Man of the World?

“But I just wish that I’d never been born”.

Peter Green in Fleetwood Mac days

It’s well known that Peter Green, guitarist extraordinaire, lived a troubled life. Drug induced mental health issues seem to have kept him out of the public eye for decades after his initial success with Fleetwood Mac. Which is a shame: he had a unique talent and his guitar playing style is easily recognisable. For me, his soulful playing seems both melancholy and soothing, all at the same time. If I had to choose just one word to describe it, I would say “haunting”.

Albatross

Fleetwood Mac’s most famous instrumental hit during Green’s time with the band is undoubtedly Albatross. I’m sure those of us of a certain age associate that song with certain events from our younger days. Picture the scene. It’s late in the evening at some party or another. The room is almost in darkness. Fuelled by a certain amount of alcohol, couples will be slowly shuffling around each other, “smooching” to the lilting chords from Green’s guitar. Ah, happy days…

And absolutely nothing like this:

Albatross!

Back to Man of the World: Green also sings: “I guess I’ve got everything I need, I wouldn’t ask for more”. It seems that the commercial success of Fleetwood Mac, and the wealth it brought, did not sit easily with him. It was disputes with other band members over his discomfort with all their money that led to Green leaving the band. Perhaps all the fame and fortune became a kind of albatross around his neck and led to the health problems. Peter Green did not fit the stereotype of the extrovert, flashy guitar man. He came across as someone altogether more modest and self-effacing.

Return and Revival

Around ten or fifteen years ago, Peter Green had some measure of a revival and this was the only time I saw him live. My wife and I went to gig which John Mayall was headlining, with Green making a brief supporting appearance. By this time, his appearance was more like this:

Peter Green in later years

And it was Green and not Mayall I remember from that evening. John Mayall came across as arrogant and cold. We were “treated” to a masterclass of Mayall’s famous virtuosity on a range of instruments. There was no warmth or engagement with the audience. Rather, it was an exhibition of “look how clever I am”. I was sorely disappointed.

But Peter Green was a bit shambolic and more than a little self-effacing. He seemed genuinely delighted, and a bit overawed, to be back in the spotlight. I found the whole thing rather endearing and it was undoubtedly the best part of the evening for me. So, a happy memory.

The Supernatural

I would like to conclude this tribute to Peter Green by including a lesser-known, early clip from Green’s days with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, pre Fleetwood Mac. This early performance shows all the characteristics of Green’s playing style and was a foretaste of what was to come. Take 3 minutes of your time to enjoy – and perhaps discover for the first time:

Peter: thanks for the music.

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Lack of Intelligence

Has the UK entered the final death spiral of some ironic self-referential spin into a black hole of incompetence? Quite possibly. I had never thought it logically possible to include the words “intelligence” and “Chris Grayling” in the same sentence. But the gods of surrealism have now made it possible.

Chris Grayling has been nominated by the UK government to be Chair of the parliamentary Subcommittee on Intelligence and Security.

There. I’ve typed those actual words.

Failing

There’s stupid. And then there’s Chris Grayling. There’s incompetent. And then there’s Chris Grayling. There’s failing. And then… you know the rest.

Chris Grayling
Failing Grayling

The media is awash with lists of the man’s failures. The Daily Mirror found eighteen. Perhaps the most notorious are:

  • The disastrous part-privatisation of the probation service, now recently reversed;
  • The contract with the ferry company with no ferries;
  • The unlawful ban on prisoners receiving books from their visitors;
  • The nightmarish new timetable for Thameslink and Northern Rail.

You can read the full list at the link above.

In 1967, the Hollies released a single “King Midas in Reverse”.

Could’ve been written for Grayling.

Taking the Piss

The report into alleged Russian government interference in UK politics was presented to the Intelligence and Security Subcommittee last autumn. Its publication was delayed on the pretext of the upcoming election. Johnson then delayed the Tory nominations to the Committee for over six months. And then, in an act of breathtaking surrealism, the government has nominated as Chair one Chris Grayling, serial failure.

To which there is really only one response. You’re totally taking the piss, Prime Minister.

Cherry on the Cake

Little Miss Bilious

Another Tory nomination to the Committee runs Grayling a close second in uselessness and incompetence: Theresa Villiers. Quite posh too, it seems.

Here’s a few highlights of her incompetence:

So, expect the best possible scrutiny of the Russia Report when it makes the light of day – not.

My advice: buy shares in the manufacturers of carpet sweepers= the types that sweep under carpets.

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Bananas

It’s hard to keep going in shielding “lockdown” without going bananas to some degree. Here are my thoughts on some recent (and one very old) news items, loosely connected to the theme of bananas.

Straight Bananas

This one’s a bit of a classic – but worth repeating here.

bunch of bananas
Bunch

We start today with the famous Euromyth about straight bananas. Undoubtedly just one of many lies written by Boris Johnson to fend off boredom when he was Brussels correspondent at the Daily Telegraph. The Wikipedia link in the sentence above contains several other myths. My memory is long enough to remember an actual Daily Express headline from before we joined the “Common Market” in 1973. It was warning the Great British public that joining the EEC would lead to the banning of the traditional British kipper. Well, we can all work out for ourselves that that prediction turned out to be decidedly fishy.

Beach Bananas

cummings and bornemouth
Cause ===> Effect

And so from fish to the seaside.

A great many people, me included, were horrified at the sight of the crowds on Bournemouth beach last week, with no respect at all for proper physical distancing. Local council workers collected 50 tonnes of rubbish from the beach on just one day: the average for a June weekday is about 5 tonnes apparently. It seems that there is a section of the British population who, as temperatures climb towards 30 degrees, “go bananas”. They find it essential to travel in their thousands to beaches and beauty spots, even in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic.

