Further Afield: The Week According to Brian Quinn – 22 April 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 for 22-29 April 2021, please click here.
  • For the full Penny Post weekly e-newsletter for 22-29 April 2021, please click here.

Thursday 22 April 2021

• What we all need in these trying times, with “freedom” seemingly always around the corner, is something to make us pull together. Yes, I know that Covid did that for a bit but fighting an invisible enemy for over a year gets exhausting. There are also enough people who believe that (a) Covid doesn’t exist, (b) that the vaccines don’t work, are unnecessary or will send you crazy or (c) that, often as well as most the first to, that the whole thing is a deep-state plot. With the pubs open again and the death rate (currently) down to a level similar to that from transport accidents, we need something new to rally behind and get our Twitter fingers on: something we can all agree is a really terrible thing that needs to be stopped.

This was duly provided this week by the announcement from the so-called European Super League that it had signed up three clubs from Italy, three from Spain and no fewer than six from England (which already account for about two-thirds of the Premier League’s turnover) to form a breakaway competition. The intention was for a 20-team league including an elite 15 who can never be relegated. This last aspect immediately makes a nonsense of the whole thing. The USA does a number of simple things very oddly: one is the way it organises its leagues for baseball and American football, with no promotion or relegation at all. I remember having a conversation with an American sports fan in New York years ago who for some time couldn’t grasp the idea of promotion and relegation: then he had what they call a light-bulb moment and conceded it was a good idea. It’s no co-incidence that three of the six English teams have American owners. The idea seems to being bankrolled by the bank JP Morgan, which tells you all you need to know about the motives.

Within a few days, widespread condemnation and threats of legal action – and the PM saying he “wasn’t ruling out litigation”: probably impossible though the man knows a popular cause when he sees it – had made the whole shabby edifice crumble. All the teams bar Barca, Real and Juve have pulled out and the Juve president has recently said he doesn’t think the project is still “up and running.” Surely that’s a bit feeble and unambitious? There’s an opportunity for a whole new competition here that will break the mould and enthuse the young. What not have all three teams playing at the same time on a hexagonal pitch with two balls and three goals? That would be different, briefly interesting and only marginally more insane than what was proposed. The Real Madrid President, meanwhile, has said that the proposal “is on standby” and spoke menacingly of “binding contracts” which had been signed. So, the lawyers may get their day in court after all.

One of my favourite cartoons is of a plutocrat, chauffeur-driven Rolls parked in the background, forcing someone at gunpoint to get his wallet out in a dark alley. “You know what they say,” the tycoon is telling him “you can never have too much of the stuff.” That’s what we were dealing with here.

There are two useful lessons to be learned. The first is that being a billionaire doesn’t make you immune from committing a PR disaster of epic proportions: the only thing that was missing was announcing it in the car park of garden maintenance company next to a sex shop. The second is that the owners have now been revealed in their true colours. In Germany all top-league clubs must have a majority of their members, rather than outside investors. It’s s shame the same rules don’t apply elsewhere (this recent petition is trying to change that). Since this volte face, the club owners have been falling over themselves trying to be the first to apologise for their misjudgment and paying tributes to traditions and loyalties that, only a few days before, they were happy to ignore. What a fiasco. Still, it gave us all something to bond about for a few days, didn’t it?

It’s certainly true that the revenues of the top clubs have wobbled recently (though this is nothing to what the lower-league ones are going through). This article on the BBC website points out that almost all of the 12 clubs involved in the the ESL debacle have seen revenues fall recently – apart from Amazon and a few other, haven’t we all? – and also points to the fact that the cost of failing to qualify for the Champions League can be as much as £100m. The problem seems to be the wage bills, which average over £3m a year in the Premier League. The Athletic reported that in 2018-19, Premier League clubs spend nearly two thirds of their turnover on salaries. That’s just the average. The three promoted teams that season were all spending over 150% of their turnover on salaries, 195% in Sheffield United’s case. This is an economic model whose insanity is unequalled even by the dotcom boom of the late 1990s.

• This combination of naked greed, an overwhelming sense of entitlement, a deficiency of morals and the desire to make something simple complicated leads us back to the unfolding tale of the hapless David Cameron. The Sunday Times on 18 April devoted three pages to the story, which seems to look worse and worse each time further revelations are announced. The whole Greensill edifice was constructed on the assumption that the government or its agencies took too long to pay suppliers or employees like NHS workers or pharmacies. I’ve yet to read any explanation as to why he didn’t just pick up the phone to whoever and say, “The PM here. Pay pharmacies more quickly. Thanks.” Few former Prime Ministers since Chamberlain or Eden could have seen their star sink so low in their own lifetime.

The other problem with his defence so far is that he didn’t break the rules: well, perhaps not (time will tell) but if so that was perhaps only because he was in charge of framing them during his appalling time in Downing Street. He had the most expensive education money could buy at that school near Slough and went to England’s second-best university where, it seems, he was a diligent, even brilliant, pupil. Did morality not form any part of these lessons? Perhaps the problem is that he never had a job outside the political bubble, which would surely warp anyone’s personality. It now seems that his chickens have come home: long and deeply may they roost, pour encourager les autres.

• And now it seems that BoJo has been entangled in a similar mess, helping James Dyson sort out a tax problem to enable him to make ventilators at the early stages of the pandemic, a time when these were seen as the absolute must-have item. This is the latest in a series of allegations about politicians either making preferential interventions or issuing contracts without due process, and to companies which seemed either to have little experience or to be uncomfortably closely connected to the decision-maker.  And here we come slap-bang up against a conundrum what has yet to be solved: how far is it justified to deviate from normal standards of procurement, prudence or ethics at a time of emergency? In early 2020, what the country seemed to need was PPE and ventilators, in massive quantities. The words – which a few months earlier would to most people have meant an Oxford degree course or something to let air into a building – were on everyone’s lips. The press was raging about the shortage, telling stories of nurses having to make do with bin bags. Is it any wonder that ministers thought any price and any method was acceptable? What’s baffling is that there are hundreds and perhaps thousands of people in Whitehall whose job involves procuring things. So many corners seem to have been cut as to suggest that they weren’t trusted: if so, that’s something else that’s wrong. There will doubtless be the mother of all enquiries (which is unlikely to be completed, or perhaps even begun before the next election) in which procurement will surely find a place. As for lobbying, it seems that will be being looked at as well. Hapless Dave doesn’t even have the emergency defence to fall back on with that one.

• The government has recently announced that it is pushing forward its targets on climate change (as is the USA). This is such a massive subject that I feel unequal to looking at more than one small part of it. One thing that is needed for this to work is for the government to make a quick and ambitious decision on home-building standards. The longer the discussions drag on for the more the lobbying of the developers will water this down (this is another matter on which the hapless David Cameron threw in the towel). Until the point is reached where poorly insulated or fossil-fuel guzzling homes become harder to sell, there’ll be no incentive for developers to build better ones. There could be some adjustment to stamp duty where (as there is with road tax) higher percentages being charged on buildings that are less efficient. The government also needs to be an exemplar by building energy-efficient homes itself for the affordable and social-rent sectors (which private companies seem incapable of doing) through its various local planning authorities. There are times when Whitehall need to stand back and let us get on with our lives. There are others when it needs to act decisively and be prepared to make powerful enemies in doing the right thing: this is surely one of those times.

• The funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh took place last weekend and, although I didn’t watch it, seemed to have had several of his inimitable touches, such as a self-designed hearse. I learned that he became the Chancellor of Cambridge University in 1977, the year I matriculated there: he held this post until 2011, which gives a sense of his longevity. An old friend of mine, who’s a Professor at the university, wrote to me to say that “I’ve heard specific things about what the Duke of Edinburgh did for the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and as Chancellor at Cambridge that put him in a very very good light – stuff that wasn’t showy or even terribly visible but really was above and beyond. If you want to see what various vice-chancellors said about him, here’s a good overview. Old-school in the right way.”

• The deadline of 7 May marches towards us, after which time all council meetings must be conducted in-person not on Zoom, regardless of whether or not it is safe, convenient or even possible for some to do this. I’ve written before at how dictatorial, patronising and inefficient this is so I won’t repeat myself. The Local Government Association and many local authorities at all levels up and down the land have been pressing the government to allow councils to have discretion in this matter. I spoke briefly to West Berkshire Council Leader Lynne Doherty on 22 April who told me that hearings had recently taken place and that her Deputy leader Graham Bridgman had sat through three hours of this online which he described as “quite interesting.” I doubt we’ll seeing this on Netflix any time soon but it’s a necessary battle to fight if the term “local democracy” is to retain any meaning.

• The English Spelling Society is making another attempt to reform the extraordinary was our language is written. Now might be a better time than ever to give this a go as so many words have been simplified in text-speak, is fast becoming a dialect of its own. If I were tasked with this, I’d start off with two very naughty pairs of letters, c and k; and g and j. If there is a reason why c and g are sometimes hard and sometimes soft, I’ve never heard of it. What is the point of j and k if they create no unique sound but only mimic two other letters in certain circumstances? That kind of nonsense wouldn’t last in music for five minutes. Imagine being told that Bb was only played as Bb if there was an Eb in the preceding bar: otherwise you play a B natural. These four letters need to be called into an office somewhere and given a good talking to. This all links to the oft-mentioned issue of children, particularly due to lockdown, who are leaving primary school without adequate reading skills. The more you look at English, the more you’re forced to marvel at how anyone can write it at all. B, k, g and j give me no trouble (though plenty of other combinations do). I was lucky and managed to get these sorted out in my head at a young age. The trouble is that, for those who don’t, there’s hardly anyone who knows what the rules are so very little chance of ever correcting the mistakes. The -ght and -ough Anglo-Saxon suffixes we seem wedded to seem be illogical but at least consistent: until you get to “Loughborough” which has two instances of -ough, both pronounced differently. As as for that “i before e except before c” business…the ESS is right – it is bonkers. What are we going to do about it? Nothing, probably.

• I don’t seem to have really mentioned Covid so far. Let’s fix that right now. The University of Oxford has announced that researchers running the Com-Cov study, launched in February to investigate alternating doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and the Pfizer vaccine, are extending the programme to include the Moderna and Novavax vaccines in a new study. The aim is “to explore whether the multiple Covid-19 vaccines that are available can be used more flexibly, with different vaccines being used for the first and second dose.”

• Anyone who works in a Human Resources department (or who has designs on being paid to do nothing) might want to have a look at this story of an Italian civil servant who stopped going to work in 2005 but carried on being paid as no one noticed she wasn’t there. Criminal proceedings are now under way which, in that country, will probably take about the same length of time to resolve.I can think of no comparable story from my own life (and, if I could, I hope I would be too ashamed to share it). The job was worth about £30,000 a year. Mind you, if you’re an average Premier League footballer and you’re injured or in disgrace for a couple of months, you’ll have pocketed about the same as she did in 15 years. I’m not quite sure what point I’m trying to make here so I’ll think I’ll just gently fade away…

Thursday 15 April 2021

• The tribulations of the hapless David Cameron continue. His relationship with the collapsed tycoon Les Greensill have been all over the papers and it was announced this week that there will be, as The Guardian puts it, “an unprecedented formal enquiry” into his lobbying activities. The former UK government supremo claims that he did nothing wrong. If, in a technical rather than a moral way, this is found to be the case, that only shifts the spotlight onto a regulatory system that’s clearly dysfunctional. The most recent Private Eye ups the ante, suggesting in its lead story that various breaches of the ministerial code were committed by Rishi Sunak (by asking civil servants to discriminate in Greensill’s favour) and by Matt Hancock (by agreeing to have a drink with the last PM-but-one and the Australian financier without any mandarins being present). Further fire was added by the revelation that a civil servant, Bill Crothers, was given permission to work part-time for Greensill while still employed by Whitehall and stood to gain about £5m. This was reported in The Times on 14 April underneath a photo of the Brexit-dodging former PM and Mr Greensill chillaxing in Mohammed bin Salman’s tent “after,” as the newspaper pointed out, “the de facto Saudi ruler was implicated in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” Live sure as hell goes on.

