Weekly News with Brian 5-12 August 2021

This Week with Brian

This week, Brian discusses four corporate responses, a ping Q&A, lessons learned from Moscow, altered behaviour, mixed messages, looking over the fence, seasonal predictions, a guilty pleasure, 1964 and a tight phone box.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday) including one show ground, two football grounds, two cafés, three documents, Readibus, George Orwell, reaching those offline, Hungerford’s pigeons, Lambourn’s applications, Welford’s common, Newbury’s fundraiser, Thatcham’s eviction, Chieveley’s stance, Frilsham’s history, Chaddleworth’s housing, Mortimer’s call-in, Wantage’s obligations, East Hannay’s choices, Letcombe’s register, Marlborough’s bees, Ogbourne’s target and Swindon’s fear – plus our usual prowl 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

• I mentioned last week about the shocking decades-long case of what could be seen as systemic child abuse in the London Borough of Lambeth. We would all hope that matters have improved since them but it seems worth getting it straight from those in charge. I therefore wrote to the appropriate portfolio holders at West Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Swindon Councils to ask two questions:

[more below] 

  • Are they aware of any un-investigated allegations of child sexual abuse at any children’s home or similar establishment run by the council or its predecessor/s?
  • What assurance could they give residents these abuses, on any scale, will not be repeated; or that, if any were identified, that they would be examined quickly and dispassionately?

All have now replied. Liz Brighouse (Oxfordshire County Council) said that she was unaware of any historical allegations in the county and had also asked officers to go through files. “Children’s social care has moved on a lot in the last 20 years,” she said. “We certainly hope that children or anyone with concerns will come forward. I shall continue to be very vigilant on this.”

Mary Martin (Swindon Borough Council) also confirmed that there were no outstanding issues she was aware of. “We investigate all such cases very promptly,” she added. “We are in regular contact with children’s homes and other bodies and take our role as ‘corporate parents’ very seriously and have a constant cycle of review and audit.”

Laura Mayes (Wiltshire County Council) said that she too was “shocked and saddened to read the reports about Lambeth. I can confirm there are no historic investigations of children’s abuse relating to any children’s home or similar establishment in Wiltshire. Wherever concerns are raised these are taken seriously and investigated thoroughly with a joint response co-ordinated by children’s social care and the police where necessary.”

Dominic Boeck (West Berkshire Council) said that “we are not aware of any un-investigated allegations of this nature” either before or since WBC was created in 1998. He also pointed out that WBC does not run any children’s homes but does use third-party homes registered and regulated by OFSTED. He also stressed that “where concerns are raised they are dealt with promptly by the designated officer and where necessary referred to OFSTED as the regulator. If concerns of a serious nature are identified, the local authority and the regulator work closely with the police to ensure appropriate investigations are completed.” He then went on to list nine areas of the Council’s policy and processes that “considerably lessen the likelihood of harm.” These include issues that were touched on by his opposite numbers referred to above including “accountability, ongoing visibility, safer recruitment, monitoring and partnerships.” He concluded by saying that “there is continuous scrutiny of the service we provide and commission by local councillors and senior managers who take their corporate parenting responsibilities seriously and challenge any areas of under-performance in the support provided.”

These responses will come as no surprise. They were what one would have hoped for and what every responsible council member would say and would, I’m sure, do their best to adhere to. It may be that similar assurances were given in Lambeth, in Bradford and in all the other places where scandals later ripped open. We all like to believe that this past is a foreign country and that they do things differently there. I’m not qualified to say whether such cases are more or less likely to be happening now: but they might be. These reassurances are welcome. Four things strike me: two bad and two good.

The first point on the debit side is that the proliferation of social media and other online communities have to some extent normalised almost everything: “normalised” meaning that you have digitally met a sufficiency of other people who share your views (this location of kindred spirits in other areas has had positive effects as well, of course). Depending on how cunning the individual is and how secure the communication, crimes can be plotted and tips shared in a way that even 20 years ago would have been impossible.

Secondly, the perpetrators are almost always in a position of power over the victims – who can be manipulated into believing they’re in some way complicit  – and the crimes themselves are traumatic. These tend to discourage people from reporting them, certainly at the time and often for many years afterwards. A scandal at a school I was unfortunate enough to attend, Caldicott (google it) took about 30 years to surface. The Lambeth horror story started in the early 1960s and the parliamentary report was only published last week. We’re clearly not talking about a crime with a traditionally rapid detection rate.

On the plus side, there does seem to be an increased awareness that the problem exists – back in the days of the Lambeth abuse the subject was barely mentioned – which has had the effect, opposing my previous points, both of de-normalising it and encouraging earlier reporting. Every successful prosecution strengthens this perception.

Also, I was struck by a remark made by Mary Martin, Swindon’s portfolio holder, when I spoke to her on 4 August. I suggested that delays had sometimes been caused, as well as by the reasons mentioned above, either by people such as councillors refusing to believe such things could happen on their patch or, at worst, by systemic cover-ups. “I hope,” she said, “that what we have now is less complacency and more transparency.” If councils and other public bodies can adopt these two maxims as self-evident truths than many aspects of life, particularly with regard to our most vulnerable, would be in a far better state. Let’s hope she’s right.

