Further Afield: The Week According to Brian Quinn – 25 February 2021

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

Thanks to everyone whose brains I pick each week, particularly (and most regularly) Doctor Mick, Euro Lindsey, Prof Anon, Prof Jon Crowcroft and Ed James.

(For Brian’s weekly local news summary for the West Berkshire, Wantage and Marlborough area please click here.)

Thursday 25 February 2021

• There are a number of groups that appear to feel that Covid regulations are unimportant. Premier League footballers, compulsive house-party-goers and a decent number of the world’s film, fashion and music glitterati all fit into this category. So too, it would seem, does a group that would seem to have little in common with any of these, North London’s Orthodox Jewish community. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical medicine reported on 2 Februarythat (based on surveys conducted in November and December 2020), 64% of the overall population is infected, compared to 7% nationally and 11% in London. This makes them have one of the highest density of Covid infections for any community on the planet. This is a staggering statistic. The most staggering this about it is that I’d have expected this interactive map to have shown the N16 area in a dramatically darker colour. It doesn’t. This suggests two things. First, that the the community isn’t getting tested in ways that the results show up on official figures. The second is that these amazingly high rates have not caused infections in others in the area. Social distancing of individuals or families is one thing: this is social distancing of an entire community.

The world of Orthodox Judaism is to many, including me, a strange once. That in itself doesn’t bother me but I’m slightly uneasy by the fact that they have, as do many other faith groups, a parallel systems of systems of law and education to the state ones. As a secular person, I also have a problem with faith schools of any kind, for just the same reason as if your local primary was run by Amazon, Manchester United or the Conservative party. It’s was clearly easy to believe that certain things – like massive weddings, such as the one that took place in N16 earlier this month – are OK if they’re to do with your religion or your culture. Most of the time this is OK – it’s nothing to do with me how many guests there are at a wedding as long as I don’t have to pay for it. However there are times, and this is certainly one, when everyone needs to do the same thing. We can’t have it both ways, I admit. Living in an excessively obedient and homogeneous country must be hell most of the time, though it’s handy if you have something like a war or a pandemic on your hands. People might break lockdown rules because they’re rich and think they can, or they’re bored or lonely. I get that. This can be rationally argued with. What cannot is anything predicated on religion or culture, particularly where this has been uncritically ingrained from an early age. To attack or even question others’ tenets is these days about the worst crime in the book. Don’t get me wrong – it’s great that in many ways we’re all different. However, it would be even better if we could also recognise that, in other ways, we’re all pretty much the same.

• The idea that we’re all the same, or at least in the same rather leaky boat, with regard to climate change is superbly made in this 2′ 40″ broadcast by David Attenborough. “If we continue on this current path we will face the collapse of everything that gives our security” is how it starts. So, don’t watch it if you think we’re doing OK on this one.

• Darting back to the idea that what happens in the first handful of years of our lives shapes us for good (see my comment about faith schools), I mentioned last week about the alarming story of kids in the UK as young as 13 who were being indoctrinated into right-wing groups largely because they lacked even the most basic ability to verify what they heard or read. I know that today’s world gives us little time to check what we receive before passing it on: verification is, like being able to play the trumpet, speak German, paint a horse that looks like a horse or write well, a skill that’s not innate but needs to be acquired. As schools in the UK did not teach this skill, now would be a good time to do it given that this academic year is pretty much shot and that pressure is building to start everything again in September. Be that idea as it may, I was therefore fascinated to have had my attention drawn to this article in The Guardian about how “Finland starts its fight against fake news in primary schools.” This further confirms my view that, although there may be many things about these countries that we might find difficult, the world should perhaps be dominated not by the China/Russia/USA combo largely predicted by Orwell but by representatives of the Scandinavian countries, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam, Canada, New Zealand and Taiwan. Could we not try it for a couple of years?

Taiwan is, of course, not a real country in many ways. China has long claimed it and so has blocked its participation in most international bodies including the UN and WHO. Undeterred, as this article in Wired suggests, it seems to have combatted the virus with a singularity of purpose and public engagement that most “real” countries can only dream of.

• The PM, in what I thought was a pretty good speech earlier this week, mapped out how we might escape from the current shackles that most of us (except the groups mentioned in the first paragraph) are enduring. Numerous summaries exist: here’s The Guardian’s version. The priority has been getting schools re-opened. BJ chose to stress that this was because he was thinking of the kids. The real reason is probably that people with school-age children tend to have jobs, often quite important ones, which they can’t properly do in current circumstances: also that many of them are probably going quietly insane. My sons all now having grown up, this problem no longer exists for me. My main interest is on when the swimming pools re-open.

• When the next pandemic strikes we shall probably have a differently organised NHS to cope with it. Whether better or worse is anyone’s guess. The planned reforms will seek to sweep away the Lansley reforms, introduced during the rule of the hapless David Cameron, which were Thatcherite in their insistence on the existence of a perfect market for products and services within which the trusts could go shopping in much the same way as you or I might for different energy suppliers. The proposed new model would give considerable powers to the Health Secretary, which some find concerning. MD devotes a paragraph in his excellent column in the most recent Private Eye to providing some examples of these potential abuses which include selling our data, abolishing NICE and the CQC and “continuing to buy goods and services from his friends.” Politico suggests a more optimistic interpretation, that BJ’s government is “is less driven by ideology than many of its Conservative predecessors.” I’d also like to spare a thought for a GP friend of mine who told me a couple of weeks ago that he was too depressed at the thought of another shake-up and too busy dealing with Covid to gather his thoughts to discuss the reforms with me. The Week suggests that any such changes are perhaps pointless as the NHS has in practice “largely worked around the Lansley legislation.” Politicians feel compelled to embark on major changes to areas like health and education every so often but, ultimately, we’re in the hands of teachers and doctors who will, like water taking the most efficient route downhill, find the best way of discharging their massively important roles, often working round whatever unforeseen obstacles the prevailing political ideology has created.

• The question of CIL payments is back in the news, certainly in the Newbury Weekly News, with no fewer than five letters on the subject on p20. The essence of the problem – as it seems to exist in West Berkshire (and perhaps elsewhere) – is that this complex system has, by accident or design, various traps for the unwary. Huge liabilities can be triggered by people making simple mistakes on the paperwork, of the kind that even HMRC would, if done on a tax form, probably concede merited later adjustment. I looked at this in this post and have since been contacted by a number of people who feel this applies to them. This is clearly a difficult and emotive issue and I want to be sure I’m covering all the angles. So, if any of you have been contacted by West Berkshire Council helpfully pointing out an error in your CIL paperwork which subsequently resulted in your gaining an exemption, please let me know. Please also contact me if you have had any CIL experiences, good or bad, with other planning authorities such as the Vale of White Horse, Swindon or Wiltshire. You can reach me at brian@pennypost.org.uk.

• The radio on one of our cars packed about a year ago. Not a big story, you might think. Bear with me. Yesterday, as I was turning out of our drive, it suddenly came back to life. This wouldn’t have mattered except that it was tuned to R4 and a documentary about how scientists try to re-create and analyse fear and kicked in at the point where they’d cut to some people on one of those really scary rollercoasters at Thorpe Park, all of whom were screaming. It might also help if I explained that the volume was set at 10 out of 10. When my heart-rate had fallen to the low hundreds I continued my journey. Today I got back in the car and the radio was dead again. Part of me is quite relieved.

• I don’t care that much about the present-day royal family, except to marvel at the tensions which exist when people who are pretty average, apart from their upbringing and sense of entitlement, try to shake off the shackles of their destiny. The Harry-Megan business has distinct echoes of the emotional ferment stoked up by Princess Di. No one who was alive when she was killed in 1997 will forget those ten days when the whole country seemed to lose control of its senses. H&M appear to have turned into a pair of litigious, indiscreet and media-obsessed US expats: it’s hard to imagine a combination that his grandmother would find more distasteful. The fact that she’s been around for longer than I’ve been alive creates a sense of unreality about the whole thing, like some strip cartoon in which the characters never seem to age or change their opinions. HMQ might take solace in reflecting that generational distaste runs in the family. Henry II died, in the immortal words of 1066 and All That, “when he discovered all his sons were revolting.” In his later years, Henry III was bullied by his son, the future Edward I. Edward III was complicit in his father’s deposition. Henry IV’s view of his elder son was well documented by Shakespeare. Most of the Georges could hardly stand to be in the same room as their fathers (or sons). Edward VII who, like poor Charles, had to wait for decades for his tilt at supreme power, was blamed his mother Victoria for his father’s premature death. The future George VI was reputedly bullied by his father because of his stammer. Some have royalty thrust upon them; others marry into it. It’s been a pretty unedifying soap opera recently but it sells papers and draws the tourists. It’s also probably better than having a President. Who would you vote for? Gary Lineker? Jackie Weaver? Lenny Henry? Actually, the last one might not be such a bad idea…

Thursday 18 February 2021

• I must confess that I’m becoming slightly obsessed with the whole anti-vaccine movement. It doesn’t have any basis in scientific fact I’m aware of but is gaining a considerable amount of traction, mainly on social media. I recently watched the BBC Panorama programme The Disinformation War and was struck by three things. The first is that there are many people who are confused and uncertain about the vaccines’ merits – fair enough – and who clearly find the glib and direct claims of the disinformation campaigns more compelling as the official messages. This is in itself alarming and should ring a few alarm bells in Whitehall. The second was just how much the anti-vaxers tended to contradict themselves. One woman said that she “doesn’t have the broken-down information,” about the vaccines’ safety. A minute later she said that she “didn’t want a load of numbers.” Later, a young Asian man said that he was “young and fit and healthy” and so didn’t need the jab. When it was suggested that he was being selfish and could, even if it didn’t harm him, pass it on to others, he said that he didn’t trust it because it had taken only eight months to develop, before adding irrelevantly “and then there’s cancer – where’s the cure for that?” as if this somehow proved his point.

