Weekly News with Brian 21-28 October 2021

This Week with Brian

Including PCR questions, a shocking hangover, a winter of discontent, divisive arguments, gravity and rust, the predictable Taliban, black and white stripes, forging a new world, shop local, library questions, slippery stats, a new CEO, London calling, Ringo up a tree, a pool supervisor, 12 months and so many Edwards.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including developer communications, gotcha again, SSSI discharges, one ground (and two other grounds), an electric growl, Milton Oxcam, Hungerford’s curve, Kintbury’s books. Inkpen’s scouts, Lambourn’s heroes, Shefford’s power, East Garston’s bells, Newbury’s figures, Greenham’s images, Thatcham’s festivals, Cold Ash’s footpath, Chaddleworth’s newsletter, Compton’s plan, Bradfield’s group, Theale’s windfall, Wantage’s chestnuts, Marlborough’s market, Minal’s convenience, Aldbourne’s heffalump, Fyfield Down’s de-declaration and Swindon’s disrepair – 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

• The major news recently, certainly in West Berkshire, was that about 43,000 PCR tests conducted at the unfortunately named Immensa Health Clinic in Wolverhampton may have returned false negatives, so giving people the illusion they were Covid-free when they weren’t (many had reported symptoms and taken positive lateral-flow tests so the chances are that many were infected).

[more below] 

It’s also not yet clear how many of these were in this district. West Berkshire’s Director of Health and Wellbeing told Penny Post (at the unfeasible time of 10.20pm) on 19 October that the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) was “still working through the exact numbers and I am seeking permission from them to share how many of our residents were affected.” It’s important to stress that there’s absolutely no evidence suggesting that the problem lies with West Berkshire Council, staff at the testing centre or the PCR tests themselves, and the same can be said for any to the other authorities affected as a result of this. The problem seems to be in the lab.

The amazing fact is that, according to The Guardian, the errors may have taken place in a five-week period between 8 September and 12 October. Any systems the lab had for checking its work would seem to have broken down pretty badly for it to have taken so long for this to come to light. The CEO of Immensa immediately went into political/PR overdrive. The statement, a masterpiece of its kind, is worth quoting in full from The Guardian. “We are fully collaborating with UKHSA on this matter. Quality is paramount for us. We have proudly analysed more than 2.5m samples for NHS test and trace, working closely with the great teams at DHSC [Department of Health and Social Care] and UKHSA. We do not wish this matter or anything else to tarnish the amazing work done by the UK in this pandemic.”

To quote all the occasions where things were done without getting them wrong reminds me of the Steve Coogan moment from The Day Today (see Comedy Sketch of the Week below) in which the night security man at at a swimming pool lists all the years in which people didn’t die under his watch. 43,000 out of 2.5 million is 1.7%, so not that great. The ideal that Immensa is “fully co-operating” with UKHSA is presented as a huge plus, a grand gesture you might not expect. As for “proudly” analysing, this doesn’t seem to sit with reports, quoted in a separate article in The Guardian, that The Sun on Sunday had found evidence of workers “brawling, sleeping, playing football and drinking on duty.” As for “quality is paramount”, the same article says that Immensa was “not fully accredited to perform the work, contrary to assurances made by health officials.”  As Steve Coogan said, I could go on.

One suggestion, offered to me a Professor of Computer Science – who can be trusted with the general modelling if not perhaps the specific how such labs work – is that the whole thing could be down to one incompetent person on one day. Imagine, he hypothesised, that there is a production line that pushes through batches of swabs and tubes of reagents 10 at a time with one person responsible for these. Imagine one minute per test per batch and the person working a seven-hour day. This would mean 10 samples x 10 at a time x 60 of these an hour x seven hours = 42,000. Where have I heard a number like this before? This may not reflect the working practices at Immensa: but, if it’s even half-way close, any investigation might want to look for someone who, some time between 8 September and 12 October, went to work there with a really shocking hangover.

Whatever the solution, the problem is, as many have suggested, the people will be asking “where next?” PCR tests are not that pleasant to do and any excuse not to do one will be seized upon by some. It also comes at a time when cases are rising (so making tests all the more important) and when the government finds itself on the back foot about its response.

