Weekly News with Brian 16 to 23 December 2021

This Week with Brian

Including everything bad, a time for reflection, libertarians, the problem of proof, supporting hospitality, a hundred thousand children, a light touch no more, a dog’s life under pressure, hope and despair, all of the colours, a respectable street and a long nose.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including Covid pop-ups, a survey for the valley, delusions of grandeur, Readibus, two conflated grounds, two questions on Chestnut Walk, two letters on 2,500 homes, steps on the snicket, Hungerford’s extravaganza, Inkpen’s activities, Lambourn’s junction, Shefford’s hampers, Woodland’s social, Newbury’s butties, Stockcross’ pub, Wash Common’s watermill, Greenham’s art, Shaw-cum-Donnington’s contribution, Thatcham’s winners, Cold Ash’s sheep, Brimpton’s name plates, East Ilsley’s pond, Compton’s support, Aldworth’s three cases, Beedon’s panels, Theale’s magazine, Englefield’s snowman, Aldermaston’s ramp, Padworth’s repairs, Wantage’s waste, Letcombe’s register, Marlborough’s books, Axford’s diary, Ogbourne’s stewards , Swindon’s police – plus our usual last-minute supermarket dash through the websites and FB pages across the area.

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

• Professor Chris Whitty – a man who could announce that England had won the World Cup and still have most of us hiding behind the sofa in terror – said on 15 December that “we don’t know enough about Omicron but everything we know so far is bad.” A record number of cases, Christmas on the horizon and the coldest time of the year yet to come doesn’t look great. Get your booster and test regularly were the main pieces of advice that came out of the latest briefing. Queues are forming all over the country for the former and, in some cases for the latter. There’s evidence that the systems for providing both, which were in some disarray earlier in the week, are improving.

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• Professor Whitty was also at pains to stress that Omicron may not be a milder form of Covid, as some have suggested. The main evidence so far comes from South Africa where, as he pointed out, there has been a different patters of immunity development than in the UK due to the different pace of the vaccine roll out. That country also has a younger population. Too soon to tell. One possible piece of good news is that it was suggested on 16 December that Omicron might peak quickly and then subside. I suspect that medics and scientists working on understanding this aren’t going to have much of a Christmas break.

• One person who probably should have a bit of time off is our PM. He’s been urged by several people, including one of his former communications officers, to take advantage of the recess to reflect on his disastrous political car crashes in the last month, which culminated in a rebellion of nearly 100 MPs earlier this week over the plan for Covid passes (or “Covid passports” as they’ve more sensationally been dubbed) which, humiliatingly, was only passed because of Labour’s support. His seat-of-the-pants leadership style clearly opens him to a number of criticisms, not helped by the Owen Paterson and the Christmas party debacles.

Those who rebelled probably did so for one of three reasons: (i) a free-floating, populist, libertarian belief that the measure represents a monumental assault on our ancient liberties; (ii) the belief that the measure were either unworkable or epidemiologically irrelevant or both; (iii) because they fancied a free kick at the prime-ministerial backside in the safe knowledge that, thanks to Labour’s support, the act would still pass. You can see a list of who voted which way here. Local MPs Laura Farris, David Johnston, Kit Malthouse and Danny Kruger, all Conservatives), obeyed their master’s call despite several of them having been sold down the river by the whips during the Owen Paterson fiasco.

• It’s well known that MPs are subjected to a good deal of pressure to toe the party line at such times. Just how much pressure was recently revealed in Politics Home which quotes The Guardian as alleging that whips have been accused of “telling some [MPs] in Tory-held marginals they could lose “critical defence” funding from party headquarters worth up to £10,000.” “Pressure” is one word for this: “extortion”, “bullying” and “bribery” are others. Indeed. Politics Home asserts that “the whips’ office has been notably aggressive to the new intake and quotes the Daily Telegraph’s report that MPs were complaining of hardcore bullying tactics used to keep members in line.” The article also refers to the “insatiable hunger for promotion” to government office which seems to be particularly prevalent among the 107 new Conservatives elected in 2019. All a rather unedifying exposé of the dog’s life of a backbench MP. The House seems to be run with the same manners, traditions and sense of hierarchy as an Eton common room: which, in the circumstances, perhaps isn’t that surprising.

• What bothers me most about the recent voting is the extent to which public-health measures and civil-liberties infringements have become conflated. I know that politicians and campaigners will jump on every opportunity to make their case and I know that freedom from state control (be it from Westminster or from Brussels) has always been a popular card to play. It’s even been suggested that this recalls the treatment meted out to the Jews by the Nazis, with all the connotations of yellow stars and second-class citizenship. What rubbish. On the last point, the UK government introduced a system of ID cards in September 1939 and this wasn’t, like the present-day “Covid passports” (or the jabs), a discretionary matter.

