Love and Joy in Learning

I was fortunate to be academically inclined during my school years. This meant that I did well at school. But, more relevant to this discussion, I enjoyed learning. (Well, nearly all the time. When I was about 8 years old, I was, for a brief time, bullied at school and didn’t want to go. But – and I still really don’t know how or by whom – the problem was quickly sorted out.)

My own experiences at school and university have left me with a life-long passion for learning. I feel that I continue to put that passion to good use: books, TV and radio, theatre, adult education courses and, of course, the internet all play a part in my continuing quest to know more stuff. My wife would say much of this learning is of no practical use, but I really don’t care about that. Learning and the creativity conjured up by the human imagination are, to me, moral and social goods in their own right.

Pleasure or Drudgery?

At risk of sounding just a bit evangelical, a word I never expected use about myself, I do wish that everyone could honestly say that they love learning. The discovery of something new should be a moment of joy, at least most of the time.

To that end, I was most struck by a recent article by Eliane Glaser in Prospect magazine: Homeschooling has revealed the absurdity of England’s national curriculum. I do recommend you take the time to read it, as it expresses views which I strongly share, albeit from the point of view of a frustrated parent of school-age children during lockdown. I had experienced similar shock and surprise when my grandchildren, then aged eight and ten years, started spouting complex jargon of English grammar, the likes of which were way beyond my learning when I was their age.

My (unexpressed) thoughts at the time were: “Why are they learning this?” Most of the answers can be found in the Glaser article, but essentially, it boils down to the reforms introduced when Michael Gove was Education Secretary. Don’t forget, his “career psychopath” henchman of choice was one Dominic Cummings, of subsequent Barnard Castle / Rose Garden fame. Glaser opines that the time kids spend on this stuff is “clearly age-inappropriate, joyless and fundamentally pointless”.

Note my emphasis on “joy” (or the lack of it).

Stories, Testing and Gaming the System

Glaser goes on to quote a variety of experts on such subjects as the value of story-telling and listening, the over-use of testing and the consequent gaming of the assessment “system”. The over-emphasis on mechanical, rote-learning of the 3Rs leaves precious little time for creating a love for the arts, music and even the wider aspects of science and the natural world. The National Curriculum and Ofsted create an environment which focuses too much on evidence in writing, ready and waiting for the next “pounce” by Ofsted inspectors.

“Testing drives teaching”, says Debra Myhill in the article: one of the academic advisers on the curriculum. The whole regime kills joy, creativity and imagination. Surely these are the qualities which define the very essence of being human? In an internet-rich world of instant information at our fingertips, the last thing future citizens need is an over emphasis on memorising and parroting facts!

32 Years

In 1988, when my elder son moved to Middle School (as it was then), I started what turned out to be a 32-year “spell” as a School Governor. In the early days, governors were purely decorative. We sat dumbly at meetings whilst the Head Teacher and Chair of Governors engaged in a ritual of mutual admiration.

Times changed and the role of Governor became more demanding. Perhaps the high point was during the years of New Labour. I recall meetings in Whitehall and a group called the “Innovations Unit”. Ideas and best practice were exchanged on the basis of mutual respect. New Labour’s biggest sin was, perhaps, an excess of change. And some New Labour ideas encouraged the thinking that some schools at least might be better off outside the control of democratically accountable local government.

Things turned very sour in 2010. Funding for capital projects was cut to almost zero as part of George Osborne’s 2010 “slash and burn” budget dedicated to the god of austerity. But from then on, it was rule by diktat from the centre. Teachers and governors alike were the enemy – unless they held ideas in tune with the new orthodoxy. Joy went out the window: there was little “love of learning” to be seen. It was all standards, criticism of “the blob” and a climate of fear.

You’re Fired

Matters came to a head and I stood down as a Governor last summer. There were a number of factors which led to my decision, not least that my advancing years were making it more difficult to remember the buzzwords and phrases I was expected to parrot to Ofsted and the like. I did not want to let down the school, whom I continue to hold in great respect and affection. And, to be honest, I really wasn’t enjoying it any more.

But two factors loomed large. The whole dirigiste regime initiated by Gove and broadly maintained by his successors played a big part in my disaffection. But the final straw can be summed up in two words: Gavin Williamson. In my Mr Men 2019 satirical post, I referred to him as Mr Stupid-Boy-Pike, as a mark of the respect I have for him. He was in his kindergarten phase at the time, as Minister of Defence. Lots of toys for boys there!

Mr Stupid-Boy-Pike

When the news that Johnson has appointed him as Education Secretary, I instinctively let in a sharp intake of breath, as I recoiled from the news. His litany of serious errors since has received wide publicity, so I will not try to list them all. Here’s a piece from last November, entitled Is Gavin Williamson the Worst Education Secretary Ever? To the list at that time (A level algorithm fiasco and A-level / GCSE U-turn last summer, poor or no guidance to schools on online learning, etc.) we can add the more recent examples of: threatening local authorities with legal action to override their (wise) decision to shut schools early for Christmas, forcing schools to open for one day in early January before another U-turn which has kept children away from schools for the past 2 months.

 But my biggest charge against Stupid-Boy Williamson is this: he doesn’t understand what education is for! See this Indy piece:People think Gavin Williamson is very confused about the point of education. He seems to think only of schools and universities as factories for churning out people with enhanced career prospects. This grotesque, utilitarian approach might be forgivable in a Minister in some other Department, but in Education??

