Weekly News with Brian 14-21 October 2021

This Week with Brian

Including three role models, trapped in the ice, a public failure, two exercises, the best system, a little more reflection, the beautiful-ish game, having conversations around, Jackie Chan’s agent, several consultations, the smallest rise, PCR flaws, King Arthur, Arthur Lucan, drunk waiters, the seventh letter and wild horses.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including the B4000, Greenham Trust’s double bonus, Faraday’s ghost, Showground elections, festival time, infrastructure, Hungerford’s statement, Kintbury’s library, Burbage’s Fayre, Shefford’s panels, Lambourn’s trainer, Welford’s willow, Newbury’s apples, Woolton Hill’s bowls, Wash Water’s opposition, Greenham’s grants, Thatcham’s plaque, Cold Ash’s vacancy, Hampstead Norreys’ school, Aldworth’s crafts, Theale’s fire station, Beenham’s flats, Aldermaston’s ramp, Burghfield’s NDP, Wantage’s parking, Ardington’s bonfire, Marlborough’s blooms, Ramsbury’s lights and Swindon’s unhappiness – plus our usual excursion 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’ve said before that our Prime Minister appears to have three role models and hopes that we see him of some amalgam of them all: Winston Churchill, Billy Bunter and Winnie the Pooh. A recent episode of BBC R4’s Brief Lives suggested to me another one whom BJ would probably dearly like to claim association with.

[more below] 

This man led three gruelling expeditions to the Antarctic in the early 20th century, the last of which turned into a supreme example of how to create triumph from disaster. All who served under him agreed that he had unparalleled leadership qualities involving swift and certain decision-making, clear-headedness and the view that the welfare of his team as paramount. Indeed, not one person serving under him died on these trips: a staggering achievement in any age.

I’m talking, of course, about Ernest Shackleton. Our PM has some way to go to match Shackleton’s reputation: but that’s not to say he won’t claim a comparison. So, if you hear any references from Number 10 to the nation being trapped in the ice or regrouping on Elephant Island then you’ll know where he got the idea from.

• Such Shackletonian fortitude will be required by BJ in the wake of a report from two Common’s committees which described the government’s pandemic response as one of the country’s worst public-health failures. In fairness, the report found much to praise, including the vaccination programme, and also much to excuse – Covid was, after all, new to everyone (although it might have been predicted). It did, however, criticise a “group think” at the top (an accusation accepted by the former CMO for England, Sally Davies), over-centralisation and delays in introducing lockdowns and adequate testing regimes. (Professor Chris Ham observed that the tracing system was at first “biased too much” towards central control and that “only belatedly” did the government “recognise the expertise that exists within our councils and public-health teams,” the shift to which was “too slow.”)

The now-derided (and denied) policy of achieving herd immunity in the early weeks was also blamed, the report suggesting that – whatever it’s called or not called – policy then “amounted in practice” to accepting that herd immunity (ie the majority of the population being infected) was the goal. The views of Dominic Cummings, unsurprisingly, found a place in the report as well. At one point he observed that, as  a means of dealing with a pandemic, the hermetically-sealed environment of the COBRA meetings was “completely hopeless” (a phrase of which he seems particularly fond).

• It’s also unfair to lay all the blame at the door of the current government. Opportunities for preparation were provided before: not by accident, either, but as a result of two exercises which attempted to model just such a contingency. Two of these are named in the report.

One, Exercise Cygnus, took place in October 2016 and looked at how the country would respond to a pandemic which caused up to 400,000 excess deaths and infected half the population: quite relevant, one would think. However, it was pointed out by the then Secretary of State for Health that the exercise looked only at the treatment and escalation, not at the previous stages involving detection and assessment. The report suggests some areas in which useful lessons were learned from its work (including some NHS procedures and the drafting of the Coronavirus Bill) but this omission looks slightly like someone being told to manage a football team but without any say over the squad selection or analysis of an opposition which might be using wholly new tactics. The Guardian, in this article on 7 May 2020, comes to a similar conclusion. Indeed, in saying that “the UK’s preparedness and response, in terms of its plans, policies and capability, is currently not sufficient to cope with the extreme demands of a severe pandemic” it was doing no more than quote the government’s own report into the exercise.

