Weekly News with Brian 31 March to 7 April 2022

This Week with Brian

Including the wrong job, regime change (or not), over-run with Nazis, what we believe, the perils of statistics, quitting 25 miles in, Oscar frenzy, watching the film, collecting the waste, right- and left-handed brilliance, bacon (the maple kind) and the UK or France.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including wonky pavements, nutrients and an NDP, Joely’s survey (part 2), Sandleford’s delay (part 64), Thatcham’s 2,500 new homes (part 64), mitigation, new boundaries, Hungerford’s buzz, Froxfield’s drain, Chilton Foliat’s transformer, Lambourn’s last box, Shefford’s last lunch, Newbury’s eels, Enborne’s panels, Shaw-cum-Donnington’s path, Hamstead Marshall’s wildlife, Welford’s common, Thatcham’s awards, frilsham’s presentation, Stanford Dingley’s children, Compton’s eggs, Westridge Green’s speeding, Chaddleworth’s saga, Theale’s fun, Mortimer’s library, Aldermaston’s coffee, Wantage’s meeting, Grove’s review, East Hanney’s bio-diversity, Marlborough’s climate, Rambury’s bugles, Axford’s perfection and Swindon’s service – plus our usual prowl around 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

• I feel rather sorry for Boris Johnson. Despite his protestations that all was organised as it should have been, his team has recently been hit with 20 lockdown fines by the Met, which has darkly stated that this is not the end of the matter. The whole partygate thing is back on the map again, finding a brief bubble of media air in the midst of the Ukraine crisis. As mentioned before, dealing with partygate is important because, if we don’t, then our leaders can do what they want. So, why do I feel sorry for him?

[more below] 

The reason is that he’s in the wrong job. The role of PM demands, but rarely gets, someone of honesty: the problem is that the hoops you need to go through to achieve the office demand a different set of skills to those which are required once it’s obtained. It’s one thing, once in power, to dissemble and prevaricate. This is needed to accomplish anything but needs to be conducted with the awareness of how much one is deviating from strict truth and how much this is justified by the exigencies of what you’re dealing with. This is not ideal: but then again, it’s an imperfect world and solutions need to be found.

BoJo, however, seems genuinely not to understand the difference between truth and falsehood (or doesn’t see that it applies to him). This is a serious psychological flaw. Having him as PM is like having a colour-blind graphic designer, a tone-deaf conductor or a dyslexic proof-reader – it’s not their fault but they just don’t have the credentials. The recent endorsement of him by Matt Hancock has only reinforced my view. The former and disgraced Health Secretary referred to the fact that the PM had apologised: yes, but only when this was wrung out of him. Seeing any politician, at any level, apologising without compunction is pretty rare. Worth remembering that he didn’t get to Number 10 as a result of a coup or of magic: we elected him. Every democratic country gets the leader it deserves.

• Joe Biden has also been in the firing line recently after saying on 26 March that Putin “cannot remain in power” and then having this clarified by diplomats a couple of days later to assure the world that the USA was not calling for regime change in Russia. It would certainly be interesting to see how the USA would propose accomplishing and enforcing this, its record in regime change since WW2 being nothing short of lamentable. No one else has done much better – indeed I’m struggling to think of any case on my lifetime where regime change has actually worked; and yet it keeps on being regarded as a viable policy. Biden has a bit of a record for going off-message: then again, he won his first election over 50 years ago and the Presidency last year with the largest number of votes ever cast for anyone in that country so he clearly has done something right.

• The BBC’s Ros Atkins’ webcasts are always worth listening to as he takes a measured view that’s backed up with evidence. Here’s his one from 24 March on Russia’s claim that Ukraine is over-run with Nazis from whom the population needs saving. This is a trope from the 1940s which made no sense to me when Putin first advanced it just after the invasions suspicion which Ros Atkins has, to my satisfaction confirmed.

• None the less, we must be very careful about what we choose to believe about this. As I mentioned last week, our press is currently so anti-Russian that it predisposes our views to a dangerous extent. It’s hard to find any defence for what Putin has done, though I suggested that he was merely trying to make a point to a world that he felt had relegated Russia to second-class status. This, he claims, is because of the demise of the USSR and NATO’s and the EU’s encroachments into areas which, he also claims, compromises Russia’s security. In WW2 Russia was invaded by a Western power and suffered untold brutalities (which it repaid at the end of the war). The encirclement, real-and-present-danger and de-Nazification cards are thus easy ones to play and work ro an extent to which we, in our rich island nation, will never understand.