Where’s the nurturing of the love of life-long learning, the richness of culture or the joy in that? So, with a heavy heart, it was time to pack it in.

The Parents’ Revolt?

Glaser ends her article with a call for parents – now well-versed in what their kids do all day at school – to rise up and revolt against the repressive box-ticking mentality their children are being subjected to. Perhaps March 8th: the day children in England return to school would be a good time to start. But remember: do it for the love of learning. Do it with imagination, with joy.

Allons enfants…

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

Je Suis d’Accord

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

(Robert Burns 1786)

It’s high time we Brits took a look around us and see what sort of reputation we have in the world these days. So here’s an example I have seen today.

A Travers la Manche

Sylvie-Agnès Bermann has a new book out, called Goodbye Britannia. Ms Bermann has a distinguished CV: graduate of the Sorbonne, studied China and spent time as a student in Beijing. She worked in the French Diplomatic Service in Beijing, Paris and Moscow. Her last job before retirement was as France’s Ambassador to Russia. She is clearly a woman of some considerable experience and skill.

Of more relevance here is the fact that she was French Ambassador in London between 2014 and 2017, a period which included the fateful referendum on Britain’s EU membership. During her years as a French Diplomat, she would, no doubt, couch the advice and opinions she gave in the most diplomatic language. No longer a career civil servant, she is free to speak her mind. And most interesting it is.

Parlons Franchement

So let’s see what a straight-talking French diplomat has to say about les rosbifs. So far, I’ve only seen extracts quoted in the UK press, but they make for some excellent reading. Here’s a few:

  • Boris Johnson is an unrepentant and inveterate liar. Je suis d’accord*.
  • Johnson feels he is not subject to the same rules as others. Je suis d’accord. And it seems, so did his school master at Eton, writing in 1982:  “Boris really has adopted a disgracefully cavalier attitude to his classical studies . . . Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility… I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”
  • Some Br*xiters are consumed with hatred for Germany. Je suis d’accord.
  • They are gripped by a myth that Britain liberated Europe single-handedly. Je suis d’accord. Try telling that to the relatives of the 22 million Russians who died in WW2.
  • The referendum result was a triumph of emotion over reason. Je suis d’accord.
  • The Leave campaign was full of lies. Je suis d’accord.
  • Leave campaigners exploited negative attitudes of many Brits to immigration. Je suis d’accord.
  • Johnson’s government’s handling of the Covid pandemic is among the worst in the world, alongside Trump’s USA and Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Je suis d’accord.
  • Johnson will try to hide the economic losses caused by the UK leaving the EU, blaming all negative economic impacts on Covid. Je suis d’accord. Johnson and his gang can be guaranteed to play this trick: many will be fooled. Don’t be.

(*I agree.)

Un Pou

It seems to me entirely appropriate that the Burns quotation at the start comes from a poem entitled To a Louse.

And it’s even more appropriate that the French for “a louse” is “un pou”.

Je n’ai rien à ajouter. (I have nothing to add.)

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

Public Service and Private Failure

I had my first Covid jab earlier this week. It was everything you would expect from the NHS when given the resources to get on with the job.

From the phone call from my GP practice the previous Friday to the visit to the vaccination centre, it was all very well organised. Staff were friendly, helpful and professional, offering information and reassurance as needed. Clearly, some of the people at the centre were volunteers: you could tell by their sense of enthusiasm at having the opportunity to help others. And everyone there was working to a common purpose, so there was a clear sense of team spirit in the air.

Including the mandatory 15 minute rest (and observation for any adverse reaction) after the jab, the whole process took 20-25 minutes from start to finish. A fine example of public service at its best.

Public Service Ethos

Back in 2016, I wrote a blog post called In Praise of Public Service Values. In it, I explain how certain public services should never be – or should never have been – privatised. The main reason I gave then was the commonality of purpose all the way through the public sector, from the top management through to the front-line staff. In a privatised service, there is some discontinuity between profit-maximising leaders and service-oriented junior staff. Priorities get blurred; messages get mixed.

I now recognise there is a second, powerful reason why public services should remain in the public sector. I have recently watched the 2020 Reith Lectures given by former Bank of England chief Mark Carney. In his first lecture, he speaks of the “moral hazard” of “commodification”. Experiments show that, in carrying out an activity with a clear moral purpose, people are disincentivised by financial gain. People are more effective when morality, rather than money, drives their actions.

A further danger of commodification is what Carney calls “flattening” of moral value or civic virtue. Once an activity is described solely in terms of money, in profit or loss, something of real human value gets lost. Good deeds become mere transactions; cynicism and boredom can creep in.

Government Failure to Learn

We should have learnt from the lessons of the 2012 London Olympics, when Serco’s failure to recruit sufficient “Olympic greeters” led to the army to be called in to help out. But this government didn’t learn. Perhaps the most deadly of the consequences of the failure to learn from past mistakes are the repeated failures over lockdowns: too late to impose, too soon to relax restrictions. Johnson and his gang are far too ready to listen to the bayings of the death squad of Tory backbenchers grotesquely misnamed the “Covid Recovery Group”.

It is extraordinary to think that, over 11 months into the pandemic, the Government has still not properly implemented border controls for people entering the UK. Failure to learn lessons from other countries’ approaches to quarantine and its enforcement is particularly ironic when “control of borders” was a key rallying cry of the prominent Leavers now running the country.

