Weekly News with Brian 22-29 July 2021

This Week with Brian

This week, Brian discusses too many words, the pingdemic, common politeness, underwater judo, an Irish doughnut, corporate bullying, Kelvin conversion, a revenge tour, Lord Acton, Scott Fitzgerald, Jurassic creatures, green waste, dim architects, 20 times fewer, 2%, 13 a quarter, 4004BC and living in Europe.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday) including the Newbury Showground campaign, a new CEO, garden-waste issues, Garstonbury,  WBC’s Library Service, Hungerford’s repairs, Lambourn’s jabs, Kintbury’s call-in, Shefford’s drainage, Newbury’s non-retro-fitting, Thatcham’s masterplan, Compton’s radioactivity, Stratfield Mortimer’s pause, Wantage’s link, Marlborough’s skies, Bedwyn’s quota and Swindon’s gallery – plus our usual excursion around the various parish council websites and local 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

• 2020 might have been a completely rubbish year in so many ways but it was a bumper one for the English language. The OED normally picks one word of the year: 2017’s was “youthquake”, 2018’s “toxic” and 2019’s “climate emergency” (which looks like two words from where I’m sitting but the OED knows best).

[more below] 

2020, however, defied all attempts at a single winner. “Covid”, “lockdown”, “unmute”, “R number”, “key workers”, “face masks” and “remote” were all fighting for the lexicographers’ attention according to The Guardian, as were non-Covid (see what I mean?) terms like “Black Lives Matter”, “impeachment” and “mail-in.” The last two are mainly from across the pond and have now, mercifully, been pretty much forgotten by all but the 40% of Republicans who believe the 2020 election was fraudulent. “Stop the steal”, “every vote matters” and “we’re going to be holding a press conference in a car park next to sex shop” might be other words or phrases out of that particular box. However, if we start listing all the strange terms favoured by the American right then we really are going to be here all day.

• A word that will surely find its place in the 2021 list is pingdemic, by which people who may have come into contact with an infected person are “pinged” by the NHS app and told to self-isolate for 10 days. i claims that more than half a million people received the ping in week up to 7 July. Euro 2020 and the re-opening of the pubs were probably largely responsible. To get a ping, you need two people with the app, one of whom tests positive after the meeting. As about half the population have the app, the chances of this being detected are 25%. Furthermore, only about 6% of contacts result in infection, so these half a million pings probably equate to about 30,000 cases. The actual number of cases is thus probably about four times this, so about 120,000, or 2% of the population.

Of course, this probably matters less than it did. While Covid cases are at about the same level as they were in early February, the number of deaths is about 20 times lower. Back then, virtually no one had been double-jabbed: now about 36 million people in the UK have been, about 55% of the total population. However, self-isolation would have caused fewer problems last year as many places were shut, whereas they’re now trying to open. Some sectors have recently been hit by staff shortages, and more are predicted. When a supermarket boss tells people not to panic buy, all most of us hear is “panic buy” and act accordingly.

Professions can apply for exemption but it seems this won’t be a simple process. Sky News reports in a separate article that frontline health workers are to be spared from the isolation rules. The BBC added on 22 July that “key parts of the food industry” could also replace tests with isolation. However, this seems to mixing two approaches. The articles say this is because of a staffing problems but for the rest of us the ping is to reduce infections. Is there evidence NHS or food workers are, perhaps because of professional precautions, less likely to infect someone else? There have even been tentative suggestions that this be extended to include senior politicians.

The virus, meanwhile, remains as indiscriminate as ever. As a result of the pingdemic, those self-isolating include many above-mentioned NHS staff, several Olympic athletes, a large number of people driving recycling lorries (certainly in West Berkshire and the Vale of White Horse), the PM, the Chancellor, the Health Secretary and the Leader of the Opposition.

More mixed messages seem to be coming from Whitehall, with Sky News reporting that Transport Secretary Grant Shapps had said the app would be “tailored” to match new social-distancing rules but then going on to report that the government has “no plans” to change the sensitivity. A scientist friend explained that the app is calibrated to the risk of getting an infection and that making it less sensitive would render it largely pointless. More useful, he suggested, would be changing the advice for people who’re double jabbed or have already had Covid: take two tests on two consecutive days and, if negative, carry on working. Not to do this would seem slightly to negate the point of having developed the vaccines and the tests at all.