I am sure that a major contributory factor was the rule breaking by Dominic Cummings and the lamentable speech by Johnson in his support when the truth was revealed by the Guardian and Daily Mirror. If ever it was a case of “one rule for us, another for the rich and their friends”, this was it. This was a watershed moment: the day the UK government lost control of the public health message.

Johnson has compounded this major error of judgement with his announcements on easing lockdown restrictions in recent days. Johnson’s whole tone and body language result in a strong message that everything is being relaxed; the message of caution is sotto voce at best.

I for one expect to see coronavirus cases and deaths start to rise again soon. The USA is a warning to us all about what happens when a country is badly led.

Without a Trace

One of these has disappeared without a trace

Finally, I turn to three examples all illustrating Britain’s descent into the status of a banana republic. They all stem from the gross incompetence and hubris of the “Leave EU” mind set running (ruining?) the country.

In early May, we were promised a “world beating” app after rejecting the Google / Apple version adopted successfully in other countries. This was “global Britain’s” very own version of a Track and Trace app, now sadly abandoned adding months of delay.

Here’s a technical account of what went wrong. An article for more general reading can be found here on the Metro website. What a pitiful shambles of a country this makes us appear to the rest of the world. But it gets worse: read on.

Taking a Pounding

Our currency, the pound sterling, is another factor moving the UK towards the status of a banana republic. A Financial Times article from a few days ago uses the term “emerging market currency” because of the erratic behaviour of the pound’s exchange rate on currency markets.

This may all seem like esoteric stuff, only of interest to finance people and exchange rate obsessives. There is a very basic real world effect, which anyone travelling abroad from the UK will shortly find out. That is in the so-called “spread” of exchange rates: the difference between the buying and selling rates. Broadly speaking, the higher the reputation of a country’s economy, the narrower is the spread between buying and selling rates. The “official” exchange rate – the one usually quoted in the media – is the mid-point in the range between these two.

So the rate that holidaymakers get at an exchange bureau, the number of euros or dollars that they actually get when they exchange pounds, will be further below this middle figure if the spread is wider. In short, people will feel even more ripped off than usual. And the blame lies with the country’s plummeting reputation caused by the government’s incompetence.

Where on Earth?

And just when you thought it couldn’t get more stupid, here’s another tale of Br*xit hubris and idiocy by our government.

Remember Galileo? No, not the famous scientist of old – no, Galileo, the EU’s joint project to have a GPS system that was not dependent on the US military. (Sometimes, the US military turns off GPS, usually when they’re up to no good somewhere in the Middle East. Then all the satnavs in cars and smartphones stop working until GPS is turned on again.) The UK has spent £1.2 billion as its share of Galileo but is walking away from the project to devise our own system, as part of the government’s stance on EU negotiations. The estimated cost to the UK of this decision is somewhere between £3 and 5 billion.

Our plans for yet another “world leading” go-it-alone project looks like it will be as big a fiasco as all the other deluded dreams. The government has invested in a 20% stake in a company called OneWeb. They are designing a completely different network of satellites designed to serve a completely different purpose from Global Positioning. All the developed GPS systems use satellites in orbit 20,000km above the Earth. The OneWeb system uses satellites only 1200km up, designed to provide internet access, not GPS.

How long will we have to wait until – just like Track and Trace – it’s back to the drawing board, following months of wasted effort?

The “Lollipop” Plane

The “Lollipop” Plane

Still, we can console ourselves that our Prime Minister now has a vanity jet aircraft repainted from camouflage grey with £900,000 quids’ worth of red, white and blue paint.  Critics say it looks like a lollipop; it’s more conspicuous appearance will handicap its previous use for fighter jet refuelling when not needed by the PM. An easy target in hostile airspace!

It’s hard to imagine anything more designed to place the UK in utter contempt with other world leaders – apart, of course, from the world’s autocratic rulers who revel in such tat. Banana, anyone?

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The Shield Crack’d

I’m confused. And I feel a bit less safe than I did a week and a half ago. I know I’m not the only one.

Cracks in the Shield

I have mentioned before that I am one of the people to have been classified as “extremely vulnerable” to coronavirus and so I’m one of the so-called “shielding” group. The initial guidance letter on 23rd March advised us to stay at home at all times for a minimum of 12 weeks: not even to leave the house for exercise or for getting food or medicines. (There were 2 copies in quick succession, from my GP and my current “overseeing” hospital.) The original guidance even recommended packing a hospital bag, just in case, including contact details for next of kin: a bit scary to receive this at the time!

For most of the next 10 weeks, there was nothing at all from gov.uk or the “NHS Coronavirus Service”: we were left just to get on with it ourselves. Many in more challenging circumstances than I felt even more abandoned: a recent edition of Woman’s Hour has some actual case studies. (The relevant audio starts around 16 minutes into this audio clip on BBC Sounds.) Over this period, I first convinced myself that our (sheltered) garden was as safe as the house – subsequently confirmed by my hospital consultant.  Then, I felt safe doing short (30 minute) walks from home for exercise: I see very few people in our rural area and those I do see all keep apart well over the 2m distancing rules.

Then, unexpectedly, on 19th May, a third letter arrived from another hospital where I had treatment in 2018, carrying roughly the same words but extending the lockdown period by 15 days to 30th June. Just four or five days later, even more unexpectedly, Johnson announced a relaxation of the lockdown rules for us shielders along with relaxations for the wider public.

Frankly, I’m deeply, deeply suspicious about this change of government guidance. The relaxations of the lockdown rules (in England), coupled with widespread flouting of them on beaches and at beauty spots in last weekend’s sunshine, potentially makes the “world out there” a less safe place. So I’m ignoring what Johnson said and I’m relying on more trusted sources (e.g. Independent SAGE and selected “experts” via trusted media) and carrying on much as before.