Private Sector Failure

But a major government failure was to hand Test and Trace to the private sector, and specifically to friends of the Cabinet members – corruption on an eye-watering scale. Compare and contrast the spectacular failure of the £22bn privatised “NHS Test and Trace”. (The link in the last sentence leads to a page which lists 22, mainly private sector, companies involved: Serco and Sodexo are perhaps the most significant.) I’m not clear whether the list of 22 includes all the companies whom Serco and Sodexo have subcontracted work to.

I believe that one key underlying problem in using the private sector was the failure to use vital public health expertise in its design. The private sector dominated thinking was based upon the model of running call centres (for which the private sector has plenty of experience). What was overlooked was the public health expertise in the subtleties of the interpersonal relationships and sensitivities in cold calling people about health issues. Many of us see our health as an intensely personal matter and there was an understandable reluctance for “cold called” people to engage.

Finally, here’s the BMA’s view from last September giving the medical professions view on the many and varied shortcomings in over-reliance on the private sector.

Called to Account?

As for accountability, my best estimate currently is this. Of the 110, 000 deaths to Covid so far, somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 could have been avoided through better governance and decision-making. It would be a betrayal to those who died and their grieving families if this stark analysis were somehow forgotten. To govern is to be accountable.

As the country’s mood lifts, from fear and despair to hope and positive expectation of an end to the pandemic, I have a concern that that public opinion will fail to call to account the actions of this government over the past year. Repeated failure and disastrously poor decision-making vastly exceed the one thing we seem to have got right: vaccination, thanks to the “real” NHS. It would be grossly unfair for Johnson and co to be let off the hook over their lamentable performance overall.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

Lost For Words

It’s only two and a half weeks since my last post and there are three news stories that would be really big in their own right, all happening at the same time. Each one would produce an open-mouthed look of astonishment. And yet… I find myself strangely unable to gather the right words to describe my reaction to any of them.

They are: the UK reaching the end of the transition period and actually leaving the EU, the third national lockdown following shocking rises in Covid cases and deaths and Donald Trump inciting a mob to violent insurrection in the Capitol Building in Washington DC.

End of UK’s EU Membership

Fallen star

The UK ended its 47-year membership of the European Union at midnight Brussels time on New Year’s Eve. New Year celebrations were muted this year because of the pandemic. But, of course, there was no cause for celebration. Johnson had achieved something of an historic moment: the enactment of the first trade deal in recorded history that actually erected trade barriers rather than removed them. The UK now has trade deals with fewer countries now that when it was an EU member.

After end of year stockpiling and the usual traffic lull over the holiday period, stories are beginning to emerge of delays at ports on the Channel and Irish Sea. A common reason is lack of preparation by traders and hauliers and incomplete paperwork. Companies such as John Lewis, Debenhams, Waterstones, Fortum and Mason and M&S have either ceased or suspended sales into the EU (include Ireland, North and South), either because of the disruption or because they see it as no longer an economically viable proposition. And supermarkets report empty shelves in Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, customers in the EU are finding VAT and customs charges demanded by their postal organisations for online purchases from the UK. Here’s an Irish perspective. It’s easy to predict that a lot of customers in EU countries will be deterred from placing orders from UK-based sites when online shopping. And, of course, as a third country airline passengers are being turned back at EU airports as our “plague island” status makes us no longer exempt from EU travel bans.

The real tragedy of all this is that every one of these problems were predictable – and predicted by those of us who wanted to remain in the EU.

Lockdown 3

Whilst the cabinet and Prime Minister were distracted by EU trade negotiations, cases of Covid-19 have been rising and rising. And all at a time when the government’s full attention should have been on policies and communications to reduce the spread of the virus. And so England finds itself in its third nationwide lockdown of the pandemic, announced last Monday with just a few hours’ notice.

Not fit for the job

So, let’s just track back what has happened in recent weeks:

  • In late September, scientists and Keir Starmer advocated a 2-week “circuit breaker” lockdown just as the new variant of the virus was emerging. The government did nothing, apart from some tinkering with the tier system.
  • In early November, as the case for stricter measures became unanswerable, a necessarily longer 4-week second lockdown was imposed.
  • In early December, after Lockdown 2, Johnson announced a 5-day relaxing of the household mixing rules over the Christmas period. People naturally saw this as a “green light” for something of a 5-day “holiday” from restrictions. Plans were made, train tickets booked.
  • As Covid cases kept rising, just a few days before Christmas, Johnson cut the Christmas relaxation to just Christmas Day. Families cancelled plans, tried to get refunds on train tickets. (Remember, no trains run in England on Christmas Day and Boxing Day). Meantime, Education Secretary Williamson stated keeping schools open was a “national priority”. Local authorities, who had better local information of local spikes in cases, were overruled when they tried to close their schools. Greenwich Council was threatened with legal action to enforce the “national priority”. An opportunity was missed to control mixing between households in schools in hotspot areas in the runup to Christmas.
  • Families mixed on Christmas Day, with Government blessing, allowing the virus to spread within extended families. Teachers made plans for a Covid-safe phased reopening in the New Year.
  • On January 4th, schools reopened. This allowed the virus which had spread within families on Christmas Day to spread again between families with school-aged children.
  • On that same day, Johnson announced Lockdown 3 and the closure of all schools the following day. Teachers scrambled to rearrange their plans back to home schooling.
  • On January 5th, schoolchildren stayed at home, along with some parents working from home, thereby enabling them to bring their newly school-acquired infection into the family home  once again.