The third, however, is the most difficult to grapple with. I can understand people having doubts. What I find hard is that the anti-vaxers are so certain, indeed cite changing scientific information about the efficacy of particular vaccines as evidence to support their case rather than, as is the case, the reverse. Their basic position in the extreme cases doesn’t change: there is no pandemic; the whole thing is a plot to inhibit our freedom; the jabs will either kill us or alter our DNA; the fact that our videos and messages are being taken down is proof of their veracity. This is the logic of the paranoid schizophrenic. The whole thing seems to owe much to the libertarianism that has been so rife in the USA these last four years and which culminated in an impeachment trial of a former President earlier this month. A woman called Kate Shemerani, in this interview, claimed that there’s no evidence that vaccines are either safe or effective. It seems she used to be a nurse but has since been struck off: what strikes me as even more amazing is how she was able to qualify for any kind of medical role in the first place.

I also watched a video with the remarkable David Icke – the link to which I can’t be bothered to look up – in which he first claimed that we were all a victim of a “Covid cult”and then proceeded to display all the controlling and manipulative language that any cult leader would have been proud of. In this, the anti-vaccination trope did, of course, find a place. Again, what struck me was his certainty – this is what’s so scary. About 180m Covid vaccines have been provided worldwide, nearly 10% of these in the UK, and we’ve yet to see any of the mortality, insanity and mind control that has confidently been predicted by the opponents. Reports from Israel suggest that the efficacy of the Pfizer jab is performing exactly in line with the results suggested by the clinical trials. Perhaps it takes a bit of time for us all to turn into inter-dimensional lizards or replicons controlled by Bill Gates. I’ve looked at the evidence, for and against these kind of risks, and when my turn comes I think I’ll take my chances.

A number of celebrities have also aligned themselves against the vaccine, including Robert de Niro and the Black Panther star Letitia Wright who was reported in Newsweek as saying that she was sceptical of them although she “didn’t understand vaccines medically,” a qualification that would seem to undermine her expertise on the matter. Maybe it was just an off-the-cuff remark that got got over-reported, but people with large follower bases are now disproportionately influential. A good way of building these bases is to tap into prevailing fears and uncertainties. Covid has been a godsend in this way.

• In a related theme, there’s a sobering story in The Observer on 14 February describing how children as young as 13 are being radicalised by far-right propaganda disguised as more benign items such as online games and plausible social-media posts. One young man who had been indoctrinated in this was was, as part of his recovery, invited to verify the sources for one particularly influential post. This “quoted” 20 parts of the Koran which claimed that Muslims were being encouraged to launch attacks on the UK. A simple process of checking revealed to him that one of these so-called quotes was true (but was being used dramatically out of context): the other 19 had all been made up. He described this as “a lightbulb moment.”

• As all my sons are now grown up, I’m not sure how much time schools spend giving pupils tips and hints as to how this kind of claims can be checked. We’ve recently heard of a petition which proposes that the entire Covid-disrupted academic year be re-started next September to ensure no one had got left behind by, for example, not having access to suitable devices for home learning. The idea has some merits but I can see problems, not the least of which is what they’re going to be taught for the second half of the academic year if it’s known that this is going to repeated. A bit of time spent on fact-checking techniques wouldn’t go amiss.

• Meanwhile, many groups, including teachers, are speculating on when the current lockdown will end. The PM on 15 February suggested that the process would be “cautious but irreversible”, which seems very sensible. Most businesses, particularly those in the hospitality industry, can probably survive “off” or “on” but not the “on/off/on” that happened last year. The Daily Mail claims to have inside information as to how this might work. The lockdown in Northern Ireland has recently been extended until early April, which might provide a clue.

• While the milestone of the 15 millionth jab is rightly being hailed, a leading scientist has claimed that “the UK repeatedly failed to heed early warnings about the virus.” In an interview in the Observer (reproduced here on The Guardian’s website) Professor Sarah Gilbert of the Oxford Vaccine centre, who led the team behind the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, claimed that “lessons had not been learned until far too late, and in some respect remain still unlearned.”

• For people who dislike gambling and Donald Trump, few things could have given more delight than the sight of the Trump Casino in Atlantic City being dynamited. This was not some act of Democratic spite but due to the building, which has been empty since 2014 and not part of Trump’s empire since 2009, being declared an “imminent hazard.”

• Still in the USA, the BBC website fact-checks some of President JB’s claims and achievements during his first month in office.

• There’s a “for sale” post on our website that almost makes me weep with nostalgia, the stem offered being a small Hornby train set. My first train set was provided on my eighth birthday and I can still remember being almost sick with excitement for days before. No other gift I’ve received has produced a pleasure which matched and perhaps even the expectation to the extent this one did. Later that day, for what was misguidedly regarded as a “special treat”, I was taken to a riding stable in Wimbledon by my horse-loving aunt for my first-ever pony ride. Somewhere I still have a photo of me on the animal’s back with an expression on my little face that would have curdled milk. Despite having since grown out of train sets and despite having lived for over 20 years in the Valley of the Racehorse, the day clearly left an indelible impression on me, for I have never been on a horse since…

Thursday 11 February 2021

• Let’s be really radical and start off with something that has nothing (much) to do with Covid. Since 2016, local councils have, according to the Sunday Telegraph,  invested £7.6bn in commercial property through the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB). These funds, which were available at preferential rates of interest, were originally intended to help councils fund amenities in their own areas. However, as the cuts began to bite, councils found this to be good way of raising cash to play at the roulette table of the commercial property market. Spelthorne in Surrey has spent over £1bn in this way: but this article from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in October 2020 said that it was “likely” the council had broken the law in the way it had done this. Also in Surrey, Croydon council effectively declared bankruptcy last year by issuing Section 114 notices after racking up debts over £1.5bn, a third of which came from commercial property investments which had failed to produce the predicted returns. Back in the 2000s, investment in banks seemed like a similarly good idea, until the financial crisis hit. This article in The Guardian from October 2008 provides a long list of councils (including the Vale of White Horse and Wiltshire) which lost money after the collapse of the Icelandic banks. Altogether, this wiped over £1bn off local councils’ balance sheets.

It’s possible that Covid has dealt a similar blow to commercial property. Although there are signs that the market is not in as bad shape as many had feared, it seems likely that offices and retail properties of different types, in different locations and on more flexible tenures will be needed in the post-Covid world. The current assets owned by councils may or may not tick these boxes. Even before Covid, the government seemed concerned that PWLB funds were too freely available and in October 2019 hiked the interest rates. A year later, it prevented councils from investing in properties with the aim of short-term gain (within three years) after the end of this month: but the properties they have acquired will remain on their books. Some may have cause to regret this. This report from the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors in June 2020 not only conceded “demand to occupy space has fallen sharply” but also suggested another problem that the Covid crisis had exacerbated, “the often adversarial nature of many landlord and tenant relationships.” All in all, the sector – like so many others – suddenly seems to be in rather choppy waters and pulled by unfamiliar tides and currents.

I’m not sure how many councillors or officers have the necessary expertise to manage a property portfolio, the value of which can be more than the council’s annual turnover. In West Berkshire I’m only aware of one who could really claim relevant experience. As this article in the BBC website reports, almost exactly a year ago WBC announced that it was “pausing to reflect” on its investments outside the district and was planning to divert more investment funds into green technology. This may, of course, prove in time to create false bubbles as well but at least it is directly in line with the climate emergency that WBC and so many other councils have declared.

Many might prefer that their council did not invest in complicated financial products and property portfolios. Aside form anything else, the returns don’t seem that wonderful compared to the risks. The above-mentioned BBC article said that the WBC’s own property portfolio had raised about £1.5m last year: the Council described this as “successful”: it may well have been in that year; but this accounts for only slightly more than 1% of WBC’s income. Better for the councils to be funded properly by government and allow them to get on with their core responsibilities, by far the largest of which – 50% in West Berkshire’s case – is providing social care. As recent events have shown, they are also pretty good at managing the local impact of a pandemic. It’s surely easier to do this when you don’t have one eye on the FTSE or being distracted by a dispute with a major tenant on the other side of the country. “Local” and “council” – the clue’s in the name.

• Another recent story concerns the government’s plans to introduce a digital levy on online retailers, many of which have seen profits jump during the pandemic. The Sunday Times reported on 7 February that Amazon’s profits increased by 51% in 2020 to £19.5bn although the company had paid just £14.5m in UK tax the years before. As for Jeff Bezos, he could give $43,000 to each of his company’s 1.2m staff worldwide and still be as well off as he was when the pandemic began. (By contract, this article gives the view of someone at the other end of the Amazonian food chain.) Given that these companies are not domiciled in the UK I can’t quite see how a digital levy is going to be easy to enforce except at point of sale. If extra costs are pushed on to shoppers, as they surely will be, this might be no bad thing: nothing seems to be as greater influencer in human behaviour than price.

The aim, of course, is to protect the high-street shops. The sub-heading in The Sunday Times’ article referred to the high street having “collapsed”, an eye-catching phrase which is more true in some places than in others. One way the levy might work is by using its proceeds to provide rates relief for the bricks-and-mortar retailers. The problem here is that, as soon as landlords become aware that their tenants now have more money, they will try to put rents up. Also, business rates are set to become an increasingly important part of local-council funding, although whether that reform (which has gone a bit quiet of late) will survive Covid remains to be seen.

Certainly town centres have their problems, Covid being just the latest blow. Independents are perhaps better able to adapt that the large retail chains. This article about the responses of 16 businesses in Hungerford gives plenty of grounds for optimism. Contrast that with the long list of national names which have recently had to shut their many doors or draw in their horns. One, Debenham’s, has recently been bought by the online retiler BooHoo. The new owners only appear to want the brand, however, and (again as reported in The Sunday Times) seem to have no interest in opening any shops.

There are few things more depressing than a high street full of boarded-up premises. So far at least, that doesn’t seem to have happened in Hungerford. Perhaps the town has been helped by there being in general one of everything. Choice, so long the holy grail of the consumer society, could in some cases be the enemy of survival. If there’s one hardware store or butchers, people will understand the importance of ensuring its survival. If there are three, any reduction in local spending could kill them all off.

• The President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Layen, recently admitted that “we are not where we want to be” with the vaccine programme. This is a big understatement. The principle of having centralised procurement was doubtless a good one – imagine, for instance, if different health authorities or trusts in the UK were bidding against each other – but the suspicion lingers that this was at least as much for political than logistical or ethical reasons. The prospect of the rich members like France, Germany and Italy claiming a disproportionate share of vaccines, with all the attendant fall-out, was perhaps too much for the Commission to contemplate. Better to have everyone at the same level, even if it’s not a very good one. In general, there is an inverse relationship between an organisation’s size (and thus purchasing power) and its ability to use this in an effective and nimble way. The EU is further hampered by being 27 countries with an ambition to behave as one. Covid presented it with a real opportunity to make its unitary case but this was undone by the very caution, process-obsession and prevarication which are essential in making the organisation function at all. This article from Sky News describes some of the shortcomings of the process, or at least the ones which von der Leyen has admitted to.

