage with as that of a psychopath. Ideally, a narcissist needs a big stage. They don’t get much bigger than Trump’s. And all he really wants is our attention, the poor little boy. For the next two months until 20 January, when the absurdly long US handover period ends, he has unrivalled opportunities to get everyone’s attention, and to cause mischief by breaking toys, spitting at nanny and scrawling rude words on the wall. I think we knew about his state of mind already: still, it’s good to have it confirmed by a pair of professionals. Seems like there’s quite a lot of work to do here so I advise PotUS to book some sessions with both these practitioners without delay (assuming they want him as a client). If the White House would like to get in touch with me I can pass on their details.
• All of the MD column on pp8-9 in the latest (1535) Private Eye is given over to the news of possible vaccines, which we covered on 9 November. The most eye-catching section, under the heading ‘Statistical approval’ starts with the observation that “The UK government has repeatedly burnt its trust boats, allowing bias, lies and bluster to triumph over balanced argument. Its handling of Covid has been dangerously incompetent.” I certainly agree with the first part. I would, however, question whether any government in almost any country has done much better. The problem is not so much of a particular government but of governance in general, worldwide.
There seem to be be two reasons for this. One, which is particularly inherent in a democratic system, is a focus on short-term gains. The second, which is endemic in a nationalised world, is to place the interests of our own country above those of everyone else. The problem of cross-species viruses requires exactly the opposite approaches.
• We’re not done with invisible enemies yet. The Lambourn Valley section below has more on the health, or not, of our rivers (and the problems of our sewerage systems). Another issue was highlighted to me this week, once by Anna from Action for the River Kennet and again in this article from The Guardian about how conventional flea treatments for cats and dogs are finding their way into the waterways with devastating impacts on the eco-systems. The Guardian article quotes an expert from the University of Sussex as claiming that one flea treatment of a medium-sized dog with imidacloprid contains enough pesticide to kill 60 million bees. We have three cats and all are regularly de-flea-ed, possibly with just this chemical. We’ll be checking. Cats do not, of course, generally go in rivers, whereas dogs (particularly some of the one in this village) seem to like nothing better. Dog owners should thus perhaps scrutinise the labels even more carefully.
• Returning to Covid, as almost every conversation does, my eye was caught by a latter in this week’s NWN which observes that criticising the government ‘has relied on hindsight.’ Aside from the fact that you can only react to something after it’s happened, this is also not true in the sense I think the writer intends it: much criticism of measures was made at the time, some of it by experts. Some of those involved in the decisions have also admitted that many things were missed or mis-calculated. The letter goes on to say that the shortage of PPE equipment has ‘reportedly been solved’: that may or may not be so, but not before a lot of criticism of the kind the write so disparages, including legal action brought by the Doctors’ Association. Questions about the processes certainly remain. As for the accusations of ‘buddies’ being employed, which a previous correspondent had mentioned, the word seems to describe Dido Harding perfectly. The writer says evidence is needed to support such a claim but it’s been all around us for months. Some of it is referred to above. The letter concludes that it is ‘quite pointless to criticise the government’ for the way that it makes its choices (which the letter correctly describes as being complicated), the inference being that we should accept everything that happens as being not only the best possible solution but also somehow inevitable. This is a very dangerous attitude to adopt and one that I for one will not be following.
• Newbury MP Laura Farris, writing in this week’s Newbury Weekly News, offers a soothing assurance that the relationship between the UK and the USA will be close and harmonious and described the PM’s disparaging reference to President Obama in 2016 as merely a ‘throwaway remark.’ The PM is, of course, fond of throwaway remarks on almost any matter that comes into his head. This one, however, seems to have been stuck with the Biden camp. According to a former Obama press aide quoted in the Sunday Times on 8 November, Biden has “a long memory.” Another senior Democrat, quoted in the same article, refuted any suggestion that the VP might be any more amenable: “If you think Joe hates [Boris Johnston],” he said, “you should hear Kamala.” Laura Farris also refers to a “lazy analysis on the left” that the PM is some kind of Trump clone. This does, however, seem to be fairly accurate summary of Biden’s own view. The phone calls have been made between the two leaders and the wheels of the new relationship set in motion. However, day-to-day relationships between states are not these days conducted at summit level. Despite Ms Farris’ loyal assurances that the two leaders have the potential to form a beautiful friendship, this is probably a very good thing.
• The consultation has now closed on the government’s white paper on planning and no-one I’ve spoken to seems to have much of a good word to say for it. The main problem is its central and fallacious assumption that they key to releasing housing growth is by giving the private sector something approaching a carte blanche. (Developers often get what they want: the reason the system is so slow is because councils spend valuable time trying to get them to stick to the plans that were approved, Sandleford in Newbury and Salisbury Road in Hungerford being excellent examples.) More insidious is the threatened shake-up of the developer contributions (S106 and CIL payments) which, not for the first time, are proposed to be unified into one allegedly simple system. One alarming aspect is that it is proposed these be paid not in stages but all at the end, by which the time the developer will have had time to go bust or to use a viability assessment to prove that it was far too much anyway. Planning authorities and – especially if they have neighbourhood development plans (NDPs) – the parishes derive valuable revenue from these payments which enable them to spend money on relevant infrastructure and affordable homes. It’s hard to imagine that any new scheme is likely to leave local councils better off. There’s also a huge question mark over the whole extent of local participation, including NDPs, in the planning progress: again, the government’s view seems to be that each part of the country will be allocated to one of three development categories and that will be that.
There are some good ideas in it but parts of it are made of populist fluff. One almost suspects that it wasn’t written with planning in mind at all but merely to showcase the government’s unconditional support for the private sector and its red-tape-cutting credentials. Certainly both of these have been very evident in its attitude to ‘wartime’ PPE procurement (see above). The white paper is evidence that the government is at least consistent in this regard; also that it intends to extent this to peacetime manoeuvres as well.
• The Christmas songs are coming but at least one will be slightly different from usual. The Pogue’s Fairytale of New York is being re-released with some of the ‘derogatory terms’ removed: luckily, the late Kirsty McColl sung an alternative, more acceptable, version of one of the offending lines which has survived and been patched in: Shane MacGowan has mumble-growled a new one of his own elsewhere. I can see exactly why this is happening but can’t help wondering where this might end. Is this, for instance, only something to be done at Christmas? The BBC said it was thinking of “younger listeners who are unfamiliar with the track” some of whose lyrics might be “not in line with what they would expect to hear on air.” The easiest solution would be not to play this ghastly, over-rated song at all…
Thursday 12 November 2020
• The French writer Albert Camus observed that ‘everything I know about morality and the obligations of man, I owe it to football.’ The recent statements by Greg Clarke made at a parliamentary committee, which led to his resignation this week as Chairman of the Football Association (FA), might perhaps teach us about these, and about the use of language, stereotyping, sexuality, life choices and the power of the press. So, what did he say? (I’m talking about what he said this week: he stands accused of making other similar remarks in the past.)
The accusation that seems to have the most resonance is using the term ‘coloured’ to describe black players. His defence was that he’s worked overseas for many years (This BBC article mentions the USA; his Wikipedia entry refers directly only to South Africa and Australia) while, in the US, he was ‘required to use the term ‘person of colour’.’ I’ve never lived in any of these countries but I am aware that ‘coloured’ calls to mind the times of the civil rights movement and apartheid. I wouldn’t be certain of what racially descriptive terms are or are not acceptable; though, given his job, he should have been, or else someone should have told him.
He also made a comment about the fact that the IT department at the FA had more South Asians than Afro-Caribbeans because they have ‘different career interests.’ I’m not quite sure what point he was making, nor how representative the FA’s IT department is: but it does perhaps confirm to – or reinforce – a stereotype. I’ve looked in vain for any figures that might tell me whether this snapshot is reflected in actual UK employment statistics. The remark leads to the question as to what stereotypes tell us. Are they merely lazy generalisations where some nationalities like the Irish, the Belgians and the Canadians are the butt of jokes made by their more noisey neighbours, or do they contain an element of truth? Were they, perhaps even this one, true a generation ago but are no longer true now? This seems worth looking into, although in the current climate of opinion this might be difficult, as even suggesting that one has an interest in the matter may be interpreted as supporting the view you are trying to investigate.
He also stands accused by the Daily Mail – that fearless advocate of tolerance – of saying that being gay is a ‘life choice.’ I’m not sure anyone would be as thick as to suggest this, certainly not to a Commons Select Committee. In fact, the accusation isn’t true. He was actually talking about coming out as gay, a quite separate matter from being gay. I admit it’s not clear what he knows about this subject as he admitted, according to the Telegraph, that no gay footballer has ever tried to have a discussion with him. (He’s probably spoken to a lot of gay footballers, but not about their sexuality) but that doesn’t leave him guilty as charged. He also went on to say that ‘I’d like to believe and I do believe they would have the support of their mates in the changing room,’ which seems a reasonable enough sentiment.
Finally, he made a strange comment about young girls not wanting to be goalkeepers because they don’t like having the ball kicked hard at them. The two odd things about this are, first, that he claimed the observation was made to him by a female coach and, second, that he thought it might not be true. Why then did he tell the story at all? I don’t know if there is indeed a shortage of young female goalkeepers. When I used to play football, at school and in my younger adult days, the position of goalkeeper was regarded almost as a punishment and tended to be rotated. His informant added that young girls ‘prefer to kick [the ball] than have it kicked at them.’ Who doesn’t?
This article in the Telegraph pulls no punches in its assessment of Greg Clarke nor of the body he recently led. Sports administrators were traditionally hard-nosed, no-nonsense alpha males, emulating may of the qualities that are acceptable in the artificial world of the sport they represent. Many have clearly not adjusted to the long-overdue emergence of mass female participation nor to the whole issue of racism. This is particularly odd as sports are, in general, very multi-racial. The administrators seem to be strangely divorced from all this. The FA is possibly well rid of Clarke although that can best be judged by the choice of replacement. His prior reputation has certainly contributed to his downfall. However, unless we can try to understand why he said what he did, and report it accurately, and discuss it in an inquisitive and constructive way, then we are no further forward. I always distrust the barrage of abuse against easy targets. The accusations leave a faint whiff of sanctimoniousness and the implication that we, being more aware, would have avoided all the mistakes and errors of judgment that we’re now so freely criticising. ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ might be a more honest assessment for some of the commentators.
• A final point on this is the warning on the BBC’s article on Greg Clarke that ‘this report contains offensive language.’ What drivel. The article is a perfectly clear and rational piece which examines and quotes the use of certain terms and phrases. In any case, offence is something that needs to be taken. ‘This report contains language to which some people may take offence’ would have been better but even so, what’s the point? Is the phrase a form of clickbait? And why just language? Why not opinions? In recent weeks. the BBC has written pieces that might be ‘offensive’ to Manchester United supporters, Roman Catholics or members of the Labour Party, merely through pointing out some unwelcome home truths. Should they be giving an alert for that?
• Talking about easy targets leads inevitably to Donald Trump. The number and nature of the criticisms of his public utterances dwarf those of Greg Clarke’s but I am uneasy by the fact that Twitter is censoring his tweets. Who exactly is doing this and on what basis? I no more trust Twitter’s boss than I do Trump when it comes to truth, whatever exactly truth is. The reality is that about half the world’s population, including PotUS (as he still is) are now self-publishers. Twitter, Facebook and the rest are merely the mediums. To require them to decide what should and should not appear is akin to giving a printer the right to remove a chapter from a book or to add a disclaimer to the cover. The best feature any social-media organisation can add is to delay every post by half an hour to give people time to think about, and perhaps research, what they had said and re-phrase it. If everyone worked on a 30-minute delay in communicating information – and for most of the world’s history it was a lot longer than that – we might reflect a bit more on what we said.
• I’m not even going to mention the Four Seasons Landscaping fiasco – the ‘quattro stagioni of political events’ as The Guardian perhaps inevitably called it – as just about everyone who can hold a pen has beaten me to it. All I want to do is direct you to the merchandising page of what appears to be a perfectly reputable firm that happened to have the same name as a famous hotel. The company deserves its moment in the sun, so if ‘Make America Rake Again’ or ‘Lawn and Order’ T-shirts or face-masks could be your missing Christmas stocking filler, click here.
• The result of the US election is, at the time of writing, not clear, with PotUS sulking in his tent and an army of lawyers preparing a raft of challenges. As mentioned last week, some of you may remember the month-long challenges following the 2000 election (which was far closer). Assuming that Joe Biden is officially declared the winner, one world leader who might be slightly worried is our very own PM. Biden believes that Brexit was a historic mistake, as would be leaving the EU without a trade deal and doing anything to undermine the Good Friday agreement. The Sunday Times on 8 November also referred to how badly the disparaging remarks made by BoJo and his Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab about Barak Obama and the Black Lives Matter movement had gone down with the Democrats: these seem to be at least as offensive as those which recently cost Greg Clarke his job with the FA (Biden was Obama’s VP for the whole of his eight-year term). The newspaper also quotes Tommy Vietor, a former close Obama aide, as describing our PM as ‘a shapeshifting creep.’ All of this suggests that the incoming administration has an accurate grasp of British political realities. Biden appears to have allayed some of the concerns by having Number 10 high up his list of international calls on 10 November, though matters were hardly helped by the alternative message congratulating President Trump on a second terms being clearly visible. Obviously leaders prepare statements for every outcome: however, as the rest of the message seemed to be the same, this won’t help shake the image of a ‘shapeshifting creep.’
• With a rapidly rising CV-19 death toll and a host of other leader-of-the-free-world problems, our little island’s problems and opinions may not concern Biden for long. The main good news this week, for all of us, seems to have been the announcement of a vaccine: for reasons explained in this separate post, there seem to be grounds for optimism about this.
• As for the Covid-19 rates in the UK, these figures suggest that the increase in the rate of the rate of cases is slowing (despite a steep spike on 12 November) and that the rate of hospital admission is, falling, both with many regional variations. The number of cases is still rising but, given the way the statistics are calculated, one would expect these to reflect the other two figures up to four weeks later. Opinions are still divided as to whether the latest lockdown was predicated on false data. It seems to be with us, with all its inequalities, until 2 December. For the rest of that month there is, I suspect, no power that any government can enforce to stop people from eating and drinking and socialising as much as they can. After the year we’ve had, this might seem even more likely. All the more reason to hope that the vaccine works.
• This article from Newbury Today reports that the Environment Agency (EA) had admitted that the England’s rivers are among the most polluted in Europe with only 14% being of ‘good’ ecological status: worse still, the figure for the number of rivers which pass the chemical status test is 0%. It must be stressed that this is partly due to more rigorous testing standards and I’ll be trying to find out the comparable figures for some other countries to put this in context. None the less, assuming these standards are reasonable, 0% is not a great point to be starting from. The article puts most of the blame for this on run-off from agriculture and discharges from sewage works. The latter would include the so-called ‘permitted discharges’ whereby the EA permits water companies to put untreated sewage into the watercourse in cases of emergency. The accusation is that the definition of emergency seems to be becoming more and more generous, to the extent that this solution is now almost the norm; certainly such a state of emergency seems to exist in the upper Lambourn valley every year during times of high groundwater levels (normally between February and July).
Brexit and Covid permitting, a private member’s bill is due to be debated in the Commons in January which aims to limit the circumstances in which such discharges can happen and increase the fines for breaches. This should, in turn, force the water companies to do something to solve the cause of the problem. The cost will be considerable but having a functioning sewage system is about as important a piece of infrastructure as one can think of: a lot more important than, perhaps, a high-speed train line between London and Birmingham and also a good deal cheaper. As Charlotte Hitchmough, Director of Action for the River Kennet, pointed out, if these leaks involved oil or gas they’d have been fixed immediately. Sewage pouring into our rivers, onto our streets and into our houses is, however, apparently OK.
• A letter in this week’s Newbury Weekly News claims that Steve Masters, the West Berkshire Green Party Councillor for Speen (and previously the unofficial arboreal councillor for Wendover South during the HS2 protests), was arrested under the wrong legislation last month, the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act having nothing to do with the offence he is alleged to have committed. I spoke to the previously arboreal member who said that he believed the Act had been recently used as a catch-all several times though he didn’t think that any convictions have resulted.
• This is Living Wage week. The Living Wage Foundation estimates that 1.3 million key workers including security guards, NHS, school & supermarket staff do not earn a real Living Wage, meaning they can’t meet their everyday needs. The difference between the Government’s National Living Wage and the real Living Wage is 78p an hour outside London and £1.98 in London.
• A warning for all local councils was this week provided by Croydon Council (which regularly features in Private Eye’s Rotten Borough’s section) which has issued a Section 114 notice, essentially an admission that it cannot balance its budget and is effectively insolvent. The Eye has recently reported on a list of high-profile resignations and a damning auditor’s report. It appears that many of its problems stem from what have proved to be disastrous investments in the commercial property market. Many councils have decided that this is a solution to their financial strictures, although it’s debatable whether many possess the necessary expertise. Croydon is the first council since Northants two years ago to issue an S114. Given the perfect storm of Covid, Brexit uncertainty, a drop in demand for commercial property, reduced income from central government and increased expenditure on social care, it probably won’t be the last.
• While idly web surfing the other night I came across an old film about Peter Marsh. He was one of the major players in the advertising world from the 60s until about 2000 and my interest in him is that his daughter is an old friend of mine. One story caught my eye. Back in the 70s, Allen Brady & Marsh, a brash agency even by the standards of that profession, were pitching for the British Rail account. BR’s top brass was shown into a freezing cold room with torn sofas, tables filled with overflowing ashtrays and dirty cups and with newspapers and cold tea and beer all over the floor. Every time they asked when Peter Marsh would see them, the receptionist said ‘dunno.’ Just as they were about to leave in a huff, Peter Marsh walked in. “Right,” he said, “you’ve just seen what we all experience with British Rail. Come into my office and I’ll help you fix it.” They got the contract. Wait, though. I spoke to his daughter who told me that this had never happened. Her father had denied the story for years but, because it was exactly the kind of thing he might have done, the denials were not believed and eventually he gave up and it ended up in print and online. Why someone, perhaps a jealous rival (of which he had many), would want to make up a positive yarn about such a manifest self-publicist is beyond me. Perhaps he made it up himself and then for some reason of his own denied it. It’s also a timely reminder not to trust anything we read. It is, however, a good story: and, in the world of advertising, that’s really all that matters…
Thursday 5 November 2020
• I don’t know much about computers but I do know that it’s never a great idea to buy software where the number is something point zero as it will probably be confusing, buggy, poorly documented and full of internal inconsistencies. Lockdown 2.0, as we are all calling what we’re now in, is a case in point. In fact, it went up to at least 2.1 quite quickly to include the clarification about off-sales of beer from pubs. There may have been other changes. Others can be expected. Lockdown 1.0 was, as we now know, very buggy indeed: an aspect that sticks in my mind is the question of whether one could drive in order to take exercise. On this matter, in our neck of the woods, the views of West Berkshire Council, the Thames Valley Police, the government and common sense were all in contradiction to each other. Lockdown 1.15 or whatever its final version was, was replaced by Lockdown Light; and then, a couple of months ago, by Tiers. There were several different releases of Tiers, which didn’t make it any simpler: 3Tiers in England, 5Tiers in Scotland and Circuit-break in Wales. All proved rather difficult to install, to run and to update. It now appears that Lockdown 2.0 contains a bug, as its necessity was predicated on an out-of-date piece of modelling.
Human wetware – which I think is what the boffins call our brains, in their moments of levity – has also proved stubbornly reluctant to run these packages efficiently. We only really understand two things, ‘stop’ and ‘go’: even the orange traffic light is too much for some of us. It’s clear we’re all capable of vastly subtle and creative processing when we’re doing something of our own volition, or triggered by our three main imperatives of greed, fear and lust. However, when it comes to something imposed on us which limits our behaviour, some of us either don’t think it applies to us or immediately search for ways to pervert any ambiguities to our own ends. Any small failure tends to make the it crash in our heads, whereupon we throw our hands in the air and say that the whole thing is pointless. Some societies might deal with this better than we do.
• One of these appears to be Taiwan. The MD column in the latest (1534) Private Eye lists several things this country did, all at the right time. These include creating an emergency response network (after the 2003 SARS outbreak), setting up an Epidemic Control network (in January 2020), developing effective online communications strategy, instituting strict border controls, continuing to fund its public health system and developing a highly effective track, trace and quarantine system. Four particular advantages Taiwan has is that it’s rich (like us), that it’s an island (also like us), that for as long as anyone there can remember it’s had Chinese missiles pointing at it (unlike us) and that it has experienced a number of similar infections like SARD and MERS (also unlike us, although we did war-game this during Operation Cygnus in 2016). The last two may not seem like advantages in normal times but they sure as hell do now. There is clearly nothing like a constant existential threat to make you focus on survival. Get a docile, domesticated rabbit and a wild impala, burst a paper bag and see which one runs faster. Vietnam, most of whose leaders or their parents grew up during an invasion, has also done very well. Indeed, Taiwan and Vietnam combined have only recorded a quarter of the deaths from Covid as has West Berkshire. Even allowing for variations in the way deaths are reported, we’re talking about a population about 750 times larger so I think our government needs to take a very close look at what places like this did and emulate it.
• One of the ways in which this government appears to be deciding who runs what is currently being challenged. Dido Harding, the country’s test-and-trace and NHS Improvement supremo, is currently the subject of an unusual legal action. “The Prime Minister and Health Secretary,” The Huffington Post reports, “are being sued for giving top-ranking Tories key public sector roles without any open competition or proper process.” The article goes on to say that “The Good Law Project and Runnymede Trust have launched legal proceedings against the government’s repeated appointment of individuals who are connected with senior members of the Conservative Party – without advertising these roles.” This seems a fairly accurate description of how Lady Harding got the job. She is also yet another person who studied PPE at Oxford at the same time as our current PM and also the hapless David Cameron (as did Penny, but I’m letting her off).
• This week’s Newbury Weekly News reports on p2 that ‘West Berkshire Council will be working the plug the gaps in the NHS Test and Trace system from this week’ and that 20 council staff have been trained for the project. Portfolio-holder Howard Woollaston confirmed to Penny Post on 5 November that there are in fact 28 staffers. Council Leader Lynne Doherty is quite in the article as saying that “the good thing about [more local involvement] is the understanding of the locality.’ Indeed. This should have all been put in place months ago: not West Berkshire’s fault.
• I, and others, were surprised that Lockdown 2.0 was proceeding with schools, colleges and universities remaining open, children and students not being famed for observing social-distancing requirements. It seemed a fatal flaw in the scheme. Then my attention was drawn to this article which suggests that people who live with young children have no greater risk of contracting Covid than those who do not and a reduced risk of dying from it. The friend who sent me this said he knew the people who’d done the research and that they were ‘seriously careful about statistics.’. The conclusion seems to be that you might get mildly immunised by your asymptomatic kids having some other coronaviruses. One would imagine that the same results would be seen in teachers. Even though the paper has yet to be peer reviewed, this seems like a small and unexpected piece of good news.
• The Bank of England has injected another £150bn into the economy through quantitative easing (QE) measures such as issuing government bonds. I don’t really understand the sentence I’ve just written so perhaps this article on the BBC website might be a better place to go for information about this grown-up subject. I have, however, added up the sums involved in the four QE events since 2009 (see the graph towards the foot of the BBC post) and can reveal that they total about £1.9tn. Is this a good thing or not? I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to this either.
• One point that I understand slightly better is that the Chancellor has extended the furlough scheme until the end of March 2021.
• The US election seems to be about to be decided by lawyers, as so many things in that country are. The President has made some hair-raising statements about fraud and violence which don’t seem quite what one would hope for from an elected leader of a major country although are right on key for him. Sky News reports that some of his supporters have been attending protests outside counting centres, some of them armed. On 4 November, a Russian diplomat spoke darkly of the threat of a civil war in a country with nuclear weapons. Older readers may remember the prolonged and litigious aftermath to the 2000 election – which by the standards of the current mess seem very civilised – which George W Bush eventually won by a wafer-thin majority. “The people of America have spoken,” ex-President Bill Clinton said at the time, “although it might take some to work out what they have said.” This proved all too true, with a month of wrangles which ended up in the Supreme Court: if this one does, Trump’s re-election is a done deal as it is currently more of the right than the left. How judges can be political is beyond me, but that’s they way they do things over there.
The states all have their own ways of doing things as well, another reason why the whole process looks so confusing to an outsider. Most accord all their electoral college votes to the winner of that state but a few split them pro rata to the votes cast. Some only permit postal votes that arrive by polling day but others accept them if they were post-marked by then. It’s slightly as if Cornwall and Norfolk elected MPs by PR and the rest by first-past-the-post, while polling stations in Wales and the Isle of Wight stayed open longer than the others.
• Speaking of ex-Presidents, Barak Obama was asked what were the two best pieces of advice he received from his predecessor George W Bush (two men who seemed to have developed a genuine liking for each other, despite their political differences). “First, ‘trust yourself,'” Obama replied, “and, second, ‘always make sure you use hand sanitiser – you’ll be shaking a lot of hands and don’t want to be catching a lot of colds.'” The latter must have seemed like a throw-away line in 2008. Now, it seems like about the best advice you can give someone. Maybe George W was not the blunder-goofer he sometimes seemed to be but a genuinely prescient President…
Thursday 29 October 2020
• It appears that one of the casualties of Covid-19 might be cash, with some outlets now refusing to accept notes and coins on the grounds that they could spread the virus: well, they certainly can, with Covid much preferring life on smooth, inert surfaces like banknotes rather than rough, organic ones like vegetable samosas. Although the virus might survive on plastic banknotes for up to a week, the risk will decline: so after a few days it’s probably pretty safe if you wash your hand and disinfect your own notes and coins at home. For shops, the problem is a bit more complex but surely not insuperable.
Contactless payment solves this problem but creates others. I now tend to do most of our shopping in Hungerford on Wednesdays when there’s a market, so my purchasing habits have rarely been more predictable. A few months ago, this didn’t stop my bank from cancelling my card on the grounds of ‘suspicious transactions’ – as I discovered after an hour on the phone – even though these were to just the same retailers, for the same sort of sums, at the same sort of time and on the same day of the week as had been the case for months. As a result, I now use the chip-and-pin option more frequently, if I don’t pay by cash, as my bank seems less worried by this. This means that I, and the retailers, need to handle the devices. I’m not sure how frequently these get sanitised.
• Nor am I sure about some of the latest figures. Daily Covid-19 cases on 1 May were 5,000 whereas in late October they are about 22,000 (although this report from Imperial College on 29 October suggests that the actual daily infection rate is about four times higher). Deaths on the same two dates were 100 and 200 (all figures approximate). This superficially suggests that our survival chances now are about 20 times better than in the early summer which doesn’t make lot of sense. Testing has, of course, increased, but only by about seven-fold, in this time. Many other things – including what is meant by a Covid-19 death, which ones are recorded and who are tested, as well as the efficacy of the tests themselves – have also changed during this time. Are we better equipped to deal with the virus now? Everywhere from corner shops to care homes now have precautions in place. We’re washing our hands more. Treatments and steroids are now reducing mortality. There are more likely treatments coming down the line. It’s perhaps worth having a lockdown if this is likely to buy more time for the science and for the further modification of our behaviour.
Many disagree. The UK press is, as one would expect, divided between those which point to European examples and the statistics to suggest that another lockdown is inevitable and those which claim that this would be a disaster for social and economic reasons. The economic and societal impact – to say nothing of the delays in screenings and treatments for other conditions such as cancer – could perhaps, over a 10-year period, cause more deaths than Covid. Others, like the governments in Wales and France, prefer to concentrate on the immediate battle. You can have a glance at these tables from Worldometer and see how any country you pick is doing on a number of measures (the caveat always being that different countries record things in different ways).
One country I keep an eye on is Vietnam, where our son Adam has been since February. Its population is about 600 times larger than that of West Berkshire, where he would otherwise have been stuck, but has almost the same number of reported infections (1,173 there v 996 here) and about four times fewer deaths. This is a country that has faced a number of existential threats in living memory, ranging the the might of the US military to SARS and MERS, from which it seems to have learned more lessons than we have. You can read Adam’s summary of his nine months away here.
• A larger question, which was suggested to me yesterday by a scientist who works closely with epidemiologists, is the wisdom of the currently sacred axiom that the schools should at all costs re-open. While it’s true that children tend to suffer less from Covid, they are probably the primary means of spreading this and other viruses between families. The fact that they are often asymptomatic makes them all the more effective at this. Whether parents could cope with another two terms of home-schooling is another matter. (Boarding schools, for those that can afford them, suddenly make a bit more sense…)
As I was writing this, the latest monthly diary from the Richard Hawthorne, the Head of John O’Gaunt in Hungerford, dropped into my inbox (the post will be updated soon to include this) so I thought I’d ask him what he thought. “I’m not sure about the science,” he conceded, “but can without doubt say that, despite all the guidance and efforts, young people find social distancing very hard so there is no doubt that transmission would be easier among them.”
As for the question of whether remote education was a satisfactory solution, he was more certain. “I don’t personally remote education,” he said, “as it has so many pitfalls for learning and for young people. Tracking and assessing it is the hardest thing. Nearly a quarter of our roll at JOG don’t have adequate IT provision in their homes. For some families, finding enough space for everyone to work (including the parents working from home) would be well-nigh impossible. The impact on the most disadvantaged is becoming ever more apparent as we’re unpicking the affects of the national lockdown. I think this would only widen the gap between the haves and have-nots.”
His last point echoes that felt by many: Covid has accelerated several trends that were already in evidence, including a greater awareness of interconnectedness with the natural world, online shopping, remote working and an increasingly important role for local community groups. Many of these will prove to be good things. The acceleration of any divisions of wealth or opportunity in our society certainly will not.
• The Labour Party’s long-running internal anti-semitism debate returned to the front pages today with the news that former Leader Jeremy Corbyn has been suspended from the party for refusing to retract a statement claiming that the scale of the problem had been ‘dramatically overstated.’ This seems like rather a fatuous remark to me as the issue has been live for a decade or more. This suggests either that it was a real problem or that it wasn’t being handled properly (or that people thought it wasn’t, which comes to the same thing in politics). Before the Conservatives start enjoying themselves too much with Labour-baiting, this article in The Guardian points out that ‘almost half of Conservative party members believe Islam is a threat to the British way of life,’ and refers also the PM’s refusal last year to hold an inquiry to look into Islamophobia in his party.
• What Boris Johnston’s views on Islam are I do not profess to know. He does, however, seem to have it in for newts and for those who monitor the health of these and other aspects of our wildlife. ‘Newt-counters’ were singled out by our leader in late June as being one of the obstacles to the smooth-running of the planning system: them, of course, and the moribund planning authorities. The private sector, or so the recent White Paper strongly implied, is throbbing at the kerb for these and other restraints to be release so it can leap into action and provide, almost overnight, all the homes we so badly need. The fact that most planning applications are passed and that one of the main reasons for delays is caused by developers themselves sitting on land or permission until the commercial planets are aligned in their favour is ignored.
As for the poor newts and those who count them, I was reminded of BJ’s outburst when reading the latest Issue of Positive News, whose editorial stance is exactly what its name implies. On pp42-47 there are three articles about naturalists who were probably the kind of people our leader had in mind. One of those interviewed, RSPB Ecology Supervisor Chris Dieck, makes the point that there is much evidence that a healthy natural environment ‘ultimately serves our best interests.’
• The same publication, and many others, also refers to the unlikely stand off between the PM and Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford over the question of free school meals during the holidays. I can see both sides of the argument, the government believing that the existing system can, if filled with enough fuel, provide what is needed; the campaigners claiming that many are falling through the systems cracks. Some councils appear to be better resourced than others to deal with this, which leads to the accusation that it’s a postcode lottery. Exactly the same charge can be levied against voluntary groups and the many private organisations which have stepped forward to offer help.
I asked West Berkshire Council’s leader Lynne Doherty (who herself comes from a background in the voluntary sector) where her council stood on the matter, with particular reference to the funding during the December holidays. “WBCs’ current policy is to provide a holistic approach by assessing the needs of each family to ensure the right level of support if offered,” she told us. “This may be direct access to food through our partnership arrangements, information on welfare and benefits, support with Council Tax Relief, signposting to other relevant council services and external support, and we have an emergency grant for food and essential supplies that partners can make a referral to us for.”
I asked whether she shared the concerns expressed by the Opposition Leader Lee Dillon that this help would not, under this approach, reach those who needed it. She told us that the Council and its partners “knew exactly who these children are” and so was confident that this was not a risk, although conceded that “these were fast-moving times.” She also said that WBC had recently received over £960,000 as its fourth round of Covid funding from the government: this was not ring-fenced and “we will now be looking at how we can use this money over the Christmas period to offer any additional support needed.”
Finally, I suggested that the fact that an article Penny Post produced on the subject of free kids’ meals over half term received about 150 views in its first day suggested that many people were unaware of the official arrangements or, for whatever reasons, didn’t want to avail themselves of them. “I accept the point that our support specifically for anyone in financial difficulty may not have been widely known about and have attempted to rectify this yesterday [ie 26 October],” she replied, adding that she was confident that the partners WBC was working with were expert in the matter. “The amount of communications we have been doing over the last few months have been extensive,” she concluded, “but there is always more that we can do.” Here is WBC’s latest communiqué, relating to this half term.
The above-mentioned Lib Dem leader, Lee Dillon, had written to Lynne Doherty on 23 October saying that WBC needed to “act now and secure the ability for families to feed themselves over Christmas,” and said that his party planned to call an Extraordinary General Meeting of the Full Council on 10 November “so that Council can debate how we support those most in need.” he also claimed that “The failure by the government (and the three MPs that cover West Berkshire) to support the recent motion in Parliament means we are required to stand up and protect those that the government will not.” He pointed out to Penny Post that WBC “should be going directly to these families now,” rather than waiting to be approached. He referred to the embarrassment which often attends asking private organisations for help – even if they have offered it – and went on to question how long such hospitality outlets could step up for. He also mentioned initiatives which the Lib Dem council in Portsmouth has put in place on this issue.
• I mentioned above about our son Adam’s good experience of using the services of Fare Wise Travel in Hungerford. This seem a good opportunity to mention the Holiday To Help Out scheme, an initiative organised by travel media business TTG, supported by companies from across the UK travel industry, to excite customers about holidays and to highlight a large number of exceptional offers. These are offers available for bookings made between 2-8 November and through travel agents only. There are currently over 100 offers available from various tour operators which range from cruises to city breaks, from honeymoons to adventure trips and from golf holidays to group tours. Fare Wise’s owner Veronica Bailey and her team have a wealth of experience about the travel industry – and expert knowledge, help and guidance has never been more important than at present. You can contact her on 01488 686 858 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
• It seems that HS2, faced with the choice of building a railway line in a slightly different place (or not at all) or moving a number of ancient woodlands has decided to got for the latter option. I asked the one of WBC’s Green Party councillors, Carolyne Culver, what she thought of this idea. “The concept of translocation of soil is an insult to people’s intelligence,” she said. “You can’t grow ancient and established woodland, which provides habitat wildlife, from some soil you’ve moved. HS2 should stop bullshitting people and tell the truth. This infrastructure project is more important to them than the natural environment.” Sounds like a big thumbs-down to me…
Thursday 22 October 2020
• The country is, as many of you will have noticed, now divided into tiers with regard to Covid. England has three, the lowest of which ‘medium: Scotland has five, the highest of which is ‘four’. How these equate or overlap I couldn’t say. People in the borders must be in a permanent state of uncertainty and confusion not seen since the time of Edward I.
Information as to where is in which tier can be seen on the BBC website here (scroll about half-way down the post). The map of the areas in special measures bears more than a passing similarity to map of the results of the 2019 general election. Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and the PM have, it appears from The Guardian, been haggling over a difference of around £5m in support for Greater Manchester as a result of the tier-three lockdown that the region is now under. This is a sum of money that would not pay for an HS2 line between them if they were standing at opposite ends of the pitch at Old Trafford.
• As I regularly mention, Private Eye’s MD column on the pandemic is always a bracing read. In Eye 1533, the paragraph headed ‘learning from the best’ caught my eye. ‘To defeat a pandemic you need a world-class test-and-trace and world-class public compliance. We have neither.’ There’s more. One also needs ‘world-class levels of public fitness…health services…and a welfare state to help the long-term sick and unemployed.’ As the section concludes, ‘calling something ‘world class’ doesn’t make it so.’
• On that point, there appears to be an awful negative spiral in the way we fund our large-scale national projects which seems to follow a roughly ten-year cycle. If we spend a lot of money on them, the accusation is often that too much is ending up with managers and consultants who make the whole thing inefficient. Then cuts are introduced by a new government: somehow, these seem to affect (or so it is often portrayed) the front-line services, just as the previous increase in funding was hoovered up by the middlemen.
All in all, it seems impossible to reach a point of even approximate equilibrium where we can broadly accept that amount spent on, say, social services, the NHS, education or defence is acceptable in terms of what we get from it as a function of our needs and of its cost. There is always the sense that we spend way too much or way too little, or that the priorities are wrong, or that most of the money’s wasted, or (in the case of IT projects) that the whole thing was flawed in its conception, botched in its execution and delayed in its delivery. Can anyone think of a single piece of large-scale public expenditure in the last 50 years about which most people would say, ‘yes – that was the right amount of money spent on the right thing in the right way with the right results. Doubles all round.’ I can’t.
Another issue seems to be that the more self-evident something is, the less likely we are to fund it properly. The sums of money that could be spent on pandemic research and prevention (to say nothing of climate change) are minor compared to the social and economic cost of not doing so. There is little evidence this will change. Nationalism, geo-politics and competitive business practices are what drives our world. Co-operation is seen as a weakness, certainly by most of our leaders.
• The PM and Sir Patrick Vallance admitted on 22 October that there was ‘room for improvement’ with the test and trace system. This BBC article suggests that it’s going in the wrong direction: only 15% of people testsed in the week ending 14 October got their results within 48 hours, the lowest proportion since the system started. A delayed result makes the system almost useless. The system also only works if people who test positive then self-isolate correctly: Private Eye 1533 reports that only about 20% of people do.
• The US election continues on its strange trajectory. The combination of Donald Trump in post, a global pandemic and an election campaign which seems to last about a year has produced exactly the odd things that could have been predicted. It’ll all be over quite soon. And then…nothing will have changed. As Orwell predicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four, there will be three global powers in perpetually shifting alliances. How each leader gets elected – and the US system seems in some ways no less byzantine or flawed than those of Russia or China – the national interest remains the same. As the old anarchist slogan in the 70s had it, ‘whoever you vote for, the government gets in.’
• I’m sorry if you find me a bit downbeat about our planet’s immediate prospects this week. However, I’ve got that off my chest now so this part of the column will go uphill from now on.
• OK – let’s start off with a small but heartening pair of stories, one from Longcot to the west of Wantage and one from Donnington to the north of Newbury. I’m talking about pubs. It’s a sad fact that this column has reported many in this area that have closed in the last few years. Others may follow. You wouldn’t think that anyone would open a pub during a pandemic, who’ll you? Well, it happens: and there are some good reasons why both of these (and hopefully others) might succeed.
• So step forward first of all the King and Queen in Longcot, between Wantage and Swindon, which re-opened on 10 September last month under new owners, the previous landlords having closed the place as soon as lockdown was announced. We have some good friends in the village and went there as a purely social event last week – what a delight it was; great food, full, friendly and Covid-compliant. It’s all you want these days. I chatted to Markus, one of the two owners, today and he confirmed that although he and his partner Danni had worked in various capacities in pubs and kitchens, they’d never run a pub although it was always their ambition to have one. So far, Markus told me, they had had a few frustrating moments but no regrets. Opening a pub in a pandemic has got to take a special type of person. Go and sample it for yourself.
• Then, on Tuesday we ate in another pub, this time in Donnington: The Hartley Arms (some years ago known as The Three Horseshoes) which re-opened earlier this month. Another lovely meal. This is now part of the small Honesty chain which also operates The Crown and Garter in Inkpen, a cookery school and several coffee shops. Romilla Arber, who runs the company, is experienced at running hospitality outlets and told us that she ‘fell in love’ with this place when she saw it.
• Conventional wisdom might say that you’d be bonkers to open a hospitality venue at present. However, I can see that now the playing field is perhaps a bit more level. There’s a huge pent-up demand for a treat now and then after several months of cooking for ourselves or living off takeaways. People who do things that buck the trend perhaps get a bit more attention at time like these. If a place has been closed for six months, as the King and Queen was, that’s often enough time for people to forget about it and change their pattern of habit or desire so that they soon cease to remember that the place was ever there: perhaps Covid’s wholesale spring and early-summer shutdowns have given re-openers a bit of an advantage. I hope so. All hospitality venues have been much missed. Anyone who re-opens a long dormant one deserves a bit of special respect. Hopefully others in the area will follow their lead.
• In this shifting world there are not many things you can rely on: but I’d always thought that the Catholic church’s opposition to homosexuality was one of these. It seems not (or sort of not) following the Pope’s recent coming out, if you’ll excuse the phrase, in favour of same-sex civil unions. This seems to put him an unorthodox position, as his church believe that gay relationships are ‘deviant.’ He himself said in 2013 that although homosexual acts were a sin, being homosexual was not. This seems to make as much sense as saying that it’s OK to own a car but illegal to drive it. For nearly two millennia the Catholic Church has delighted in creating and then trying to resolve impossible paradoxes and in having abstruse, casuistical arguments with itself: all about what you’d expect when a large number of over-educated elderly men are cooped up together with too much time on their hands. If you believe that we are all God’s creatures then you must surely also accept that he gave us sexual desires and made some of us, to some extent or another, gay. To deny this would seem to be saying that we know better than God. This looks like blasphemy from where I’m sitting.
• A letter in this week’s Newbury Weekly News asks if our MP Laura Farris has ‘any independent thoughts’, the accusation being that she always follows ‘the Cummings/Johnston line.’ I’m sure she does but, given that she appears to be very ambitious, is probably too sensible to express them. This website suggests that she has rebelled on two occasions (the names of the debates mean nothing to me). One good thing about the US system is that you can’t be both a minister and in the legislature, so reducing this temptation.
• Speaking of Home Secretaries (I understand that to hold this office is one of Laura Farris’ goals), I’ve just had an unsolicited email from someone called Priti Patel asking if I need any web-design and SEO-optimisation services. Is there about to be a cabinet reshuffle? I don’t think I’ll be taking Ms Patel up on her offer. Any site she builds will probably be a bit lacking in grace and style and will probably have a feature to snoop on us, or for us to use to snoop on our neighbours. I also doubt her customer-service manner will be that great. As for the SEO bit, this will doubtless be outsourced to some outfit like Serco and will therefore register thousands of hits from people who turn out, on closer inspection, not to exist but for whom we’ll be expected to pay for…
Thursday 15 October 2020
• The huge debate at the moment is how much Covid restrictions are useful compared to to the social, psychological and economic damage they cause. The government has, as expected, announced regional restrictions which, to some, look a lot like political ones, areas that are already economically depressed being singled out. In this case you have to follow the figures, as I hope and presume the government is doing in defining these levels. Burnley, for instance, has about right times more cases per 100,000 people than does West Berkshire. Is that fair? No. Should we do something to address this? Well, despite this unfairness, yes, if we don’t want it to spread. Would I accept similar measures of the figures were too reversed? I hope so.