Our PM sparked outrage when earlier this month he compared Ukraine’s resistance to the UK’s 2016 Brexit vote: but it does make a kind of mad sense. The Brexit campaign was predicated on the idea that the UK was being somehow strangled by a larger neighbour. In Ukraine’s case this is actually happening. Putin’s view, however, was that NATO was about to do just the same thing to Russia. And so it goes on…

• As does Covid. Just when we thought it was over, it isn’t. Welcome to the world of viruses, I guess. The big paradox at the moment is that not only are cases going up but also lateral-flow test kits will from 1 April cease to be free. This made me wonder what the relationship was between test rates and reported cases.

If you want to reduce official Covid stats to zero, you stop testing. If you want to show the maximum figure you test everyone, every day. Neither of these are going to happen. The reality has been a level of testing that has been influenced by a number of very different considerations. These include, in no particular order, government or media pressure, personal preference, the need for evidence of testing in order to partake in certain activities, the availability of test kits or testing centres and personal self-interest.

Until I looked at the figures (which you can see here for tests and see here for cases) I thought that the last might be the most significant. It would appear not, however. During the March to June 2021 period we were regularly taking over a million tests a day, even though cases were in the low thousands. In the last six weeks, however, fewer tests are being done even though there are perhaps twenty times more reported cases. For every 1,000 people who were tested on 25 March 2021, for example, 6 would have been positive. Wind forward 365 days and it’s 77 . In the first period cases were low and, in the second, high. It seems clear that self-interest isn’t the big factor.

A year ago, testing kits were widely available: now they are not. Tests were also being demanded for many as a pre-condition of any kind of human engagement; now they are not. Then only about £25m people had been doubled jabbed; now about 50m have been. These are just some of the variations that makes any kind of generalisations about the statistics very dangerous, particularly for a non-statistician like me.

To an increasing extent, the number of cases is a lot less important than the severity of the symptoms. Everyone responds differently to any infection and our immune levels wax and wane according to a vast range of factors, few of which are understood or can be predicted. The efficacy of the vaccines and the boosters will do so too. The viral load you were exposed to will probably influence how badly you are affected, as might other factors such as temperature and diet. All the statistics also depend on people’s willingness to report either negative or positive results. Some who test positive might suppress their result for personal reasons, as might those who test negative. If no kits or testing centres are available locally you will clearly not test at all. All in all, there are a host of factors which make the whole statistical and medical exercise a bit of a guessing game.

Three things do seem clear, however. The first is that the number of cases now, in late March, is probably a good deal higher than it was two months ago, perhaps to an even greater extent than the official stats show. In the ten days from 20 March 2022, an average of 711,680 tests were done a day, detecting an average of 81,957 cases. Go back to the ten days from 11 January 2022 and an average of 1,360,002 tests were daily detecting an average of 101,024 cases. So, close to double the number of tests in the earlier period detected only about 25% more cases. Were an average of 1,360,002 tests a day to have been conducted in the 10 days from 20 March 2022, and ion all the other variables had been the same, one might fairly assume that rather than an average of about 82,000 cases a day there would actually have been something like 156,000.

Secondly, statistics about infections, hospitalisations and deaths have to be treated with some caution as they conflate “with” and “due to”. All figures – on this or any other matter – need care in any case, particularly when comparing one period (such as winter and summer, or pre- or post-jabs) or one area with another. The most positive news, however, is that the figures for patients requiring ventilators have barely increased at all in the last two months and is at about 10% of its peak in late January 2021. (That said, any patient in hospital due to or merely with Covid applies extra pressure to a health system which already has quite enough.)

In my district of West Berkshire cases per 100,000 have been above the national average for some time and I wondered if this, and in particular the recent spike, had translated into extra admissions or need for ventilators in the local hospitals. The situation here is slightly complicated by West Berkshire having no major hospital of its own, those in Reading, Oxford, Swindon and Basingstoke being the nearest. Who better to ask, I thought, than WBC’s health and wellbeing portfolio holder Graham Bridgman. “So far we don’t seem to be seeing this,” he told me on 31 March. “Although cases in the district have risen, so far as I can tell the hospitals are not being overwhelmed and, in particular, the Covid-positive numbers in intensive care are lower than they were early on.  Of course, the situation can change by the day, so we continue to keep a close eye on it.”