So, in summary, the Governments actions – and inactions – encouraged the virus to spread between families in the runup to Christmas, within families at Christmas, between families again on the one day of schooling and finally within families again from last Tuesday. Add to this the delays to Lockdown 1 in March and “Eat out to Help Out” in the summer, which kept Covid case numbers bubbling along at higher levels for the autumn that they need have been. Can anyone think of a worse possible way this could have been handled? I can’t.

And yet Johnson and Williamson are still in post. Parliament passed a vote of no confidence against Neville Chamberlain because he was so useless. He resigned and on May 10 1940, he was replaced by some other bloke with a name like an insurance company. The rest, as they say, is history.

So, how come only 43 percent in a very recent poll want Johnson to stand down? (Those wanting him to stay number nearly 40 percent. I don’t understand: what do these folk want him to do before they change their views? Slaughter all first-born? Whoops! That’s me gone.) As I’ve said before, we need a Government of National Unity.

Mob Rule in Washington

Mob rule

And so to America, the “shining city on a hill” of democracy.

It’s only in the last few days that I’ve ever in my life had the following thought: that is now within the bounds of possibility that the USA will descend into a second Civil War. And that is a truly shocking thought!

I don’t think there’s any doubt now that Trump incited a mob to march on the Capitol and commit acts of violent insurrection. Impeach him tomorrow; simple as that. Get his stubby fingers off the nuclear codes. Immediately.

But the poison Trump spread will linger. It’s truly an awful prospect. We will no doubt return to this subject again, Meantime, good luck Joe Biden!

They’re Only Words

And yet the most frustrating thing is this. My words and those of professional commentators are just that. Words. I feel they won’t change anything. Words – reasoned argument – implies reason. Certainly Trump and a sinister cohort of his followers are way beyond reason. And this is all happening in a country with more privately-owned guns than people.

So we continue. With our words. For words are all I have. And Hope – for the best.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

Thick and Fast and Thick and Slow

I write this on the day of the announcement about a trade deal between the EU and the UK. This post explores the twin themes: Thick and Fast and Thick and Slow. I will explain.

Thick and Fast

Now that we appear to have some sort of deal, we can expect one sure-fire thing: the lies will keep coming thick and fast. Johnson and his gang of no-hopers will try to convince us that it is a great deal, one which has been hard-fought and won thanks to the skills of the UK negotiating team. And it will all be bollocks.

The timing of the announcement is interesting, with no newspapers tomorrow (Christmas Day). But be assured that the usual suspects (Sun, Mail, Telegraph, Times, Express) will find space in their Boxing Day editions to spread even bigger lies than the government itself will do. Obviously, Johnson and co. will feed much of the stuff to the friendly media outlets.

The lunatic fringe on the Tory backbenchers (Master Francois and his ilk) are speaking of “star chambers” of tame lawyers who will check the “purity” of the agreement: to see if the small print accords with their delusional thoughts. And the big unknown will be Labour’s response. Worrying signals from Keir Starmer’s office in recent days seem to echo the phrase “a deal is better than no deal”. The honourable position for all Labour MPs is to abstain in the required Parliamentary vote.

One thing has been abundantly clear for four and a half years or more. Any deal with the EU will be worse for the country than EU membership. We must not allow the government to hide behind the smokescreen of the pandemic. Leaving the EU will make all of us poorer, slowly, year by year, estimated at a permanent loss of 2% a year off GDP growth. Certainly, the effects of gross mismanagement, procrastination and poor policies will continue to make Covid the bigger short-term shock. But the lasting, slow-burn damage will be leaving the European Union.

This image speaks for itself

So, prepare to be inundated with an avalanche of lies from our elected leaders: they’ll be coming thick and fast.

Thick and Slow

By way of contrast, if you were to look for an epithet to describe every member of the UK Government, “thick and slow” would be a good one. Historians will one day look back in amazement and disbelief at our misfortune: to have the most incompetent government of modern times at a time of our greatest need for at least 75 years.

Thick: it would be invidious to try to rank the members of the Cabinet in order of stupidity. For sure, Stupid Boy Pike, a.k.a. one Gavin Williamson and Little Miss Pretty Petrifying, a.k.a. Priti Patel would rank near the bottom of the pile: “rank” being the operative word.

There are those who believe that the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, somehow stands above the pack. I disagree. Sunak is one of the country’s biggest problems. His failure to understand the impact of the pandemic on the poorest people – after all, his wife is richer than the Queen – or to implement consistent financial support for those losing their incomes cuts directly across attempts to control the spread of the virus. Millions of people are in such poorly paid and insecure jobs that they simply cannot afford to self-isolate when required. Sunak’s resistance to improving benefit payments to something closer to the European norm further compounds the problem.

Slow: We are in this mess now because of one of Johnson’s personality faults. He has a Trump-like desire to be liked and so has a pathological problem with decision making, particularly when it means being the bearer of bad news. Hence the last-minute U-turn on Christmas, the last of many – far too many – examples of delayed decision making.