Others have offered even more withering assessments. Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian PM and staunch EU federalist, suggested last week that “this shouldn’t be happening. 76% of the total annual production of vaccines world-wide (nearly three billion doses) comes from within the EU. How is it possible that, more than a month after the launch of the vaccination programmes, Europe is lagging behind? We haven’t nearly the roll-out of the US or the UK. Some countries are halting before they even gained traction. We even see a diplomatic disaster in the Balkans where countries are looking to China and Russia for help. There are two reasons, I think. First, unbalanced contracts, concentrated on price and liabilities instead of supply and speed; and second not using the emergency procedures inside the European Medicines Agency, thereby losing for every approved vaccine one month of precious time to roll out.” A shorter version of similar sentiments came from German Vice-chancellor Olaf Scholz’s who last week described the EU’s vaccine strategy as “really shit.”

The UK, on the other hand, has done and continues to do really well . It’s possible that it is of just the right size to make something like this work and, the interests of the devolved governments aside, with nothing to hinder a unified and focussed approach. The Week gives much of the credit to two people: Health Secretary Matt Hancock, for having a year ago identified vaccine procurement and production as something that it was essential for the country to control and for ensuring that that this happened; and to the so-called vaccine tsar Kate Bingham who, despite being accused of being too close to the PM (which was the case) and so part of the “chumocracy” which has so far produced mixed results, has done all that was requested of her. The government’s success with the vaccine, if maintained, will do much to offset any criticism of handling of other aspects. It will also supply a powerful justification for Brexit. Many questions about both these remain but the wind certainly seems to be in the UK government’s sails at the moment: not a phrase that’s been read much these last twelve months.

• As mentioned before, the concern remains that we are doing a bit too well compared to others elsewhere who might need it more. Here is the WHO’s summary of how its Covax programme was going, as of 21 January.

• The organisation has also backed the AstraZenica vaccine, despite accusations that it’s not that effective against some of the new variants. None the less, it appears that it will reduce the severity of symptoms. This seems to make it worth having when offered.

• Perhaps less good news for the government’s reaction to the cladding crisis: The Spectator claimed on 10 February that “around 80,000 people in medium-rise flats who will only get loans,” whereas those in high rises will have all the costs paid by the government; also that all “will still have to pay for other fire safety defects such as missing fire breaks (and) wooden balconies.”

• We met some friends from the village today on those interminable walks that were all doing who told us that they’d both had their jabs last week. Both reported that they’d felt pretty rough for the next 48 hours. I suggested that was good as it showed their immune systems were responding. I think that’s right: anyway, it seemed to make them feel happier, which is not something I accomplish all the time.

• Moving across to the USA, President Trump (they’re still called “President” even when they aren’t, it seems) has seemingly admitted that he’s “loving” life outside Twitter’s “hateful echo chamber,” according to The Sunday Times. For someone who tweeted nearly 20 times a day for the last five years this seems to be waking up to something rather late. It’s also part of his solipsistic world view that nothing bad happens but that it’s his enemies’ fault and nothing good happens but that it’s down to his decision-making. The fact that he’s been banned from the platform is, of course, nothing to do with this.

• Meanwhile, he’s being impeached again, even though he’s no longer he president (except he sort of is – see above). The proceedings opened with what many observers see as a rambling and unsubstantiated series of remarks by his attorney Bruce Castor that even Rudy Giuliani might have found underwhelming. The BBC quoted a Trump critic as saying that Castor “did not seem to make any arguments at all, which was an unusual approach to take.” To outside observers, nothing is unusual about the Trump presidency (even after it’s finished, which it sort of hasn’t – see above).

• The government has announced plans to reform the NHS. Any such shake-up normally comes with promises that will be “more integrated, innovative and responsive” and that it will target “burdensome bureaucracy”. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has used both of these phrases. The plan appears to be to turn back many of the delegations and internal markets created in 2012 by David Cameron’s Health Secretary Andrew Lansley. The Sunday Times on 7 February quoted Andrew Cowper, Editor of Health Policy Insight, as saying that it would “unambiguously put the Health Secretary in charge in a massive political land-grab.”

The paper also points out that the current plans don’t address the issues of social care (the white paper on which is nearly three years overdue) and of NHS recruitments (there were 100,000 unfilled vacancies at the start of 2020). The article points out some possible benefits but concludes that the thinking appears to assume that the pandemic has demonstrated that more government involvement in the service is required. Critics could point the problems of PPE procurement, the national test and trace and the perceived dithering over the lockdown arrangements. There’s also the question of whether now is an ideal time to bring the subject up. A friend of mine who’s a London GP said he was “depressed” by the announcement but that he was too busy with vaccinating people to give me any more thoughts. It’s all slightly as if, on the eve of D-Day, the soldiers were told that when they came back some of them would find that their regiments or their rank had been abolished.

• This week’s Newbury Weekly News has on p4 an article that highlights a matter which has put West Berkshire Council in an awkward position. The issue is that of Community Infrastructure Levies, charges which planning authorities can levy on many kinds of developments. Some developments, however, are exempt: and herein lies the problem. The system for applying for an exemption is not straightforward. Moreover, if this hasn’t been done correctly an obligation is triggered once work commences even if no CIL should have been charged and even if the applicant has expressed their intention to claim exemption. As the NWN article points out, this can result in eye-watering and  life-changing invoices. The article concludes with a statement from West Berkshire Council saying that “The Council disagrees that they (sic) owe a duty to applicants to advise them of the process,” which seems to include not even drawing attention to missing documents which would be required to support a claim for exemption. As I pointed out in this post, other neighbouring councils appear to take a different view. Gordon Lundie, a former WBC Leader, himself criticised the way his Council handled this matter, which risks leaving residents in financial ruin. It may be true that there is no legal obligation on WBC to help its residents avoid such pitfalls. The question is whether there is a moral one.

• When you see a headline that reads “Why scientists want to kill Pablo Escobar’s hippos” it’s very hard not to click on it: so I did. It appears that the late Columbian moustachioed  narcoterrorist created an “ecological time bomb” by setting up a private zoo with animals from all over the place, including hippos. After his arrest most of the animals were re-homed but not the hippos who were too difficult to move. Rather than culling them, they were left where they were, in the probable belief that they’d just die. Instead the so called “cocaine hippos” thrived and multiplied to the point where some claim they’re becoming an invasive species, although others believe that could be environmentally beneficial. Proof it proof be needed that if an organism of any size finds a new host or habitat it can end up increasing exponentially and that the longer you leave the problem the worse the it becomes. Now where have I heard that before…?

Thursday 4 February 2021

• EU President Ursula von de Leyen’s decision last week to invoke article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol (effectively creating a border where one, in a rather fragile way, hadn’t existed) as part the Union’s row with AstraZeneca must have seemed, however briefly, to have been a good idea at the time. Perhaps it was partly designed to demonstrate that the EU was capable of moving with lightning speed, in contrast to the rather leaden-footed way it appears to have handled vaccine procurement so far. The solution hit upon, which was soon retracted, seems to make about as much sense as if Penny Post, locked in a dispute with a private company in, say, Marlborough, suddenly felt that the solution was to sue Wiltshire County Council. Some of the EU’s leaders don’t even seem to think the jab is that good anyway, French President Emmanuel Macron claiming it was only “quasi-effective” for older people, a suggestion refuted by the manufacturers. Make your mind up, guys – do you want it or not? As for the delicate question of the Irish border, which proved one of the most difficult issues in the Brexit negotiations, it took the EU less than a month to demonstrate just how easily this could be upset. Not a great day’s work.

Nor was the condemnation restricted to the UK. According to the Daily Mail, German Vice-chancellor Olaf Scholz described the EU’s vaccine strategy as “really shit.” The whole mess plays into the hands of those who think the EU is arrogant, bureaucratic and out of touch. This doesn’t matter much in the UK as we’ve now left, for better or worse: but leave factions exist in every member state. All will have rejoiced in this unexpected bonus to their campaigns. If this fiasco had happened in June 2016, the UK’s referendum vote would have been a good deal more clear cut than it was: which might have been no bad thing in some ways.

It’s also probably true that the Irish border issue is so inherently flawed that it was only a matter of time before a problem cropped up or one side tried to use it for political leverage in an unrelated dispute. This article in Politico suggests that both parties feel that the question needs re-negotiation. It concludes by saying that “politicians in both camps are privately wondering whether the situation could trigger another collapse of Northern Ireland’s tenuous power-sharing arrangements, a cornerstone of the Good Friday peace deal.” Judging by the the horrified expression on Michael Gove’s face (see head of the Politico article), exactly this thought had occurred to him. The only solutions to the problem would be the unification of Ireland, Northern Irish independence or the UK rejoining the EU. It might be unwise to expect any of these to happen any time soon.

• All this suggests that the Brexit discussions aren’t really over at all and perhaps never will be. The origins of this date back to even before the 2016 referendum. Last week’s Sunday Telegraph ran an article on the recent book by the widow of Jeremy Hayward, the hapless David Cameron’s Permanent Secretary. It seems that the PM “didn’t want the civil service to do any work on the consequences of a “no” vote since the government wasn’t obliged to work on anything that wasn’t its policy.” What idiocy. One might as well argue that no plans be made for a nuclear power station blowing up because it isn’t government policy that this happen. The referendum was government policy and it was worse than foolish not to plan for failure.

• To return to Macon’s country, the vaccine roll-out in France does not seem to be proceeding according to plan, with accusations that everything is being done at far too slow a pace. The figures support this: as of 2 February, the country had vaccinated 1.6m compared to 10.1m in the UK. Both have very similar sized populations. France also seems to have a particularly high level of vaccine reluctance – although, in France or anywhere else, it’s one thing to tell a market researcher that you don’t intend to have the jab and another to explain to your doctor why you’re opting out of a major public-health initiative. If France, or any major country, falls short then, in an interconnected part of the world, we’re all likely to suffer.