• At present about 90% of the population have Covid antibodies which will be the result either of vaccination or exposure to the virus. As about 70% of the population have been vaccinated at least once, the balance (about 15.5m) must have got these from Covid itself. As only 5.5m cases have been reported, it would seem that twice as many people again got Covid asymptomatically. A good number of these are likely to be children.

• Then we come to the question of face masks. Yesterday I visited an outdoor market, five shops and a swimming pool and decided to conduct myself just like I have done for the last few weeks: no mask outside (or underwater) but put it on when you cross a threshold. Some shops may have had signs about this and others not but I’ve become sign-blind and it seems easier to keep on keeping on. Another reason is that I feel sorry for retailers who, in addition to their other tribulations, now have to act as bouncers if they’ve said that they would prefer people to wear masks but someone comes in who won’t.

Our MP Laura Farris told Newsnight earlier this month that being compelled to wear face masks was “an infringement of civil liberties”. As I suggested last week, it’s actually a public-health issue, a matter of personal responsibility (which we’re being encouraged to exhibit) and a gesture to help protect staff who might have hundreds of people coming in each day. Above all, it’s a matter of common politeness. (So too is pausing at the end of a pool to allow people swimming faster than you to go ahead, an example I don’t choose at random…)

• The Olympics are taking place at the moment, I’ve recently learned. I have no personal interest in track or field events or other disciplines like underwater judo, synchronised fencing and nude badger baiting which for all I know form part of the occasion: but I do feel sympathy for the athletes who’ve been training for their moment for four years only to be pinged back to base shortly before their big day. Anyone who gets through the whole event uninfected by Covid, alerted by a ping, sacked for making Holocaust jokes or, perhaps as likely an obstacle, testing positive for a banned or recreational drug should be given a medal.

• In 1170, Richard Strongbow, Earl of Pembroke, launched an expedition to Ireland at the invitation of an Irish king and ended up (sort of) conquering the whole island. His feudal overlord, Henry II, promptly said “thank you very much, I’ll have that.” 851 years later, our troubled relationship with the island continues. Persecution, exploitation, indifference, religious conflict, famine, emigration, civil war, partial independence and sectarianism have all left their unhappy fingerprints over the relationship and the latest impasse seems as intractable as all the others. The UK government announced on 21 July that it wants to redraw the post-Brexit trading arrangements known as the Northern Ireland Protocol as the implementation had become “unsustainable.” The problem is one of stark simplicity. The Good Friday agreement demands that there be no hard border between the Northern Ireland and the Republic. Brexit has established that the Republic is in the EU and Northern Ireland isn’t. The UK is comprised of four countries, of which Northern Ireland is one, and to have a hard or even hard-ish border between any parts of these is a contradiction in terms.

The paradox is impossible to resolve without compromise, not something that either Anglo-Irish politics or the more recent UK-EU discussions have been particularly rich in. I’m reminded of the school-days puzzle of the three houses that had to be connected to water, electricity and gas without any of the pipes crossing. It can’t be done (unless they’re on a doughnut). No doughnut appears to exist to solve this conundrum. It seems odd that the hapless David Cameron didn’t make more of this problem as a reason to remain in 2016. If he did, it didn’t resonate with people. The same could be said of so many of his utterances.

• The extraordinary spectacle of what Ruth Davidson, the former leader of Scotland’s Conservatives, called “Dominic Cummings’ revenge tour” continues after the eyesight-doubting former spin doctor was interviewed by The BBC. The main “takeaways” (another word which the OED – see above – might want to add to its words of the year) are summarised in this article. According to this, Cummings says that anyone who is now sure Brexit was a good thing “must have a screw loose” but that he thinks that “obviously, Brexit was a good thing.” What are we to make of that? He also discussed how he and his “allies” talked about getting rid of BoJo “within days” of the 2019 election, and yet DC stayed in office for nearly a year serving a man who “doesn’t have a plan, he doesn’t know how to be prime minister.” What are we to make of that? He also said that “many of [my] claims will be corroborated if there is a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the Covid crisis.” Not all, then. What are we to make of that?