• Not surprisingly, the front pages of the newspapers are filled with little else apart from this and the various predictions as to what another lockdown would have on our jobs, the economy, the need for future austerity measures and our mental health.
• The Health Secretary announced on 15 October that ‘local action is at the centre of our response.’ It’s good to have that finally confirmed. For many months the government seemed to feel that salvation could only be obtained through the intervention of new systems operated by companies such as Serco rather than through the local networks which had long existed for dealing with notifiable diseases. Of course, no system works perfectly: one person who would agree is a mother of six from Manchester who, according to the Daily Mirror, claims to have received 45 calls from the NHS test-and-trace telling her that she and the rest of her family, with whom she lives, have been in contact with each other. The paper quotes an NHS spokesperson as saying that ‘work is ongoing to improve the management of household,’ and that the approach so far ‘has been to favour over-contacting affected individuals rather than under-contacting in order to stem the spread of the disease.’
• Covid will almost certainly not be the last such battle we need to fight. It’s becoming very clear that viruses can and do jump species between the animals, including us, that are now increasingly thrown together on this planet. One that scientists are keeping an eye on is the charmingly-named swine acute diarrhoea syndrome coronavirus (SADS-Cov) which has been on their radar since at least 2017.
• I mentioned last week about the Great Barrington Declaration which appeared to suggest that libertarianism was a better solution that a brief period of national compliance. I’m also glad that the idea I proposed last week of having a clear on and off time seems to have attracted the attention of our leaders. I talked to a few well-informed friends recently and none was able to offer any clear understanding of what was going on with the stats nor what many of the policies were. As I suggested last week, it seems we’re binary: on or off, do or don’t do, is all we understand and all that can be enforced. Introduce grey areas, exceptions and circumstantial conditions and we either get confused or exploit them. Our society, unlike some like perhaps Sweden’s, not sufficiently aligned to nuances to an extent that will make any subtle variations work.
• Covid has been with us for most of the year and, although it’s still very much here, it’s hard to visualise. The reason for this is obvious: we can’t see it. If the virus were the size of a golf ball, or even a fly, we’d all know where we stood. It’s the same with CO2. As I heard someone remark on a podcast yesterday, if CO2 had a colour, we’d have fixed it 50 years ago. Charlotte Hitchmough from Action for the River Kennet said the same thing about sewage overflows being dumped into the rivers: if this had been gas or oil leaks they would have been sorted in days. Brexit also has no physical shape but is merely an idea of problems to come. Conflicts like the Blitz in the 1940s, to which the Covid crisis is sometimes compared, was by contrast very obvious – the bombs or V2s could be seen falling and they generally exploded at once. The horrible reality is that the perils that now engulf us are unseen and do not have immediate consequences.
• One thing that has a pretty immediate consequence for all of us is the US election. I do no understand why people need to spend the best part of the day in a queue to vote in advance. Nor do I understand who told President Trump that he was now immune from Covid. Someone did: ‘And now I’m immune,’ he told a recent rally, ‘they tell me I’m immune. I could come down and start kissing everybody.’ Let’s not go there.
• The strange tale of PoTUS’s Covid experience is looked at in this separate post. The author suggested at the end that the idea of a conspiracy theory could be rejected because surely the whole business would have been better planned. The awful thought has since been suggested to me that the reverse might be true and that this kind of PR incompetence is just what would have been concocted in order to make the whole thing seem real. Yes, I agree – I’m now completely confused as well.
• Greed is, along with fear and lust, a powerful human motivator. Few organisations display this better than large football clubs during one of their periodic attempts to reshape the organisation of the beautiful game in their own image. The latest scheme which was named, inaccurately, ‘project big picture’, was cooked up by Liverpool and Manchester United and involved abolishing half the competitions and having a strange two-tiered voting system that would have given the richest clubs more of a say. Imagine if we had a system in the Commons whereby the MPs for the richest constituencies had two votes, or a veto on anything proposed by anyone else? The scheme seems to have been dropped – for now. The plan was to have included a bale-out for the lower-league clubs like Reading and Swindon (with perhaps some dosh trickling down to the non-league level of the Thatchams and the Hungerfords) but that can surely be accomplished without this kind of arm-twisting blackmail.
• This week’s Newbury Weekly News has, on p2, an article referring to West Berkshire Council’s property portfolio (in which it has invested about £62m thanks to the then cheap loans available from the Public Works Loan Board) and the fears that Covid will make this fall in value: the paper quotes the Office for Budget Responsibility as predicting that 14% may be knocked off its worth this year. Most other councils will find themselves in a similar boat. Councillor Ross Mackinnon, the WBC’s financial portfolio holder, expressed himself unconcerned by this as the council was mainly interested in the rental income and was in any case planning to retain the properties for decades.
A couple of things strike me about this (aside from the general concern about councils investing in property on this scale at all as this isn’t really their primary area of expertise). First, if the value falls then this suggests a weakness in that part of the property market that is likely to be reflected in reduced rental income once existing contracts fall in. There’s also the question of defaulting. The paper reports that 17% of the rent owing in July and August had so far been uncollected, compared to 0% in the period from April to June. Councillor MacKinnon said that the average rental income period in those months nationwide was 46%: that, then, is the kind of figure to which WBC’s income might then fall. The other point is that, though he and his colleagues may currently want to hold onto the investment for decades, future administrations may not. There have already been calls for the fund to be invested in revenue-generating projects such as solar farms. Another type of property that would be probably more future-proofed than commercial and retail units are family homes in rural areas with decent-sized gardens and a good broadband connection: people seem to be snapping those up at the moment. Or it could use the money to build some social housing – something the private sector is unable to do – although the terms of the loan probably prevent this.
• A story recently caught my eye about an unidentified person who has twice been seen flying near Los Angeles airport (LAX) in a jetpack. The BBC’s report says that ‘it is not clear if either incident posed any danger to aircraft.’ By definition, the answer to that has got to be ‘yes’. Anything that might spook a pilot landing or taking off has got to be bad. This reminds me, as the music-hall comedians used to say, of the wonderful story of a man known as Lawnchair Larry, of San Pedro, CA. Larry had long wanted to be a pilot but his eyesight was too poor: undeterred, in July 1982 he took matters into his own hands. He strapped himself into a garden chair to which were attached 43 helium-filled weather balloons. On his lap, in time-honoured American fashion, was a CB radio, some sandwiches a four-pack of beer and an air rifle. Christopher Robin going off to discover the North Pole or Winnie the Pooh making his daring raid on the bees’ nest were almost better prepared. His plan was to float about for a bit at a reasonable altitude and, when he’d had enough, start shooting the balloons to make a controlled descent. What could possibly go wrong with that?
What in fact happened, when his friends severed the tethering ropes, was that he shot up to a height of about 16,000 feet and into the flightpath of LAX airport, something witnessed by the startled passengers of several passing planes. When he decided he’d had enough – which amazingly took 45 minutes – he started shooting out the balloons one by one before dropping the gun (which must have given someone an almighty shock). He gradually descended towards Long Beach but became entangled in an electricity cable causing a 30-minute blackout. Eventually he landed unharmed and was promptly arrested. “We know he broke some part of the Federal Aviation Act,” an officer said. “As soon as we work out which part, charges will be filed.” He was eventually fined $4,000 (reduced on appeal to $1,500) for a range of violations. The authorities at LAX will probably even now be looking up this case to cite as a precedent – if they can catch jetpack-man, of course…
Thursday 8 October 2020
• Recently there’s been publicity given to what claims to be a global movement known as ‘the Great Barrington Declaration‘ which, according to its website, has been signed by about 3,500 medical and public-health experts and about 5,500 GPs. In essence, this appears to assert that lockdown is inherently the wrong approach to take and that it conceals and perhaps exacerbates equally bad problems ranging from economic collapse to a spike in mental-health problems. Two of the GBD’s main planks appear to be that help and protection should be concentrated on the vulnerable and that herd immunity will eventually rescue the situation.
The main problem with the first is that it’s far from clear how ‘vulnerable’ people can be identified, or even defined. The elderly, obviously; but while many of these live in dedicated accommodation such as care homes but many others do not. There are also plenty of examples of people of a wide range of ages and backgrounds who have contracted CV-19 with very serious results (including ‘long Covid’). There’s also a wider moral dimension in that the government has an obligation to cater for all the members of the population who might be vulnerable, not those who can easily be identified as such. As regards the herd immunity, there’s so far no evidence if effective immunity is conferred in all cases, or for how long; or perhaps at all. It might take a year for more for any herd immunity to become sufficiently widespread. However, if immunity lasts for less time then the circle will never be closed.
I understand that GBD originated in the USA. Given its apparent aims, it may be an attempt to provide a some form of science-based structure for libertarian views. This article in Wired makes some very good points about this, including questioning how authoritative the 3,500-odd ‘medical and public-health experts’ actually are.
• A slightly similar issue, or choice, is being debated in the UK with the specific focus on how severe the lockdowns should be, whether local restrictions are working and whether there should be more parliamentary scrutiny. On the last, the PM admitted recently that the increased role of the state was not something he welcomed. This is slightly different from the point made by the Speaker and others recently that the executive was treating parliament with ‘contempt’. Whether local lockdowns are working or not seems to be a matter for debate (see also here, from The Independent, in August). At the very least, they give more power and influence to local health experts who, as many have long argues, need to be more centre-stage in this. On the other hand they risk exacerbating the proverbial north/south divide: most of the areas currently under tighter restrictions are north of Birmingham (or in South Wales), as are all the areas with more than 100 cases per 100,000. This could all change, of course.
There is certainly a bewildering range of regulations. I don’t think anyone could get full marks on any test about these (certainly not several MPs, cabinet members or their fathers). To make matters worse, as the BBC commented with a discretion that almost achieved irony, ‘people don’t necessarily change their behaviour exactly in line with rule changes.’ Many would argue that some of the rule changes are not that clear. All are, however, variations on five basic points: keep your distance, cover your mouth and nose, avoid large gatherings, wash your hands and self-isolate if ill or tested positive.
• A lot of risks, like not dancing on the edge of a cliff or walking across a busy A road, need no amplification because they have immediate consequences. Covid does not. A week or more may elapse before you report any symptoms, if indeed you do: perhaps as many as 80% of cases are asymptomatic (or perhaps pre-symptomatic) or so mild as to attract no attention. Moreover, the symptoms vary. Among young children, The Sun suggests that sore throat, fatigue, loss of appetite and rashes are common symptoms (in addition to the well-publicised ones of fever, cough and loss of taste and smell) and that children are in any case more likely to be asymptomatic. Private Eye’s MD, meanwhile, claims that for the elderly, as well as ‘just feeling awful, the key symptom is delirium.’ Anyone who looks after the young or the old will agree that these are fairly common age-related signs of a variety of things and at any time.
In another demonstration of the ubiquitous Pareto Principle, The Eye’s MD also says that 20% of the infections are responsible for 80% of the spread. He also adds that of the 30,000 excess deaths in private homes since March, only one in ten is directly attributed to Covid and that ‘we don’t know why.’ All in all, although we know a lot more about this virus now than we did in February, we don’t know nearly enough.
• One thing I know, though – and my academic discipline was medieval history – is that there is a limit to how many records one can safely import into, and transfer between, Excel files. This basic problem seems to be at the heart of the problem of 16,000 Covid cases being not added to the statistics – and, more importantly, their contacts not immediately being traced. “The use of XLS as an intermediate format is an error of biblical proportions,” said Jonathan Crowcroft, Marconi Professor of Computer Science at the University of Cambridge. “In fact, it’s an error of Pooh and Piglet proportions – Christopher Robin would have corrected it. It’s shocking that taxpayers’ money and possibly people’s lives are risked by stupidity at this scale.”
To make it worse, it’s currently not clear if some or all of these missing records have been lost for good. To me, it seems about as sensible as going out picking apples armed only with a small saucepan. There are clearly a lot of things that are being rushed through at the moment and this fiasco leaves one wondering what other corners might be being cut, such as with the clinical testing of vaccines. There is certainly an intense pressure to get one ready.
• No one is providing this pressure more strongly than the US President. He is now out of hospital and back in the White House and has described catching Covid as ‘a blessing from God.’ The real blessing will come if hundreds of other people with whom he came into contact do not test positive given the insouciance with which he and his staff seem appear to have enforced social-distancing regulations. He is also full of praise for the experimental drug Regeneron, to which he seems to have given unilateral approval. According to the New York Times, he promises to make it ‘free to anyone who needs it.’ It’s not clear how he’ll do this as the company itself has admitted it only expects to be able to treat 300,000 people (less than 0.1% of the country’s population) by the end of the year. PoTUS seems to believe that he has been cured. However, the NYT article quotes Dr Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious diseases specialist, as saying that there was ‘a one million percent no’ chance that Regeneron had cured the President in 24 hours. He also suggested that Trump’s currently up-beat mood could be explained by dexamethasone, which he has also been taking to reduce fever and which can create feelings of euphoria. ‘This is the dexamethasone speaking,’ Dr Chin-Hong concluded.
• The strange tale of the PR confusions that surrounded PoTUS’s Covid experience is considered at in this separate post.
• Still stateside, the prospective VP candidates had their moment in the spotlight last night. The debate seems to have been rather better tempered than the last week’s fiasco, one talking point being a fly that that appeared to have fallen in love with Mike Pence. I see from photographs that – possibly to discourage the candidates from leaping out their seats and attacking each other or perhaps for some other reasons – the organisers had put two perspex screens between them. The BBC has fact-checked half a dozen of the claims here: neither candidate seems to have done particularly well. Still, in these contests it’s not what you say that counts but how presidential (or vice-presidential) you appear to be.
• We’ve been following the story of WBC Councillor Steve Masters who’s been active in the HS2 protests at Jones Hill Wood in Buckinghamshire. This reached a violent conclusion last week when the site was stormed by eviction officers and police during which various protestors, including Councillor Masters, were arrested. I saw him at the food and artisan market in Hungerford on Sunday and he was wearing a pair of grey tracksuit bottoms designed for a person of a different size and shape which he described as ‘prison issue’, almost all his possessions having been removed. He also told me that Swampy, whom many will remember as the pin-up boy of the divisive protests about Newbury by-pass in the 1990s, had made an appearance at the site together with his son. The HS2 Rebellion Facebook page has made a number of accusations against the National Eviction Team’s (NET’s) conduct, including that four members including a manager were recently suspended after an incident further north, near Leamington, which was captured on CCTV and showed them drinking Stella and then assaulting two men who were in a car and taking photos. Stella has a bit of a poor reputation, often appearing as evidence in these kinds of cases. NET’s doesn’t seem to be much better. What an awful job that must be; particularly if – as some of the operatives perhaps do – you even partly share the protestors’ views. HS2 does seem to be an inanity and an insanity on a colossal scale.
• Two bit of news were released recently which are, when you think about, very unsurprising. The first was that billionaires (particularly those involved in IT – and who isn’t, these days?) have done very well out of Covid, their wealth rising by over 25% in the four months between April and July 2020. Billionaires, by definition, want to get rich and are quite good at it. There might be a sense of irritation we feel about them but there’s no inherent contradiction between what they set out to do and what they accomplish – they do what they say on the tin.
• The same cannot, however, be said for many members of the the Church of England. The organisation stands accused, according to a recent report, of having failed for decades to protect children and young people from sexual predators and, moreover, appeared to have ‘facilitated…a place where abusers could hide.’ These are vastly worse than any crimes the act of becoming a billionaire could lead to and include hypocrisy, dishonesty, dereliction of duty and cruelty. If organised religion has any purpose it is surely to combat exactly these evils – or am I missing something?.
• The confusion, misunderstanding and evasion surrounding the various Covid regulations is, as mentioned above and just about everywhere else, widespread. It seems to me that, particularly in these digital times, we’re essentially binary creatures. There are only two choices that we really understand: (a) you can do this; and (b) you cannot do this. Any exceptions just create a grey area which people can exploit and which risks undermining the whole business. So, my proposal is that we have five days on, when everyone can do what they want, followed by three days off, when everyone has to stay at home, anyone out and about being rounded up and put somewhere or other for a bit (haven’t worked that part out yet). It will be unjust and unpopular and doubtlessly scientifically and epidemiologically unsound but you’ve got to admit one thing – it will be simple…
Thursday 1 October 2020
• I didn’t do much more than glance at a few extracts from the recent US Presidential debate, but what I saw seemed both boring and unpleasant (a difficult combination to pull off). The BBC called it ‘chaotic and bitter’ which seems about right. According to the its survey of the world’s press reaction, we also have ‘a dark, horrifying, unwatchable fever dream’ from The Guardian, ‘chaotic, childish and gruelling,’ from Libération in France, ‘a car accident’ from Der Spiegel in Germany, ‘rowdy and based on mutual contempt’ from La Repubblica in Italy and – my favourite – ‘mud wrestling’ from The Times of India. Some of the US commentators were even more scathing and at times embarrassed.
Most alarming to many was President Trump’s refusal to condemn some of the right-wing groups, in particular the Proud Boys, which Wikipedia describes as ‘a far-right, neo-fascist, male-only organisation that promotes and engages in political violence.’ Oddly, it seems to have been started (in 2016) as a far-right joke, taking its name from a song in the Disney film Aladdin; odder still, perhaps, for a US far-right group, its current leader, Enrique Tarrio, is Afro-Cuban. The question, which the President sort of answered and sort of didn’t, was about white supremacist groups although this appears to be about the only right-wing cause this organisation doesn’t officially espouse. Trump told them to ‘stand back and stand by’ which sounds like a military order to me. I can’t recall a US election fought against such a toxic backdrop. There are two more debates to come and one (which might be slightly less X-rated) between the potential VPs. However, as both POTUS and his consort FLOTUS have tested positive for Covid it’s possible that at least one of the scheduled top-level debates may not now happen. No great loss, probably.
• The Prime Minister announced this week that we are at a ‘critical moment‘ with Covid-19. This may be true; but many MPs from all sides have united in opposing the drift of power away from the Commons and towards the effective rule by decree which the 2020 Coronavirus Emergency Act permits (with six-monthly reviews). The government’s attitude to parliament was described by the Speaker on 30 September as being one of ‘contempt’ although it seems now that some kind of compromise has been agreed. Slightly arcane debates about procedure, responsibility and scrutiny may not seem vital at present and rather call to mind the rancorous Brexit debates (which themselves seem to be far from over). None the less, there are important principles at sake. The Commons also provides a reasonably good way of ensuring that the regulations are discussed and considered properly. This might also help them be better understood. If two government ministers – the PM and Education Secretary Gillian Keegan – and the PM’s own father (a photo of whom appeared in the Daily Mirror on 1 October which showed him shopping without a mask) can get these wrong, what hope is there for the rest of us?
• There also seems to be several signs of Covid fatigue creeping into our behaviour. The two-month hiatus had given everyone a false sense of hope. The complex and ever-changing regulations and advice since have been both confusing and in many cases unwelcome. The Times reported on 30 September that commuting rates have not fallen at all despite the government’s recommendation that people work from home. Students in many universities seem to be paying scant attention to the regulations (this is perhaps fine as long as they don’t subsequently go home and hug their grandparents). The fact that official fines and police warnings for people breaching self-isolation rules when infected suggests that these are not being universally obeyed.
There are also plenty of ambiguities, confusions and – to some – irrationalities in the regulations. Indoor and outdoor gatherings are treated differently (logical, as everyone agrees that the latter is vastly less risky) but this leads to confusions when people move from one area to another, as they do in pubs. Different areas have vastly different rates and it’s still not clear whether local councils – which know far more about their locality than Whitehall does – have the necessary powers to implement local measures. (Even if they did, this might risk still more confusion with there then being two possibly contradictory sets of regulation and advice). Weddings appear to be exactly twice as risky as funerals. The rule of six is also unclear, to me at least: if we go to the pub with two other couples today, can we then do the same with two different couples tomorrow? The 10pm closure seems arbitrary: better, perhaps, to have four days on and three days off. Aside from clarity, there’s also enforcement which is, by the police, almost impossible. We could turn into a nation of vigilantes which, as mentioned before, is another matter on which the cabinet is divided, the Home Secretary thinking we should and the PM thinking we shouldn’t.
• There are no shortage of suggestions as to how the PM can change his tack. The Speaker has offered one (see above). Several papers have referred to the Chairman of the Bank of England’s upbeat economic prognosis as opposed to the PM’s caution, prompting the headline ‘Mr Boom v Mr Gloom’ in the Daily Mail. The I says that several ministers accept that the regulations need to be simplified to restore public confidence. The Chief Medical Officer has suggested that the virus could be controlled with effective local action: this would seem to demand more powers being devolved to councils, something the government seems to see as a last resort. James Frayne, one of the founders of the right-leaning think tank People First has offered the PM a seven-point plan ‘to win back the country’ which contains some startling generalisations but also some sound advice about acting more simply, more honestly and (slightly beyond the PM’s control, this one) more globally.
The problem is that, since 1945, we’ve been used to living our lives with a fairly clear idea of where the government’s power stopped. During WW2 we were exhorted to be prudent, thrifty and discreet but nothing since then has even suggested that Whitehall can control how many people we see and where we can or cannot go. Boris Johnston clearly idolises Churchill and has been presented with a Churchillian challenge of uniting the country against an enemy, and encouraging us to accept privations and sacrifices. Churchill’s advantage was, as well as being a vastly superior orator, that the enemy was in plain sight. Nothing is less in plain sight than a virus. (Churchill was also helped by Hitler’s insane decision to shift his bombing away from the RAF bases and onto the cities, so enabling Churchill to continue to get the country to rally round the idea of the threat of invasion.) BJ hasn’t managed to pull this off. Aside from his manifest shortcomings, the country is now more sceptical, diverse and sophisticated than it was in the 1940s. As the virus is invisible and as the number of deaths have been far lower than some of the predictions (designed, with some justification, to get our attention), so the PM’s stock has fallen. So too did Churchill’s, who was defeated by a landslide in 1945.
As mentioned last week, our whole reaction turns on whether there’s an interest for us personally, or enough societal pressure, to make us be responsible. The responsible things are to keep our distance from people, wash our hands regularly, wear face-coverings indoors, protect and support vulnerable people and stay on our own for 14 days (about 0.0005 of our projected lifespan) if we test positive. We also need to accept that this is going to be with us for the rest of our lives and so we might have to moderate our behaviour (as we had to with AIDS, in a specific way). We aren’t used to doing this and it’s unwelcome. Governments need to moderate their behaviours as well, starting with co-operating a bit more and doing things like closing down wild-animal markets.
• The idea of changing our habits and general default behaviour – which scares me as much as it does you – becomes even vaster when we think about climate change: which to most observers is a genuine existential threat. Many are searching for positives for Covid and there doubtless will be some, as there are with any game-changing event). One of them might be that it has accustomed us, in double-quick time, to accept that some higher and immutable power demands that we change how we behave. Combatting climate change, which has got lost in the Covid and Brexit tempests, will require far more dramatic alterations. Perhaps, ten or so years from now, we might look back from a hopefully less carbon-heavy world and see that Covid taught us that we can survive as a species if we make adjustments when we have to (and preferably before) and that re-attuning ourselves to the wavelength of the planet on which we’re stuck is a good idea.
• There was a lot of talk from the UK government about following the best science. As mentioned here before, the ‘best science’ is impossible to define. In any case, scientific predictions are only one of the factors that a government needs to take into account. The economy, logistics, public acceptance and political benefit all have to be factored in. As The Times pointed out on 30 September, the 10pm pub-closure decision was essentially political rather than scientific. It was also designed to get the attention of a particular sector of the population. Time will tell if it has done so and if this has made any significant difference.
• Devizes MP Danny Kruger was in June commissioned by the Prime Minister to produce a report on sustaining the community spirit of the lockdown. You can see the report, a press release and the PM’s comments by clicking here. The central recommendation was for ‘a more local, more human, less bureaucratic, less centralised society in which people are supported and empowered to play an active role in their neighbourhoods.’ This reads very much like the idea of the ‘big society’ briefly proposed (and quickly dropped) by the hapless David Cameron in 2010. The central idea – that communities needed to be more self-reliant, resilient and self-supporting – was a sound one and could, if presented properly (which it wasn’t) have been a useful construct to help support genuine localism and societal change. In the event, it looked more like a patronising instruction to people to volunteer to replace all the services that were being cut as a result of austerity. This time round, with some really strong evidence of what bottom-up responses can accomplish, it perhaps stands a better chance. The key issue will be, as well as the ‘infrastructure and policy support’ which the PM appears to be promising, money. Local councils have had their funding cut and are at a crossroads with regard to a longer-term settlement based more on business rates. For many, including, West Berkshire, the majority of their spending is on social care, a statutory responsibility. The extra money that has been received as a result of Covid-19 has been in the form of one-off payments: something more regular is needed.
• Apparently in England we use 4.7 billion single-use plastic straws each year, about 85 per person. If these were all on average 16cm long that would be enough for them to stretch nearly twice round the equator. As of today they are banned, along with plastic stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds, all items which the environmental law charity ClientEarth describes as ‘the most pointless plastics out there.’ The move was to have taken place in April but was, presumably because of Covid, put back six months (or by 2.35 billion straws).
• A long-expected event took place on 1 October with the arrival of about 40 eviction officers and 20 police officers at the HS2 protest site in Jones Hill Wood on Buckinghamshire. Several of the protestors, including West Berkshire and Newbury Town Councillor Steve Masters, have been spending much of their time in trees houses 60 feet off the ground for the last few months. “I am a public official and I have followed a path of public service throughout my life,” Steve Masters told Penny Post today. “This began 34 years ago when I joined the RAF. I swore to protect my fellow citizens then – now, as we face the greatest challenge in climate change, I am duty-bound to continue to protect the people of this country and the world. I am willing to be arrested, and ultimately imprisoned, in order to highlight the catastrophic damage HS2 will do to our natural environment. Our Prime Minister pledged to protect the biodiversity of the planet while at the same time continuing to support this destructive and unnecessary rail link. As the chainsaws whine around me this morning, I remain resolute and determined to fight for a future fit for my grandchildren.”
Jones Hill Wood is one of 108 such habitats that will need to be destroyed in order that – at a cost that rises by the day and is unlikely to be less than £100bn – people will be able to travel slightly more quickly between London and Birmingham and (if phase two ever materialises) the cities further north. As most people who make these kind of journeys probably do so for business, and as most of them probably work on the train, this seems like bad news. The 35% time saving that the DfT has estimated for the London to Birmingham journey will merely mean that people arrive for their meeting 35% less well prepared. Doesn’t seem to be worth £100bn to me…
Thursday 24 September 2020
• So, it seems we’re headed for another lockdown: or a ‘circuit break’, whatever exactly that is. This might be local or national, long or short. However, the reality is that this isn’t going to be getting rid of the virus. It’s here to stay and we’re going to have to learn to live with it. Whatever measures are introduced will be buying time to hold back the tide for a bit. What matters is what we do with the time this gives us.
There’s a limit to what the government can do. Policing lockdown restrictions is next to impossible. As this article on the BBC website suggests, if someone decides that they’re going to break a demand for self-isolation, there’s not much anyone can do about it until it’s too late. The government can pass as many laws as it wishes but it’s only if we believe that changing out behaviour will make a difference that things will change.
This can happen in one of three ways. First, the government could deploy half a million officers, PCSOs and informers. This isn’t likely to happen: aside from the cost, as mentioned last week the members of the cabinet cannot even agree on what the right level of enforcement (or snitching is). Second, there is societal pressure (as has largely happened with things such as domestic violence and drink driving) that it’s a good idea to avoid unnecessary proximity, wear face-coverings indoors, wash our hands regularly, self-isolate when ill and being careful not to infect people who are vulnerable. This involves an element of social altruism as most of these measures are protect others more than they protect us. Third, there’s the basic question of personal survival. If we believe that our own chances – or economic prospects – are enhanced by either doing these things ourselves or demanding that others do so, then this will start to happen.
There are only a few countries in the world where the interests of the government, society at large and the individual are aligned in any way that seems likely to make this a swift and simple process. The UK is certainly not one of them. What is needed is the circumstance where people see that their government is either a fair reflection of individual or collective aspirations, or that these are utterly shaped and dominated by the government’s wishes (which might be expressed all the time or as a threat to be used in emergencies, to which it’s expected that people will respond).
In the first category I would tentatively place New Zealand, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland and perhaps Canada, Denmark and to some extent Germany: in the latter, I’d suggest China, North Korea, Cuba, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Vietnam. Most of these have so far performed better than many other states and it seems likely that this is because there is a recognised alignment, whether willingly given by the population or not, between the over-arching interests of the state, those of the communities within it and each individual. In countries such as the UK, France, Italy, Spain, the USA, India and Brazil – where the infection rates have been much more volatile – there is no such alignment; rather, a general distrust for the government which finds expression in a number of ways. In the case of the USA there’s an extra problem, the country’s federal powerful structure having shown it to be almost ungovernable in the face of an existential threat. Similar tensions are for the same reasons revealing themselves within the UK (an entity which economically and politically, if not strictly administratively, comprises five units: in decreasing order of population, England, London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).
Neither the American nor the Chinese system of government or societal behaviour has the slightest attraction for me. The first-mentioned countries have geographical advantages, a low population density, a high level of wealth and long-term emphasis on national rather than individual prosperity and health, even if this involves a high level of personal taxation. What is needed in countries like the UK is a wholly new compact between the rulers and the ruled. What Churchill managed to accomplish in WW2 was a remarkable association between the needs of the state and of the individual to face a common enemy. Boris Johnston, who clearly reveres Churchill, has tried to do this but has failed. This is not entirely his fault. The UK is much less compliant, much more diverse and much more sophisticated than it was in the the 1940s. The threat is also more insidious. It’s clear that government edits, campaigns and exhortations are no longer having the desired effect, as they largely did 60 years ago. The threat is in many ways as real but it’s also invisible. It’s also non-human. The sad conclusion is that the more similar our enemies are to us, the more effectively we can hate, fear and combat then.
• My suggestion – and I can visualise people falling asleep or unsubscribing in droves at the phrase but I’ve started so I’ll finish – is to have something like four weeks on and one week off, the on being similar to August and early September and the off being a lockdown similar to that of the spring and summer. Hospitality businesses could probably survive this better and it would provide some certainty, as well as a regular circuit break. Again, though, it all depends on how responsible we all are. That caveat aside, I commend it to the house.
• As ever, Private Eye’s most recent MD column has a lot of sensible stuff about Covid. Two points from this stuck me. The first is the fact that over a quarter of the adults and over half of the children who tested positive didn’t exhibit any of the three key symptoms (fever, cough, loss of taste and smell) while about 20% and 33% respectively didn’t report any symptoms at all. The second was the suggestion that we ‘hand back Serco and Sitel test and trace to the NHS…time to put local public-health experts in charge of local outbreaks.’ Quite.
• A very relevant question at the moment is how well-prepared we might be for future pandemics. Peter Daszak of the Eco-Health Alliance – an expert whose reputation has perhaps been enhanced by having much of his funding cut two weeks after he criticised the White House for its obsession with the Chinese-lab origin theory – has estimated that there are perhaps 1.7m unknown viruses out there, all of which our current behaviour is increasingly bringing us into contact with. How have we reacted to previous ones? According to Debora MacKenzie, writing in the September New Scientist, not that well. She lists numerous cases where warnings about numerous threats including SARS, MERS were ignored or downplayed. Covid-19 played out in a pretty similar way to many of the predictions. Hindsight is of course easy. With so many problems to deal with, scientists and their paymasters tend to concentrate on immediate problems rather than potential ones. The problem surely cannot be money. Mackenzie quotes Andy Dobson of Princeton University as suggesting that halving deforestation rates and effectively monitoring diseases in people and livestock might cost $30bn a year, which the World Economic Forum estimates as being perhaps 500 times less than the global cost of the pandemic. The real problem is probably international co-operation. Viruses, like climate change, are no respecters of national frontiers. The governments of China, the USA and Russia (virtually any three other powerful countries could be substituted) seem unable to agree on anything. Indeed, it’s worse than that, as all three currently have leaders for whom a centre-piece of their policy is profound and Orwellian distrust for the other two. The threats posed by these problems require international co-operation on an unprecedented level. At present, I’d rate the chances of this happening at 0% and the chance of another similar pandemic by 2030 at 100%.
• Few countries have produced such a regular stream of crackpot socio-political notions as the USA, of which the current QAnon conspiracy theory is a prime example. Its central tenet is that the world is ruled by an evil alliance of satanic, vampiric paedophiles against which Donald Trump has somehow been cast as the saviour of the human race. As politically-motivated drivel goes it’s pretty far down the pipe but, even so, the movement seems to be becoming over-arching and insidious, providing a warped idealogical construct that can accommodate any number of other deranged libertarian beliefs. It also seems to have done much to cement the ideas that the pandemic is some kind of gigantic political hoax and that the measures to combat it are an excuse for mass surveillance and repression. As Graham Lawton, writing in the above-mentioned New Scientist points out, QAnon is ‘fighting a war against reality.’
• I’m long past understanding what’s going on with Brexit and, once again, we are being hit with a number of statements that seem in flat contradiction to each other. A no-deal Brexit would, according to the PM, be something that there UK would ‘prosper mightily as a result’ of, whereas an LSE economics professor has suggested that it could have an even worse impact than Covid-19. The whole point of Brexit seemed to be to return to some mythical golden age of justice and sovereignty. The justice part seems to scuppered by the decision potentially to set aside the Northern Ireland protocol, an internationally agreed treaty. The NI Secretary admitted earlier this month that this would break international law but ‘in a very specific and limited way.’ (This slightly calls to mind the recent statement made by the US lawyers of Anne Sacoolas, who killed 18-year-old Harry Dunn in a road accident in 2019, that she was ‘driving cautiously and below the speed limit’ at the time, albeit on the wrong side of the road.) As for sovereignty of the state, that depends on the elected government’s writ running equally throughout the land. Aside from the problems and paradoxes caused by our having four constituent nations and three devolved assemblies, the NI problem referred to above and the constant rumblings of indyref2 in Scotland, it now appears that, post-Brexit, lorry drivers will not be able to enter the country (and former kingdom) of Kent unless they have a ‘Kent Access Permit.’ This is Michael Gove’s reaction to the ‘reasonable worst-case scenario’ of there being queues of up to 7,000 lorries en route to Dover. (If all these were an average of 17 metres long and with a metre between them, if parked end to end the tailback at Dover would go almost all of the way to Charing Cross.) This, like Covid, will all go on for months. In fact, I wonder if we’ll ever be free of either.
• Even more confusing to me are the FinCEN file leaks which appear to have revealed something that most of us suspected already: that mobsters, kleptocrats, Ponzi-schemers, fraudsters, arms dealers, drug lords, tyrants and the whole pantheon of the unacceptable faces of capitalism can move massive sums around the world and rely on the fact that the banks do not always bother to act on the concerns that they pass on to the the the US Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). The BBC’s summary of the leaked documents says that FinCEN regards the UK as a ‘higher risk jurisdiction’ because of the number of UK-registered firms that appear in the leaked documents. The most recent Private Eye, in a special report on the subject on pp21-23, described the UK as ‘a de-luxe laundry service.’ The UN estimates that money laundering accounts for between two and five percent of the world’s GDP: taking the higher figure, this is about the size of the entire economy of Italy, the world’s eighth richest country. Transparency International Pakistan says that the practice ‘continues to paralyse and disable economies, disfigure international finance and destroy lives around the world.’ Our own government and the many tax havens around the world (a good number of which are former British colonies which still retain strong links with the UK, in some cases having the queen as their head of state) are implicated in this.
• A certain amount of my time in the last week or so has been spent trying to understand the amazing complexity of the various government schemes and local initiatives for curing the numerous so-called cold spots on the broadband network which is some areas, such as Upper Lambourn, is at virtually dial-up speeds. In the village of Aberhosan in Wales, the problem was even more acute: at 7am every morning over the last 18 months the service simply vanished. After numerous visits by engineers, the fault was eventually tracked down to an old TV which, when switched on, edited a kind of electrical storm that obliterated the broadband. I’m not suggesting that this will be the problem in every cold spot but if you have an ancient TV and neighbours who complain about their internet connection you might want to bear this in mind…
Thursday 17 September 2020
• The Covid infection rates seem to be climbing again, as many predicted they would about now. The BBC reports that the WHO’s Regional Director for Europe has warned of ‘a very serious situation unfolding before us.’ Part of this is due to higher levels of testing but the figures appear to suggest ‘an alarming rate of transmission’ across the continent. So far it seems that most new cases are amongst the younger part of the population, which seems less badly affected and so hasn’t, so far at least, translated significantly into mortality or hospitalisation rates. If ever there was time for generations to stay apart from each other, a social trend which has been growing over the last 60 or so years, it is now.
• The newspapers this week have been dominated by the Covid-19 testing. Words like ‘chaos’ (The Mirror), ‘shambles’ (The Mail), ‘fiasco’ (The Daily Star), ‘chaos’ (again) (The London Evening Standard), ‘crisis’ (The Guardian) and ‘chaos’ (another one) (The Daily Telegraph) have been everywhere – and that’s just the front-page headlines. More nuanced comment may appear inside, but headlines are written to leave a lasting impression. Is this fair? On one level, not very. These figures from Our World in Data suggest that the UK is currently testing more people per day per thousand than any other major country in the world: 2.76, as opposed to 2.1 in Russia, 2.07 in France, 1.83 in the USA and 1.77 in Spain. Moreover these have increased more than four-fold since the start of May, a greater rise than any of these countries. Statistica suggests that, at some point, we have tested more of our population than any other country except Isreal. Why then the outcry?
The problem is a self-inflicted one for the government. Almost every prediction it has made about testing has proved to be wrong and the communication sometimes muddled, with ministers and health experts often at odds with each other (as has been seen this week with advice on reporting lockdown restrictions). The return of schools, in gradual re-starting of the universities and the fear caused by the gradual return of the lockdown has increased the demand for tests. Each sector of society has demanded, with varying degrees of justification, that it should receive the priority treatment. The advice (certainly in West Berkshire) is that people should ‘only request a Covid-19 test if they have symptoms, or have been asked to get a test.’
Worst of all was the PM’s Trump-like Operation Moonshot testing programme announced on 9 June, under which millions of people would be tested daily with results in minutes. The Independent quotes the British Medical Journal as saying that this could cost £100bn, a figure uncomfortably close both to the NHS’s total annual budget of £114bn and of HS2’s eventual cost (whatever that is this week). The BMJ also points out that, according to a leaked document from the government, a large number of private partnerships would also be required, a list of which dishearteningly includes the name of the ill-fated Serco. The documents also state that ‘a number of new tests and technologies would need to be used, including some that do not yet exist.’ Whether or not Moonshot has any validity, it seems idiotic to have mentioned it at that particular moment. Such massive figures, portrayed as being within our grasp, could only lead to dissatisfaction with the current arrangements: which is exactly what seems to have happened.
The supply chains involved in a national testing programme are considerable. They include the creation and distribution of the kits, the deployment of the staff, the IT infrastructure, the creation or expansion of the testing centres, the logistics of the delivery of the samples and the availability of the reagents to perform the tests. None of these existed six months ago. It seems that, at present, it’s the last of these, the availability of the reagents, that’s causing the problems. It has been suggested to me that the main reason tests have been limited is because there is no point in testing anyone if the results won’t be known to them within two or three days.
Given the fact that it can take several days for symptoms to appear (during which time one is infectious) and perhaps a few days after that to decide to go for a test and get it and then a few more days to get the results, it’s easy to see that the tests are not an automatic panacea. They also have the risk of false positives and negatives. A good deal of progress has been made with vaccinations which – assuming they are fairly distributed – would seem to offer a better solution. As an informed academic friend suggested to me today, this doesn’t (unlike Moonhot) need to be rolled out to the whole or a large chunk of the population: “target the vulnerable people and make Covid like flu,” he suggested.
There’s also the matter of whether, under the Moonshot programme, we would all be happy to participate in mass daily tests. So far, Britons have not seen government restrictions as a civil-liberty issue, as has happened in the US, but I could see that changing if this were introduced. It’s also probably true that our ability to accept restrictions of any kind is now starting to wear thin. The partial restrictions at the moment are inevitably ambiguous, the more so as it’s unclear who is meant to be enforcing them. Are we now relying on publicans or neighbours to do this? Should we call the police (as the Policing Minister suggests), snoop on people (as the Home Secretary suggests) or talk to them first (as the PM suggests)? Is there any room left for personal responsibility and choice? Can local factors be taken into account? West Berkshire had six cases per 100,000 last week: Bolton had 204. Surely that might suggest that people in Bolton should be being 35 times more careful? Finally, there’s the question of the overall risk. According the ONS, in the week ending 4 September, the number of deaths in England and Wales was both lower than the week before and below the five-year average, while the number of deaths mentioning Covid-19 was 78, 23% down on the week before and the lowest for 25 weeks. This is only twice the number of people killed in car accidents, while flu kills an average of about 190 people a week.
All in all, the current testing issues don’t seems to be quite the fiasco that have been suggested. If our PM could button his mouth a bit, if his army of professional communicators could spread realistic and consistent messages about who could apply for the tests and how many were likely to be available and if the newspapers could find something else to write about, we might be in a more honest place. Yes, the centrally-organised track-and-trace (now, hopefully, take over by the local councils, despite the depletion of their funding) was a disaster and, yes, it was shocking that so little seemed to have been done to react to the war-gaming exercise of Exercise Cygnus in 2016. These are issues that will have to wait for another day.
• What’s next? Oh, yes: Brexit, still howling and screaming in its crib. Some piece of legislation was passed recently connected with the Irish border which I’m not going to pretend I followed or understood and which our current PM says is just an ‘insurance policy’ and which he hopes he will never need to use, which makes it sound uncomfortably like a nuclear weapon or, in his case, a morning-after pill. All five of the living ex-PMs, two Labour and three Conservative, have announced that they oppose it as it offends important principles of international law. There also appears to be a revolt brewing in parliament so a return to the arcane political battles of 2019 seems in prospect: so, we’re back to the old normal.
The last of the former PMs to have voiced their disapproval was the hapless David Cameron, the man whose decision it was to hold the referendum in the first place and who then led an inept campaign in favour of a retaining the status quo. My opinion of him rose slightly when I was, earlier this week, flicking through a newspaper while waiting in the checkout at the Co-op in Hungerford. It seems from the latest ‘bombshell’ political diary serialisation that he spent a good part of the months following the referendum chain-smoking and guzzling bottles of wine. Whether true or not, it’s probably just what I would have done in his place so it would be hypocritical of me to criticise him any further (this week, at any rate).