As political scandals go, this one is certainly eye-catching. More important is whether anything happens in the way of new lobbying regulations and, more importantly, organisations with the will and the teeth to enforce them. If you are a PM for six years (five of them admittedly as head of a coalition) you must feel than the £158,000pa you get as a salary doesn’t come close to reflecting your vast sense of self-importance and destiny. As for legacy, Cameron’s is surely soured beyond redemption in most people’s eyes. He clearly thinks otherwise. It must be a hard job to leave at such a young age. Enough sympathy – so too must have been retiring as a professional footballer in the days before they got paid anything, often about 15 years younger than Cameron was and with two dodgy knees and with early-onset dementia to look forward to from too many diving headers on a heavy leather ball.

Three things stand out about this. First, the premise on which Lex Greensill’s idea seemed so blindingly good (if amazingly complex and ultimately unsuccessful) was that it offered a way for pharmacies to be paid more quickly by the NHS. Cameron was PM at the time: was there not an easier way of sorting this out, like telling the NHS to pay pharmacies more quickly? Second, Cameron only worked for Greensill for three years and was contracted to work for 25 days per year. It’s claimed by “friends” of the PM that they would have been worth £60m. Cameron said in a recent statement that the value was “nowhere near” this. OK, let’s say £20m. Even this kind of figure asks the question of how anyone could be worth this much for 75 days’ work. Third, Lex Greensill was himself an unpaid advisor at Number 10 and so obviously had a longer game to play. The regulations under which all this rather squalid back-scratching is being conducted were specified under David Cameron’s own tenure as leader. And Britain still has the nerve to tell other countries how it ought to be conducting its affairs.

It would be amazing if Cameron himself received more than a mild reprimand for all this. When you’ve been through Eton, Oxford, the Bullingdon Club and the machinery of one of the major political parties, you’ll have made friends. Ultimately, the chaps look after their own. Whether future ministers and civil servants will be restricted in the future remains to be seen. In some ways, as a friend pointed out to me today, it represents a failure of capitalism (in fairness, cronyism is universal), which holds that all that is required is to find a willing buyer and a willing seller of whatever product or service may be on offer. I heard it said (can’t remember by whom) that there are two kinds of governmental system: one where you need to be rich to get into politics and the other where you go into politics in order to get rich. The USA is the prime example of the first. The UK seems to be an increasingly good example of the second.

• The problems of blood clots among people who’ve had Covid vaccines have been widely reported. Several countries have introduced restrictions on the use of the Ox-AZ jab in younger age groups: this week Denmark went a step further, announcing it was stopping using it altogether. The similar J&J vaccine has also been halted in the USA, South Africa and the EU for the same reason. This BBC article says that the US Food and Drug Administration had detected six cases in nearly seven million jabs, all between women aged 18 to 48. It does seem that this group is more prone to this condition but, as I’m not a statistician, I don’t know if such a small number of results is meaningful. One obvious inference, bearing in mind this limitation of mine, is that if you’re female and aged 18-48, get the Pfizer jab. For everyone else, the Ox-AZ would seem to reduce your chances of getting a blood clot to zero.

The trick – as two scientist friends pointed out to me – is to look beyond the headline. The real question is whether there is a method of predicting what specific people or groups might be at risk. To ban certain jabs for all people under 55 or all women aged 18 to 48 are pretty blunt instruments at a time when more people are dying an hour from Covid in many countries than suffered blood clots in the USA from 6.8 million doses. This article in The Guardian provides one way in which smart thinking is trying to narrow down the risk groups to provide a more elegant solution. It already seems clear that older males are more at risk from Covid and younger females more at risk from blood clots, which provides a good starting point. The UK is also fortunate in having fairly good supplies of all three kinds of vaccine, some of which will be more suitable for some people than others. We also seem to be happy having a jab at all, the assumption on which all the above points are predicated.

Any aspect of life for a rational person involves balancing the likely upsides against the likely downsides and deciding accordingly. Individually, we do this every time we drive a car, cross a road, mount a ladder or juggle chainsaws. For a government or regulatory body there is also the question of the greater good. Although few such bodies can voice this, a choice between a course that leads to the deaths of five people and one with five hundred is a no-brainer. It has been suggested that Churchill’s refusal to defend Coventry from a massive bombing raid was motivated by the fear that the Nazis might then guess that their code had been broken, so undermining future Allied plan that depended on perpetuating the idea that it had not. With Covid, the situation is perhaps even starker. The MD column in the most recent Private Eye suggests that if all 127,000 people in the UK who have died of Covid to date (let’s accept that figure for now, although it seems to be the subject of much official revision) had been fully immunised with Ox-AZ, the Covid deaths might have fallen by 100,000; to which would need to be added five from blood clots. Ultimately, it comes down to what is regarded as the greater threat. The column goes on to point out that Germany’s caution may have been the result of its better-resourced health service which, perhaps inevitably, leads to the possibility of its being more risk-averse. The question is what risk we regard as the more serious. The UK (which currently seems to have a vaccine acceptance rate of around 90%) and France (around 50%) seem to have reached their own conclusions about this. It’s also possible that scepticism about a vaccine is more likely to exist when you are not offered it. It’s easier to say “no way” to a market researcher than it is to your GP.

All this has made me wonder what other common drugs produce side-effects that we don’t tend to think about. Few will have been subject to as much scrutiny as the Covid vaccines. We all know the names and manufacturers of the main ones. How many of us know the same about flu jabs? Exactly. Did you know that they can cause Guillan-Barré syndrome (no, I don’t what that is either). How about Ibuprofen, a drug that’s available without prescription? According to this article in WebMD in 2014, this too can cause blood clots. About ten years ago I had a double tooth abscess and was taking them by the handful. I didn’t get a blood clot. Does that prove anything? No. Well, yes. It proves that in some circumstances we do what we do to deal with the immediate problem. We seem to have an immediate problem on our hands right now. The best thing we can do is trust scientists like the above-mentioned Marie Scully and accept the fact that nothing we do or refrain from doing is going to remove all the risks. My second jab is booked for the end of the next month and there’s nothing I’ve heard or read that’s going to stop me driving back to Ludgershall and offering my right arm to whoever happens to be on duty that day with the needle.

• The pubs have re-opened. The ones in our area of West Berkshire have done so with a level of resourcefulness that is to be applauded, particularly by those marquee-hire firms that have been blessed with their orders. I’ve not, frankly, had the time to venture does to our wonderful local, the Queens Arms in East Garston, though I suspect this will soon be remedied. I haven’t yet fully adjusted to the idea of booking to go and have a drink. I dare say I will get used to this. Driving past it today at 3pm, the car park was full and the place seemed busy; ditto The Great Shefford down the road. Long may it continue. Whenever you go back to your local, I would bet a reasonable sum that you’ll see some changes. Many have decided that wholesale re-investment is needed to make them fit for purpose for whatever the future has in store. My early-life experience of the old-school drinking den seems further away than ever.

• I just realised that I used the phrase “fit for purpose” just now. Sorry about that. It’s become a convenient shorthand and so has passed from original remark (about 20 years ago, if I recall, during a Commons enquiry into the Home Office, the phrase then prefixed by “not”); then to a cliché; then to an ironical remark; before being accepted into the club of common parlance. One phrase that is still at an early stage of this journey is “out of an abundance of caution.” It has been used several times, including I think by the US government, with regard to withdrawing Covid vaccines. It’s fast becoming an actual verbal thing, conveying the idea the organisation is considerate, compassionate and responsible. These may be true. It could also be translated as “this is a litigious age and there are a lot of people out there with not much to lose and attorneys who’ll take any job on a no-win-no-fee so…go figure.”

• It appears that the BBC has received over 100,000 complaints about its coverage of the death of the Duke of Edinburgh last week, most seeming to be about the disruption to schedules and the repetitive nature of some of the reports. Imagine how many complaints it would have received if it hadn’t really covered it at all. In any case, it’s all laid down in Operation Forth Bridge (the code-name for his death) to which I’m sure the BBC, above all broadcasters have to adhere. My sympathies are with the broadcasters (as this article, from The BBC itself, suggests, it’s proved very hard to match such royal coverage with the public mood, whatever that might be). Anyway, it’s only for a few days. My advice is that if , due a royal death or any other unusual event, there’s nothing you like on TV, do something else for a bit.

• Many local councils have written to Penny Post with their official condolences about his death. We have not published these: not because we want to belittle their sentiments or his achievements but simply because of pressure of time. We offer, as they do, our sympathies to his family in its time of loss: as we would like to do every week to every family which has been bereaved.

• Few district councils have proved to be as incompetent and insolvent as Northamptonshire, so much so that the government recently abolished it, replacing it with North Northamptonshire and South Northamptonshire – snappy names both. These councils are among those going to the polls next moth and this BBC article reports on the story of a farcical leaflet from the Conservative party which seems to have gone to press without a final proof read. Could happen to anyone: but what’s annoying many local people is that it suggests that the party is championing the cause of saving the local libraries when it was them that proposed cutting them in the first place. Election leaflets, of course, provide a wonderful opportunity for making such claims – and not just in Northamptonshire: it can happen anywhere – the hope being that in the six-week campaign period you can get a point established before anyone else has the time to refute it.

• The big moment for me this week was the re-opening of the swimming pools, specifically the Hungerford Leisure Centre. On the first day of the last re-opening in the autumn of 2020 I made the mistake of trying to swim my normal number of lengths on day one and pulled about 18 muscles. This time I was more circumspect and am so far unscathed. Apart from being about 10% slower, everything’s much the same apart from the timing of my breathing. Latency has crept into my reactions so I’m sometimes breathing in either a fraction too early or too late and, as a result, getting a nose full of water every length or so. I tried to regard it as “invigorating” but that’s to put too much positive spin on it. More practice needed…

Thursday 8 April 2021

• This week’s Sunday Times led with a story about the “lockdown illiteracy surge” with “over 200,000” 11-year-olds likely to leave school this year “without being able to read properly”; and that this is a rise of 30,000 over the last year. These were highlighted in a report for the government by Kevan Collins, the UK’s “education recover tsar”. I’ve done a bit of sniffing about into illiteracy figures, in the UK and worldwide, but there seem to be many different ways by which these are calculated. Unlike, say, population, area or the number of World Cups they’ve won, comparing countries in this way is hard and there’s much about the measurements that seems to be at best subjective. I found one source which seemed quite good until I saw that the number-one ranked country was North Korea, with a 100.00% literacy rate. I rather went off the source after that.

Many, however, appear to agree that about five million UK adults, about 15%, are to some extent functionally illiterate (definitions as to what that means differ too). This claim that was investigated by Full Fact back in 2012 and appears to be largely true today. I’m not sure how many 11-year-olds there are in the UK but, if we assume about a million, that means that according to Sunday Times, about 20% have serious reading problems. Accepting the 15% figure for adult illiteracy, and further assuming that the two estimates are based on similar criteria, only about one in four children who arrive at secondary school with a serious level of illiteracy is able to make up the deficit by the time they reach adulthood.