Tellingly, the article also points out that the participants “were told to imagine they were managing the seventh week of the pandemic, facing a peak in demand for hospital and social care.” Seven weeks is almost exactly the interval between the official arrival or Mr Covid on these shores on 1 February 2020 and the first lockdown on 23 March. The accusation has been made, and is made in the report and elsewhere, that the government failed to heed Cygnus’ lessons. This hiatus, as it’s now seen to be, suggested that they’d heeded this aspect all to well.

• The other exercise to which the report refers is Exercise Winter Willow which took place in the infinitely distant year of 2007, under a Labour government. It was admitted in the report that neither this nor Cygnus fully appreciated the impact of “novel and, particularly, zoonotic diseases.” Again, my football-manager analogy (see paragraph above) springs to mind. This exercise identified four broad areas of improvement: crisis management; public communication; further policy development; and business continuity.

The UK probably did the last of these fairly well but this was always likely to be at the expense of fuelling the pandemic: an inevitable result of a necessary compromise. As for the first two, a detention and further homework seems to be in order. In this as in other areas, the government could perhaps look to its often-disparaged local councils.

Our own one of West Berkshire doesn’t always get praised by Penny Post. Its pandemic response (particularly once it had its shackles removed and could deal with the test and trace) was, however, excellent; as were those of its 60-odd parishes. (I’d like to point out that, at 9.16pm on 14 October, I’ve just had an email from WBC’s officer in charge of health and wellbeing in answer to a question. Hats off, I think.) I’ve also heard nothing to say that there were any serious problems in Wiltshire, the Vale or Swindon. WBC was also lucky in that it had organisations like the Volunteer Centre West Berkshire to co-ordinate helpers and Greenham Trust to help raise funds on which it could call.

Some other districts perhaps fared less well: if they did, they might with some justification complain that under-funding was at least part of the problem. Indeed, there has for many years been a drift of power, and money, from communities to the centre. The Covid response might provide reasons to redress this. Clear national policy and funding followed quickly by targeted local action seems the way forward. This only really happened about seven months into the pandemic: too late, as it turned out.

• This leads one to wonder what the best system of government is to deal with this kind of crisis. Liberal democracies didn’t fare that well unless, like New Zealand, they had the twin advantages of easy isolation and a general respect for the government. Countries like China, Vietnam and Singapore where the hand of the state is far heavier, did better (assuming you can believe all the figures, particularly China’s). Many African and Oceanic countries appear to have got off quite lightly, which might be due to under-detection or to lower travel rates, or a bit of both. On the last point, it’s striking that the very behaviours Covid most benefits from – particularly unrestricted travel and a recognition of the rights of the individual – are most commonly found in wealthy democracies, which therefore suffer badly from infections. This is compounded by the fact that, by their very nature, they are often incapable even of agreeing a sufficiently clear message, still less hoping that it will be obeyed. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the USA. The UK was perhaps not far behind.

• Newcastle Utd’s takeover by a Saudi-led consortium raises questions over whether football is a force for good or just a vessel for villainy. When it comes to players, many of them have, increasingly, helped to inspire positive change. Meagn Rapinoe, Juan Mata, Raheem Sterling and perhaps most visibly Marcus Rashford really do seem to care about issues like inequality. Rashford won the hearts and minds of much of the public and was partly responsible for former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson losing his job in September 2021 (if only because, perplexingly given the criticism the centre forward had given to the politician, Williamson still didn’t seem to know who he was). Some footballers are, of course, completely awful. So are many actors, writers, musicians and other people whose work we adore. However, there does seem to be an increasing realisation that the players have a social responsibility. This seems to be more apparent among the female than the male ones: but here we’re moving into a different argument.

When you go up the footballing chain of command, however, the picture becomes distinctly more mirky. Unscrupulous owners who wouldn’t know a goal if they scored it are one thing: more depressing is that the acquisition of a large football club has become an obligatory appendage of the super-wealthy (as well as offering a spot of reputation laundering into the bargain). Newcastle’s case is only the most recent: three of the last four Champions’ League finalists could be so cited. The toon army seems happy enough with the change, feeling that the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund is a more appropriate owner for the club than Mike Ashley. Public feeling will doubtless turn against the new owners if Newcastle doesn’t soon win a major trophy (something that hasn’t happened since 1955, so don’t hold your breath). You need to have a broad back and thick skin to run one of English football’s fallen giants. Perhaps, therefore, it won’t be long until the Taliban jumps in to save Derby County from administration.