Cracks in the Lockdown

Johnson and his gang of zealots and idiots (a.k.a. HM Government) were beginning to lose their tenuous grip even before the “Cummings Lockdown Tour” of Durham and Barnard Castle was made public by the Guardian and Daily Mirror.

Several events have now occurred to undermine the government’s position – and our trust – even further.

  • Cummings’ Rose Garden press conference was a load of self-interested preposterous bullshit which revealed even more actions in which he had broken the rules.
  • The pathetic, craven, orchestrated defences of Cummings’ position by about 50% of the Cabinet simply destroyed any vestige of respect for the individuals concerned.
  • Johnson’s ill-judged defence of Cummings exposed him to a wider audience as weak, lacking judgement and, together with the previous point, strongly reinforced the message: “one law for us and another for everyone else”.
  • The many tales of raw emotion from those willing to tell their stories of self-sacrifice for the common good added a potent emotional impact to the narrative of hypocrisy and elitism.

For those tempted, or inclined, to “bend” the rules, “doing a Cummings” quickly became a source of self-justification. Key scientific opinion warned that England was easing lockdown restrictions too soon. There is widespread unease in public opinion too.

The previously announced change from the clear “stay at home” to the vaguer “stay alert” message started the rot and provoked much derision at the time. It’s been downhill for government credibility ever since.

Acting Suspiciously

So, we’ve just had a torrid couple of weeks when the government has totally lost whatever trust I had in them. I treat every single policy change with suspicion. Any so-called facts and figures from government sources I now double-check from other reliable sources of information. The daily (or now, weekdaily) government briefings have been reduced to propaganda exercises, with fiddled figures and disappearing graphs of international comparisons when they no longer served Johnson’s propaganda purposes.

A whole raft of announcements following the 25th May rose garden fiasco were made in the next few days, each one intended to provide “good news” in a desperate attempt to move the news agenda away from Cummings’ misdeeds:

  • Johnson’s bungled “return to work but not by public transport tomorrow or maybe Wednesday” announcement
  • The reopening of schools to years R, 1 and 6, which came as a surprise to those working in education and leaving too little time to prepare. The rationale for choosing reception and year 1 children as well as (the expected) year 6 has never been satisfactorily explained by the government.
  • Exactly the same pattern has been repeated in the announcement about the return of dentistry on Monday next. Dentists are complaining that they have had insufficient time to prepare. And what else? Sound familiar? Problems for dentists with getting sufficient PPE (Personal Protective Equipment).
  • Relaxations on socialising (meetings of up to 6 people in gardens as well as parks) are basically unenforceable, making it much easier to disobey them. A recipe for increasing the virus spread, I would say.
  • The much-publicised “track and trace” was “launched” last Thursday. Everybody except government knows this was a sham and the scheme will be up and running properly somewhere between the end of June and October, depending on your optimism. It’s the same old centralised-run scheme using private contractors such as Capita who in turn use unskilled staff with too little training. The promised NHS app, fanfared at the start of its trial on the Isle of Wight, has vanished out of sight for now. Rumours have it that it’s not working properly.
  • And for us shielding folk? The relaxations of the rules came as a complete surprise to NHS staff and to charities supporting people with the relevant pre-existing conditions. There has been no medical evidence whatsoever to justify the change. We’re meant to take it on trust. Which leaves us feeling confused and more vulnerable.

The new rules for England, unlike Wales and Scotland, do not specify a maximum distance people are allowed to travel – hence the crowded scenes at the weekend on our beaches and beauty spots.

Scientists and government advisers are increasingly distancing themselves from government policy announcements. Do you believe that R (the reproduction rate) will stay below 1.0? I’m far from convinced.

I simply don’t trust anyone in Johnson’s rabble. It seems to me to be a basic requirement for a functioning democracy that citizens trust their government in times of crisis. Johnson and company fail on all counts.

World Beating

So I find everything the government says and does delusional. If I hear another Government Minister say the words “world beating” I shall scream! Here’s one thing we’re world beating at. On Wednesday, deaths from coronavirus in the UK (359) were greater than for all of the EU27 countries combined (311). Here’s the graph:

Covid 19 Deaths 3 on 3rd June 2020

Full story here. And besides, why would we even want to beat the rest of the world on anything to do with the pandemic? Surely, if ever there was a time for global cooperation, for example in developing a vaccine, it’s now.

An Old, Old Enemy

So what underlies all this? I think it’s another manifestation of our old enemy, English Exceptionalism. To the rest of the world, with our plans to leave the EU, the chimera of “Global Britain” and so much more, we’re even more of a laughing stock. People in other countries pity us. Here are just a few examples:

Countless further examples are out there on the internet of the degree of contempt in which the UK is held around the world. It’s demeaning, it’s embarrassing – and it has to stop.

The message gets clearer all the time. If you don’t care whether your granny dies prematurely, carry on voting Conservative. Keep your illusions. It’s just that they’re getting more lethal by the minute.

Or… The case for a Government of National Unity, with Keir Starmer in a key role, gets stronger by the minute. Then there would be at least one grownup in charge.

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Sha La La La La La La La

Sha la la la la la la la
Sha la la la la la la la
Sha la la la la la la la

When the day is dawnin’
On a Durham Sunday mornin’
How I long to be there
With Mary who’s not drivin’ me there
We drove from the City to be near my dad
Ain’t it just a pity down there things are bad?

Is this the way to Barnard Castle?
My eyes are poor and I’m such an arsehole
Foggy dreams of Barnard Castle
And I can’t see what waits for me.
Show me the way to Barnard Castle
I made my name bein’ such a rascal
Dyin’ to see Barnard Castle
And I can’t see what waits for me.

Sha la la la la la la la
Sha la la la la la la la
Sha la la la la la la la
And I can’t see what waits for me.