This immediately tells me something very important, which I think I knew all along. You have to start young. I’ve got four children but can’t remember when or even how they learned to read. I do recall that the odd-numbered ones got it straight away whereas the even-numbered ones found it more of a struggle. Reading skills start to be seriously acquired when kids start school but I never thought that the school had sole responsibility for the job. Bedtime stories, enlivened by things like our reading alternate paragraphs, became a ritual (and one I rather miss). However, you have to have books in the house to make this work. I suspect that, perhaps increasingly, many people don’t. Also, if you don’t yourself enjoy reading or find it difficult, you’d look for almost any other activity, such as watching a TV programme. Perhaps the most useful reform the government could make would therefore be to somehow make it compulsory for all programmes aimed at the under eights to have subtitles.

Returning to the ST story and the UK’s figures, I had a look at the National Literacy Trust’s website, figuring that they ought have some useful things to say on the subject. Its home page confirmed the roughly 15% figure for adult illiteracy (in fact, putting it slightly higher) and also has a  number of features exploring the socio-economic consequences of illiteracy, none of them good. However, my eye was particularly caught by a couple of facts on this page of the site. The first is that England has one of the largest gaps between the highest and lowest levels of reading attainment of any state. The second is that England “is the only country in the developed world in which adults aged 55 to 65 perform better in literacy and numeracy than those aged 16 to 24.” Both of these seem alarming. The first at least hints at an economic divide, manifest in other ways, which will be beyond the power of any education tsar to fix. All the more important, therefore, that we continue to support and lobby for maintained nursery schools which have been operating under a funding axe for several years. (The saga of the one in Hungerford provides an excellent example of this.) A minute or a pound spent at three years old probably produces the same results as does an hour or six pounds when the child is nine and – well, as the figures suggest, by the time they’re 11 in many cases it’s probably too late.

I’m lucky. I learned to read quickly and English has always been a delight to me. However, I’ve quickly get tripped up with pronouncing long words I’ve never seen before (I’m also almost incapable of reading numbers of more than five digits if they don’t have commas or spaces). Perhaps this this is because, not having to struggle when I was learning to read, I never developed techniques to deal with the unfamiliar. I also find it hard to learn and retain any words in a foreign language. I can speak French reasonably well but that is only because I happened to spend a lot of holidays there when I was young and was encouraged to go and talk to the shop-keepers and neighbours in the village. The basics of the language got hard-wired into me: building on that in later life has been more of a problem. All of which rather proves the point that you have to start early and not rely on the school to do the work.

• The same Sunday Times was again at the throat of the hapless David Cameron over his relationship with Lex Greensill, the fallen boss of Greensill Capital. The man appeared to have charmed hapless Dave and the then Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Haywood into a condition verging on hypnotic compliance. The chief irony seems to be that the original scheme was to develop a method of getting pharmacies paid more quickly. As their chief debtor was the government, the solution to the problem would have seemed to have been in Cameron’s gift already. That’s obviously looking at the situation in far too simple a way: why speed up payment terms when you’ve got the chance to create complex financial instruments which will make their creators and abettors wonderfully rich?

• There have been more protests against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, including in Newbury. Protest now while you still can as that is one of the things this alarming piece of legislation will seek to restrict. At least one part of it seems to have been added at the behest of whatever lobbying firm works for the National Association of Colonial Statues, if such a body exists (which it probably does).

• It seems that the Ox-AZ jab is safe for most of us (with some reservations for younger people), something which about half the population of this country (though not of many other ones) seem to have accepted for some time. This report from Sky suggests that about half the French population would be reluctant to have it. Why is it that? The French are often portrayed in this country as being a bloody-minded lot, but then so are we in theirs. The clue might be the name: were it to be Sorbonne-AZ vaccine, might it have fared better? These things are clearly important. I once hired a car in France that proudly called itself a “Renault Manager”. The anglicism was, I discovered, very chic in France but it did nothing for me.

There are also some odd pools of reluctance in the UK, one of which seems to be healthcare and care-home workers, particularly in London. This article in The Telegraph suggests that about 25% of healthcare staff in the capital have refused the jab, with care-home staff nationally showing much the same reluctance. This seems hard to understand based on what these people must have witnessed over the last 12 months. The article goes on to suggest that reluctance based on ethnicity seems as prevalent in these sectors as in the population as a whole.

• One of the many uncertainties of post-Covid life will be whether many of us will be working in an office or at home. Reuters recently reported that the union Unite has established that around 70% of the HSBC’s 1,800 call centre staff based in England, Wales and Scotland had volunteered to never return to the office: the bank’s bosses obliged by moving them to permanent work-from-home contracts. This obviously makes sense if you have a large enough home or if it’s saving you a tedious journey but I wonder how well people might fare if their circumstances change. I had a phone call with a BT employee last month when he had a screaming baby in the background and the conversation wasn’t much fun for either of us.

• The problem is likely to be made worse by the fact, according to last week’s Sunday Times, that large properties in rural areas are now flying off the shelves almost before they’ve had their price tag put on. The stamp-duty holiday (which will start to close from 30 June) has obviously had something to do with this: more important has probably been the effects of lockdown which have made the drawbacks of a small urban home seem glaringly obvious. The article has tales of people being charged non-refundable deposits to secure a viewing and of vendors demanding as much as £100,000 extra on the day of exchange.

The shortage of supply will probably result in many people who would like to move being priced out of the market and so stuck in places which might be unsuitable for home working. The problem will be felt most keenly by first-time buyers or those on low incomes for whom a starter home is becoming an increasingly unrealistic prospect. Almost all homes are built by private companies and they will, understandably, respond to what the market demands. At present, this seems to be large properties in rural or semi-rural settings and with excellent broadband: if near a railway station or motorway and within easy reach of the nearest city, so much the better. All this doesn’t help provide what many people with less spending power need; and, indeed, doesn’t accord with what many felt the housing market would look like at this stage of the pandemic.

I spoke to a local estate agent, Jonathan Rich from Brearley and Rich in Marlborough. “It could be argued that it has been largely a buyer’s market since the banking crises of 2007-08 and that the growth in prices are simply playing catch up,” he told us. “Average UK house prices have also fluctuated considerably since then. The average sale price in England was £267,000 in England in March 2021 compared to 12 months ago where it was 248,000 – that’s a 7% rise in the last 12 months, some way above inflation.” If the ST’s article is correct, this is set to rise still further in the next few months.

• West Berkshire Council, and doubtless others, appear to be aware of this growing demand for smaller homes, the council’s planning portfolio holder Hilary Cole telling the Newbury Weekly News this week that more smaller homes will be needed by people wanting to downsize and that the council is “encouraging” developers to respond this. More powerful encouragement will come from the developers’ shareholders who want to see profits maximised. As Hilary Cole admits in the article, “if developers identify a need for larger homes then that’s what they’ll be delivering.” Leaving aside the particular market pressures at the moment, normal economies of scale are always going to make larger houses more profitable, providing these are released onto the market in a careful flow (which developers can control). I’ve never built a house but some quick research suggested that it only costs about 1.75 times more to build a five-bedroom house than a two-bedroom one. If you have the land and the capital, why would you go small?

• This is the time of the year when parishes up and down the country traditionally hold annual parish or town meetings, an opportunity for residents to remind themselves who their parish or town councillors are and to ask any questions about what they’ve done and issues which might come up in the future. Due to the government’s decision to insist that local councils conduct meetings in person from 7 May (see last week’s column), even though for many this will be impossible to reconcile with prevailing social-distancing requirements, this will cause some confusion. Most are scheduled to taken place before this date but for those that do so afterwards there’s a choice between doing them on Zoom (which is not what these kind of events are really about, though it’s the most hygienic way), in person (which may not be safe and for which there might be some local reluctance), in hybrid form (a compromise which is in many ways the worst of both worlds) or to postpone or cancel them. The government’s current prohibition is only for meetings at which votes are cast (which at annual meetings they generally aren’t) but many PCs and TCs take the opportunity to have an official meeting just before (at which they do vote). These challenges are not, of course, all the government’s fault but its recent decision introduced an additional level of uncertainty that PCs and TCs could have done without. Anyway, I’m still sufficiently cross about the patronising way the matter has been handled in Whitehall that I’m no mood to give them the benefit of the doubt. There – that’s told’em…

Thursday 1 April 2021

• The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) last week indicated that it does not intend to bring forward emergency legislation to permit councils to continue to hold remote meetings after 7 May. The situation is summarised in this rather disjointed letter from the Minister of State for Regional Growth and Local Government of 25 March. The Chair of the National Association of Local Councils Sue Baxter has said she is “deeply disappointed” by the decision: West Berkshire Council leader Lynne Doherty told Penny Post that she thought it was “a backward step.” Several councillors and officers I’ve spoken to have echoed these sentiments. There’s currently a “call for evidence” which is open to anyone (and not just council members) to complete. I’ve done it and it takes about 10 minutes, less if you stick to the radio-button options and don’t let yourself go in the free-text boxes. (The need of a call for evidence seems specious as there is plentiful evidence in the form of the 100,000+ municipal meetings which have been held in the last 12 months without the country grinding to a halt or our brains exploding.) If you’re minded to respond to this, here a few things you might want to consider:

  • The remote arrangements were introduced because of Covid. So, Covid’s vanished, then? No. There were about 4,500 cases on 1 April.
  • Oh. So we’ll be out of lockdown by 7 May, though? No. 7 May will see us about half way through the roadmap exit. Even if this isn’t delayed, there’s the best part of seven weeks until 21 June when “normal” life is predicted to resume.
  • OK – but it will be possible to hold meetings safely in this time? No. Many village halls and the like are not designed for social distancing while, for those that are, time and money will be needed to adapt them.
  • Surely the forced reversion to in-person meetings will increase public participation? No. The above-mentioned letter says that councils are “encouraged to provide remote access to minimise the need for the public to attend” until 21 June – so, the situation remains as before, with people who don’t have access to suitable IT being excluded. (However, many more people have been included as a result of meetings being remote.)
  • But councils will still be able to reach democratic decisions? No. The same letter proposes that that councils “use existing powers to delegate decision making to key individuals such as the Head of Paid Service, as these could be used these to minimise the number of meetings you need to hold if deemed necessary. Additionally, some of you will be able to rely on single-member decision making.” This is an atrocious suggestion and effectively gives a green flag for councils to be run by a small cabal.
  • I’m guessing we’re dealing here with a wholly unexpected situation. No. It was always known that the regulations would need renewing but it now appears that there’s no space in the government’s programme for the primary legislation that would be needed.
  • If the Ministry has said so, I’m sure everyone would agree that “primary legislation” would be needed to resolve this. No. Local Government Lawyer suggests that there are “forceful arguments” to suggest not.
  • Will it reduce the burden on ward members, guest speakers and attendees like the local MP, busy people who can currently turn up for just the part of the meeting that concerns them? No.
  • Will it reduce infection rates? No.
  • Will it reduce the number of car journeys and carbon emissions? No.
  • Will it reduce absenteeism rates at meetings? No.
  • Will it produce any benefits, except to save the blushes of dysfunctional councils’ debates which go viral? No. 
  • Is it clear what measures are in place in the event that infections rise again and virtual meetings need to be restored? No – or, if there is, I’ve written to the Minister of State Luke Hall and the MHCLG’s press office and have received no answer on this point.