• As mentioned last week, and as some of you may have noticed, we suffered from Facebooklessness for a few hours last week. The most recent Private Eye draws attention on p19 to a cheeky campaign from the Post Office capitalising on this misfortune. As the article in the Eye goes on to say, “a little more reflection” might have been wise as the PO has its own “darker history of IT failure”  in the form of its Horizon system. Facebook has its faults but it has not, so far as I’m aware, persecuted hundreds of its employees, driving some to bankruptcy, some to prison, some to suicide and all to stress and repetitional loss. Recent court judgments have resolved some of these abuses but have not and cannot solve them all.

• Another article in the Eye, this time on p7, refers to Rishi Sunak’s claim that he spent his formative years “working around technology companies” in Silicon Valley. Lord Gnome then takes exception to the accuracy of the inference concerning our Chancellor’s career: I take exception to the syntax. The word “around” is used far too much. “We’re having a conversation around” something or other is a phrase that’s often heard. This is clearly meant to express an inclusive and wide-ranging, almost holistic, appraisal of the problem. Does the reality always support this? To talk “around” something can be seen as doing anything other than talk about it.

I’m equally irritated by expressions such as “our solutions are focussed around…” A centre is a point and so any focus needs to be “on” it. Mr Sunak’s phrase that he “worked around” IT companies has yet another alternative meaning, that he did everything he could to circumvent or subvert their interests.

While I’m at it, “conversation” also irritates me. The intended implication is of a completely open dialogue, whereas it can be a euphemism for anything ranging from a one-off stakeholders’ meeting to a consultation to an attempt to spread the blame later if the project misfires. Many of the people using such phrases are honourable and decent but have been seduced into this misleading shorthand. There are a number of ways we can describe our actions which are precise and our wonderful language provides many options. To use ones that are less so is to invite the accusation that, in trying to say more than we mean, we are promising less than we might.

• Of course, in the world of slogans, Newspeak and double-talk we have a lot to learn from North Korea. A place that’s deeply alarming to most of us just became a bit more so recently with the release of this video of some local Bruce Lee doing the business with piles of bricks, lumps of concrete and armed assailants at an official military event. Wonderfully stage-managed it may have been but the message it sends out is…well, I’m not sure. Hard to escape the suspicion that, despite the nationalistic fist-pumping, the shirtless martial-arts expert was hoping for a phone call from Jackie Chan’s agent.

• A rather gruelling edition of Penny Post this week due to a total incoming email failure for most of the afternoon. Trying to get the newsletter done in these circumstances like attempting to wrestle a tiger into a cage when you’re blindfolded. Or something like that…

Across the area

• The BBC reports that there were 445 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 4 to 10 October, up 221 on the week before. This equates to 287 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 397 (335 the week before). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

• It has been reported that the Newbury Showground testing site may have been returning inaccurate results for PCR tests. West Berkshire Council, having looked into the matter, has confirmed that this may be part of a wider problem which has a also affected other sites (a point confirmed by this BBC article on 15 October). If, therefore, you took a PCR test at the Showground between 3 and 12 October, you should click here to read the information on this post.  

• Councillor Ross Mackinnon, WBC’s portfolio holder for property and finance, has a letter in this week’s Newbury Weekly News (p17) talking about how the budget needs to be balanced. He takes a few political swipes at the Lib Dems (all part of the traditional party knockabout turns that we all know and love and which would, I’m sure be reciprocated were their positions on the Council to be reversed). However, he made one comment which seemed worth checking, that West Berkshire “delivered (sic) the lowest council tax rise in England.” I remember its being low but not the lowest. This map from Which? suggests that are several districts which had lower rises that WBC’s 2.54% in 2021-22. Just looking at other shire unitary authorities, two authorities had lower increases: 2.19% in Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole and 0.33% in Hartlepool. This is more clearly shown by downloading table 7 from the Gov.uk website here. (Thanks to West Berkshire Deputy leader Graham Bridgman for pointing out that my first examples, since corrected, were,’t fair as they referred to other kinds of councils. None the less, Ross Mackinnon’s letter didn’t draw this distinction either.) 