Rules are just for peasants
And today it’s opening presents
For the sweet Mary here
As for me, I can hardly see her!
So let’s hit the highway
Mind that open drain!
Always do it my way
Time and time again…

Is this the way to Barnard Castle?
It’s Mary’s treat: I forgot her parcel
It’s thirty miles to Barnard Castle
And I can’t see what waits for me.
Show me the way to Barnard Castle
The rest of you can kiss my arsehole
Lyin’ over Barnard Castle
And I can’t see what waits for me

Sha la la la la la la la
Sha la la la la la la la
Sha la la la la la la la
And I can’t see what waits for me.

Sha la la la la la la la
Sha la la la la la la la
Sha la la la la la la la
And I can’t see what waits for me.

Sha la la la la la la la
Sha la la la la la la la
Sha la la la la la la la
And I can’t see what waits for me.

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Tories’ Triple Betrayal

75 years after the end of World War II in Europe, the Johnson government is inviting the people of Britain to “celebrate” the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany. So, what kind of “victory” has that turned out to be?

I quote just one statistic at this point, coronavirus deaths (as of yesterday): Germany 7277; UK 30,076. For comparison, population sizes are Germany 80 million, UK 66 million. So, per capita, the death rate differences are even larger. And Germany’s pandemic started a couple of weeks earlier than the UK’s.

So, if our Government had managed the outbreak as well as the Germans’, pro rata, we would have 24,000 fewer deaths. So, who is to blame? I will argue below, the answer is Tories, Tories and Tories.

Three Waves

Spanish Flu 1918-19

The Spanish Flu pandemic (which, incidentally, wasn’t Spanish) occurred in three distinct waves with the second worse than the first. The graph above clearly illustrates this point. (NB: the figures along the lower axis are dates: shown, rather confusingly, in US “semi arse about face” month/day format.) It is mainly because Wave 2 was biggest, reinforced by current epidemiologists’ modelling, that the Government is being cautious about lifting the current lockdown restrictions.

I argue below that, similarly, our present predicament comes about as a result of Tory Governments’ mismanagement and bad policy making, also in three distinct waves. As a result, the country was far less prepared than it could – or should, in my view – have been.

Wave One: 1980s and Thatcher

My wife has just delivered a load of face masks and headbands she has sewn for use by frontline staff in the fight against the pandemic. This is all too reminiscent of the pre-Industrial Revolution period in the late 18th and early 19th century. People spinning and weaving cloth in their own cottages. So, what accounts for our apparent regression?

Wave One and the first betrayal were started forty years ago by Margaret Thatcher.  She may be remembered for a number of things. For now, I will concentrate on three: monetarism, anti-Trade Union legislation and the City Big Bang deregulation.

The graph below shows the trend during the 18 years of Thatcher and Major Government. The steep drop in the period 1979 to 1982 is mainly associated with the Tories’ flirtation with monetarism. For a period, this was treated almost like a religious belief within Tory ranks and was responsible for the needless destruction of many jobs, particularly in manufacturing. The second steep drop around 1990-91 was at the time Thatcher was ousted and replaced by John Major. Although the primary causes of this recession were global, civil unrest and rioting occurred in such diverse places as Birmingham, Oxford, Tyneside, Cardiff and Bristol.

Manufacturing jobs decline

The second factor was the anti-Trade Union legislation passed during the Thatcher period. A fairly neutral account is found here. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that this started a long period of change from relatively secure and well-paid manufacturing jobs to the insecure zero hours and sham self-employment we see today. The people in this insecure workforce are really at the sharp end of current lockdown policies. The “treat them like shit” attitude, too prevalent in today’s employment practices, was an inevitable result of weakening the countervailing power of the Trade Unions.

The third factor was the so-called Big Bang. In the prevailing orthodoxy of the time – still largely present in today’s Johnson cabal of True Believers – the financial centre in the City was “liberated” from the old-fashioned practices of yore. As a result, financial services grew in parasitic fashion into the monster we see today, with its abuse of power and prevailing attitude of personal greed. I covered this topic in more detail in my 2015 post The City: Paragon or Parasite? Its general thesis is that what’s good for the City is generally bad for the rest of us. “The rest of us” includes those trying to make a living from manufacturing.

The upshot of all this is our over-reliance on imported goods (such as panic-bought substandard PPE flown in from Turkey by the RAF). A weakened manufacturing base has left us dangerously vulnerable in times of need on items such as ventilators, PPE, testing kits: all the things that the government is still playing catch-up on, 2 to 3 months after they should have been aware of the seriousness of the threat from coronavirus.

This constitutes the Tories’ first betrayal of the people of Britain: the 40-year weakening of our capacity to make the things we need in times of crisis. (A possibly similar argument could be made about the food we eat, but that’s another story.)

Wave Two: Decade of Austerity 2010-2020

Wave Two and the second betrayal cover the last 10 years of Tory-led government and the Osborne-led religion of austerity. A nation was persuaded to believe that the New Labour government was responsible for the 2008 global recession and the solution was austerity. Translated this means punishing the weakest and poorest in society whilst letting those responsible – organised finance – to escape scot free. Despite some eye-watering spending announcements by Rishi Sunak, many of the tenets of austerity are still in place in the mind set of Johnson and his gang.

What concerns us here is the cumulative effect of austerity over the last 10 cruel years: the graph below shows the trend. The overall figures disguise the fact that local government has been squeezed even harder (by 40%) than public spending overall. And, of course, apart from the last few desperate weeks, NHS spending was frozen (in real terms) for much of the decade.

Decline in public sector

In the 2010s, the government split Public Health from the NHS and then (as I said above) squeezed local government very hard. Casualties would be care homes, public health resources and support services for vulnerable and disabled people. Cuts in benefits, including for those with disabilities, have weakened our collective resilience further.