The only possible conclusion is that central government thinks so little of local councils and of local democracy that it has either put this matter at the bottom of its list or else has gone out of its way to show that it calls the shots. One might almost believe that Whitehall feels shamed by the fact that local councils of all levels have in general dealt admirably with the local response to the pandemic (despite having been given less than 10% of the money for test and trace that was dished out for the national system) and wish now to redress the balance. If today were 1 April, this might almost be worth a parody.

It’s insulting and patronising to suggest that councils – which, the last time I checked, were staffed by grown-ups – cannot be trusted to decide how meetings are conducted. Different areas have different needs, geography, suitable meeting venues – and infection rates. Some may choose to alternate meetings between virtual and in-person, or have hybrid ones, or use virtual ones where there was a contentious issue, or when the weather was bad, or when key participants happened to be abroad or self-isolating. Let them decide. As WBC’s leader Lynne Doherty observed, “this does not support any talk of devolution if local government cannot be trusted to make its own decisions as to how to run meetings.” She added that her council will be “reviewing its options” over the coming weeks. Many others will be doing likewise.

• I had a quick look at The BBC website today to see if I could find its April Fool story and there it was on the main page: “The leader of the SNP has insisted her party was “not divided”. Great stuff, guys.

• The papers have again been full of the hapless David Cameron’s lobbying work on behalf of Greensill Capital. Attention is now focussing, including in The Guardian, not so much on when he was a non-exec of the company after he cut and ran in 2016, but on Lex Greensill’s relationship with DC when he was in office and the amount of influence he had over decision-making on issues which would, and briefly did, directly benefit the financier. As to what happened to the company, you’re asking the wrong person: but my brief appreciation is that its repackaging of debt into complex financial instruments that failed to produce the envisaged yields could have come straight out of The Big Short, the excellent though at times confusing film about the 2008 crash.

The BBC reports that Cameron stood to make about £60m from Greensill share options were things to have panned out as planned. I’m struggling to understand how anyone, even an ex-PM, could have contributed so much value to a company in less than five years and to be worth this kind of bonus. In his dreary memoirs, the name of which I’ve forgotten, DC said that he still had people shouting insults at him in the street years after his Brexit debacle. They’ve got something else to shout at him about now; as might others, depending on if enquiries are launched. One defence of his actions is that, certainly as regards his post-PM relationship, he abided by the rules about public-office-holders moving to lucrative corporate positions and that it’s the rules that are wrong. Fair enough – except that hapless DC was himself in power when the rules were last revised. It’s obviously too much to expect from human nature that any restrictions will be imposed when the person in charge of deciding them will be one of the most immediate losers.

This excellent article in The Evening Standard by Natasha Mwansa considered whether “BAME” or any other acronym to define our culture or ethnicity is appropriate, a point that would have come up for everyone most recently when completing the census last weekend. One of the points she makes is that “grouping minorities together also implies a shared experience, which just isn’t the case.” “BAME” might, for instance, be appropriate when talking about people who are less likely to have a Covid jab but irrelevant when considering, say, economic power or representation among Premier League football clubs. For the UK today, this is a problem of our success at being a multi-racial, multi-cultural society (in some parts of the country more than others). This has led to most of us wanting, often out of a sense of politeness, to avoid any term that might be derogatory. This has got to be better than situation when I was growing up when terms of casual racism and misogyny were part of daily speech.

It’s also worth remembering that we are essentially tribal animals, pre-disposed to form social groups of up to whatever size can be sustained by the prevailing socio-political systems and technology from which strangers will be regarded with anything between suspicion and outright hostility. Current societal norms have suppressed the worst aspects of this but it’s still there: a part of all of us is a frightened animal in its burrow, snarling and snapping at anything different that seems likely to threaten our survival (and we have survived, so justifying the reaction). Ultimately, we’re just chimps with a thesaurus.

Looked at in this light, I think we’ve come quite a long way: at least now we’re trying to avoid snarling and snapping even if, in so doing, we’re creating confusions and generalisations. These are only of immediate and specific use but continue until some other different general definition or grouping comes along. The reptilian and atavistic part of our brains tells us to distrust PeWDoLLMes – People Who Don’t Look Like Me. (I doubt this acronym will catch on.) Also, different cultures do things in different ways. This is generally great and what multi-culturalism is all about. There’s always going to be tension between accepting that in some ways we’re all the same while recognising that in others we’re very different. Language constantly has to adapt to reflect this. The fact that ours does is a good sign. Keeping up to date with the changes, of course, is another matter.

• I haven’t had the chance to more than skim-watch this recent Panorama programme about the problems in a Covid testing lab but an academic friend of mine who’s been involved in the pandemic response, and whose views have been borne out by events at every turn, has told me that his colleagues have judged it to be fair and accurate. It also contains, at about 12′ 35″, a fairly withering assessment from Sir John Oldham, a health expert who’s worked for five governments, on the folly of trying to create a new test, track and trace system when better, quicker and faster results could have been had from expanding the underfunded but still functional local networks. Many others have suggested this too.

• Any enquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic – which will be conducted among the scribbling and chattering and tweeting classes even if there’s nothing official – is likely to centre on two things: the extent to which such a threat could have been anticipated; and whether public money could have been spent more wisely, in particular with the way procurement was organised. There was a certain amount of official dithering but I accept that politicians are prey to a wide range of considerations and, with Covid, the advice of scientists and of economists would often have been in stark opposition to each other and that a multitude of considerations have to be balanced. My advice would be “prepare and devolve”, and fund accordingly. Unfortunately, these tend to go against the Westminster’s instincts not to spend money on things that don’t have an election-cycle benefit and not to give power to local organisations despite their being often better equipped to deal with, as the parlance goes, real-world problems. If this attitude doesn’t change, expect similar problems when the next pandemic arrives.

Home Covid testing kits are becoming more widely available but doubts have been cast on how accurate they are. This article in the BMJ suggests that, as one would expect, the accuracy of the similar lateral flow tests depends on the experience of the person administering them. If the home kits are at all similar, the moral is to follow the instructions carefully.

• A system of vaccine passports has been proposed to decide if people should be allowed into pubs and restaurants. Some MPs, including Newbury’s Laura Farris, have suggested that the idea is welcome but that it should be left to businesses to enforce. This seems to be a recipe for chaos. If organisations can decide  whether it insists on them or not it can presumably change its mind half way through the evening with the result that the environment will be a lot less safe than people might think. It seems that they will in due course be required for international travel, a world already so dominated by forms and procedures that one more will probably make no difference to the whole ghastly experience. Going for a pint, however, is something that we’re used to doing without formalities. Perhaps this is what Keir Starmer meant when he said he felt the idea was “un-British”; although what that means these days is anyone’s guess…

Thursday March 25 2021

• The Sunday Times on 21 March led with a story about the extraordinary constitutional elephant that is the House of Lords. With 800-odd members, only China has a larger legislative assembly. Britain’s upper house can only accommodate about 400 in its chamber so the organisation can only function at all because of the persistent absenteeism of about half its members. Oddest of all, 85 of these are hereditary peers, survivals of a partial cull in 1999. They top themselves up when one dies (virtually no crime is horrible enough to sanction their forced removal – though they can resign – so this is the main method of winnowing) with a system of by-elections that even the Papacy would probably reject as lacking inclusiveness. Their average age, The Sunday Times reports, is 71. All are male and white, Nearly half went to Eton. Most are significant landowners. None these things necessarily make them bad people (we’ll pass over matters such as how much they claim in expenses and how reluctant they are to ask questions, make speeches, vote or sit on committees) but it hardly makes them accurate representatives of 21st-century Britain.

In a way, this criticism is beside the point as the House of Lords has never claimed to be representative. Certainly none of its other members are representative either, except perhaps of the interests that they espouse. A look at the current roster shows that most of the life peers, who make up the majority, are former MPs: they would have been representative when in the Commons but can hardly been so now they’ve left. There are also several former diplomats and a fair smattering of people from the worlds of business, charity, academia, the civil service and the arts as well as others from more diverse backgrounds including a former TV presenter, a former dentist and a former England cricket captain. There are also 24 bishops and two archbishops; though what they’re doing in a legislative chamber is anyone’s guess.

So, we’re talking here about an organisation that represents not so much the people – the Commons has that mundane responsibility – as a state of mind; a Britain in which the local squire (often also the MP), abetted by the local priest, is paternalistic and, within his locality, something between influential and omnipotent. The right upbringing and the right school automatically produce the right stuff. Extensive land-ownership is further proof of a divine unction which confers the right – indeed, the obligation – to exert an influence on national life. The longer the anachronism has continued, the harder it is to shake off the idea that it’s perhaps for own good and that his hotch-potch of aristocrats, prelates and superannuated politicians do indeed present the best way of expressing and realising our own fumbling aspirations. It’s hallowed by time and in a mad way logical once you’ve accepted the idea of a hereditary monarchy (which many do). It certainly retains some resonance: look at how many of us (myself included) watched Downton Abbey.

Viewed in this light, it’s perhaps easier to see why reform has proved impossible. Various attempts have been made but each has foundered on a mixture of filibustering, political inertia and, most importantly, the lack of any clear and widely acceptable idea of what the new model would look like. The idea of electing all the members, hardly novel, probably terrifies the large parties as this would revive the idea of proportional representation. Appointment – justified on the grounds of making the peers above the short-term vulgarity of election concerns – is too valuable a political tool for any government to relinquish (it does have some merit, assuming we could agree who should appoint them and for how long). Inheritance is now apparently no longer good enough for the whole house but it is for about 10%, which on its own shows how muddled the thinking has become. All in all, leaving things largely as they are seems by far the easiest way out.

The argument that the House of Lords is valuable in calming over-exuberance by the government or the Commons is specious. Armed with the powers it has, any group of people – fishmongers, say, former contestants on Mastermind or people chosen at random from those with a “P” in their surname – might have fared just as well. Any increase in democracy might also demand an increase in powers, the last thing most members of the Commons want. On a scale of burning national issues it probably doesn’t test that high either. The situation is thus on which neither the two main parties, nor the House of Commons generally nor the House of Lords itself can see any benefit in change while most of the population is indifferent: not a promising recipe for reform. One slow-burning plan is to stop the by-elections for hereditary peers so causing them to wither away. However, there are several current ones in their 40s and 50s who could last some time yet. 23 have been members for 40 or more years, eight for 50 or more and one, Lord Denham, for over 70: longevity, in the convivial and subsidised surrounding of the Upper House, is clearly yet another barrier to reform.

An argument against changing the monarchy is that there is a certain magic of ceremony, tradition and continuity that many people can approve of, or at least accept, in preference to the political implications of a presidency. The hereditary peers in the Lords perhaps believe that they bask in the reflection of this. It’s certainly a potent reminder of the House’s, and our own, history, when the monarch dealt out patronage to his supporters in the form of titles. The vestiges of this still survive: a new type of patronage, from the political parties, has grown up alongside it. Whether any of this is tinged with any magic, apart from in the eyes of the grateful recipients, is another matter.

• The Sunday Times, and many other papers, also reports on the hapless David Cameron’s lobbying efforts on behalf of Greensill Capital, a company which recenty failed, taking with it what the ST describes as “up to tens of millions of share options” for the former PM. His attempts to get the government to be flexible about its own rules included several (unanswered) texts to Chancellor Rishi Sunak. Earlier this week, The Guardian reported that the Conservative-dominated Treasury Select Committee had declined to launch an enquiry into the affair. At the very least, this has to go down as yet another staggering misjudgement on his part.