I refuse to believe that the state has any interest in lockdowns, face-mask wearing, Covid passports or any of the other measures that have been implemented (and may be again). Nor have I seen any evidence that vaccines are unsafe to the systemic and widespread extent that some have claimed. By “evidence”, that doesn’t mean that I’ve read loads of technical papers (though I’ve spoken to people who have). I wouldn’t understand them and wouldn’t know what proof looked like. I doubt that many of the people who say that they need proof would do either.

Indeed, ultimate, definitive “proof “can probably never be seen, except negatively. Proof is, to a scientist, a conclusion based on wide-ranging and peer-reviewed evidence of what is currently known, and which is subject to constant modification and criticism. Scientists deal in doubt: it is their currency. The certainty of the tax deniers and civil libertarians seems to admit of no modification. It’s just a cause; an article of faith; a route to influence or power, or to the maintenance of it:, much as was the suppression of heresies of the likes of Galileo by the Catholic church. I don’t understand much of what scientists say but think I understand most of what the anti-vaxers say. I also know which of the two I trust more.

• As for what the regulations are for Christmas parties, the answer – in England at any rate – is “no one knows.” The BBC reported that earlier this month, Dr Jenny Harries, head of the UK Health Security Agency, said we shouldn’t be socialising “when we don’t particularly need to”. What on earth does that mean? The guidance doesn’t seem to have got much clearer since. Many people have cancelled or curtailed their plans and more will do so. I feel terribly sorry for hospitality venues. Without clear  government advice they can’t get claim on Covid insurance (if they have it) and without any furlough scheme they can’t keep their staff. For many, the number of bookings that remain are possibly not enough to ensure profitability but sufficiently large – were the venue suddenly to announce closure for reasons other than government regulations – to cause repetitional damage. One publican I spoke to last year said that it cost about £10,000 to close his venue for a period and then re-open it. Many might not survive this latest shock at this time of year.

In a rural area like ours, most settlements only have one pub (if any) and any closure is always a sad moment. The government needs to make a definite statement about this. If public health demands that all hospitality venues be closed, say so now and let’s have some support in place. It’s prudent as well, as I suspect the Exchequer gets more money in compilation tax, PAYE and NI from pubs and restaurants than it does from the extra sales by supermarkets, which is where most people will otherwise turn for their comforts. We have a post about the venues in our area which offer delivery and take-away services (please let us know if you run such a business and would like to be included – there’s no charge). Whatever area you’re in, do support such places in any way you can.

I spoke to Romila Arbour, owner of the Honesty Group, about this. “The government obviously does not want to cancel Christmas but it’s approach at the moment is death by a thousand cuts to hospitality,” she told me. “It needs to extend the reduced VAT period beyond March 2022 and look at reduced business rates going into the next financial year. Councils are seriously stretched, though, so there are no easy answers. My view is that a lot of the help extended to businesses during the first pandemic will be wasted if businesses go under now. My prediction is that there will be many businesses failing next year if nothing is done.”

• No decision yet as to whether our 10,000-odd local councils can hold their meetings remotely again (see last week’s column). This isn’t in their gift as it is for companies as the law states that municipal votes have to be conducted in person: so, they could meet remotely but any decisions would then be open to a legal challenge. The larger the council, the more important this challenge could be. It seems that no parliamentary time has been set aside to discuss this. Why this is a sufficiently contentious decision to require parliamentary time at all defeats me. It’s a question of maintaining both public health (there are at least 100,000 councillors in England) and local democracy, both of which are rather important. Our own council, West Berkshire, is continuing to lobby for a sensible change in the law. So, Mr BJ and Mr Gove, let all of them organise matters remotely if they wish and stop treating them like children.

• There’s been a lot of publicity recently about the recurring problem of water companies pumping untreated sewage into waterways, including SSSIs, often (certainly round here) to deal with the regular seasonal issue of high levels of groundwater infiltrating the system through cracks in the pipes and causing everything to overflow. I calculated a couple of months ago that if all the discharges made across the country in 2020 were going into one pipe, it would be flowing continuously for nearly 250 years.  The Environment Agency (EA), which is ultimately responsible for policing these infractions, has hitherto taken what could politely be described as a light-touch approach. There are, however, signs that it has recently woken up to its responsibilities.

This statement, issued on 23 November, talks of a “major investigation by the EA and Ofwat” into over 2,000 sewage treatment works and expresses the hope that “the levels of penalties for corporate environmental crime in England go up significantly.” It goes on to say that “more attention should also be paid to the directors of companies who are guilty of repeated, deliberate or reckless breaches of environmental law. Such directors should be struck off and in the most grievous cases given custodial sentences.” Fighting talk.

This new robust approach to dealing with water companies was reinforced yesterday by OFWAT whose interim CEO wrote an open letter to all customers on 15 December making a commitment to hold water companies to account where they have made illegal discharges into the environment. This includes confirming that some water companies have admitted that “they may not be treating all sewage in the way they should be,” something which many would say has been well known for some time. The letter goes on to use words and phrases like “enforcement”,  “financial penalties”, “criminal prosecutions” and “wrongdoing.” More fighting talk. 