A new and shocking example has emerged with the past 24 hours. During the years of austerity, Channel 4 News has revealed that 45% of PPE stock was allowed to get out-of-date. This includes 80% of respirators. In 2009, following an outbreak of swine flu, £500m was spent building up a national pandemic stockpile. Channel 4 “has also obtained evidence suggesting the stockpile had shrunk significantly over the last ten years, while the UK’s population continued to grow.” In short, we were less prepared for pandemic than at the end of the last Labour government.

To make matters worse, the government was forewarned. In 2016, Exercise Cygnus simulated an influenza-type pandemic and predicted that the health service would collapse through a lack of resources. The Daily Telegraph reported one government source as saying that the results of the simulation were “too terrifying” to be revealed. Eventually, the Guardian leaked the findings (redacted to exclude sensitive personal information) on 7 May this year.

In summary, Tory led government policy decisions weakened the UK’s preparedness for a corona-type pandemic systematically and repeatedly over the last 10 years under the cover of austerity. Income and health inequality widened over the same period, leaving the most vulnerable even more so.

This is the Tories second betrayal of its people.

Wave Three: Johnsonian Dogma 2020

And so we turn to the recent past with Johnson as Prime Minister. The story doesn’t get any better.

All but the most stupid and the most ideologically zealous supporters of Government policy – the two groups are not mutually exclusive – have noticed by now that the government was asleep at the wheel in the weeks before the pandemic took off. World Health Organisation warnings as early as January were ignored. WHO advice to do “testing, testing, testing” was similarly dismissed by a government that was riding on a wave of hubris following the UK’s “departure” from the EU on 31st January.

Despite Ministers’ untruthful denials, it was UK Government policy right up to 20:00 on 23rd March that “herd immunity” was the best approach, making the UK an outlier in Governments’ approach to the pandemic around the world. Then we had the “screeching U-turn” and lockdown. By this time, of course, it was too late. It has been a game of catch-up ever since. Oh, and repeated instances of over-promise and under-deliver: on PPE, testing, contact tracing, whatever.

Conservative dogma had led to an over-reliance on the private sector and the bypassing of expertise in local government and other local arms of the public sector. A good, i.e. bad, example was last Thursday when Health Secretary Matt Hancock crowed that his “100,000 tests” target had been met. This was only achieved if you count test kits posted out (but clearly not yet used) on that day. Also the army was called in to set up “mobile testing centres”. In one instance for which I have an impeccable source, the local authority had not been forewarned of the army’s arrival and “caused chaos”. It seems that at one point, random people were approached in the street and offered at test. And all to meet a politically motivated target. Following the science, my arse! And, as we well know, in the days since, on at least 5 occasions, the number of actual daily tests have fallen well below 100,000.

Other countries have done better, and more consistently, than the UK. And another thing. Local GPs and Public Health officials around the country have NOT been given geographically-based test results numbers, essential for the next phase of tracking clusters and tracing contacts. Perhaps this is because the government handed the contract for manging testing to Deloittes – yes, that Deloittes, one of the accountancy and consultancy big four who have repeatedly failed, big time, to spot companies on the brink of going bust. The system for getting feedback from Deloittes to key local expertise doesn’t exist yet.

This illustrates a continuing weakness in the Government’s approach: too much is attempted to be run from the centre and/or by private companies with no relevant experience, rather than use expertise in local authorities. So, even as I write, the Government continues to screw things up, avoidably.

The third wave of government betrayal continues, unquestioned by a loyal and sycophantic press (with the honourable exception of the Guardian).

 Celebrate?

And so to today’s bread and circuses. We are invited by those who govern us to celebrate an event which happened before 99% of us were born. By inference, even to applaud our government’s “success” as Johnson called it on Monday. Try telling that to the grieving families of the 24,000 individuals, disproportionately black, brown and poor, who have died too soon thanks to Conservative government failures over the past half a century.

Citizens of Britain: you reap what you sow.

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Behind the Shield

Day 33 of shielding. Here’s a collection of pandemic-related thoughts.

shield

Good Deeds, Bad Deeds

Politically speaking, Boris Johnson has only ever committed one good deed. That was to catch a moderately severe case of coronavirus, and recover. When Johnson is fit to return to work – and he is fully entitled to a period of recuperation in line with medical advice – perhaps, just perhaps, we may all benefit from his experience. We can only hope that he has learnt to be a little less cavalier with the nation’s health, having been close-ish* to death himself. The idea of Johnson being a voice for caution is truly bizarre, but then stranger things have happened in these past few weeks.
(* We may not know for a long time just how close he was. The idea that anything that may emerge from Number Ten’s spokesperson bears any resemblance to the truth is just plain fanciful.)

In all other respects, Johnson has been a disaster in all phases of his adult life.

  1. As a journalist, Johnson’s utter indifference to the difference between truth and lies has caused real and lasting harm. His spell as the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent in the 1990s is an obvious case in point. Almost single-handedly, he invented a whole series of myths (lies, in plain speaking) about the EU and its workings. This laid the foundation for the disaster of the 2016 referendum result. Under his editorship of The Spectator, a thousand far-right poisonous columns were encouraged, further polluting the political discourse in the UK.
  2. As London mayor, he first took the glory for all the hard work done by his predecessor, Ken Livingstone, in the 2012 London Olympics. As mayor, he was lazy, never on top of the detail and despised by the majority of GLA staff – information from a former GLA staffer. His tenure was all photo-opportunities (see, for example, Turd On the Wire), no substance (except for a legacy of failed vanity projects: Boris Island, Garden Bridge, etc.).
  3. So is it any surprise, then, that these same deep personality traits have been repeated during his months as Prime Minister? Missing five Cobra meetings is unprecedented – to use a much-overworked word in these times. So add “holidays” to “photo-opportunities” to the previous paragraph.