• There’s been a lot of publicity about the conflict following the Kill the Bill (not the happiest choice of name) demonstrations and their aftermath in Bristol last weekend. I don’t accept that what happened there weakens the case against, nor – as the Mayor of Bristol suggested – strengthens the case for the bill. Aspects of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill are very disturbing and are, in time-honoured fashion, an attempt to suppress the results of grievances rather than address their causes.

• Another bill which is be looked at (or re-looked at) is the March 2020 Coronavirus Act which gave the government wide-ranging powers, the provisions of which need to re-confirmed every six months. The debate will provide an opportunity for every politician from libertarians to centralisers to have their say. It’s certainly a complex issue as some provisions have worked better (or were better drafted) than others, while some are now less relevant. I mentioned last week about the lunacy, from both a public-health and a local-democracy point of view, of insisting that local council meetings must revert to taking place in person from 7 May. It should be left to them to decide. Hopefully the MPs will agree.

• Once again, I have confess to finding the convolutions in the Scottish political crisis utterly beyond me. The BBC reports that the handling of the harassment proceedings against Alex Salmond (of which he was acquitted) were, an enquiry found, “seriously flawed” but that FM Nicola Sturgeon’s role didn’t breach the ministerial code. Both the main participants seem thus to be not guilty but they’re still at it hammer and tongs, with Salmond preparing a fresh round of legal challenges. One theory is that the whole thing is being stoked up by the union-supporting English press to prove that Scotland is not fit to run its own affairs as an independent state. If so, the UK as a whole wouldn’t fare much better. Home Secretary Priti Patel broke the ministerial code with impunity in 2020; Unlock Democracy cites four other unpunished breaches in the late 2020s; while Open Democracy claims that the PM is also guilty over the handling of the infamous Downing Street refurbishments and the related donations.

• A strange announcement, which might have something to do with Whitehall’s fear of IndyRef#3, was recently made by the government; that the Union flag should be flown on UK Government buildings every day. This will presumably apply to the various central government offices in Scotland, of which there will soon be more. Unless compelled to do so by law I shall not fly a Union flag from anything I own. Having grown up where and when I did, I associate it, when seen in this country, with the National Front (which cunningly appropriated it).

• Which extremism leads me to a story a friend told me today about Jihyun Park, a North Korean defector now resident in Manchester, who’s standing a local Conservative councillor. This represents, as she stresses, a profound change in her fortunes from the appalling things she witnessed when growing up. One of the prohibitions there was against smiling or laughing, lest the police be informed and ask what the joke was about. She told The Sunday Times that “people who live in countries which enjoy freedom take little [not so little] things like this for granted.”

I agree. I hope I laugh no less than the average person and don’t expect to have to explain it to a policeman. However, I don’t know whom I should thank for this. As the fashion of the time seems to be for governments to apologise for past errors of judgement, it follows that they might also claim the credit for good things. Perhaps in our case and in France, Sweden, Germany, Argentina and elsewhere some credit is due. But how much? To accept that you need to thank a government for granting you a right also assumes that it has the power to take it away. Few phrases in the English language are more sonorous that the preamble to the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed…with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Few have, of course, proved to be as empty, at least until the Civil Rights legislation nearly two centuries later; and, as recent events have proved, perhaps to this day. The sad fact is – and I see now that this has been the theme of all the paragraphs above – that if we feel we have a power over someone we tend to exploit or extend it. Perhaps the best that any government can accomplish is to limit our baser instincts. That being the case, I’d accept the House of Lords over the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea any day of the week: which kind of brings me back to where I started…

Thursday 18 March 2021

• 7 May 2021 might not be a date that’s fixed in most people’s minds but for the 100,000-plus local councillors and officers it’s the day when, as matters stand under the emergency Covid regulation, council meetings can no longer be conducted virtually (specifically, that votes cannot be taken remotely). Everyone I know has grumbled about Zoom from time to time. The alternative reality, however, is to drive perhaps quite long distances to spend two hours in a building that’s either draughty or overheated (some village and town halls manage to be both at the same time) for a meeting perhaps only a small part of which is of direct relevance to you and which runs the real risk of turning into a local super-spreader event. It seemed inconceivable that, with daily cases seemingly nationally stuck at about the 5,000 a day mark – indeed rising in some areas – and with the roadmap not proposing anything like a return to normality until late June, the regulations would not be extended. I learned on Wednesday that this was not the case.

Alerted by a Town Clerk, I sent off a few emails including to the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). A prompt reply kicked off with attempt to put me straight onto the back foot, pointing out that “current lockdown rules and council meeting regulations do not prevent face-to-face council meetings so long as the relevant Covid-19 guidance is followed.” The fact that no council that I’m aware of has held an in-person meeting these last 12 months shows that none of them feel they can follow this advice. Town and village halls have not in general been converted to hold meetings with screens and the like. It’s hard to see what’s magically going to change on 7 May to make these precautions unnecessary. The statement went on to say that “we have received representations from local authorities and sector representative organisations making the case for the continuation of remote meetings beyond 7 May 2021 and are carefully considering next steps in this area.” I pressed the spokesperson for further information, including the rationale behind forcing councils to revert to face-to-face meetings during what we’re being reminded remains a dangerous time in the pandemic and whether councils would get any financial help to make their premises safe, but was met with a “sorry, we cannot comment further at this stage.”

I then spoke to West Berkshire Council’s Leader, Lynne Doherty. “We have asked that a solution be put forward to enable remote and hybrid meetings to continue,” she told me. “This would need to be a separate piece of legislation not attached to the host of emergency measures that the Covid regulations brought in.” I’m no legal expert, but this statement from Local Government Lawyer suggests this might not be the case and that something simpler will do the job. “MHCLG has told us it’s working on this,” Lynne Doherty added. “I’m waiting to see if a solution is in place by May. I’m assured it is high up on their agenda. However, not everybody supports this.”

Fair enough on the last point: some want virtual meetings, some don’t. There are compromises that can be made here as well. Hybrid meetings are possible. So too is alternating them, perhaps with face-to-face meetings resuming when everyone’s comfortable and circumstances permit and having a mixture thereafter. Zoom meetings might, for example, be more popular in the winter. For as long as Covid remains with us, there might be times when councils in certain area need to set a good example and revert back to virtual meetings for a time. All these matters, however, should be for local councils to decide, not for central government to impose.

Central government’s record in dealing with the pandemic has been mixed. Many would say that it was been at its best when, as with the vaccine roll-out or the local test and trace, it devolved responsibilities to organisations that had the nimbleness or local knowledge to execute them; and at its worst when, as with PPE procurement and the national test and trace system, it attempted to impose a top-down and one-size-fits-all solution in a hurry. Local councils have proved to be supremely responsible and responsive and should be able to conduct their meetings in whatever way they choose (within, obviously, certain broad limits). If the current non-extension of the regulations is persisted with it will be a hugely retrograde step.

• It’s impossible, really, to understand the mindset of a man like Piers Morgan. His outburst about the Meghan business was, he claimed, vindicated by popular approval and so OK. (Mind you, he tried this stunt on Have I Got News for You about a decade ago when he was foolish enough to demand an impromptu audience vote into the respective popularity of, on the one hand, himself and, on the other, of long-time contestants Ian Hislop and Clive Anderson, resulting in a toe-curlingly embarrassing conclusion.) His recent outburst rapidly became conflated with the mental-health problems that Meghan had, apparently, discussed in The Interview. He was thus accused of belittling that issue, rather than merely the woman herself. Anyway, he loves this sort of stuff so I don’t know why I’m wasting my time or yours in writing about it. It might, however, be worth reflecting on the possibility that every society gets not only the rulers but also the talk-show hosts it deserves.

• As for the Duchess herself, one question that seems to have got lost is what exactly her problem is. She married a member of the notoriously dysfunctional and highly regulated British royal family. With several movies and a blockbuster TV series covering this subject, to say nothing of her husband’s experiences, it’s hard to believe she didn’t know what she was letting herself in for. One complaint, about her lack of induction – I’m paraphrasing as I haven’t seen it, just relying on an eye-witness report – smacks of an office worker who, three years into the job, is still moaning that she wasn’t told where her locker was on day one. Then we have the old spectre of sleazy journalism rearing its head again. In a way it’s great that we all have enough mental head-space to discuss such issues at such length in the middle of a pandemic. People like Piers Morgan and Meghan Markle and their spat (which appears to date back to some personal slight he felt he suffered at her hands) really mean nothing at the moment. If Meghan is prepared to address mental-heath issues, and if I had to choose, then she gets my vote. But enough of them: let’s move on.

• I can’t begin to work out what the EU, or its major governments, were up to with this vaccine hold-up. I’m not a doctor or a scientist, or anything in particular, but I’ve not seen any evidence that the incidence of blood clots is significantly higher among vaccinated people than the non-jabbed. Several sources, including Politico, quote the EU regulator as saying Ox-AZ is safe. Indeed, this article in Phastar suggests that rate is lower than might be expected, in which case an equally could case could be made for the fact that a dose of Ox-AZ actually reduces your risk. As of 18 March, it seems it’s all OK again. A scientific friend suggested that “there is some basis for pausing things while they do a couple of autopsies”: but this was an almost continent-wide pause of a vaccination programme for about a week. He also suggested that there’s evidence Covid itself can cause clots, so the cases could be the result of asymptomatic people being inoculated and suffering from the pre-existing disease rather than the cure.

The reaction also seemed to ignore the useful precept of the perfect being the enemy of the good. Any major decision is usually reduced to choosing between a number of maximum downsides and choosing the least bad, often quite quickly. By any estimation, continuing vaccination was less risky than stopping it. In any case, if Europe needed a guinea pig then look no further than the UK. According to Our World in Data, we have so far provided more vaccines than has Germany, France, Belgium, Spain and Portugal combined. If there are people keeling over from blood clots then I’ve not read anything about it.

• Another possibility is that the EU ran out of vaccines and was seeking to disguise this fact by claiming they’re not safe. There certainly seems to be a problem with the supply in the UK at present, with the government announcing this week that systems wouldn’t accept any more bookings in April (although appointments already booked should still go ahead). Problems in India are being blamed for this, proving how interdependent we all are. There are also all kinds of arguments about exports being stopped in various directions which I find very hard to follow. The export problem that briefly threatened the UK was in January, a spat which risked ripping up the Irish border arrangements barely a month after they’d some into force. The most recent Private Eye also suggests, on p8, that the EU has released a stream of misleading and easily-disprovable claims about its performance. It doesn’t seem great look for the EU at present and plays into the hands of those that claim (as many did in 2016) that it’s leaden-footed and overly process-driven. The whole thing is rendered doubly obscure by the fact that the EU didn’t seem to want what President Macron described as a “quasi-ineffective” vaccine anyway.