• In the UK, the news mostly seems good. Infections are falling (now less than a third of that they were a month or so ago), hospitalisations and deaths are stabilising and the Oxford vaccine appears to be very effective at providing sustained protection for a three-month period until the second dose. Other vaccines are also coming through the testing system. As mentioned before, the problem might be that we are doing a bit too well (Mrs von de Leyen seems to take that view). If there isn’t a fairly even spread of protection across the world, certainly in the parts of it which provide or attract a lot of travellers, we could back at square one. The WHO estimates that perhaps 70% of a population needs to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity: early days, I know, but so far only Israel (58.8%) comes anywhere close to this figure.

• The media, and at times the government, is much given to using the word ‘mutation‘ at the moment, often coupled with adjectives like ‘worrying’ (or sometimes ‘worrisome’). ‘Mutation’ makes many people think of three-headed monsters in sci-fi films, which perhaps is the intention. Mutations are not always bad. (Scaling the whole business up, it could be said that businesses and organisations have mutated recently, and over the same kind of timescale as has the virus.) The scientific community appears to prefer the rather more nuanced term “variant of concern” (VOC) for the emerging types of the virus, so let’s try that. The so-called UK VOC, known as VOC 1.1.7, is the once that is being particularly closely watched. This SAGE meeting paper from 21 January concludes that “there is a realistic possibility that VOC B.1.1.7 is associated with an increased risk of death compared to non-VOC viruses.” This qualification makes me wonder if scientists also classify some risks as “unrealistic possibilities” or “realistic impossibilities,” like Donald Rumsfeld’s “known knowns” and known unknowns” and all the rest of them.

• The former MP in these parts, Richard Benyon, has recently been “introduced” to the House of Lords, as the process is formally known. I met and corresponded with him several times and he seems like a perfectly decent man. However, I find it impossible to have any great confidence in a democratic system which has a second chamber whose vast cohort of members are appointed in this way. I can see some benefits in having at least some of the representatives immune from the short-term pressures of opinion polls but an appointment for life seems a bit cosy. And what on earth are the 92 hereditary peers and 26 bishops still doing there? Why not also have all former English football managers, all former fishmongers of the year or anyone who can eat three sugared doughnuts without licking their lips?

• As we all know, Captain Tom Moore died this week. His extraordinary achievement at raising a colossal £33m for NHS Charities Together will be remembered for a long time and our condolences go out to the family and friends of this remarkable man. The PM has led a national clap for him and a couple of days ago I received an email from Change.org saying that a petition was afoot to ensure he received a state funeral. I’m slightly uneasy about the adulation he has received: not because I think he doesn’t deserve it but because it validates a get-out-of-jail card for those responsible for funding the NHS. it seems from this article on the BBC website that much of the money was spent ton some quite basic things that staff might expect to take for granted, particularly during a time when they are, as we are constantly telling them, national heroes. Much the same could be said about the individuals and companies which have donated and refurbished IT devices for schools (see above). We are the world’s sixth-richest country and have a long established tradition of universal healthcare and education. Surely all aspects of these need to be funded properly to ensure that all its staff and recipients get what they need? We can’t rely on there always being a Captain Tom around, catching the national mood at just the right time and in just the right way to raise just the right amount of money for just the right cause.

• Those of you who have been perplexed by my references to the Fourth Crusade over the last few weeks will have their curiosity sated by clicking here.

• One of the upsides of Covid for local democracy has been that virtual council meetings are now a lot better attended both by the formal participants and by members of the public (though, as with so many things, those who don’t use the web or have poor broadband are excluded from this). One Hungerford Town Councillor was in New Zealand for much of the first lockdown but he clocked in every month, slightly bleary eyed as it was stupid o’clock in the morning down-under, but present none the less. James Cole, one of the ward members for Hungerford and Kintbury, told Penny Post that “in all my time at West Berkshire Council I have never ‘attended’ so many meetings,” and that Zoom and lockdown had actually made him “more rather than less involved in some aspects of Hungerford Town Council’s activities.” This transition didn’t happen that smoothly at the start. Many councils, particularly small rural parishes, needed to upscale their IT very quickly. There was a hiatus of a month or or so while the government made the necessary changes to the law to permit voting to happen remotely. Some authorities restricted public participation at some meetings because of perceived legal challenges: West Berkshire was one with regard to its planning committees, though that limitation has since been reviewed and largely (though not completely) overturned. Few, however, have taken as hard a line on this as South Ayrshire. According to the most recent Private Eye, the leadership there has excluded the public from all council meetings (held via Zoom) “as it’s likely there would be a real and substantial risk to public health due to Coronavirus.” Is there something about viral transmission that South Ayrshire’s great and good know but are not sharing with the rest of us?

Thursday 28 January 2021

• When most national newspapers, including The Sun, The Mail, The Telegraph and The Guardian, all have substantially the same photo on their front page you know that something quite important has happened. This was the announcement by the PM of what we’d seen coming for days, the 100,000th UK death from Covid (defined as those who died within 28 days of testing positive). The photographs showed him, fairly ashen-faced, while delivering his update the day before. The death rate continues to rise, albeit more slowly, though the infection rate of confirmed cases has started to fall with the seven-day average (more reliable than daily figures, which can wobble about) being slightly more than half what it was three weeks ago. Hospital admissions are also falling slightly. The vaccination programme seems to be going well, with over 7 million people now having received their first dose. The government’s plans to get everyone over 80 and in the most vulnerable groups jabbed by the end of the month seems to be on course, despite a row with EU.

However, other figures suggest that the rate may not be dropping as fast as the confirmed cases indicate. Imperial College’s REACT survey involves self-testing for randomly-selected groups from which a picture of the total infection rates can be inferred. This data takes longer to process so there is a time lag of a week or so. The crucial difference is that it includes people who are asymptomatic (an estimated 30%) whereas the official tests are largely for people who have reported symptoms. Comparing the two sources, one of which shows a far steeper drop in infections, might at first glance suggests huge statistical muddle. I’m assured that epidemiologists are quite happy with this as they understand their differences: for the rest of us, though, including politicians and journalists, the results can be deeply confusing.

We are in an age of utter information overload. Covid stats are an excellent example of this. Humans tend to have a preference for data (and for data sources generally) which confirm our existing views. Whether we trust the confirmed cases figures or the REACT ones  partly depends on whether we already believe that that the situation is getting better or staying much the same. Very few of us (and I am not one of them) have the intellectual capacity and scientific knowledge to pick through every statistic and fully understand what it’s telling us.

I, for instance, believed (and wrote) in mid December that infections would spike in mid January as a result of Christmas and would then decline as a result of any lockdown that was introduced. The confirmed cases show exactly this; so I am inclined to believe these above any which show a different picture. An academic friend who is far wiser than I am has pointed out that is fallacious reasoning and ignores the possibility that both my assumptions and the data for the infections are based on, but ignore, some unknown factor. It’s also possible to demonstrate very beguiling similarities between two sets of data and infer that there is a correlation between them. Not even Donald Trump would believe that global warming is caused by a decline in the number of pirates worldwide, but this graph illustrates that the respective figures match up quite well. Most people would spot the problems with comparing these two but matters aren’t always that obvious. As this article in Politico points out, there are also a number of different ways that terms can be defined, which makes comparisons between countries very hard. The best I can suggest from all of this is that nothing tells you the whole story; and that if you don’t know how a particular figure was arrived at you may come to the wrong conclusion about what it means. Also, that pirates don’t have anything to do with global warming (or do they…?)

• This digression into the world of correlation, causation and wishful thinking made me think of the Fourth Crusade. Once again I must apologise that my promised summary of this has had to be held over. A friend of mine has recently promised that, when this appears, she will make me a shirt. If you could see the ragged collection of shirts in my wardrobe you’ll understand that this will act as a spur – so, next week, without fail.

• To return to the vaccine: as mentioned last week, I can’t help feeling uneasy about the glaring disparities between how different countries are doing this. According to Our World in Data, only four (Israel, the UAE, the Seychelles and the UK) have so far vaccinated more than 10% of their population. The Guardian reported on 18 January that 49m in rich countries had been vaccinated as opposed to a mere 25 in the poorer ones (all in Guinea). The same paper reported on 27 January that the 84 poorest countries will take until late 2024 to receive mass immunisation. This report from The BBC suggests that Canada has already procured enough vaccines to immunise its population five time over. A number of schemes, including Covax, are in place to provide some parity, but the newspaper points out that some countries are “going around Covax, driving up prices and attempting to jump to the front of the queue.”

This might – perhaps – not be as illogical as it seems. Of the 12 countries which had reported more than 50,000 deaths as of 27 January, all but three (Mexico, Iran and Colombia) are G20 countries (the global rich club). 23 countries have reported no deaths at all. A further 70-odd have reported fewer than 100. Almost half the deaths have come from just five countries – the USA, Brazil, India, Mexico and the UK. All countries are inter-connected but some are more inter-connected than others. Does it make epidemiological sense for the countries with the highest death rates to have more vaccinations? Many would disagree. Imagine if there were a virus  spread through money – which Covid in some ways is – and it was decided that poorer people didn’t need the jab because they handled less of the stuff. I’m not pretending I’m convinced by this argument: I’m just suggesting it. Covid is a plague largely visited on those countries whose inhabitants travel around a lot, which is equated with wealth. Is it just nature’s way – sorry for this, aviation industry – of telling us to stay where we are a bit more and to explore, enjoy and cherish the part of the world in which fate has placed us? Easy for me to say, perhaps: I rather like where I am. Many don’t.

• A friend of mine told me today that he’d read recently that our brains are hard-wired to find short cuts, easy options and generally cut corners when solving any problem and that our decision-making on this tends to prioritise short-term rather than long-term interests. Another friend, a Professor of Computer Science at Cambridge, agreed with this and suggested that this might have been a reference to Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It seems to be a very interesting way of looking at our behaviour. If true, it also makes the work of scientists all the more impressive as they need to fight against a basic instinct when doing any research, cutting corners not being what scientific rigour demands. It is upon such rigour that we currently all depend, the Covid vaccines being an obvious example.