• An article in this week’s Newbury Weekly News confirms that the 2021 Royal County of Berkshire Show (aka the Newbury Show) will not take place. This year’s event, one of the largest of its kind in the south of England, would have taken place this weekend. Significantly, the organisers said that, were the event were to take place in 2022, it would probably on a much smaller scale. The cancellation of something a year in advance proves not only how uncertain life has become but also how much time large events take to plan. Even for the vastly smaller Hungerford Food Festival, which Penny is involved in organising, work on the next one starts pretty much the following day. Its small size is, however, very much to its advantage as it can adapt more quickly (as this year’s event has done, morphing into a slightly expanded version of the monthly food and artisan market) and also has vastly lower overheads and less financial exposure to a later cancellation or curtailment. I’m slightly reminded of the extinction event that zapped the dinosaurs 70 million years ago, in which the small and nimble survived and the large did not, no matter how well established they were.
• In May 2020, West Berkshire Council decided to reduce the level of public participation at planning meetings. For reasons I explained in this post, I thought this was a bad idea (as did others). The leadership at West Berks promised to review the matter and, to its credit, this has now happened. All the important parts of the previous system – including, crucially, the ability of the committee to have a Q&A session with interested parties – have been restored, though with some minor changes demanded by the use of Zoom. One change that won’t be being undone, for now, is that any statements will be read out by an officer rather than made in person. This is perhaps no bad thing as it both encourages precision during the writing and strips away the emotion during the delivery, emotion not being something that planning committees pay a great deal of heed too. Lib Dem Councillor Adrian Abbs ‘congratulated the administration for taking this step to restore democracy.’ I know this last phrase is one that Leader Lynne Doherty particularly dislikes but I don’t include it here just to any her. It was a problem for the democratic process. Important decisions could have turned on a simple inability to establish a fact which could have been cleared up in 30 seconds were the author of the statement been able to answer questions. It seems to me that, after a rather unnecessary diversion, we’re now about 90% of the way back to where we were before.
• I watched the first 15 minutes of David Attenborough’s Extinction – the Facts last night and pretty depressing it was too. It was therefore deeply reassuring to hear the President of the USA inform the world that ‘It’ll start getting cooler – you just watch.” That’s all right then.
• And still stateside, if anyone thinks that the USA is a country at one with itself, you only need to look at this jaw-dropping report on the various seriously weaponised militias which effectively took over Louisville, Kentucky last weekend. One image from this that really struck me was of a lawyer having to go about his business heavily armed – I think we can all agree this is an alarming combination. Election day is still about seven weeks away, if that will make any difference.
• If Councillor Ross Mackinnon, or anyone else, is concerned about the current legal status of Councillor Steve ‘Tarzan’ Masters, who was recently arrested at an HS2 protest and had up before the virtual beak in Stevenage, I can confirm that he is now at liberty and with several of the bail conditions lifted. I’m not sure whether that’s the end of the matter. The judicial process has temporarily deprived him of his phone though he can still be contacted on Facebook.
• And speaking of court cases, something recently caught my eye which, although with no local connection, seemed too good to miss. A Chatham man has been sentenced to 140 hours community service after admitting hitting his friend over the head with a guitar because he kept playing the wrong chord in the Eagles’ Peaceful Easy Feeling.
• My eye was also caught by seeing that Gareth Bale earns about £31m a year for doing, this season at least, basically nothing for Real Madrid. I checked his stats and he only featured in 20 matches, much of the rest of time being spent sulking in the stands. He therefore cost Real about £1.5m a match, or £277 pounds for every second his was on the field or the bench. It seems he’s about to join Spurs though I can’t imagine they’ll want to part with that kind of money. In the strange world of the Premier League, though, anything’s possible…
Thursday 10 September 2020
• One of the enduring mysteries of the government’s handling of the pandemic is why it decided to create a centralised and unproven track-and-trace system from scratch when there were already expert, though underfunded, local networks ready, able and far better placed to do the the work. In late July, the BMJ reported that ‘more than 100 public figures, including public-health experts’ had written to Matt Hancock asking to know details of these contracts and to account for £9bn of unexplained costs, which compared to the £300m which had been offered to local councils to support the system. I’ve looked but I can’t see that this question has been answered. The latest Private Eye reveals, on p9, something equally alarming, that the majority of the 10,500 contact tracers recruited by Serco had themselves been outsourced to 29 sub-contractors: and that enquiries by Lord Gnome revealed that the DHSC either doesn’t know, or won’t say, who exactly these people are working for. Given the fact that the outsourcing giant was forced to agree a £70m settlement with the Ministry of Justice in 2013 after the tagging scandal, it’s possible that some of them don’t exist. It certainly seems odd that, in the middle of a pandemic, all this time is being spent in what seems to be an act of corporate concealment. This is a public-service contract, not an offshore trust.
• As ever, Private Eye’s MD column on pp8-9 is well worth a read. Three paragraphs caught my eye this time round. Firstly, it quotes the disease ecologist Peter Daszak as having warned, in eerily prescient terms, about the threat of a global pandemic as far back as 2003, just post SARS. With even more foresight, he also hit out at the US government’s closing down of the Predict project in October 2019, claiming that this could ‘leave the world more vulnerable to lethal pathogens like Ebola and MERS that emerge from unexpected places, such as bat-filled trees.’ According to the Eye and CBS, the major effect that Covid-19 has had on his career has been to see his funding cut by the National Institutes of Health less than two weeks after he criticised the White House’s tenet that the virus was the result of Chinese malevolence. Secondly, it considers some alarming statistics about healthcare standards worldwide – one in five healthcare facilities lack soap and water or alcohol-based hand rub and 3bn people lack basic hand-washing facilities at home, for instance. Thirdly, under the headline ‘Singapore sting’, it refers to the unintended consequences of that country’s famously efficient lockdown. 96% of those who tested positive were migrant workers living in cramped conditions, the resulting lockdown leading to soaring rates of anxiety and depression. There are numerous other examples from all over the world that suggest that poorer people have suffered disproportionately from almost every aspect of Covid.
The sombre conclusion is that the prevention of future pandemics demands three things: international trust and co-operation, the elimination of global poverty and the reduction of social inequalities within any particularly country. Sadly, all seem as unattainable as ever. It was put to me last week that Covid has had the effect of speeding up a number of pre-existing trends. Video-conferencing, remote working, an effective online presence for businesses, the greater use of robotic technology, and (hopefully) a greater awareness of personal hygiene and of our ecological impact are some of these. However, for a large minority of the world, these are abstract ideas, secondary to basic problems of survival. The world has faced many disasters and pandemics before but most of these were mitigated by slow communications which rendered them irrelevant to many. Now the world is inter-connected in every way. A problem in Suriname, Slovakia, Somalia, Samoa or Sheffield can now become a problem for all of us, and pretty quickly. As events have proved, few things can become a problem more quickly than a virus. Going back to Peter Daszak, he believes – and he’s been right before – that there are perhaps 1.7m unknown viruses out there, all of which our current behaviour is bringing us into contact with. If as a species we don’t draw our horns in, Covid-19 might be looked back on as a fairly benign prologue to an extinction event.
• Meanwhile, we are now into semi-lockdown lite, or whatever it is. The six-person rule will probably be adhered to by the majority, although I’m still a bit unclear how this works. We can’t now have a gathering of twelve people in our house but it seems that we can in the pub, as long as we’re at two different tables. In what circumstances can we interact? Also, can we organise the same gathering the next day with the couples shuffled? What about sitting outside? Everyone seems to agree that the risk of infection is vastly less there. This summary on the BBC website (which may be updated) answers some of these points. Ultimately, it comes down to a question of personal responsibility. It also comes down to how it’s enforced. There will be fines, but it’s hard to see how these will be policed. Will pubs and restaurants be expected to? Will they be liable if there’s an infringement? How will they deal with an alleged social-distancing infraction, perhaps filmed? Will they be shamed on social media on the basis of this evidence, however inaccurate it might be?
• The aviation industry has been particularly hard hit by Covid but here’s one piece of good news: if a vaccine is developed it will, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) require something like 8,000 747s to deliver them if everyone on the planet is to be inoculated.
• Meanwhile, scientists have ‘raised doubts’ about the PM’s ambition for mass CV-19 testing, which has as its ultimate goal a daily test for everyone. This would require 25 billion tests a year, rather more than are currently being produced. At present, however, the tests are only available for people who have asked to take one by a health professional or who have symptoms; although, as the Daily Mail has suggested, the first of these doesn’t seem to require any verification. The Health Secretary blamed the current overload on people getting tested who shouldn’t be: but given the PM’s aspirations, the claims of ‘world class’ testing, the start of the academic year and the threat of another lockdown, this isn’t perhaps surprising. Certainly the booking systems seem to be doing a fairly good job of putting people off, whether they are valid testing candidates or not. In a story that could be repeated from many other sources, the Newbury Weekly News reported that a local resident (who was suffering symptoms) spent many frustrating hours trying to book a test before eventually being offered one over 250 miles away in the Lake District. One thing the person did mention, and which I’ve heard from other sources, is that the people at the test centre (the test was eventually provided at Newbury Showground) ‘couldn’t have been any more helpful.’
• Councillor Ross MacKinnon’s spat with Councillor Steve Masters is now being conducted in the letters column of the NWN. Whether or not this was Councillor Mackinnon’s intention, it has certainly given a boost to the coverage of Steve Masters’ arboreal activities at the HS2 site in Buckinghamshire. Councillor Mackinnon suggests a number of matters – including, slightly alarmingly, ‘out-of-control trees’, a phrase that makes me think of triffids – which a councillor can’t deal with remotely. Well, yes and no. People tend to report things to councillors (who can’t be expected to constantly be prowling around their wards looking for problems) while the kind of meetings that Councillor Mackinnon refers to tend to be virtual anyway. In any case, Councillor Masters does regularly return to the area: the author of another letter in the same paper said that she’d met him in Newbury last week.
I do agree with Councillor Mackinnon that councillors do a vast amount of varied and valuable work. Councillor Masters is no exception. In the last week or so he’s dealt with a number of issues raised by his ward residents including garden-waste fires, fly tipping, speeding and potholes, as well as continuing to engage with various voluntary groups. I’ve also seen a number of comments from local residents about him, all of them favourable. They are, after all, the people he is representing: and in two and half years time, it is they (‘and no one else,’ as Horace Rumpole was fond of declaiming when referring to juries) who will decide if he’s to be re-elected.
• Not everyone is interested in sport but I’d suggest that only a minority are completely indifferent to it, even though some may only tune in to top-drawer events like Wimbledon, the Olympics or the FA Cup Final. Certainly for many it’s an important thing and to be able to attend a live event is a good way of returning existence to some kind of normality. An article in the Daily Telegraph on 10 September looks mainly at two sports, horse racing and football, both of which had made detailed and careful plans to let a limited number of spectators return. These now seem set to be thrown into reverse, half way through an event in the case of the St Leger meeting at Doncaster. The article quoted one race-goer as saying that live sport ‘gives me a purpose in life. Without it, I can over-think things.’ Certainly when I’m watching football or cricket, even on the TV, I’m not thinking about anything else. This is surely a good thing (for a while, at least). The article also refers to the obvious financial threats that many clubs, trainers and courses face if spectators are not allowed back. The same could also be said about other venues related to sports which are less high-profile than these two, and for music venues, theatres, comedy clubs, cinemas, art galleries, museums – the list goes on and on.
• As mentioned above, Covid has accelerated a number of trends that were already in place, some good and others less so. Something else which it has affected in this way is people’s mental health. The Mental Health Foundation reports that in late March nearly two thirds of the population were anxious or worried, a figure which had fallen to about 50% in late June, probably fell further over the next two months and has probably risen again in the last few days. For some people, including fortunately me, this is probably a normal reaction to a threat; for others, however, anxiety is a lot more than a vague and passing sense of unease. A lockdown, and the isolation which it brings, can precipitate a rapid decline. Nor are the signs always immediately obvious: the Centre for Mental Health suggests that perhaps half a million people will experience mental-health issues over the next two years as a result of the pandemic, which leads to the question of whether there will be enough support available. At its most extreme, this can lead to suicide. It’s therefore worth reminding ourselves, as I was myself reminded by the Volunteer Centre West Berkshire’s weekly newsletter, that 10 September is Suicide Prevention Day.
• Four years ago, Britain was in the grip of an unprecedented national crisis. There were accusations, at the start, of government unpreparedness and complacency and, as matters progressed, of bungling and a lack of joined-up thinking. A whole slew of words, acronyms and organisations previously unknown to us were on everyone’s lips. There were urgent briefings, ministerial resignations, ultimatums, procedural wrangles and millions of words written by commentators which looked at the problem from every possible angle. There were also lines of all kinds – deadlines; red lines; lines in the sand; lines that were crossed; lines were drawn under something so that we could move on to some other even more unfathomable part of the business. Most other aspects of national life (including, as it turned out, pandemic preparation and an effective reaction to the challenge posed by climate change) were put on hold. Never having experienced anything like it before, no one was sure how matters were going to play out. Everyone professed they were fed up with it but for much of the time no one could talk about anything else. Well, that was Brexit, something we all hoped would be a once-in-a-generation prolonged and self-inflicted disaster that would eventually go away, leaving life to return to normal. Well, that didn’t happen. But, as has gradually become clearer over the last few weeks, Brexit hasn’t gone away at all. It’s still there, snarling and drooling like the Jabberwock, threatening to divide us all over again. Brexit and Coronavirus at the same time is almost too much to take: but it looks like we’ve got to take it. I wonder what’s next – the arrival of the fruminous bandersnatch, perhaps…
Thursday 3 September 2020
• The fall-out continues from the exam problems last month. Ofqual’s head Sally Collier resigned last week: now the Chairman Roger Taylor has said the the body had warned the government that there would be problems. ‘The fundamental mistake,’ the BBC website reports his saying to a Commons committee, ‘was to believe this [system] would ever be acceptable to the public.’ Presentation is the government’s responsibility: and, once again, it’s been deficient. Yes, I know we’re in the middle of a pandemic; yes, I know these are uncharted waters: but, as mentioned before, the government has a small army of ‘communication experts’. Most of the time, their role seems to be provide gloss or spin to fairly mundane announcements. Every now and then, something important happens where public understanding is rather important. It seems incapable of distinguishing between the two.
• As usual, the MD column in the latest (1529) Private Eye seems to be particularly useful reading. The first section is devoted to Public Health England (PHE) which, as announced last month is to be scrapped, under the headline ‘convenient scapegoat’. As Ofqual will also agree, the role of such bodies seems to be an air bag between the government and public opinion. There’s a huge problem when you have bodies such as these which do the government’s bidding but take all the blame. Many of them attract, as well as their fair share of job-hopping political appointees at the top, a good number of experts – MD estimates 5,500 at PHE – whose demoralisation and possible unemployment at a time like this can hardly be conducive to winning the Covid war.
It’s hard to see that the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP) which is to replace it will fare any better. This body will be led by the ubiquitous Baroness Dido Harding of Winscombe, a woman whose elevation to the peerage in 2014 seems to be, rather than a reward for solid achievement, a recognition of her ability to land a series of plum jobs for some of which – as he herself admits – she had no experience. The NIHP will be responsible, amongst other matters, for the government’s track and trace system, despite widespread criticism of the move. It appears that NIHP will be working more closely with individual councils than did PHE, but this rather begs the question as what its purpose is. There are already organisations working at council level: they’re called councils and they have a wealth of local knowledge and access to local environmental health teams, GPs and other public-health groups. The government seems currently to inhabit a parallel universe in which local councils do not exist. Look at the response to the pandemic – most bottom-up things worked pretty well, most top-down ones pretty badly. Baroness Harding has a tough job: but, based on her past form, she’ll only be in it for three and a half years. During her tenure, she’ll have much to discuss with her husband, the Conservative MP John Penrose, who in May 2020 joined the board of the think tank 1828 which, according to the Mirror, is ‘calling for the NHS to be replaced by an insurance system.’ The article also reports that the body had written articles calling for thew abolition of PHE – job done, in that case.
• The latest (2 September) data on Covid-19 from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) says that ‘some evidence of a small increase in people testing positive in July 2020 after a low point in June, but this appears to have now levelled off.’ This seems re-assuringly similar to what I copied-and-pasted last week.
• The schools go back this week after what has effectively been a six-month holiday during which a number of parents must have been reduced to a state bordering on on insanity by the demands of home-schooling. What effect it will have had on the children won’t be seen for some time. This article on the BBC website expresses some of the concerns.
• The Eat Out to Help Out scheme has now ended. The latest government figures I can find say that 84,000 restaurant premises have registered for the scheme and as of midnight on 23 August, 64m meals had been claimed for. As there were four more days the scheme had to run this might have risen to perhaps 80m, an average of over one meal for every person in the UK. I mentioned last week that the scheme had its critics, but on balance I think it was an imaginative idea and well worth the half a billion that was sent on it, compared to the cost of the unemployment that might have resulted otherwise. A theory that I’ve heard expounded is that it takes three months for a human to change a habit: not eating in public has lasted a bit longer than this, so a nudge from Whitehall was probably welcome. Some local eateries, including The White Hart in Hamstead Marshall and The Crown and Anchor in Ham, have devised their own variants on this (see this week’s newsletter for more). Those who want to eat out over the next few months can expect a wave of similar deals. If so, go for them – they all need your support, particularly the independent ones which have shallower pockets than do the chains.
• I’ve been having a bet with myself how long it would take a Conservative or, less likely, a Lib Dem councillor on West Berkshire Council to start fulminating against the absenteeism of Steve Masters. He is the Green Party’s ward member for Speen but, due to his having taken up residence in July 60 feet up a beech tree in Jones Hill Wood in Buckinghamshire as part of the HS2 protests, could also be described as the arboreal member for Wendover South. The onslaught duly arrived this week, rather later than I’d expected, and was reported on p7 of this week’s NWN. Possibly, due to what Councillor Masters claims is a ‘virtually 100% attendance record’ at meetings held via Zoom, the other members have only just noticed he’s not been around until his arrest at the HS2 site last week hit the press. The Conservative Councillor Ross Mackinnon (whose attendance record is similar to Steve Masters’) makes the point that by his absence Steve Masters is unable to do things like report overflowing rubbish bins. Well, that’s certainly true but it’s gratifying that Steve Masters’ fellow Speen ward member, the council’s leader Lynne Doherty, seems to be doing such a good job covering for him. One for all and all for one, right?
Councillor Mackinnon’s views are, of course, very interesting but I’d be more interested to know what the Speen residents thought about it (if you are one, please let me know). If you elect a Green councillor you probably have to expect that something like this will happen. Five years ago, such an absence would have been unacceptable (although. many councillors up and down the country are absentees, sometimes from prison cells) but, thanks to Zoom, we can all now be everywhere at once. One final point: former West Berkshire Leader Graham Jones is an excellent pharmacist and an affable chap (and has some lovely waistcoats) but seems weak on geography: he tweeted last week that Councillor Masters was ‘in the midlands’. By no definition that I’ve seen is Buckinghamshire in the midlands. I’m sure many residents of that leafy county would be shocked at the suggestion. Perhaps this was an attempt to make Councillor Masters seem further away than he really was: but, if you’re living up a tree, it makes no difference whether you’re in Wendover or Wolverhampton. What really matters is how good your broadband is: Steve Masters told us a few weeks ago that the signal is four times faster there than it is in Newbury. Perhaps other councillors might consider relocating there?
• The government is proposing appointing former Australian PM Tony Abbott to the board of negotiating the post-Brexit trade deals. This BBC article describes him as ‘a polarising figure,’ others describing him in less polite terms. My eye was, however, caught by his CV, where I saw something that fed a recent obsession of mine. Like, it seems, everyone else in power in this country, he studied PPE at Oxford. Where did the rest of us go wrong (or right)?
• The phrase ‘vote early and vote often‘ was a cynical observation that seems to have originated during the days of machine politics in Chicago in the mid-20th century. It would be odd, you might think, for an incumbent President of the USA to repeat this advice: but that is what Donald Trump appears to have proposed on 3 September by suggesting that voters in North Carolina vote by post and then in person to ‘test the system.’ He’s already said he suspects that postal voting will make the election result ‘the most corrupt election ever’. With still two months to go, most polls seem to agree that he is trailing Joe Biden by about eight percentage points.
• Perhaps local MP Laura Farris read my comments about her column in last week’s NWN, a masterpiece of dullness that looked as if it had come straight down the pipe from Conservative HQ. This week’s piece (on p6) does cover local issues, though mainly in the context of how these stand to benefit from central-government grants (Getting Building, the Kickstart Scheme and Full-fibre Broadband). Let’s hope that residents of Upper Lambourn, where the broadband is anything but broad, can benefit from the last of these.
• A couple of weeks ago we went to Newbury with some friends for a socially-distanced escape-room game. If you haven’t done it before, you’re ushered into a series of chambers with various objects and devices and given a number of clues (against the clock) to help you escape. It’s as bit like doing a cryptic crossword puzzle while participating in the non-physical parts of The Krypton Factor It was great fun and I highly recommend it. There was one moment when we were confronted with a box with two rows of six different-coloured lights which we needed to match up. “The white ones are A2 and B6,” William said. I paused, confused. “There aren’t any white lights,” I said. “Red, pink, orange, yellow, green, blue.” He blinked a couple of times. “I’m colour-blind,” he admitted. A2 and B6 were green. Is there such a thing as green-white colour-blindness? Apparently, there is.
• My only experience of colour blindness was watching a Liverpool (red shirts, shorts and socks) v Chelseas (dark blue ditto) in an FA Cup match back in the ’80s on a black-and-white TV. According to this article on the BBC website, a lot of colour-blind people are having a similar experience every week watching the footy in today’s age of slimy-coloured away strips. The website Colour Blind Awareness claims that about one in 12 men and one in 200 women suffer from this condition. It seems unfair that I can see colours perfectly – I even did a test out of curiosity – as I have absolutely no interest in visual art. What I’d really like is perfect pitch. Anyone out there want to swap?
Thursday 27 August 2020
• The head of England’s exam regulator Ofqual, Sally Collier, has resigned as a result of the recent problems with the exam results. The Guardian referred to it as a fiasco and that is certainly one word. However, as I suggested last week, it does seem to have been an honest if ultimately doomed attempt to ‘to make the meaningless slightly more meaningful’ – the system of allocating grades based on anything other than exams was always going to be arbitrary. The government must bear and admit (but probably won’t) its share of the responsibility as it could at any stage either have said ‘keep it simple and base the grades on teachers’ predictions’ or made a serious attempt to explain why the more complex method had been adopted (which would haven involved the minister really understanding how it had been arrived at).
• This report on the BBC website talks of our urban areas becoming ‘ghost towns‘ if large companies don’t return. The article also highlights the number of smaller firms, mainly in the food and drink sector, that depend on full offices. If, as seems to have happened, many firms have decided that it’s easier and cheaper to have people working from home at least some of the time, it’s hard to see what the government or anyone else can do about this: nor what might happen to some of the vast office buildings if they remain empty. Under permitted development rights, these can in many cases be converted into housing without planning permission. As we and many others have mentioned, the design and location of office blocks doesn’t generally make these ideal for homes. That may, however, be a secondary consideration for a property company with what suddenly becomes an unprintable building on its hands: a conversion into flats may seem an attractive option, no matter how cramped or inconveniently located these prove to be. After all, it’s unlikely that the directors of the company will ever end up living there.
• In what appears to be something of a re-boot, a fresh start, a new chapter, a line drawn etc, West Berkshire Council has announced a draft development brief for the long-running London Road Industrial Estate. For nearly two decades the project has started, stalled, lurched forward and then gone unexpectedly into a reverse like someone having their first driving lesson. Recent highlights have included a change of development partner, two court cases and an internal enquiry: aside from the building of an access road from the A339 and the close of the football ground (see Newbury Area section in the 27 Aug to 3 Sept Local News) nothing has actually happened on the ground. In December 2019, West Berkshire Council commissioned Avison Young to develop a masterplan for the site and the firm’s initial report suggests two options: a wholesale re-development or a piecemeal approach. This in itself doesn’t move matters much further forward as these were always the alternatives. The matter will be considered by the Executive on 3 September. If the plans as they currently stand are approved, there will then be a wider consultation. If so, this will to my knowledge mark the first time that West Berkshire Council has formally asked the public for its views on this subject in this way.
• The organisation Locality asserts on its website that ‘we support community organisations to be strong and successful so communities thrive.’ This would seem to be a similar ambition to that proposed by the government’s white paper on planning (my thoughts on which you can read here). One of the matters on which this document was strangely silent was that of neighbourhood development plans (which already exist as a means of creating at least some aspects of the democracy, transparency and local engagement to which the white paper claims to aspire). In a recent communication sent by Locality, the fear is expressed that ‘the reforms may mean that neighbourhood [development] plans will have a much more slimmed down scope.’
As the communiqué goes on to stress, nothing changes until the consultation has ended and the government has decided what action to take. The organisation also urges with anyone working on an NDP to continue. None the less, a number of NDP groups up and down the country must be worried. These things take, in general, at least three years and occupy thousands of hours of time, mainly for a core group of perhaps half a dozen people who are generally unpaid. If a white paper detailing the government’s thinking on the future of planning doesn’t mention NDPs even once, they might be wondering whether all this work will ever reach fruition. This has already happened once before when town plans were, after a similar amount of work, downgraded to remove their statements on planning policy
• Darting across the Atlantic to the USA, a rather un-engaging couple swum back into the national limelight recently. As the BBC website reports, ‘Mark and Patricia McCloskey gained instant notoriety after video of them waving and pointing guns at Black Lives Matter demonstrators from the front yard of their St Louis mansion spread across the internet.’ Earlier this week, they appeared as speakers at the Republican Party convention. A bit of research revealed that they are both personal-injury lawyers – probably as good a way of getting rich as any in that country – who, according to The Insider, are notoriously litigious and have been much involved in various local campaigns including, bizarrely, trying to prevent unmarried couples from moving into the district. On an even stranger occasion in 2013, they smashed a row of beehives which had been placed on the fence between their house and the school next door (killing all the bees) as the hives overhung their property by a few inches. The article then alleges that they legally threatened the school to clean up the debris. (Another article, in St Louis Today which I read earlier this week and which described this incident in greater detail has since been removed ‘for legal reasons’.) If all this is true, it seems an extraordinary way of carrying on: most people would have picked up the phone, called the school and tried to resolve things amicably. These are the saviours to whom President Trump turned in his hour of crisis.
• The latest (25 August) data on Covid-19 from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) says that ‘some evidence of a small increase in people testing positive in July 2020 after a low point in June, but this appears to have now levelled off.’ It also offers, among as multitude of other facts and statistics, that ‘Asian or Asian British’ people were more likely to test positive than white people; that those on one-person households we’re more likely to test positive than those in two-person households. I’m not qualified to make any comment on the first of these; regarding the second, I’d imagine that people living alone are more likely to go out and thus more likely to contract the virus.
• Next Monday, 31 August, sees the last day of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme (or ‘Sunak suppers’ as Stella at The White Hart in Hamstead Marshall named the initiative). The government figures claim that 84,000 restaurant premises have registered for the scheme and as of midnight on 23 August, 64m meals had been claimed for. As there were four more days the scheme had to run this might rise to perhaps 80m, an average of over one meal for every person in the UK. Although the initiative has had its critics – including on the rather specious grounds that it’s encouraging obesity – it seems to have been a success. It was imaginative, fairly simple to operate and appears to have achieved its main goal.
I spoke to a couple of publicans who’ve been operating the scheme. Ian from The Chequers Inn in Charney Basset said that he felt the initiative had been ‘really worthwhile and had helped encourage people to come back to their local. We look forward to seeing you all again in September!’ Mark Genders from the John O’Gaunt in Hungerford said that ‘it had done what it set out to do and get people used to the idea of going out again.’ Some establishments are keeping the scheme going into September and will be funding the discount themselves. Some of those doing so appear to be large chains which probably have deep pockets. If your local restaurant or pub doesn’t continue to offer the scheme, it isn’t that they’re being mean: it’s probably that they can’t afford to.
• Newbury MP Laura Farris, writing in her regular column in the Newbury Weekly News, starts with the headline ‘return to classroom is best for children’. Yes, I think we all knew that. The article, a masterpiece of dullness, could have been, and perhaps was, dictated down the phone from party HQ. It makes no mention of any local issues but is merely a re-iteration of a piece of self-evident government policy which requires no further justification. There are plenty of things closer to home which I know she is concerned with: how about something on those next time? A wild, crazy, off-the-wall suggestion, I know.
• The Prime Minister has intervened in one of the leading issues of the day, that of whether the words of Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory should be sung at the Last Night of the Proms or whether they should be instrumental only. The lyrics certainly don’t stand up to much scrutiny and describe the yearning for a continuation of imperial might, and thus by implication a yearning for a return to it now. Mr Johnson – whose prose style aspires at times to be imperial in tone and which is, at all times, slung across the three poles of the school playground, the classics classroom and the Bullingdon Club – has blamed the decision on ‘this general bout of self-recrimination and wetness.’ The term ‘wet’ first became popularly used in the Thatcher ’80s to describe anyone who baulked at her policies of tight fiscal control. BJ’s government is, of course, printing money like crazy at present (admittedly for fairly good reasons). However, I think that what the PM really means is that any reappraisal of past events is wrong if it conflicts with convenient and established notions of national gloire. I seem to remember that Nineteen Eighty-Four had some rather similar ideas, though backed up with Big Brother’s bash-bosh rather than Big Bo-Jo’s whiff-whaff…
Thursday 20 August 2020
• A lot has been written and said about the exam ‘results’ in the last week, much of it – including from the Education Secretary – critical of Ofqual. I’ve spoken at length to a professor at one of our leading universities who’s much involved in grappling with the current situation and its long-term consequences and have the following thoughts to lay before you.
The first question is whether the exams should have been cancelled at all. As this article in The Guardian points out, all the main countries in Europe took different measures. In France and the UK they were cancelled, as they were The Netherlands but here the pupils were allowed to re-sit school tests; in Italy they were oral only; in Spain they were slimmed down; and in Germany they went ahead more or less as normal. Hindsight is an easy thing so I don’t want to rake up whether any of these decisions were right or wrong. The point is that any government which cancelled exams had a serious problem on its hands: to replace them, some kind of grading system had to be constructed from scratch and on the hoof in a few months.
The over-arching point is that any grading system is artificial, meaningless, arbitrary: other words exist. The goal was thus to find the least bad system. In the current emergency, ‘least bad’ might be translated as ‘simplest’. The simplest solution is clearly relying on the grades predicted by the schools, perhaps with some weighting to adjust for schools (or even head teachers if they had recently moved schools) which had over the previous three or five years over- or under-predicted overall or in some subjects. That is what many people, including me, thought was happening, more or less. So, I suspect, did the teachers, who were asked to prepare two lists: one of their students’ expected grades and the other with a rank order of students (ie from one to 30 in a class of 30). Anyone reading Ofqual’s ‘interim report’ (August 2020) would have been encouraged to see, on the first page of the Executive Summary, the following: ‘it was apparent that the best judges of the relative ability of students in a school or college were the teachers who had been preparing these students for their exams.’ However, as the document continues for another 315 pages, it’s easy to see that this was not in fact what was done.
That was clearly Ofqual’s initial hope: but, a few paragraphs later, they explain that to have relied on predicted grades only would have led to massive grade inflation and penalised schools that had been more realistic in their assessments. The body thus embarked on the Herculean and, as events were to prove, impossible task of finding a more equitable solution.
I have no training in stats, maths or education policy and you’d need to be an expert in all three of these to understand what exactly this solution was. The summary and interpretation provided by my academic friend was that, whether due to government pressure or not, Ofqual was looking for a ‘fairer’ and more nuanced approach that was as accurate as possible given the available data.
The snag with this is that you then have to take more and more – and so potentially every – possible factor into account. This led to the body assessing, and thoroughly testing, several different systems, each highly technical and each involving devising fair estimates where the data was incomplete (for instance for new schools, A-level subjects that the the pupil hadn’t studied at GCSE and very small class sizes). The system eventually selected appears to have been to look at the past performance of the school and thus establish how many grades of each kind it was to receive in each subject. These were then applied according to the teachers’ rank orders, the whole process then being filtered and tweaked using a wide range of other criteria. Some of these plugged gaps in the data: some may have added new ones.
One of the big problems of a straight rank order is that, like the Tube map, it’s very good at showing the order of the stations but hopeless at showing the respective distance between them. The presence of a group of exceptional, or badly under-performing, students would have been invisible both to anyone studying the rank orders or the school’s previous performance. Also, many teachers might, on a different day, have ranked the pupils slightly differently whereas they probably would not have changed the predicted grades. The latter were, however, not used in the original model (though they are now).
The impression I get is that Ofqual executed its remit with professionalism and chose the least bad approach. It was not their responsibility to present this, nor to deal with the political backlash that any new system would have produced. There may have been pressures from the government to come up with something that would not rely only on the judgement of teachers. As my academic friend said, ‘they were trying to make the meaningless slightly more meaningful but they couldn’t explain what they were doing.’
The ‘they’ here refers to the government itself, rather than Ofqual (which, as a statutory regulator, is in many ways part of it). If there was an explanation of the final process, the reasons for adopting it and the opportunity for people to comment, I never saw it. Yes, it’s hard to distill something this complicated, but that’s what governments have to do. God knows, they have enough ‘communications experts’ on the payroll. In any case, as Einstein observed, you never really understand something until you can explain it to your grandparents. If the idea went wrong, as it has, the government could then have said, ‘well we did tell you what we were doing’. As it is, we have the familiar and unedifying spectacle of ministers blaming an agency (as the DfH is doing with Public Health England – see below) when the real problems were their failing to recognise that any replacement grading would be essentially meaningless, failing to anticipate the likely political backlash and failing to provide adequate communication.
There’s also the question of appeals. Although the Ofqual report only mentions the word once, the Secretary of State spoke on 18 August of ‘the most robust and extensive appeals process that has ever been put in place.’ This rather suggests that trouble was anticipated. Moreover, as the nuanced Ofqual system had already taken almost factor into account and as there were no papers to re-mark, it’s hard to imagine on what any appeal could have been based. The only informed and consistent, albeit slightly subjective, data that hadn’t been mashed into it was the teachers’ predicted grades, so perhaps they would have been pulled out of the filing cabinet. If these were going to be used for this, then they might as well have been for everything, so saving a lot of fuss, stress and expense. This is, of course, where we’ve now ended up.
As my friend points out, the longer-term consequences are more serious still, though more insidious. The exams are less important than the revision process that precedes them; and the lack of this, particularly for scientific subjects, risks students arriving at university with big gaps in their knowledge (this is perhaps less likely in private schools were pupils were in general kept working during lockdown). In order to be fair and to maintain their student numbers (and thus their revenue), many unis might choose to drop their standards for the first-year exams. If this continues until finals, might this result in a cohort which is slightly but crucially under-qualified? Universities, all of which are facing a savage reduction of revenue as a result of the fall in overseas students, are already grappling with the myriad problems of trying to teach in a wholly new way due to Covid-19. With the threat of next year’s work being interrupted and the inevitable distancing restrictions that will apply from day one, the whole university experience is likely to be diminished for the students. For all these reasons, in ten years time, when you’re about to go under the surgeon’s knife or have a structural engineer examine your house subsidence, a fair question might be, ‘before you touch anything else, did you by any chance take your A-levels in 2020?’
• And, of course, we have the other political parties baying for blood. The Lib Dems’ Oxford West MP Layla Moran called for the Minister Gavin Williamson to be sacked; as if that would change anything, as he would merely be replaced by someone else who would be receiving the same instructions from the same source. Labour has gone a step further, claiming that the algorithm for the grading system was ‘unlawful‘ as it breaches anti-discrimination laws.
• One of the institutional casualties of the pandemic (in addition to the reputation of Ofqual, see above) is Public Health England (PHE), which Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced on 18 August was to be disbanded to replaced with the National Institute for Health Protection. PHE’s main remit had been ‘to protect and improve the nation’s health and wellbeing and reduce health inequalities.’ It was established in 2013 to replace the Health Protection Agency (founded in 2004). The average lifespan of such bodies is thus eight years. I’m in no way qualified to judge how well PHE has performed (a) with its original role in normal circumstances and (b) during the pandemic, though in the latter case it’s certainly had some criticism, including from the government itself with regard to, amongst other things, the way Covid-19 mortality statistics were reported. It would be very easy to argue that bodies such as PHE and Ofqual are established to give the government a kind of buffer against criticism, the relationship between them being close when HMG needs something done but far more distant when problems arise: so that’s what I’m going to suggest. Another question is whether setting up a new national health institution in the middle of a pandemic is a good idea. Dr Jennifer Dixon, Chief Executive of the Health Foundation, appears to think not: quoted in Pulse, she said that ‘re-organising the nation’s public health agency in the middle of a pandemic is highly risky, and its justification, or the nature of the change, haven’t been fully set out by the Department of Health and Social Care.’ The reform may produce benefits: The Nursing Times quotes the Chief Executive of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson, as saying that the creation of a new organisation would provide a ‘much-needed opportunity to devolve more leadership, more control and more resource’ at local levels. Many might feel that this is what, without any eye-catching top-level reform, should logically be the case.
As to whether PHE is a scapegoat or a fair target for Covid criticism, I spoke to a friend of mine who’s a London GP. He was unwilling to offer an opinion on its pandemic performance but did point out that over the last decade or so the effective and inclusive way by which health professionals designed, reviewed and implemented local public-health initiatives had fallen into disrepair. When I suggested that the track-and-trace should have been handled locally by the ‘effective’ local teams, he questioned my use of ‘effective’ as describing them now. This decline could have been avoided. An analogy – mine, not his – is of a railway system that has long suffered from under-investment and is then suddenly asked to run high-speed trains. (In fact, the local organisations seem to have responding pretty well, introducing hyper-local measures in Liverpool and what appears to be an effective response to outbreaks in Swindon.) At this point, my GP friend said he had to go as his main focus was on planning how his surgery was going to be able to provide its usual autumn flu clinics given the likely increased demand and the considerably longer time it would take to deal with each patient due to the need for social distancing and the use of PPE. He estimated this would take at least five times as long as usual and would incur significant extra costs for his practice.
• A few weeks ago, I pointed out that the country is largely ruled by people who studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) at Oxford. Baroness Dido Harding, who will lead the National Institute for Health Protection, is yet another one.
• If, as I did last week, you see a headline reading ‘Cheeky boar leaves nudist grunting in laptop chase’, you’d have to read it, wouldn’t you? Well, I did: and now you can too.
• It was recently announced that Apple is the first company in the world to be valued at over $2tn. This is a sum so vast that I can’t contemplate it. I have used Apple (or Mac) computers all my working life and, when confronted by a PC, go into a kind of techno-panic, so I think it’s fair to say that I’m on team Mac on this one. However, £2tn is a lot of money. If it were a country, Appleland would be the ninth richest in the world, behind only the US, China, Japan, Germany, India, the UK, France and Brazil. I then wondered then how much tax it had paid in the UK. In 2018-19, The Times reported that this was just £3.8m. Any large sum of money inevitably makes one think of HS2. According to this estimate from The Guardian, each mile of track will cost £307m. This means that Apple’s 2018-19 tax contribution would, if spent on nothing else, build about 10m of the track. Every little helps, I guess…
Thursday 13 August 2020
• The A-level ‘results’ are out and the general picture seems to be a bit confused with, as one night expect, the stories of people who feel they’ve been marked down getting a lot more traction than the tales of those who quite happy. I think my youngest son fits into the latter category and he would have probably taken his results if they’d been offered to him at the end of last year. I dare say there will be a lot of appeals and statements by ministers and universities and schools. It’s an unprecedented situation and it’s hard to see what might have been done better. What everyone in the education sector must be feeling, though. is ‘might we have to go through this again next year?’
• The government’s white paper on planning has been published and is out for consultation. You can see it here. My initial comment is that the first two footnote links I went to – 4 and 7 – both ended up with ‘page not found’ messages. A further statement I would like to have checked, point 3, had no link offered at all. Not a great start, guys.
The document starts off with a typically boisterous introduction from the PM. He draws the analogy of the current planning system being like an old house, repeatedly patched up but not re-built. At one point he says that ‘eight years ago a new landlord stripped most of the asbestos from the roof.’ This is very specific. What 2012 event is our leader referring to? A ‘new landlord’ might be a reference to a change of government, but there was no election or revolution in 2012 that I noticed. Asbestos is quite nasty stuff if dealt with incorrectly, but pretty benign if left alone. Did this new landlord strip the asbestos responsibly or not? Or is the asbestos a metaphor for something else? Already – and we haven’t even got beyond the pre-preface waffle – I’m confused.
We then have an introduction written by, or on behalf of, the current Secretary of State Robert Jenrick which is similar to his article in the Telegraph to which I referred last week.
There is much in the document that is encouraging. The current system is, as BJ says, of retirement age and can certainly do with being at least reformed. The document aspires to creating a system that is less ‘complex and opaque’, that creates ‘environmentally friendly’ and ‘beautiful’ dwellings, provided through a ‘simpler, faster and more predictable system’ which will ‘facilitate a more diverse and competitive housing industry’ and will involve ‘cutting red tape, nor standards.’ There are 49 mentions of the word ‘affordable’: which, admittedly, in the housing system, means less than the word implies. (A search for ‘social’, however, as in ‘social housing’, produces only nine results, all in a different context.)
A further 75 pages follow and I’d be lying if I said I’ve read the whole thing. Here are my thoughts (in italics) on one of the pages I did read…
On p18, the document’s authors suggested nine things they would like to see the new system do. (1) ‘be more ambitious for the places we create, expecting new development to be beautiful and to create a ‘net gain’ not just ‘no net harm.’ Not sure what this means. (2) ‘move the democracy forward in the planning process and give neighbourhoods and communities an earlier and more meaningful voice in the future of their area…’ Already exists with neighbourhood development plans (see below). (3) ‘improve the user experience of the planning system, to make planning information easier to find and understand and make it appear in the places that discussions are happening…’ Give local councils grants to update their creaky websites. (4) ‘support home ownership…’ A moot point. What’s needed is surely getting people homes at all on affordable and realistic tenures. (5) ‘increase the supply of land available for new homes where it is needed…’ The last four words are crucial: who decides this? (6) ‘help businesses to expand with readier access to the commercial space they need in the places they want and supporting a more physically flexible labour market.’ I’m not clear what this has to do with the basic housing problem. And breathe…then on we go:
(7) support innovative developers and housebuilders…(and) those looking to build a diverse range of types and tenure of housing, and those using innovative modern methods of construction.’ There may well be such developers around but surely the best thing is to create national regulations as to what constitutes ‘innovative’ and ‘modern’. (8) ‘promote the stewardship and improvement of our precious countryside and environment…’ Many might feel that the views of the North Wessex AONB were ignored in the Salisbury Road development in Hungerford. (8 again) ‘…that we support net gains for biodiversity and the wider environment and actively address the challenges of climate change.’ A great idea. How about introducing the Future Homes Standard earlier than 2025? (9) ‘create a virtuous circle of prosperity in our villages, towns and cities, supporting their ongoing renewal and regeneration without losing their human scale, inheritance and sense of place. We need to build more homes at gentle densities in and around town centres and high streets, on brownfield land and near existing infrastructure so that families can meet their aspirations. Good growth will make it easier to level up the economic and social opportunities available to communities.’ Such documents often end with something vague and aspirational: this one is no exception.
