Weekly News with Brian 24 June to 1 July 2021

This Week with Brian

Due diligence, a scientific approach, that poor man, eco-Thatcher, Delta plus, the enemy of the good, media trust, Germany again, talking around a subject, bindweed, expenses claims, health and wellbeing, the bees and the bicycle, how to be a spy, solstice sunlight and all that you dream.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday).

Matters covered here include a plaque in Hungerford, a speeding in Froxfield, filtration in East Garston, Lambourn’s mobile jabs, decision day for Newbury’s café, Thatcham’s infrastructure, Burghfield’s closure, Wantage’s postal service, an interview in Marlborough, Compton’s plan, Swindon’s Oasis, Readibus, CIL payments, Eagle Quarter and a wildlife corridor  – plus our usual trip around the area’s websites and FB pages.

If there’s anything you’d like to see covered for your area or anything that you’d like to add to something that we’ve covered already, drop me a line at brian@pennypost.org.uk

Further afield

• I’m confused by this story on the BBC website which claims that Dominic Cummings in March 2020 tried to get a government grant pushed through with “no procurement, no lawyers, no meetings, no delay.” It eventually happened with, as the government claimed, due diligence having been followed, though it seems to have been a rather abbreviated form of it. [more below] 

Two things strike me. First, with “due diligence”, the clue’s in the phrase and I don’t see how this could have been followed if none of these things happened. Second, he recently pointed out a number of errors with the way the pandemic response had been organised, of which this kind of bullying and high-handed behaviour is surely a prime example. It seems that both Cummings and Hancock, two people whose relationship seems to have changed a bit since then, were involved in this. Is this one of the many things DC thinks the Health Secretary should have been sacked for?

As for the grant itself, this was to Our World in Data, which seems to me to be a very good resource and which needed £530,000 quickly. But so did a number of other organisations. Cummings might well have been right on this. He might have been wrong. At some point, an inquiry will look at this and a thousand other decisions, by which time we’ll all probably be dealing with another crisis. The best lesson we can perhaps draw from this is to plan ahead and on a timescale longer than a general election cycle, so reducing the need for hasty decisions which can later be claimed to have been improperly taken or wrong. We couldn’t have prepared for all the aspects of Covid but we certainly could have done for some. With climate change there is no such excuse.

• The MD column in the latest Private Eye makes the interesting point that scientists tend not to be attracted to politics because of the bluster and deceit: science is, the doctor claims, “the antithesis of politics” as it involves “sensible guessing with uncertain data, making and owning errors and learning from them in real time.” This seems a reasonable definition, though I’m sure others exist. The preferred fast-track route to senior public office in this country in a PPE degree from Oxford (Matt Hancock, to pick a name at random, is one such). The current PM studied Greats, which seems essentially to be what PPE would have been were it to have been offered in Athens in the third century BC.

I may be wrong and will happily retract this if you can tell me otherwise, but I think that there has only been one British PM with a science degree. Perhaps for this reason, this person was one of the first politicians to address the issue of climate change, including in these remarks to the Royal Society (as quoted in The Guardian): “For generations, we have assumed that the efforts of mankind would leave the fundamental equilibrium of the world’s systems and atmosphere stable. But it is possible that with all these enormous changes (population, agricultural, use of fossil fuels) concentrated into such a short period of time, we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself.” The date of this speech was 27 September 1988 and the Prime Minister was Margaret Thatcher: not, perhaps, the first name that springs to mind when thinking about such matters. Her war – no other word will really suffice – against the miners earlier in the decade was not fought on these grounds but is not now seen – in national terms though not by the communities which suffered – as the retrograde step that it was at the time.

This doesn’t suddenly make Thatcher a good Prime Minister in any or every way but it makes one think how she might have handled the pandemic. Indecision was not one of her failings and nor was an inability to understand scientific advice. A mendacious classicist who craves adulation and is more concerned with style than substance was never likely to do as well. Whether MD’s diagnosis is right, we could perhaps do with some more scientists in Westminster. There seems to be a good deal of ground to make up. A quick bit of research suggests that in 2015, a mere 26 MPs (4%) had science degrees, while in 2019 20% had studied, guess what, politics. Perhaps we need a quota system for MPs? Or – and this would be more useful – for the House of Lords. A decent number of computer scientists, engineers and physicists there would be a lot more use than the current dominance of elderly hereditary peers, loyal party members and political donors. The House of Lords is a deeply strange place, not least because it can be seen as less of a legislative chamber than a reward for wealth, long service or accidents of birth. Giving people who understand about how stuff – and I don’t mean the levers of power – works would be a huge step forward. So, it almost certainly won’t happen.