• To return to the UK’s 100,000 deaths, the question must be asked – though many would prefer it were not, or were not asked now – how a country as rich as the UK, with a national health service that treats everyone, which is an island, which has some of world’s finest universities and hospitals and which undertook a preparation exercise in 2016 for something remarkably similar to Covid, could have done so badly? This article on The BBC website suggests some reasons. For me, the three biggest ones are, in no particular order, (i) the government’s obsessions with centralisation and with positive spin; (ii) our being a densely populated global travel hub; and (iii) long-term under-investment in our health services. You may have other views.

• To this list could also be added the disinclination of Britons, or anyone else, to adapt to constant changes of restrictions. Each alteration, as well as creating huge uncertainty, also gives us the opportunity to pervert any ambiguity in the new rules to our own interests.  The constant on-off-on-off of regulations has been gruelling for all of us. The current lockdown will probably last a long time and aspects will only be relaxed when there’s little chance they’ll need to be re-imposed. So, expect life more or less like this until at least the middle of the year is my prediction.

• The wisdom in the UK and in many other places is to immunise the most vulnerable first. Indonesia, has taken a different approach: jabbing young people first, as they are the most likely to spread it. Time will tell who is right, perhaps.

• I read a statistic this week that really can’t be ignored: that the world’s ten richest people could, according a report by Oxfam quoted on The BBC website, pay for all vaccines for everyone on the planet just from the extra wealth they’ve accrued during the pandemic. (It must be said that, according to Forbes, that many, including Joseph Asia of Alibaba, Jack Dorsey of Square and Bill Gates of Microsoft, have made large contributions to various funds:  also that Bill Gates’ interest in the issue of global health pre-dates the pandemic.) Having started what might seem like a litany of envy, I’ll go on for a bit. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos could give $43,000 to each of his company’y 1.2m staff worldwide and still be as well off as he was when the pandemic began. That takes a bit of thinking about. So too does a fact my eldest son pointed out to me today: imagine ten people living in caves 20,000 years ago but each earning the US’s present-day average wage of $48,000pa. Even with no outgoings (and assuming they were all alive now), they would still not be as rich as Jeff Bezos.

The problem have with this level of wealth is not its extent but the fact that its contribution to the global pot is entirely voluntary, organisations like Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google having effectively elevated themselves above the inconveniences of national taxation systems. This leaves them free to devote their wealth to whatever causes they chose. Some may be widely beneficial: others not. Elon Musk, for instance, is obsessed with the idea of space travel as a solution to our problems, as is Richard Branson. This seems elitist, defeatist and escapist to me and reminds me of the old joke of the millionaire selling their Rolls Royce (which is what this planet is) because the ashtray was full.

• There’s an interesting letter in this week’s Newbury Weekly News under the headline “Wisdom and Courage of our Leader,” which would not be out of place at the top of a press release issued by the government of North Korea. In a series of allusions I find slightly hard to follow, it cautions us against selective history (of which the letter provides several doses) and living in the past and compares BJ to Saint Paul. It also refers to the “appalling briefs” which the PM was issued with before his press conferences, something that I first through was a sartorial reference. This seems to be an admission not only that some of the communications have been less than perfect but also that the speaker has no responsibility for what comes out of their mouth. The writer also, rather menacingly, says that “the proposed reform of the civil service will have guidance from Sandhurst.” What can he mean? Is this a coded warning about a military coup?

Being PM at the moment is no walk in the park. However, this was the job BJ craved for so long, using our membership of the EU and, on several occasions, truth itself as stepping stones to his ambition. Whether he will prove to be a good peace-time PM remains to be seen. Certainly it would be foolish to pretend that everything has gone as well as it could possibly have done with the Covid response. I wish him all the best but don’t see that this kind of hagiography accomplishes anything, any more than do equally biased hatchet jobs.

• Meanwhile, the PM himself was in Scotland on 28 January, a trip which First Minister Nicola Sturgeon suggested was unnecessary. He said that the matter of Scottish devolution was “irrelevant,” to most Scots, defeating Covid being the main concern. It seems rather arrogant of him to suggest that Scottish people can only think of one thing at a time. I do not understand the logic of a referendum (if there is to be another one) which doesn’t ask all who will be affected (ie the whole of the UK) what they think. Asking just the Scots is like permitting only one party in a marriage to decide if  they’re going to get divorced, the other having no say. If Scotland does leave the UK, the SNP has suggested that it would immediately apply ro re-join the EU. If that were granted, the frontier and trading arrangements in these islands, already complicated by the Irish border issue, would become even more tangled. Scotland has been responsible for an amazing number of inventions (including penicillin, radar, television, tarmac, the S-bend in toilets, fingerprinting, the Bank of England, the thermos flask and Dolly the cloned sheep) so perhaps, if they do go their own way, they can first invent a solution to all these border controls…

Thursday 21 January 2021

• I spoke to a friend of mine last weekend, a GP in South London, to get an out-of-area view on the pandemic and the vaccine. His first point was emphatically to refute the misleading stories  that the NHS’s reports of being over-loaded are a myth: the situation is in some places grim in the extreme, one problem being what might be called ‘ambulance blocking’ – as they often can’t unload patients due to a shortage of beds, they cannot then go out to answer other calls. Even worse, people are being treated in the vehicles, sometimes for as long as eight hours, until space is available on a ward. If that isn’t over-loaded, I don’t know what is.

I also asked if the reports – see this post for a local story – that the Pfizer vaccine was delicate and fragile and required careful handling were true. He said that these phrases were under-statements: the ingredients in a nuclear reactor might well be more stable (though neither of us has ever had to deal with these). When being transported around a building, two people are needed – one to carry the vaccine and the other to attest that it has been handled correctly. For this reason, the Pfizer dose is inappropriate for the home visits that will be required for some patients. The more robust Oxford jab will be used for these. However, until recently, another problem has been that its ten-dose packs needed all to be used in one go and, if not, the remainder have to be destroyed. This would inevitable when making a number of visits to individual patients. It now seems that this stipulation has been abandoned. This is not because something new has been discovered about the behaviour of the vaccine but simply because, or so it’s hoped, it’s a precaution too far at the moment. The cynic in me suggests that this is just the kind of requirement a big-pharma company might demand, though I doubt the regulators would pass this without powerful evidence. Hopefully it’s due to of a previous “abundance of caution” – a phrase we’ll be using again in a minute or so when we briefly cross the pond.

As for the question of whether the recently-announced 12-week gap between the first and second doses was a good thing, he felt that it probably was. The difference between the efficacy of one Pfizer jab and two is not that great – 89% as opposed to 95% – and having twice as many people with the slightly lower protection could be vital in flattening the curve and preventing the NHS from getting utterly swamped. Moreover, there’s strong evidence that having both jabs confers a longer immunity period – how much longer, and how this varies from person to person, no one is yet sure. So, the message seems to be that when you’re summoned for your second jab, keep the appointment. And remember that this is free – anyone who tries to charge you is a scammer.

The scale and complexity of the vaccine roll-out is a logistical exercise of unparalleled complexity. The only remotely comparable thing I can think of is the preparations for D-Day, which was perhaps for similarly large stakes. Being a GP, my friend only sees a part of it: but this is at the sharp – or, in today’s parlance, ‘patient-facing’ – end. He explained that contacting all his practice’s over-80s recently occupied three people all day, every day, for a week: and that’s just one cohort. Nor is there any certainty that the vaccine delivery will not at the last moment be cancelled, requiring all the appointments to be re-scheduled. So, if you call your surgery and the staff seem a tiny bit frazzled, that might be why.

• And so we come to the question of vaccine denial, reluctance, caution or whatever word you wish to use. The latest Private Eye’s excellent MD column reports that a recent YouGov poll suggests that 80% of Britons are willing to have a Covid vaccine: if so, that’s a great improvement from early December when, according to Imperial College, the figure was only about 50%. It appears that, as the number of infections have risen and the vaccines have actually arrived, so the reluctance has fallen. It’s also far easier to express libertarian scepticism to a market researcher than to explain to your local GP surgery why you’re opting out. Every medical intervention carries a risk. MD suggests that about one in a million people suffer life-threatening side-effects, most of which  respond to anaphylaxis treatment. The risks of contracting Covid are far greater. There’s no evidence I’ve seen that suggests that the Covid jabs are perilous, certainly not in the systemic and sinister way that  some social-media posts and websites suggest. Even if there were any problems, we’d probably have spotted them by now as 4.6m arms have so far been jabbed. Supply-chain problems permitting, this is set to rise to 15m by mid-February and 32m by the spring. It seems that the UK is doing particularly well at the moment; and it’s not always been possible to say that over the last 12 months.

• However, a major unease remains. Bloomberg reports that about 54m vaccine doses have been administered but this less than 1% of the world’s population. The Lancet suggests that having an 80% vaccination rate is desirable. In an intensely interconnected world – which is how the thing spread so fast in the first place, don’t forget – this figure, or something like it, needs to apply globally. There’s thus an awfully long way to go. This chart from Business Insider reveals the glaring variations that exist even between countries whose societies and economies are comparable, such as France and the UK and Kuwait and the UAE. The majority of countries haven’t even started their vaccination programmes. The same source also suggests that rich and middle-income countries have secured most of the available vaccines. A number of schemes are in place to assist lower-income nations but the WHO recently warned of a ‘catastrophic moral failure’ if healthy younger people in rich states were given the jab before vulnerable people or front-line staff in poorer ones. It isn’t only a moral issue: self-interest says that the fire needs to be dampened down all over the world at more or less the same time. If we want to have Christmas 2021 with friends and without masks, we need to make sure that we take our jab when it’s offered but also lobby our government to ensure an equitable distribution of vaccine to everyone. Otherwise, come next winter, we risk being back where we started.

• Speaking of rich states and vaccine deniers inevitably leads one to the US of A where power was on 20 January transferred to the new administration. The preparations were, a few days ago, interrupted by a complete lockdown of the area. This turned out to be caused by nothing more than a fire several blocks away. The lockdown decision was taken as a result of what a spokesperson called “an abundance of caution,” something that had been in short supply on 6 January. Then, not even an implicit green light given by the President on national TV seemed to be enough to convince the security forces that something bad might be about to occur. A few more reminders that most accidents happen at home might not be bad for the USA.

