This week with Brian 23 to 30 November 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including coping with graphs, dealing with doubt, back to the curve, deliberate misunderstanding, another profession, boiling points, a nation of commentators, the full Beeching, an autumn statement, care homes or not, tightening the belt, pink fairy armadillos, a chance for Luxembourg, the unfaithful servant, a list of requests and six winners

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (updated every Thursday evening).

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 Covid enquiry grinds on. This week’s sessions have been mainly about science, with Chris Whitty, Patrick Valence and Jonathan Van-Tam – three more names from the past after the likes of Hancock and Cummings forced their way back into our heads – in the hot seats. One of the points that came out of this is that Boris Johnson is not, according to Patrick Vallance, very good at science.

[more below]

• Graphs

Vallance said that it was “difficult at times” to get the then national supremo to understand basic ideas, such as flattening the curve. This was a central goal particularly in the early days of the pandemic and essentially involved keeping the infection rate below a particular threshold, in this case the number of cases beyond which it was felt the NHS would be swamped. This could be translated as a failure to understand graphs.

When I was younger, science was not considered cool. Music was cool; poetry was quite cool, depending on what kind of poetry and who you talked to; art was cool; English literature was certainly cool, as were languages; even history, which I ended up concentrating on, was a bit cool. Physics and maths were not cool. Other schools in other areas at other times may have instilled a different attitude but it wasn’t what I got. You had, on the one hand, someone with a guitar and a book of sonnets drinking wine in a mid-summer cornfield while reciting or composing deathless verse; and, on the other, a tired and nervous person in a draughty lab repeating an experiment with a pipette and a microscope, carefully recording each variation on a dog-eared chart.

I accept these are extreme points on the graph but I suggest that most of us would recognise the dichotomy. It’s also been suggested that, due to to early-age conditioning, this preference for arts subjects is particularly prevalent among women: only three per cent of Nobel prize-winning scientists have been female, for instance. Another reason why arts subjects might be more attractive to students is the relative amount of hard-graft work required. My two youngest sons are currently in their third years studying film production and civil engineering. I’ll leave you to guess which of the two has to put the more hours in.

So, we perhaps have a bias against science for cultural reasons dating back to childhood. Once not addressed, this carries through into adult life. The result is that anyone might throw their hands in the air and say “I can’t understand” it, the implication perhaps being that this is science’s fault. We were mentioning graphs earlier so let’s just look at them. Are graphs that hard to follow?

Most graphs express two things. Frequently these are time, along the x (horizontal) axis and the extent to which something has changed on the y (vertical) one. In its simplest form it’s a line or curve: or perhaps more than one curve depending on possible outcomes. There might also be a horizontal line indicating a figure that should not be breached. What I’ve just described is the “flatten the curve” idea that was such a thing during the early part of Covid. This doesn’t seem that complicated. And yet the then PM, a man who whatever else he might be is clearly not an idiot, found it “difficult at times”.

I put this “I can’t understand graphs” to a friend of mine, a Professor of Computer Science at UCL. “It’s an emotional, not an intellectual, reaction,” he suggested to me. “People read and understand graphs and charts every day. Just look at BBC Weather, which for your chosen area at this time of year indicates nine suns in the sky on Saturday, all at different heights. Everyone from the age of about nine should have been taught to understand that this indicates the height in the sky of the sun at various times of day, moving from left to right. It’s nowhere near as complex as reading an OS map or even a satnav: more like the intellectual level of reading speed and revs from a car dashboard.  Yet even highly intelligent people say “I don’t understand graphs” which is not only intellectually untrue but is emotionally equivalent to putting your hands over your ears and shouting “nah nah nah – I can’t hear you.”

It may be that we feel that, because we we not taught something and don’t understand all its rules, we cannot in any way engage with it. Many of us understand plenty of scientific principles perfectly well although we may not know the details. Pump too much air into a car tyre and it’ll explode; turn the grill right up and the pizza will burn; stay out all night in the snow and you’ll get frostbite. Like the rough-and-ready approach many people use with written English, an intuitive understanding is good enough. Uninvited attempts to explain the laws of thermodynamics or why one should use a possessive pronoun before a gerund are rarely welcome.