Slow Learner

But perhaps the most damning indictment of Johnson and his gang is their collective slow learning. It’s generally understood that the UK government was too slow in March imposing a lockdown, resulting in tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. The same mistake was repeated in September, when scientists and Keir Starmer all urged the Prime Minister to impose a 2-week circuit breaker. Johnson failed to do so and we had a 4-week lockdown – with only partial success – 6 weeks later. And now we’ve just had the third repeat of the same basic “too late” decision making and ruining millions of people’s plans for Christmas into the bargain.

So the unmerited trumpet-blowing we can now expect over the EU trade deal also acts as a convenient distraction from the government’s continuing serious mishandling of the pandemic crisis.  

I guess you need to be above a certain age to remember Victor Sylvester, bandleader and erstwhile king of ballroom dancing on British TV and radio. But fans of Strictly Come Dancing will no doubt also be familiar with the foxtrot pattern Slow, Slow, Quick Quick Slow.  Change “quick” to “thick” and there you have it. That’s your government, that is.

Next slide, please…

With acknowledgement to Rob Newman and David Baddiel

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

Disaster and Disasterer

The world – or our little bit of it – has recently become very strange indeed.

On the day when we have one genuinely excellent piece of news – the first vaccinations against Covid – we find ourselves on the brink of disaster – or worse. And which of those it will be is in the hands of a man with the attention span of a gnat and no discernible talents whatsoever. I refer, of course, to our Prime Minister and his theatrical 11th hour and 59th minute dash to Brussels.

Dumb and Dumber

shipwreck

When I use the terms “disaster” and “disasterer”, I’m referring to the choice between Johnson’s putative feeble and thin trade deal with the EU and the bigger disaster of “no deal” (which Johnson dresses up as “Australian-style”). Choose your metaphor: Disaster or Disasterer, a Rock and a Hard Place, (for the classically-minded) Scylla or Charybdis; the Devil or the Deep Blue Sea, Dumb or Dumber. You choose: all of them worse than where we now are.

That Elusive “Sovereignty”

Apologists for leaving the EU have been banging on for years about something called “national sovereignty”. There is quite a good definition statement of this abstract concept to be found in this US website. In the abstract, this sounds like a good idea – as long as you don’t think too deeply about it. As far as we are allowed to know, at the time of writing, the issues still divide UK and EU negotiating positions seem to boil down to two things.

The first is our future theoretical desire to deviate from EU norms and standards, in state aid for UK companies, workers’ rights and consumer protection mainly. And the second is how any divergence is policed – and by whom. (Rumour has it that there’s a deal already hammered out for fish. Topical comparison: more people work at the Addenbrookes Medical Campus in Cambridge than in the whole UK fishing industry, but no matter, for now.)

Lockdown in My Head

To be honest, I have some instinctive liking for having these theoretical freedoms. Consider, for a moment, the restrictions of our day-to-day freedoms brought about by the Covid lockdown restrictions. There’s a kind of “lockdown in my head” feeling of frustration and unease flowing from those things I’m currently not allowed to do. (We’re in tier 2, by the way.) It’s a feeling that won’t quite go away: akin, I guess, to some form of mini-imprisonment.

But, in practice, life is not that much different from “normal” times. The amount of socialising we do these days is pretty minimal, Zoom meetings have replaced face-to-face ones and we do more shopping online. Furthermore, medical issues over the period from 3 years to 1 year ago meant that my activities were curtailed compared to my life before then. Our holiday plans have been much changed, but we still managed a weekend break in February (before Covid really struck the UK) and a week in a cottage in Wales in September. We’ve been relatively fortunate so far. But that “lockdown in my head” feeling is still there, in the background.

So I do “get” the instinctive desire to be “free”.

In the Real World

John Donne

But now we must get real. As John Donne said in his 17th century Meditation XVII, “No man is an island”. The bald fact is that we live in a very interconnected world. Back in the 19th century, when Lord Palmerson was Foreign Secretary, Britain could flex its muscles and send in a gunboat to teach Johnny Foreigner a lesson. That was because Britain was indisputably the strongest nation on earth – and we threw our weight around. We had 10% of the world’s GDP; that’s now less than 2.5%.

Nowadays, we need collaboration with other countries, and our nearest neighbours in particular. 40% of our food is imported, mostly from the EU – frictionlessly until 31st December. Combatting transnational crime and terrorism needs good cooperation and easy transfer of data and intelligence: all under threat after the end of this year. The EU is the only entity so far on a global stage to challenge the overmighty power of companies like Google and Amazon. Britain alone will be powerless against abuse of dominant market monopolies.

Our supply chains (for example in motor manufacturing), our love lives and relationships, our holidays and trading by companies large and small have been built around frictionless movement of goods and people. From January 1st? For people, all that stops. For goods, we still don’t know.

By acting as the rogue state of Europe – for example, by breaking international law – we have poisoned the well of trust needed to smooth the flow of day-to-day interactions across borders. (I believe some sort of deal has been brokered so that we can withdraw the offending paragraphs from legislation going through Parliament – but it’s all a bit unclear as I write.)

So the prized concept of “sovereignty” is, in reality, illusory. This means Johnson and co. are chasing an illusion with no upsides in practical terms.

Before the Normans

But there is a deeper psychological illusion lurking behind all this insanity. Leave extremists, like Johnson and Rees-Mogg, seem to have a different understanding of the concept of freedom itself. Look at the language they use. Behind it lies a mythological past dating back to the days before the Norman conquest in 1066. We learnt at school about the Battle of Hastings, the Domesday Book – how dare they write it all down to ease taxation? – and Norman castles all over the land, to oppress the local populations behind the safety of battlements and drawbridges.