• Indeed, after a summer of love as a result of the success of the vaccine programme, we seem to be heading for a winter of discontent. Covid cases are certainly on the rise, doing so faster here than in many other similar countries. This article on The BBC website looks at some possible reasons why, including relaxed rules, waning immunity and a stall in the vaccine roll-out . The Health Secretary said on 20 October that cases could rise to 100,000 a day. Fortunately, the increase doesn’t seem to have been reflected in hospital admissions or deaths, both of which are at far lower rates than list time last year when cases were at about the same level. The worry for many will be that, if waning immunity is an issue, that this will start kicking in in the next couple of months.

• The other aspect, which the Health Secretary also mentioned in the BBC article, is that increased cases (and particularly hospitalisations or deaths) may well result in restrictions being re-introduced. For the hospitality industry in particular, this would at this season provide a blow from which many would not recover. The prospect of lockdown#5 or whatever number we’re up to be would also be a gloomy one for everyone. Worse still would be the awful, depressing and divisive arguments about the erosion of personal liberties and the imposition of state control.

• I was chatting to a friend recently and we came to a few connected conclusions about the state of the world at present. The first is that, as a drop shipper of audio equipment, he’s shocked at by how much not only delivery costs but also delivery times have gone up. This was echoed by the part of a BBC R4 discussion I caught in the car when someone from the building-supply trade was being interviewed. Both of these increases, he suggested, was leading to companies to over-order, providing they had the cash and the space. This not only pushes up demand but also reduces supply, as there’s now a lot more stuff sitting around in storage which might not get sold for months. For decades, we’ve worked on a just-in-time model, where anything we needed could, at a reasonable price, be supplied in a day or so. This, for the moment at least seems to have collapsed. Factories or plants which closed down during the pandemic may almost require re-building. Personal relationships have been been broken. Financial certainties have been eroded.

Another thing that had collapsed or at least been undermined, we agreed, was social interaction. We’re all feeling our way back into dealing with each other. Do we Zoom or meet in person? If we meet, is it indoors or out? Do we wear masks or not? Can we shake hands? Do we sanitise all the time? Social and professional relationships are hard enough without having to re-invent the rules. After 18 months of disruption – and it will probably be longer – we may have to learn them all over again. It doesn’t take long to forget the nuances. There are also all those people we haven’t seen at all because it’s been impossible. After 18 months, can all these threads be picked up again?

Then, which we next moved on to, there’s the question of immunity. I’m not just talking of Covid and flu but of a host of other infections that are immune systems are, through regular exposure, constantly wise to. There was earlier this year even some evidence (I forget where I read this) that constant exposure to Covid- or flu-like viruses maybe conferred some immunity to the real thing in low viral loads. This perhaps explained why parents, teachers and health workers weren’t going down with quite the regularity that might have been expected. There are other things as well, including the so-called super colds that are reported to be doing the rounds. Some of these will look quite like Covid or flu and so will, even if they aren’t, take up time and resources. They’re also unpleasant and may be fatal or lead to conditions that are. Is there a risk that our immune systems might have dozed off during lockdown and are now all fuzzy-headed, just when we need them most?

The conclusion we came to is that everything about our society, and possibly ourselves, is now shark-like – move or die. For so long, the economy, technology, our personal buying patterns and perhaps we ourselves have been in a constant state of flux. If you stop doing something – like visiting a local shop, using a particular piece of software or following certain social patterns – these quickly get swamped by other new norms that make a return to the old ways, if this option is ever offered, very hard. At present, we concluded, the global economy, personal interactions and our own immune systems have been infected by gravity and rust, to which all things succumb if left immobile for long. There’s been a lot of talk about what the new normal might be. Perhaps as important a part of this is remembering what the old normal was like and salvaging the parts of it that still seem to be of use, before they rust away or sink into the mud.

COP26 has the aim of forging a new, sustainable world of this kind. However, even before the conference has started, it’s been undermined by leaked documents suggesting that wealthy countries like Japan, Australia and Saudi Arabia are, according to the BBC, “lobbying to play down the need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels.”

• Few things in the wider world seem more obscene than that, to no one’s great surprise, girls in Afghanistan seem not able to go to school under the Taliban. Then again, why would they permit this? You’re just educating people who’re going to oppose you. Not just Muslims, mind – look at medieval Europe, to which the Taliban’s word view can fairly be compared. Not exactly full of female role models, is it?

• My attention’s been drawn to a newsletter from the estate agents Knight Frank which warns of “a perfect storm for business rate-payers in 2022-23″ as a result of rising inflation (which is used to set the rates level) and the possible recession of the transitional relief scheme. You can read the newsletter here.

