…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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.