The third is that the end of free lateral flow tests will almost certainly reduce the number of cases that are reported and thus depress the seeming number of cases. These have clearly cost a good deal of money but doubtless a lot less than that lost to fraud during the various Covid schemes – the Office for Budgetary Responsibility suggests £5,8bn and Peer2Peer £16bn, so take your pick. From now on, tests could cost as much as £7 each: any payment is not an incentive to procure them (though it might be to using them carefully). I think this change was introduced a few months too soon. There are still some cold days ahead and it’s only been a few weeks since people stopped wearing masks. regardless of the actual cost, to stop offering free tests right now now seems a bit like pulling up 25 miles into a marathon.

• The Oscars are in many ways ridiculous. So too are most other such awards which seek to turn disparate performances in disparate films into a competition. I’m quite reconciled to the fact that England lost the Euros final on penalties to Italy as such sporting competitions are decided according to win/lose criteria we all accept at the outset. Celebrating anything creative, ranging from songwriting to acting, in the same way is essentially corporate bullshit, a fact only  George C Scott (who refused his best actor award for Patton) was brave enough to admit. At this year’s ceremony, one actor apparently hit the presenter in the face for making a joke something about some member of his family. I’m not sure that when you get to that level of fame you are any longer fully in control of yourself anyway. This is not a problem I will ever have to grapple with…

Across the area

• 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 1,935 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 20 to 26 March, down 64 on the week before. This equates to 1,221 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 909 (868 last week). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

Lies, damned lies and…

I mentioned last week about councillors’ attendance rates at meetings and, while praising the two members of West Berkshire Council who have attended every one since May 2019, pointed out that these are far from being the only measure of a councillor’s worth. Ward work is in my view the most important, much more so that the colour of their rosette. I’ve since talked to a few people about these figures and it seems that these should be treated with even more caution than I’d first thought: indeed, they may be actively misleading.

I spoke to some of the members who appeared at the lower end of the attendance scale. A number of reasons, all perfectly reasonable, were given as to why they hadn’t attended more meetings to which they were summoned. These included work commitments, childcare, illness, family bereavement and at least one case of a failure in WBC’s communications. All seem fair enough. If anyone is going to make any political capital out of non-attendance when the election comes round I trust that they’ll ensure that they establish the reasons for their target’s absences before rushing into print or logging on to Twitter.

A much more serious flaw is in the nature of the figures themselves. Members might be “in attendance” at all or part of a meeting to which they were not summoned, perhaps because it concerns a ward issue or some matter in which they have an interest. In the period between April 2021 and February 2022 (when all meetings had to be held in person but the WBC Chamber was not able to accommodate them all), members were also marked as being “in attendance” if they had been summoned to a meeting but could, for this reason, only attend remotely. As the figures draw no distinction between these two kinds of “in attendance” it’s impossible to be sure how many meetings members would have attended were they able to do so.

Finally, it was also pointed out to me that being “present” requires only signing in at the start: the member can leave straight away without changing this (I don’t know if this ever happens, but it could). As I understand it, the possibility therefore exists for one member to attend a meeting for two minutes and be marked as having been there and for another to wade through the whole three hours or whatever of it on Zoom and marked being only “in attendance”.

Although the WBC figures don’t express the attendance rates in percentage terms, this is very easy to do if you have Excel or a calculator and I did that. However, doing this is very dangerous where the totals are low and particularly when (as almost all of these are) they are less than 100. Someone who had been summoned to 20 meetings and missed five of them would have an attendance record of 75%, which doesn’t look that great. Saying that they missed five meetings doesn’t seem quite so serious. Also some sessions are more important than others and the combined  figures draw no distinction about that either. As with all statistics, handle them with care.

Collecting the waste

From autumn 2022, food waste in West Berkshire will be collected weekly (on the same day as your usual recycling and rubbish collection) using eight new purpose-built vehicles. WBC’s contractor Veolia currently collects food waste every fortnight in the green bin (with garden waste if you are subscribed to that service). The plan is that most properties will be provided with a 23-litre kerbside caddy with a lockable lid which can be stored outside with other recycling containers. Residents who share a bin store will receive a different sized bin to share with neighbours. All residents will also be supplied with a handy five-litre kitchen caddy to collect food waste in before emptying it into their bigger kerbside caddy outside.

WBC has long encouraged residents not to recycle food in the black bins as when this rots it produces methane, a greenhouse gas at least 20 times worse that CO2. Fortnightly collections, however, are too far apart for many people’s needs, particularly in hot weather. The Council is thus conducting a consultation to make people aware of the changes and to learn more about their recycling habits and their thoughts on other aspects of the new system. 