• Opinions differ as to how well the UK government has responded to the pandemic. Some have claimed that this shouldn’t be discussed now. This seems dangerous, like not suggesting to one’s driver that he’s going at 100mph on the wrong side of the road merely because this might disturb his concentration. Dominic Cummings – who admittedly has an axe to grind and whose own judgement has been found wanting at times –  recently laid into the “smoking ruin” of the Department of Health. On 15 March, meanwhile, The Daily Telegraph claimed that “close allies” of the PM have admitted the the lockdown delay was “a lethal mistake,” the article partly exonerating BJ himself by saying that his initial assessments almost exactly a year ago were based on “out-of-date projections supplied by government departments.” The article goes on to predict that “he knows he will eventually have to confront the question of why the UK has suffered the highest death toll in Europe and the fifth highest in the world.” In his defence, part of this can perhaps be blamed on our travel patterns (skiing holidays) and the fact that, unlike in many other countries, the infections seemed to have been introduced early on into the capital city from where they spread before anyone really knew what was happening. There is also a strong case for the prosecution, Private Eye’s excellent MD column having on several occasions cited a chronic under-investment in public health services and worryingly high levels of obesity (a theme the BBC also explores), which appears to be associated with Covid mortality. Politics is, of course, the art of blending several widely differing and often mutually incompatible ingredients into a palatable confection. Many governments did worse, many better. Our aspiration, however, was often stated that we would be “world beating:” so it’s against this kind of claim that any measure of performance will be judged.

The day of reckoning will probably take the official form of public enquiries whose findings will not be reported, still less implemented, before the next election. If the reaction is anything like that to the Cygnus exercise in 2016 – which war-gamed the effect of a very similar pandemic – little will change. We are quite simple organisms in a complex world. Even the part of it we have created is now largely beyond our ability to understand. All we can do is focus on the most immediate threat, whatever it happens to be. For some this is an imminent shareholders’ meeting or a general election, in which case all you need to do is to get over the next line with your power-base still intact. So, you might think, do the world’s dictatorships such as China, who don’t have these petty considerations to worry about, represent our salvation? I don’t see that either. The Covid crisis has, as have previous ones like global wars, brought both the worst and the worst out of us. The hope is always that the good can be learned from and the bad left behind. This never quite seems to happen. As so often, Shakespeare nailed it when he had Mark Anthony say in Julius Caesar that “the evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interrèd in their bones.” Particularly with the climate-change battle so far yet largely un-fought, it’s hard to escape the image of our species playing a series of ruinously risky poker hands with a rapidly diminishing supply of chips.

• Speaking of which, I have my vices but gambling isn’t one of them. I used regularly to play poker with friends but for moderate stakes and have only once bet on a horse (which, without knowing what I was doing, won me £400 in the early 1980s). I was none the less touched by this story of Patrick Foster who managed to pull his life back from the very brink to which it had been taken by a five-star gambling problem. What got me about it was not only the idea that, once you’ve committed one deception, further ones are easier; but also that the rush of a huge win is increasingly what you need and that any action can be justified if you believe, as he did, that the big one is just around the corner.

I mention this not so much because I have any strongly moral views about gambling but because it seems to describe exactly the way in which politicians operate. Enoch Powell remarked that “all political careers end in failure.” Politics is full of emotion and the problems of legacy: in the 20th century only Atlee and perhaps Thatcher can claim to have had their legacy survive for any decent length of time. The profits of gambling can be measured more empirically. Most people, however, look at it emotionally, writing off the losses to bad luck and claiming every win to skill. That’s certainly what I did in my poker days. So too do our leaders. With a plausible manner, it’s an easy defence against almost any accusation; and so one that’s worth guarding against when we hear it.

• There’s been a government announcement recently about a “realignment” or some other word of Britain’s defence priorities. This article on the BBC website has an eye-catching chart about the number of nuclear warheads the “top” nine countries have. Russia has 6,372. The only reason for this seems to be because the USA has 5,800. Someone with two or three, assuming they work, would seem to be in almost a powerful position as these two.

• I lived on the edge of Clapham Common for ten years and often walked across it at night – not an experience for the faint-hearted, as my then partner once discovered – and so found myself particularly touched by the story of Sarah Everard’s murder. That she should, allegedly, have been killed by a serving police officer made the whole thing a hundred times worse, as these are people most of us try to teach our children to trust. The debacle of the vigil and the police response – admittedly in difficult circumstances due to the pandemic – didn’t make things any better. Then there was the story of another officer who, according to many sources including The Guardian, was suspended for “sending an offensive graphic to colleagues on a WhatsApp group.” The whole combined catastrophe has set the fragile reputation of the Met back about ten years, particularly amongst women. Every aspect of this, but particularly thoughts about her and her family, makes me feel very depressed.

• This week also saw the passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. This appears to be in places a pernicious and potentially draconian piece of legislation that, amongst its many provisions, will place limits on the right to protest. (It also appears to regard statues as more deserving of legal protection than women: toppling one of the former will carry a Myanmar-style sentence of up to 10 years: the tariff for rape starts at five.) Home Secretaries seem to feel that giving the police more powers is the solution to everything. A number of issues, ranging from female emancipation to the declaration of the climate emergency, were brought to the public attention by protests. In general, people don’t protest because they have nothing better to do: they do so because they feel some aspect of society is broken, including perhaps the democratic process which would be the ideal way of addressing it. History has shown us that the more a government legislates to suppress or limit such actions, the less intention or ability it has to address the issues that lead to people feeling they need to protest in the first place. Such measures may preserve a political career or help win a general election but they are ultimately self-defeating.

• On Sunday 21 March, we all need to sit down for 10 minutes and complete our census form. Back in the day this would have been executed by an army of officials with forms and clipboards (probably getting a lot of grief in the process): now, of course, most of us will do it online. The main beneficiaries of this, or so it often seems, are genealogists in 100 years time when the detailed results are released. Between now and then the government will use to inform whatever it is that they estimate – you know, this and that. If you don’t complete it you could be fined £1,000. A Freedom of Information Act request in late 2011 revealed that, seven months after that year’s census a total of 14 people had been fined for not having done so (a figure that may since have risen a bit, of course). This suggests either an amazingly high compliance rate or very ineffective enforcement. Then, a week later, on Sunday 28 March, the clocks go forward an hour. It’s all go, isn’t it? The fine for not putting your clocks forward is also £1,000. No, it isn’t. Well, it might be by then: there could be a clause in the Police, Time (sorry, Crime), Sentencing and Courts Bill about that…

Thursday 11 March 2021

• I went to Ludgershall this week for my appointment with Dr Jab-Jab. As I mentioned last Thursday, I also seem to get lost when I go there and have the suspicion that it moves around slightly, never being in exactly the same place twice (Inkpen and Chaddleworth are, for me, the same). This time, however, it was where I was expecting to find it. Absolutely flawless organisation by all the people who run it the centre and I was in and out in 30 minutes. Half of this was spent waiting after the injection (I suppose just in case people keeled over, which no one did). There was a volunteer near where I was sitting who was directing each person out of the building using a phrase almost identical to Michael Palin in Life of Brian: “Out of the door, line on the left, one cross each…” I asked him how many times he said that each day. “Well,” he replied, “about 600 times on Sunday and about 400 so far today.” It had all been full-on, he explained, with people coming from a 30 or 40 mile radius. There was even one man, he said, who lived the other side of Swindon. There was a closer centre, but he told them that he’s been stuck indoors for so long that the longer trip was an active pleasure. The world has indeed changed when we regard driving from Swindon to Ludgershall to have an injection as being the nearest thing we’re likely to have to a holiday.

• With the novel idea in mind that I was actually on a jaunt, I crossed the road to buy a Mars Bar from the convenience store opposite the jab centre. The only other customer was an angry-looking and un-masked man of the kind I most particularly distrust, one who can neither keep still nor keep quiet. “There they are,” he muttered,  “coming out from having their jabs, grinning like idiots. Stupid…pointless…morons…government control.” He flubbered on like this for some time. Here, I realised, was a real vaccine denier strutting his stuff, not on social media or a video but in the flesh.

The shopkeeper was brilliant, nodding just enough to avoid annoyance but no so much as to offer encouragement. I had the impression this wasn’t the first time he’d had to listen to this: the man probably came in every day; and every day, the location of the vaccine centre opposite provided the perfect pretext for launching into his diatribe again. Two other people, masked, came in and viewed him with misgiving. “I tell you what,” he said to no one in particular, “I’m not going to have the bloody jab.” The Oxford-AZ running through my system answered for me. “Why not?” I asked. He swung round to face this unexpected challenge. “What’s the sense of an injection when you still get the disease? Stupid.” “Because,” I suggested, “if you do get it it’s going to be less severe and you’re less likely to infect anyone else.”

“Ah,” he said. “But I’ve got a plastic heart.” That confused me. I’d never heard the phrase before. Was it some kind of implant? Should I feel sorry for him? “I don’t give a damn,” he explained. “No one I know is going to have it either.” I wondered if they really believed this or whether they didn’t dare argue with him. He was indeed slightly alarming: a bit like a boxer before a big fight, fired up on whatever and constantly twitching from side to side as if evading imaginary blows. “It’s like the Nazis,” he explained disconcertingly as the shopkeeper gave him his change. “Make up something to scare us all so they can control us. No bloody way.” I decided to leave it at that. The shop was quite small and had a number of breakable items on the shelves. Even if the conversation were to remain rational it was clear we weren’t going to agree about this any time soon. Then he was gone, doing a noisy three-point turn outside and spraying up gravel behind him which pinged into the window. The unperturbed shopkeeper smiled at me. “He’s a bit aggressive today,” he said indulgently. “Let’s hope it’s not catching,” I replied. As I crossed the road I realised I was now more convinced than ever that by having the jab I was doing the right thing. I congratulated the volunteers on the door on how well everything had been run, finished my Mars Bar and went on my way rejoicing.

• There are clearly several reasons why people might not want a vaccine. There’s ample research that ethnicity is one, BAME people being markedly less likely to trust it, even if they work in the health or care sectors. It’s also clear that misleading information on social media, which is how a lot of people receive their unmoderated day-to-day data about the planet, is peculiarly potent. This article by Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian suggests another issue; that the biggest obstacle to a full roll-out is not those whose objections are based on culture or conspiracy but by the “vaccine hesitant”, typical examples of which she suggests as being “university-educated, broadsheet-reading women who pride themselves on doing their research and absolutely know their Jonathan Van-Tam from their Chris Whitty.” As our jab date draws closer, and as we fail to see millions of the vaccinated falling ill or going crazy, so the take-up rate seems to increase. It’s currently about 90% from among the first four age groups.

As with everything, how the question is asked will affect the response (Full Fact reports here on an ambiguous question which, on this occasion, seemed not to have given distorted results). So is who asks it. A libertarian with “a plastic heart” may be happy to tell a market researcher, his friends or a stranger in a shop why he won’t get vaxed but might find this harder to explain to his doctor.

One GP in Leicester recently put this to the test. The Sunday Telegraph on 7 March reports that Dr Imran Faroqi was so concerned about the low take-up of the vaccine from his patients, many of them fairly high-risk, in this city which has regularly topped the Covid infection rate tables that he and his staff decided to call 224 of the non-attenders in person. Nearly 60% of those contacted booked a jab at the end of the call and all bar a handful subsequently turned up on the appointed day. Whether they were genuinely convinced or slightly shamed I couldn’t say. Nor can I be sure if every GP surgery has the time personally to contact everyone in this way. This is important because – always on the assumption that the vaccine is both effective and safe, as all the evidence seems to suggest – we need to get to about 80 to 90% coverage for it to be truly effective. Anything much less and the operation risks being, if not a waste of time, then at least dangerously ineffective. It’s absolutely right that everyone should be prudent about taking such a step. Look at the evidence. If you’re still undecided, call the medical experts at your GP surgery – before they call you.