Newcastle United’s great Saudi take-over didn’t have the dream start many in the north east were hoping for after the Magpies lost 3-2 at home to Spurs in the first match since the new owners were announced. Almost as predictable was the departure of manager Steve Bruce, a man who clearly didn’t fit into the new vision. Whoever takes over will need to convince a club that hasn’t won a major trophy for nearly 70 years that it can do so. Many “smaller” clubs including Swindon, QPR, Oxford United, Coventry, Norwich, Wigan, Wimbledon, Swansea, Portsmouth, Luton and – worst of all for Geordies – Middlesborough and Sunderland have all managed to accomplish this since Newcastle last did, back in ’55 Nothing I’ve seen so far suggests I need to change my predictions for this year’s honours, in which Newcastle United don’t feature. Mind you, I’m often wrong…

Across the area

• Click here for news from your local council if you live in the Vale of White Horse, Wiltshire, Swindon or West Berkshire.

• Further information on your council’s activities is referred to in the respective Weekly News sections for the nine areas that Penny Post covers – Hungerford areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Theale area; Wantage area; Swindon area

• The BBC reports that there were 1,315 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 11 to 17 October, up 860 on the week before. This equates to 830 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 479 (397 the week before). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

• The matter of the problem with PCR tests has been covered in the section above. Click here for the 15 October 2021 statement from West Berkshire Council which includes information about what you should do if you recently had a negative PCR test at the Showground.

• Taking over as the new CEO of a local council after you’ve been somewhere else for a long time must be pretty daunting. Nigel Lynn took the helm this week after many years running Arun Council in Susses, replacing interim CEO Sue Halliwell who’d been steering the ship since Nick Carter left in the summer. The only example I can think of is being a new head at a school, except that at a place like a council all the people you need to know are adults. All will probably expect you to know, or somehow intuit, their names and their particular angles on things. I suspect the man has a lot of learning and name-checking to do over the next few weeks. He was able to take some time off from all of this to attend Tuesday press briefing on Tuesday afternoon. We all did quick introductions, to which he replied that he was “Nigel Lynn, CEO of Arun Council.” After a very short pause, he corrected himself. Absolutely understandable. I jokingly said that this slip was a headline story. As you can see, I’m a man of my word.

We wish him well in his new job. There will be many things with which he’ll need to address, some of which have been covered here and elsewhere at regular intervals. A council’s CEO is politically impartial, charged with executing whatever policies the elected members decide. CEOs also have considerable influence and are responsible for the council’s general conduct and compliance. Nick Carter was in office for 16 years – you can read an interview Penny Post did with him here – a longer continuous time than probably any of the councillors. Nigel Lynn will thus have the opportunity to take a fresh look at WBC’s activities and, within the limits of his role, make his mark by encouraging what works well and changing what does not.

• I mentioned last week that an article in the Newbury Weekly News suggested that West Berkshire had vaccinated “nearly 80%” of its population whereas my research suggested this was more like 84%. Figures can be slippery things and there seem to be four possible reasons for this confusion.

Firstly, the Gov.uk statistics to which I referred look at total people over 12 years old who had been vaccinated. The NWN’s “nearly 80%” figure seem to have been driven from expressing the number of people with one jab by the whole population of West Berkshire, some of whom hadn’t been offered the vaccine. 

Secondly, last week (just when we were looking at the stats) the government changed the age range from 16+ (which it had been when the NWN did its research) to 12+ (which it is now).

Thirdly, when talking about “national” one always has to be careful whether one means England, England and Wales (which are often grouped together), Great Britain or the UK. In this, the percentage of people jabbed in England is quite close to that for the UK as a whole, though the figures for the others range from 82.5% to 89.7%).

Finally, if you’re looking total populations, you might expect that adding up all the people in the different regions or districts would equal the figure for the whole UK, or whichever part of it you’re looking at. In fact, you don’t. In the case of Covid stats, these denominators are calculated differently. Those for regional reporting come directly from the National Immunisation Management Database (apart from Scotland) whereas the national ones are the ONS 2020 mid-year population estimate.

Many thanks to Jo Reeves from the Berkshire West CCG for the several emails we exchanged on this subject. I hope I’ve summarised this clearly and correctly.