• Back on planet Covid (where we all live until further notice), another variant, currently known as Delta plus (which is the kind of mark I used to get at physics on a good day) has been identified in India. Time will tell if it gets accorded its own letter, this being (as our PM will be quick to tell you should you ask him) Epsilon.

• Meanwhile, the first in-person meeting between the Queen and the PM this week produced from the long-serving monarch a remark which might be termed political when she referred to Matt Hancock as that “poor man.” Any inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic will be simpler – sorry, that should read “slightly less complicated” – were there only to be one Health Secretary to interrogate. For that reason if no other, it seems better that he stays in post. Not a great time to hand over this portfolio in any case. Would you take it?

• One of the many questions which the eventual inquiry may well ask is why there was often a two- or three-week delay between scientific advice suggesting something and the necessary action being taken. Three possible reasons are that the government didn’t trust the data going into the models; that it didn’t have enough of a handle on the economic impacts of any measures; or that the PM found it difficult to make a decision. The problem with dealing with something that is increasing exponentially is that you have to act very quickly, which may not permit the luxury of waiting for verification of every link in the chain of assumptions. The perfect can very easily become the enemy of the good.

• The recurring football nightmare of a knock-out match against Germany has become a reality, this time in the last 16 of the Euros. They haven’t got the best team they’ve ever put on a pitch but they saw off the defending champions Portugal with great aplomb last weekend and, after all, they are…well, Germany. I’d much rather lose to them in the round of 16 than yet again in a major semi-final. As you can tell, I’m not optimistic about this. Wales have a very winnable match against Denmark, albeit in Amsterdam to which none of their supporters will be able to travel due to Covid restrictions. Scotland are out but have developed an absolute gem in Billy Gilmour.

• The BBC reports that trust in news coverage in the UK has increased during the pandemic, with over two-thirds claiming to trust most news most of the time, up from 28% at the start of 2020 but down from the 50% that held this view before the Brexit vote. If the PM complains that people are not trusting information from mainstream outlets staffed by journalists and relying instead on partisan sources which are generally not, he therefore only has himself to blame. Not surprisingly, these figures were far lower in the USA, particularly among those on the right. This might prove to be one of Trump’s more enduring legacies.

• At any one time there are probably a dozen words or phrases in common parlance, often by marketing and PR staff, which annoy the hell out of me. Many are designed to create the impression of a situation that’s better, more inclusive or more wide-ranging than it actually is. Some work better than others. One that suddenly seems to be everywhere is “having a conversation around” a subject. To talk “around” something is to avoid directly addressing it – why not use “discuss”?

• One of the great things about having a garden with endemic bindweed, as we do, is that during daylight hours between May and September you can never say you have nothing to do. We grow vegetables, fruit, flowers, all the usual stuff and most of them are dragged down by this bastard if you stop pulling it up for more than a few days. There was a time when it wasn’t here and now it’s everywhere. Perhaps we made a local enemy. Were I a nasty person, I could think of no more satisfying fulfilment of the fabled Sicilian proverb that “revenge is a dish best tasted cold” than secretly sowing bindweed seeds in an enemy’s garden. You might think I’m about to break into an observation about how this is an appropriate metaphor for something or other to do with power, political opportunism, espionage or the human condition. I’m not. As Freud said, sometimes in a dream, a cigar is just a cigar. Bindweed is just bindweed. I suppose the only lesson I can learn from it is that as long as I’m cursing about this then I don’t have anything more serious to worry about, which many others do. There, you see – there was a trite moral to the story after all…

Across the area

• The BBC reports that there were 102 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 14-20 June, up 23 on the week before. This equates to 64 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 67 (44 the week before). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

• West Berkshire Council has launched a six-week consultation into the draft Berkshire West Health and Wellbeing Strategy. See here for more details. This “aims to drive positive change to tackle the underlying causes of poor health and wellbeing across West Berkshire, Reading and Wokingham (the three local authorities within the Berkshire West Integrated Care Partnership).”  Councillor Graham Bridgman, WBC’s portfolio holder for Health and Wellbeing, told Penny Post earlier this week that addressing ACE – adverse childhood experiences – was a very important part of this. I agree: plentiful evidence suggests that a problem can be most easily be solved by addressing it early, which in the case of us humans is in the first few years of our lives. This is hugely sensitive, of course. One of the most useful things a local council can do is to intervene positively and sensitively in offering help and support to families which might need it.