• Anyone glancing at the newspaper headlines this week would not be disturbed by such reflections as the only thing of any real importance would seem to be the spat between Meghan and Harry on one side and the rather unexpected alliance of the royal family and Piers Morgan on the other. I haven’t seen the interview with Ms Winfrey but I do remember Princess Di’s famous one in the 90s, in which she was made up to look like a trapped deer, and suspect it might have been a bit like that. I find it hard to believe that Meghan Markle didn’t have some idea of what she was letting herself in for when joining “the firm”. Princess Di’s allegations, which briefly convulsed the nation, were essentially personal and about her own right to self-expression. This one seems to have had both of those, as well as more troublesome accusations of bullying, racism and xenophobia. These the Palace’s PR machine seems utterly unable to combat, dignified silence being its default reaction to most of the many misfortunes to which the Queen’s family has subjected her over the last 40 years. A young multi-racial couple trying to break away from their shackles of their destiny could be, and has been, the plot of many a film or drama series. How apposite, therefore, that this should be largely be being acted out on our screens. I can understand people being confused between The Crown and the accusations being flung about on the news programmes. As Orwell memorably wrote at the end of Animal Farm, “the creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

• I’ve never met Prince Harry but I do have a medieval history degree and so would remind him that he’s lucky to be living in these times rather than in olden ones. There is a long tradition in our royal family of removing not only inconvenient kings (six of the 18 monarchs between 1066 and 1485 were killed by their subjects or close family members: before the Conquest, the attrition rate was even more shocking) but also inconvenient younger sons, brothers and nephews (including Arthur Duke of Brittany, George Duke of Clarence and Richard Duke of York, one of the Princes in the Tower). Harry’s a duke, too, of course.

• So the kids are back at school but already there seems to be a bit of a kerfuffle about the lateral flow tests. These were known to produce a number of false negatives but it now appears (certainly from this week’s Newbury Weekly News) that they can give false positives as well (which cannot then be overturned by the more reliable PCR tests), so resulting in the entire family needing to self-isolate. A test that can err both ways is starting to look unreliable. If the results aren’t trusted, it also undermines public confidence in the government’s other Covid policies. Children don’t have to be tested but it is strongly encouraged: any doubt about the accuracy is going to reduce the take up. This statement from the government claims that the tests are highly effective; this article on the BBC website suggests the opposite and claims that the problems are “ruining the return to school.” Two possible explanations may be that the that the testing kits are defective or that tests on children are more prone to error. For those of you of a statistical turn of mind, this statement from the Royal Statistical Society has some detailed analysis of some of the data so far as well as (on the first) page some suggestions as to how the system can be improved and describes the “golden opportunity” it presents for conducting valuable research into the roll out itself. For parents and pupils, however, it seems that one set of frustrations and uncertainties has been replaced by another.

I spoke to Richard Hawthorne, Head Teacher of John O’Gaunt School in Hungerford about this. “The business of mass testing  under the ever-changing guidelines has presented huge logistical challenges,” he said. “The system isn’t perfect but it’s the best we have at the moment. Take-up at our school – and it seems at others throughout the area – has been very high. This is all being conducted by trained staff following the current guidelines. I’d urge parents and pupils to continue to come forward for these tests when offered as they provide the only way of spotting asymptomatic cases. If the government regulations change we shall, of course, be altering our procedures to match.”

• The government is to introduce a right to repair act this summer, the intention of which is to compel manufacturers to make some attempts to allow devices to be repaired rather than junked and upgraded, a business model on which many have them have relied for far too long. This is an example of the UK emulating EU law even though we don’t have to. (Perhaps this is a good side-effect of the tangled Ireland border issue – as that is for some practical purposes operating under EU laws, the best way Westminster can avoid creating problems with differing standards is to shadow EU regulations itself. This also makes it easier for UK goods to be exported there.) Even Apple started doing this in the US a8 months ago. For many years, repair cafés have been springing up all over the country where people with repairing skills could be presented with things that needed repair. We once had a toaster fixed in five minutes by one of those guys which had malfunctioned merely due to the failure of some tiny clip. We need more of this.

• The right to repair is already an important part of our democratic system in which awkward questions can be asked of, if not always answered by, our rulers. One piece of equipment which might need an overhaul is the government’s test and trace system which will cost an estimated £37bn (£22bn in 2020-21 and £15bn in 2021-22). This promised much in 2020 but The Guardian reported on 10 March that a recent report from the House of a Commons Public Accounts Committee “struggled to find evidence that [it] has made a significant difference in reducing transmission.” This and other articles also goes on to point out that local councils, those traditional Cinderellas, have been far more effective at dealing with the issue – they, after all, had a functioning (if badly underfunded) local public health system and knew every aspect of their area. (Another factor, which has perhaps been overlooked, is that the closer to a problem you are, the more likely it is that you’ll understand and fix it.)

Our area of West Berkshire has, I believe, performed very well, aided by the immediate responses of the 60-odd town and parish councils and the superb work done by the local volunteer organisations. One of these, the Hungerford Self-isolation Group, even managed to persuade GWR to change its timetables to enable more people to get the one of the district’s main vaccination centres near Newbury Racecourse station. I speak from personal experience. District, parish and town councillors, parish and town clerks and West Berkshire’s own officers have all responded to my perhaps often tiresome questions about various aspects of their reaction that needed explaining or publicising, often well into the evening. Many of these people are unpaid and most of their organisations are under-funded. So, what share of 2020-21’s £22bn have these local councils received directly to spend on the networks and services each controls?

A lot, you might think. It would seem not. The only evidence of any additional payment specifically for test and trace I could see was £300m allocated last summer. I felt sure it must be more than that so looked at the question the other way round. I asked Howard Woollaston, West Berkshire Council’s executive member responsible for public health, if he knew how much WBC had received for this purpose from Whitehall: many thanks to him and the officers for coming back to me so quickly. It appears that West Berkshire has had £3.5m for two projects, although one also includes wider public-health measures. As we’re dealing in round numbers, let’s assume £3m was for T&T. As West Berkshire has about 0.25% of the population of England and Wales, assuming the district was a typical recipient, 400 times this must have been distributed to councils across the two countries: about £1.2bn, slightly over 5% of the total so far. The rest, it would seem, is being drip-fed down through a central system that (unlike the local systems) didn’t exist in any recognisable shape a year ago and has not proved to be an efficient percolator. In some things, like the question of vaccine roll outs, a centralised approach has clearly worked. With test and trace it clearly hasn’t. To paraphrase the Serenity Prayer, “God grant our governments the confidence to devolve those things that they cannot do, the courage to do those things that they must do, and the wisdom to tell the difference between the two.”

• Meanwhile, if you decide to leave the country you could find yourself waiting up to six hours to be let back in again, certainly if your arrive at Heathrow. This is longer than many of the flights themselves, plus the check-in times. I’ve always loathed every single aspect of air travel, particularly since 9/11 when the regulations – many of which are doubtless necessary – have been implemented by some of the staff at the airports I’ve been forced to use with a zeal that has at times bordered on sadism. Al Gore once remarked that international travel is nature’s way of making you look like your passport photograph. Waiting to end the experience now seems to be at least as gruelling…

Thursday 4 March 2021

• I have no idea what’s going on in Scotland right now. The two main actors, Salmond and Sturgeon, are so strongly associated with Scottish independence and a general disinclination to trust anything coming from south of the border that I suspect it’s hard for many English people to feel any sympathy with either. The story originally was about our old friend sexual misconduct but has since turned into a highly detailed and forensic analysis of who said what to whom when and whether it was this meeting or at that one that person A was was first made aware of what person B said about person C. The regular parody of this in Private Eye, purported to be written by the excruciating poet William McGonagall, make about as much sense as anything else I’ve read on the subject. (The great thing about parodying McGonagall is that although you need to make the verses sort of rhyme, they don’t have to scan. Indeed, he seemed unaware of the existence of written rhythm and was certainly oblivious to the poor impression he was creating at any of his public performances.)

• Much the same thing could be said about West Berkshire Council this week. The recent (2 March) Full Council meeting, as well as being unedifying, seemed to represent a triumph of procedure over substance. You can see the full meeting here, all 3 hours 59 minutes of it – slightly shorter than Lord of the Rings – Return of the King and at times almost as combative. Towards the end the opposition parties walked out of the meeting in what WBC’s Leader Lynne Doherty described as “a theatrical argument over speeches.” Lib Dem Leader Lee Dillon saw this as rather being due to the opposition parties having “been denied their democratic right of debating their amendments”, so taking “the difficult decision to leave the chamber.” Carolyne Culver of the Green Party pointed out that “our respective budget amendments were lumped together rather than considered individually, making it easier for the Conservatives to find an excuse to oppose them en bloc.” The resulting confusion, bickering and eventual exodus must have left most observers dumbfounded. Anyone watching who was considering standing as a councillor would, I’d imagine, immediately have reconsidered this idea.

Each party would doubtless claim that their actions were correct. Much could be written on each individual disputed point of procedure, protocol, policy or precedent. I’m not the one to write this. My points are more general. On Wednesday I had conversations and/or email exchanges with 10 councillors – nearly a quarter of them – from all three parties. I haven’t watched the whole meeting (see link above) but have dipped in and out. I’m not and never have been and never will be a member of a political party and I hope my views would have been the same were the same events to have happened but with the current composition (Cons 24, LD 16, Green 3, Lab 0) shuffled so that another party was in the majority. Nor do I have any particular criticism of the budget itself. Even many of the opposition members I spoke to so said there were good things in it. That the discussion will turn on the nature of the meeting rather than its content supports the points I’m about to make. In many cases, these are criticisms of the system (or the perception of it) rather than of the people operating it. Bearing all that in mind, these were my reactions:

  • The earlier stages included congratulations between administration members about the merits of the schemes. They must have been mutually aware of them so this hardly constituted debate.
  • There is surely something wrong with a system which debates its budget, the most important annual item, in one meeting lasting a maximum of four hours at which the main course doesn’t start until about two thirds of the way through.
  • There is also something wrong with a system in which all opposition motions are, as appears to be the case, grouped together en bloc, to be approved (which will never happen) or rejected in their entirety. This undermines the process (or seems to to an outsider) and is also a waste of the time spent by officers and opposition member’ preparing amendments which may have had merit but which were never debated or even considered.
  • The results of the 2019 election (see above) weren’t an overwhelming mandate for any one party. Indeed, I think (but haven’t been able to check) that the votes for the other candidates combined exceeded those for the Conservatives. I accept that isn’t the way our electoral system works. However, the opposition members include people of some experience and many (including those who voted for them) might expect that their contributions would be of value.
  • No party has a monopoly of the truth any more than they do of the votes. In the two biggest settlements of Newbury and Thatcham, which contribute 19 of the 43 seats, the Lib Dems have 13 councillors, the Conservatives four and the Greens two. No rational person would suggest the Lib Dems have the right to dominate discussions which concern urban matters. You can slice the stats any way you like and get different results but the whole thing suggests to me that a little more inclusiveness might be useful in these difficult times. It’s not necessary to follow what Westminster does.
  • The procedural wrangles were, I think, beyond anyone’s power to understand. I have read or heard comments that each party stepped out of line at some point. These cancel out. The result, to an outsider – and apart from these 43 people, the other 160,000-odd of us are outsiders – was reminiscent of watching debates in the Commons during the maddest days of Brexit, or in Stormont during the maddest days of power sharing, or perhaps some obscure documentary about the election of a medieval cardinal. OK – I know some of 43 may say that that that’s the way it has to be and that on any one point you were right and the other lot was wrong. Most of us don’t care about that. I know you have to have rules and systems and processes but it must seem to many that the procedures were similar to driving a train through a series of red lights and being surprised at the result.
  • The current administration has been very successful in a number of areas, mainly its reaction to the pandemic. I’ve been really impressed by the answers I’ve had from members and officers, often quite late at night. Parish and town councils have also been brilliant. All in all, the local response has often exceeded that from Whitehall. Such things deserve to be celebrated. However, this now risks being lost in the perception that local politics is like last Tuesday night.