• Local councils have portfolio holders for many things, including children’s services. One additional post I think would be useful to create is Portfolio Holder for Looking Over the Garden Fence and Seeing what the Neighbours Do. Councils (indeed all organisations) get into bubbles from where it’s tempting and sometimes convenient to believe that no approach apart from the one being followed can possibly work or have any relevance for them. Another useful way of addressing this would be, when some impasse is arrived at, to invite a councillor or officer from a completely different district to sit in who could bring dispassion and prior knowledge of a similar issue to the discussion but without any of the emotional or personal baggage that so often clogs matters up. If these were applied to individual problem solving we’d respectively call these talking to people and seeking expert help, both widely accepted ways of dealing with something. Just a thought, guys…

• I was chatting to my eldest son today and he mentioned how alarming the situation in Belarus was – defecting athletes, murdered ex-pat campaigners and forcibly repatriated journalists. It seemed, he suggested, that the state was learning repressive tips and tricks from its Russian buddies rather too well. Above all, he marvelled at how such a fairly small country could have such a big reach, diverting airliners and staging what seem to fake suicides in foreign countries with seeming impunity. This is, we must remember, a European nation which borders the EU, not somewhere on the other side of the world that we can conveniently ignore. We are probably safe from the immediate risk of this happening to us: but the price of liberty is, as several people have said, eternal vigilance. Any unchallenged abuse of power, wherever it appears, is dangerous.

• In the same conversation, he also mentioned that he’s seen a shift in the behaviour of people in his 20-something age-group over the last few weeks with many now reverting pretty much to pre-Covid norms. I suggested this might be because we were all probably more law-abiding than we might like to think: the official relaxation of the regulations last month to some extent conferred a carte blanche, even the hope that it was all over, the nuances of the advice being lost in all the background noise. However, if most people continue to avoid coughing into stranger’s faces and if we wash our hands a bot more often then we’re probably already in a better place than we were a couple of years ago.

As ever, the MD column in the latest Private Eye has a lot of sense to say about the pandemic, including why the WHO recently labelled the UK’s relaxation as “epidemiological stupidity.” The main point is that our “hybrid immunity pandemic experiment” is still going to export the Delta variant and its successors to countries with lower vaccination rates and that any spreading is likely to lead to more mutations, some of which may be vaccine-resistant. On the latter point, I think we’re way past the point – probably by about 70 years – where our behaviour, including our desire to travel, can be seen as anything but a godsend to an ambitious virus. As for the resistance, the good news might be that the scientists appear confident that these can be tweaked to reflect changes in the target. It looks like we’ll have to go through the double-jab business once a year anyway as, unlike the lifetime measles prevention, these only confer protection for perhaps twelve months.

• When it comes to confusing advice, little can be worse than that concerning the above-mentioned issue of foreign travel. France, it seems, has moved from amber-plus to amber. What does that mean? I’m really not sure.

• Following the mention of the “pingdemic” two weeks ago, PP reader Jon Lee wrote in with some questions about the app and how it works. I was not able to answer any of these but was able to turn them over to another Jon, Professor Jon Crowcroft, the Marconi Professor of Computer Science at the University of Cambridge who has worked with the original designer of the app and the company which subsequently developed it and who has been consulted by NHS since the app’s launch on technical issues. So, as well as knowing rather more about computers than I do, he’s also been involved in the app on a practical level. Jon L’s questions are in italics and Prof Jon C’s answers in roman.

The so called Covid ‘Pingdemic’ relies to a large degree on technology from an app. Can someone explain the actual precise technology used to identify over GPS where each person’s mobile, that is registered, can be found? Satnavs struggle to accurately do this for vehicles.

The app doesn’t use GPS at all – it is nothing to do with GPS or satnav. It uses the Bluetooth radio that was put in phones 20 years back to allow you to have wireless headphones. Bluetooth radio signal strength can be measured to figure out how near the other device is (in this case, the other phone, not a headphone). We’ve been using this for exactly this sort of thing for 15 years. The alert is generated (on the NHS covid app) by looking at the measurements every minute or so for about 15 minutes.

Does the system work in crowded underground trains?

Yes.

Does the system show when a person (or rather their mobile) is sitting  the other side of a wall (i.e in an apartment block) or inside a restaurant, bus, taxi etc separated by a window from the street?

Good question. This is a genuine problem. If the two phones are either side of a thin divide then they will still detect a positive contact and lead to an alert. One thing we thought of doing was to use the microphones in the app to tell if the two phones allegedly in contact were in the same ambient sound space – this has been done before. The main reason the app developers didn’t like this was that it added to the idea that the user might be the subject of surveillance which would decrease uptake of the app.

Does an infected person have to be near someone for a measured period of time to warrant an alert being sent?