• This week’s NWN looks (see pp1 and 5) at local MP Laura Farris’ expenses claims, one accusation being the £15,000 for renting a second home amounted to what one resident described as “taking taxpayers for a ride.” I’m no expert in the complex and divisive world of MP’s expenses claims but two things strike me about her defence to these accusations. The first reminds us all about the extraordinarily anti-social hours in which the Commons conducts its business which seems to be designed to prevent MPs from getting home if they don’t live in London. The second was that she said she took the decision to rent a flat in London in October 2020 when it seemed we were heading back to normality and that she “couldn’t have foreseen” that we w0uld be “plunged back into lockdown.” Looking back at the rise in infection stats at the end of last year, this surprises me.

• The vaccination centre at Newbury Racecourse, which opened on 13 January 2021, jabbed its last arm on 16 June. In all, it provided over 66,000 injections, slightly over half of these being the first dose. Well done to all involved in organising and staffing what appears to have been a very well-run operation. A spokesperson for WBC told Penny Post that, if you’ve haven’t had your second jab, it’s not too late as they are offered elsewhere. “We would encourage everybody to book in their second dose as we know it’s really important to give the best possible protection from the Delta variant of Covid. Anyone needing a second dose should call 119 or use the online national booking system. If a suitable local option isn’t available keep trying as more appointments are made available all the time.”

Click here for information about lateral flow tests available in West Berkshire.

• West Berkshire Council is supporting Drowning Prevention Week to educate residents about water safety.

• In the 2021 spring holiday, 15 primary schools took part in a new trial to provide children aged between five and 11 who receive free school meals with fun activities which also taught them how to keep fit and healthy. The Department for Education has given West Berkshire Council more funding to expand the Holiday and Food Activity (HAF) programme to a further 13 schools. In addition, there are plans for community activities for children aged 12 and over. More details here.

• And still with WBC, the Council has launched a new campaignRespect our Parks and Open Spaces.

• The West Berkshire Covid dashboard can be visited here.

• Click here for the latest news from West Berkshire Council.

Click here for the latest business newsletter from West Berkshire Council.

Click here for the latest residents’ newsletter from West Berkshire Council.

• West Berkshire, Vale of White Horse, Wiltshire and Swindon Councils have their own web pages relating to the outbreak. Click here as follows for the high-level links for West BerkshireVale of White HorseWiltshire and Swindon.

• See also the sections for Wantage, Marlborough and Swindon below for initiatives from Vale of White Course Council, Wiltshire Council and Swindon Council.

Click here to visit the website for West Berkshire Council’s Community Support Hub. You can also call 01635 503 579 to speak to the the Building Communities Together team. The Hub has also set up two FAQ pages, for residents and for businesses. You can also click here to sign up to receive the Hub’s e-bulletins and click here to see the weekly updates.

• You can click here to choose to receive all or any of West Berkshire Council’s e-newsletters.

• Click here for a post listing the various places which are offering a takeaway and/or delivery service. As with the volunteers’ post above, if you are aware of any others, let us know.

• The animals of the week are the bees that fell in love with a bicycle in Newbury this week (see the Newbury Area Weekly News section).

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes correspondence on the subjects of the Waterside Centre, St John Ambulance, buoyancy aids by the canal, abstraction from the Kennet, plastic, drainage in the LRIE and the location of Streatley.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support including: Sue Ryder Duchess of Kent Hospice (thanks to Kirsty Durley); Swindon’s Platform Project (thanks to the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Youth Fund); Wiltshire Treehouse (thanks to the Wiltshire Community Foundation’s Coronavirus Response and Recovery Fund); Parkinson’s UK (thanks to the Evans family); Dementia UK (thanks to Asa Oldring); numerous local charities (thanks to Greenham Trust).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So here we jazz-funk-rock up to the Song of the Week. The great Little Feat again, as I’ve decided that I’ve once again fallen head-over-heels in love with Lowell George, or at least with his voice and slide-guitar playing. So, do please check out All That You Dream.

• So it’s time for the Comedy Sketch of the Week. Do you want to be a spy? This Big Train sketch (called, conveniently, How to be a Spy), has some useful tips.

• And we come to land with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: The summer solstice was on 21 June. How many hours and minutes of sunlight were there in Greenwich that day? Last week’s question was: Who is the only person to have directed both his father and his daughter to an Oscar-winning performance? The answer is John Huston, his father Walter (in The Treasure of Sierra Madre) and his daughter Anjelica (in Prizzi’s Honor) being the beneficiaries of his considerable skill.

For weekly news sections for Lambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Theale area; Wantage area; Swindon area please click on the appropriate link.

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Covering: Hungerford, Marlborough, Wantage,   Lambourn, Newbury, Thatcham & Theale