Picking up on point 2, the document mentions in several places the need to involve local communities in the decisions and to increase engagement. We have only two reactions to local planning matters: total indifference most of the time but with occasional outbursts of panic, despair and rage when something is to be built near us. There is already a perfectly good way of getting local involvement in the process. It’s called a neighbourhood development plan, introduced by the coalition government. One would imagine that the white paper would be full of references to NDPs as these seem to address so many of the issues that the report highlights as problems – after all, the word ‘local’ is used 308 times, ‘engagement’ 31 and ‘democracy’ or ‘democratic’ nine. In fact, the phrase didn’t appear at all. It’s almost as if HMG is proposing to abolish them and has already started air-brushing them out of the official records. (West Berkshire has one parish with an adopted NDP and seven more in progress; the Vale of White Horse has none yet adopted but has 23 in progress, at least one of which would have gone to referendum were it not for the pandemic.)
• For those who want to see a seemingly impressive array of Covid stats, including comparisons across European countries and some jaw-cracking formulae at the end, this report from the Office of National Statistics (published on 17 July 2020) would be a good place to start. The UK, and England in particular, doesn’t come out of the comparisons terribly well. One figure that does need to be corrected is the mortality rate for England and Wales: this is quoted as 46,736 in the four months ending 30 June 2020 but has since been reduced by the UK government by about 5,000, as the previous figures included all deaths where the person had tested positive forCV-19 at any time before, even if the death was unconnected with the virus. The current threshold is now 28 days. Now that sufficient time has passed, the ONS report is able to look at and compare ‘excess mortality’ compared to a five-year average for the preceding years. Among the many points the ONS report makes are the dangers of comparisons, particularly over short periods: the UK, for instance, reports deaths according to the date of certification whereas most European countries use what seems to be the more logical date of death.
• The government’s contact-tracing app is now being trailed in the Isle of Wight and the London Borough of Newham. This uses Apple and Google technology and replaces the government’s own one which was trailed in May but abandoned in June due to technical failures. This article from Wired look a bit more deeply into the issues and the challenges faced by mass contact-tracing technology.
• That aside, the government’s track and trace policy is still not firing on all cylinders. This article on the BBC website on 10 August says that 6,000 centrally-employed staff are being laid off and that ‘the remaining contact tracers will work alongside local public health teams to reach more infected people and their contacts in communities.’ Why this wasn’t organised six months ago defies logic. As Dr Phil Hammond, writing in Private Eye as ‘MD’, observed in the most recent issue, ‘outsourcing was predictably the wrong option.’ These local public-heath teams were already operational (if underfunded). This government – perhaps any government – has a mania for either centralising our outsourcing, or both. Covid-19 might prove to have done a bit more localism a big favour. ‘The best hope of avoiding another lockdown,’ MD continues, ‘is for local public-health teams and councils to use their local knowledge and expertise when clusters emerge, as many are already doing.’
• Nor has this option proved cheap. Private Eye 1527 reports on p9 that the DfH has published details of the contract with Serco and Sitel. Assuming the contracts run for the full year up to May 2021, the two companies will receive £720m between them. So far they have only performed 24% of the contacts: the rest have been done by local authorities, which have received only £300m in extra support.
• It’s been suggested that this local approach will result in an epidemic of people knocking on doors to ask questions, some of whom may not be real track-and-trace staff. Well, yes: but there was also the risk of phone calls from some Serco-recruited person from the other side of the country being hung up on. The earlier a local system is introduced, the more likely it is that the people who make the enquiries are going to be known to the people they speak to. The volunteer groups throughout the area depended on just this kind of personal accreditation. If a local approach to track and trace had been decided from the outset, this would not be so much of a big deal now.
• Another epidemic has, of course, been that of disinformation. This article on the BBC website quotes research from the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene as suggesting that at least 800 people have died, and nearly 6,000 been hospitalised, as a result of misleading medical information. It could have been far worse: the original article claims to have identified ‘2,311 reports of rumours, stigma, and conspiracy theories in 25 languages from 87 countries.’ The wonder cures which have been recommended to be taken internally include hydroxychloroquine, garlic, alcohol, soap, cow dung, urine and bleach (the first and the last have, of course, been advocated by the US President). There have also been claims that the tests can harm people. 28% of Americans – and 44% of Republicans – believe that Bill Gates wants to use vaccines to implant microchips in people. It’s also been (falsely) claimed that Bill Gates ‘admitted that a vaccine would kill 700,000 people’. (He was actually making a hypothetical point about the possibility of one in 10,000 people having side-effects and extrapolating that to assume that everyone in the world were vaccinated – highly improbably given both the logistical difficulties of immunising everyone on the planet with a hypothetical antidote and the strong opposition that exists in some societies (including, it would appear, the USA) to the idea of vaccination at all.)
• Odder and darker still is the American conspiracy theory QAnon which has received publicity recently because a prominent advocate of its ideas looks as if she is going to become a US Senator. In so far as I can understand it, the movement appears to see the world as being ruled by an alliance of satanic paedophiles, somehow closely connected to the Democratic Party, which is only being held at bay by the intervention of Donald Trump. A millenarian day of reckoning referred to as ‘the storm’ is expected imminently, after which the conspirators will be laid low by the forces of the righteous. Even by the standards of American right-wing obsessions this is pretty strong beer and makes the Tea Party movement in the early 2000s look like…well, a tea party by comparison. The QAnon thing seems like a ghastly mish-mash of the Illuminatus! trilogy, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, The Lord of the Rings, the Book of Revelation and President Trump’s twitter feed.
All is not well in that country. The existential threat of Covid has revealed imposingly deep divisions between the liberals and the conservatives, the big centres of population and the ‘flyover’ states, the Christians and the rest, the two main parties, and the states and the federal government. Virtually every aspect of the precautions or cures relating to the virus have been turned into civil-liberty issues. Racism, bigotry, disease and distrust stalk the land. The election, which is less than three months away, will (as is customary) be contested between two white, male, septuagenarian millionaires. The incumbent has already predicted it will be the most corrupt election ever. The USA has attracted many emotions in the past, including envy, hate, respect, fear and distrust. This must be the first time that pity has been added to the list. I guess it does something to your national psyche when you’ve been the world’s most powerful economy for about the last 150 years – that’s as long as the FA Cup has been going for: imagine if every final had been won by the same team. China will have something to say about this statistic pretty soon and there USA seems ill equipped to cope with the consequences on any level.
• I learned today that the Japanese for ‘there are two chickens in the garden’ is ‘niwa ni wa niwa niwa tori ga iru,’ a rather lovely tongue-twister. This is more useful than it may seem as, at the time the remark was made to me, there were in fact two chickens in the garden (and two in the shed, being broody). It’s more obviously practical than the equally delightful French phrase ‘le ver vert va vers le verre,’ (‘the green worm is going towards the glass’), something I’ve not seen happen and never hope to, though in our kitchen, anything’s possible…
Thursday 6 August 2020
• ‘Automatic green light for building in biggest shake-up since the War’ was the eye-catching headline in The Sunday Telegraph on 2 August. This referred to a wholesale review of the planning system, one feature of which would be the country being divided into three areas, designated respectively for ‘growth’, ‘renewal’ and ‘protection’. ‘Permission in principle’ would, so it appears, guide those sites in the first-named area. The ideas of the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick – if they really are his ideas – were also given the bottom quarter of page 2 in the same paper.
Most people would accept that there are problems with the planning system. It can be slow but it’s perhaps worth taking time with the decisions: as John Ruskin observed, ‘When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for…’ If this quote seems familiar, it’s because the first part of it was used in Robert Jenrick’s article. He added the comment that this will be ‘the guiding principle as we set out the future of the new planning system,’ although much of what he proposes seem to suggest the opposite.
The main underlying premise is that the current system is ‘cumbersome…complex and slow and…understandable only to lawyers.’ I don’t know how many lawyers understand the system but it’s comprehensible to planning officers up and down the country because it’s a national system, with local variations enshrined in a duly examined local plan. The idea, as this article suggests, that problems are the fault of the planning authorities (such as West Berkshire or the Vale of White Horse) and, by implication, their officers is utterly false. So too is the implication that that ‘environmentally friendly homes’ have so far proved impossible to attain because of some influence hitherto beyond the government’s control. This is also not true. The government’s Future Homes Standard is not set to be introduced until 2025 and, unless a council has introduced tighter measures under the Merton Rule, there is nothing to compel developers to match these until they have to. A lot of homes below these specifications will be built before then even as matters stand, with more still if these vague reforms are introduced.
The blueprint ignores a number of points. The first, as mentioned, is that planning authorities are not the obstacle to development that Mr Jenrick suggests. This article in PBC Today from February 2020 points out not only that nine out of ten planning applications were approved in the previous year but also, quoting the Local Government Association, that over a million homes for which permission has been obtained have not been built. Most homes are built by private companies which, f0r understandable reasons, have their own considerations of cashflow and profit to consider before starting work. Planning permission lapses after three years if this hasn’t’t happened but the test for ‘commencement’ isn’t that stringent and, once performed, permission is then extended in perpetuity. The article doesn’t even hint at how the reforms would overcome this problem.
An even bigger issue, and one which the reliance on private-sector builders has so far been unable to solve, is the question of ‘social’ or ‘affordable’ homes. The only way they can be built is if local councils are empowered to do this themselves. As mentioned last week, the extension of permitted development rights can’t be guaranteed to solve this. Reforms over the last few years, including the lifting of the Housing Revenue Account borrowing cap, have encouraged councils to get re-involved in housebuilding, which was a major part of their role up until the early ’80s (with, admittedly, varied results). However, there’s no suggestion in the article that this forms any part of future government thinking. The inference is that only the private-sector homebuilders, freed from the constraints of red tape, can produce what is needed. This is utter wishful thinking. There’s no reason to suppose that loosening the current system will produce better results.
Projects like the 1,1500-odd-home site at Sandleford in Newbury have been debated for well over a decade and, in this case at least, the problem appears to be the inability of the developers to agree with each other on basic matters such as an overarching masterplan. The developers at the 100-home Salisbury Road site in Hungerford, addressing at a public meeting in early 2020, flatly refused to introduce higher environmental standards on these homes. There are numerous cases of developers using viability assessments or other devices to avoid building the requisite number of affordable homes or avoid the consequential S106 payments. These companies exist to make a profit, not execute government policy. It’s fanciful to suggest that loosening the reins will suddenly make the horse follow your chosen path rather than go still faster down its own.
There is also the problem of who will decide on how the country is divided up into growth’, ‘renewal’ and ‘protection’ as well as what will happen to the thousands of applications that are already in the system when this magical day of utopian reform arrives. The article talks of ‘democratic local agreement’ – which seems to be what currently exists, even though its author denied this to South Oxfordshire District Council in his intervention in its local plan. It also talks of ‘communities being reconnected to a planning system that is supposed to serve them,’ something which many inhabitants of Tower Hamlets might agree about after Mr Jenrick’s appalling involvement in the Westferry Printworks application. It also says that ‘we want a society that has established powerful links between identity and place, between our unmatchable architectural heritage and the future, between community and purpose,’ a sentence that could have continued in this vein indefinitely and would still have meant nothing.
All in all, the article seems to be a vacuous piece of political polemic. The planning system needs reform but it can’t be done simply by assuming that the free market, if unshackled, will solve the problems. As even the author of this article admits, local powers and the influence or bodies like the AONBs would need to remain. The solution is to introduce national standards as soon as possible and fund the planning authorities to arrange and enforce these matters locally. If Covid-19 has taught us anything it’s that bottom-up responses work better than top-down ones. Whether Mr Jenrick will remain in post long enough to see these reforms through parliament – likely to be a long job – is another question. The average tenure of housing ministers this century is 15 months and he’s into his 13th already.
• If you had ordered 50 million of something which turned out to be defective you’d probably be pretty cross. This appears to have happened to the government, which sourced this number of facemarks from Ayanda Capital only to discover that they didn’t fit tightly enough. The BBC website quotes the suppliers as saying that masks met the government’s specifications. The government has said its standards are ‘robust’. Clearly both of these statements can’t be true.
• Exactly the same kind of opposing views crop up in the first official report from the National Audit Office into the procurement of PPE. The report, according to the BBC’s summary, suggested ‘shortcomings’, the government retiring that some of the claims were ‘misleading.’ The report, which you can see here, provides what appears to be quite a forensic appraisal of this aspect of the pandemic. Several pages are devoted to the ‘parallel system’ for procurement, with PPE being supplied centrally (NHS trusts previously managed their own procurement for this) to ‘prevent NHS organisations competing on the open market for the same supplies.’ (This is surely a problem at any time. The ‘market’ created by many different NHS trusts which are all supplying identical services and require identical equipment is in many ways illusory.) The report highlights a number of challenges which this parallel system faced (sections 4.19 to 4.28).
• This week’s NWN covers the report by West Berkshire’s Oversight and Scrutiny Management Commission’s (OSMC) Task Group which was set up to ‘better understand the advice and guidance received in relation to the Council’s decision when procuring a preferred partner for the London Road Industrial Estate (LRIE) development.’ You can read the whole document here. I wrote about this matter last week and have, as the politicians say, nothing to add at this stage. (The same cannot, however, be said for writer of the first letter in this week’s NWN who looks at the issue over four and a bit columns.)
• I needed a new watch battery on Wednesday so took it to the Hungerford Jewellers after I’d done my usual shop at the weekly market. I was told it would take 10 minutes so I popped round the corner and had a chat with Chris at The Clockmaker, set slightly back from the High Street (despite the name, they also repair clocks). He told me two things I didn’t know. The first concerns the ‘happy face’, by which clocks for display are set at ten past ten or ten to two (one might think this is a legal requirement, so rarely is it not applied). This, he suggests, is because the winding holes and the manufacturer’s name (both of which the makers were keen to show off) were traditionally at the bottom. The other was that when Roman numerals are used on clocks, four is almost invariably written as IIII rather than IV, something that’s not seen in any other usage. He suggested was probably because IV, at the angle it appears, isn’t that easy to read. I gave him a confidence of my own in return, explaining about my slightly ambivalent attitude to conventional clocks. I had a monster of an uncle: whenever we stayed with him during my childhood he would send me out of the room when he was winding the grandfather clock: God knows why. Of course, this made me fascinated by it and I would try to peer inside or open the door, which would confirm his fear that I was trying to sabotage it and he would roar at me. Whenever I see an old clock being wound the memories come flooding back. Chris was not able to help me on this one: he is, after all, a clock repairer, not a psychiatrist. For your other horological needs, however, he should be able to assist.
• A friend of mine suggested to me that I should watch a recent interview between Donald Trump and the Australian reporter Jonathan Swan. I haven’t had time to watch the whole thing and, to be honest, I don’t think my nerves could stand it. I had to stop going to stand-up comedy because I would get deeply upset whenever any 0f them ‘died’. I also can only watch Abigail’s Party or episodes of The Office in short bursts because of the toe-curling social awkwardness they describe. These, however, are entertainment or fiction, or both: the interview with Trump, on the other hand, was really happening; the leader of the world’s most powerful country talking about a global pandemic and showing himself to be out of his depth. Some of the exchanges are excruciating. His phrase ‘it is what it is’, referring to the USA’s death rate, is surely one we’re going to hear more of before the election in November. Joe Biden need do nothing in the way of campaigning as all his work is currently being done by his opponent. Being a slightly contrary kind of chap, in the early part of his presidency I took some delight in defending him, as I was slightly irritated by the standard criticisms (just as, in the 80s, all a comedian had to do was say ‘Margaret Thatcher’ to bring the house down). It all seemed too easy. I confess now that I was wrong and everyone else was right. They say every country gets the leader it deserves: come on, America – you’re not quite the perfect place some of you like to pretend but you surely deserve better than this…
Thursday 30 July 2020
• Let’s get the important and topical stuff out of the way first. It now seems that the materials for Stonehenge didn’t come from South Wales – which would present a difficult journey today and a seemingly impossible one back then – but from about 15 miles away. Even that’s pretty impressive. I don’t know what they had in the way of wheels but I know they would all have to be pulled, probably by people. The whole business, even over this shorter distance, suggests a powerful collective view (or perhaps that of just one person, probably a man, with a vision and a lot of cheap labour) that this all mattered. You’ve got to be awed by the idea of this desire to create a series of objects that don’t actually do anything apart from tell you the time once a year – or do they…?
• The BBC website reports that the UK and England in particular had the highest number of excess deaths between late February and mid June 2020 and also the longest period where deaths were above average (they are currently at the ‘normal’ rate). This measure, which probably can only be done over a reasonably long period, has the effect of stripping out the background noise caused by delays, methodological errors or inconsistencies in the reporting.
• If there’s been better coverage of Covid than that found in Private Eye’s MD column (currently a page and a bit long) then I’ve not seen it. A fortnight is a decent period of time which to reflect and consider but generally not so long that the moment has passed. (The author of this is long-time medical journalist, Marlborough-educated Phil Hammond: but as Lord Gnome generally prefers pseudonyms I’ll stick to ‘MD’). The first point covered this time round concerns masks and the point I hadn’t considered before that, 17 years after SARS, no definitive research has been done on whether they are effective or not. He also draws attention to England’s ‘illogical’ criteria for when you do and do not need to mask yourself, so leading to confusion. MD then goes on to compare England’s and Scotland’s handling of the crisis and points out that one of the reasons the infection and death rates in England were so high is because the pandemic arrived in London early (an obvious disadvantage of having a major international travel hub as your capital). he also stresses the need for local public-health experts and GPs to have ‘local data, resources and power’ to manage local outbreaks, something which is belatedly happening.
MD also points out that when the flu season arrives in the autumn it will be hard for staff to distinguish between that and Covid and some people may get both. This is likely further to confuse the statistics. It’s also likely to increase the demand for flu vaccines, for which there is already ‘unfair global competition.’ He ends with the encouraging thought that our ‘new passion’ for hand washing, hygiene and social distancing is likely to reduce the incidence of a hosts of less serious infectious diseases, including hepatitis A (which I caught in the ’90s as a result of eating a sandwich which had been prepared in conditions that were later found to have been medieval). This recollection is relevant because, when I had this disease (and also when I had campylobacter more recently) the public health teams and my GP surgery were all over it very quickly. I admit we weren’t then in the grip of a global pandemic but it does show that the local systems do work and it was on these, and not some top-heavy, untested and Serco-managed national project, that the government should have relied. Fortunately, this is now happening.
• As many feared, further local lockdowns may need to be implemented: the government announced at about 9.30pm on 30 July that separate households will not be allowed to meet indoors in Greater Manchester, East Lancashire and parts of West Yorkshire from midnight.
• Flicking on through the Eye, I came to the Housing News column which, as I was expecting, looked at the recent ‘research into the quality standard of homes delivered through change of use permitted development rights (PDR)’ report funded by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and which you can see here. I say ‘recent’ but it seems this was completed in 2019 though for some reason only published last week. At 212 pages, many of them tables and charts, it’s not a quick or easy read. The main conclusions are mixed.
The good news for supporters of PDRs is that that ‘in relation to measures like the exterior appearance of buildings, visible alterations made, energy performance, access to services and green space, and the deprivation level of the neighbourhood location, there are no significant differences’ between dwellings which were created via PDR (which removes the need for planning permission for an increasing number of conversions, mainly from commercial to residential) and those that went through the normal planning system. ‘More significant difference does emerge, however,’ the summary continues, ‘when considering performance against nationally described space standards (NDSS), the arrangement of windows, access to amenity space, and the location in terms of immediate surroundings.’ These are fairly dismal failings.
They become even more so when you look at just how badly PDR conversions are doing on some of these scores. Only 22% of the PDRs were compliant with NDSS compared with 73% of those created through the planning process. Moreover, most of the remaining 27% of the latter ‘were only slightly below the suggested standard, whereas the PDR units were significantly below.’ Nearly 70% of the PDR units were studios or one-bedroom dwellings, compared to 44% in the case of planning-system properties. 72% of the PDR properties had only single-aspect windows (compared to 29% of those created through permission). 0.4% (10 properties from the sample studied across 11 different authorities) had no windows at all. As, according to The Guardian, 60,000 homes have built in this way since 2015, this that suggests that there are about 2,500 homes in the country into which the sun never shines. The report notes that, amazingly, ‘Building Regulations do not actually require a dwelling to have a window.’ I think that’s now changed.
The conclusion is that PDRs – which are to be extended from September – tend to create properties that are small, dark and in the wrong place. They also increasingly operate as a parallel development process but one over which the planning authority has virtually no control (and yet it has to deal with the consequences). It’s rather as if there were two systems for speed limits, the majority of people needing to obey the standard regulations but a significant (and increasing) minority being able to drive as fast as they liked.
• I mentioned last week that Ian Hudspeth, the leader of Oxfordshire CC, had suggested that the proposed elections next year should be called off on the grounds that local government reform may make it irrelevant. This was roundly rejected by his colleagues. Perhaps inspired by this, or more likely by the strange impulses that govern his thought processes, President Trump has proposed delaying the US elections set for November. His reason was not, as might have been expected, because the USA is in the grip of a pandemic but because universal mail-in voting would make November’s vote the ‘most inaccurate and fraudulent election in history.’ If he’s talking about any elections anywhere then this indeed a startling claim. It would put the White House race ahead of democratic milestones like the 1927 Liberian general election, at which the sitting President Charles King received 243,000 votes, despite there only being 15,000 registered electors in the country. It’s certainly odd to see an incumbent do their best to undermine the results of an election in which they will be participating. One thing you have to concede is that Trump has been consistent. Americans voted for a sleazy, gaffe-prone, divisive, libertarian, publicity-obsessed egomaniac and that is exactly what he has provided them with over the last three and a half years.
• At least the Liberians got to vote in 1927, which is more than we can do with regard to the House of Lords. I tried to explain in this column in December 2019 why it was so peculiar and what might be done about it. The matter’s come to my attention again because the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) claims that the PM is planning to pack the upper house with yet more unelected peers, a move that seems to suggest that a raft of controversial legislation is proposed. The above-mentioned link also takes you to an online petition which has attracted over 200,000 signatures. I need to make one correction to my 2019 article. I said then that it is the largest legislative body in the world but it seems from The Spectator, quoted in the ERS article, that it’s actually in second place: the gold medal for this one goes to that famous bastion of democracy and free speech, the Chinese National People’s Congress, which has a staggering 2,980 members. Actually, this is quite restrained: as China has 20 times more people than the UK, if the House of Lords’ 800-odd members were scaled up to match the CNPC would be about 16,000 strong.
• The Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government has written to all council Leaders and Chief Executives explaining the support packages for local authorities. £3.8 billion of grant funding, a £600m Infection Control Fund and over £5 billion of cashflow support has already been provided. To this will be added a new scheme to reimburse councils for lost income from sales, fees, and charges; changes enabling local authorities to spread their tax deficits over three years rather than the usual one; and further £500m of un-ringfenced funding to respond to spending pressures. You can the full letter by clicking here.
• This weekend will see the start of August which will be the month of the ‘eat out to help out‘ scheme. This article gives what seems a pretty clear summary of it: in essence, on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays you can get 50% off eat-in food and non-alcoholic drinks, up to a maximum of £10 per person, from any participating restaurant, café, pub, canteen or club. A number of pubs and restaurants in the area which are participating in this are featured in this week’s Penny Post newsletter: if you’d like to be included, please contact email@example.com.
• Anyone keeping an eye on our house over the last few days – though why they should want to do that I can’t imagine – would have noticed the arrival of three emergency vehicles. The first two were paramedics who turned up, amazingly quickly, on Sunday after Penny was bitten by a horsefly and almost immediately became covered in hives, making her look as if she had chicken pox or had been raked with low-velocity machine-gun fire. A trip to the Great Western and a few pills later and all was well. Less life-threatening but in its own way equally dramatic was when on Tuesday our shower, for want of a better word, exploded. This obviously needed an emergency plumber. Penny has so far proved to be the quicker, and the cheaper, of the two to fix.
• If, as we do, you have bindweed – or Convolvulus Arvensis, which makes it sound like a character from Game of Thrones – in your garden, this has the advantage of always giving you something to do between April and October. I swear the stuff grows at the rate of about a foot a day, strangling everything it comes into contact with. You pull it up but, hydra-like, three more soon replace it. After researching the matter, I can exclusively reveal that there is only one certain cure for this blight – move house…
Thursday 23 July 2020
• The Commons Public Accounts Committee has stated that the government’s failure to plan for the economic impact of a pandemic was ‘astonishing.’ More astonishing still was the admission that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was ‘not aware’ of Exercise Cygnus, a war-gamed response to a pandemic in 2016. Clearly the minister doesn’t read Penny Post, as we’ve been mentioning it regularly for about three months. It doesn’t appear that any of the lessons should have been learned from the exercise – the results of which were ‘too terrifying’ to publicise according to one person involved in it – were acted upon. This seems to be worth a separate enquiry of its own.
• I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that the pandemic has shown to USA to be all be ungovernable when faced with an existential threat, something that has never happened to it before. There are just a few signs that the UK’s much weaker devolved structure is not coping that well either.
• The UK, as we all know, comprises England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (but not the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man). The last three of these constituent countries each has its own assembly (although Northern Ireland’s has been suspended on five occasions for a total of about eight years since February 2000 due to various political crises). Like almost everything else about the way the UK is organised, there is little that is pre-planned. None of the countries, collectively or individually, had a defining moment such as most others had after a revolution or independence, to get a blank sheet of paper and start afresh. This hasn’t served us that badly in some ways but it does create a number of confusions.
One concerns statistics. Any article referring to ‘the country’ could, if this isn’t qualified, refer to just England (by far the largest – where one of the other three is referred to this is normally specified); or to England and Wales, which are in many ways particularly closely associated; or to Great Britain (which is these two plus Scotland); or the whole UK (which includes Northern Ireland). Geographically, one could add the British Isles which includes the whole of the island of Ireland and the Isle of Man and by some (but not all) reckonings the Channel Islands as well. All clear so far?
OK, let’s put a few dates down. In 1066, England was conquered by the Normans. In 1171, England conquered Ireland. In 1204, Normandy (but not the Channel Islands) were conquered by France. Between 1284 and 1542, Wales was gradually subsumed into England. In 1603, the King of Scotland became also the King of England. In 1707, the two kingdoms were unified into one, as Great Britain. In 1800, the UK was created by the union of Great Britain and Ireland. This changed to Northern Ireland only after Irish independence in 1922. In 1998, the Northern Ireland Assembly was established, followed in 1999 by those in Scotland and Wales.
Unlike in the USA, where the powers of the states are enshrined in the constitution, the devolved powers of the three assemblies are granted by parliament. The arrangements differ slightly between the three, as does the terminology, but the main distinction is between matters which are devolved (including health, most aspects of social care, housing, local government and many aspects of transport) and those which are reserved to Westminster (including social security, immigration, foreign policy, broadcasting and defence). England, unique among all the countries in Europe apart from the Vatican City, doesn’t have its own parliament. In a way, as the senior partner, it doesn’t need one: its parliament is also the UK’s. This leads to the bizarre situation that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs can vote on any aspect of laws affecting England, but English MPs cannot vote on some matters pertaining to these countries as they are devolved (the so-called West Lothian Question). Except that, in theory, Westminster can legislate on devolved matters for the other three countries if it decides. It can also extend or reduce the powers that the assemblies have.
There are also constant tensions between Westminster and the three other countries as the political complexion of the Scottish and Welsh assemblies tends to be dominated by Labour and the nationalist parties, which often puts it at odds with what prevails in London. As for Northern Ireland, the political parties there are found nowhere else on earth and have their origins in religious divisions dating back to the Reformation. After the 2017 election one of these parties, the DUP, achieved a grotesque level of power as a result of the prevailing political arithmetic, one of the few evils which Boris Johnson’s resounding victory in 2019 managed to cure. As for the Sinn Féin members, they do not take up their seats Westminster at all.
This whistle-stop overview of our constitution suggests that the situation is a result not of any plan but rather a series of dynastic, military and political accidents that, each time, produced another layer of sticking plaster but no attempt to address the fundamental problems and paradoxes.
• This has become more apparent with the differing ways in which the Covid statistics are reported, targets set and regulations imposed. This article from the BBC website mentions, almost in passing, a number of these. To pick but one example, Public Health England (note the third word) has recently been accused of providing misleading statistics: This article points out that the figures for England (though not the rest of the UK) record any death as due to CV-19 if the person had at any time before tested positive and even if their cause of death was due to something completely different. This has had the obvious result of exaggerating the non-hospital mortality rate and generally undermining the authority of the official statistics. The Health Secretary has ordered a review which will doubtless include why the matter has only been noticed (or, which might not be the same thing, made public) three and a half months after lockdown started.
• It’s probably a fairly safe assumption that when a senior politician starts lauding ‘the strength of the union‘ it either means that there’s an independence referendum coming up or that one of the many fault lines is about to be exposed. On 22 July, the BBC reported the PM as saying that that the response to the coronavirus pandemic has shown the ‘sheer might’ of the UK union, the SNP countering with the claim that the remark showed he was ‘in a panic’ about rising support for Scots independence. At times the Kingdom seems anything other than united.
• One of the staggering things about our political leaders is the sheer number of them who studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) at Oxford. You can check out this list for yourself: in summary it includes our last PM but two, the current Chancellor, Trade Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Pensions Secretary and Health Secretary, the leader of the Welsh Assembly, the acting leader of the Lib Dems and a whole slew of other politicos ranging from Tony Benn and Michael Foot to Edward Heath and Michael Heseltine, from Harold Wilson to Lord Longford and from Peter Mandelson to Edwina Currie (and both the Millbands); plus the current or former leaders of Australia, Pakistan, Ghana, Thailand and Burma. I have this awful vision of them all knowing each other at the same time back in the day, drinking milky coffee and passing round badly-rolled spliffs in an ivy-cladded courtyard while cheerfully and confidently and correctly discussing how they were going to rule the world. That university seems to cast an unreasonably long shadow – only four PMs since the war did not go there. Before I get too het up about this, I remind myself that Penny studied PPE at Oxford as well so there must be something to be said for it.
• The Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government has written to all council Leaders and Chief Executives explaining the support packages for local authorities. £3.8 billion of grant funding, a £600m Infection Control Fund and over £5 billion of cashflow support has already been provided. To this will be added a new scheme to reimburse councils for lost income from sales, fees, and charges; changes enabling local authorities to spread their tax deficits over three years rather than the usual one; and further £500m of un-ringfenced funding to respond to spending pressures. You can the full letter by clicking here.
• Next week will see the start of August which will be the month of the ‘eat out to help out‘ scheme. This article gives what seems a pretty clear summary of it: in essence, on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays you can get 50% off eat-in food and non-alcoholic drinks, up to a maximum of £10 per person, from any participating restaurant, café, pub, canteen or club. This seems like an imaginative proposal which is designed to support a sector which has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.
Pubs, for instance, have been through some pretty big changes since I started going to them. Back in those days they were, let’s be honest, places where people, mainly men, went to get pissed. Some grudgingly provided ploughman’s lunches and chicken in the basket at lunchtime. Then, some time in the ’80s, the country went a bit European and we discovered things like garlic, lime, coriander and fish other than cod. More and more pubs started offering food in the evenings, ranging from the superb to the inedible. The term ‘gastro-pub’ became popular. Some couldn’t cope with these new demands and the closures started. Then, in the 21st century, developments like the tightening of drink-driving laws, the smoking ban and cheap booze from the supermarkets led to further attrition. The 2008 financial crash seemed like the final straw, and indeed was, for many (particularly the bad ones).
Looking around me from where I now live, in East Garston rather than London, I see several superb pubs which have adapted to these changed circumstances and survived and – as they have had to do – carved out their own niches in their own different ways. I’ve got so far now that I might as well name some of them: The Queens Arms, The Plough, The George, The Great Shefford, The Five Bells, The Wheatsheaf, The Pheasant, The Craven Arms, The Red House, The Tally Ho, The Bell, The Crown and Garter, The Crown and Anchor – apologies to any omitted from this list in error. They all deserve our support. August would be a good time to show it.
• A number of organisations, including pubs, have been forced to re-think what and how they provide their food and drink. In late March, Penny said that she had heard of a number of places that were offering delivery and takeaway services and started a post on the subject, which started with about 10 listings. Others contacted us and we contacted them and it quickly grew to what you can now see here. At first, I thought that it might get a hundred or so views a week: how wrong I was. So far the post has been opened over 10,000 times. I mention this partly to show that Penny Post sometimes hits the spot but also because, having spoken to a good number of the organisations, many of the ones which previously hadn’t offered anything like this kind of service intend to continue to do so. The old pattern of the weekly supermarket shop, the regular home-cooking and the occasional blow-out, perhaps on Sunday lunchtime, seems to have been disrupted. To have vegetable boxes delivered each week, to buy beer from a pub in re-useable flagons or to have a couple of professionally-cooked treats provided or collected every week or so now seems increasingly normal. The signs are this buying pattern will survive the pandemic.
• A reminder that as of Friday 24 July we’ll all have to wear face coverings in shops (though not in pubs). I was offered some quite snazzy face masks when I went to the excellent Hungerford Farmers’ Market on Sunday but figures that we have some in the house and that I don’t any longer go to shops very often (most of our needs being provided for by Hungerford’s Wednesday street market). One was on the theme of ‘pug dogs in space’ which I suppose might appeal to a narrow demographic which thinks these asthmatic animals as attractive but which does nothing for me. If you need to stock up on your supplies, we have a guide here to local suppliers, often with the proceeds going to good causes. I’m aware that some people don’t agree with this regulation (although fortunately it doesn’t seem to have become as insane a civil-liberty issue as it has in the USA). Please, however, abide by it. Shops up and down the country have suddenly been asked to police an unprecedented requirement at a time when they’re already feeling a bit tender. This article from the BBC has more information on the regulations.
• A friend told me what might be a slightly alarming story today. Someone he knew tested positive for Covid-19 about four months ago but, on being tested again quite recently, was found to have no antibodies. As with anything to do with the virus and the tests for to, there could be a number of reasons for this. The first test could have been a false positive; the second could have been a false negative; they could have a defective immune system; or in no case do Covid antibodies don’t stick around for that long. On the last of these, perhaps the immune system needs to be taught that the whole thing’s for real. So, if you’ve had Covid, maybe the best thing is to re-expose yourself to it just to make sure the antibodies are on red alert. No it isn’t. Don’t pay any attention to what I’m saying. I’m not a doctor. I mean, if someone told you to inject yourself with bleach you wouldn’t do that, would you?
• The news about the Coronavirus vaccine appears to be good. I was talking to a friend who’s a GP in London the other day and he said he’s recently been told not to expect any supplies this flu season. It looks like something for next year.
• There’s been a rather lurid soap opera running for some weeks in which the rather frisky private life of Amber Heard and Johnny Depp has been made public as a result of a legal action. Depp was accused by The Sun of being a wife-beater, which he denied. Wife-beating is not a good thing to do, or to be accused of if you’re innocent, but many would have just shrugged it off and told everyone that you can’t believe anything you read in the tabloids. Instead, we’ve been treated to an extraordinary series of reports of their behaviour towards each other, which ranges from the nasty to the weird. Unlike the original allegation these won’t be forgotten, so it’s another good example of the Barbara Streisand effect. Another result is that there may be people, locked down in dysfunctional relationships who are taking comfort from these bizarre claims and counter-claims from the Hollywood bubble. ‘I don’t feel so bad now,’ they might say to themselves. ‘There are at least two people out there who’re stuck in an even crazier relationship than I am…’
Thursday 16 July 2020
• There are many people who, for many different reasons, think that HS2 will benefit nobody and nothing apart from its army of contractors and consultants. To this list must now be added the government’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority whose 2019-20 report has given the scheme a red rating, the lowest possible (out of five possible grades). Red means that the ‘successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable. There are major issues with project definition, schedule, budget, quality and/or benefits delivery, which at this stage do not appear to be manageable or resolvable. The project may need re-scoping and/or its overall viability reassessed.’ I think that sums up HS2 pretty well.
• In fairness, HS2 is not the only red project on the list. Crossrail, the East-Wet Rail Link, the Health Transformation Programme and two projects designed to improve the national broadband coverage, the Rural Gigabit Connectivity Programme and the Local Full Fibre Networks, have also all been given the dreaded red square. (Something seems suddenly to have gone badly wrong with the last of these as in 2018-19 it was at ‘green/amber’, the second highest ranking.) Projects which are green, the best grade, include the mixed bag of St Helena Airport, the Department of Work and Pensions’ Fraud, Error and Debt Programme, the Army Basing Project and the sinister-sounding Watchkeeper intelligence project (in the list in the report this last one was set in capitals: I tried that but it looked too scary.)
• Penny spent part of the weekend at the same HS2 protest site near Great Missenden where, as mentioned the week before last, District Councillor Steve Masters and many others has been dug in for some time, awaiting the bailiffs and the bulldozers. The ecological impact is just one of the many reasons why the project is attracting such strong opposition. HS2 has claimed that it has agreed to plant 7m trees in mitigation: unfortunately, maintaining them doesn’t seem so important and many have since died. (HS2 may yet suggest that this was because ‘there were the wrong kind of leaves on the trees.’) Moreover, replacing ancient woodlands (108 are threatened by the scheme, in whole or in part) with their diverse habitats is well-nigh impossible. The Woodland Trust recommends that that the re-planting/loss ratio of 30:1 but, according to this article in The Guardian, HS2’s ration is about a fifth of that.
• The questions of habitat destruction and environmental damage also crop up in the ever-excellent MD column in Private Eye which in this issue looks at matters which have either contributed to Covid-19 or which should be adopted if we wish to avoid a repeat performance. ‘Deforestation, fossil fuels, polluting water, dumping waste, mistreating animals and over-using drugs’ are among the factors that MD feels have created ‘a perfect storm for harmful microbe evolution.’ Other improvements which are suggested include reforming the ‘hugely complex bureaucracy needed to support an entirely unnecessary market system obsessed with outsourcing’, paying more attention to ‘serious concerns raised by (NHS) staff, patients and carers and supporting and protecting them to do so’, addressing the problems caused by a ‘controlling government’ which is unwilling to share data and ensuring that local directors of public health be put in charge of local test and trace ‘so they can respond immediately to outbreaks.’
Almost all of these problems have been articles of faith for most governments for so long that real change seems unlikely. One can but hope that I’m wrong and that some good can come from Covid in the shape of some necessary reforms and reboots. On 15 July the PM promised an independent enquiry into the pandemic though it’s currently unclear how broad its scope will be.
• This article on the BBC website this week suggests that there will be a large fall in the world’s population by the end of the century with most countries experiencing a decline and 23, including Spain, Portugal and Italy, seeing their populations halving. On one level, as the article points out, this may not be bad news as there’s obviously a fairly direct link between the number of us and the demands we make on the environment. The problem will be that, as we are all living longer, there will be a growing imbalance between those who need care and those who are earning the money to pay for it.
• From 24 July we’ll all have to wear face coverings in shops (though not in pubs). If this was such a vital idea as the Health Secretary suggested on 14 July then it’s odd that this wasn’t imposed from when the shops re-opened last month. Matt Hancock also said that “the death rate of sales and retail assistants is 75% higher amongst men and 60% higher amongst women than in the general population.” It’s hard to know what these eye-catching statistics mean as he didn’t specify what period this covered, nor whether this included retailers which were open throughout the pandemic or those ‘non-essential’ ones which re-opened in June; nor what he meant by the ‘general population’. Be that as it may, the BBC article goes on to say that ‘retail workers are exempt’ from the face-mask ban. If so, then the Secretary of State appears to be saying that the people who are most likely to have Covid-19 are exempt from a measure designed to stop its spread, which makes no sense to me. For retailers, there’s also the problem that they have to police the regulations which might involve an irate customer refusing to wear a mask in the shop. Perhaps this is why they aren’t mandatory in pubs.
• However, anyone in England might think that there was no point in taking any precautions as, according to PHE data, no one in the country ever recovers from the virus. This article points out that the figures for England (though not the rest of the UK) record any death as due to CV-19 if the person had at any time before tested positive and even if their cause of death was due to something completely different. This has had the obvious result of exaggerating the non-hospital mortality rate and generally undermining the authority of the official statistics. The Health Secretary has ordered a review which will doubtless include why the matter has only been noticed (or, which might not be the same thing, made public) three and a half months after lockdown started.
• It was pointed out to me over the weekend by one of my sons that Rishi Sunak is popular because he’s giving away money. I should have been aware of this but, in my defence, the spectacle of a Conservative Chancellor distributing largesse on this scale, whatever the reason, was so unprecedented that it clearly unhinged my mind. There do appear to be abuses of the system, some of which may be due to uncertainties about its application, and there are some organisations that have slipped through the net: but most would agree that he’s done a pretty good job. My son also suggested that he was only still in post because he was doing what Dominic Cummings was telling him to, something his predecessor refused to. That may be true: if so, Dominic Cummings seems to have some good ideas. Of greater importance is whether the anti-austerity will transfer into a proper settlement for local councils and social care, two Cinderella aspects of our public life which have been in a state of high financial anxiety for the last five years. Both have proved to be rather important in the Covid war.
• The two strands are closely connected as social care is devolved to local councils to provide. For West Berkshire, this accounts for about half its budget. The fact that this is a statutory responsibility makes a partial nonsense of local democracy as this is a service which the council can’t reduce beyond a certain point without breaking the law. This means that cuts to other services become about twice as likely to happen. One of the areas which has suffered in a variety of ways from recent cuts is children’s services. This article suggests that funding has fallen by over £2bn since 2010. There is no other area in which spending a fairly small sum of money can have such a large effect. We are not all born with equal advantages. Doing something to help even these out is surely what any responsible government should do. The cost and difficulty of accomplishing this probably increases exponentially with each passing year. We need to spend more money on ensuring that all our children start primary school at something approaching the same level of attainment.
• I mentioned last week that West Berkshire’s Leader Lynne Doherty has said the Council is not anticipating needing to send the government a Section 114 notice (essentially a request for a bail-out, provided by the 1988 Local Government Act) as it has adequate funds to maintain its activities. The statement notes that West Berkshire has received £29m from the government for business support and £7.6m in non-ring-fenced funding. The latest Private Eye has a bit more on this, saying that no council has so far applied for a S114 as a result of Covid – because the government has asked them not to ‘in exchange for promises of future financial help.’ The article asserts nearly 150 councils are thought to be ‘in deep (financial) trouble.’ It also appears that the S114 system could not cope with more than a few bail-out applications. So, as with so many aspects of local-government funding, the issue has been deferred to another day. The lack of an S114 notice, from West Berkshire or anywhere else, therefore proves nothing about a council’s financial stability.
• The same publication also discusses something that I’ve covered several times, most recently two weeks ago, the question of Permitted Development Rights. The main effect of the regulations (which were first introduced in 1995 and modified in 2013 and 2015) is to enable owners of some types of commercial property to convert these to dwellings without the cost and inconvenience of going through the planning system. The intention was to create more homes; this is partly been accomplished with over 60,000 dwellings having arising from this in the last seven years, many of them converted office blocks. Whether they are all appropriate for local needs, in the best place (near amenities and transport), of the right size (adhering to government space standards) or adhering to fire-safety standards is more debatable. These rights are now to be extended further. The new regulations specify that all PDR dwellings should have windows, which suggests that some previous ones didn’t.