Yes, for 15 minutes.

How long, and by what process, is that time measured? How accurate is the location identifier of each mobile (ie can it really show a tolerance level of less than two metres)?

The Bluetooth radio is measured periodically, so you just count. It isn’t accurate to less than two metres but over a number of measurements it is pretty good at demonstrating that the other phone was within two metres for most or all of that time. This is a lot easier than trying to locate another person precisely, which is not necessary for working out exposure risk.

Can an infected person pass on the virus to another and that person can do likewise and so on whilst all being ‘pinged’ to isolate? Is this the reason so many have been contacted?

No – the pings are not “cascaded”. The reason so many were contacted was because there were so many actual cases (for instance, on that day when 55,000 people tested positive, a lot of them probably had been in pubs and so had each contacted many people each.10 contacts each –  not impossible – would result in 500,000 pings). The pingdemic was entirely plausible and predictable given the number of people ignoring masks and social distancing and being indoors in risky environments.

Seems the initial test area of the Isle of Wight was not perhaps the ideal place to test the technology on crowds, undergrounds and concrete car parks.

The app tested in the Isle of Wight was completely different from the app actually deployed in the end – this was tested in some army camps where they simulated people in crowds, public transport and the like.

How much has this cost taxpayers to develop a flawed technology as not even the military/ police etc can provide such surveillance? Who got the lucrative contract to provide the app?

It isn’t flawed and was developed by a small Swiss company, with the NHS, for a fairly small cost. The big cost was not the app but the manual test & trace contract that went to Serco. Nor does it actually do surveillance (in contrast to the Israeli contact system, which does).

• I hope this sheds some light. If not, please reply to this post.

• The football season is about to re-start and, after the highs and lows of the Euros, the whiz-bang excitement of the cricket Hundred competition and the perplexing but occasionally compelling sideshow of the Olympics, I’m not sure I’m ready for it. You want some tips for the season? OK. League: Man City again. FA Cup: Leeds. League Cup: anyone but Man City (four times in a row is enough), Man Utd or Arsenal. Europa League: No idea, but I wish Leicester City and any other smaller team (like Villareal last season, particularly as they beat Man Utd) well. Champions League: looks like at least one English team has a good chance again as a lot of Europe’s other big guns seem to be in transition. If you press me, I’ll say Chelsea v PSG. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong probably…

Across the area

• The BBC reports that there were 334 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 6 July to 1 August, down 54 on the week before. This equates to 211 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 255 (332 the week before). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

• West Berkshire’s green-waste collection services have now resumed and it has offered “a goodwill gesture” of a small reduction in the collection service rates for next as a result of this disruption. 

• Details of West Berkshire Council’s holiday activities and for programme can be found here.

• West Berkshire Council has launched a consultation (which closes at midnight on Sunday 5 September) into the lido at the Northcroft Centre, a much loved facility which, just having celebrated its 150th birthday, is in need of some serious TLC. 

• Another West Berkshire consultation (which closes at midnight on Friday 30 August) covers the region’s bus services. 

Nick Carter will be stepping down as West Berkshire’s CEO next week and we’re grateful for him to have found time from his hand-over work to do an interview with Penny Post which you can read here.

• The same council has announced that “a further two local independent businesses have now benefitted from West Berkshire Council’s Welcome Back Business Grants Scheme, in which £140,000 has been set aside for projects to support the district’s high streets, shopping areas and visitor economy to re-open successfully this summer.” Click here for more.

• WBC has announced a second round of grants for local infrastructure projects proposed by community groups for the benefit of their residents and businesses. 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 environmental 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.

• The West Berkshire Covid dashboard can be visited here.

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

Click here for details of consultations currently being run by 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 the bees that escaped in Marlborough.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes correspondence on the subjects of green waste, Colthrop’s logistics, supermarket policies, a maiden speech, e-scooters and changing our ways.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support including: Little Princess Trust (thanks to Georgie Cherryman); Thames Valley Air Ambulance (thanks to Ruth Saunders); CSA 07 FC (thanks to the FA and the St James’s Place Foundation); Sur Ryder Duchess of Kent Hospice (thanks to Andrew Johnston); the Helen Arkell Dyslexis Charity (thanks to Rupert Darch).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So we find ourselves at the Song of the Week. An Olympic-themed choice which also can be filed as a guilty retro-pleasure: Gold by Spandau Ballet.

• And, with hardly a second to draw breath, it’s the Comedy Sketch of the Week. Another topical thing, this time to do with the resumption of the football season (see above) and the hype which attends it: Watch the Football from That Mitchell and Webb Look.

• So we wind up with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: According to the Guinness World of Records, what is the most number of people who have fitted themselves into a UK phone box? Last week’s question was:  The Summer Olympic Games are currently taking place in Tokyo. When was the last time the city hosted this event? The answer is 1964.

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: Newbury, Thatcham, Hungerford, Marlborough, Wantage, Lambourn, Compton, Swindon & Theale