This stuff cuts deep into our national psyche. The myth of a golden age of “free” Angles and Saxons lies beneath this yearning for the illusion of “sovereignty”. And I feel it is high time we let it go and face reality in the 21st century.

Labour Must Abstain

If Johnson does come back from Brussels with a deal, beware the lies which will be spun: world-class, heroically won or whatever. It will bring disruption, extra bureaucracy, shortages of food and medicine and lost jobs – to name a few. And don’t let the government hide behind the tribulations of the pandemic: these problems will be Tory Government-made and were avoidable.

So Keir Starmer must lead his party to abstain: on the positive, moral principle of “a plague on both your houses”. Let the government take the blame they deserve. At the end of the same John Donne poem mentioned above, we find the equally famous words: “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”. Johnson take heed.

bell

When the month ends, it will be “good riddance” to 2020: it’s been an awful year. Ring in the New Year by all means: the vaccines, at least, bring hope. But our status in the world will have been diminished mightily. A mournful chime for us all.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

…And Goings

It seems the pathologically oversized ego got the better of him. Leaving by the front door, cardboard box in hand, is self-evidently the work of a poseur and narcissist. Well, he got his page one headlines and I’m doing him the perverse service of reproducing the moment below. But the image is too delicious to pass over.

Cummings leaves 10 Downing Street
Man with box

Good. Good riddance.

Career psychopath

I rarely agree with former PM David Cameron. But it was he who first coined the term “career psychopath” for the man-with-a-box shown above. The abbreviation “CP” seems to lend too much of an air of “cool” to such a repellent, twisted creature. So I’ll use the name “Seepy” from here on. It seems quite appropriate: the malign poison he exudes seems to have seeped out all over the body politic of this country. And it rhymes with creepy.

From education, to Vote Leave, mismanagement of the Covid pandemic, the needless deaths and job losses shown plainly that, whilst he may have been an effective campaigner and a “breaker and shaker”, when it comes to actually governing a country, his presence has been pure poison.

Henchman at Education

I personally first became aware of Seepy ten years ago, when he was Gove’s henchman at Education. His wild ideas clearly struck a chord with the former Murdoch hack Gove. The changes introduced in these years have wreaked havoc with our education system: I estimate it will take twenty years to recover once reversal of these policies has started (which, of course, it hasn’t yet). The fragmentation and disruption to schools in particular has produced not one scrap of evidence that improvement to outcomes has resulted. And the marketisation of university life has led to some perverse results. As a result of high student fees and hence competition for students, we have a generation with high student debts. Because of Covid, we have extra students crammed into accommodation, virtually as prisoners as the virus swept through our campuses in late September and October.

I distinctly remember a conversation I had about seven years ago with a former Local Education Authority Chief Education officer. She lamented the “responsibility without power” dilemma created by Gove’s newly-introduced dogma-driven policy. Since the Gove changes, Local Education Authorities are forbidden from opening new LA-run schools. But they retain statutory responsibility to ensure all children in their area have a school place. So, where demand exceeded supply, she had to persuade, cajole and beg unaccountable Academy Trusts to expand or build new schools to meet the need. This was, and is, clearly a more difficult and stressful job than when Local Authorities controlled all the “levers”. It’s not at all clear to me how this loss of control benefits children’s education.

How much of this was the brainchild of Seepy personally, I just don’t know. But it’s easy to imagine his enthusiastic campaigning for this piece of market-inspired dogma.

Vote Leave: Lies and Misuse of Data

 Much has been written already about the lies told by the Vote Leave campaign, from the £350m for the NHS through to the 20 million Turks about to “invade” Britain once Turkey joined the EU. This latter was presented almost as an established fact: the truth was that under Erdogan, Turkey was moving further and further away from meeting the EU’s exacting criteria for membership.

And, of course, Vote Leave was fined £61,000 by the Electoral Commission for breaking spending limits with some very dodgy shifting around of funds. Unfortunately for true justice, the level of penalties available to the Electoral Commission were based upon General Elections, where each malpractice potentially only affects one of 630 constituencies. The referendum result, self-evidently, affected the whole United Kingdom.

And it was Seepy who headed the Vote Leave operation and should carry the can for its misdeeds.

Number Ten: Reign of Terror

The scope for misdeeds continued on a nationally significant scale when Seepy was put in charge of running Johnson’s Downing Street operation when the latter became Prime Minister. All the departmental special advisers, in a break from the previous norm, were told they had a dual responsibility: now reporting to Seepy himself as well as their own Minister. One outfall from this was the resignation of Savid Jared as Chancellor who saw this as a diminution of the power of the treasury.

Another fallout from this change was the incident in August 2019 when Sonia Khan, former Spad to Jared, was frogmarched from Number Ten on Seepy’s orders. Khan made allegations of his aggression and bullying behaviour. She has now reached an out-of-court settlement “for a five-figure sum” in lieu of an employment tribunal hearing due next month to hear her claim for unfair dismissal. Seepy was named as a respondent in the case; Cabinet Office lawyers tried – unsuccessfully – to get his name removed, presumably so that the full story of Seepy’s behaviour was not presented in open court.