All of us, and particularly politicians, live in a fluid world where everything means what we can get away with explaining it does for long enough for our listeners to accept it. Then Covid struck: and, with it, scientists were suddenly thrust to the forefront with their graphs, R numbers and flattened curves. This wasn’t what the politicians – or the rest of us – had signed up for. Suddenly, everything seemed precise (though, as I suggest below, it wasn’t). There were also suddenly experts on prime-time TV involved in telling us what to do. None of us, neither the rulers nor the ruled, could cope with this.

 • Misunderstanding

Another possibility about the PM’s lack of being able to deal with this apparent scientific precision, which Patrick Vallance suggested, as reported in The Guardian, is that Boris “had the habit of pretending to misunderstand things to test out whether an alternative could be true.” After having read this, I tested it out during a conversation on a wholly separate but complex matter on Monday. After making a deliberately loose statement, I was rewarded with a clearer explanation of the apparent failure of my understanding than I’d had before. As a result, I felt I understood the matter better. This is, however, quite a high-risk strategy in a meeting of perhaps twenty people, with immediate national consequences, where the person in charge cannot afford to be seen to be anything than right on top of everything.

Perhaps the problem with graphs is not that we don’t understand them but that we understand them too well, or think we do. A graph creates the illusion of precision – when we get to this point in time, this will have happened. Everyone knows that there are variables but most graphs cannot express this. Most will display what proves to be the right result only if all other conditions remained unchanged. One can perhaps understand one graph but not half a dozen, each expressing a different outcome. 

Covid was far from being a stable time. The problem for Boris was that he had to make political decisions based on what he wanted to see as hard evidence, or that awful phrase “the best science”. Scientific opinion shifts, however, depending on the evidence. Politicians, on the other hand, have to live with the remarks they make.

 • Science

The biggest misapprehension about science is that it deals in certainty. In fact, it deals in doubt. Theories can be disproved but never absolutely proved. The best a scientist can say is that a certain outcome can be repeated by experiment but that it may not be true in all situations or if new factors, perhaps currently unknown, are introduced into the equation.

It also depends on what you’re able to observe. The idea that the universe rotated around the earth was a rational interpretation for millennia, based on the available technology. We now have a different theory, although this still does not, for example, explain how gravity works. A hundred years hence, people may wonder how our view of the universe could ever have commanded any serious attention.

Or take the boiling point of water. We all know that this happens at 100ºC but it was not immediately clear that this was only the case at sea-level. At the top of Everest, you’d only need about 72ºC. Altitude is thus as important as temperature. No scientist can afford to say that another factor might, in other circumstances, create a different result. Our version of truth is constrained by what we can measure and also what we are looking for in terms of possible variables.

During the pandemic, not only new data but also new ways of measuring it were coming in all the time, as were the variables. Even Thatcher, our only PM with a science degree, might have been unable to cope with this. Boris certainly couldn’t. Perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to the country was the fact that he caught Covid in April 2020. This gave his subsequent pronouncements on the matter a personal flavour which made what he said harder to criticise. He had become a victim and so, Gonzo-like, part of the story.

The idea that there can be “the best science”, a phrase that became a mantra from early 2020, is essentially meaningless. This implies something that’s both unambiguous and immutable. Nothing, with regard to the pandemic, could have been further from the truth. Whitty and Valance had disagreements. It would have been extraordinary if they had not, the more so as they were looking at the implications from the perspectives of their jobs (Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Advisor respectively).

Perhaps any attempt at explaining the differences between two diverging theories needed to be abandoned: a different approach might be needed based on a different set of professional manners, which could skate over thin ice and still produce a compelling argument, for a few days at least. What profession might that be?

• Journalism

Having an appreciation of scientific method and the limits of so-called scientific certainty may well be useful qualification for a would-be PM. However, being a journalist – which Johnson was, albeit at times a dishonest one – might be better. There seem two main reasons for this.

The first – and I can only speak for myself – is that a journalist needs to be aware of perhaps a dozen pots on the stove. At any point, any of these might be bubbling over because of topicality or because some new ingredient has been added. You need to be able to switch to that narrative, bring it up to date and manage expectations about immediate results, always keeping your eye on how the others are doing and what new ones might be added.