• West Berkshire Council, and other across the country, are now turning their minds to thinking about setting their budgets. This will be influenced by the government’s spending review, set to be published on 27 October although the full details won’t be available until shortly before Christmas. West Berkshire has the best part of £150m to spend – where do you think it should go? This isn’t a completely hypothetical question as the council has again put forward its Budget Challenge, enabling members of the public to make their suggestions as to where money should be spent. You can see more on this here.

This was introduced last year and I was interested to know if this kind of participation made any difference to the decisions taken. “This did form an appendix to the budget papers for 2021-22,” the Executive Director for Resources Joseph Holmes told me, “and led to greater protection on the ‘people’ side of the budget.” I also asked if he was aware if other councils had ever done or still did this exercise: he was personally only aware of a few in the UK, including Bristol, Edinburgh and Hull. He added that this was introduced later in the process last year at WBC and hoped that there would therefore be more opportunity for people to get involved this year.

It’s worth pointing out that any council has less than total discretion over how it spends its money. Social care, for example, which accounts for getting on for half of WBC’s expenditure, is a statutory obligation that has been out-sourced to it by the government. None the less, there are a lot of decisions that are within WBC’s power to control and a potential £7m shortfall to make up. Your innovative ideas could be influential.

The meeting to decide and agree the budget will take place in March 2022. The meeting is 2021 was…well, interesting might be one word. Click here for the reaction of the three parties involved.

• West Berkshire Council has awarded a major contract to Virgin Media Business to supply full fibre infrastructure to schools, doctors’ surgeries and public libraries by March 2022. Connectivity at 32 locations in West Berkshire is set to be upgraded. The £1.7m project is being funded by Thames Valley Berkshire LEP through the Government’s Getting Building Fund. More details can be found hereThis BBC article suggests that “full fibre” will enables speeds of up to 1,000 megabits per second.

• West Berkshire Council has been awarded funding of £695,000 for the new Household Support Fund which will support families across West Berkshire which need it most this winter to meet daily needs such as utilities, food and other essential costs.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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.

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

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.

• One of the letters in this week’s Newbury Weekly News suggests that, if the paper “wants to persist with this supernatural content” the Christian Viewpoint should not always be the first item in the letters section. As probably fewer than 10% of the population are practising Christians (the National Secular Society puts this as low as 6%) this seems a reasonable suggestion. The correspondent also asked for reassurance that any comments on the column be published. The Editor duly did so, confirming that there have been about four in the past seven years. This might prove either indifference to the content or the fact that it precisely jives with the views of all but a handful of NWN readers. If there is going to be a faith-based column, it might not be a bad idea to invite some of the others to have their say now and again. I’d also like to add the NWN’s letters section is very good, often running to four pages. Some local papers have given up having any letters page at all, which seems a shame.

• The animal of the week is this dog Ringo which can climb trees. I recently posted an article called My Life on Team Cat in which I asked if there was anything more pathetic that watching a dog trying to climb a tree. I’ve since had several emails pointing out that this can happen. OK, I concede some dogs can climb (up quite easy trees), normally if they’re trained. There are quite a few such videos online. However, if every cat owner who saw their cat claims a tree posted it online, the internet would break.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as those referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of petrol, CIL payments, assisted dying, solar panels and corruption.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently including: St Batholomew’s School’s health and wellbeing projects (thanks to the recent sponsored walk); many voluntary groups in West Berkshire (thanks to West Berkshire Council); Victoria Promise (thanks to Ed Smith and friends);  Thames Valley Air Ambulance (thanks to the friends and family of Harvey Sims and, in a separate appeal, Didcot Rugby Club); the Greenham Greenham Group (thanks to staff at Metro Bank); the Stars appeal at Salisbury Hospital (thanks to Ethel’s Pies and others).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• And so we get our coats with the Song of the Week. Click here for one of the great pop, rock or what you will songs of all time – London Calling by The Clash.

• And we’re elbow-bumping and air-kissing with the Comedy Sketch of the Week. This one isn’t a split-your-sides thing but it’s part of the dark and surreal strain of comedy that Chris Morris’ The Day Today did so well. This one has Steve Coogan as an almost insanely dull security man explaining…well, you’ll see what he’s explaining in The Pool Supervisor.

• And finally it’s goodbye with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: How many Edwards have been crowned King of England in the last thousand years (since 1021)? Last week’s question was: What is the next letter in the series J F M A M J? The answer is J, followed by A, S, O, N and D: the first letters of the months of the year in English (and French, come to think of it).

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