What we have to make of it is three-fold. The first is that Scott Fitzgerald’s assertion that the test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function is true. DC is clearly no fool but these contradictions demonstrate arrogance, opportunism and self-interest in roughly equal measure. The second is that Lord Acton’s assertion that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely is also true. DC didn’t have absolute power but by being unelected and manipulating matters of great importance he came pretty close. The third is that, disgruntled yesterday’s man that he now clearly is, what he has to say may prove to be useful as he was uniquely well placed to observe the antics of a uniquely bizarre PM and a time of two unique crises. Politics has been described as the art of the possible but it’s also as good example as one can find of opinions being judged not by their worth but because of who has said them. Cummings may be fatally compromised as a servant, an advisor or as a possessor of a moral compass but if even one fifth of what he has said is true then an inquiry cannot be as long delayed (start date 2022) as the government has so far stated. If not all of his claims are corroborated that’s a problem he and his lawyers will have to deal with.

• More sub-postmasters have had their names cleared in what would seem to be one of the worst cases of corporate bullying and corporate defensiveness the country has seen (or which has been exposed). Some cases are still being opposed by the PO, however. Given the repetitional damage that the Horizon system (back in the day: I think it’s been fixed) and the PO’s senior management (which doesn’t seem to have been fixed) have experienced, natural justice would surely be to clear everyone and then give the PO two weeks to launch any new prosecutions, after which they would fail utterly. Attention should then be paid to prosecuting some of those at the PO and Fujitsu still in office. The British legal system doesn’t have a wonderful reputation for visiting retribution on wrongdoers who did their bad acting as part of an organisation but this would be a great chance to put this right. Hats off, not for the first time, to Private Eye, which kept this story bubbling for many long years.

• We spent a couple of days in the Isle of Wight recently under blistering sunshine. Fortunately we were about 50 yards from the beach. I like a swim but am used to swimming pool temperatures of about 30º. The sea was about 15º which at first glance seems twice as cold. But it didn’t feel that bad. It then struck me that if you convert the temperatures to Kelvin (which has absolute zero as its base rather than the freezing point of water) the difference is only about 5%. Armed with this thought, I swam quite a lot. What still perplexes me, though, is that if I get into a pool that’s 25º it feels vastly colder than at the more normal 28- 3oº. Perhaps it’s a question of where you are and what you’re expecting and dealing with the disappointments that often result. So many things in life are like that…

Across the area

• The BBC reports that there were 634 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 12-18 July, up 368 on the week before. This equates to 400 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 495 (304 the week before). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

• Covid cases are rising in the district though the figures for West Berkshire (and for the Vale, Wiltshire and Swindon) are all below the national average. In the week ending 21 July, 22.9% of all cases in West Berkshire were of school-age: this is up from 21.1% for the whole period from 1 June. This seems broadly in line with the demographics (19.1% of the region’s population are aged between five and 19).

• West Berkshire Council has appointed a new CEO, Nigel Lynn, to replace outgoing incumbent Nick Carter, who retires next month.  This statement on WBC’s website describes him as having “a strong track record of leadership in local government having worked at eight local authorities and spending the last 18 years in senior leadership roles. He will arrive from Arun District Council where he has been Chief Executive for the last decade.” Susan Halliwell, one of WBC’s current Executive Directors, will be interim CEO until Mr Lynn is able to take up his new role in the autumn.

Nick Carter has agreed to do an interview with Penny Post which we’ll publish as soon as he can find some time off from his handover responsibilities. This will reveal what the role of CEO in a unitary authority involves, what significant challenges he’s faced in the job and the all-important question of his Desert Island Discs choices of song, book and luxury item. Watch this space.

• West Berkshire Council has announced that garden- and food-waste collection services will be suspended until 3 August. This is due to a combination of the pingdemic (a neologism which now needs no definition, I think) and the chronic shortage of HGV drivers. The Vale of White Horse has introduced similar measures for identical reasons. WBC is keen to stress that this is a postponement of a collection as an extra one will be provided in due course, so reducing any calls for a refund (this is charged at £50 a year). Portfolio holder Steve Ardagh-Walter added that “this issue affected our partner Veolia very suddenly: the first we and they knew of a problem was when a large proportion of waste crews did not report for work on Monday 19 July having been pinged.” He went on to say that “this is the worst time of year for garden waste collections to be suspended. In an ideal world we would have suspended cardboard, bottles and cans collections instead of green waste: however, garden waste trucks can be used to collect black bin waste very easily whereas the compartmentalised cardboard, cans and bottles trucks cannot be repurposed in this way.”