One solution might be something like West Berkshire Council’s old Financial Challenge Panel. This existed during the dark days of financial cuts under the previous (much more Conservative-dominated)  administration to get cross-party involvement in (and thus a wider sense of collective responsibility for) unpalatable service reductions, with members quizzing officers on the various cuts and their implications and ensuring the results were realised. Of course the party that wins (if we have to have parties at this level – another argument) is going to want to get its agenda through and will live or die at the ballot box by how well it’s seen as doing. However, at a local level, I think we should be less hung up on party affiliations are more focussed on what the area needs and how more people of different kinds can be attracted to join the council. A committee-based system is one  option worth looking at to accomplish this. A re-think is needed. Spin it how you like but, from where I’m sitting, this looked like a bad day.

• Aside from the other parties, other organisations need need to (or expect to be) consulted on the budget as well. One, UNISON, feels that it wasn’t and expresses itself “extremely concerned that the trade unions have been consulted so late in the process on this occasion.” You can read the full statement here.

• Moving on to the actual WBC budget itself, this was approved, increasing slightly from £130.22m in 2021-21 to £133m in 2021-22. Here is WBC’s official summary. The Council Tax increase is 1.99%, the maximum that can be raised without going to referendum (and extra 3% can be raised in any combination over a two-year period, but this would be ring-fenced for adult social care (ASC)). You might think that many councils would choose to take advantage of this: indeed, to a greater or lesser extent, all of the 340-odd in England so far have, bar five – Bury, Essex, Lincolnshire, Bournemouth, Poole & Christchurch and West Berkshire. There seems nothing obvious that these have in common, geographically or politically (there Cons, One Lab, one hung).

To be brutally macabre for a moment, a reduction in ASC requirements can be a result in the premature death of some of the recipients. That seems to be a factor in what happened in West Berkshire, with the ASC budget barely rising from £50.5m in 2020-21 to £50.9m in the financial year about to start and with a surplus left over from the one just ending. The two obvious possibilities for this fiscal reticence are that these five are (a) incredibly efficient or (b) incredibly optimistic, and have no fear that faulty modelling or unexpected events will cause an impossible dip into the reserves during 2021-22.

I put this point to Councillor Ross Mackinnon, Executive Portfolio Holder for Finance and Economic Development on 3 March. He explained that “we have decided (with a level of reserves comfortably in excess of the minimum recommended level) to leave that cash in the hands of our residents for the time being, until we really need it – hopefully we won’t. It would be wrong to take the maximum increase from residents in this year of all years just for the sake of it – far better to give our residents a break.” He also pointed out that, were WBC to need to take 3% extra for ASC next year it could duo so, whereas a council that had taken 3% this year could not.

None the less, the oddness of only (so far) five councils deciding to adopt this line is striking. What is it that these five places have in common? Like someone trying to solve a crossword clue, I can’t see it. Anyone got any suggestions for five down in this puzzle?

• It seems there was also another budget announced this week by a bloke called Rishi Sunak, whoever he is. You can read the official HMG summary here.

• Last week I asked some questions about questions, specifically West Berkshire Council’s way of handling these at Executive meetings. Council Leader Lynne Doherty (see here from 14’12”) suggested last month that the current system could do with being improved. Several people contacted me to say that they agreed with me: Lynne Doherty did so to say the opposite. Fair enough. She has pointed out that she and others “do not think the way questions are currently done is working in the best interests of our residents” and she would like to review this. She added that “at no point have I suggested that we will stop taking questions, indeed the very opposite: if you read our Communication & Engagement Strategy I am looking at how we actively involve more residents in this,” and that she “has no intention of limiting participation.” She also admitted that some people may be put off asking questions by the formality of the process (though some kind of structure and regulations are clearly needed). She went on the address the point I’d made that the sometimes repetitious questions were because people hadn’t had sufficiently good answers. While she conceded this might be one reason, she suggested it was also possible that “sometimes the answer given is not what the questioner wants to hear.” I’m happy to give her the opportunity to make these points.

She also said that her statement had been “grabbed and interpreted to fit a different narrative” and that she felt my piece last week “added to this misconception.” I had no particular narrative or pre-conceptions about this and merely reacted to what I’d heard said in the Executive meeting. My inferences seem reasonable even if, to paraphrase her remark above, they were not the ones she would have preferred me (or others) to draw. However, enough people appear to feel that there is, at the very least, the perception that certain issues have for too long remained unresolved which, in turn, are likely to lead to people drawing dark conclusions about suggestions that the way questions are asked about them be changed. For the boils of the London Road Industrial Estate and the football ground (the main subjects of the questions) to be lanced would clearly be a good thing. This would, of course leave one huge problem: how would the Editor of the Newbury Weekly News fill the empty spaces in the letters section each week if people stopped writing about these things?

• Now I must pull on my cape and leap to Lynne Doherty’s defence. A letter in this week’s NWN perplexingly and unfairly accuses her of looking like a Soviet-era Komissar” for being photographed in the paper the previous week, flanked by a couple of Covid marshals while – horror of horrors – wearing a mask during a global pandemic. The next step on this slippery slope, the writer tries to explain, is that we’ll be “reporting our neighbours for harbouring enemies of the state in their attic.” I think I need these two dots joining up for me as they are quite a long way apart. I can only imagine what the outcry would have been if she hadn’t worn a mask. Who’d be a politician, eh?

• And so to Mr Covid. The Brazilian strain is a “variant of concern” and seems, like others, to be more transmissible though not massively more dangerous. If so, this might be quite good news and shows that what we’ve been doing in terms of suppression is having some effect. Covid is now having to fight for its right to party. It also appears that concern is largely based on just one study done in Manaus in Brazil. This showed high re-infection rates although this could have been partly due to other factors. The jury still seems out on this one. Others variants will doubtless emerge (one has done so on 4 March): this may not be bad news either. Nor does there so far seem to be any evidence that the vaccines will be ineffective against any of them, though some might require a tweak.

• The MD column in the latest Private Eye has pointed out that vaccine scepticism seems to be being promoted by EU governments, some of the largest of which are suggesting that the Oxford-AZ jab shouldn’t be used for the elderly, or even those over 55, and that it’s “second class.” This appears to be contributing to some lamentably low vaccination rates – as of 2 March, the UK had vaccinated more people than had Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Belgium combined. Part of the problem seems to be the result of public reluctance to participate, with might well come from the top. It’s hard to see the point in the EU creating a huge fuss about the vaccines, as it did last month, while at the same time suggesting that one of them is rubbish. Make your minds up, guys.

• Last weeks Sunday Times provided a summary of the latest edition of Britain’s Health Index, published by the ONS and Lane Clark & Peacock. According to this, Wokingham is the healthiest area, Richmond-Upon-Thames has the healthiest eaters, Brent the happiest people, Cumbria the best air quality, Camden the least obesity and Bath & NE Somerset the highest levels of physical activity. If you’re in Blackpool, Luton, Haringey, Newham, Halton (Cheshire) or Wolverhampton then I’m afraid you’re at the bottom of these respective lists. In the overall health index, districts in Berkshire districts occupy four of the top six places. West Berkshire is also, after Brent, the happiest place. I wonder how these things are measured? I’m perfectly happy but no one ever asked me. Do the researchers just wander round a few town centres and see how many people are grinning wildly? There can be more than one reason for that, of course.

• Now that there seems to be a light at the end of the Covid tunnel, people’s minds are turning to what changes imposed by lockdown might survive it. One is the question of virtual meetings or learning through Zoom, Teams, Skype or whatever. These have, for many of us introduced a whole new raft of phrases to our vocabulary. “You’re on mute”, “I’m just going to share my screen”, “we’ve only got three minutes left”, “sssh darling, mummy’s having a meeting” and “ooh, what a lovely cat” are now an almost daily part of our lives – but are they here to stay?

Council meetings will be able to be conducted online after 7 May only if the government renews the regulations for another six months (which seems a nailed-on certainty). What will happen after that? The accusation is that such meetings exclude those who don’t use the web. While true, physical meetings exclude those who are forced to be in two places at once, have too far to travel or have with mobility problems. Inclusivity is also well served by people being able to participate in just the bit of the discussion that concerns them and then perhaps zooming to another one. Absenteeism has also plummeted. One Hungerford Town Councillor was in New Zealand for much of the first lockdown but – albeit looking slightly bleary eyed and, of course, being upside down – attended every monthly meeting. District councillors and local MPs can also participate to an extent impossible if they had to drive half way across the district just for a short but important piece of input. If you know people quite well you don’t really need to be in the same room as them: your mental image of them in the flesh will fill in any latency or poor lighting and disbelief can be suspended. For a journalist they’re often useful as you see all the participants face on, not possible in a physical setting. (If they’re recorded, so much the better. I remember watching a bit of a West Berkshire Council meeting last year at which one member made a very unexpected intervention. By replaying the section a few times I was able to clock exactly which other members raised their eyebrows in outrage or surprise. They were not all members of the opposing parties either, which tells its own little story.)

It must be a lot tougher at places like schools where holding the attention of 20 to 30 sometimes unwilling participants is a challenge at the best of times. The latest instalment of the monthly diary written by the Head of John O’Gaunt School in Hungerford suggests, however, that this enforced method of engagement is becoming more and more successful and that some aspects of remote communication such as for parents’ evenings and for some homework tasks might outline the pandemic. At least it now seems that most pupils have suitable digital devices, something that wasn’t the case nine months ago. This has been solved by a combination of government funding, support from local councils and the work of local community groups and volunteers, though not always in that order. At a higher level, a friend who’s a university lecturer has loathed the business of reducing his lectures to slides and text and can’t wait for the day when he can once again dispense his wisdom in person and adjust his delivery, and sometimes his content, to the reaction he’s receiving from his audience.

I don’t know how business has coped because I’ve had hardly any Zoom calls for this reason. I’m not sure I’d want to make a pitch to a team of strangers or defend a poor sales quarter to a grumpy board online: then again, I don’t much want to do these things in person either and fortunately for some time have not had to. Some jobs (and some homes; and some people) are better suited to remote working than others and several bosses have said that they can’t wait to get people back in the office again (this might in some cases be because they’ve got a 25-year lease on five stories in some prime location and need to have staff there to justify the expense).

There’s going to be a lot of picking and choosing from what we’ve been through but it seems certain that, now most of us have got the hang of it, Zoom and the rest ain’t going to go away. Whatever we organise meetings or events, some people are going to be included and some excluded. Sadly for those with no access to the web, they’re probably going to be the ones that will lose out. One thing HMG could usefully do is splash a bit of cash on getting the broadband network in a tip-top, dare I say “world beating” condition. Schools might also consider running lessons in Practical Zoom Etiquette, a skill which, along with Spotting Disinformation, is going to become more and more needed – particularly for people who amusingly digitally superimpose a picture of a cat on their face and then, when the time comes to make their big speech, realise that they don’t know how to turn it off…

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 misleading stories that the NHS is not over-loaded as dangerous myths: 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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