• The 46th President certainly has a full in-tray: Covid, climate change, racial tensions, the economy, undoing many of his predecessor’s vanity projects such as the withdrawals from the WHO and the Paris Agreement, re-starting relations with Iran, re-defining those with China and Russia and dealing with the perennial wild card of North Korea. All this is without Trump’s menacing remark in his valedictory address that “I’ll be back, in some form.” The suspicion lingers that this form might not be human, or even corporeal. We have been warned.

• Meanwhile, his unofficial militia of libertarians, Covid-deniers, creationists, survivalists, conspiracists, white supremacists and gun-lobbyists, most recently deployed on 6 January, uneasily ‘stands down and stands by’. The inauguration of Joe Biden, about which many of these had probably been in denial, seemed to strike some of the QAnon followers an almost physical blow. This article on The BBC website quotes one ‘influencer’ as saying that “today’s inauguration makes no sense to the Christian patriots and we thought ‘the plan’ was the way we would take this country back.” I’ll explain as simply as I can. Every four years, your country holds a Presidential election, most recently last November. Your side lost. Does that help?

• Of all the challenges facing President Biden, and all of us, climate change is by far the biggest. Covid has put consideration of this on hold over the last 12 or so months (and also, fortunately, mitigated some of its effects due to the reduction in human economic activity and travel patterns). Penny, Toby and I watched the last episode of David Attenborough’s A Perfect Planet the other night. It was quite a gruelling experience, though no more than it needed to be. There is a certain amount that we, as a family, can do: far more that our local council, our national government or the world as a whole can accomplish. If I believed in God, I would say that Covid was sent to remind us that we are so interconnected that when one person sneezes, we all catch a cold. Covid is, however, itself merely a sneeze compared to the raging flu that will be visited upon us if we all don’t adjust to what one of the participants on the programme described as “the biggest threat our species has faced”. If properly handled, there is no reason why addressing this will occasion any of the restrictions and privations that we’ve undergone in the last year.  One fact from the programme particularly struck me: the earth receives more energy from the sun in one hour than we currently generate in a year. Your local council has almost certainly declared a climate emergency. We all need to remind them, and the government of this, and to ensure that Covid acts as a warning, not as an excuse.

Vested interests for the status quo are powerful. We are all complicit in it if we have petrol cars, oil-fired central heating or a taste for international travel. The organisations which derive their profits from how things are currently are even more so. (I’m reminded of the Ealing film The Man in the White Suit.) The power of the fossil-fuel lobby in Washington DC has been particularly strong these last four years but might now abate. On a more local level, I’m reminded of the remark made by a spokesperson from Bewley Homes – when replying to a question at an open meeting in 2020 about why the Salisbury Road development in Hungerford was not more ambitious in terms of carbon neutrality – that things like solar panels were “toys.” Only national legislation and local-council policy can fast-track the elimination of this kind of attitude.

The problem is, as it perhaps always is, is money. For developers to build more efficient and sustainable houses costs extra. The time will come – though it hasn’t come yet – when homes that do not meet such standards will be reduced in value because the purchasers fear that, without these features, they will not be able easily to sell them on, much as if the had no central heating or no indoor toilet. Might the government need to introduce, for a certain number of years, a subsidy to every developer who installs certain specified features which go above the current standards? The new ones are not set to be introduced until about 2025. A time-limited grant would, as well as demonstrating Westminster’s commitment to the issue of climate change, probably spur the building industry, much as the temporary reduction of stamp duty, eat out to help out and the furlough schemes stimulated or at least protected, respectively, the property sector, the hospitality sector and pretty much everything. Agin going back to Covid, one can justify the expenditure of vast sums in order to accomplish either a slight shift in behaviour or to subsidise a sector, or the whole economy, against a worse threat. Whatever sums were spent to combat Covid can, with at least as much justification, be used to combat climate change. There’s no vaccine, no face mask, no hand gel and no ‘stay at home’ order that will protect us from the consequences of that.

• I have only one personal story about David Attenborough. About ten years ago I was in Long Acre in Covent Garden and the great man stepped out of a taxi. “Where’s Stanfords?” he asked. The taxi driver gestured towards over his shoulder and, responding to some horn blasts from behind him, pulled away. David Attenborough swivelled round a few times and eventually headed off in almost the right direction. Witnessing the country’s greatest naturalist and traveller lost and confused while trying to locate the country’s greatest map shop is an irony I shall always treasure.

• I’m aware that some of you only turn to this column every week because you waiting for my summary of the Fourth Crusade. I’m afraid that, once again, time has defeated me. Next week – promise.

• I must admit that I know nothing more about the GoodSAM app than I got from reading the most recent Private Eye and then looking up some rather underwhelming online reviews: but this seems to be another case of central-government involvement in something that is far better left to local health-care, municipal and volunteer networks: all of which, as recent event have proved, tend to know what they’re doing.

• Moving on from this to more domestic matters I managed to break our one remaining cafetière this morning. Not having yet had any coffee, my brain was unable to grapple with how this was going to be solved. Then Penny suggested that coffee could just as easily be made in a teapot. I doubted her at first but, as usual, she was absolutely right, as long as you have a strainer. You’re probably all going to tell me that this is not news at all and that you’ve been making coffee in teapots for ages. Well, if so, pardon me all over the place – we all learn vital life skills at our own pace…

Thursday 14 January 2021

• I haven’t been to a supermarket larger than the Co-op in Hungerford since lockdown started, feeling much more comfortable shopping outdoors, but I was amazed to read earlier this week that the large supermarkets will now refuse to serve people who don’t wear face coverings. This became law in July 2020. How can this not have been enforced? According to the BBC website, supermarkets maintain that this is an issue for the police (who don’t have time for this), which seems a bit feeble to me. Supermarkets are private property and so they can ban people from entering them for probably any reason they choose. They already employ security staff. Money can’t be the problem: Tesco’s 2020 second- and third-quarter profits were up by 4.4%. Meanwhile, small shops, which cannot afford security staff and for whom one infraction reported on social media could spell disaster, have been grappling with this problem every day. The large supermarkets are clearly indispensable to modern life and so they can do more or less as they please.

• In addition to the problem that the need for face coverings depends on where you go, it also depends on who you are. There have always, quite fairly, been some people who are exempt but the list of these on the Gov.uk website is fairly vague and does not even pretend to be exhaustive, so allowing for individual interpretations. To make matters more difficult still for retailers, there is no system of certification for people (you don’t need a medical certificate to prove your exemption). This would clearly be divisive and stigmatising, as well as placing an additional burden on doctors. None the less…

It is at this point that we enter that twilight world between civil and personal liberties and public health. First off, despite initial official scepticism, there is plentiful evidence – this article in The Independent has several examples, with sources – that wearing a face covering can considerably reduce the chances of both spreading and catching Covid. As for most people there are no downsides, it thus seems both prudent and polite to wear one. If your reluctance to do so is based on personal preference or libertarian beliefs, rather than a genuine medical reason, then you are in my view doing the wrong thing at the moment, as well as causing anxiety for whichever shop you happen to be visiting.

• Then there’s the question of whether you’re safer indoors or outdoors. Common sense suggests the latter and this appears to be backed up by the evidence. This article in Patient from June 2020 refers to research in Wuhan that suggested that only one out of 1,200 transmissions in a particular survey took place outdoors. You don’t trust statements from Wuhan? OK, let’s look elsewhere. Medical Xpress said in October 2020 that ‘almost all documented coronavirus transmissions have occurred indoors,’ although the article does go on to stress that the droplets can float in the air for hours, including “outside between two buildings with no air circulation.” This article in Vox assesses the outdoor risks and refers to the the restrictive or dispersive influences of sunlight and wind, not of which are obviously more often found outdoors. If you are shopping outdoor on a reasonably windy day (as most are at present), maintaining social distancing, wearing a face covering and washing or sterilising your hands as soon as possible after your trip, you thus seem to be about as safe as you can reasonably be in these unsafe times. This appears to make places like the Hungerford Wednesday market, of which I am a devotee, about the best way of doing your weekly shop as I can think of. You can find information on this here, which includes new regulations that have recently been introduced.

• And then we come to vaccines. I mentioned last week that there have been misleading suggestions that these are unsafe or malicious in various ways. There’s no evidence I’ve seen to support this. John Hopkins Medicine, the NHS, the BBC and  Heart Matters all appear convinced. Although the development and approval of the Covid vaccines have been speeded up, there is no evidence I’m aware of that this has resulted in a compromising of safety. All these articles have references which will provide the evidence. Other sources are more sceptical and many seem to be based on discredited evidence. Unless you have a medical condition which would make a vaccine a bad idea for you – in which case your GP would presumably be aware of this – there is, as with face coverings, no obvious reason for refusing it when it is offered to you. The use of vaccines in one form or another dates back hundreds of years and, in the west, to the late 18th century with the work of Edward Jenner. Many of us would not now be alive were our parents not to have had us inoculated against diseases that were then rampant. As with the wearing of face coverings in public, I do not think that current circumstances are a case where personal, political or religious preference trumps the greater need of a public-health emergency. If you’re offered the jab and it’s safe for you, take it. If you’re asked to put on a face covering and it’s safe for you, wear it. If you don’t have to go out, don’t. That’s about it, I think.

• None of this is to say that the government’s record and performance should be accepted as gospel and without criticism. An article in the Daily Telegraph on 8 January by a columnist called Judith Woods tells us that we should defer our criticisms (the column then descends into a mixture of attacks on “me-too-ism”, opinions about the Clap for Heroes initiative and north-London social references that are rather hard to follow). Well, no. I appreciate that, in many of the above paragraphs, I’ve made the point that the demands of the pandemic supersede many personal views. This is different from saying that the government, which makes the rules, is infallible. What isn’t helpful, I admit, is to brand every change of policy as a “U-turn,” with all its negative implications. Errors are made at times of crisis and some slack must be cut: but it’s pointless to pretend that, just because this is a time of crisis, that they should be left over for some time in the future. Some of these involve issues that were gone over during Lockdown 1 in 2020, so it might be assumed that things had been cleared up. One concerns the matter of travelling to take exercise.

• This seems to be a matter on which the government, local councils, the various police forces, the media and public opinion are unable to agree. The issue provoked much animosity and confusion in the spring of 2020 and has done so again recently. The current government regulations say that “You should minimise time spent outside your home, but you can leave your home to exercise. This should be limited to once per day, and you should not travel outside your local area” ‘What is the local area?’ and ‘wherever it is, can I drive there?’ are two questions that the regulations don’t really answer.