The second is that you don’t need to have a massive knowledge of the issues. It helps if you do: but there’s a certain kind of mind that can create a powerful narrative from a few facts and a bit of understanding, probably transitory, about what it was all about. In many cases, time will come to the rescue. Much of what you say will be forgotten. It so happened that the pandemic turned us all into a nation of careful observers and commentators on what was happening. It was partly for this reason that Partygate was not forgotten.

I spoke to another scientific friend about this, also a Computer Science Professor but at Cambridge. “I’ve had a lot of opportunities to engage with policy people over the years and it is clear that the good ones don’t need to be scientists,” he told me. “Boris failed because he never properly engaged with anything except the appearance of doing things; his record is of acts of journalism, rather than a journal full of action.” He also suggested that the then-PM’s “failure to attend successive COBRA meetings was the first indication of major problems ahead.” A journalistic approach to governing can perhaps only cope with so many difficult truths.

• Preparedness

One of the principal points of the enquiry is to look at the level of preparedness for the catastrophe. Many would say that the main role of any government is to protect the population against existential threats. By this measure, our government failed.

On 21 November, Hugo Keith KC asked Chris Whitty “to outline where he thinks the deficiencies were in the UK’s ability to respond to a pandemic.” Whitty cited planning problems and “the erosion of public health facilities”, and added that “it was “pretty clear” that the UK’s existing flu preparations “wasn’t going to give us any help.” He added that “we didn’t have a useful plan”, saying it was “optimistic at best” to think there was one “we could take off the shelf” to deal with Covid.

This seems a strange response and one that misses the point. It’s true that no plan survives its first contact with the enemy – I prefer Mike Tyson’s version that everyone has a plan until they’re hit in the face – but surely these need to be reduced to a useful lowest common denominator. Operation Cygnus and all the rest of them may not have provided any useful epidemiological or medical intelligence given the differing nature of Covid: but surely some general lessons could have been learned?

Whatever the scale or nature of the disaster, certain things like vaccine needles, PPE equipment and body-bags are going to be needed. A plan needs to be in place to look at how and from where these things can be sourced in an efficient, correct and cost-effective way. Some of these plans might collapse in the face of Mike Tyson’s punch: but a plan there has to be. The utter fiasco of the PPE sourcing suggested that no such plans were in place.

An alternative theory is that they were but that the government had since allowed the resources, structures and staff to implement them to wither away. “The main reason the plan couldn’t be ‘dusted off’ is because it had been thoroughly asset-stripped,” one of the above-mentioned Science Profs told me. “The government had done the full Beeching on it.”

I trust that the Covid enquiry will be taking a long hard look at this in due course.

• Statement

On 22 November, chancellor Jeremy Hunt delivered the Autumn Statement against a backdrop of a cost of living crisis and a looming general election. It’s been a challenging year with inflation dominating headlines. While inflation has fallen, it’s still higher than the Bank of England’s 2% target at 4.6% in the 12 months to October 2023. Ahead of his speech, Hunt faced pressure to reduce the tax burden on both households and businesses while there was speculation about a potential Inheritance Tax cut, which didn’t materialise.

In his speech, Hunt said the plan for the British economy was working as the UK avoided a previously forecast recession this year. However, he cautiously added that the “work is not done” as he set out 110 measures to “reduce debt, cut taxes, and reward work”.

Here are the key points of the Autumn Statement, and what they might mean for you: this assessment from local financial experts Butler Toll provides a far more cogent analysis than I could, so I shall leave the field to them on this one…

• And finally…

• In 2010 the government, under the leadership of the current Foreign Secretary, pledged to get net migration down below 100,000. It’s just been announced that in the year to June 2023 it was 672,000, down slightly on the revised (and record) figure of 745,000 for the twelve months before that. This BBC article suggests that these may be “driven by workers from outside the EU being recruited to fill chronic staff shortages in sectors like health and social care.” Opinion continues to differ as to whether this is a good thing.

• India managed to implode in the cricket World Cup final on Sunday leaving Australia, yet again, as champions. The crowd at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad was certainly shocked by this. There was one point towards the end when the commentator on the BBC coverage remarked that they had the crowd microphones turned all the way up but the noise was “more like what you hear just before the start of a poetry reading.” This was despite the fact that there were over 95,000 people in the ground.