The government appears obsessed with the idea that the housing crisis can only be solved by the private sector – either operating within the planning system or, in the case of PDR, outside it – despite plentiful evidence to the contrary. Moreover, the very existence of PDR suggests that Whitehall believes the logjam is called by obstructive and nimby-ish local councils: only by circumventing them can anything be accomplished. For a planning department, PDRs make something of a mockery of a local plan as conversions over which they have no control can change the entire character of an area.
• All in all, it’s hard to escape the impression that the government fundamentally distrusts local councils. It’s true that they have this irritating habit of tending to prioritise local concerns over matters of national policy. Many also have the temerity to be have a different ruling party from that which happens to preside in Westminster. They have responsibility for a number of complex and potentially divisive matters like social care and planning but for many years have not been properly funded to enable them to discharge and enforce these as well as they should. Since 2012, they have also had responsibility for public health (although this is confused by their relationship with the then newly-formed Public Health England (PHE)). The government’s evident suspicion of councils was clear in the May and June when it proceeded as if no such well-established local systems existed, instead attempting to build a track-and-trace system centrally and from scratch. When it was clear this was going to work, councils were belatedly asked to get involved. This they did, but months later than they should have been. In general, the bottom-up responses to the pandemic have been more effective than the top-down ones.
If the government would like to abolish all local councils and rule by Whitehall decree, let’s have a manifesto pledge about it and we can all decide at the next election. If it’s going to retain local democracy then it needs to fund it properly and let it get on with doing its work. That also would include the Secretary of State refraining from making the kind of interventions that recently happened with South Oxfordshire’s local plan and the Westferry fiasco.
• Never a week goes by but that I learn something new about the planning system. This week’s nugget concerns attendance at Parish Council meetings, virtually or otherwise. Members of the public are allowed to attend these (except for the part 2s at the end at which any confidential matters are discussed) though it would not be true to say that there are queues round the block every month or tickets for the events changing hands for vast sums on Ebay. However, the day may come when there is a matter – such as a planning application – on which you would like to address your Council. If that’s the case, do not expect to get invited. Councils may ask people such as local Police officers to attend their meetings but they aren’t obliged to do so. Agendas must be publicised at least three days in advance (the meeting dates are generally fixed months ahead) so you need to establish for yourself when the item that interests you is going to be discussed. In these virtual times, some councils will publish the Zoom link on the agendas, while others will ask to contact the Clerk for this. You should be given an opportunity to speak, at least on the matter in which you are interested. Remember also that parish and town councils are only consultees in the process and that the planning authority may take a different view of the matter.
• I rather like an article in Newbury Today about the weather prospects. West Berkshire, it seems, needs to brace itself for ‘a blistering’ 77ºc’ on Friday, which makes me wonder if the writer has spent the last month trapped in a deep freeze. 77º? I think I can cope with that…
Thursday 9 July 2020
• It’s recently been announced by the BBC that nearly 80% of those testing positive for Covid-19 are either asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic. This perhaps shouldn’t be a huge surprise. The Italian health authorities tested all 3,000 inhabitants of the town of Vo near Padua in early March and established that ‘a significant proportion of the population, about 3%, had already been infected – yet most of them were completely asymptomatic.’ Several papers published in PMC and elsewhere, one based on extensive studies down in China, suggested the same thing.
• The same BBC report quotes an extraordinary government clarification on the subject of the transmission in care homes. Earlier this week, the PM said that ‘too many care homes didn’t really follow the procedures’. The Business Secretary Alok Sharma said that the PM had meant that ‘nobody at the time knew what the correct procedures were.’ This story in Sky News makes much the same claim. If the second is an alternative phrasing of the first then it’s been through Google Translate, via Portuguese and Swahili. The government had laid down procedures: whether these were correct and whether they were followed are very different things (as is whether they were clear). The Sky article quotes the Chair of the Independent Care Group as saying that ‘It is worth remembering that in February the government agency Public Health England told homes it was ‘very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home will become infected’ and that homes didn’t need to do anything differently. It was many weeks later, after most homes had already put themselves into lockdown, that the advice changed.’
The care sector has come under increasing pressure in recent years due to rising and more complex demand, the disparity between what cash-strapped local councils can pay and what care homes feel, with their extra staff and compliance costs, they need to charge, and, perhaps above all, by the government’s failure to provide a long-term settlement for the so-called care crisis which was promised for June 2017 and which now still seems to be at least a year away. I can’t say if this led to any corner-cutting but it certainly can’t have helped. Nor can the rapacious suppliers of PPE: local live-in care provider Bluebird commenced that in April it was being quoted prices up to 20 times higher than normal. Perhaps the PM was also secretly cross that most care is provided by private companies which, unlike the NHS, may therefore feel that they are answerable as much to their shareholders as the CQQ. This may be true: but it wasn’t the point he made. Finally, it’s worth paying tribute to one local care home, St Katherine’s in Wantage, which started preparing in late February and went into lockdown in mid-March, two weeks before the official announcement. This was not because of government advice but because the manager’s family were from Hong Kong who told her ‘this is for real’ and sent her a supply of PPE.
• The question has also been raised, though understandably in a hesitant way, as to whether there is any genetic or racial aspect to the likelihood of contracting CV-19. A few diseases like cystic fibrosis (most common in those originating from Northern Europe) and sickle-cell anaemia (most common in those originating from sub-Saharan Africa), follow this pattern, but Covid-19 doesn’t seem to be among them. The widely publicised statistics that BAME people were more likely to contract CV-19 – this article in Heart Matters says about twice as likely – could be due to number of factors that have nothing to do with genetics: this BBC article suggested that surveys by the Office for National Statistics and Public Health England believed that ‘existing health inequalities, housing conditions, public-facing occupations and structural racism’ could all play their part. If scientists have been looking for genetic (and thus perhaps racial) links then this doesn’t mean that they’re trying prove some racist eugenical theory: such a discovery (which hasn’t so far happened) would be a big step forward in preventing the spread and finding a cure.
• The big domestic news this week was from the Chancellor, who announced a raft of measures designed to stimulate the economy and avoid mass employment. These included a six-month reduced VAT rate of 5% for the hospitality industry, a cut in stamp duty until March 2021 (see below), a cash incentive for companies to retain furloughed staff and – most eye-catchingly in some ways – a £10 voucher for participating pubs and restaurants in August. All this comes at a cost, of course, with the government’s debt being now bigger than the entire national economy. I’m very far from an expert in such things but I imagine that much of this is in bonds with quite a long repayment period. Rishi Sunak would thus seem to gambling that these huge cash injections will help kick-start economic life and avoid worse problems in the future. It’s hard to see what else could be done. I can’t imagine a Conservative Chancellor – or perhaps anyone else, ever – has spent as much money in four months as he has done. The financial reaction to the crisis certainly seems to have been better than the regulatory and political one.
• A number of local pubs which Penny Post contacted on 8 July echoed this sentiment, though sometimes with reservations. ‘It’s a positive move,’ said Debbie, the owner of The Volunteer in Grove. ‘it’s good to see the government supporting the industry.’ Mark Gallimore, the proprietor of the Craven Arms in Enborne, The Bull in Theale and The Oddfellows in Manton felt that the vouchers were ‘a great incentive to drive footfall on what used to be quiet days. We hope that customers will embrace this and come to dine out.’ Duncan Jones of The Five Bells in Wickham said that ‘I certainly welcome the reduction in VAT but hope that it doesn’t bounce back up in January, maybe staying at 10% like in a lot of European countries.’ Romilla Arber, the owner of the Honesty Group which includes the Crown and Garter in Inkpen, also welcomed the VAT reduction as ‘a real help’ but felt that the voucher scheme wouldn’t make a huge difference to the pub: ‘even if all the seating inside that we’re allowed to have is utilised,’ she explains, ‘this doesn’t allow us to reach our break even points. What will make the most difference to us at the moment is to be able to use the garden, so we could do with some good weather.’ The Chancellor can’t control this – or can he? He’s certainly produced a few surprising rabbits out of his ministerial hat over the last few months. Here’s hoping for some sunshine, something that I think all the pubs in the area would drink a toast to.
• The Chancellor also announced a temporary reduction in Stamp Duty (effectively a tax on property transactions) in attempt to kick-start this sector. I asked Jon Rich of Marlborough-based estate agents Brearley and Rich what he felt about this initiative. ‘It’s hard not to be pleased about this a short-term measure’, he told me, ‘but it’s not clear if this will lead to a more stable or even-paced market.’ He also highlighted another problem with the sector, the continuing reluctance of lenders to re-instate 90% or 95% mortgages. ‘Plenty of would-be buyers are struggling to pay huge rents when they could easily afford mortgage payments if the lenders would accept them,’ he said. ‘We don’t want to go back to the days of 100% mortgages and loans being based on insane multiples of people’s salary but a more holistic and less process-driven approach by lenders would be welcome.’
• That said, we can at least comfort ourselves with the fact that we aren’t in the USA. As mentioned before, the country’s federal constitution and that fact that – unique almost the countries of the world so far as I can reckon – it has no experience in facing an external threat of this magnitude have made it effectively ungovernable. The divisive figure of its President hasn’t helped. Anyone who thinks that he might be mentally ill (something many have asserted for years but which I resisted until a few weeks ago as being too simple an explanation) will find evidence for this in a recently-published book about him by a clinical psychologist, who also happens to be his niece. No Christmas cards this year, I think. One thing you have to give him credit for is being consistent. He was saying weird stuff four years ago and got elected by the US public and he’s been saying the same sort of weird stuff ever since.
• Moving back to the question of economic recovery, the pandemic has given inspiration and encouragement to those who claim that the time is ripe not only for a new way of measuring our individual and national worth rather than GDP/GNI but also at a complete re-balancing of the way our economies function. Other measures apart of GDP exist: the UNDP Human Development Index and the Numbeo Quality of Life Index are but two and it’s perhaps no surprise that countries like Denmark, Sweden, The Netherlands and New Zealand feature higher on both than do the USA, the UK, China or France. The most recent issue of Positive News has series of articles under the umbrella of ‘Bouncing Forward’ which starts with a piece about how societies should, post-Covid, take care of everyone. Its main premise is a case for a basic national income, something that was preached back in the 60s by Martin Luther King as the most effective solution to poverty. It also refers to a May 2020 report from the Institute of Ecomonic Affairs as saying that the UK’s current welfare system was highly unlikely to survive the pandemic and quotes the organisation’s Head of Education, Dr Stephen Davies, as saying that ‘the crisis will strengthen support for a universal basic income and could provide “the impetus for radical change”.’ It also quoted a YouGov survey, also in May, which suggested that 60% of respondents wanted the government to prioritise health and wellbeing ahead of economic growth.
It could be said that the combination of exemptions or rebates through the tax system for the rich (or wily), welfare payments through Universal Credit for the less well off and (currently) various CV-19-related bail-outs for almost everyone in-between has effectively created an incredibly complex and uneven system of universal income, with everyone being able to get something out of the system as long as they’re prepared to jump through enough hoops and take the right advice. There is surely an opportunity to simplify the whole system with something that starts from a different premise.
An argument against universal income has always been that it is form of socialism, rewarding people for doing no more than being alive (which is perhaps something to celebrate, but let’s leave that to one side). Two points seem utterly to over-rule this, certainly now. The first is that CV-19 has been a bit of a leveller. Although, as mentioned above, some groups have fared less well then others, a successful defence against it depends on a a societal, rather than an individual or even a national, response. More than anything else I can think of in my lifetime, it’s necessary for people to moderate their actions in order to protect society as a whole. Most have abided by this. The local, bottom-up, approach has also been more immediately effective than the national, top-down, one. Both of these suggest that the true measure of a society’s ability to survive an existential threat is what measures it puts in place afterwards, grasping the opportunity to improve the chances for the next generation. It’s worth reflecting that the two most immediate results of the end of WW2 in the UK were that Atlee government’s creation of the NHS and the welfare system.
The second is that free-market economies have not come out of the crisis very well. Yes, it’s true that the USA and many countries in Europe were, because of their inhabitants’ travel patterns, likely to be more affected. Yes, it’s true that national comparisons are dangerous for many reasons. National wealth does not, however, seem to be an adequate defence against the threat. Of the 12 countries which, according to Worldometers had more than 1,000 cases (so excluding small countries like San Marino) and a death rate of over 300 in 100,000, seven were among the world’s top 20 economies by GDP. Some countries like China have been able to respond with a speed and ruthlessness that we all decry but which the world as a whole should perhaps be thankful for: certainly it started there, but the government knows what ‘lockdown’ means which, the state’s endemic obfuscation aside, perhaps prevented something much worse. Imagine if the first cases had been at a meat market in New York. Exactly.
The countries which seem to have dealt best are those with experience of foreign invasion like South Korea and Vietnam (perhaps an unwitting benefit conferred on them by the USA) as well as experience of SARS and MERS; or those with natural geographical advantages like Singapore and New Zealand. Except in the last case, these are also what might be termed social capitalist command economies, where many people still have strong familial ties which provides societal cohesion, a freedom to organise their economic lives as they wish which provides gratification and a government which at any time can issue edicts on any matter which sets the rules by which all else is conducted and which is widely respected as being in the national interest. In most wealthy countries the first (almost entirely) and the last (largely) has been abandoned in pursuit of the second. As mentioned above, there are other factors than these three define a healthy society but it’s clear that outright wealth is nor and should not be the most important. It seems likely that, for historians writing 100 years from now, 2020 will be viewed as a hinge on which the world swung into a better place, or at least had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do so.
• One of the most extraordinary football matches ever took place six years ago yesterday. It may have lacked the last-minute drama of the ’99 Champions League Final, the romance of the ’53 FA Cup Final, the near perfection of the 1960 European Cup Final or the stirring comeback of the 2005 Champions League Final: but for sheer unexpected one-sidedness, Germany’s 7-1 demolition of the hosts and favourites Brazil in the 2014 World Cup Semi Final is hard to trump. They could have scored seven more but by half way through the second half the German players seemed to have been overtaken with something approaching pity.
• This story on the BBC website suggests that UK universities are conniving in censorship imposed by the Chinese state. The reality is a little more complex. I spoke to a senior academic about this, who pointed out that this can be actually seen as anti-censorship as it ensures that necessary sources don’t become collateral damage from the rather blunt instrument of China’s ‘great firewall’. He also points out that the Chinese government appears relaxed about students immersing themselves in restriction-free countries like the UK when studying abroad so is hardly likely to worry about some video lectures. The reality is that, as mentioned a few weeks ago, universities face a large revenue loss as a result of fewer students from China and elsewhere travelling here to study and so need to provide courses online.
• It’s easy to criticise HS2 for being insanely expensive, environmentally damaging, grossly over-hyped by its proponents and generally pointless. That’s because it is. For so long has this vast beast been feeding itself at our expense that stopping it becomes progressively harder; but it’s to hoped that some post-Covid sense might prevail, even now. I’ve recently seen a ‘competition’ from The Taxpayers Alliance from September 2018 which proposes other ways in which the eye-watering £100bn+ budget might be spent on. Before we turn to that, it’s worth looking at TPA itself for a moment.
Its website makes it clear that it advocates a lower-tax economy. Wikipedia describes it as ‘a right-wing pressure group in the United Kingdom formed in 2004 to campaign for a low tax society.’ The Guardian, in an article from 2009, describes it as a group with which the right-wing media have ‘fallen in love.’ This summary from DeSmog suggests that it has been a strong opponent of green-energy policies as recently as January 2020. Some of its donations appear to have come, despite its name, from non-UK taxpayers and, again according The Guardian in November 2018, over $100,00 was received from ‘a billionaire-founded religious trust incorporated in the Bahamas.’
None of this would seem to make it an obvious opponent for a massive project which, although conceived in the dog days of the last Labour government, has since grown into an increasingly obese lovechild of successive Conservative administrations and the army of consultants of which it is so enamoured. The cost has by some estimates tripled since 2010 and is now likely to be in excess of £110bn. The environmental case is far from made either as, despite trains having a lower carbon footprint than cars, the fare structure – a crucial part of this comparison – is a long way from being agreed. Along the route, vast acts of irrevocable destruction will take place which have, and will, attract many protests. Nor is it clear to what extent the first part of the project, from London to Birmingham, will advance the original stated aim of helping to heal the North-South divide. It also seems that, as both Covid and IT improvements have demonstrated, travelling from one city to another slightly more quickly is not now as vital as it might once have been. All in all, the project is acquiring the increasingly unpleasant whiff of a vanity project and gravy train that has been allowed, in every possible way, to accelerate out of control.
So, we return to the TPA’s proposals (and for a moment leave aside its politics). Its ‘competition’ proposed 32 schemes, one a road-widening scheme and one a cycle lane but all the rest of which were rail projects. These would provide benefits mainly in the north and midlands for a cost of about £45bn. To be on the safe side, let’s double that. Let’s also double the PM’s prediction in 2019 that it would cost £5bn to provide the whole country with superfast broadband; surely, as Covid has proved, a more useful way of connecting communities and businesses than a single rail line. These together still leave some change from the likely HS2 bill. Of course, these might be flawed: the costs might be optimistic, the benefits overstated, the disruption downplayed and the environmental damage ignored. But could they, or ones like them, be in aggregate any worse than HS2? It seems unlikely…
Thursday 2 July 2020
• It’s been widely reported that in the USA, particularly the southern and western states, cases of Covid-19 have been rising. Texas, for instance, has seen an increase of nearly 300% in the last month which – even allowing for a higher level of testing or a changing methods of reporting – looks alarmingly like an exponential growth when plotted on a graph. Florida has also been badly hit: and it was in this state that, on 23 June, the Palm Beach County Commissioners held a public meeting at which residents, selected by goodness knows what criteria, were invited to have their say on the proposal to make the wearing of face masks mandatory in public places. You can see a video of some of the submissions here. Most of it makes pretty alarming viewing.
If you didn’t know what was being discussed you could be forgiven for thinking that the point at issue was compulsory weekly participation in a satanic flag-burning ceremony. Assuming that the BBC’s highlights were representative, there were two main strands to the objections: that it was contrary to God’s law and that it was an infringement of civil liberties and so unconstitutional. (Sometimes these got conflated in a way that did no service to either point of view.) To take the first point, the Bible is, so far as I know, silent on the subject of the wearing of face masks, just as it is on drink-driving, tax codes and advice about worming cats. This, surely, doesn’t make any human intervention in these matters against God’s law or will. Apparently, it does, as one objector claimed that the law ‘would throw out God’s wonderful breathing apparatus.’ Another said that the legislators were following ‘the devil’s laws.’ The only conclusion I can draw is that, to an even greater extent than I’d previously suspected, religion can be a blanket justification for acting or refraining from acting in any way that the Bible can justify: and, as this book is contradictory on several points and silent on many more, gives a carte blanche to libertarians.
That’s really what all this about: the spurious belief that any restriction on human activity is a repugnant infringement of personal liberty. I appreciate that the US holds this as an axiom of faith; but we live in societies. For most of the time, certainly in most of Europe and in the USA, our freedom of action is only moderately constrained and that in ways which are at best mildly inconvenient and which we recognise are in the interests of society as a whole. It’s also true that this balance gets disturbed in times of war – which is as good a way of describing CV-19 as any – when power tends to concentrate in the centre. The balance needs to be struck and may not be got right: but at least the US has a powerful constitution which will prevent any temporary measures becoming permanent. Covid-19 is neither a religious nor a civil-liberty issue, nor a time bomb in the US constitution, but an existential threat to both public health and, if the country is not very careful, its pre-eminent economic position.
Of course, perhaps these opponents might have been less strident were the US’s response to the pandemic been more effective. I appreciate that our government is in the relegation zone on this one but Washington’s handling seems to have been amongst the worst of the countries that actually admitted the existence of Covid-19 at all. The tension between the powers of the states and that of the federal government has served the US well in many ways – the country has been the world’s largest economy since 1871, nearly 150 years – but it works less smoothly when there is an external threat. Perhaps if the USA had experienced the reality or the possibility of invasion in recent times as many countries have (some at the hands of the USA) this might be better understood. As it is, the US seems to have become effectively ungovernable. When combatting a global pandemic, it’s hard to think of a less useful combination than religious rigidity, personal or state-based libertarianism and economic arrogance. As for the country’s leader, he seems increasingly either to be mentally ill or in thrall to the other three factors (which, in the present circumstances, comes to much the same thing). He’ll probably get re-elected by a landslide in November.
• Back in Blighty, the main talking point this week has been the lockdown in Leicester, a city which was, until a few days ago, probably mainly famous for its football club’s remarkable triumph in 2015-16. Perhaps predictably, given that nothing like this has happened before, the regulations have been criticised for having seemingly arbitrary borders and confusing official guidance. A backdrop to this is the fact that the city is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse in the country, with only 45% of the population identifying themselves as ‘White British’ in 2011 (the date of the last census), a statistic matched among comparable settlements only by Hounslow and Slough. It’s regularly been reported that BAME people seem to have been disproportionately badly affected by CV-19. Whether this is because such groups have less access to healthcare, are more likely to work in front-line jobs or have some cultural or genetic pre-disposition isn’t clear and won’t be until more research has been done. Leicester is the first city to be faced with such measures. It probably won’t be the last: The Guardian reports that there’s a similarly worrying rise in cases in Bradford, as it happens, another very diverse city.
I can also tell you some more things about Leicester that you might not know, all courtesy of the Population UKwebsite. It has the largest outdoor market in Europe, the continent’s largest Tesco and was the location of the sale of the first package holiday, in 1841. Given that large gatherings and foreign travel seem to be two of the main reasons why Covid-19 spreads so fast, perhaps Leicester’s lockdown was preordained.
• The question has been asked whether the government’s way of releasing data has, as the Financial Times suggests, ‘hampered the ability of local leaders [including perhaps in Leicester] to manage new Coronavirus outbreaks.’ Pillar 1 data derives from hospital tests and Pillar 2 from other methods such as drive-through centres and home tests. However, the regional figures only tend to use the former, even though the latter are now more common. The graphs in the FT article clearly show that the addition of Pillar 2 data makes a fairly startling difference to the results. The article goes on to quote a un-named Public Health England official and a senior health administrator in Manchester, both of whom are critical of the delay and the quality of the data. It all seems a bit bemusing to me, rather as if a shop accounted for its cash transactions on the day they happened but didn’t report the card receipts until two weeks later. It’s impossible to see why doing this this way would be a good idea so it can only be that there is some huge, systemic flaw in the whole process which has only recently been exposed.
• Contact-tracing – another key part of the government’s response – is in similar disarray, with the much-vaunted NHS app having been ditched last month. Meanwhile, it appears that this app, a joint project involving ZOE, the Scottish and Welsh governments and NHS services and King’s College London, is working well: according to the website it’s been downloaded nearly four million times and is ‘the largest public science project of its kind anywhere in the world.’ Rather than make grandiose and over-hyped predictions, these people just go on with it.
• An app is only part of the contact-tracing process. For years this has been done manually by locally-based teams which (in my personal experience) are very effective at dealing with cases of notifiable diseases such as Campylobacter and Hepatitis A. By any rational thought process, the response would have been based on these experienced, though under-funded, networks. This has finally happened, but not before the government toyed with the idea of setting up a centralised network from scratch with staff recruited by Serco, an organisation with an appalling track record. The local councils appear to have been far more effective. West Berkshire, for instance, published its Local Outbreak Control Plan (LOCP) on 30 June, having been asked to do so only three weeks earlier. Swindon produced its on the same day. They, and all the other councils, should have been changed with this task in February or March; or, better still, after the Cygnus exercise in 2016 (which war-gamed a pandemic response), the results of which were according to an un-named insider deemed ‘too terrifying’ to be released to the public, even with an X certificate.
• This recently-announced initiative involves measuring Coronavirus in untreated sewage which could enable local outbreaks to be pinpointed about 10 days more quickly than currently.
• This article by the Director of the Wellcome Trust will make sober reading for anyone who nurtures the hope that the easing of lockdown restrictions in the UK means that the worst of the Covid threat is behind us. ‘The virus hasn’t gone away,’ he reminds us. ‘The road to eliminating Covid-19 still contains many unknowns. We don’t yet know how the virus will evolve, how immunity is generated or how long it lasts. We don’t have a vaccine to stop people getting sick, or a range of different treatments to help them avoid the need for hospitalisation, or to prevent their symptoms from worsening if they’re already hospitalised.’ He also points out that the pandemic could cost the global economy $12tn, about 15% of the world’s GDP. (Quite how important this is, given that money at this kind of scale ceases to have much meaning, is another matter. As suggested before, might there be better ways to measure ourselves than GDP, which is essentially a measure of consumption?)
• The best part of the government’s response appears to be its financial measures which, though not without some teething troubles and holes in the net, were swift, generous and effective. The technical and political reaction has been far less good. Thank goodness this country has a functioning health service, some of the world’s finest universities, IT companies and medical research teams and a network of dedicated district and parish councils which have, certainly in this part of the country, worked well with each other and the amazing army of local volunteer groups which sprung up almost overnight in early April. It is these organisations, and not the central government, that we should be thanking. The government could recognise this not by offering empty tributes but by ensuring that all of them are properly funded in the future. We are the sixth richest country in the world so, providing we can shake off the allure of absurd vanity projects like HS2, we can afford to do this. Indeed, as the last few months have shown, we cannot afford not to.
• And speaking of HS2, as I do from time to time, the Green Party’s West Berkshire and Newbury Town Councillor Steve Masters is for the time being officially arboreal and now conducting his municipal business via Zoom and Skype from half way up an oak tree in a wood near Great Missenden. This is one of the many bits of the landscape that will need to be razed to the ground to enable people to travel from London to Birmingham 19 minutes faster than at present and Steve and several others are protesting. The wood in question is the one that inspired Roald Dahl to write Fantastic Mr Fox.
• It’s depressing that, even when the times seem to permit or encourage a sea-change in the way politicians present issues, that old measures should still be dressed up as new ones. The PM’s recent ‘Build, Build, Build’ announcement contains little that’s new and fails to address a planning system which is unable to bridge the gap between the three demands of (1) more social or ‘affordable’ (defined as being rented at no more than 80% of the market rate) housing; (2) the reliance on the private sector, which understandably has no desire to build homes which are not profitable; and (c) the needs of the climate emergency, to which most councils have signed up, which requires higher standards, and thus higher costs: or which will do when the Future Homes Standards regulations are imposed, which might not be for another five years. The issue of planning is emotive, technical and complicated and I don’t pretend to be an expert. However, two thing seem clear to me.
The first is that if the government wishes to have more social or ‘affordable’ homes built, the private sector is not able to provide these, and nor should it be expected to: the government, or local councils, need to build these themselves and in the latter case should be given every reasonable encouragement to do so. The second is the insidious practice of Permitted Development Rights which, crucially ‘derive from a general planning permission granted by Parliament, rather than from permission granted by the local planning authority.’ This in essence enables owners of certain types of commercial property to change its use to residential without the inconvenience of having the proposal submitted to the scrutiny of the local planning system. Arguments could be made that by-passing red tape – a recurring argument – is a good thing. This is to ignore the fact that many of the resulting properties might be too small, too unsafe, irrelevant to the needs the planning authority has decided and in the wrong place, with little or non access of suitable transport or amenities. The current governmental proposal is to extend these rights.
If we have planning authorities which make local plans – which we do – then we have to accept that they need to have some control over what is built in their area. PDRs provide an alternative, fast-track (which is often seen as ‘good’ but which can be anything but) system which can be used to create the illusion that housing numbers are being hit whereas in fact these might be little more than the creation of opportunistic dwellings which form no part of a council’s aspirations for the areas. Although councils are not infallible in their ambitions their planning officers tend to know what they are doing and are professionals with years or decades of experience at navigating the competing demands of local plans, local needs, developer interests and national legislation. If we’re going to avoid a completely centralised system (or no system at all) then PDRs need to be abolished and all planning decisions made by a proper process. (It would also be useful if discussions at committees could be conducted according to the previous inclusive method of Q&As for all interested parties rather than them more restrictive approach that West Berkshire – though not some other councils – have taken.) The planning process is irrelevant and abstract until something is proposed which might affect you, at which point it becomes exactly the opposite.
• Of course, the whole planning process has been brought into disrepute by the actions of Robert Jenrick with regard to the Westferry development in London.The Housing Communities and Local Government Select Committee has written to Mr Jenrick, calling for him to answer 26 unanswered questions relating to the issue. It’s worth reminding ourselves that, had he not been forced to declare his own decision to approve the development unlawful, the timing of the deal would have cost Tower Hamlets council at least £30m in CIL payments. £30m – wow, that’s enough to pay for about 100 metres of HS2…
Thursday 25 June 2020
• Aside from the appalling events in Reading, the newspaper headlines in the last few days have been dominated by the government’s announcements that lockdown restrictions are to be relaxed on 4 July (although many people seem to have taken unilateral action about this). The messages from the papers themselves are variations on the themes of (a) ‘let’s all go down the pub’ and (b) ‘this could end badly’.
• Speaking of Reading, as this article in The New Statesman points out, most media sources seem to be coy about the fact that the victims were all gay men: rather they make this point when describing them individually but leave us to join up the dots. It may be in these troubled times a decision has been made not to rock humanity’s boat any more by pointing out that a madman who happened also to be Muslim killed three men who happened to be gay. It may be that they had other things in common but, unless they were all known to the attacker and had diss-ed him in some way, it’s hard to see how this might present a better motive. It is a stark fact that gay people, and other groups, are often attacked because of their orientation or belief and this appears, yet again, to have happened here. The extent to which religion can cause, inflame or justify self-righteous violence can be debated all day long. Having spent may last year at university studying the Crusades I can assure you that it does happen. I doubt human nature has changed that much since then.
• With a search for a Covid vaccine becoming ever-more urgent, the question arises as to on whom it might be tested. Countries in Africa have reacted with a mixture of approval and fury to the suggestion that large-scale trials take place there. The arguments are complex, emotive and often technical so I won’t try to summarise them. This article on the BBC website covers some of them. One point that I haven’t seen made in anything I’ve read about this is that Africa is, by a considerable margin, the most genetically diverse continent on earth. I don’t know if this is likely to make trials there more or less useful.
• Covid has already claimed many lives: but there’s also a lot of collateral damage building up. One is the question of loneliness and social isolation. If the pandemic has so far taught us anything it’s (1) that communities need to look after their more isolated people, as most have done; and (2) if you don’t use the internet or if you have a bad connection you’re a second-class citizen. This one can easily be dealt with – scrap HS2 and use a tiny part of the money saved to bribe, bully or cajole the various telecoms firms to install something fast and robust. The first is more complex. Volunteer networks have sprung up all over the country to help people who really need it. The test will come in the next month or so as the immediate need wanes and the volunteers return to work. Will the motivation remain when the emergency subsides? Will those of any age who crave human interaction – and not all do – find their situation improved? This isn’t something that can be legislated for.
• Another is the question of domestic violence and controlling behaviour. As Women’s Aid’s The Domestic Abuse Report 2020: The Hidden Housing Crisis points out, nearly three quarters of women remain in abusive relationships because of concerns about being able to find somewhere else to live. As incomes are likely to drop, and as we already have a serious housing crisis, this is unlikely to improve. The more immediate effects of being trapped in such a situation during lockdown have been widely reported: this article from The Financial Times looks at the situation in France and Spain.
• A third is the question of addiction. Tony Adams – former Arsenal captain, the master of the offside trap (remember the arms shooting into the air in The Full Monty?) and founder of the addiction charity Sporting Chance – suggested earlier this week that perhaps as many as a million people had relapsed during lockdown. Even though some of these might be quite minor falls from grace and allowing for an element of exaggeration, it can be translated as ‘a lot’. I’d imagine that recovery from an addiction such as to drugs, alcohol or gambling involves a support network at which you have to be physically present: part of a pattern of behaviour (which might include things like going to work) which is determined by external demands. In the last three months all this has vanished and we’ve been thrown back on our own resources, supported (or not) by who we happen to have been locked-down with. If I’d had any good intentions in late March I doubt the last three months would have enabled me to keep them up. The whole period has been characterised by a sense of time being in suspension, in circumstances of varying degrees of congeniality, to which normal rules don’t apply. Time will tell how well we can re-set our mental clock to later March and pick up from there.
• Finally on this theme – and this is a bit different from the previous three – there’s the question of our universities. This was partly prompted by our son Adam (who’s spent CV-19 in Vietnam) saying that he’d decided to defer his offer from Bristol. We couldn’t blame him: who wants to have a fresher’s week on Zoom? This led me to think about how this all might affect universities in general. I spoke to a couple of friends, both university professors, about this.
For most of the 20th century the way universities were funded and regarded continued almost unchanged until – and how often have you read this phrase – Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. An Oxford science graduate (and, I think, the last scientist PM), she nevertheless decided that the way her alma mater and all the rest of them were organised needed a thorough spring clean. The main results of this were the start of the conversion of polytechnics (which previous offered a vital but quite different education) to universities and the partial subjugation of the entire further-education edifice to the needs of the market. Two more changes followed after the 1997 election of Tony Blair, her political and spiritual disciple in more ways than he would ever admit. The first was the introduction of tuition fees in 1998, which led to a slightly farcical free-market-economy of choice based on cost which persists to this day; the second was the more general aspiration that more people should have a university experience. This seems to have had some success, as there are currently about 1.8m undergraduates in the UK, about 50% more than in 1997. Whether the university experience, as opposed to something else, has benefitted them all is another question
What this university experience should be has also been thrown into sharp relief by Covid. Studying something you enjoy and hopefully getting a better job at the end of it are part of it (although, as many recent graduates I know could testify, no guarantees can be attached to the latter). At least as important is the social interaction, which can’t be done virtually. A number of students, my son included, have chosen to defer. This is a high-risk strategy: universities will perhaps be more sympathetic to people who, having been started their course, want to take a year out as a result of Covid. In 2021, assuming things have normalised, there may be an even greater struggle for places than currently. Universities may, for the forthcoming academic year, be happy to accept lower student numbers given the uncertainties as to how they can all be provided for and this may need to continue in 2021 and beyond.
In the longer term, however, the problem for universities will be not so much how many students they have than where they come from. According to Universities UK, in 2017-18, about 15% of undergraduates and 36% of post-graduate students in the UK were from overseas. Most of these (which from next year will include EU students too) pay higher fees than do domestic students, for whom whom £9,000 in the maximum. These can rise as high as £50,000pa: but let’s assume that the average is £20,000pa. On this basis, the revenue contributed by the 90,000 Chinese students alone in 2018-19 is £1.8bn, not far short of the entire non-collegiate annual revenues of the University of Cambridge. In all, it’s estimated that overseas students contribute at least £3bn to the British further-education system. What will happen if these people fail to turn up in October? Some universities – perhaps overburdened with what have proved to be ill-timed debts for accommodation blocks or facilities – may go to the wall. For some, a lean year followed by an uncertain future may be a bridge too far. Many Vice-Chancellors may at this moment be taking phone calls from organisations which, six months ago, they would have hung up on. If money and survival is involved, strange pacts may be done. Are we certain that an education system that is meant to be independent will not be compromised?
The UK has two huge advantages compared to other countries. The first is that our universities punch well above their weight and attract, perhaps partly through sentiment or tradition but largely through excellence, more than our fair share of first-rate students and teachers (and funding). Members of the Russell Group such as UCL, Cambridge, Imperial, Edinburgh and Oxford regularly feature in the top 10 of any international list by almost every measure. This excellence is to be found everywhere. To pick two examples from many, the University of Paisley is the go-to place if you need to find people to design computer games; Aberystwyth University was responsible for building the Mars lander that is due to arrive on the red planet next year. The second is that the UK’s major competitor, the USA, has shot itself in the foot. It’s in the grip of a Covid-19 crisis even worse than ours and has also decided to suspend green cards, so depriving students of the ability to work in holidays either flipping burgers or for relevant high-tech firms and help pay for the costs of the education, the tuition fees of which alone can exceed £100,000. Schadenfreude is perhaps not a noble emotion but it’s one that many UK administrators may be indulging in. They will also hope that the UK university ‘brand’ is strong enough to continue to attract overseas students post-Covid and that any shortfall in 2020-21 Weill thus be temporary. However, the pandemic has proved how the smallest thing – and there aren’t many things smaller than a virus – can disrupt every aspect of life. It’s possible that that one result of Covid will be an increased reluctance to travel. If that proves to be a permanent change, UK universities will need to look f0r alternative sources of funding.
• The 20 June edition of New Scientist writes about the International Health Regulations (IHR) that were defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) from the mid-1990s onwards and which were signed up to by 196 countries. A recent WHO survey suggested that only slightly over a half of the countries were ‘operationally ready’ for dealing with a pandemic and that fewer than 20% were ‘at the highest level of readiness’. The article also points out that, also according to the WHO, both the UK and South Korea were judged to have had a ‘very high level of preparedness’ with regards to testing capacity: however, as this article in The Guardian points out,, its easy to see which of these countries has so far performed better. ‘Clearly,’ as New Scientist points out, ‘preparation and response are not the same thing – a vital lesson for the next pandemic.’
• The PM said at a press briefing this week that no country had a working contact-tracing app. This would not seem to be the case.
• So the pubs and restaurants, or some of them, will be re-opening on 4 July. I don’t know who’s idea it was that this should be on a Saturday: surely a soft re-launch on a Monday would be better, given all the uncertainties and the various hoops they need to jump through. There’s also the question of whether there’ll be enough beer. Some landlords in the area we’ve spoken to are slightly concerned about this so you should expect that the previous range might not be available. There’s also the problem of disposing of any liquid stock which has gone off: I understand that above a certain quantity permission needs to be obtained from the water company if this is to be put down the drain. The Lambourn Valley already has a problem with its foul-water system. The prospect of the streets flowing with a mixture of groundwater, sewage and past-its-sell-by-date IPA doesn’t bear thinking about.
• I also spoke to a local brewery, Butts in Great Shefford. Chris Butt told me that he had continued brewing during lockdown and providing mainly bottled beer but also some kegs for pubs which were offering draught beer as part of their take-away service. As his beers are conditioned for longer than usual, each of his batches is ready in about two weeks although other brewers might have a faster turnaround. He also agreed that it was impossible to predict demand, and thus how much he should produce, as it wasn’t yet clear which pubs would be re-opening nor how many customers they’d have.
The brewers are, of course, only part of the supply chain and they need to source their ingredients. There have been rumours of a shortage of yeast, for instance. One side-effect of brewers getting back to normal production will be the wider availability of large jars of Marmite, as this is, it seems, a by-product of the beer-making. Whilst writing, I’d add that Butts’ beer is excellent and can be bought from a number of local retailers or direct from them. I particularly recommend the Barbus. In fact, what’s the time…?
• Evidence suggests that CV-19 cases are rising again, possibly as a direct result of the easing of restrictions. It’s therefore possible that regulations may need to be re-imposed at any time. Some retailers seem not to be rushing to re-open until there’s a reasonable chance this will be permanent. Others may be wanting to size up what others in their sectors are doing to apply the regulations.
• I like a pint or two of beer in convivial surroundings but the re-opening I’m really looking forward to is that of the swimming pool at the Hungerford Leisure Centre. Despite the fact that swimming-pool water can probably kill every virus known the man the problem, as I underwent, is the changing area. Anyway, it will open when it opens and I’ll be at the front of the queue in, I hope, late July. If I were to make up the swimming distance that I’d have lost since it closed in late March I’d need to swim about three times across the Channel just to get myself up to where I should be. I somehow doubt this is going to happen.
• In the planning process, parish councils can have their wishes over-ruled by the officers of the planning authority (such as the Vale of White Horse or West Berkshire). The officers can, in turn, have their view challenged if a ward member decides to call the matter in to committee, which may result in a decision against the officer’s recommendations. If the applicant wants to appeal, the matter can end up with HM Planning Inspectorate which can decide to over-rule the planning authority. That, you might think, is a long enough chain. However, there’s a higher authority, the Secretary of State. Even when all the above-mentioned groups share the same view, it’s possible for the Secretary of State to over-rule them. This has recently happened with a controversial 1,500-home development in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. This article in OnLondon suggest that there are some potentially serious allegations to be answered, not least because the timing of the announcement saved the developer (and cost Tower Hamlets) an estimated £30m in CIL payments. The Secretary of State is Robert Jenrick, the same man who earlier this year threatened the South Oxfordshire District Council with the removal of its planning powers for having the temerity to say that it wasn’t to re-evaluate the draft local plan, the main matter on which the May 2019 election campaign there had been fought (and won). Neither of these decisions suggest any faith by Mr Jenrick in planning officers, local councillors or the result of municipal elections. Anyone who feels that the planning system is broken will find ample evidence for their fears in these two examples.
• Newbury MP Laura Farris told this week’s NWN that she was ‘prepared to rebel’ against the government had it not made its U-turn over free school meals in the summer holidays (which should be known as the Rashford Swerve). I don’t want in any way to denigrate her fighting spirit but this was quite an easy statement to make as it was then clear that she did not in fact have to rebel. I’d much rather she had done this over the recent Agriculture Bill which, as reported last week, will risk lowering imported food standards. This would not really have been a rebellion as several previous ministers, including Michael Gove in 2018, had said that maintaining current standards was ‘a red line’.
• I have far more sympathy for her on the matter of her presence at the Black Lives Matter protest last week. This was one she couldn’t win: not turn up and she’d been accused of being unaware; turn up and take part and she’d be accused of – well, you can read one response yourself, the second letter on this week’s NWN’s letters’ section. The writer says at one point that ‘at least Priti Patel, a person of colour, was quick to condemn the inaction of the Bristol police.’ What does her colour have to do with it? She’s the Home Secretary and almost obliged to make remarks like this. He goes on to say that by ‘taking the knee…she is supporting the incompetent police of Bristol…(which was) subjected to mob rule’ which seems to be pitching it a bit strong and joining up some dots which are quite a long way apart. Another writer criticises the NWN for having a cover photograph which only showed white people at the event. The photo was used because it was of the local MP, surrounded by five people all of whom happened to be white. What was the photo editor meant to do – get Photoshop fired up? The photos inside showed plenty of diversity. In any case, the fact that so many white people attended the event is surely good news.