The PM earlier this month was seen cycling at the Olympic Park, several miles from Downing Street. This provoked a media frenzy. Did he cycle to there from Downing Street or did he drive there and then cycle? Who cares? There’s probably a marginal benefit in the latter – which seems to be the greater crime he’s accused of – despite the fact that this would have reduced the risk of his spreading or receiving Covid from other lycra-wearers while waiting at traffic lights, all exhaling strongly. Then in Derbyshire there was the recent story of two woman who drive five miles to go for a walk together and were fined £200 each, penalties which were then withdrawn. Cressida Dick, the country’s most senior policemen, was only able to offer a personal, rather than absolute, interpretation if the law when she was quoted in The Guardian on 12 January 2021 as saying that “For me, a reasonable interpretation of that is that, if you can – and I appreciate some people can’t – go for your exercise from your front door and come back to your front door.” This contains so many subjective views and qualifications as to make the advice almost meaningles. Indeed, the same article refers to her admitting that “it can be complex to know exactly what the regulations are.” And this is coming from the nation’s top cop.

It can’t be easy policing the country at the moment, particularly as each police force can (and clearly does) interpret the regulations (including, as in the Derbyshire incident, whether a cup of coffee constitutes a picnic) in different ways. We’ve been through this before last year, though, so it would seem reasonable at least to have a consistent interpretation which every force will use. The key thing is surely to stop mingling. However if we don’t move around we’ll all seize up. Driving somewhere we can walk or run distanced from other people, rather than going there on foot there and perhaps bumping into them en route, seems the safest course of action to me. I, like most people, am happy to follow the regulations: I just want to be clear what they are. If I’m not, then the temptation is to interpret them in a way which best suits my interests.

• On 11 January 2021, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy sent an open letter which confirmed his wish that “the construction sector, including its supply chain…should continue to operate during this national lockdown.” In order for this to happen, those who work in this sector must be regarded as key workers as regards their school-age children’s acceptance at their local places of education. An anomaly to this has recently been exposed. Fort Builders Merchants in Membury employs a number of staff. Two of these live in West Berkshire and both have children at primary school, one in the district and one in nearby Wiltshire. The latter has had their child accepted at the school on the grounds that the parent is a key-worker need; the former has not. Why the difference? Both councils are equally answerable to the Secretary of State’s instruction, which surely trumps any local policy. Either Wiltshire Council is over-reaching its own competence or West Berkshire Council is failing its obligations. They cannot both be right. At present, it seems to be a postcode lottery based on where your supply-chain’s staff happen to send their children to school. Some people, such as those in Lambourn, live near the borders of several local authorities. Surely all these authorities need to implement national policy equally, which is quite clear? Mr Secretary of State, what’s your decision?

• Many years ago, I shared a flat in London with someone who was, I later discovered, schizophrenic. He started behaving increasingly oddly, including breaking into the local phone exchange to catch the government tapping our phone. He became convinced that ‘they’ were out to get him and was convinced he was being followed by people disguised as London Transport ticket inspectors. After he’d moved to a different place he set fire to his furniture, believing it had been impregnated with a mind-controlling drug. At this point, ‘they’ did indeed come to get him and he was sectioned at a psychiatric hospital. The last time I saw him, he carefully explained how this incarceration justified all his fears. He’d been right all along – there really was a plot to get him. After all, here he was, locked up. QED.

• Much the same logic seems to be at work in the dark and disturbing world of Donald Trump. He has got himself impeached twice, a feat not even Richard Nixon managed to accomplish, and seems to see this not as suggesting that he hasn’t conducted himself that well but that he’s the victim of a colossal series of carefully orchestrated persecutions culminating in the great 2020 vote steal. Many agree with him. He has managed, perhaps as Farage did in the UK, to energise and engage a large number of people who previously thought politics of any kind was despicable. In America, though, these people seem to include a huge swathe of libertarians, survivalists, cranks and conspiracy theorists who do not exist in anything like those numbers in the UK (or so I hope). Their views range from the weird to the actively dangerous and it’s unlikely that they’ll go away: this despite (and perhaps because of) censorship by social-medial companies (see below).

The most recent manifestation of this, the debacle at the Capitol last week, will certainly go down as a huge security blunder. At least one commentator, Arieh Kovler, accurately predicted this on 21 December: “on January 6,” he wrote on Twitter, “armed Trumpist militias will be rallying in DC, at Trump’s orders. It’s highly likely that they’ll try to storm the Capitol after it certifies Joe Biden’s win. I don’t think this has sunk in yet.” I think it has now. Hopefully there’ll be no replay at the inauguration. In this interview in GQ, Kovler gives his views on how and why events unfolded in this way. His prescience suggests that his opinions are probably pretty accurate. If they are, the alarming thing is that he seems to be describing the thought processes of an average eight-year-old.

• Another major development was Trump being banned from social media, something which has implications far beyond the Washington bubble. It leaves me feeling uneasy. Not only will it fuel his already alpine sense of injustice but it’ll prove to many of his followers that he was right about the media all along and that it is, as one of Trump’s sons put it, “controlled by leftist overlords.” It also demonstrates beyond doubt that Twitter, Facebook and the rest are not platforms but publishers: a very different role. How and by whom will other censorships – for that is what it is – be decided? It will be a monumental, never-ending and massively subjective task. Censorship always eventually defeats its own ends. Better, surely, to have people express their views and, in some cases, condemn themselves out of their own mouths. The question of who regulates the social-media giants inevitably asks itself, but no one has the power to do this. In any case, who would then regulate the regulators? In the final analysis, we all have to regulate ourselves, though it seems we’re not very good at that.  This article in The Guardian looks at the pros and cons of the decision.

• This week’s Newbury Weekly News reports that a local woman who was handed a £100 fine by Euro Car Parks on Christmas Eve (after overstaying her time because she was helping someone who was having a heart attack) has had the penalty revoked after the intervention of the local MP, Laura Farris. As I suggested last week, most companies would see the PR advantages of avoiding such a scandal. If you run a car park, though, the problem of PR doesn’t arise. What does it matter what people think of you? As a result, you behave accordingly. This must make all your business decisions wonderfully simple.

• If Covid has shown us one thing it’s the importance of having a good broadband connection and suitable devices. This is particularly the case as a result of home schooling for children. Opinions differ has to how widespread the issue of so-called digital poverty is but this report in September 2020 from the Office for Students suggests  that over half the students lacked a suitable internet connection and nearly 20% lacked a suitable device. As there are about 8.9 million school children, that means that about 1.8 million lack suitable equipment (the broadband issue is perhaps more difficult to solve). The situation may have improved since this report was produced. The government recently announced that a further 300,000 laptops would be made available but the Association of School and College Leaders, accused them of being “slow off the mark” in addressing the digital divide and that “we are only now inching up to the number of devices that are needed.”

One problem might be that the demand for laptops has considerably increased over the last nine months and it may be proving hard to source them from the global market. The solution to this problem may lie closer to home: indeed, in our homes. While some families have fewer devices than they need, others may have many more than they use, with redundant ones shoved in cupboards and under desks. Indeed, it’s probable that there are enough such devices in the country but that some of them are in the wrong place.These, and desktop devices, can be re-purposed and supplied to schools for onward distribution. One thing that may put people off donating is the matter of the data. Specialist and accredited firms like Green Machine Computers in Ramsbury are expert at dealing with this, and can refurbish the kit. The company is also in touch with many local schools and charities that badly need the devices. Simon Crisp, Green Machine’s MD, told Penny Post this week that one of their challenges at the moment is that the supply of redundant equipment from companies has largely dried up as so many are closed. As a result, Green Machine is urging anyone who has unwanted kit at home to drop it in to their office in Wittonditch or to either of its current collections points, My Apple Juice at Hungerford Park, packaging Not Included in Marlborough or the Community Furniture Project in Newbury. That way you can be sure that not only will the disc be wiped but also that the device will go to someone who really needs it.

Other organisations, including the Wantage Chamber of Commerce, are offering similar services. This week’s Newbury Weekly News has as its lead story the support offered by others including Greenham Trust (which has launched a Laptops for Lockdown learning appeal); and Image Through Quality in Thatcham (which offers to print home-learning documents for families that need them free of charge). Others exist, across the area and, indeed, the country. (Please email penny@pennypost.org.uk if you’re aware of any locally as we’re planning to do a post on this subject.) So, if you have any redundant devices clogging up space at home there’s never been a better time to get them moved on to the next phase of its life. They’ll be used to educate the children who will, in years to coming, be paying the taxes to provide the services you need in your retirement – so, think of it as a bit of long-term, self-interested, altruism…

Thursday 7 January 2021

• So 2021 is with us at last, not that you’d really notice. Cold weather, lockdowns, government U-turns and a divided USA are with us still. The only thing that has changed is our final departure from the EU. Brexit was a huge (and avoidable) distraction we could all have done without.

• Opinions still differ as to how much Brexit has cost. This report from Full Fact undermines social-media claims that the hit to our economy since 2016 is greater than all the contributions we’ve ever made, although it does seem to be quite close (£200bn v £222bn). I think this is one of those cases where the figures are so colossal and speculative (relying as they do on what would have happened in a parallel universe where the referendum had gone the other way) that one can make up more or less any figure one likes. That is, after all, what Boris Johnston did during the campaign and it doesn’t seem to have slowed him down.

• Speaking of parallel universes, there’s one inhabited by vaccine and Covid deniers that still seems to have a certain amount of traction. Look at the evidence for vaccines before rushing to war about it on social media: above all, perhaps, look at your own probable non-experience with a whole host of murderous diseases against which you were probably inoculated as a child – or have a look at the kind of people in the USA who support these views. If that doesn’t work, take a view: do the risks outweigh the benefits? There is a chance that you will turn into a kind of Bill Gates-controlled orc as a result of the jab but a much higher one that it will confer some kind of immunity, as all previous vaccines have done, which will enable 2021 to end in a better way than it’s begun. So, when you get your letter from your GP with your appointment then either turn up or else stay indoors and out of contact with the rest of us for the next five years. (This survey by Imperial College in November suggested that the UK had, at 65%, the highest rate of likely acceptance of a vaccine, a figure which has probably increased since the roll-out started.)