I disagree with him on this and think this is the right decision for other reasons. Virtually everyone recycles cardboard, bottles and cans. For many, the only storage space would be indoors so people might just throw them all in black bin and not revert to the proper methods when the service was resumed. People using the garden-waste service, however, by definition have gardens and can probably store branches and the like for a couple of weeks or desist from any clearance work until the lorries return.

• This left me wondering what other WBC services, more critical than the green-waste collection, might be compromised by the pindemic. I asked WBC if information would be be rapidly and clearly provided to residents and media outlets to warn of any such problems (which often may not be of WBC;s making) in advance. A spokesperson assured me that “via social media, our newsletters, our friends in the media and our links into communities (as well as with our customers directly, of course) we will endeavour to communicate clearly and quickly.”

• West Berkshire Council has also said in the statement about the green-waste collections that “to help residents further” (although no previous measures had been referred to so it’s not clear what the “further” is referring to) it is “making more slots available for booking at our recycling centres and will allow residents who need more than one booking a week to do so using our online booking system.” One inference from the statement that extending the number of weekly bookings is helping residents is that the current system is not. As I suggested last week, limiting this (if there has to be a limit) to 13 a quarter would accommodate people who have a lot of stuff to get rid of in one go and then perhaps nothing for months.  

WBC Leader Lynne Doherty told Penny Post on 21 July that the “initial indication is that the booking system is something our residents would like to keep.” That may be so but if it’s based on the 70% who supported the measure this is largely meaningless as it was only taken from those who had booked an appointment and turned up at one of the centres, not those who failed to book for whatever reason (or perhaps those who arrived without having done so and were turned away). She also added that the one-visit per week limit would be reviewed.

• The same council has announced that it has “signed off agreements to fund 26 local businesses with a total of £112,852 through the Welcome Back Business Grant scheme.” This was designed to “support temporary changes, events and innovative measures that will allow these businesses to drive footfall to our streets as West Berkshire re-opens fully this summer.” More details can be found here.

• A reminder that West Berkshire Council has launched a six-week consultation (ending 4 August) 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).”

• WBC has announced a second round of grants for local infrastructure projects proposed by community groups for the benefit of their residents and businesses. In March, WBC approved over £495,000 in community grants ranging from £10,000 to £100,000. Successful bids included the renovation of village halls, clubs, and scout halls and improvements to sports and playground facilities. The new funding pot will come from the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) funds set aside for the 2022-23 element of the three-year capital programme established by the 2021-22 WBC budget. Bids are now invited from community groups to be received by Tuesday 31 August. Final decisions will be made as part of the 2022-23 budget debate next year. Click here for more.

• This year’s Library Summer Reading Challenge is under way with an environment theme that “will inspire children to stand up for the future of our planet.”

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

• 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.

• 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.

Click here for the latest Covid 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 for initiatives from Vale of White Horse Council, Wiltshire Council and Swindon Council and the various towns and parishes.

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 these Jurassic creatures that have been discovered in a dig somewhere in the Cotswolds (site security prevents a more detailed location).

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes correspondence on the subjects of the football ground, buoyancy aids, footpaths, Laura Farris, foreign aid and face masks

• A number of good causes have received valuable support including: All Yours (thanks to Persimmon); Newbury cancer Care (thanks to visitors to the Thatcham Family Fun Day); Dementia UK (thanks to Newbury Post Office FC); Winchester Hospital neonatal Unit (thanks to Jon Campbell, Chris Bushnell and Ian Matthews); numerous local charities (thanks to Greenham Trust and donations from parish and town councils).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So we’re almost at freedom day with the Song of the Week. For reasons too complicated to mention I was reminded of the Thompson Twins today and recalled one of my favourite songs of theirs. Like so many things from the 80s it’s very much of its time (particularly that bass sound and the jangly back-beat guitar). This seems apposite for the people of Northern Ireland, as mentioned above, who both are and are not Living in Europe.

• Face masks off for the Comedy Sketch of the Week. Smack the Pony was one of the great British sketch shows: this three-minute clip of a group of incredibly dim architects is as good an introduction as any.

• And we’re pinged back by the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What happened in 4004BC? Last week’s question was: To the nearest whole number, what percent of its 2019 UK sales did Amazon pay in tax to the UK government? £17.5bn sales and £293m of tax makes it about 1.7% – so 2% to the nearest non-decimal thing.

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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