BLM as an organisation may have its enemies for its politics but the apolitical message it’s sending out seems to be striking a chord. The fact that six white people, including a Conservative MP, were photographed at an anti-racism rally surely indicates some good sign of change. However, yet another letter-writer suggests that her attendance may have been more to do with ‘her own political ambitions.’ So, if you are organising an event which shows the slightest sign of being controversial and which you’d like Laura Farris to attend, I for one would excuse her if she replied ‘I’m terribly sorry but I’m going to be having a bit of a cold that weekend…’
Thursday 18 June 2020
• It seems that a new ‘wonder drug‘ (an epithet that’s all to easy to apply as it sells a lot of newspapers) has been identified – not the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, nor bleach, both of which the US president endorsed, but dexamethasone, a steroid that has the massive advantages of being cheap and easy to manufacture. This isn’t a preventative but does improve recovery rates amongst the most seriously ill. A number of countries have been looking at it but the UK had the biggest trial and was the first to get the findings rushed out as a treatment for CV-19. The approval from NICE has jumped the gun on the formal announcement of the results but this is the new norm for serious illnesses: other countries may well have done the same thing or will be about to do so. (Much the same happened with Ebola when two vaccines were approved before trials had been completed, the logic being that the outcomes with no treatment were so poor.) This is one time in the pandemic (the support packages offered to businesses being perhaps another) where the UK – at least its scientists – can claim to have led the world.
• Man of the week would seem to Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford who, armed with a huge number of Twitter followers and fairly recent memories of a childhood in poverty, managed to get the government to change its policy about free school meals over the summer. He’s obviously a principled and thoughtful young man who’s used his popular image to great effect and (despite the club he plays for) I salute him. However, the question arises as to whether aspects of our spending should be determined in this way. We elect governments to make decisions based on a number of factors, including social justice and popular opinion. The government employs an obscene number of management consultants and other communication experts. It seems odd that the original policy wasn’t spotted as a potential elephant trap. It seems to be further evidence that there is a real and worrying disconnect between the rulers and the ruled, which the exigencies of the pandemic have perhaps exacerbated. Meanwhile, poor Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, managed to get the man’s name wrong when he thanked him, calling him Daniel Rashford.
As Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s Political Editor put it, anyone can change their minds. The problem for a government comes when to do this is seen as weakness. recent Conservative leaders may feel overshadowed by Churchill and Thatcher, both of whom stuck to their guns (whether either was a good Prime Minister is a separate debate). Politicians of any colour tend to see an apology as the very worst and weakest thing they can do: this despite the fact that it’s often the best and the strongest; and that screwing up, pretty much on a daily basis, is part of the human condition. To see people so obviously making mistakes so rarely admitting to them creates yet another gulf between us and them. It’s also incredibly disarming. If someone apologises to me, my first reaction is often to say ‘no, no, it was my fault really.’ However, as the same writer points out, with each U-turn (with or without an apology) ‘you can hear a little piece of a government’s credibility being chipped away.’ To change too rarely or too often are both as risky. The trick, of course, is to get the right decision in the first place. I come back again to the army of advisors the government employs. This story could suggest two things: positive people power; or a government completely blindsided by a 22-year-old footballer.
• As for public apologies, the football season kicked off on Wednesday, after a 100-day break, with a Premier League match between Sheffield United (chasing a European place) and Aston Villa (battling relegation). The match finished 0-0 but Sheffield United had a goal ruled out even though it crossed the line, for which Hawkeye, the company responsible for the goal-line technology, immediately issued an apology. It perhaps has nothing to do with free school meals except, perhaps, financially. This article in Schools Week suggested that the cost of these meals could be £120m (though I’ve seen the lower figure of £89m). This article from Sky News suggests that the cost of relegation from the Premier League is at least £50m. Leaving aside what these suggest about our national priorities, the sums of money involved (which is what so many things come down to) are comparable. Hawkeye’s apology was also far braver as it has but a single victim which might use this as a grounds for legal proceedings. An apology for a national error, even one involving deaths, is easier to deal with as the results are spread across thousands or millions of people: also, an apology generally needs to the problem being fixed, which is all most people in most cases expect. So, let’s see the politicians (at every level) try it. Once a month – let’s take it one step at a time – have a day when you’re going to apologise for something that you’ve done or which you’ve been associated with. What’s the worst that could happen? Well, OK, if you’re a minister you’ll probably get sacked (though it you’re a special advisor you probably won’t). But, if you survive, might people not trust you a bit more?
• The plane used by the PM and members of the Royal Family is to be re-painted, according to BBC: not in itself a major story, perhaps. However, the timing of the announcement, just after the school meals U-turn and the news about dexamethasone, both of which now need to be bought in large numbers, was a little odd. The government’s presentational skills and political sense seem to have collapsed in recent weeks so perhaps it’s not that odd. I must say, I never knew it cost £900,000 to paint a plane. However, it isn’t just painting. The BBC article refers to the dreaded word ‘re-branding’ which means that design consultants have got involved. The aspect of the story that’s most peculiar, however, is the statement that the exercise will ‘better represent’ the UK abroad. I find the idea rather sweet that it’s felt that the whole tone of diplomatic or state visits will shift in our favour as a result of a flashy fuselage. I thought it was what the people who got out of the plane said that was important?
• The Black Lives Matter protests continue. I’m confused as to why the murder of George Floyd should, among all the countless racially-motivated crimes in the USA and, to a lesser extent, in the UK, have caused such an explosion of sentiment. This article in the New York Times highlights the dramatic increase in support for the movement, though does little to explain it beyond referring to ‘the longstanding tendency for voters to drift toward the views of the party out of power on various issues.’ For whatever reasons, deep-seated unease was unleashed by the events in Minneapolis last month. Perhaps the enforced idleness and increased social-media engagements resulting from Covid were partly responsible.
Not all people agree with BLM’s approach. Candace Owens, a prominent conservative commentator and herself of Caribbean heritage, has described the movement of doing a disservice to black people. Its strongly left-wing stance on a number of issues has been criticised. So too has its willingness to organise protests during a lockdown. Though many, such as the recent one in Newbury, were peaceful, others have not been. George Floyd himself is perhaps not an ideal role model. None the less, the issue if racism is back on the front pages. What will change? Probably very little, unless every side is prepared to be honest about what it has done wrong. In the USA and the UK, slavery is the dark backdrop. This has been part of human history since records began and so is clearly a part of of our make-up. It still exists today.
However deep the generational psychological scars might be, it’s also important what each person has themselves done in the time they’ve spent in this world. We can’t rewrite or erase the past, as some have tried to do, and we’d be unwise to forget it. We can and should re-evaluate it, accept that we are a product of it and that by understanding it we can change the future. How well we do this largely depends on what lessons we learn in our schools and from our families. If either are deficient, the children who endure them became, at best, survivors. Society can’t micro-manage families; but it can provide an education system that from a very early age recognises the frailties and accidents of family life and does its best to improve the chances of the next generation. Look at it selfishly for a moment: those screaming two-year-olds next door or in the supermarket or outside the crèche will, before we know it, be ruling the world when we’re in our dotage and most in need of help. Don’t we want them to be as functional, compassionate and effective as they can be?
There seems nothing better a society can do than to spend money on looking after its children. A wealth of evidence suggests that the effects of matters such as absentee parents, poverty and deprivation can be mitigated by intervention (which doesn’t need to be intrusive, patronising or didactic) in the first few years of life. Many countries – including, it would seem, the UK and the USA – could improve on this. Maintained nursery schools, day centres, grants to play groups and the like are seen as soft targets when budget cuts come around. Both countries, particularly the USA, have a distaste for state intervention. If a fraction of each country’s national expenditure were diverted to improving circumstances for children in the first three or four years, much state intervention thereafter would be unnecessary. This would positively affect a number of ingrained fault lines, racial issues among them. No, of course it wouldn’t cure them: but if we can instil some qualities of tolerance, curiosity, empathy and respect at an early age then so many later problems will be avoided, for people from every ethnic, cultural and religious grouping.
If you think this sounds like a watered-down version of Brave New World then I apologise. We are social creatures and our interactions, for good or for ill, affect society as a whole, and have the capacity to rock the boat. This leads to the question of whether we can trust our teachers. Well, we have to make sure we can. Without that, everything else collapses. That seems to me to be the great challenge. If the government really wants to roll back the state it has to ensure that all our young citizens arrive at reception class with as much parity as possible. Those who are left behind at that stage may never catch up and the state may need to support them for the rest of their lives (which it can no longer afford to do). Anything that can be done to address this will help equalise every level of disadvantage and discrimination we face. There doesn’t seem to be any more important thing we can spend money on.
• On that subject, it would seem that the government’s plans for dealing with the financial impact of Covid on businesses have been a good deal more effective than some of their other policies. The support for the economy seems to have been pretty well received. We’ve not had to grapple with this ourselves as, despite a big fall in revenue, we’ve been working as hard as ever so for one of us to furlough was impossible. Other organisations and individuals have fallen through the net without being able to choose but it seems to have caught most people, at least until now. The problems are likely to start with the recent lockdown-lite (which may swiftly be followed by lockdown 2, the sequel none of us wants to see), which have exposed some ambiguities of whether you’re working or not working. Penny Post readers will have benefitted from the regular updates provided by Monty Accounting in Hungerford which have picked through the various schemes and provided useful links. The most recent update from them describes the guidance on the new flexible furlough as ‘very complicated’ and likely to provide ‘a miserable time for payroll departments.’ However, Monty Accounting goes on to say that ‘it is still a great scheme for businesses and employees. Bring your employees back as you need them – in all cases, employees will be better off financially for working than not working under this scheme.’
• Talking about money, my spending has never been more regular or predictable. For the last three months, I do most of our shopping in Hungerford on Wednesdays as that’s the day of the weekly market. Visits to the various stalls there, the Co-op, Christian Alba’s Butchers shop, Ratnams in Charnham Street and sometimes one of the garages provide the majority of our needs. Most of these are paid by card: so you might imagine that Barclays Bank’s algorithms would recognise that these were not fraudulent. Not a bit of it. On Wednesday, to my great inconvenience and humiliation, it decided to cancel my card. Two and a half hours on the phone (pre-Covid it would been about 30 seconds waiting) revealed that the suspicious transaction had been to the Co-op in Hungerford for £31. I said that I had paid by card there regularly for about 20 years, and never more regularly than in the last three months. The system, I was told, had regarded this as suspicious as it tended to when people made purchases from a number of outlets in a fairly short space of time. That, I said, is what people do when they go shopping. If it couldn’t spot that I do this at the same places every Wednesday the system was obviously flawed. He said that this was the way it worked. So the conversation raged on, both of us becoming more and more irritated with each other, neither of us altering our position by an inch. I made an official complaint but am not expecting anything to change. So, next Wednesday, my first action will be to go to a hole in the wall and then pay everyone in cash. This is exactly what they don’t want and what we’ve told we should avoid: but what choice do I have? Anyone else had anything like this happen? Post a comment below and tell me I’m not alone.
• Meanwhile, back on planet Covid, attention continues to focus on the effectiveness of each step of our government’s response. It’s impossible to pretend that this has been that great, in terms of protecting our lives or our economy. As I’ve mentioned before, the most damning criticism is the lack of preparedness for Something Like This, which was predicted by the Cygnus exercise in 2016 and not acted upon. There are a couple of other points worth mentioning. The UK is in some ways fortunate in that it’s an island state and frontiers are therefore easy to shut off. We didn’t, thought: and RNA sequencing suggests that perhaps as many as 1,300 cases were introduced from abroad. Greece, by contrast, has not only four land frontiers but also thousands of islands: a nightmare for any international lockdown. The UK is vastly richer and has an NHS service which is one of the word’s largest employers. Surely our performance would have been better than Greece’s? Wrong. In Greece, the mortality rate from Covid-19 has so far been one person per 57,300: in the UK it’s one per 1,580. That is about 36 times worse. International comparisons are tricky as reporting criteria differ: but even allowing for this, a pretty big gulf remains. What did Greece do that were should have done? This might be worth finding out for when Covid-20 arrives.
The latest Private Eye has something to say on the subject too, as you might expect. The MD column has been superb throughout and this week points out that there were two main failings. The first was a lack of PPE and of a test, trace and isolate system (which we still haven’t got right): many countries that did have a comprehensive system, the article suggests, avoided lockdown altogether. As mentioned before, this is despite the Cygnus exercise in 2016 which war-gamed a very similar scenario. The second point MD makes is that, as a result of the lack of TTI, lockdown became inevitable. If something is increasing exponentially, as Covid-19 was in March, you have to act very, very quickly to put the breaks on. This did not happen, with the result that ‘the deaths mount up and we delay coming out.’
• Newbury MP Laura Farris, writing in this week’s Newbury Weekly News, said that when she stood for election in December it didn’t cross her mind that she’d be supporting her constituents through the worst pandemic in a century. Indeed not: I’d also bet she didn’t expect to have the front page of the NWN bearing a photo of her kneeling at a BLM protest, either. She is, she points out, a former employment lawyer and so takes the opportunity to have a pop at companies (BA being one she singles out) who might think that the general disruption and the government’s furlough scheme is an opportunity ‘to undertake a long-planned corporate restructure and halve staff pay.’ BA’s behaviour in this regard has been branded ‘a national disgrace’ by the House of Commons’ Transport Select Committee.
• Penny’s preferred method of post-work relaxation at the moment is listening to Stephen Fry reading the Harry Potter books (which I made a brief attempt to read but couldn’t get on with). The first time it spooked me out as it wasn’t the only occasion I’ve heard his voice coming through a wall: we had rooms next to each other for a year at university and I can remember him reciting lines from plays that he was learning; he, perhaps, can still remember my learning guitar parts, or beating my head on the table while trying to write an essay on Anglo-Norman feudalism. A few years ago I heard an interview he did about reading Harry Potter. The first book had a phrase – ‘Harry pocketed it’ – which, try as he might, he just could not say (give it a go – it’s not easy). At the end of that day’s recording he called JK Rowling and asked if he could change it to something else. There was a short silence. “No,” she said, and hung up. In all the other books, he revealed, she made sure that the same phrase appeared, just to mess with his head (he had already signed a deal to record the rest). So, the only intelligent question I can ask Penny each time I come into the room is “has Harry pocketed it yet?” The joke is probably wearing a bit thin. She tells me that he’s said it perfectly each time. That just goes to show what you can do if you practise: or, I guess, if you’re paid enough. Countless people have come to reading through following the text in the books and listening to his rendition, which JK Rowling had insisted for this this reason be word-for-word. I’d also like to point out that, with Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry created some of the best TV sketches you could find. Here’s a link to one of my favourites. There are loads of others, intelligent escapism for these gloomy times…
Thursday 11 June 2020
• The government’s trace and track system has come under fire from a number of experts, one of whom used the dreaded cliché ‘not fit for purpose.’ I still don’t understand why (a) the government is still fiddling around with the details of this now when nearly four years have passed since the pandemic exercise code-named Cygnus revealed the need for just such a system; and (b) why the government decided to build a new top-down system staffed people hired by Serco rather than build on the functional local structures that already existed for tracking notifiable diseases. West Berkshire Council (and I guess all the rest of them) have been put on standby to take over or share the operation of this and hopes to have a plan in place by the end of June (they were only landed with this last week), two weeks after the shops re-open and three and a bit months after lockdown started. To me this all slightly seems like commissioning the design for lifeboats after the ship has been holed by an iceberg.
• The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) announced on 10 June that the UK would be one of the economies worst hit by CV-19. It also appears that we have had the second-highest number of deaths (though this is shortly to be overtaken by Brazil), although statistics comparing countries are dangerous as they are based on different criteria. However, a broad-brush assessment would suggest that we have succeeded in protecting neither of the two aspects, wealth or health, that have often been cited as the main considerations. It’s worth saying at this point that according to everything I’ve read (and understood) the UK government seems to have mounted a fairly good rescue package for businesses. Even the crash of 2008 provided no template for this. On a level of pandemic preparedness, though, we did less well (particularly considering the Exercise Cygnus in 2016, the results of which appeared to have been ignored. Not many countries will get an ‘A’ for their reaction to this. South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam and New Zealand might claim one. I think we merit a ‘C’ or ‘D’; assuming that the new low is set by the USA and Brazil, and that ‘E’ (as it was in my day) is the lowest mark – apart from ‘U’ (unclassifiable), which is given to people who don’t turn up for the exam; or, in this case, to countries like North Korea and Tajikistan which deny that the disease exists at all.
• OCED’s report suggested that the UK’s economy could shrink by up to 14% by the end of 2020 but that it could recover in two years. How serious is this? Does that mean we’re all going to be 14% poorer or that we’ll be using 14% less of finite resources to fuel our appetite for ‘growth’? What is ‘growth’, in any case? There are things that we need and things that we want, and the pandemic has perhaps made the distinction slightly clearer. I’m not trying to further undermine the businesses which will suffer as a result of this. I’m just wondering if growth in terms of economic production is the only measure we can use to determine our worth. The world’s population is currently growing by about 1% a year so, assuming that continues, this might be a benchmark. Clearly, the vast majority of people enjoy lower standards of living than I, or many people in this part of this country, do, so it ill-behoves me to say that we should accept lower economic activity as acceptable. However, the issue of climate change – which along with so many other things – has been sidelined by Covid-19, is the big, existential threat we face. A reduction in economic activity, at least to the extent that it affects this, is fundamental, rather than (as with Covid) being a side-effect.
Back in early April, a friend told me that the lockdown was as if God (other deities exist) had used Covid as a means of sending us to our rooms to think about what we were doing. It might be worth bearing this in mind. For as long as I’ve been alive, my part of the world has consistently managed to get dealt pretty good cards each year. The combination of Covid (which has disproportionately affected wealthy countries, so far) and climate change (which will do the same) has changed this. Whatever the new reality is, shaped by both these transformative things the world is unlikely to be the same in 20 years time. The UK might well lose from this. Life can still be pretty good. The problem, nationally and internationally, is that of addressing the issue that some people, through birth or luck or an understanding of tax loopholes, are able to exploit the way that the system works to give them the best hand. The method of dealing the cards may well change, and in ways we cannot imagine. How adaptable are we? Adaptability might be a more a more useful way of measuring (if it can be measured) economic activity than GDP, which is little more than a record of consumption.
Even more elusive, though perhaps even more important, are measures based on qualities such as happiness. This is perhaps relevant when thinking about the lockdown. This unexpected pause in life has left some people despondent and others elated. Most businesses have felt their economic activity slow in the last few months. The immediate future looks bleak for many of them. Some, by contrast, have thrived. We will survive Covid and awe will survive climate change if we take it as seriously. In the aftermath, a lot of measurements of success – growth for its own sake being one – might be irrelevant. Assuming that comparative standards between countries or people are necessary (which some do not), what will replace them? I don’t know: but it needs to be something different. For me, GDP growth as my number-one gauge just doesn’t cut it any more. Any ideas?
• Newbury MP Laura Farris was one of the many who supported the 2020 Agricultural Bill which, as opponents have been quick to point out, leaves the door open for food imports of a lower standard that was the case during our EU days. It appears that trade deals have currently been done with 20 countries or groups, including the commercial powerhouses of Liechtenstein, the Faroe Islands, Kosovo and Georgia, so quite a few more will be in the pending tray. If we are serious about maintaining our food standards then is would seem to make sense ‘for the Department of Trade to have redlines imposed on it.’ This, however, is exactly what Laura Farris, quoted in an article on p9 of this week’s Newbury Weekly News, felt was not desirable, ‘as it’s meant to be a domestic agriculture bill.’ Taking the word ‘domestic’, this would be protecting the UK’s population. Taking the word ‘agriculture’, this would be protecting the UK’s farmers, something she was quick to stress was a major concern for her. Taking the word ‘bill’, this is a piece of legislation and so, unless it’s repealed or revised, binding on the government’s future decisions.
In response to a question about this from Penny Post, she also said that she was unhappy with aspects of the drafting, in particular the proposed stipulation that no trade agreement could be entered into unless the other country agreed that ‘any agricultural or food product imported into the UK under the agreement will have been produced or processed according to standards which are equivalent to, or which exceed, the relevant domestic standards.’ Her problem was with the first word, ‘any’, on the grounds that ‘there are always exceptions in every industry. For example, this would have meant that the UK Government could never agree a trade agreement with the USA, if the UK Government sought to import even one single food product for which there was no equivalent in the UK.’ This would surely have been easy to resolve at the drafting stage. She also felt that the reliance on ‘equivalent’ standards could ‘raise difficulties of interpretation and enforcement.’ This is, I can see, trickier but there must be plenty of precedents for this kind of comparison. Alternatively, the specific vital conditions that needed to have been met could have been spelled out. No law is ever going to be perfect. As with above-mentioned Exercise Cygnus, we’ve had since the summer of 2016 to think about this. We knew we were going to need to do trade deals. We knew were going to need to maintain food standards. Was no time spent on how this might be defined? (Laura Farris was only elected as an MP in December 2019, it should be pointed out. I’d also add that she so far seems to have been an effective and energetic representative of the area.)
The inference many have drawn from all of this is that the reluctance to include this provision means that the government has no intention of introducing it. It can, perhaps, foresee the situation when concluding a trade deal with the USA (Laura Farris’ example, not mine) will depend on our being able to offer access to the UK markets for any old stuff that their farmers wish to sell us.
• Meanwhile, the George Floyd incident in the USA has sparked demonstrations and reaction in many other countries, including the UK. There is clearly something systemically wrong with the way the US police force operates, and thus perhaps with US society as a whole. The protests, including here, have at times been violent and divisive. The extent to which the reaction should or can be proportionate to the initial crime, and how dangerously this can escalate, are matters many will never agree on. There are three other aspects that concern me, though.
The first is that, although there are now more ways than ever by which people can express their views, there also seems to be, perversely, a narrowing of the range of opinions which are considered acceptable. Anyone who steps out of line from whatever the prevailing orthodoxy is risks a social-media barrage which may obscure a good or interesting point, even though it might have been expressed in the wrong way, at the wrong time or to the wrong group of people. The non-platforming of speakers by student unions is one of the most foolish examples of this. If an idea or point of view is felt to be wrong (whatever ‘wrong’ is) then it deserves to be publicly dissected. By effectively banning certain topics we risk marginalising them. Ideas that might have been worthwhile, though perhaps out of step with the mood of the times, can get lost: while less beneficial ones can, without the constant exposure to the bracing wind of alternative views, turn into something genuinely poisonous. Any form of censorship is also to admit that we are in some way frightened of the idea, just as conversations about awkward subjects are often abruptly broken off when a child comes into the room. This, to a half-way inquisitive mind, confers on the half-heard idea a mixture of fear and fascination. The world of ideas becomes divided into those we can talk about freely and those we cannot, which doesn’t really serve either very well.
The second is that the number of apologies this has created. We’re used to seeing politicians making tortuously-worded statements of regret for things that, in some cases, happened centuries before they were born. Recently, a number of people, including the creators of Bo Selecta and Little Britain, have apologised for the way they portrayed some of their characters in the past. the networks appear to have agreed: Little Britain has been pulled from iPlayer and Neflix and The Mighty Boosh and the dark, brooding genius of The League of Gentlemen are, it seems, to be axed too. Others will follow. TV companies have their own reasons for wanting to avoid criticism but I don’t know how long we can continue to delete our past. What the creators are apologising for is not that the portrayals might be offensive now but that they were then. Leigh Francis of Bo Selecta told the Mirror that ‘Back then I didn’t think anything about it. People didn’t say anything, but I’m not going to blame other people.’ If he didn’t think about it and other people didn’t tell him, how was he meant to know? He could say ‘I won’t do that again’: but that isn’t enough at the moment. People who create things are now expected to apologise for not having had 20-20 prescience of what opinions would be in the future. It’s as if we’re sentencing ourselves for past crimes according to the tariffs that are in force now rather than those which prevailed at the time.
Then there are the statues. That of Sir Edward Colston – a notorious slavery apologist and also a major benefactor to the city, a combination which must cause a local moral problem of its own – was toppled into Bristol harbour last weekend (and has since been recovered). The Mayor said he ‘felt no sense of loss’ at its summary removal. If it was a good idea to destroy it last week, then it would also have been an equally good idea six months ago. Were there any moves to have it removed by more official means? There are thousands of such objects up and down the country, any one of which might give offence to someone. For a country or a council to erect a statue is to admit that the person and thus also the things they stood for are worth commemorating. It’s one thing to pull a TV show or change one’s writing style: removing statues is an expensive job and will in almost all cases be divisive and can appear to be an act of heavy-handed political censorship. And what will a statue be replaced with? If tastes are going to change in this way so quickly and so absolutely, we’ll be putting up and taking down statues every fifteen minutes. Should we have statues of such people at all? Even Winston Churchill, someone who was at one time regarded as the single-handed saviour of civilisation, now seems set to have his edifices culled.
We live in an age in which our view of what is acceptable, the way our culture reflects it and the way our monuments commemorate it, are imperfectly aligned. Perhaps it’s good to have some anachronistic TV shows and some dodgy statues around the place to remind us that different times have different standards and that there is no such thing as an absolute morality. The most worthy programmes or statues made or erected in 2020 may be similarly discarded in a few decades’ time, and probably for reasons their creators today would be unable to anticipate or comprehend. As anyone who watched Saddam Hussein’s statue being toppled in 2003 will be aware, pushing something over is one thing: it’s what happens afterwards that matters. Being able to have an honest and open discussion about why the statue was erected in the first place is an important part of that. In the present climate, such discussions seem less likely to happen than they should.
• There has been a theological debate in the letters page of NWN for the last few weeks: or, rather, it’s a debate between one person who believes that God self-evidently exists and another who doubts this. The most recent contribution is that ‘creation screams out that there is a caring God.’ I agree with the first three words, certainly at the moment: as for the rest, it’s impossible to see any evidence of a benevolent influence in nature, human or otherwise. The writer also suggests that ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’ If this means that atoms re-organise themselves to create new forms, then I agree: if it suggesting, as it appears to be, that there is a universal and immutable morality which is based on a view of the world formed in a pre-scientific age then I wish I did, but I don’t. There’s no reason to suggest a divine touch was required, as William Blake’s picture imagined it, to fire creation. All evidence suggests that any God is either not benevolent or not omnipotent, or possibly neither, either of which fatally undermines the whole business.The point is also made that Jesus told us to care for others. Indeed, but others offered the same advice, in some cases centuries before he was born. Religion has done a good job at appropriating morality as if it were its own private invention. Finally, she says that ‘no one can come to faith by argument or having points scored.’ I wonder where that leaves the Jesuits and the missionaries: or, indeed, this exchange of letters…
Thursday 4 June 2020
• I have no particular desire to go shopping (which apart from for food and books I’ve always loathed) or host a party or go to a club: which is probably just as well as I’m not at all clear what the new regulations governing these activities are meant to be. We can socialise with six people, I think: but do they have to be the same six people? It seems easier to carry on more or less as before, now that we’re in the groove. In Harlesden earlier this week, the view was taken that 80 people could each socialise with six others in the same place at the same time = 500 people = the arrival of the police = probably quite a few fines. If you want to see how the regulations have changed, you can do so here. It’s not an easy read.
• This article from Get Reading suggests that the R rate, the measure of the infection rate of CV-19, in the South East (which sometimes doesn’t include West Berkshire but seems to this time) is about 0.7, at the bottom (better) end of the table. The rate for the country as a whole is between 0.7 and 0.9. A rate of above 1 means that each person is on average infecting more than one other person and so the overall cases are rising. Left unchecked, the rate would be about 3.
• One of the results of Covid-19 has been the number of new words and phrases that have now become commonplace. Self-isolation. social-distancing, the R number, reducing the curve, lockdown and sourdough bread are all fairly new terms for most of us but which we all still be needing to use this time next year at least, unless I’m very wrong. To this list must also be added the word ‘Zoom’ which, to anyone of my generation, was a few months ago just a memory of a childhood iced lolly. It’s also, of course, a US company currently valued at over $40bn. As this article in The Guardian reports, its software was downloaded about 2.1 million times worldwide on 23 March 2020, up from about 55,000 times a day two months before. I’ve used it several times, mainly to keep in touch with my four sons and to participate virtually in various council meetings, and have found it pretty good. Others agree – but does it deserve its hype? I asked a couple of friends of mine, both computer-science academics, to see what they thought.
Security was an issue to start with, I was told, particularly as a result of people being able to set up meetings with no password access but this has been fixed. Of course, we all have to trust that Zoom isn’t itself spying on us but the same accusation could be made about any similar tools: and there are others to choose from. An unofficial survey conducted by the University of Cambridge’s Computer Science Department to choose the most appropriate platforms for the various kinds of virtual events it needs to host puts Zoom ahead on most measures, except perhaps security; but it seems an upgrade plan is in progress to add some very strong encryption.
• Uncertainty still many aspects of the government’s testing and tracing policy, if policy is the right word for something that seems to change as frequently as does the weather. The word ‘unprepared’ crops up a lot when writing about HMG’s response. There are a number of good reasons – the 2016 Operation Cygnus simulation, the results of which seem to have been ignored, being one – as to why this shouldn’t have been allowed to happen. One of the most baffling is the government’s decision not to use perfectly good existing local systems for contact tracing and instead try to create a totally new, top-down and centralised structure. The latest Private Eye describes this as comprising ‘17,000 call-centre staff with customer-service skills only, on just above the minimum wage, using a malfunctioning IT system and supplied by a Serco contract.’ The last aspect is perhaps the most worrying as the company’s track record at implementing its numerous public-service contracts honestly and efficiently is (as this report in The Independent explains) even worse than the government’s at specifying and controlling them. Fortunately, it appears there’s a fall-back plan to use local councils after all. I spoke to a West Berkshire councillor this morning who confirmed that this had just been discussed by the council (and therefore, I imagine, by others up and down the land). I was told that it was still ‘very early days’ and that it would probably be a couple of weeks before the plans were finalised. That seems reasonable from West Berkshire’s point of view: what seemed inexplicable was why this all hadn’t happened in February.
Connected with this is the fact the lockdown-lite may need to merge into lockdown-local. If a cluster of cases is detected in a village but not in its neighbours then locking down that village would be necessary. How would this be enforced? Does the council have the necessary powers? Can it make them stick? It was suggested to me that the parish or town council would need to be involved – if nothing else to help with the PR and information aspects – and also perhaps the volunteer groups that have sprung up. Bottom-up measures have worked a lot better than top-down ones so far but asking parishes to assume a role akin to law enforcement is quite a step. Again, I’m not blaming West Berkshire for this. The government, yet again it seems, was for too long obsessed by the idea that centralisation is the only way to address the virus.
• The question of the PPE supply problems also refuse to go away, mainly because of the numerous stories in local papers up and down the land about the heroic efforts of local people in making these. My reaction to this is similar to what I felt about Captain Tom’s fundraising efforts: brilliant work, hats off all round but should we be relying on this method of funding and supplying the NHS? My eye was caught by a headline in this week’s Newbury Weekly News which said, on p26, that one Thatcham sewing group had been ‘responsible for supplying 75% of the Berkshire Healthcare NHS Trust’s PPE equipment. This seemed a staggering statistic. I then read the article and discovered that in fact is was 75% of the ‘donated scrubs’, probably not the same thing at all.
The article also doesn’t say what percentage of the Trust’s PPE gear was donated rather than purchased, which makes the overall importance of the gesture hard to judge (I later learned that the paper had been trying to get more information about this). It does, however, quote a trust spokesperson as saying that ‘we have been unable to purchase any scrubs from our usual procurement routes and are relying totally on the work of volunteer sewers’, which suggests that the total and the donated figures may be quite similar. Could these points be cleared up next week? The over-riding and shocking aspect of the story is that local NHS services can’t rely on their supply chains. What would have happened if there had been no local sewing groups? Even when supplies exist, many might not be able to afford them. Local home-care supplier Bluebird reported that in April suppliers were ‘selling gloves, aprons and facemasks often at prices up to 20 times what would be considered normal.’
• To return to Zoom, the only failings I’ve experienced with it have been due to connectivity and so not Zoom’s fault at all. This leads to the question of why in a country as compact and as wealthy as the UK there is still not complete coverage of superfast broadband. The fear of service dropping out or collapsing has been at the back of everyone’s minds these last few months. The period has also proved that a lot of businesses can operate surprisingly well by remote control. The problem comes if a key staff member is in an area of poor signal. Here in East Garston we have about 21Mbps upload and about 6Mbps download: less than we were promised by BT and below Ofcom’s 30Mbps definition of superfast, but adequate for running Penny Post and a social life. Some friends of ours half a dozen miles upstream in Upper Lambourn get speeds of about a tenth of this on a good day. The story, here and elsewhere, seems to be a tangled one of a number of companies failing to live up to the various commitments they’ve made. The Upper Lambourn situation is, I understand, being looked into afresh (and it seems that West Berkshire is near the top of the table for rural broadband) but there are many other similar areas, here and elsewhere. Part of the problem is that some of the companies the government is dealing with are, like Serco, too large to be held to account and also too large to be allowed to fail. As with the separate but in some ways similar relationship between the government and property developers, the problem arises from expecting private companies, which are driven by profit, to execute government policy, which is (or often should be), driven by longer-term considerations of the common good.
• The combination of the government’s procurement problems, over-mighty contractors, the parlous state of the public finances and the challenge of connecting the country in the best possible way leads us back, as so many things do, to HS2; the morbidly obese and ever-hungry elephant in the room. The most recent Private Eye notes, on p21, that the current cost-to-benefit ratio, already ‘low value for money’, might fall still further. One possible reason is that post-Covid it’s likely that demand for the kind of business travel that underpins HS2’s assumptions is likely to decline. If the economic case collapses one is left wondering what the elephant’s purpose is, aside from the enrichment of its participants. Re-opening closed lines and stations to reflect local needs, increasing electrification and getting a serious grip on the broadband network could all be accomplished for far less money: or could have been. HS2 has now acquired a life of its own. It’s an elephant that we don’t really need and can’t afford but has already eaten so much that it’s got too big to have put down. Another image might be of a poker player with a very poor hand who stays in the betting merely because he’s being egged on by the other players. Only by continuing to match the regular raises, his distorted logic runs, can he retain any faint control over the vast amount of his money that’s already in the pot. Wiping the swat from his eyes, he glimpses at his cards again. Yes, the nightmare is coming true – his hand really is getting worse each time he looks at it. It now seems to be down to a pair of threes. This is particularly awkward because, when he had a whip-round from his friends in the next room to fund his game, he told them he had a straight flush.
• The USA seems to be going to pieces at the moment, apparently largely ungovernable and not at ease with itself. I had a petition in my inbox this morning asking me to protest against the UK government’s continued sale of riot shields and tear gas to the USA. I was surprised as I’d always imagined the US would have many thriving companies producing these kind of items for domestic consumption. (Governments have infinite ways of justifying such traffic. I remember about three decades ago a minister being asked why the UK was permitting the export iron leg manacles to a range of countries, sometimes in vast quantities. ‘We only sell them,’ he said, with no trace of irony that I could detect, ‘to countries with good human rights records.’ The USA wouldn’t qualify as one of these at the moment.) I was chatting to a friend about this today and we both agreed that the George Floyd thing was a bit hard to get a grip on as we, unlike many in the US, have not been subjected to a lifetime of persistent discrimination by armed and in some cases mentally ill policemen. The point has been made – including by our PM in another lacklustre speech the other day – that protests should stay within the law. It’s a fair point: but for many people the law has failed them, just as it had failed the the suffragettes or the Civil Rights protesters. One also needs to consider at what point the level of protest becomes disproportionate to the injustice. As we have not experienced it ourselves, it’s perhaps not for me, or Bo-Jo, to say what that point might be. I’m not condoning anything, you understand – I just don’t know what these people have had to put up with.
• Moving right along and changing the key from major to minor, the making of sourdough bread has become something of a national obsession. Our house is not immune. Penny is always up for a challenge – our bread machine with its precise quantities and automatic operation falls way short of what she demands – and has gone head to toe with sourdough these last few weeks. There can be few foodstuffs more difficult to prepare. Looking after a very small baby can hardly be more demanding given all the feeding and swaddling and temperature-taking. Babies, at least until they start crawling, are also far less messy. If Paddington Bear had spent an unsupervised afternoon in the kitchen with several bags of flour, a bucket of water and a large pot of glue the results could not be worse than a sourdough session at our place. The bread is, however, getting better each time. What’s next? Perhaps we’ll all be making our own fibre-optic cable for a super fast broadband network. Such a bottom-up approach might be the solution (indeed has already been adopted by the residents of Balquhidder in Scotland). There’s bound to be a video on YouTube telling us how to do it…
Thursday 28 May 2020
• Despite the fact that we are still in the grip of a pandemic and about to face a recession there’s only been one story this week: the saga of DC. I’m not talking about the comic-strip franchise nor the US capital, though the tale would not be out of place in either. The alleged offence was that one Dominic Cummings, the PM’s senior advisor, allegedly broke lockdown restrictions to travel with his young son from London to Durham, perhaps more than once. This bald statement of the charge is probably the least interesting aspect of the whole business.
Was this wise? He claims to have, and may indeed posses, a vast intellect (including being able to self-tutor himself ‘to post-graduate level’ in maths) but his emotional and political radar here seems badly awry. That he has made enemies in the media and corridors of power is not in itself a point against him but he must have seen that many were hoping that he’d trip up. This has played into their hands. This in turn casts doubt on his judgment. His actions could have been construed as reasonable or in accordance with regulations and this was his defence. The reverse could be asserted, and has been. It must be admitted that, as this post has mentioned before, the regulations are open to more than one interpretation. The Guardian quotes the local police as saying that he ‘potentially’ broke lockdown rules and that they would have told him ‘to turn around had he been stopped’ but say that they won’t be taking matters further. That doesn’t seem clear cut to me. Did he break the regulations or not?
Should he resign? I’d rather he didn’t. He clearly has the PM’s ear and will continue to do so. Currently his involvement is accountable and minuted. Some of his ideas may be excellent and the opposition to him may be motivated by self-interest. Or they may be dangerous drivel. Or both. I haven’t studied his philosophy and this isn’t the time to start. It’s also not the point.
Could the PM have done behaved differently? Quite possibly: but what struck me was the strange nature of his ‘show of support’ on 25 May which was, for him, strangely downbeat and defensive. The PM has many failings, including an often elastic relationship with veracity, but he has always been good copy and most of his utterances have had plenty of zip. Either because of the effects of the virus, the demands of the job or the frustrations of this situation, Bo-Jo seems to have lost his mojo. The first 30 seconds were spent describing the nature of the offence in such blunt terms that they may well have suggested to Mr Cummings’ critics accusations they hadn’t yet considered. In answer to these charges he said that his aide had had ‘no alternative’. Leaving aside the fact for many people in the country this phrase is a constant reality in so many aspects of life, it seems as odd way to open the case for the defence. Even stranger was the next statement, that Cummings ‘had followed the instincts of every father.’ A lot of legislation exists to curb human instincts, the Coronavirus Emergency Act of 2020 being a prime example. If these two remarks amount to a defence, or even a mitigation, then there will be a queue of people lining up to claim a reversal of their own penalties.
Should such redress be available? At one point it seemed it might. The Health Secretary announced the following day that there would be a review into all fines levied on people as a result of lockdown breaches involving childcare. However, both Number 10 and the Police later quashed this idea. (I hadn’t appreciated this when I first wrote this so have re-written this paragraph – thanks to Penny Stokes from the Hamstesd Marshall Hornet for pointing this out). It struck me at the time that re-defining the seriousness of the offence would have been a novel way of resolving a political crisis, even with the possible justification that section 6 of the Act, which describes acceptable reasons for leaving home, was interpreted in different ways by different police forces.
What might the courts have decided? I’m not aware that any breaches of the Act have led to appeals but I think not. Were they to have done so, any interpretation in a higher court would have provided a useful precedent. Part of the role of the higher courts is to interpret how new legislation should be applied to real life situations and in doing so seek to bring effect to what they believe those that created the law intended. However, for better or for worse, the legal system is very cautious about establishing retrospective precedents which could trigger a wave of appeals; although this is effectively the situation that the government has accepted by agreeing to review the fines. I suspect a lot of judges will be quite glad that they have not had to offer a view on this matter. For reasons discussed in the bullet point below, when and if they do the delay is likely to have been so long that the Act’s regulations might no even be in force any more.
What about Mr Cummings’ claim that he’d predicted Coronavirus? It was odd to find this assertion in his apologia this week: odder still was the later media allegation, which seems to have been proved, that this was quite recently edited to include the C-word. Regardless of this rather silly action, to have claimed to have seen Covid coming would have been great if the country had as a result been fully prepared: as it was not, you’d think he would be more inclined to say that the whole thing took everyone by surprise. This cannot, however, be true for anyone in government who was aware of the Project Cygnus simulation in 2016. This war-gamed a scenario very similar to today’s reality with results that were, according to one person involved, quoted in the Telegraph, ‘too terrifying’ to release publicly. Again, it appears that no useful action was taken to mitigate the threat.
All in all, it’s a pretty dismal story. Everything, from the bloodthirsty journalists ignoring social distancing to the re-awkening of government unpreparedness and from the ‘no apologies, no regrets’ response to the effective shifting of the blame onto the Police, casts a poor light on how we are governed.
• I mentioned above that the higher levels of the judicial system had, to my knowledge, not yet had to consider a lockdown breach. If they need to, this may take some time. Like most aspects of life, the courts have been in suspended animation for over two months. When they resume their work they will be coping with a double backlog. To save money from the legal-aid budget (currently about £1.6bn a year, which can be translated as about four miles of HS2 track), in 2019 the government reduced the number of court sitting days. As there is no correlation between the number of crimes committed and the speed with which these are tried, this had the obvious effect of building up a backlog. When Covid-19 arrived in March 2020, this had already led to people being held on remand for increasingly long periods. As a result a large number of remanded defendants were already close to the six-month custody time limit that a person may be kept in prison before they are tried. With the courts now not hearing trials, a number of applications are having to be made to extend those Custody Time Limits and some are being refused. The result is that some defendants that had been remanded in prison are now being released on bail. Given that to remand them in them into custody in the first place required a judge to find that there were substantial grounds for believing they would either commit further offences, interfere with witnesses or fail to attend court at all, the fact that they are now being bailed is arguably far from ideal.
There doesn’t even seem to be any real financial advantage to the cutbacks to sitting days. As all these cases would need to come to trial eventually, any saving was simply a deferment, such as a business might obtain by stretching its payment terms (to the detriment of its creditors) to preserve short-term cash. When the system resumes – which it can only do in courts where there is sufficient space for social distancing of juries – this issue will remain alongside the matters that have arisen since. Although some kinds of crime (like motoring offences) have fallen during lockdown, others (like domestic violence) have not. The legal system is already an imperfect mechanism for providing justice, but slowing it down doesn’t help anyone. Aside from anything else, some trials may turn on someone simply not being able to remember something important to the case, so long ago had the event taken place. On the face of it, this doesn’t look like a great result for anyone.
• One of the things that governments are very bad at (in fact, hardly ever do) is to pose a choice between two options each of which has manifest drawbacks. From the late 1970s onwards, successive UK governments have bought votes by reducing income tax, the basic rate of which was 33% in 1979 (although often increasing indirect tax). The line between the two dots of lower taxation and lower levels of social care was never explicitly joined. I can think of no party which has won power by either saying (a) we’re going to raise taxes or (b) we’re going to cut services: the trick is and always been to say that they’ll be doing the opposite – the economic equivalent of making water run uphill – and then, come election time, demonstrate that both these miracles have been accomplished. In the current crisis, the same choice between two unpalatable alternatives is presented in a much starker form. The herd-immunity idea might have worked if were prepared to countenance perhaps half a million deaths; a total lockdown for months might have saved these but tanked the economy. ‘We are the government,’ the statement might have read, ‘and we have to make a choice. Health or wealth? We have chosen…’ It’s clear from the examples of many countries that early action has an exponential effect on the success. It’s also clear that the longer things are allowed to drift, the more you create the ‘fluid situation’ which requires ever-changing measures which can be seen as dither rather than flexibility.