• The tortuous process of reducing fifty-three teams down to twenty-four for the 2024 Euros is now almost over although there are still three places up for grabs. This leaves Wales with an outside chance of making the tournament. Any qualification system that, after over a hundred matches, still leaves Luxembourg with a chance of going through has got to be regarded as generous. It’s to be hoped that the England players are already practising penalties – only seven months to go, guys…

Across the area

• Balancing the books

As mentioned last week, West Berkshire Council is needing to take a hard and honest look at its finances in an effort to plug a gap of about £14m between income and expenditure. Inflation, the increased demand for services (particularly social care) and a continued reluctance by Whitehall to fund councils adequately are all responsible.

A recent WBC statement said that “work has started over the summer to bridge this gap with £10m in savings and income generation already found which include spend-to-save projects to deliver services more efficiently, and other measures such as removing vacant posts, exploring new income streams and through procurement – including savings through a new telephony system.

“Whilst every effort has been made to protect frontline services, a small number will be impacted by proposals to make savings or generate income. These will be subject to a public consultation with the public invited to have their say before any decisions are made.” Subject to approval by the Executive, the consultation is set to begin on Monday 27 November 2023 and will include proposals to:

  • Restructure car parking fees – generating up to £450,000
  • Close or find an alternative provider to run Willows Edge Care Home – a saving of up to £240,000
  • Reduce the frequency of grass cutting – saving up to £220,000
  • Restructure funding for Adult Social Care transport services – generating between £100,000 and £400,000
  • Reduce funding for gully emptying and bridge maintenance – saving up to £110,000
  • Reduce litter and dog waste bins – saving up to £90,000
  • Restructure Adult Social Care Care-Home charges – generating up to £80,000
  • Reduce the opening hours of the Household Waste Recycling Centres – saving up to £59,000
  • Reduce the frequency of annual weed treatments – saving up to £20,000
  • Reduce contributions to community transport – saving up to £10,000

You can read the full statement here.

It’s worth stressing that none of these are done deals and everyone will be able to have their say when the consultation starts (note that there are some other cuts on which the administration doesn’t need to consult).  These will all run until early January 2024, the normal six-week period being extended due to Christmas.

• The council’s care homes

West Berkshire owns and runs three care homes: Birchwood, Notrees and Willows Edge. All three have been in the news in the last few years, the former following an underwhelming CQC report (the issues relating to which have now been addressed) and other two because of possible closures. Notrees in Kintbury was earmarked for being shut under the previous administration and many might have believed that this was a done deal and that the consultation would be a waste of time. Strong opposition from Kintbury Parish Council and, in particular, an impassioned and pragmatic solution put forward by the care home’s manger, led to the then portfolio holder Joanne Stewart changing her mind. As I said at the time, this is a brave thing to do.

Now a similar uncertainty attends Willows Edge in Newbury. We take a closer look at the arguments for and against in our Newbury Area Weekly News section for 23 November. This will also be the subject of a consultation. With the Notrees example still fairly fresh in the mind, anyone interested in the issue is urged to take part. Your views will be influential.

All of this makes one wonder if WBC should any longer be running its own care homes at all. Most councils now rely entirely on the private sector. With only three sites there are clearly few economies of scale which closing one would make worse. I understand the matter was looked at several times by the previous administration but the decision was always taken to keep things as they were. Now that cost-cutting is back in the spotlight, the time may have come for a re-think.

One of the reasons against the council pulling out is that there are in some cases restrictions in the form of covenants as to what the site can be used for. It isn’t just a case of selling it to a developer for yet more luxury homes to be built on – probably just as well, in many ways. If the homes were to close then it would be great if WBC could use the land to build affordable or social-rent dwellings. It doesn’t own a massive amount of suitable land so such opportunities don’t come up every day. This might not produce as much quick cash but would certainly tick the box of getting good societal value. (As long as this happens more quickly than with the similar case of Chestnut Walk in Hungerford: this was closed in 2016 and social-rent houses proposed to replace it. Seven years on, though, nothing has happened.)

However, in some instances even this laudable goal can’t easily be achieved as a covenant may specify (and in at least one of these cases certainly does specify) that the land must be used to support elderly people. These can be set aside but it’s not always an easy job. The home can, of course, be sold as is to a private supplier but they might already have their own sites and not wish to add to their property roster.

All in all, it’s a tricky and emotive issue but one that isn’t going to solve itself. This may not be the last time that we hear the name of these three care homes in conjunction with the phrase “proposed closure.”