As for whether the lockdown has been necessary, just look at the figures. The new variant – which, although more infectious, seems not to be more dangerous nor resistant to the vaccines – has contributed to, to pick one example, a nine-fold increase in the number of cases in rural West Berkshire over the last six weeks. Assuming the ambitious inoculation programme is carried out and that it works as well as all tests suggest, I reckon we have three more months of pain before life will return to something like (though never exactly like) it was before.

• Another parallel universe (and there are, of course, an infinity of them) is the one inhabited by PotUS Donald Trump. Not content with having lost over 50 legal actions about the election result, he then spent an hour on the phone to Georgia’s Secretary of State on 2 January, in which he resorted to threats and intimidation to try to get the result overturned. Undeterred, on 6 January he invited his supporters to march on Congress where the results were being ratified to “make their voices heard.” To be fair, he did say they should do so “peacefully” – he could hardly have said anything else – but the extraordinary scenes that unfolded were anything but, with smashed windows, pipe bombs, multiple arrests, gunfire, several deaths and several serious injuries. It certainly goes down as a catastrophic security disaster. The footage was more reminiscent of the chaotic post-election conflicts that one so often sees the countries that the USA spends its time strenuously and often violently lecturing about democracy under the specious banner of American exceptionalism. Looking at the BBC footage, almost all the protesters seemed to be middle-aged white men (all fairly interchangeable in appearance) bearing some fairly scary banners. They may not all have been gnarled survivalists, fundamental Christians, Covid deniers, white supremacists or rabid libertarians but they sure as hell all looked that way to me.

According to the BBC, their justification was that extreme measures were necessary to rescue their country from traitors, communists, Satanists and paedophiles. If you have convinced yourself that this is the roll call of your enemies then I guess you’ll do whatever it takes. The USA is fond of criticising states and organisations for allowing people to become radicalised, often by extreme Islamic views. At least Islam has some kind of consistent ideology, however some people may warp it. This stuff, however, you can just make up as you go along, adding in any old bits of cabalistic drivel that happen to come to hand.

Aside from his exhortations to march on Congress, it appears that Trump was preparing for armed conflict in other ways. On 4 January, Reuters reported that 10 former defence chiefs has written to The Washington Post saying that the military “should play no role in President Donald Trump’s efforts to block the transfer of power.” This rather suggests that the President had suggested that the military should be playing a role. It’s all too easy to imagine how the phone call might have gone. Perhaps because of stunts like this, 7 January saw suggestions from members Congress that PotUS should either be removed from office using the 25th Amendment or even impeached. With less two weeks of his term still to run, this shows how many remain fearful of his capacity to cause further mischief.

Foreign condemnation of the fiasco in Washington has been swift, most reactions being couched in the robust but diplomatic terms one would expect. Other countries let themselves go a bit more. The government of Venezuela – which must have been waiting for such a moment for years – opined that “with this regrettable episode, the United States experiences the same thing that it has generated in other countries with its policies of aggression.” The leaders of Russia, China and North Korea seem so far to have kept their views to themselves though I doubt that they will be able to resist for long.

As for Trump himself, when challenged to denounce the violence, he posted a video asking people to “go home” but as this message was interspersed with far more unsubstantiated  comments of the familiar subject of election fraud, all the main social-media channels removed it. He seems, in his slow retreat from power, to be indulging in a scorched-earth policy reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s setting fire to the Kuwait oil wells at the end of the first Gulf War. His recent ramblings seem also to have cost his party the two crucial Senate seats in Georgia, a result which he also claimed was rigged. Each day since 3 November has marked a new low for the USA. The country now needs to be added to the list of those that can’t be trusted to hold its elections properly, requiring UN peacekeepers and foreign experts to supervise things next time round. That might, in turn, take a bit of the bounce out of its foreign policy, probably no bad thing.

• Although on nothing like the scale of this, one of the recurring complaints about the UK government’s handling of the pandemic has been the way in which PPE contracts were awarded. Sky News claimed that 70% of the contract were placed without any competitive tendering. Moreover, The National Audit Office (NAO), as reported in The Independent, said that companies which were placed on a ‘fast-track’ scheme were up to ten times more likely to win contracts, a phenomenon which The Sunday Times and other papers have branded as the ‘chumocracy’, so closely associated were some of the recipients were to senior government government figures. The NAO makes the point that the government had to work “at pace” and in a seller’s market at a time of international crisis but this doesn’t fully explain the singularity of many of the tenders.

It was interesting to see all this referred to in the December newsletter from the UK’s Anti-corruption Champion, John Penrose MP. His rather one-sided summary of the NAO’s findings did admit that “there is more to be done on how we can make procurement more transparent, including through greater use of open contracting.” One of the people who might want to heed Mr Penrose’s words is Dido Harding, head of the Test and Trace Service. As she is Mr Penrose’s wife, this shouldn’t be too hard to arrange. The document also makes a number of other over-rosy claims which are not full born out by checking the sources. For example, the newsletter says that the government “won plaudits” from the Institute for Government for its domestic work. In fact, this report’s conclusion (pp48-51) refers in almost all of its paragraphs to things that could be done better, singling out the contact-tracing app the A-level algorithms for particular criticism. It also adds the disparaging remark that “nearly every success story was built on what was already there” in terms of digital expertise. (That said, I think the information that the government has put out on-line has been pretty good. How well the 20% of the population who don’t use the internet have coped is another matter.)

• Aside from IT, there are two other examples of things that were already there that the government was slow to use. The first was the the public-health network operated by local councils which, inexplicably, was by-passed for several months in favour of a new national system operated by contractors including Serco. The other, which continues yet, is why the country’s pharmacies – many of which have NHS contracts already and all of whom are staffed by highly trained professionals – are not be used as part of the vaccination programme. This may become easier when the AstraZeneca jab is more widely available as this can be stored at higher temperatures.

• The AstraZeneca vaccine is also known as the Oxford one but I hesitate to use that term lest it be thought that the city somehow now confers ever more life advantages than it does already (particularly if you want to be a Prime Minister). In the same way, ‘PPE’ when referring to protective gear can easily be muddled up with the Politics, Philosophy and Economics degree course, unique to Oxford, that so many of our political leaders studied; this co-incidence perhaps confusing their thought processes when it came to awarding the PPE contracts. Anyway, whatever we want to call the jab it will be very welcome and hats off to all the scientists and researchers, in Oxford and elsewhere, who developed it and all those who will be implementing it.

• One issue that all universities, Oxford included, will have to cope with is the matter of accepting students who, for the second successive year ,will not have taken A-levels. This time round the assessment will be done by the schools rather than by a computer. It seemed to me, though, that the main risk would be not the lack of exams but the lack of revision, a painful process which sorts and de-tangles the previous two years’ work. Might there be a risk that students would be starting from a lower knowledge base, so leading to sub-standard results?

I put these concerns to a friend who’s a Computer Science Professor at Cambridge. I’m glad to report that he was largely able to reassure me. He pointed out that the intensity of A-levels not only doesn’t suit every pupil but is also not an infallible guide to likely attainment at university: indeed, GCSE results – which exist for this year’s and next year’s intake – often are more accurate. Moreover, in STEM subjects, the differences between the A-level and degree-level studies are often radically different – “forget everything you learned at A-level” is, I’m told (I never studied a STEM subject myself) often the first remark made at the first lecture or tutorial. He also pointed out that external examiners are involved at every university: also that, for important subjects like medicine and engineering, the courses are designed and administered in conjunction with professional bodies. Both serve to keep standards up. Finally, in such areas the degree is only part of the journey. One cannot pick up a scalpel or a screwdriver in earnest until several more years have been spent working in the real world. I felt slightly better after this conversation. The possibility that there might be a few under-qualified graduates of  media studies, English, philosophy or medieval history doesn’t concern me quite as much.

• And talking of medieval history degrees, the collection of my stories Unaccustomed as I Am, which was published just before Christmas (click here for how to order it, including from the Hungerford Bookshop), includes the sorry tale of the self-inflicted disaster that befell me during the last paper of my finals. This deprived me of the chance to write an essay on the Fourth Crusade, one of the oddest incidents I’ve ever read about and which I had assiduously revised for. Today, we had an email from one purchaser of the book who asked if I could explain what was so remarkable about it. This I’m happy to do: but I need a bit more encouragement. So, if next week you would like me to write a paragraph of about this length on the subject of the Fourth Crusade, I will happily do so. Please post a comment in the box at the foot of this post and I’all oblige. It’s a good story, believe me. As for the story of the disaster which prevented my writing about this at the time, you’re going to have to buy the book.

• The letters page of the Newbury Weekly News has recently taken on a distinctly theological tone this week, with four communications on the subject. The debate was fired before Christmas when one correspondent suggested that Christianity should be regarded as fake news. If one applies to religion the test that we would for almost anything else – such as the safety of vaccine or whether the USA is over-run with Satanists and paedophiles – and demand to see the evidence, then it’s hard to disagree with the remark. There is no empirical evidence for divine intervention in human affairs (though this doesn’t amount, as the original writer suggested, to scientific proof of non-existence). As a result, everyone’s view on the matter is entirely personal. Whichever view you take, reading a contrary opinion is likely only to re-inforce your own views rather than cause you to question them.

• And, still with the NWN’s letters page open before me, there’s a communication there about the story of the unfortunate woman in Newbury was handed a £100 car-parking fine on Christmas Eve after overstaying her time because she was helping someone who was having a heart attack. Local MP Laura Farris has taken up the case and the company concerned, Euro Car Parks, has come in for a lot of stick. For most firms, this would be a PR disaster which the directors would seek to avoid or mitigate. However, I’m struggling and failing to think of a single reason why a company that operates car parks should care one jot about PR or about its reputation. Not having to worry about what your “customers” think of you must make so many of their business decisions swift and simple: indeed, caring about this would be a positive hindrance. There’s a tiny part of me – the thought is ruthlessly suppressed as it starts to take shape – which rather envies them…

  • See here for more local weekly news covering the Penny Post area of Newbury, Thatcham, Hungerford, Lambourn, Marlborough, Wantage, Swindon.
  • See here for Further Afield from 2020
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Covering: Hungerford, Marlborough, Wantage,   Lambourn, Newbury, Thatcham & Theale