• What’s both interesting and depressing is the extent to which the crisis has revealed most countries in their true colours. Ruthless efficiency, easy-going but consistent measures, dithering, denial and dysfunctionality have generally all been found in the likely places. If one had to awards marks so far, only a handful of countries could make a good claim for an A, although all scores need to wait a year or so. Few countries will rank as low as the USA. In the last century it has variously been the subject of fear, envy, hatred, respect and sympathy. To thus list must now be added pity. The virus also seems to have condensed the lumbering spectacle of the election campaign – which no one outside a few ivy-league political science departments can possibly understand – to something on a more manageable scale.
• Indeed, the whole situation in the USA is baffling. President Trump, who uses Twitter as a kind of voice box, seemed on 27 May to say he wanted to close it or regulate it on the grounds that it was interfering with the US election, as if this were some sub-atomic particle that could not be observed without changing it. The New York Times reported on 27 May that the US death toll had now passed 100,000, more than the UK, France and Italy combined. As the USA has about 65% more people than these three countries this doesn’t seem that bad: but the NYT’s map of infections shows that the vast majority of these have occurred in the eastern third of the country. It’s also had by far the most number of cases (more than the next six countries on the list), which brings us back to the business of how many people are being tested: as PotUS pointed out, quite fairly, if you test no one then you have no cases. However, these figures from Our World in Data suggest that the US is not testing significantly more people per capita than the UK or Italy. As this BBC website article suggests, the USA is doing a good deal of testing now but has left this very late, the more so considering its advantage of wealth. Nor does the USA’s infection or death rate seems to be slowing quickly.
There are, of course, four kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, statistics and Covid-19 statistics. No one is quite counting everything the same way, often (as in the UK government’s case) within a four-week period. However there seems something badly wrong with the way that the USA is run. Some of this is down to the president himself. I hope you’ll agree that I’ve been slow to jump on the persuasive anti-Trump bandwagon but there now seem to be real signs that he might be mentally ill. Worse than that, the Constitution assumed, and thus helps engender, a state of continuing friction between Washington and the individual states. This creation of fifty countries disguised as one, or vice versa, has clearly been of great assistance in their getting rich. Whether it’s as useful a way of staying alive in the face of a global pandemic is another matter. The USA has never been invaded or come close to being so. It’s being invaded now. Vietnam – which knows a thing or two about American invasion – appears to have reported no deaths at all. Strange times indeed.
• The Domestic Abuse Bill is shortly to come before parliament and survivors of domestic abuse have been invited to give their view to a committee of MPS – but only if they do so in person. The current ‘hybrid’ arrangements under which individuals could provide evidence to scrutiny committees via video link, are set to end when parliament returns next week. 19 domestic-abuse and women’s-rights organisations including Women’s Aid have written to the Leader to the House Jacob Rees-Mogg to say that such arrangements present numerous practical difficulties, are unsafe and breach the government’s own guidance.
• The virus itself has, the Office for National Statistics suggests, infected about 7% of the population, although this is from a very small sample. I suspect it’s a lot more than that in cities and a lot less round here.
• It seems that the Premier League and (I think) the Championship will be resuming hopefully in the next couple of weeks. No two clubs are going to be looking forward to this more than Liverpool, the league champions-elect, and Leeds, seemingly about to end a 16-year absence from the top flight. So far my footie fix has comprised keeping a vague eye on text coverage of Bundesliga games and occasional highlights on websites. This isn’t a suitable substitute as my only really strong feeling about German football is wanting Bayern Munich to lose, something that very rarely happens. If you are not interested in football then ask someone who is and they might agree with the idea that the current situation is like an unfinished sneeze: and no one wants to be anywhere near one of those at the moment…
Thursday 21 May 2020
• With lockdown restrictions being gradually lifted across many parts of the world, the temptation might be to think that the worst is over. Not a bit of it, according to some experts including the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. A second wave this winter should be expected (or at least prepared for) and, if the Spanish flu outbreak just after WW1 is anything to go by, this will be more deadly. (There are, however, major differences, including the Spanish flu’s high fatality rates among young adults and the fact that, slightly unusually for viruses, the second wave was caused my a mutation more, rather than less, virulent than the first). Winter is also a time when health services are particularly over-run with other similar diseases. Any celebration might thus need to wait another year.
• This most recent Private Eye’s Pandemic Update (pp8-9) has, as one might expect, a number of points to make about the virus and our handling of it. I’ll pick out some of the good news for you. 999 out of 1,000 of us have not died of Covid-19. People under 14 are more likely to be killed by a lightning strike. The prediction of 500,000-odd deaths predicted by Imperial College seems unlikely to come to pass (as we and Lord Gnome and many others have pointed out, this has, for the government, had the beneficial result of making any measures it put in place seem to be a success). The low level of identified antibodies, even in severely affected areas like Madrid where only 11% of those tested had them, could mean either that they take time to manifest themselves or that the virus is harder to catch than had been thought. It also makes what seems to be the very useful point that ‘the national R number is far less useful than knowing what is going on in your community.’ Contact tracing is a vital part of that.
Contact tracing is labour-intensive but previously has only been conducted on people who have reported symptoms or been tested positive. The increase in testing (howsoever measured), the use of the contact app and the proposed lockdown restrictions will both serve to increase the number of people whose close contacts will need to be checked. As all these things have long been predicted, it seems strange that the recruitment of extra staff has been left until so late. More alarmingly still, the government has involved Serco, an organisation tainted by a number of scandals including an electronic-tagging scandal in 2019 which involved charging the government for monitoring people who had left the country, were in jail or dead. According to The Guardian, an assessment of Serco revealed by the Paradise Papers leak in 2017 included ‘allegations of fraud, the cover-up of the abuse of detainees and the mishandling of radioactive waste.’ It appears (also from The Independent’s article) that the new staff – assuming they actually exist – are only given a day’s training which seems barely enough to tool people up for the subtle matter of coaxing information about of strangers. Serco celebrated its appointment by wrongly revealing nearly 300 contact tracers’ email addresses. This, then, is the saviour to which the government has turned in its hour of crisis.
All of this seems largely unnecessary. There was already an excellent, locally-sensitive and experienced system in place operated by local councils and health trusts for dealing with notifiable diseases like Hep-A and campylobacter (I’ve had both of these and in both cases the environmental health teams were all over it within a day or so) and also for dealing with STDs including HIV. On 6 April 2020, The Guardian reported that this was ‘a missed opportunity’. The team based at Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge hasn’t at the time of writing been contacted at all. It seems to have been thought better to invent one huge wheel more or less from scratch rather than build on the hundreds of wheels that were already turning perfectly well in the local communities. Many of the most effective initiatives have been bottom-up and this is particularly the case where sensitivity to or knowledge of local conditions is important.
• Returning to the Eye, the above-mentioned article also includes some candid self-assessments about misjudgements made by health professionals at all levels. We need more of this and less of the culture of secrecy and apology-equals-weakness that bedevils our decision-making and any attempts to improve matters thereafter. We all screw up from time time. This is not always because we’re evil, stupid or callous. Sometimes we just get it wrong.
• At first glance, these sums from the National Audit Office of the cost of the government’s response to Covid-19 are eye-watering, £124bn being the headline figure. However, that’s not so bad – it’s only about 1.2 HS2s, the new measure for sums of money higher than the human ear can hear. (It’s not possible to compute the true value of an HS2 as it’s subject to something verging on hyper-inflation).
• I was chatting to a friend this morning and we agreed that trying to decipher the statistics about mortality, infection, recovery, antibody presence and testing is now all but impossible. With the latter, the figures now appear to include – as well as tests done and testing kits sent out – now also tests for antibodies, and are akin to looking at a company’s annual accounts and realising that they’ve used three separate accounting systems. Another friend, who works for the University of Cambridge and is much involved in the scientific response, said that the figures do make sense if you know what you’re looking at but that even he finds them confusing and he’s a Professor – no chance for the rest of us, then.
• It does however, seem clear that, as this article in The Week reports, the pandemic and its consequences are likely to exacerbate inequalities that already exist in society. Many so-called white-collar workers, for instance, are more easily able to work from home and have more space in which to self-isolate. The article also touches on how Covid is likely to increase global problems of hunger and starvation as global food supplies are disrupted.
• The good news for developing countries (where the incidence appears to be fairly low) is that the patterns of behaviour involving fairly tight-knit communities, rather than a lot of whizzing around all of the country or abroad, seems to be just the kind of behaviour the virus doesn’t like. Figures from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control show, as of 21 May, the deaths clustered in densely populated, affluent and travel-hungry countries; exactly what one would expect. The exception has been in south-east Asia where previous experience with SARS and MERS, coupled with a sometimes ruthless efficient government policies, led to effective measures.
• There’s a letter in this week’s Newbury Weekly News which states that shops should not be open on Sunday because the church says as much and the church’s authority comes directly from God. The author quotes a passage in the Bible to support this claim. If the church referred to is the Church of England then its authority comes from the Elizabethan Settlement of 1558-59 which provided an ingenious compromise to solve the religious wrangles and persecutions of the previous two decades. As for quoting authority from the Bible, if this book is used as a source then we are going to be here all day: as the Reformation proved, passages can be quoted to support two opposite propositions on almost every point. I seem to remember also a phrase about ‘rendering to God what is God’s to to Caesar what is Caesar’s’, which could certainly be applied to the conduct of shop-keepers and the role of government in regulating their activities. Fortunately, we now live in age when the church is not the sole arbiter of what is and is not right.
• As previously mentioned, all indications are that instances of domestic abuse are rising during lockdown. A letter of 15 May sent from ‘NHS England and NHS Improvement’ suggested that online searches about domestic abuse had increased by over 350% and that the use support lines and web chats on the subject had increased by between 54% and 70% (though the letter didn’t say what period this referred to nor to which it was being compared). I contacted Women’s Aid and a spokesperson confirmed that “demand for Women’s Aid Live Chat [an online instant messaging service which offers survivors support from specialist domestic abuse support workers] rose by 41% in the first two weeks of lockdown. Many women tell us that they find it safer to use than to make a phone call which could be overheard. Other domestic abuse charities have also reported a rise in demand for their specialised services.” The lockdown appears to have put the spotlight on the already existing crisis of domestic abuse and, the statement continued, “has made the public and policy makers take note, and we hope this awareness continues. The sector has been underfunded for many years and sustainable support for survivors is needed, as you will see from our Domestic Abuse report 2020.” The same source has also published this article which clears up some of the myths and misconceptions about this often un-reported issue. It’s worth adding that the victims are mainly women, but not entirely: domestic abuse affects men as well and this may be even less likely to be reported. This link has more information. As mentioned last week, the the Police and health and social-care professionals have developed new protocols for helping people in these changed times and that all take the matter very seriously – you will not be wasting their time if you contact them.
• This has certainly been a golden age for anyone pedalling conspiracy theories. It’s also at times hard to spot the difference between such a theory, which starts with an assumption of conspiracy and then selects evidence to support it; a statement from a government or news outlet which is deliberately intended to mislead; and an honest error or misunderstanding. In these cut-and-paste times they can all blur together and feed each other. It’s been argued that the suppression of the views of people like David Icke is an assault on free speech and is stifling debate. The reverse could also be true, as censorship can draw attention to opinions that would otherwise pass un-noticed (the so-called Barbara Streisand effect). It’s also true that some ideas, like heliocentrism, which are now considered normal were once seen as conspiracy theories, fake news or errors of the worst kind. The main reason why most conspiracy theories cannot be true is that they usually require a complex level of collusion between different groups whereas history suggests that unnatural alliances tend to dissolve quite rapidly. There may well be groups of medical experts or big Pharma executives or government ministers who are trying to exploit any situation but these could be merely heightened examples of scientific curiosity, commercial exploitation or political opportunism that are normal, if often unwelcome, aspects of everyday life. The more I look at the various official responses, the more I see confusion, unpreparedness, short-termism and mendacity in roughly equal proportion – business as usual, in other words…
Thursday 14 May 2020
• So we’re now in lockdown-lite, or pre-post-lockdown, or what you will. The government’s policy has been criticised for being vague and relying too much on individual standards of behaviour but they were in a difficult situation. Six weeks of tight restrictions is probably about as much as a country like the UK, with no tradition of following martial law, can tolerate. The real culprits were Winston Churchill and the weather. If Churchill had managed to have prolonged WW2 by a few weeks, VE Day would not have been until early June. It had been declared a public holiday several months ago and, if for no other reason than that our PM is clearly enamoured of our wartime leader, to tell people not to celebrate the event would have been an admission of defeat. There are also the obvious parallels of the triumph over adversity, the resource and resolve of the British spirit and all that. The fact that VE75 arrived when the battle we are currently fighting was far from won is an inconvenient truth. However, I can’t see how, given where we were this time last week, the government could have put a brake on the whole thing. Certainly in our village, the event was celebrated with a (largely correctly social-distanced) fervour that might otherwise have been lacking. Actually being able to talk to all the people we know in this wonderful community, whom for the past six weeks we’d only communicated with virtually or stepped aside for on footpaths, was slightly intoxicating. So, to be honest, was the amount of wine that was consumed.
And my second point, the weather? You thought I’d forgotten about that, didn’t you? Not at all. The glorious sunshine was the final, unanswerable and perhaps illogical clincher to the argument that last Friday was ordained as a day to celebrate: to celebrate perhaps nothing more than the fact we were still alive. I can imagine the Downing Street team at the start of last week: ‘PM – it’s bad news. We’ve bigged up VE Day for months and the forecast is 30º in places, not a cloud in the sky. The bunting’s being made, thousands of street parties are planned. If we don’t announce some relaxation pretty soon afterwards, it’s going to happen anyway and we’ll have a nation of criminals on our hands.’ Again, I see the government’s problem. There are countries where the will of the people is not held in very high regard and, for most of the time, this isn’t much fun: even if, in places like Singapore and parts of China, the deal is that ‘you say compliant and we’ll make you rich’. The UK is not like that. It’s striking that of the 10 countries that (according to Statistica.com) have so far experienced the highest death rates all are, apart from Iran,’western’ democracies; and that six of them are (according to Worldometer) in the top ten of those with the highest GDPs. If you were looking for evidence of a theory that suggested Covid-19 was a reminder that a frugal and obedient life was also the best, then here it is.
The truth is, of course, probably more complicated. International comparisons are difficult, for a number of reasons, not least because of the level of competitiveness and distrust. Relations between the two largest economies, the USA and China, for instance, can rarely have been worse. The USA has also been quick to say that it won’t use Russian-made ventilators after some of these were implicated in a fire in a St Petersburg hospital earlier this week. What seems even more amazing is that the USA was using Russian-made ventilators at all, or was admitting to doing so. Strange times indeed.
• I am, though, confused by the ‘stay alert‘ slogan. This is more the kind of message that one gets at times of terrorist threats. Stay alert for what, exactly? If you got 8,000 CV-19s all lined up they’d still be only 1mm long in total. What I’m trying to say is that they’re invisible: indeed, none of our five sense can detect them. (Well, that’s not quite true: a loss of smell and taste seems to be a common symptom, although not one that prominently features on government information. By the time that kicks in, though, it’s too late.)
• In the absence of vaccines (although there seems to progress on antibody testing), contact-tracing apps are currently seen as the best way of monitoring the spread of the virus. The NHS’s app, which is currently being trialled on the Isle of Wight, uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) signals sent every 15 seconds to detect the presence of other users. This works within a five-metre radius and is accurate to +/- one metre. The threshold for determining a likely contact is if the two devices (ie their owners) have been two metres or closer for two consecutive readings. The data is then uploaded to the internet: if any of the people develops CV-19, all the contacts are noticed, the assumption being that they will then self-isolate and inform their GPs. In theory, the process should also be able to estimate what stage of the infection a person was at (and thus how infectious they were) and weigh the definition of ‘contact’ accordingly. Being within two metres of someone at an early (less infectious) stage for say 60 seconds may is probably a lot less risky than being within two metres of them for 20 seconds when they’re a a week or more into the disease.
It’s too early yet to tell how the IoW trial is doing. The take-up appears to be pretty high (about 40%). Even having 5-10% of the population using the app is enough to provide useful data. I imagine the IoW was chosen because it’s an island. It certainly isn’t demographically typical. The average age on the island is 44, compared to 40 for the UK as a whole. It’s also in the top 20% of local authority areas as measure by the % of the population over 65. Age is, as is well known, a factor in this disease.
As with face-masks, contact-tracing apps may create (or solve) a psychological issue. Some people might find that using either, particularly the mask, has the effect of fostering more careful behaviour. For others, however, it might create a false sense of security. The effect of seeing someone with a face mask certainly makes me that much more careful about approaching too close. I assume that they either ill or particularly fearful of becoming so, both of which gives a good reason for me to give them a wide berth.
• What’s less clear is how much transmission can take place through surfaces, rather than the air. It’s been proved that the virus can survive for some days steel and hard plastic surfaces (far longer than on more complex organic substances such as food), which makes a journey by public transport, where such materials are impossible to avoid, particularly challenging. However, it appear that CV-19 doesn’t appear to spread in this way nearly as much as SARS did. The reasons for this are not yet understood.
• As air-borne transmission seems the main route, one might think that being outside posed greater risks and, given the right wind direction, an infected sneeze could travel a good deal further than two metres. However, all the research suggest that being outside vastly lower your risk. One recent study looking at over 7,000 infections identified only two that was not contracted indoors. (This makes me feel even more relaxed about doing my main weekly shop at the open-air market in Hungerford every Wednesday).
• Yet another uncertainty is how fast the virus mutates. This article from Healthline reminds us that all viruses do all the time: the results might make the new strains more infectious but will often also make them less of a threat. It also points out that Covid-19 appears to be mutating particularly slowly. This may make vaccines more effective.
• How many of us have had the damned thing anyway? This report from The University of Manchester, Salford Royal and Res Consortium suggests that at least 25% of the population may have been infected. If true, this is probably good news as (a) more people should have antibodies and, more importantly, (b) for many the symptoms are not that serious.
• We’ve all been more careful about keeping our hands clean: but how many of us exercise the same cleanliness with regard to our use of computers? I learned this week that a friend of mine only opens software when she needs it and quits it straight after, clears all browser cookies after every session, turns off the wifi, and shuts down her laptop for even shortish breaks. Particularly on Thursdays (press day) I have so many browser tabs open that each shrinks to an almost virus-like width. I do empty the cache quite frequently but rarely quit software until the end of the day. I never switch off the router, mainly because it behaves so oddly, re-setting itself all the time, that I’d be terrified that it wouldn’t re-start again.
• According to this article in The Guardian, the experience of home working and the increasing realisation that it isn’t necessary to be in a big-city office to be productive has encouraged a flurry of enquiries from people wanting to move to more rural areas. West Berkshire is on the list. This won’t be good news for everyone, of course, as there’s enough of a housing shortage here as it is. However, most of the people planning to re-locate are probably not going to be putting further the strain on the already overloaded ‘affordable’ part of the market.
• As we and many others have mentioned, the lockdown may be a good way of slowing viral transmission but it also provides the perfect environment for cases of domestic violence and controlling behaviour to flourish (whether these are reported or not). One local charity, Flag DV, which offers free legal advice and support for victims (of either sex) in Berks, Bucks and Oxon, has reported a 25-30% increase in referrals in all parts of its area except, oddly, in West Berkshire. (It’s unlikely we are inherently better people and more probably that, for whatever reason, the charity’s message has not been as well publicised here, so I’m happy to give it a mention). A spokesperson for Flag DV confirmed that ‘lockdown has definitely exacerbated the issue of domestic abuse. Initially we anticipated that figures would drop, as they often do during school holidays because it becomes harder for victims to make contact when children are in the home. There was a slight fall at the start of lockdown however this didn’t last for long.’ It’s also worth stressing the the Police and health- and social-care professionals have developed new protocols for helping people in these changed times and that all take the matter very seriously – you will not be wasting their time if you contact them.
• There are also fears, as this article in The Guardian suggests, that the lockdown provides good circumstances for radicalisation to take place. This includes not just by religious groups but also extreme political ones, including those who claim that Covid-19 is a myth and that the lockdown is an illegal infringement of human rights. Such groups, and their demonstrations, have been far more common in the USA than in the UK: this is perhaps not surprising as the US President himself seems broadly sympathetic to the second of these (even though he appears no longer to believe the first).
Three Conservative MPs have also fallen into this trap, as The Daily Mirror and other sources reported on 14 May. Lucy Allan, Maria Caufield and Nadine Dorries retweeted an edited version of a video showing Labour leader Kier Starmer purporting to be saying something that he wasn’t about child abuse. Either they were being malicious or stupid. I don’t know which is the more depressing.
• This week’s NWN has on p13 a full-page advert which addresses the massive issue of ‘how to spot false information‘. I have mentioned before that the role of national and local newspaper is very important at this time – they do sometimes make mistakes but they employ professional journalists who tend to know what they’re doing. However, the question of what is ‘false information’ is an almost philosophical one and I’m not sure it can always be detected by the advice the advert offers, even if most people had the time to apply all of these. If I had to pick one, it would be to look at the sources quoted in an article. It’s often quite a quick job to check that the writer has summarised the source’s point fairly. There’s then the problem of if the quoted source is reputable, but that too should quote sources. It also says that ‘official guidance about CV-19 will have been carefully checked.’ I’m sure: but, despite the government’s strong claims that it is following ‘the best science’, the worlds of medicine and of science do not speak with one voice. There have also been accusations, most recently in The Guardian on 8 May, that technical advice was edited or redacted by the government before being released to the public.
As mentioned in this column two weeks ago, governments have to take a wide range of other factors into account before arriving at their official view. Whether any course of action is proved to be right can only be judged by the results, and sometimes not then as there is no certain way of knowing what would have happened were something different to have been done. Also, by definition one cannot know what the ‘correct’ course of action is if one is dealing with something like Mr Covid, many aspects of whose behaviour are not well understood. I absolutely support the sentiment of encouraging people who read online stuff to be more critical (and encouraging the people who write it to do a bit more research) but it’s worth remembering that official correctness is a slippery and mutable concept. As well as being official, the advice might also be convenient, or expedient, or feasible: but it may not be correct in an absolute sense. We all need to question what we hear and read. That, of course, includes your getting your knife out about anything I write…
Thursday 7 May 2020
• I mentioned last week (see below) about an exhortation for journalists that was doing the rounds on social media to stop asking questions and start supporting the government; and suggested some reasons why this was a dangerous course of action that I, for one, wouldn’t be following. I see now that it emanated from the blog The Daily Globe which describes itself as ‘British values, global perspective’ (whatever that means), a conservative (perhaps Conservative) website. There was I thinking that the tweet was just a heartfelt, if misguided, plea from a citizen: in fact, it was part of a mission of its own, and so open to just the charge of being a concerted campaign that it accuses the ‘negative press’ of orchestrating, albeit in the opposite direction. I don’t think I can be bothered to link to an article on the website which justifies the tweet. I’ll just leave you with its closing sentences: ‘Newspapers are going out of business. They deserve to.’ To be replaced by what, I wonder? The Daily Globe? No thanks.
• Turning to the real newspapers, The Telegraph on 7 May (subscription required) quotes the architect of Sweden’s light-touch CV-19 measures as saying that Britain’s lockdown was ‘futile’, serving only to push infection peaks into the future and doing nothing to address the problems in care homes. He also claims that the country’s R number (the rate at which one person passes the infection to others) has fallen from 1.4 to 0.85, in contrast to modelling by Professor Neil Ferguson at Imperial College which suggested it would rise to over 3. Professor Ferguson, having recently taken steps to increase his own personal R number and being forced to step down from SAGE as a result, will now have more time to rebut this charge should he wish.
• Following the recent news that the UK seems to have the highest death rate in Europe, the government has been quick to stress that international comparisons are misleading as different countries collect and report data in different ways. This is true, but this didn’t stop the government making such comparisons in the past and, as The Guardian pointed out on 5 May, still doing so now. There is also the question of population size. The above-mentioned Telegraph article points out that the UK has had 10 times more deaths than Sweden but doesn’t add that it also have seven times the population. Even population size may not be as relevant as density: the UK’s is 259 people per sq km and Sweden’s 24, a variation even greater than that between the respective mortality rates. Italy, perviously the worst-affected country, has about 200 people per sq km but more than double that in Lombardy, the epicentre of the outbreak. China has a massive population but people probably don’t move around in it as much as they do in Belgium. The intensity and timing of the lockdown may also be influenced by each government’s assessment of the fragility of its health service, as this article in The Guardian on 5 May suggests which could also be translated as over-confidence on the part of richer countries (which also have more to lose from a recession). There is certainly a direct relation, in Europe at least, between death rates and GDPs and this seems more pronounced than that between death rates and population.
The inter-connection between all these factors may never be clear. It’s certainly true that the raw data can be used to support almost any point of view. In some cases, newspapers are less reticent about nuanced comparisons. The New York Times on 6 May (subscription required) stated that ‘by all accounts a number of other countries have responded — and fared — far better’ than the USA. This paper would therefore also doubtless be on The Daily Globe’s hiss list.
There will come a time when useful comparisons can be drawn between the statistics across various countries but it hasn’t come yet. One set of data that scientists have been looking at concerns the effectiveness of various ‘non-pharmaceutical interventions’ (measures such as quarantine) in the then 48 US States during the Spanish Flu epidemic after WW1. Each introduced different measures at different times and, being part of the same country, were similar enough to strip away any societal (and perhaps genetic) differences such as exist between, say, South Korea and Spain. These suggest that early intervention had the best results. Whether CV-19 is similar enough to Spanish Flu is another matter, of course.
• Since I’m talking about figures, Let’s carry on for a bit. The government’s testing target of 100,000 a day was, briefly, met at the very start of the month but only, it seems, by re-defining what ‘tested’ meant. Most people might have thought this this meant ‘tested’ but it seems not as kits mailed out to people were also included. This seems to me just like looking at the performance of a company which for 11 months had been accounting on a cash basis but which, in month 12, fearful that it would otherwise need to issue a profits warning changed to doing so based on invoices raised, even though not all these will be paid. The most recent Private Eye suggests on p7 one reason this might happen as some of the mailed-out testing kits lacked return details. Many have also argued that the figure of 100,000 is a random, though round, number in any case. Matt Hancock has suggested that the target was designed to have a ‘galvanising effect.’ It’s enough to test half of the NHS’s 1.5 million staff once a week but leaves nothing over for other key workers, those detected by contact tracing and people in care homes. This in turn poses the question of how the UK’s testing is doing compared to other countries: which, as the notes on this graph clearly show, lead immediately back to the issue of differing national methodologies.
• Another issue is that few governments seem able to resist is the temptation to have a political angle, national or international, to their version of the truth. No one is more vehement in this than Donald Trump, whose relentless campaigns against so-called ‘fake news’ (not counting the fake medical opinions he spreads himself), the WHO and the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory are starting to reach epidemic proportions of their own. As a means of distracting attention from his own government’s handling of the crisis (admittedly, very difficult in a federal country where distrust of central government is effectively written into the constitution) these can perhaps not be bettered. China, Russia and Brazil are little better. All of this makes one despair of any serious hope for our species. President Obama is alleged to have observed, some years after the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, that one might as well give up on gun control – if an outrage like that wasn’t going to get the matter through Congress then nothing would. I hope we won’t be saying the same thing about international co-operation and Covid-19 but the signs are currently not hopeful.
• Whether or not one agrees with the Swedish view that the UK lockdown was pointless, plans seem to be afoot to relax it. It might be argued that to do so would be to cause a sudden and high level of re-contact which would plunge us into phase two and that, having embarked on the plan, it should be toughed out for a bit longer.
The stresses caused by the measures are, however, becoming intense. Added to this is the uncertainty surrounding the enforcement of the regulations by the police which has been modified several times, mainly in regard to Section 6 which deals with legitimate reasons to leave home, and which has not always been enforced consistently (this is a common problem in the early days of legislation though rarely has enforcement been conducted under such a glare of scrutiny). An investigation by The Times suggested a large number of wrongful conviction and the CPS has said it will review all of them. As a result, the guidance might need to be changed again; as it will when the regulations alter.
Meanwhile, other crimes continue, some (such as motoring offences) to a lesser extent, others (like domestic violence) to a greater. This shift in priorities has to be reflected in staff deployment and also training, very different skills being needed for the two examples quoted meaning that some may be doing jobs that they’re partly unfamiliar with. Plus, at any time they might get spat at. Who’d be a copper at the moment?
• One of the most obvious ways in which some semblance of normality can return is by the return of spectator sport. Two of these are the most popular and the one I most like (football) and the one that dominates life in the Lambourn Valley (horse racing). For football, the big pressure is on getting the season finished even if behind closed doors. The leagues, the FA Cup and the two inter-European competitions have reached the frustrating point of being about 80% complete – too far round the track to make abandonment an obvious choice but still with enough outstanding to cause a real logistical headache. For Liverpool not to win the league would be a travesty (and I don’t even support them) but there are also matters of relegation and European places to resolve. To make matters more complex, 30 June – the date when a large number of players’ contracts end – is fast approaching. The clubs themselves, and some of the players, have also been complicit in a series of PR disasters about furloughing staff, behaviour and donations to the NHS.
• I know far less about horse racing but our regular columnist Pat Murphy explains here that the plan is to re-start the flat season with some outings at Lingfield and Newcastle. Here the problem is not, as with football, a pre-ordained fixture list that needs to be fulfilled but rather, as Pat describes, the rapid concoction of a race programme by the British Horseracing Authority with the aim of getting some runs in prior to Royal Ascot in June. How this is organised, and indeed whether it should be happening at all at present, has exposed some at times vitriolic rifts within the racing community.
• Does all this matter? On one level, no, not at all. On another, yes, quite a lot. Sport’s return will be a sign that life is going on. It’s also true that, as with so many other sectors, the crisis has shown some of the things that need fixing. In football, as many would agree, it’s the hyper-inflation of salaries and transfer fees which Covid-19 might make some dent in. It’s also worth remembering that most football clubs, even within the Football League (the top 92 clubs) operate an almost hand-to-mouth existence. There are the Amazons and Tescos of the Premier League who are immune from almost any shock. It’s the Swindon Towns and Hartlepool United who this might leave vulnerable, the equivalent of the small high-street independent for whom one bad month can spell disaster.
• The Oxford West MP Layla Moran, writing in the Wantage & Grove Herald this week, observes, with a level of understatement that almost achieves irony, how Parliament is ‘typically very cautious when it comes to change.’ Recent events have served to drag some of its procedures perhaps as far forward as to the late 20th century. If debates and voting remotely can work for local councils, as Parliament has now decided they can, there’s no reason they can’t be permanently extended to Parliament itself.
• The same paper takes as its editorial the theme of fake news (this week’s issue has, eye-catchingly a picture of Donad Trump on the cover, above a story about emails being sent to local councillors inviting them to support a website that pedals unproved international conspiracy theories). The Editor makes the valid point that ‘you don’t have to believe fake news for it to do its job’ as it gradually worms its way into our perceptions.
The column concludes that ‘the only defence against dangerous fake news is for us to use our common sense and apply our judgement.’ I disagree: these are exactly the things that are being warped by the relentless barrage of information. The only defence is to check everything – but against what? If two or more sources agree it could merely because they have copied falsehoods from each other. Some discrimination is needed to understand which outlets are likely to be biased or unreliable and this can’t be acquired overnight. This is the function that journalists fulfil (or, according to The Daily Globe, that they do not) but as the revenues of local papers in particular nosedive the temptation is to reduce their numbers. Of course, there are now countless outlets for people (such as me) to mix news and commentary on digital platforms. Whether this has led or might lead to better results is questionable. Few of us would go through the kind of rigorous verification that Washington Post Editor Bill Bradlee insisted upon in All the President’s Men. (What I’m kind of saying is that you shouldn’t trust anything I write either, if you ever did.)
The vicious cycle is fewer journalists = less checking of stories = more blurring of the difference between fact, fabrication and opinion = more room for fake news = further distrust for all media sources = further decline in newspaper sales = less revenue = fewer journalists. Newbury Weekly News is a pretty good local paper (better than the ones purportedly covering Wantage and Marlborough which are, perhaps un-coincidentally, owned by large groups) and we should support it. The same goes for the small parish magazines (many of which have suspended publication during the reign of Covid) but which provide in-depth coverage of life in their area. Put in a subscription for the NWN and your local mag if you haven’t already. And Penny Post, of course – we don’t charge for our content but we welcome as many subscribers as possible.
• A source I use a great deal is Wikipedia. Its huge advantage is that it’s mass-edited meaning that errors or loose phrasing tends to be pounced on and corrected. I’ve not found it substantially wrong on any point for which I’ve used it. An individual entry may have a bias (until it’s fixed) but the site as a whole appears to have no general bias, unlike many.
• Sticking with the NWN, this week’s issue has an interesting centre section looking back at the original VE Day and also at various stories about the area’s wartime experiences taken from its archives. This replaces in pagination, if not in revenue, the space normally occupied by the adverts from local estate agents.
• I mentioned last week about home schooling and have since talked to three friends, all intelligent and well-educated, to ask them about their experiences. ‘Tortuous’, ‘ghastly’ and ‘frustrating’ were three of the words used. If any of you are grappling with the Kings and Queens of England, you might find my updated version of Willie, Willie, Harry, Stee useful.
• The latest Private Eye has, on p7, a dig at President Trump which is also at least as much an explanation of one of its own punchlines. It referred to a piece, in its issue 1519 at the end of March, which suggested that breathing in hot bleach was a good cure for CV-19, before going on to contrast this with the less amusingly-presented suggestions from Prez DT. The Eye’s advice ‘was obviously a joke,’ Lord Gnome reminded us, perhaps slightly nervously. You can’t believe anything you read these days…
Thursday 30 April 2020
• I, and many others, have come across the following statement on social media. I’ve seen it on many different posts, on each occasion copied and pasted verbatim from the original. I’ve done the same:
A message to all our Negative UK Press – including Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC, Robert Peston of ITV, Beth Rigby of Sky, Piers Morgan of ITV, BBC News in general and all the other negative UK press.
Journalism is missing the “mood” in this great country of ours – the United Kingdom. We do not want or need blame. We do not want constant criticism of our Government who are doing their very best in a very difficult and unprecedented global emergency.
We want and need a constructive contribution to the national effort to help us out of this crisis. We need hope, optimism and faith, with less negativity and more positive support from these journalists. It is time you all changed your negative and political rhetoric for the health of this nation and start supporting our Government.
I don’t know anything about the person who wrote this and which so many others have aped as if the sentiments were their own. The comments I’ve seen, both for and against, have been numerous and robust. These are mine.
There’s a basic confusion which assumes anyone criticising or even questioning the government’s decisions is also in some way a poor citizen. Only, the document says or implies, by agreeing with what we are told will salvation be found. However, the government, in this and other countries, has made a number of decisions which seem flawed. Some are too late to remedy, others are not. I cannot think of anything more dangerous than to accept that what’s been done has been perfect.
Regarding ‘criticism’ and ‘negativity’ as interchangeable is even more dangerous and lazy. So too is the implication that to be ‘constructive’ one must accept some assumption, rather than question it. His argument also denies the role played by organisations ranging from scientific bodies to local volunteer groups, all of which have accomplished a great deal. Their views are frequently not in accordance with the government’s. So, they’re being negative too, are they?
The journalists and organisations referred to are doing their job, which is not to fawn over the government and to conceal its (rarely admitted) mistakes but to hold it to account. If the conclusions that are drawn are uncomplimentary, so be it. I’m surprised he didn’t include the Telegraph, which despite its normal stance has recently published a number of articles of the kind the writer so disparages.
There’s also a reference to politics. We’ve had the same party in government, solo or in coalition, for a decade so anything decided (or, as importantly, not) in this time could be classed as ‘political’. The phrase ‘political rhetoric’ is a meaningless cliché. It’s generally used to describe something with which the writer disagrees. The phrase ‘national mood’ is equally fatuous. None the less, the writer feels he has a clear sense of this and is telling us all what it is. Everything that follows assumes you accept his definition. I don’t. I would say that the various views of the people in the country currently encompass fear, anger, hope, optimism, responsibility, irresponsibility, co-operation, resourcefulness, faith, despair, isolation, frustration, courage, denial, self-denial, self-sacrifice, grief, resignation, patriotism, uncertainty and resolve.
The writer has a vision of what the country ought to be like and how we ought to behave. I’m very glad that it isn’t and that we don’t.
• If you’re looking for newspapers that produce the kind of fawning journalism that the above-mentioned writer would like to see rolled out across the land, the Daily Mail is normally a good place to start. Not in these shifting times, however. This article takes a swipe at the government’s handling of the Covid crisis in care homes and at the way the statistics have been presented. Meanwhile, The Guardian quotes a GP with 1,000 care-home patients on her books as saying that, despite warnings, ‘no definitive and timely action was taken across the health and social care system’ to prepare for the crisis. According to some estimates, the number of deaths in care homes now exceeds those in hospitals and it’s feared that the worst is yet to come. The extent of this is recent news, although the problem in the care homes itself is not. Is this something we should also be applauding?
• If uncritical support serves no useful purpose, nor does un-constructive criticism. Both are equally biased. However, we do need to understand what is going on about these rather important matters. This in turn demands a bit of reflection about how it reaches decisions in times of crisis.
• The government has been urged to seek and to follow ‘the best scientific advice.‘ It regularly claims it’s doing this but it’s not clear exactly what this is. Science rarely speaks with one voice. Taking advice involves following opinion rather than another. Whether it’s the best will only be proved by the outcomes (and perhaps not even then). Moreover, the advice that scientists provide through its advisory group SAGE or elsewhere is, as this article in The Guardian explains, largely a product of which questions are asked by ministers. These often need to have a broad scope. Ministers will be thinking not only of infection or mortality rates but also of the difficulties of imposing a particular strategy, the immediate financial cost, the longer-terms economic effects, their party’s reputation, their own reputation and the opinion polls. (In the UK’s case, Brexit considerations play their part too. The decisions in March not to join a European scheme for sourcing ventilators and in April for the NHS to develop its own contract-tracing app were surely influenced by this.) Then there’s the human factor. We all tend to favour information or advice opinions which match our own views. This article written on 6 March, as the balloon was about to go up, by the Institute for Government describes some of the competing pressures.
The attractively laissez-faire idea of herd immunity – whereby a high percentage of the population develops resistance through infection or vaccination, so killing the pandemic – was, despite subsequent denials, at one time government policy, Sir Patrick Vallance, the CSO, using the phrase on 13 March. It was soon clear that this could only be achieved by an unacceptable death rate: indeed, as not enough was known about immunity and mutation (and still isn’t – see above) and as there was no vaccine in sight, herd immunity might not be achieved at all. Other government policies which were based on ‘the best scientific advice’ included the decision to allow Cheltenham Festival and the Liverpool v Atletico Champions League fixtures to go ahead (see last week’s column) which many now feel was imprudent. The current lockdown is likewise ‘science-based.’ It appears to be working but there is, of course, no control experiment to measure this.
• One of the problems, as is becoming increasingly clear, is the CV-19 is a new beast and therefore that any models may prove utterly wrong. The most recent Private Eye quotes, on p17, a senior civil servant as saying that ‘all models are wrong…we don’t have enough data for meaningful modelling, because this is a new pathogen…and because of the lack of testing.’ This is a sobering thought. The article also refers to Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of the government’s SAGE advisory group, who was involved in the Foot and Mouth (FMD) modelling in 2001. This, the article asserts, overstated the new infections by a factor of 50 resulting in policies which were misguided. This was with a well-known disease: what chance, you might wonder, does modelling therefore have with something new?
Experts have little to lose by providing models which paint a horrendous outcome if no action is taken. As the reality should always be better than what has been predicted, all the credit can be given to them for having recommended the measures and to the government for having implemented them.
• The next decision may well be what to do about dealing with the above-mentioned problem of care-home deaths, which seem to be a second pandemic running about a month behind the national one. The social and economic pressure to ease the lockdown is intense. However, scientific and medical advice would probably say that to do so would be to make the care-home situation worse by exposing the workers. The counter-argument might be that care homes are already fairly isolated, and could be made more so, and that the overwhelming benefit for the country as a whole would be for some easing to keep businesses going. This would move the expert advice into the arena of economists, where there are probably even more divergent opinions than in science or medicine. What is ‘the best economic advice’ in this situation?
All in all, the phrase ‘best advice’ could be translated as the advice that is most consistent with the other factors that the government needs to take into account at that particular time (all of which might change).
• The competing pressures on governments are without doubt considerable. They are composed of fallible humans, just like any other group. There are, however, general levels of preparedness which can address issues which will crop up regardless of the precise nature of the emergency. I referred last week to Operation Cygnus, the war-game exercise in 2016 for a pandemic the lessons from which were, it seems, not acted upon. There were some basic precautions that could have been taken regarding, for example, the procurement of PPE and the general investment in acute hospital facilities, that would have mitigated this and any remotely similar catastrophe. Some of these failings, such as not ordering testing kits from companies based in this country and failing to reply to procurement emails, were still ongoing a couple of months ago The statistical confusions have only been admitted this week. These are the reasons why we still need to be prepared to challenge what we are told and ensure that we are better prepared next time. The decision-making process for the immediate issues will, as discussed, always be imperfect. What need not be are the general precautions and preparedness.
• In the 1860s, Joseph Bazalgette was charged with building a sewer system for London, the Thames and many of the streets having turned into sewers themselves. He reported back that he had calculated from the available data the largest diameter of pipes that would be needed in the immediate future – and then doubled it. As a result, the pipes are still functional to this day. This was long-term thinking of a special kind. He could not have anticipated developments such as the tower block which put such a strain on a sewage system but he recognised that unforeseen developments would make unforeseen demands. Cygnus provided just such an opportunity and it appears it was missed. This is the kind of thing we need to be making sure is not missed in the future.
• As well as testing (and more testing) and vaccine development, contact-tracing apps are seen as a vital weapon in the war against CV-19. The NHS has decided to develop its own one, distinct from the Google/Apple system being used in Europe. Ireland launched its version on 30 April. This will not, it seems, interwork with the NHS one which presumably will be being used in Northern Ireland. There’s no evidence that the virus respects political frontiers so this seems like a bit of an oversight. Two countries on the one island of Ireland with two systems that need to be both distinct but integrated – now, where have we seen that problem come up before?
• And as regards testing, today, 30 April, is D-day for the government’s target of 100,000 tests a day. Depending on which person you listen to it appears that this won’t be hit, or will be hit, or might be hit, or will be hit in the next few days, or is a complete red herring because the figure is arbitrary and the goal should always have been for mass testing. NHS Providers was quoted on the BBC website as saying that the English health and care system had ‘started from a poor position'” and struggled to demonstrate a ‘clear, effective and well-communicated strategy’ on testing.