• Residents’ news

The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council covers football, polling districts, flooding, careers, the next community forum, the new block at the WIllink, the Health Scrutiny Committee; work experience, potholes, the first 1,001 days, safeguarding, 20mph zones, kerb charge, fostering and Small Business Saturday.

• News from your local councils

Most of the councils in the area we cover are single-tier with one municipal authority. The arrangements in Oxfordshire are different, with a County Council which is sub-divided into six district councils, of which the Vale of White Horse is one. In these two-tier authorities, the county and district have different responsibilities. In all cases, parish and town councils provide the first and most immediately accessible tier of local government.

West Berkshire Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by West Berkshire Council.

Click here to sign up to all or any of the wide range of  newsletters produced by West Berkshire Council.

Click here to see the latest West Berkshire Council Residents’ Bulletin (generally produced every week).

Click here for the latest news from West Berkshire Council.

Vale of White Horse Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by the Vale Council.

Click here for latest news from the Vale Council.

Click here for the South and Vale Business Support Newsletter archive (newsletters are generally produced each week).

Click here to sign up to any of the newsletters produced by the Vale’s parent authority, Oxfordshire County Council.

Wiltshire Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by Wiltshire Council.

Click here for the latest news from Wiltshire Council.

Swindon Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by Swindon Council.

Click here for the latest news from Swindon Council.

Parish and town councils

• Please see the News from your local council section in the respective weekly news columns (these also contain a wide range of other news stories and information on activities, events and local appeals and campaigns): Hungerford areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area

• Other news

• The next WBC Community Forum focusses on rural issues, a topic that affects many residents across the district. It will be held on Tuesday 5 December at Club Room, Chieveley Village Hall, 6pm to 8pm. The forum will operate as a hybrid meeting so that people can attend in person or online via zoom.

“We understand that issues such as security, public transport, and housing significantly impact on quality of life,” a statement from WBC says. “Our forum will focus on crucial aspects including working with the community, rural housing, transport and insights from the Rural Business Forum. This forum is an opportunity for your voice to be heard.”

Please confirm your attendance, whether in person or virtually, by emailing Executivecycle@westberks.gov.uk so they can keep an eye on numbers and contact those wishing to attend if needed. 

• West Berkshire Council is calling upon local residents to nominate deserving individuals and groups for the Community Champion Awards 2023 .These are, a WBC statement says, “a brilliant opportunity to say thank you to people who have done something special for their local community and honour those individuals and community groups who have gone above and beyond to support residents throughout West Berkshire this past year.” Nominations will be open until 11 December.

Click here for more information on the 2023 Learner Achievement Awards.

• The government has announced that the Single Fare Cap Scheme has now been extended to 31 December 2024. The scheme provides affordable bus travel for everyone across England, allowing passengers to travel at any time of the day for £2 (£4 return). The list of participating operators in West Berkshire can be found here.

Click here for more information on getting involved in a Berkshire-wide project to develop a Local Nature Recovery Strategy (LNRS).

Click here for information about help available with the cost of living crisis in West Berkshire, the Vale and Wiltshire.

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

• The animals of the week are, continuing our theme from last week, all or any of these peculiar looking creatures. I think the pink fairy armadillo gets my vote for the oddest: that or the glass frog.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of 20mph zones, conkers, own goals, forgetting the past, fireworks, cash and better lives.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently: see the various news area sections (links above) for further details.

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So we’re at the Song of the Week. I’ve done this one before and I’m going to do it again because I can’t right now think of anything that exceeds this little masterpiece or better accord with my mood: The Unfaithful Servant by The Band.

• So next up comes the Comedy Moment of the Week. Thursday saw the sixtieth anniversary of the assassination of JFK: not the most obvious source of comedy material but it did inspire a scene in the silly but enjoyable film Armageddon, in which Bruce Willis reads out some of the demands that his team has made if they’re going to save the world.

• And, bringing up the rear, it’s the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: How many moons are there in the solar system? Last week’s question was: The Cricket World Cup Final will take place on Sunday. How many countries have previously won it? The answer is six: Australia (who did so again last weekend), India (who didn’t), West Indies, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and England.

For weekly news sections for Hungerford areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area  please click on the appropriate links.,

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