So, no. I can’t think of a single thing to add to the “good” pile apart from falling ill.

Clowns and Pygmies

And don’t get me started on the sick, sick, joke laughingly called the UK’s Cabinet.

I have to keep pinching myself to remember that the de facto acting Prime Minister is one Dominic Raab. Raab: a man so far out of his depth that even the Mariana Trench doesn’t cut it as a metaphor. Raab: a man so useless he didn’t make it into the last round of voting for Tory leader last year. And the rest of the Cabinet, too rubbish to be worth remembering their names, are just a ragbag of zealots and yes-men (and a smattering of women).

We should never forget that Johnson chose his team on the basis of loyalty to the cause of Br*xit: courtiers and sycophants at the Court of the Man Who Would Be World King. Not one single member of the Cabinet was chosen on the basis of their knowledge, skills or even basic competence to do the job.

One Grownup in the Chamber

Which brings us to the one grownup in the room. Or at least in the chamber of the House of Commons. I cannot begin to describe my relief that, at long last, we have an effective, intelligent and capable Leader of the Opposition. By all accounts Kier Starmer wiped the floor with Raab at PMQs in the Commons last week. He struck just the right tone and balance between supporting the Government’s efforts to combat the pandemic and forensic examination of their many errors. It’s reasonable to expect those who govern us to be held to account, not least because (with honourable exceptions) the media are doing such a piss poor job of it.

To be fair to the BBC, critical and intelligent analysis does get airtime, even in the BBC’s news bulletins and high marks to Emily Maitlis and Newsnight for some sharp reporting. I look forward as various members of the Shadow Cabinet – not least David Lammy, of whom I’m a big fan – get more fully to grips with their briefs. Good decision making and competent governance depend upon good Opposition.

(Non-) Testing Times

The woeful lack of Government preparedness and lack of attention to warnings in the January to early March period is now becoming clearer. The lies, cover-ups and attempts to shift goalposts and rewrite history undermine our trust in those in whom we must perforce place it. Ten years of austerity has left the public realm in a weakened state – but some of the catching up has been quite impressive. The problem is that it is the heroic efforts of thousands, possibly millions of ordinary workers – many low paid – which are putting right the policy failures of years of Tory rule.

The worst fears of ventilator shortages and hospital ICUs becoming overwhelmed seem to have passed – for now. But the continuing struggle for PPE remains a national disgrace and an international laughing stock. Ministers and senior officials have given at least four versions of the reasons behind the UK failing to participate in joint EU purchasing schemes. So we know that at least three of them are lies. A recurrent theme of over-promising and under-delivering is wearing thin the nation’s patience.

As a member of the “shielding” fraternity, I await evidence of any Government thinking on an exit strategy. Do I really have to stay at home until there’s a vaccine or effective treatment?

Worshippers at the Shrine of Science

The UK Government’s repeated mantra of “following The Science” obfuscates the glaring fact of the UK repeatedly not following WHO advice. Rules for the wearing of PPE change depending on the level of supply shortages, so, in this aspect at least, “following The Science” is a lie. The secrecy surrounding the membership of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) committee and the revelation that the mad zealot SPAD Cummings has made several appearances further undermines the Government mantra. And as anyone with any insight into things scientific knows, “The Science” is always uncertain, tentative, confusing and sometimes contradictory.

So WHOSE science Ministers are influenced by is of utmost importance. The screeching U-turn on 23rd March when “herd immunity” was dropped in favour of lockdown is the most obvious example so far. This was the day when one lot of scientists were so alarmed at government policy that they actually shouted loud enough to be heard over the siren songs of the behavioural scientists who had hitherto held the Prime Minister’s (short-spanned) attention.

Public Health Announcement

Finally, talk of short attention spans brings me inevitably to the one country which is making a bigger mess of this than the UK: the United States of America. So, in the best traditions of Public Health Announcements, here’s my contribution.

Want to cure yourself of the coronavirus? Just follow these easy steps.

  1. (a) Procure yourself a sun-bed or (b) travel to one of your own resorts or golf courses in a hot, sunny part of your country.
  2. If (b), find a lounger in a sunny spot.
  3. Pour yourself a long, cool glass of bleach or household disinfectant. (As you are American, try not to put too many ice cubes in your glass, as this will dilute the beneficial effects.)
  4. Ask a minion to get you a powerful light source: an industrial strength laser is ideal.
  5. Settle comfortably on the sunbed or lounger.
  6. Shine the light source directly onto your oversized abdomen (ignore any burning smells).
  7. Drink the contents of the glass in one go.
  8. Lie back and relax, contented with how much joy you have just brought to the world.

Health warning: do NOT attempt this at home, unless your name is Donald Trump.

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Gove in the Time of Corona

And so it has come to this.

Last Monday, Michael Gove stood in for the self-isolating Boris Johnson at the No. 10 pandemic briefing session. The country found itself dependent on the most duplicitous, scheming Cabinet Minister to explain the current situation and to tell us what the Government – collectively the most incompetent in my lifetime – is doing to tackle the outbreak. And yet we have no choice but to – sort of – believe he is speaking the truth.

Playing Catch Up

testing for coroavirus
Testing…

There’s wide agreement, including in some traditional Tory supporting newspapers, that the government screwed up its handling of the crisis, at least in the first few weeks. So the UK has been playing catch up since Johnson’s U-turn on 23rd March. The lack of testing kits and ventilators are the two most glaring examples. But the food supply industry, and in particular the supermarkets, have not exactly bathed themselves in glory. The government seems to be still too ideologically inclined to believe that the private sector can do more to adapt than is actually the case.