In this part of the world, the groundwater seems to be rising a bit later than usual, so any problems with the system should start becoming clear by about February. Let’s hope that, by then, the water companies have the necessary mitigation measures in place: or, failing that, the necessary number of lawyers. Let’s hope also that the Environment Agency can get serious with this. Protecting the environment is what it’s meant to be all about – the clue’s in the name, guys.

• And the Ashes go on. I don’t think I can bear to watch the score. But then again, I have to. I’m reminded of the wonderful line in the film Clockwise: “It’s not the despair – I can stand the despair. It’s the hope…”

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 877 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 6 to 12 December, down 125 on the week before. This equates to 553 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 552 (513 the week before). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

• West Berkshire Council has launched a new grant scheme to support businesses in the district. The Additional Restrictions Grant Challenge Fund is an opportunity for local businesses to apply for grants of up to £25,000 to fund projects which will stimulate growth and recovery, under the categories of either Green Growth or Digital Improvements. Proposals could include new equipment, development of an app or website to improve a service, or covering the costs of connecting to full-fibre for rural businesses. The deadline for applications is 13 February 2022 and successful businesses will receive their grant in early March. More details can be found here.

• On Saturday 18 December, bus travel will be free from West Berkshire on Reading Buses, Newbury & District, Stagecoach and Thames Travel. This festive offer, supported by West Berkshire Coucil, is intended to support local retailers and minimise traffic congestion by encouraging more people to use the bus. This replaces free parking which has been provided by West Berkshire Council in previous years. Note that this doesn’t apply to services going into or out of West Berkshire to Marlborough or Swindon.

• West Berkshire Council has launched a consultation on its draft adult social-care strategy (2022-2026) “to give service users, staff and other local people and organisations the opportunity to share their thoughts on what the priorities should be over the coming years.” This will run until Monday 3 January 2022.

• West Berkshire Council’s Giving Tree campaign is back and WBC is “teaming up with local domestic abuse services to wrap up Christmas for those in need.” Read more here.

• See the Weekly News sections for Hungerford, Newbury, Thatcham and the Lambourn Valley for details of new Covid booster vaccination centres which will be running in Hungerford, Kintbury and Lambourn on certain days in December.

Surviving to Thriving, a joint venture set up by WBC and Greenham Trust, has exceeded its fundraising target of £300,000. It is aimed at all not-for-profit organisations operating in West Berkshire and will provide varying sizes of grants (from £500 up to a maximum of £30,000) that will help them to carry out their activities (possibly online), make one-off purchases or set up new initiatives to help to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19 on mental health and wellbeing.

Click here for information on changes to WBC’s online payments system which have recently come into force.

• 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 fund to improve access to physical activities in West Berkshire through proposals developed and organised by local community groups. More information here.

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 libraries newsletter from West Berkshire Council.

Click here for the latest Covid newsletter from 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.

• There’s a letter in this week’s Newbury Weekly News which bemoans the fact that the letters page has become “too left wing“, a charge the Editor vehemently denies. I look at them every week and think there’s a pretty good range of opinions. If there are more from the left then that’s perhaps a natural and healthy reaction to the fact that for many years there’s been a Conservative administration here. More important than a particular political viewpoint is an ability to stick to the point and get the facts right. By these tests, several comments from the right of centre (including from certain Councillors past and present) fail pretty much every time.

• The animals of the week are these audacious and brazen thieving monkeys caught in the act by Chris Packham.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of rough sleepers, farmers, access to recycling centres and face masks.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently including: West Berkshire Foodbank (thanks to The Willink School); Dressability (thanks the McCarthy Stone Foundation); numerous local charities (thanks to Greenham Trust and also the many fundraising events at Christmas events across the area); Children with Cancer UK (thanks to Steve Morgan).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• And here’s the virtual Christmas party that’s the Song of the Week. One of my favourite bands came from just up the road (well, about 20 miles up the road) in Swindon. My pick from XTC’s back catalogue is Respectable Street. Play loud.

• Sorry, Zoom’s crashed, so you’ll have to make do with the Comedy Sketch of the Week. It’s not often that a TV advert tests high on the comedy scale but I was listening to Maureen Lipman doing a radio monologue today and these reminded me of her series of ads for BT in the late 80s in which she hammed up the image of the Jewish mother and wife for all it was worth. This one is just called Clothes Shop but I prefer All of the Colours in All of the Sizes.

• Self-isolating on your own with a half bottle of vodka and a silly jumper? Never mind, try the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is one of 19 that we’ve set for our Christmas and New Year quiz, with the chance to win a wonderful prize from The Ibex in Chaddleworth – details here. Last week’s question was: Which film featured the song When You Wish upon a Star? The answer is Pinocchio, a film I must have watched about 89 times with my various sons. Some of the scenes, such as when the boys turn into donkeys on Pleasure Island, I always found distinctly creepy.

We’ll be taking the next couple of weeks off and this column will be back on Thursday 6 January, ready to deal with whatever 2022 has to throw at us. Have a great break.

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