• This Christmas, the West Berkshire Economy and Environment departments have teamed up to create a Shop Local Shop Green digital magazine featuring the best independent local businesses with a green agenda for residents to shop in. More details here.

• As part of the district’s recovery from Covid-19, West Berkshire Council partnered with Greenham Trust  to create the Let’s Get Active Fund  (LGAF), creating a £33,660 fund to improve access to physical activities in West Berkshire through proposals developed and organised by local community groups. More information here.

• On 18 October, West Berkshire Council’s new CEO Nigel Lynn takes over from Susan Halliwell, who has been minding the shop since Nick Carter’s retirement in the summer. You can read here an interview we did with the outgoing supremo: we hope to do one with his long-term replacement as soon as the proverbial feet have been got under the proverbial table.

• West Berkshire Council has announced that the 2021 Learner Achievement Awards are now open for nominations. These celebrate adult learning in general but also the concept of “lifelong learning.” You have until 15 October to do this (so not long). The awards ceremony will take place on 12 November.

• West Berkshire Council is investing an additional £250,000 to further the support offered to victims of domestic abuse, including children. The funding, provided by the Government, follows the passing of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which has resulted in new duties being placed on local authorities across the country to provide support to victims of domestic abuse and their children in refuges and other safe accommodation. For more information, click here.

• West Berkshire Council is conducting a consultation into how its libraries are used and how that can be made even more relevant to your needs. Here is the link: you have until 15 November to make your views known. Even if you don’t visit a library, WBC is keen to hear from you. Libraries have provided the springboard for countless people to realise goals they might otherwise not have been able to. What might they do for you, or your children? Make your views known. Such consultations can influence how they evolve. They remain a soft target for closures (though they are now better prepared than they were in 2015). None the less…

• Another West Berkshire Council’s initiative is its nomination for its 2021 Community Champion AwardsClick here to read more and to make your nominations, which need to be in by the end of October. The winners will be announced in January 2021.

• A new recycling service has been introduced in West Berkshire for paper containers with metal ends, such as Pringles tubes, packaging used for hot chocolate, nuts and other products. Click here for more information.

Click here for information about lateral flow tests available in West Berkshire. Note that several changes have recently been made (including the closure of some centres).

• 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 residents’ newsletter from West Berkshire Council.

Click here for the latest business 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 rockhopper penguins. Nature seems to have dealt them an almost impossible hand: with tiny legs and rather useless flippers they are required to climb almost sheer cliff faces to return to their breeding grounds, buffeted all the way my massive Antarctic waves. At times they look like a load of drunk waiters trying to escape a tsunami. Enough of them make it, though god knows how.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as those referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of recycling service, rats, a climate meeting, political parity with members’ bids and electric bikes.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently including: Sur Ryder Hospices (thanks to Walk to Remember); Parkinson’s UK (thanks to Gary Shaughnessy and Andy Tucker); Alzheimer’s Swindon (thanks to the seven-a-side tournament at Foundation Park); numerous local charities and community groups (thanks to parish councils and Greenham Trust).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So here we are at the Song of the Week. The Rolling Stones announced this week that they’d be dropping Brown Sugar from their live performances – not before time, many might think, as they lyrics are perhaps not quite the thing these days. Utterly wonderful guitar riff, however. Anyway, here’s a slower and even better song also from the epic Sticky Fingers album – Wild Horses.

• And next it must be the Comedy Sketch of the Week. There are many different systems of government, Winston Churchill describing democracy as “the worst system of all apart from all the others.” In this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Graham Chapman and Michael Palin discuss, but fail to agree on, the relative merits of two of them.

• And so to wind things up we have the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is as follows: What is the next letter in the series J F M A M J? Last week’s question appeared during the Mayor of Newbury’s quiz at the Town Hall earlier this month in aid of his chosen charity Speakability and was: Who played the titular role in the 1930s Old Mother Riley films? The answer is Arthur Lucan (thanks to Councillor David Marsh from the winning Green team who got this answer right). He (Arthur Lucan, not David Marsh) made 15 Old Mother Riley films between 1937 and 1952, which were the first movies prominently to feature a man in drag. Others have followed, including Danny La Rue and the unspeakable Mrs Brown’s Boys.

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