• While writing about viruses – which seems to be the norm right now – it’s worth pointing out the appalling number of scams, even more than usual, which have come to light in our area over the last few weeks. You can see our post on the subject here. These, like a virus, depend on two things: a host with no immunity or a weakened constitution; and a rapid mutation. These scams fulfil both conditions. Life is increasingly being lived online at present. Some people are from necessity going online for the first time and therefore have no immunity at all to even the most basic scams, such as from mortally ill Nigerian heiresses. Others are finding that they’re forced to conduct life more frequently in this unfamiliar way, for instance with banks and utility companies, and are akin to people who’ve got insufficient antibodies from a previous low viral dose. Even those who feel themselves to be seasoned digital citizens are perhaps overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the communications. Many trade on the ‘act now to avoid xxx’ message. This is like being overwhelmed by a variation of a virus to which one would, in normal circumstances, have immunity.
Above all, the scams mutate: today’s BT rip-off by phone is tomorrow’s HSBC con by email. As well as all the other problems we have to contend with, we need to be constantly on the alert for this. You only have to slip up once. There are a number of conspiracy theories that suggest CV-19 was man-made. If they’re taking about the virus of scams, then I agree with them.
• Positive news is, however, all around us, as I suggested last week. To this I can add a couple of other stories, both from the appropriately named Positive News. The first reports that the UK has just had its longest period without any energy generated from coal (more than 18 days) The second is that China has banned ‘the hunting, trade, transportation and consumption of all terrestrial wild animals whether captive-bred or wild caught, where the end purpose is to eat.’ Both of these can, like the return of the virus itself, be easily reversed by a return to previous behaviours (China banned the wild-animal markets after SARS but they crept back again) but they are encouraging. Whatever the new normal is going to be, we have to make sure that it is some improvement on the old one. If not, we shall get increasingly frequent reminders.
• If there is at some point to be a further wave of infections, perhaps when social-distancing measures are eased, one of the questions is about immunity. This article on the BBC website suggests that to the questions ‘can I get it twice?’, ‘how do I become immune?’ and ‘how long does immunity last?’, the answers are currently all ‘no one knows.’
• The last month has seen a flurry of refinements to the government’s help for businesses, which slowly seem to be working through. One affects the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme. This at first had banks liable for 20% of any defaults, the government picking up the remainder. The banks were accused of being slow to release funds but, on talking to Tim Cundy at Monty Accounting (which has been providing a rolling commentary on the various relief measures), this might not be all their fault. ‘It’s true that they have not been good at getting money out,’ he told me, ‘but the rules of the scheme were wrong which left them in a pretty impossible situation. Banks had to assess all loans in a traditional way, which meant getting a number of eyes on the applications. They were never going to be able to match the volume coming through as they just do not have enough people. To leave 20% risk with the bank (whilst they also need to pass stress tests and not lend irresponsibly under government rules) was always going to lead to a high level of rejections and a slower process.’ On 27 April, the government realised that the best thing was to underwrite all the loan and this has, it seems, already helped loosen the purse-strings. Speaking to the BBC on 29 April, the Barclays CEO Jess Staley accepted that his bank made ‘mistakes’ in its handling of a government loan scheme for businesses affected by the lockdown but that the scheme was ‘starting to work.’
• Jess Staley also suggested that the days of thousands of bank workers in huge and expensive city offices may be a thing of the past. A number of companies which exist to service these, from champagne bars to one-hour dry cleaners, will be hoping he’s wrong. It’s at the moment unclear what the overall experience of home-working has been. For every person who’s felt liberated there’s someone else who’s felt lost. Some people thrive on working in a large and visible team; others loathe it. Some people have homes that provide enough space and broadband access; others do not. It seems certain that there’ll be a lot more flexibility about this in future. This will also have a knock-on effect on employment contracts as people may be compelled to have equipment and internet access at home in excess of what they would personally need. Who will pay for this? One thing the government might therefore do is cancel HS2 and use a fraction of the money saved to ensure that there is a top-class internet service in every part of the country. That will do much more to make us more resilient to future catastrophes than a train line that will enable a virus to be taken from London to Birmingham 25 minutes faster than it would have been able to do otherwise.
• One of the problems that many people have had is that of home schooling, a trial that most of us thought we had been spared. Between us Penny and I could have intellectually coped with every subject except German and science: emotionally and practically, though, I don’t think I could even have got to end of Willie Willie Harry Stee or the four times table. For parents who also happen to be Ofsted inspectors the bar is set particularly high. Andrew Jeffrey from Sussex is one such and after failing to engage his sons in the workload, he compiled a fake Ofsted report for his own home school, which he described as ‘atrocious.’ The head teacher’, he remarks, ‘though eminently qualified is regularly seen wearing nothing but a dressing gown and underpants.’ The team did not feel that ‘getting everyone showered and dressed by lunchtime was sufficiently aspirational.’ Absenteeism is ‘a daily occurrence, despite the school only having two pupils.’ It’s proof that self-deprecation is one of the most effective kinds of humour. Hats off to Mr Jeffrey. Hats round as well, perhaps, as this foray into levity will probably result in his getting sacked.
• Both France and Holland have cancelled their top-flight football seasons, which I thinks a bit premature. Liverpool FC will be very much hoping that doesn’t happen here. Aside form personally loving the sport to bits, it also provides a sense of normality. Playing matches behind closed doors would be odd but, with precautions, perfectly acceptable. If some are on free-to-air, so much the better. Sport is, after all, the opium of the masses and I’m one of them, as far as this and cricket are concerned at any rate.
• I’ve just received this from an old uni fired of mine about how some students at our old alma mater (including Newton, Darwin and Byron) coped with lockdowns imposed as a result of the Great Plague and other misfortunes. We are, it seems, not the first to have to go through this: and we won’t be the last…
Thursday 23 April 2020
• The latest government CV-19 briefing included Nick Carter – not West Berkshire Council’s CEO but Chief of Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter. He gave a crisp and lucid summary of the military’s role to date. It was refreshing to see politicians outnumbered by experts (the Chief Medical Officer was also present) but there are still a number of things that confuse me.
Firstly, Sir Nick was careful to point out that the army had been involved for 25 days, in other words since 28 March. This was over a week after the PM announced the start of the widespread social-distancing measures and at least two and a half months after the government must, or should, have realised that it was likely to have a major logistical problem on its hands. He was also keen to stress that the military’s role had been to support the from-line staff: although he made reference to several major initiatives it had been involved with, including involvement with the delegated response networks which had been called into action several times before with things such as foot and mouth and floods. The impression was that much of the work has been reactive. It also seemed significant that he mentioned by name one military logistics expert who had drawn on his experience working at Google and developed a purchasing system in conjunction with E-Bay.
Secondly, he referred to the fact the the delivery of PPE now needs to be made not to 250-odd trusts as previously but to over 50,000 individual recipients. This suggests that the existing NHS supply chains have completely broken down. The supermarkets seem to be keeping theirs going. There must be a reason for this sudden need for direct supply but it’s not clear why this is.
Thirdly, he stressed the importance of delegated responses which are more flexible to local demand. (That is certainly my impression from having seen how local volunteer groups and parish or town councils have reacted, setting up volunteer groups within days).
I appreciate that there are many constructions that could be put on this address. This is mine. The government should, he might have said, involved us earlier and in more of a decision-making role. Other experts, ranging from big tech companies to parish councils, should have had their skills, networks and resources harnessed sooner. The whole thing could and should have been better prepared for.
• All this has happened before. In October 2016, an H2N2 virus swept the country, overwhelming the health service and killing tens of thousands of people. Remember that? No, we don’t because it was only a three-day exercise, codenamed Cygnus. It seems this revealed some glaring gaps in the level of investment and resilience. The results were never publicised, being described as ‘too terrifying’ by one senior person involved in the drill. The lessons certainly do not seem to have been acted upon. The Daily Telegraph quotes a senior academic involved in Cygnus, speaking about the current pandemic: “These exercises are supposed to prepare government – but it appears they were aware of the problem but didn’t do much about it. We’ve been quite surprised at the lack of coherent planning for a pandemic on this scale. It’s basically a lack of attention to what would be needed to prevent a disease like this from overwhelming the system. All the flexibility has been pared away so it’s difficult to react quickly. Nothing is ready to go.”
• One doesn’t have to look far to see other evidence of a lack of preparedness. I mentioned before about the emails that were sent to universities and institutes in January asking how many testing kits each could provide, most of which were replied to but none of which were followed up. There are also stories of suppliers who offered to produce equipment for local markets being shunned, this one involving face masks from as recently as 21 April.
Of course, the whole thing might be the fault of the NHS staff themselves or those reporting on the matter. This is certainly what the Home Secretary suggested on 11 April when she said that she was ‘sorry if people feel’ that there has been a failure to provide NHS staff with PPE. There’s a strange disjunctive verb form that politicians seem wedded to which I can best describe as the continuous manipulative. Phrases like ‘I regret’ or “I’m sorry if you think’ bounce the responsibility for the problem straight back in your face – it’s just an issue of perception, yours having been defective on this occasion. She went on to say “I will be very, very clear about that.” This is another example: the politician is providing clarity to a deluded questioner, the inference being that the next thing the politician says is going to be a model of clarity (even when it isn’t). Ms Patel needs to be kept as far away from a microphone as possible in the coming months. This will probably suit her as her personal in-box includes an imminent unfair dismissal claim from her former senior civil servant.
There have been plenty of other criticisms of the government’s reaction. One example comes from The Society of Radiographers which on 25 March expressed its ‘grave disappointment that poor planning has evidently contributed to increased risk for staff. It isn’t reasonable that at the start of this week government was still saying there was an adequate supply of the right PPE, but that it was just not in the right places. The crisis has been looming since the start of the year and there is no justifiable reason why these supplies shouldn’t be where they need to be now.’ Perhaps even more alarmingly, it appears from this article in the Telegraph that at the end of March the government’s intervention in the business of sourcing PPE made a bad situation even worse.
• There need to be some serious changes made to the way that public life is organised from now on. Government – not just this government, but any government – might currently be ‘working with the best minds in the country’ as Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on 22 April, but the processes for acting on it seem to be defective. The regulatory processes seem to be lagging well behind the technological developments (particularly at present, when some risks might be regarded as acceptable). There seems to have been inadequate relaxation of procurement processes. Decision-making seems paralysed by red tape (or black tape). Requests for expert advice and assistance seems to have made too late. The funding cuts as a result of the banking crisis of 2008 have fallen disproportionately on public bodies rather than the private sector. The highly effective role played by local organisations during the Covid crisis has been accepted but not adequately praised. All in all, we need to spend some time considering what we demand from the power structure for which we pay. This is a discussion for another day but the current emergency should not stop us from reflecting on these matters now.
• It has been suggested to me that the UK’s policy all along has been to do what Germany has done but two weeks later (and probably less efficiently). This might make some sense: there are worse role models to follow. If so, compulsory face masks might be one thing we need to put up with – if we can order enough and have them delivered, of course.
• April is normally the best month for sport with the start of the cricket season and the end of the football one. The latter is in a state of acute turmoil at the moment, the season having gone on too long for it to be easily abandoned but with a sufficient number of matches left to cause a real problem if they’re all going to be completed. Football, and horse racing, are also on the back foot as it’s recently been suggested that the Cheltenham Festival and the Champions league match between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid in early March were both instrumental in spreading the virus. Earlier this week, the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden defended his decision to permit these and other similar events to take place. “The scientific evidence we were being given,” he told the BBC, “was that, at a mass gathering, the threat at a mass gathering relates to the people who immediately surround you – the people in front of you and behind you. The risk at mass gatherings was no greater or less than it would have been in pubs or restaurants, and the advice at that point was that we did not need to ban mass gatherings.” If this was the advice then it would seem to have been flawed, though it’s easy to say that in hindsight. It also overlooks the fact that at race meetings and football matches, even more than in pubs and considerably more so than in restaurants, people move around, are often packed close together and tend to shout and wave their arms around, all of which the virus loves. It also loves the international nature of these large gatherings.
• I was talking to a friend on the phone this morning who said how bored he was getting with the negative coverage and criticism of the government’s actions and suggested that this was due to an anti-Tory bias. The fact that we’ve had the same party in power, on its own or in coalition, for ten years makes the two hard to separate. I concede that it’s often easier, and more eye-catching, to attack than to defend. However, the gap between what should have happened, regardless of the politics, and what has it at times alarmingly wide. Anyone writing about it who doesn’t draw attention to these is being deficient in their duty. It’s interesting that the normally loyal Daily Telegraph has been one of the government’s most vocal critics. He also pointed out that the government was acting on scientific advice and that this was often flawed. I agree that the advice has not been perfect. However, the main scientific and medical issues had been simulated by Cygnus (see above) and, it seems, ignored. The relationship between the empiricism of science and opportunism of politics is an uneasy one. I think that the last PM to have had a science degree was Margaret Thatcher.
He also suggested that there should be more of the good news spread. We have been doing this and will continue to do so. The dedication of the NHS staff, in the most demanding circumstances and with a creaking and under-funded structure, is beyond amazing. Both the NHS’s importance and its problems have been demonstrated to all: one result should be that the former will be reinforced and the latter fixed. The brake on human activity has also shown in countless different ways what our influence on the environment has been and, perhaps, how this might be mitigated (climate change remains an equally serious battle, as yet largely un-fought). Another welcome development has been the remarkable reaction of volunteer groups and parish and town councils which have in general acted swiftly and effectively. Hopefully these local connections will survive and be extended to other issues in the future. As our post on companies offering delivery and takeaway services shows, it’s encouraging how many businesses have rapidly re-invented themselves to serve local needs. For many, this might be an aspect of their businesses that remain in post-Covid times. A lot of organisations have also applied themselves to making PPE equipment for local health and care workers. Care homes are, for obvious reasons, particularly vulnerable at present, but we also want to mention the heartening story St Katharine’s in Wantage whose manager acquired PPE and put the place into lockdown two weeks before the official announcement: it has had no CV-19 cases at all so far. Most of these things have come from bottom-up initiatives.
So, yes, there is much to celebrate about the reaction. Many things will be different in the future. Some might even be better. This is also a uniquely good time to question how everything, from our national government to the way we purchase food, is organised so as to make sure we’re better prepared next time. As Einstein is credited as having observed, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Thursday 16 April 2020
• Fundraiser of the week has got to be 99-year-old Captain Tom Moore who hoped to raise £1,000 for the NHS by using his walking frame to do 100 25m laps of his Bedfordshire garden before his hundredth birthday at the end of the month. He’s completed the task ahead of schedule (an achievement in itself by many standards) and has so far raised nearly £20m, which is likely to increase. He’s going to be releasing a single. There have been calls for him to be knighted. It’s a staggering accomplishment but it also leaves me slightly worried. The NHS should be properly funded from central sources and the amount of money donated rather suggests that most people agree. The more this kind of thing happens, the more the government is going to think ‘oh, it’ll be OK – charities will take care of it whenever there’s a crisis.’ The money this wonderful man has raised should have been received and spent six months ago. I have exactly the same concern about poppy appeals. If the government had a statutory duty to provide all the necessary care for injured service personnel then there might be fewer wars.
Of course, people should be able to raise money for and donate to whatever they wish. As Captain Tom has shown, a good cause promoted in the right way at the right time will attract support: in a way it’s a fairly pure expression of the workings of the market economy. So, why not test it? If the NHS and the veterans were funded properly, that might leave the field open for some new appeals. Suppose that the construction cost of HS2, the consultants’ fees for negotiating PFI deals or the bonuses paid to CEOs were funded by people doing sponsored skydives or rattling tins in the high streets? Let’s try it and see what happens.
• Speaking of HS2, some of you may have been worried that this vital national project had stalled as a result of the inconvenience of a global pandemic. Not a bit of it. The sleek and wily beast is, as of 15 April, up and running again – well, lumbering. It’s good to see that the government has got its priorities right: getting from London to Birmingham 30 minutes earlier in about 15 years time is what we really need right now. And what a great time to make the announcement, don’t you think?
One of the reasons advanced by the HS2 Minister (yes, it has its own Minister, like Defence and Education and all the rest do – it’s that big) as to why this is such a ripping idea is that ‘this next step provides thousands of construction workers and businesses across the country with certainty at a time when they need it.’ What on earth is certain about this project? Certainly not the costs, the completion date, the later northern phases, the contractors for these, the ticket costs, the demand, the revenue nor the operator. As for the construction workers, the suggestion appears to be that HS2 is little more than a prodigious job-creation scheme. The consultants who have so far grown rich on the project, and may yet grow richer, would doubtless agree.
• If construction work is needed, perhaps a good place to start would with homes. The government’s own target was for a million new homes between 2017 and 2020 but less than half that total were built in the two years from 2017-19. A still greater problem is the lack of social housing (genuinely affordable, generally through local councils, housing associations or shared ownership schemes) and of affordable housing (rented at up to 80% of the prevailing market rates). ‘Affordable’ is a relative term and in many parts of the country is effectively meaningless. The charity Shelter has called for a massive investment in three million social homes over the next 20 years, the price tag of £216bn being one of the few figures, at least in pre-Coronavirus times, that was higher than the cost of HS2. The problem is certainly not an easy one to solve. HS2 will not, however, be helping to do this as its construction work will result in nearly 900 homes (and nearly 1,000 businesses) being destroyed.
Writing in the Wantage and Grove Herald of 15 April, Julie Mabberly, a long-time campaigner on planning issues in the area, remarked that the recent Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) report into the question of social housing makes ‘stark reading.’ Only 11% of new homes built in England in the previous 12 months were designed for genuinely affordable social rent, compared with 70% in Scotland. She goes on to point out that due to right to buy and other causes there has been a net loss of over 181,000 social homes since 2012. By a number of indicators, the situation in England appears to be going backwards.
Building a five-bedroom house is more expensive than a two-bedroom one, but to a much smaller extent than the difference in the sale price. Developers are not necessarily the bad guys here: they are running a business. The problem is that over that 20 years or so this entire aspect of national policy has effectively been outsourced to them. The industry will respond to the needs of the market, which involves building the kind of homes in the locations and at the times that will maximise their returns. It’s not unreasonable. If the government or local councils wish to have other kinds of homes in other places at a time of their choosing then the answer is very simple – they need to build them themselves.
This can lead to some conflicts of interest (one of the many problems of the troubled London Road Industrial Estate project in Newbury seems to stem from a confusion between West Berkshire Council’s role as a landlord and its one as a planning authority) but these can be resolved. Another question that could be asked is why the progress on social-housing construction seems so much more successful in the other three parts of the UK. I’m guessing here, but perhaps it’s because there are fewer disparities of wealth and thus demand in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and therefore that the disincentive for private companies to build cheaper homes is reduced.
One can only speculate on what effect Cornavirus will have on all this. An obvious problem is that, as with most other sectors, at least a quarter of construction work has been or will be lost. Julie Mabberley’s article quotes the CIH Chairman’s claim that even more social housing will be needed. One reason for this is that, certainly in Oxfordshire, housing is at times insanely expensive and way beyond the reach of many people who – as current events are proving – are vital for the work of the NHS. The general need for more homes is partly fuelled by population growth, partly by increasing expectations and partly by what is termed social mobility but which could also be called social fragmentation – the rising divorce rate, the increasing number of people living alone and the general drift away from the close-knit family unit. This is in many ways a good thing as people are now less willing to be imprisoned in unwelcome situations but it comes with consequences. Housing is one.
Another likely result of Coronavirus will be an increase in the divorce rate. After the lockdown in Wuhan, this skyrocketed. It’s easy to see why. Many relationships survive only because work and other commitments mean that two people spend only a small percentage of their waking week in the same place. Two of my previous relationships ended within days of returning from a fortnight’s holiday. If you can survive the lockdown then your relationship has passed a pretty big test. Not all will.
• Having a relationship fail is one thing: having it explode into violence is quite another. Sadly, cases of domestic violence seem to be on the increase. I have no first-hand experience of this but I am aware from talking to both victims and experts that, even in normal circumstances, it’s a huge and often secret problem and one that, for a whole raft of reasons, tends not to be reported as often as it might. The current social restrictions won’t be doing anything to improve this. Having spoken to a friend who’s a GP in London, I can offer the reassuring news that professionals including doctors, the social services and the police, continue to take this social evil very seriously and contacting them for this reason will not be regarded as wasting their time. Organisations such as IRIS have issued new guidelines for the different narratives that need to take place on the phone, when the victim may or may not be alone. If you’re the vicim of this crime, have a look online and see what help is available in your area. You are not alone – there are people who can help you.
• You might imagine that, in the middle of a global pandemic, the best thing might be to support the WHO. That hasn’t been the reaction of the US President who has this week announced that he will be cutting his country’s contributions to the body on the grounds that it has failed in its basic duty. There are a number of views on the issue, this from The Guardian being one. The time for this kind of criticism will come later – as it surely must with some of the decisions taken by the UK government – but it’s not now. In any case, as Bill Gates pointed out, few countries will get an A-grade for its response. South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan (the last not recognised by the WHO, which has been part of the problem) might make a good claim for one but the USA certainly cannot. To some extent, America’s size, complexity, federal structure, broken health system, innate libertarianism and obsession with personal wealth make it a hard place to rule during such a crisis. Having a delusional, prickly and image-obsessed leader who has one eye on forthcoming elections certainly doesn’t help.
Bill Gates called Trump’s WHO decision ‘as dangerous as it sounds.’ Microsoft might not be everyone’s favourite company but the man did earn his unfeasible wealth though (as well as some good fortune) anticipating important events. He’s also been much involved over the last two decades in promoting a range of public-health issues such as with AIDS and malaria. He thus has perhaps a better reason to claim some expertise than does his President, who seems to be trying to re-invent himself as a scientist as well as the saviour of his people; so much so that Coronavirus-related welfare cheques will have his name on them.
• One of the effects of the virus has been to make us see the various national governments in their true colours, a ghastly and serious application of the in vino veritas principle. Singapore and South Korea, for instance, have been brisk and efficient and have paid no respect to awkward questions of data privacy. China has also been effective but mendacious and as always paranoid about disturbing its delicate balance of economic confidence and political control. Russia remains inscrutable. Iran has blamed the USA. The USA has blamed China and almost everyone else and also suffers from the problems mentioned in the paragraph above. Most European countries have been torn between doing too much and doing too little and – with neither the efficiency and preparedness of South Korea, nor the controlling instincts of China, nor the blustering self-confident of the USA as part of their governmental DNA – have for the most part acted too late, Germany (as one might expect) being an exception. South Africa has both some of the tightest restrictions and some of the potentially worst problems. Then you have the countries which we always knew were odd like North Korea, which admits no cases; Belarus, where the football season and doubtless much else is continuing as normal; and Turkmenistan, which has banned any mention of the disease – certainly one way of dealing with the problem but perhaps one which both the WHO and Donald Trump could agree, on this if nothing else, was not the most appropriate.
• I mentioned fundraising earlier. It’s a year yesterday since part of Notre Dame in Paris burnt down. I’m not French, though I’ve spent a fair bit of time there, but remain estomaqué, in other words gobsmacked, by the fact that the appeal raised a billion euros in a few days. What Capitaine Thomas (see first paragraph above) could have achieved were he to have doffed a beret and pushed his walking frame round the building for charity can only be dreamed of.
• We often can and do respond to an immediate need with an astounding and often emotional (and so short-term) generosity. What’s needed is a more hard-headed approach, whereby problems ranging from fire risks to cathedrals to global pandemics are regarded as regular parts of our expenditure. This is unglamorous: to say that you’ve used £25,000 on treating medieval timbers or war-gaming an emergency is a lot less impressive than having a media-heavy event to celebrate a new stained-glass window or the opening of a new hospital ward (which perhaps remains mothballed due to staffing cuts). Our desire for novelty and advancement has left little room for maintenance and none at all for preparing us against more ancient enemies like fire and pestilence. If we can devote more energy and resources to anticipating and mitigating recurring and well-known problems at the expense of trying to do everything faster and cheaper than everyone else then the Coronavirus hell might not have been wholly without point.
As a friend said to me last week, it’s like we’re kids who’ve been sent to our rooms to think about what we’ve done. That having happened, let’s think. There is a lot of honour being paid to NHS staff, scientists and medical experts at the moment. Our popular press is very fickle and assumes a short attention span. Can we try to get the unglamorous stuff and preparatory right when it isn’t on the front pages? In this over-crowded, inter-connected and febrile world, the need for it in one form or another may come again sooner than we think…
Thursday 9 April 2020
• The health of the PM has dominated the news stories this week and he seems to be on the mend. I don’t know the man – though Penny was at university with him and has a few tales, though this is hardly the time or place – do not always find myself in agreement with his political views and am not overwhelmed by his government’s recent response, but we could do without a leadership struggle at the moment. All the talk of power vacuums and arcane explanations of the precise chain of command in the PM’s absence has faint echoes of the stultifying constitutional discussions surrounding Brexit. Mind you, I bet we wish we were back in the times when the backstop, Bercow and Brussels were dominating the front pages. The B-word was a lot better than the one that’s followed it.
• The question of testing kits has come up before and will come up again. These figures suggest that the UK had, as of 8 April, tested about 3.5 people per thousand: about the same as France but some way behind Italy and Germany. This could have been more. In early January, the Department of Health contacted a number of specialist organisations such as hospitals, universities and institutes to ask how many testing kits each could provide. Many replied with the information but I understand that none of these were subsequently followed up. Fortunately many of these organisations have pushed forward their plans themselves. If this foul-up did indeed happen, one possible explanation is that whoever was receiving these responses wasn’t aware what they ought to do about them or perhaps not even told to expect them. At the time, the threat might not have seemed that real. It’s possible that the recipient assumed that this was another attention-grabbing initiative launched by a minister which would fizzle out and that doing nothing was an appropriate reaction. I really don’t know. Clearly something went badly wrong.
Last week, in a reference to Dunkirk, the Francis Crick institute referred to the ‘small ships’ that would be needed to provide the necessary testing facilities, these being provided by organisations such as theirs in addition to the ‘battleships’ provided by the government. The small ships seem to proving rather more effective. The target is currently 100,000 tests a day although PoliticsHome reports that on 7 April only 14,000 tests took place and this was about 2,000 down on the day before. It’s also not clear how many of these tests will be for the virus and how many for the antibodies (which will indicate if someone has been exposed and has recovered), which are in some ways more useful. With a few exceptions, no country has come out of the testing race that well. ‘Race’ seems to be the mot juste, as governments are falling over themselves to claim that their tests are more numerous, faster and better than anyone else’s.
• One of the morals of the story seems to be that governments are not that good at organising large-scale logistical projects, particularly where these require specialist knowledge. The NHS’s National Project for IT and HS2 – the first a fiasco that has been abandoned after dropping £10bn, the second being one that is still very much alive having already cost at least that much – are two excellent examples. One could cite several others. The original ‘top-down’ NHS project has since been replaced by a ‘bottom-up’ approach whereby the various trusts have co-operated to knit together their existing systems. This has now been completed in Scotland and is about 65% done in England. On April Fool’s Day, I facetiously suggested that this kind of approach was being considered by the government with regard to the replacement of cat’s eyes in the roads. A week on and this is seeming like a slightly less bonkers idea. Quite how the vastly superior and faster logistical skills of organisations like Amazon and the Army could be deployed at a time of national emergency is unclear. One useful first approach would be for governments to involve those with the necessary logistical, medical and scientific skills in the decision making. I’m not interested in a government of national unity but would welcome seeing a some proper experts sitting in on cabinet meetings and perhaps taking charge of departments.
One sees the same thing at a local level. The number of volunteer groups which have sprung up to assist vulnerable and isolated people (who are no even more so), and those self-isolating, is remarkable. This is a genuinely ‘bottom-up’ development and has been performed by individual communities, sometimes assisted by the parish councils, and not by the district or county councils. Each volunteer group is a unique reflection of that community’s particular characteristics such as its size and population density. No system imposed by a higher council could have hoped to have accomplished anything as effective, nor as quickly. It’s true that a number of shortcuts have been taken. There has not, for example, been the time or the resources to perform the usual checks and implement the compliance procedures that such groups normally require. This is, however, very much the lesser of two evils.
The district council clearly has a role to play – West Berkshire, for instance, working with Volunteer Centre West Berkshire, has set up a Community Hub to help co-ordinate (but not to control) this work. The district council also has legal responsibilities (though these have been somewhat diminished by the recent emergency regulations) to monitor particularly vulnerable (‘shielded’) people who are now being looked after by voluntary groups. West Berkshire (and doubtless other councils) has produced guidance for parish and town councils and volunteer groups on these points.
The main issue is obviously dealing with the immediate need. The time demands action rather than due process. It’s hard to imagine that any of these groups would have emerged from any kind of ‘top-down’ initiative; just as many NHS trusts must now be wondering why it was ever felt to be a good idea that the government should be in charge of a vast nationwide IT project on their behalf.
• Changes in the way certain things are done and organised may be one of the results of CV-19. It’s also the case that global disasters generally produce one lot of beneficiaries. Such groups were not responsible for the problem and were often particularly repressed in the decades leading up to it. The main beneficiaries of the Black Death, for example, were the landless poor; of WW1, women; and of WW2, the working classes (I’m dealing in very broad brush-strokes here, you understand). It’s been pointed out by a friend with whom I shared these thoughts that this is not an original thesis. None the less, I find myself wondering who or what the CV-19 beneficiaries might be. Local food suppliers? Bottom-up hyper-local organisations? The environment? Front-line NHS staff? It seems already a given that large organisations with a powerful online presence, deep pockets, a robust supply chain and a dominant market position seem set to have their primacy cemented. They hardly fit into this pattern as no one could describe them as repressed at the moment. I think you know which ones I’m talking about.
• There’s still uncertainty about many aspects of the virus, such as how long it survives for on various surfaces and what it might think about warm weather. It does seem clear that transmission from person to person via water droplets presents by far the highest risk. Contamination via surfaces is a factor but, were it to be a major one, the infection would probably have spread far more widely. The various maps and graphs tend to suggest that people rather than things are the main agents. We also know that the virus decays over time at different rates on different surfaces: it lasts about three times longer longer on plastic than on cardboard, for instance. Every eight hours or so, the number of viruses on a piece of plastic will halve (the half-life). The point will arrive – but it’s not certain when this point is – when the number of remaining viruses is inadequate to trigger an infection. Some viruses require only a few to accomplish this; other require millions. It also appears that its survival rates are drastically reduced when on materials which are organically or chemically complex, such as food (rather than stainless steel). Like all viruses it doesn’t mind the cold, or even being frozen, but disintegrates when heated (certainly when boiled). Finally, it also seems likely that this is graduated, not a sudden result when a given temperature is reached, with the half-life decreasing as the temperature rises. This leads to the question, explored in this BBC article, as to whether the summer might produce a respite. Again, it seems too early to tell. Sadly, this is still the response to many questions, although the answers are being provided more quickly than has ever been the case before.
• As to what might happen next, you might be interested in having a look at this article which I’ve recently written with a friend of mine who is a Professor of Computer Science and much involved in the scientific response to the issue.
• Finally, where would we be with out the conspiracy theories? Chinese germ-warfare, the CIA, 5G masts and God have all been cited as the cause. Don’t worry if you’ve missed one: there’ll be another along in a minute. There’s also the predictable crossfire of allegation and counter-allegation such as that currently raging between Donald Trump and the WHO and the competing claims and counter-claims about the efficacy or otherwise of official or unofficial cures ranging from re-purposed malaria drugs to raw garlic. All in all, the airwaves are pretty noisy at the moment…
• There’s a long letter in this week’s Newbury Weekly News about the interpretation of regulation 6 of the recent Emergency Coronavirus Bill which describes, inter alia, the reasons people may leave their homes. You can see the relevant section here. I am not a barrister and the correspondent is but I’m not sure I agree with his view. He says that travelling ‘is only permitted in accordance with 6, 2 (f) (‘to travel for the purposes of work or to provide voluntary or charitable services, where it is not reasonably possible for that person to work, or to provide those services, from the place where they are living;’). In fact there are 13 separate reasons listed, 6, 2 (b) being ‘to take exercise either alone or with other members of their household;’.
The Thames Valley Police, which was forced last week to clarify its own advice, includes the following information on its FAQs about where people can go for their daily exercise: ‘Stay local and use open spaces near to your home where possible – do not travel unnecessarily.’ There is nothing in this about not driving. The writer concludes that the list is neither egalitarian nor fair for all, particularly not those who do not have gardens. It’s worth stepping back from the legal issues and reflecting on the purpose of the regulations. The over-riding aim is to reduce transmission of the virus from person to person. If this is less likely to happen by people driving to a nearby open space and staying a long way from each other, rather than walking in a street where there is more human proximity and less air movement, then the spirit of the law is being adhered to. Nor do I see that this is infringing the letter of the law either.
• In any case, it’s possible to cause a vast amount of havoc by staying in your own home and inviting some mates round. Greater Manchester Police broke up 660 parties last weekend, some of which had DJs, fireworks and bouncy castles. It’s hard to know where to start with this kind of idiocy. There will be a time for fireworks and DJs but it isn’t now. Returning to the above-mentioned regulations, 6, 2 (a) permits leaving the home to ‘obtain basic necessities, including food.’ What is not, however, permitted is licking your hands and then rubbing these on food and fridge handles which, for some inexplicable reason, two men decided to do in a Morecambe supermarket last Saturday. I’m really struggling to understand the mental state that might have made this seem useful or fun at any time; also the intelligence level of doing it in a place notoriously full of security cameras and currently with a high staff-to-customer ratio.
• The Coronavirus Act 2020 received Royal Assent on 26 March. It confers a wide range of powers on the government, some available immediately, some whenever a minister switches them on by issuing a regulation. The act will last for two years (though some provisions will outlast this) and will be reviewed by parliament every six months. You can read a summary here and the government’s detailed description of its aims here. One of the many clauses involves removing the obligation for local councils to provide the previous level of social care.
Thursday 2 April 2020
• So – where are we? The lockdown in the UK seems to be having some results though it’s too early to tell for sure. Most now agree that the government should have acted earlier (see below). The numbers of infections and deaths are rising but it remains to be seen if any pattern is going to be sustained. Statistics like these from John Hopkins University show confirmed cases increasing in what looks to me to be an exponential way. These figures perhaps tell us at least as much about the increase in testing, which was not happening nearly as widely (and in many countries at all) two months ago. Coronavirus probably jumped species in China late last year. A couple of months elapsed before any real notice was taken, during which time it would have been spread but its unknowing carriers. This article in Medical News Today suggests that Coronavirus’ serial interval – the time between an infection and the infectious person displaying symptoms, at which point their chances of passing it on vastly increase – is about four days. This is quite short, similar to that of colds and flu which in this way (though not in all ways) CV-19 closely resembles. The shorter the serial interval, the less time there is to trace and quarantine possible contacts. The article contrasts this with Ebola, which had a serial interval of several weeks. An analogy might be dealing with a car accident at 110mph compared to one at 25. The problem it’s causing us largely stems from this aspect; and the fact that as a new and cross-species virus, there was no human resistance to it.
All of this makes the the UK government’s response particularly disappointing. The aspect that they’re really getting in the neck concerns testing. There are two companies in Northern Ireland which were shipping testing kits to Germany on January and February. It seems that they had by then received no orders from the the Department of Health. Some of the the newspapers on 2 April use words like ‘shambles’ and ‘chaos’ and it’s hard to disagree. One article in The Lancet calls the delay ‘a national scandal’; another details some specific and authoritative advice which was tendered in late January, no aspect of which was followed. Sir Paul Nurse, chief executive of the Francis Crick research institute, is quoted on the BBC website as saying that situation needs a Dunkirk-like effort. He’s not referring to the spirit and attitude associated with that event – though that will be needed too – but the fact that small specialist organisations have a total role to play as well as the government’s ‘big destroyers’. The current government target is for 25,000 tests a day to be done from this week and four times that number by the end of the month. The Francis Crick institute says it will soon be able to perform 500 of these. Meanwhile, a company associated with the University of Cambridge had developed a testing kit which can produce results 90 minutes.
With regard to ventilators, the government was accused by the Financial Times on 28 March of having been deficient in its response, and has rebutted this. This article from The BBC website suggests that that the private sector may provide at least part of the solution by creating open-source design for ventilators. As for protective equipment, there are numerous stories of NHS staff having to adopt a ‘make do and mend’ – or ‘buy it yourself’ – approach. This article in The Guardian claims that staff are being pressured by the NHS – which has form on this – not to speak out about shortages of equipment or precautions. And yet we know that such shortages exist. The BBC website, quoting figures that I’ve not seen contradicted, claims that fewer than 4,000 front-line NHS staff had been tested. The NHS employs about 1.7m people. Not all of these are front-line but, even so, 0.2% of staff tested seems like an alarmingly low figure for the sixth richest county in the world with national experts on hand and a storm warning that must surely have been available to those who were paid to interpret its message. The message from the WHO has been clear enough for some time: ‘test, test, test.’
It’s very easy to criticise governments. It’s also very easy for governments, at times of national emergency, to claim that what they are doing is beyond criticism. This government may now be doing the right thing but too late. Post-Brexit fatigue, the general election and Christmas could all be offered as excuses. However, there are officials and experts on every ministry whose ears ought to twitch at the slightest sound, regardless of the background noise. The UK is an island state that is rich, well organised and relatively socially obedient. We’re not South Korea or Singapore, where the virus has been almost suppressed, but we’re closer to that end of the stick than are a lot of other places. These advantages have been partly frittered away by inaction. No rational person is going to question the wisdom of measures such as social distancing. What we do need to do is to remember the fairly rapid sequence events that have unfolded and see if matters could have been better arranged. This important because what is happening now will almost certainly happen again. Our current Prime Minister is a fan of Winston Churchill and has cast himself in something of the same role: to be fair, as soon as he started listening to scientific advice he has discharged his oratorial skills well. He might be reflecting on what happened to Churchill and his party in the 1945 general election. Certainly if those who made (or failed to make) the necessary decisions are not held to account afterwards then there is something badly wrong with our system of government.
• Moving back to the virus itself rather than the response to it, there’s still a lot of uncertainty, though less so than a few months ago, as to the speed and principal vectors of its spread. The average number of people that each infected person infects is called the R0. This was in the 2-3 range but recent measures have reduced this to about 2. The difference between an exponential spread at R0 of 2 and at R0 3 is vast. The aim is to get it to less than 1, at which point the epidemic effectively collapses. Most people circulate for most of the time within fairly small groups, a pattern which will contain the infection. The main agent of more widespread transmission is a super spreader. In less mobile times there would have been very few of these, mainly merchants. Today there are 10s of millions of super spreaders, hopping on and off planes and trains every day. To some extent, as the global spread proves, they have already done their damage. However, any reduction in contact is still vitally important: for every human contact that would have taken place and now does not, the R0 is pushed fractionally lower.
This also needs to apply to interactions with objects. It seems pretty certain that the virus can survive on cardboard for 24 hours and stainless steel for up to three days. Encouragingly, however, the research also suggested that the number of viruses declined quite quickly: after a certain time, the number left on a particular object might no longer be dangerous. Director close human contact seems to be the main method of transmission.
There’s also uncertainty as to whether, or to what extent, asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic people are infectious. Current research seems to suggest that in both cases they are but to a lesser extent. Nor is it yet clear if the severity of the symptoms are linked to the number of viruses one is infected by, the ‘viral load’. With flu and SARS, there was a correlation but it with CV-19 there might not be.
Another difference between CV-19 and flu, revealed as a result of numerous scientific groups tracking the virus in real time, is that it that CV-19 seems to be mutating more slowly. This should enable vaccines (when these arrive – candidates are being tested already) to be more effective. Viruses mutate all the time: although in general this makes them less virulent, the point can be reached when our antibodies no longer recognise it. There can also be benefits from mutations. During the H1Ni outbreak 11 years ago, the virus mutated into something with a very similar DNA to an earlier flu to which many people over 50 had already been exposed and against which they therefore had some immunity.
This visual animation clearly and effectively shows how the virus has spread since late January.
The epidemic has spawned an incalculable number of articles on the subject (including this article) which are sometimes overtaken by events even as one is pressing the ‘post’ button. There are also a large number of phrases and words which might in some cases have, or appear have, a scientific basis but which often do not. One of many examples is the term ‘patient zero’, a dramatic and seemingly specific expression which this article does a good job of debunking. Myths, rumours and bogus claims on social media can reproduce very quickly (there is probably valuable work to be done on whether there’s any similarity between the spread of viruses and of internet lies). This post on the BBC website deals with myths involving lemon juice, mosquitoes and blood donation.
How are other countries dealing with this? China has recently admitted that it had been under-reporting cases, including all asympomatic ones. The President of Brazil described CV-19 about 10 days ago as ‘just a little flu and sniffles’. Saudi Arabia has asked Muslims to reconsider plans to travel to the Hajj. The Cook Islands have reported no cases but that’s perhaps because the government doesn’t appear to have tested anyone. Sweden has had the most relaxes attitude in Europe. Turkmenistan has learned the lessons of Orwell’s Newspeak in 1984 better than those of the scientists in 2020 and declared the word ‘Coronavirus’ and the wearing of face masks illegal.
CV-19 is likely to thrive in a country with a large population, a slow response to introducing social distancing, a broken public-health system, a federal structure which makes it hard for nationwide policies to be enacted, a high incidence of travel both internally and internationally and a leader who seems unwilling to follow, or perhaps even to understand, scientific advice, who is obsessed with soundbites and who has half an eye on a forthcoming election. The USA satisfies all these conditions and is, according to recent estimates and as a result of a delay even more culpable than the UK’s, on a course similar to Italy’s. This will cause longer-term problems. The USA is still the world’s largest economy. The old phrase that ‘when the USA sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold’ has perhaps never been more true.
• The Coronavirus Act 2020 received royal assent on 26 March. It confers a wide range of powers on the government, some available immediately, some whenever a minister switches them on by issuing a regulation. The act will last for two years (though some provisions will outlast this) and will be reviewed by parliament every six months. You can read a summary here and the government’s detailed description of its aims here. One of the many clauses involves removing the obligation for local councils to provide the previous level of social care.
• The two local newspapers I’ve seen (the Newbury Weekly News and the Wantage & Grove Herald) are slimmer than usual. Most of the content is, as one would expect, concerned with cancelled events, the local impact of government regulations and initiatives and the work done by local volunteers and other groups. There are also several references, particularly in the Herald, to the fact that local journalism has never been so important. This is true: the problem is that, at present, there’s really only one subject to write about and every aspect of every story is changing all the time. As suggested above, there are a number of questions that need to be asked and hopefully the local papers will be able to play their role. Many may not survive the crisis. The industry has been suffering problems for some time, The Guardian reporting last year that there was a net decline of 245 local news titles between 2005 and 2018 and that nearly 60% of the country is now served by no local newspaper. Those which do survive will also need to retain their journalists in sufficiently large numbers: a local paper which merely re-cycles press releases and doesn’t ask any questions is of very little use to anyone.
See here for more local weekly news covering the Penny Post area of Newbury, Thatcham, Hungerford, Lambourn, Marlborough, Wantage, Swindon.