And Then Came Covid

Johnson is notorious, from both during and before his time as Mayor of London, for being lazy and not on top of the detail of running his office. So it was no surprise that his Number Ten Cabinet Office as proved to be dysfunctional and incapable of governing the country. The pressures of managing the pandemic have made this problem a lot worse, and the results: worst death rate in Europe, biggest hit to the economy, are in plain view. It’s a matter of open record that Johnson has been over-dependent, to an unhealthy degree, on his chief adviser. It must remain a matter of speculation how much of this dysfunction is a result of the chaos and infighting which Seepy has encouraged by his behaviour.

The Ballad of Barnard Castle

I think few now doubt that the poor adherence to Government guidance in the pandemic by sections of the public is due in part to the famous rules-busting trip to Durham and Barnard Castle. Certainly senior police officers quote the incident being used as justification for rule-breaking when their officers apprehend members of the public. It follows, as night follows day, that people have died – and continue to die – as a result of this one incident. Worse, Johnson’s attempt to defend the actions of his henchman has undermined the whole moral authority of the UK government.

EU and US Trade Deals

There are now fewer than 50 days until the UK is scheduled to finish the transition period and “fully” leave the EU. The government, businesses and those responsible for new border IT systems are woefully unprepared. How can companies (including logistic firms) prepare for something, the details of which are still to be negotiated?

Leaving the EU was the raison d’être of the Johnson government and of Seepy’s appointment to a leading role. Some damage limitation could be achieved by negotiating a trade deal with the EU in the extremely limited time left. Johnson and his sidekick seem more emotionally attached to a deal with the US, with food poisoning, threats to UK farmers’ livelihoods, NHS creeping takeover by US private health companies as clear threats. Their dreams were based on their soulmate across the water, one Donald Trump.

But there’s just one problem with these dreams. Trump lost. And Joe Biden, his successor-to-be takes a different view. Firstly, he is proud of his Irish roots and very strongly opposed to anything which might affect the Good Friday Agreement. Meanwhile, Trump, the Arch Bunker of populism, is in denial, skulking in the Twituation Room in the White House.

The received view was that Seepy was keen on No Deal with the EU. Johnson is, presumably a tabula rasa in this respect: he is, after all, the journalist who wrote two versions, Remain and Leave, of his article for the Daily Telegraph at the start of the referendum campaign. So, with Seepy gone, the betting shifts towards a last-minute deal. Johnson will dress this up as a great feat of negotiating: just one more lie, like “oven ready” was last autumn.

Good News

There were, of course, two items of good news in the past week. The announcement of an effective vaccine was one; the departure of the man at the centre of this blog post was the other. The Covid vaccine needs to be stored and transported at -70 degrees. Let’s hope the lorries carrying them don’t get stuck on their way from Belgium (where the vaccine will be made). Meantime, stay safe and stick to the rules! (Even if some don’t!)

His influence has left lasting damage, first in education, then the economy (through leaving the EU single market) and then health (through dysfunction and chaos at the heart of government and the loss of government authority from Barnard Castle).

I’m very glad he’s gone. But the damage he’s done will be with us for some time to come.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

Serco Killer

…qu’est-ce que c’est?

For the benefit of the confused – and, frankly, who isn’t these days – the NHS Track and Trace “system” is no such thing. The CJJ “government” slapped the NHS logo on a privatised service run by various companies with no previous Public Health experience or expertise. Here are the villains of the piece:

Sitel

Sitel is a US company, headquartered in Florida, which runs the T&T call centre. They call their core business “Customer Experience Management” which they seem to like to abbreviate to “CX”. They work across a wide range of industry sectors and their expertise seems to be call management. Their website is full of bullshit management speak like “omnichannel customer service solution” and “incomplete or stretched channel strategies”. Obviously, halfwit impressionable people like Matt Hancock find this all very exciting.

So, how well are they performing? Assuming that the call centre is the original point of contact for those with positive Covid test results, activity since June has risen from around 4300 per week (73% of positive cases given) to nearly 13,000 in early September (83%). Although they seem to be learning on the job, Sitel are still failing in the relatively straightforward task of making contact with one out of six of the people on a list.

Serco

Serco (of escaped prisoners and invoicing for dead people’s security tags fame) manage the contact tracers. Here’s an example of one of Serco’s earlier failures working for the Home Office on immigrant removal centres such as the notorious Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire. To give a flavour: one incident there in 2018 involved 100 women going on hunger strike in protest at their detention and treatment by Serco staff. The company even denied that the strike was happening. So, transparency not great then.

Yarl’s Wood

Serco have made their fortunes hoovering up former public sector work privatised by successive Tory governments. Its CEO was paid £4.5m in 2018 (the most recent I could find). No wonder Boris Johnson complains he can’t manage on a measly £150,000 as Prime Minister!

So, how good a job are they doing at contact tracing? The trend figures are as follows: in June, around 91% of positive cases’ contacts were reached, this has fallen erratically to 74% in early September, having been below 70% for much of September. So the overall system over the 3-month period has found 62% (i.e. 78% of 80%) of potential contacts, well below the target of 80% to be effective.

Deloittes

The other main player bringing the name of the NHS into disrepute is Deloittes, one of the Big Four auditor firms who, like their three competitors, suffer a massive conflict of interest by making most of their profits from consultancy work – much of it for the UK government. Their main task is to coordinate – don’t laugh – the so-called “pillar two” laboratories: the “Lighthouse Labs”. My observation of lighthouses over the years is that they provide a brief flash of light, then all is darkness for most of the time before the next flash. Seems an appropriate name.