You can click here to have your say on this matter. The consultation will remain open until midnight on 3 May 2022.

Carbon Leisure

I recently received a statement from the Vale of White Horse Council which explained that “A low-carbon, energy-efficient future for Faringdon Leisure Centre became a huge step closer, when work began on installing solar panels and air source heat pump technology this month. The refurbishments will significantly improve the carbon footprint of the building, and it will become the Vale’s first council-owned building to be powered entirely by low-carbon and renewable energy. This will save around 500,000kWh of energy over a year – the equivalent to the annual electricity use of 135 houses. The changes to the leisure centre are part of Vale of White District Council’s plans to become a carbon-neutral organisation by 2030, and for the Vale to become a carbon-neutral district by 2045. ‘

This prompted me to wonder what similar plans WBC had for its leisure centres. “We are very keen to move our leisure centres across the district to being carbon neutral, ” Environment portfolio holder Steve Ardagh-Walter told Penny Post on 31 March.    “Both the planned Newbury Lido and Monks Lane sports hub are being designed to be carbon neutral.” He went on to say that “leisure centres are not as significant as schools in terms of our overall carbon footprint, but they do matter – in particular those with swimming pools (heating water takes a lot more energy than air). Hence the Lido will have heat pumps. When boilers for leisure centres or schools to come to end of life, we will aim to replace these with heat pumps.”

Other news

Please click here for information about what local councils are doing to help support refugees from Ukraine and how you can help.

• The question of which documents could be disclosed to district councillors and which could not was considered by West Berkshire Council at its full council meeting on 17 March. You can read my report of the discussion (which needed in some confusion) by clicking here.

• The sewage problem is attracting an increasing amount of interest. It’s a particular issue in places like the Lambourn Valley and the area around Aldbourne and Ramsbury which have both variable groundwater levels and SSSI rivers which are subject to stringent protection. I spoke to local campaign groups, local councillors, Thames Water and the Environment Agency to see what the latest situation was: you can read the article here.

• West Berkshire Council needs your opinion about the upcoming separate food-waste collections service. The survey is now live and will remain so until midnight on 3 May.

West Berkshire Foodbank has also been in the news recently as a result of debates about its future funding at West Berkshire Council and concerns that demand for its services is outstripping supply. Click here for the latest statement from the Foodbank’s Manager, Fran Chamings.

• West Berkshire Council is encouraging people to pledge to do their bit to clear up the litter that blights the natural environment during the Great British Spring Clean 2022.

• Local charity Connecting Communities in Berkshire (CCB) has stressed that help is available for those struggling with rising energy bills. CCB has been running a project tackling fuel poverty for 10 years and can provide expertise in supporting low-income families that are struggling with the recently confirmed price rises. For more information, contact Helen Dean on helen.dean@ccberks.org.uk or visit www.ccberks.org.uk.

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.

Click here for the latest environmental 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 animal of the week is this dog whose “conversation” with his owner about food (“Bacon…the maple kind, yeah”) has been seen over 205 million times. It is that good.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of Newbury station, sewage, cults, the EU and two rebukes to Councillor Alan Law.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently including: several local charities and organisations (thanks to Greenham Trust and parish and town councils); DEC Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal (thanks to Chriostian Alba’s butchers in Hungerford); Unicef Ukraine and the Red Cross (thanks to the recent fundraising event in Englefield and a bake-off in Newbury); Red Nose Day (thanks to Gardner Leader).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So we come to the Song of the Week. Not a song as such but a clip from one of the most astounding pieces of jazz/blues guitar playing I’ve ever heard: step forward Eric Gales with this clip of his  his 2020 gig in Redwood City CA in 2020. Any guitarists out there will note that he’s playing a right-handed Strat left-handed and upside-down, ie with the treble strings at the top. He’s actually right-handed but learned this way from his leftie brother. Utterly wonderful stuff, whatever the hand.

• Next we fade into the Comedy Sketch of the Week. Here the wonderful Alan Davies takes over the podium from Stephen Fry for a few minutes in QI, with mixed results.

• And to wind things up, it’s the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Which country has more inhabitants, the UK or France? Last week’s question was: What reason did George Harrison give for putting up the £2m needed to make The Life of Brian? The answer is, according to Eric Idle, that having read the script, the former Beatle said he’d put up the money because “I want to see the film.” Good decision, George.

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