We’re in the psychologically disturbing phase where all the key numbers, and in particular deaths, are still rising daily. It helps me personally not to over-obsess on them. I also look out for good news stories to act as some kind of reassurance. As “MD” in the latest Private Eye points out, since January 1st, 159,987 people have died in the UK, 158,759 from causes other than the coronavirus – and therefore not newsworthy. (I guess the article was written on Monday: the numbers have changed, but the broad point still stands.) It’s clearly important that we keep a sense of proportion in all this. I’m sure that’s a struggle for a lot of people, including me at times. I’m hoping that the fear factor, which affects behaviour such as panic-buying, will subside, once the numbers start to stabilise and then subside.

Irrelevant

It’s a tragedy for the country that the Labour Party has boxed itself into a corner of irrelevance as a result of the extraordinarily extended self-indulgence – as it now feels – of a leadership contest. The result is due to be announced later today as I write. Everybody expects Keir Starmer to win. It would be great if he and other talented Labour Party leading figures were invited to join a government of national unity, at least until the crisis is over. Stranger things have already happened in the past two weeks, announced mainly from the lips of the new Chancellor, Rishi Sunak. He’s the only Cabinet member who has emerged in this crisis for whom I have any grain of respect. He has been clear in his announcements, bold in some decision making and shown a willingness to rethink as new information emerges – or there’s a strong backlash from sections of the community: small businesses, for example.

There’s a sense in which the people and the formerly hated “experts” have pushed the government away from a disastrous policy stance up to 22nd March into something more in line with what is needed. There’s a wish in the air that somehow, sometime, we may all end up living in a kinder, fairer world when this is all over. But any further thoughts on that must wait for another time.

Testing, Testing

I think we all agree that the key to getting out of this is testing. That’s both much more testing for live coronavirus cases, starting with all frontline NHS staff, and a reliable, easy-to-use antibodies test kit to retrospectively test those who’ve had symptoms but has not yet been positively tested owing the current lack of kits. Matt Hancock has promised 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. We, the people, aided and abetted by the right politicians and the media, must hold his feet to the fire to deliver on this one.

Stay safe, stay well.

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It Never Rains…

…but it pours, so the saying goes.

Whilst this may be referring to the record levels of rainfall in February, it also refers to the relentless pace of news items which follow one another, each one would be headline news in quieter times.

Coronavirus

Coronavirus

At the time of writing this piece, worldwide there have been reported 107,000 cases and over 3600 deaths from the coronavirus epidemic. The corresponding figures for the UK are 319 confirmed cases and 3 deaths. By way of comparison, UK Public Health figures quote a low of 1700 and a high of 23,000 deaths in the UK each year from boring old winter flu. So, should we be concerned? Yes and no, I say!

A week or two ago, the main COVID-19-related story seemed to feature some bored Brits in a Canary Island hotel. But the virus has made the idea of a cruise holiday look a whole lot less attractive. Cruise ships seem to be ideal incubating areas for catching the bug. The ships now seem more like floating prisons with inadequate medical facilities.

Floods

Floods

With the record rainfall came the floods, spread fairly widely across the country (except, perhaps South East England). We did have a bit of flooding on one of our regular dog walking footpaths, but that’s as bad as it’s got around here. I see the insurance companies are quoting a bill of £360m in insurance claims for the clear up – probably an underestimate as all claims won’t have been processed yet and homes are still drying out.

Now Johnson has promised extra cash for flood defences: an extra £2.6bn over a 6 year period to 2021. And yet, this will hardly make up for the flood defence budget cuts during the period of austerity. Flood defence spending was cut sharply under George Osborne’s chancellorship after a period of increases under New Labour. And, of course, the climate emergency means that the risk of severe flooding is increasing year by year. Flood defences are just one of many examples of the “lost decade” of underfunding in the past ten years.

Oh, and Johnson finally made it to one flood-hit area in Worcestershire over the weekend – 22 days after the event. He was heckled during his visit: someone called him “traitor”. Tough.

Hardball

I read a week or so ago that one of the new intake of Tory MPs said she was “pleased” to see the UK “play hardball” in its posturings before EU trade negotiations started last Monday. Some of the statements made by our chief negotiator, the unelected official David Frost, seem intended to piss off the EU negotiating team. Some of Frost’s and Johnson’s statements appear to contradict undertakings in the withdrawal agreement Johnson pushed through Parliament late in 2019. On top of the three and a half years of dithering before “settling” our negotiating position, the UK now firmly looks like a country whose (legally binding) word cannot be trusted. It’s a very poor position, in my view, especially when you’re outnumbered 27 to one.

So what else has emerged on the UK government’s position? Well, we seem to want to get out of everything with “European” in its name, regardless of the harm it does to our interests. Southampton has already lost the Medicine Standards Agency and the skilled jobs that go with it. Students are likely to miss out if the UK pulls out of Erasmus+, as seems likely. There’s to be no cooperation either on data sharing in the EU’s virus epidemic early warning scheme or in aircraft safety. So dogma and anti-EU prejudice win out over saving lives. What a charming bunch this government is!

I was less than thrilled to learn that the UK will be recruiting 50,000 extra border staff to help lorry drivers and businesses to fill out all the extra forms needed once we leave the customs union. That 50,000 roughly equals the shortages of doctors and nurses in the NHS. Or to put it another way, four times more people to fill in customs forms than the 12,000 people working as fishermen in the whole of the UK fishing industry.

Overreach

I do have two small positive thoughts amidst all the gloom. The first is based more on hope than experience. Surely, I contend, more people will slowly catch on to the sheer overreach and hubris of the most incompetent and useless Cabinet in my lifetime. Ministers have been chosen on the basis of loyalty to the cause rather than aptitude for the job. A good argument is made about the usefulness of dissent in Cabinet as a means of improving the quality of decision making in this article by Ian Dunt. The same author also goes into more detail than I have done about the “laziness and ineptitude” of the Government.

Add to this some basic truths. Practically all “experts” of every type (teachers, economists, food and health professionals, to name a few), a clear majority of university graduates and most business leaders oppose the government’s plan to leave the EU, especially on the (no) terms now emerging. And I can’t resist this rather uncomfortable thought as the statistics make clear. If the coronavirus outbreak really takes off, it will lead to the deaths of far more Leave than Remain voters. The 53% lead for Remain in recent polls will be extended further by the Grim Reaper.

So, how long will it be before reality bites and leads to collapse of this insane project led by Johnson? It can’t come soon enough and, in a grim way, the coronavirus outbreak may bring this about sooner.

The Return of Experts

Professor Chris Whitty

I said I have two positive thoughts. The Cummings / Johnson policy (the order of the previous words is important) to ban Ministers’ appearance on flagship BBC programmes seems to be crumbling with the spread of the virus. And, following his spell of hibernation, Johnson’s address to the nation on the outbreak last week saw him flanked by two “experts”: the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser. We are quickly learning that it’s experts we trust in times of crisis.

And no wonder. On viewing the video of Johnson’s speech and those of his two experts, I was struck by how much more convincing Chris Whitty in particular was than Johnson himself. The latter’s body language was revealing: he looked like someone who wished to be anywhere else than where he was then. It was a similar story when he was expressing his condolences to the family of one of the victims: insincerity oozed out of every pore: watch the first 10 seconds of this video to see what I mean:

Or as cartoonist Steve Bell put it last week more succinctly: Johnson’s plan is “Wash Hands. Go Home. Die.”

Give me Chris Whitty any day rather than Dominic Cummings as our de facto Prime Minister. Our lives may depend on it.

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Stepping Stones

Away from the madness that is current UK politics, this post is about empathy: the human quality which enables us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. It’s mostly used for morally good reasons, but can be misused.

A Leap

Stepping stones

Having empathy for another person requires us to take a sort of leap: of imagination, of trust. It’s a bit like jumping across a fast-flowing stream from one stepping stone to another. Empathy comes easily to those we describe as “caring” types – for others, it’s much harder. Extreme examples of the latter would be those exhibiting autistic or narcissistic characteristics. To use our stone-jumping analogy, the autistic person has poor jumping skills and needs to try harder; the narcissist simply doesn’t see the need, and so lacks all motivation.

Way back in 2015 at the start of my blogging, I made two attempts to define the most basic attributes which make us human. The first effort, Being Human: it’s Easy as C,C,E! didn’t capture it right. So I had a second go a week later in Being Human II: The Four Cs. Unfortunately, the way these two posts are written means that you need to read both to get the whole picture. But, in essence, the four Cs are Compassion, Conscience, Curiosity and Competition. Psychologically healthy human beings have a reasonable balance of these four attributes. The first two: Compassion and Conscience, tend to be emphasised by those on the left politically, the latter two: Curiosity and Competition, by those on the right.

In my first try, the “E” in “CCE” is Empathy. This concept turns out to be trickier than I first thought and I was made to think again by comments received.

Good Empathy

Fortunately for the human race, this turns out to be, by far, the more common type. But first let me explain: by “good” and “bad” I am referring to the motive of the empathic person. Empathy itself is morally neutral, even if applied for morally good motives in the majority of cases. Good empathy, that well-intentioned leap of imagination, is the stepping stone to a whole lot of possible good outcomes. A better understanding between the two individuals and sympathy and comfort for the receiver are two of the most obvious. Society as a whole benefits by better understanding and, to make a leap in my argument, fewer wars and conflicts result. (The late, great Douglas Adams had an amusing counter-argument based on the idea of the Babel Fish).

Bad Empathy

Sadly, there is a Mr Hyde to the Dr Jekyll of empathy. Psychopaths, grooming gangs and similar types exploit the human propensity to empathize for their own nefarious motives. A period of grooming often precedes other more exploitative acts, usually of a sexual nature. The clever and subtle ways in which exploiters use human empathy to draw in their victims is one reason that such crimes are often hard to detect and slow to eradicate.

Victims may be reluctant to report misconduct following an extended period of feeling empathy. For particularly vulnerable individuals, such faked, exploitative empathy may be the strongest emotional relationship that person has experienced. That’s what makes misused empathy so heartbreaking to see.

In modern parlance, you could say that the natural human instinct for empathy has become weaponised for nefarious purposes. Misused in this way, empathy is a destroyer of the sum total of trust in the world.

Spoilers

On a more general point, it is the destroyers of trust between human beings who disproportionately screw things up for the rest of us. An extreme example would be acts of terrorism. It is they who are almost wholly responsible for modern societies’ irritations such as the security procedures at airport terminals. Expect to see more of this in other public venues now that the government plans to put a statutory duty of care on managers of public places such as concert halls. I feel this is a mixed blessing: tedious and inconvenient for the mass of us but, sadly, on balance, probably necessary.

All the extra “security questions” involved in accessing online banking and other services of all kinds is a result of this destruction of trust (by the few on the many) and a depersonalisation of services in general. Faceless call centres replace face-to-face transactions between people. Industrial scale money-laundering and tax evasion results in a society where the majority are inconvenienced but the rich perpetrators still largely get away with their crimes.

More disturbingly, the whole area of child protection and safeguarding was brought into stark relief by those who have abused their position of trust. The activities of Jimmy Savile and his like cast a long shadow.

Carry On Empathising

Back to more cheerful thoughts: empathy evolved over tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of years as a key factor in enabling human societies to function. Empathy is a natural, and mostly positive, instinct. So, whilst being ever alert to those who would abuse our trust, carry on empathising! Walk out on those stepping stones of empathy: of understanding another person better. It’s part of what makes us human.

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