The pillar two labs are run by a mixture of private companies and universities. The ramp-up has been considerable: three labs initially, currently five, with four more planned. The reality has been a fiasco. And, sadly, all too predictable. Schoolchildren returned to school in early September (in England), the government has been exhorting people to return to work and to “Eat Out to Help Out”. All of these led to a lot more social mixing and a lot more opportunities for the virus to spread. Just a few short weeks ago, Hancock was advising everyone, if they had “any doubt”, to get tested. Then, just a few days ago, the same Matt Hancock was blaming the public for too many of them coming forward for tests. The press reports of people booking tests – if they could get one – hundreds of miles away are well reported elsewhere. Matching test sites with available slots to geographically close people who need tests seems beyond the capability of the government’s chosen contractor.

The number tested has been increasing. On the government’s own figures, the number of tests has increased by 57% since June. The official figures mix up those tested for current virus infection with antibody tests (which show past infection). So the volume figures must be treated with caution. But, to be of any use, test results must be turned round quickly: within 24 hours or even less. This is because people can pass on their infection before any symptoms show: this has been the particularly dangerous feature of this virus.

Here, it all gets a bit complicated – presumably deliberately – by a government keen to obfuscate things. We need to get into the world of pillars. No, not pillocks, but you could be excused. Pillar 1, in the public sector, is, roughly speaking done by NHS staff on NHS staff or key workers. Here, there’s good news: around 90% of test results are returned within 24 hours. Pillar 2 is the private sector work done on the rest of us: the general public. On speed, it’s mostly bad news. Using government figures, the proportion of Pillar 2 test results received in 24 hours in early September was only 58% at a “permanent” site and 69% at the mobile “pop-up” centres. Only 17% of home tests get test results within the target 48 hours; for “Satellite” (basically Care Homes) it’s a pathetic 8%, taking an average of 83 hours – half a week – for Care Home managers to get test results. In mid-June, they were averaging 28 hours. No wonder Care Home managers and staff are complaining again!

Keir Starmer’s comment that the government has “lost control” of testing seems entirely fair comment.

Public and Private

There’s worse. These figures actually flatter considerably the performance of the private sector companies. Wikipedia talks coyly of the privatised system working “in parallel” with experienced contact tracers working in local government for Directors of Public Health. These are the people who actually know what they’re doing with expertise built up in the public sector over many years, dealing with flu, AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. The public sector figures are combined with the private companies in the performance statistics. And, surprise surprise, the public sector people do a much better job: 93% of contacts reached compared to only 61%.

I used the word “coyly” in the last paragraph. The truth is that the centralised, privatised system set up by Hancock and co. has, for the most part, treated the local PHE teams as their enemies, starving them of vital information for them to do their job. Central government has had to be dragged kicking and screaming into cooperation with local authority Public Health staff. A local mayor told me of the extreme difficulty he had getting the information his PH people needed to keep his local population safe.

 A further example was when the Deloittes logistics people sent, literally, an army of military staff to set up a mobile testing centre in the middle of a West Midlands town. The local Director of Public Health was given no prior warning, the exercise led to pitifully few tests – there was even talk of soldiers accosting people in the street to take a test, to boost the numbers reported by Hancock. The exercise caused traffic havoc and the DPH spent much time and effort to get a more workable solution.

In fact, my understanding is that the contract specifications signed with the private companies were not even designed to feed actionable data to local PHE teams. Dogma and a blinkered approach in Westminster led to serious – and deadly – fragmentation.

Isle of Wight on the Night

Oh, and the NHS Track and Trace app worked well, didn’t it? Version 2, totally redesigned, is due for launch tomorrow, but it seems to be a secret for now. So, not world beating, then – again.

Fragmented, Disjointed

As you will see above, a system as fragmented as this is bound to fail. Compare, for example, Germany’s much more successful approach, building on an existing regional expertise in public health.

But there is another, more fundamental, way where there is a discontinuity. Back in 2016, I wrote a blog post entitled In Praise of Public Service Values. The main point I want to emphasise from that post is this. When providing a public service in the public sector, everyone in the organisation has broadly the same purpose: to provide the best possible service to the public. If that service is privatised, those at the top are more fixated on short-term profit and the company’s share price. Somewhere between the bottom and the top, messages – and priorities – get mixed and confused. No wonder that privatisation of “naturally” public services nearly always leads to a worse service.

 Dido, Queen of Carnage

And presiding over all this is Dido “Dodo” Harding, Tory peer and general waste of DNA. I’m deeply indebted to the brilliant Guardian journalist Marina Hyde for the above formulation in the paragraph header. For the less-well classically educated (which includes me), I have included a link here which explains the joke. (For good measure, Christopher Marlowe, one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, wrote a play about her.)

But note this: don’t let the useless, incompetent buggers like Dido/Dodo, Sitel, Serco, Deloittes and their army of sub- and sub-sub-contractors sully the reputation of Our NHS. During this Second Wave, it needs more than just our applause.

Talking Heads

On Monday, medical advisers Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance had their own TV programme to explain to us all just how fucked we were as a country and how careful we must be over the next 6 months. I confess I did not have the stomach to watch Johnson confuse the whole thing the next day with his incoherent babble. I’m up to HERE with mixed messages.

So, in summary, I add:

Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-far better
Run, run, run, run, run, run, run away oh oh oh oh
Yeah yeah yeah yeah!

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss