All posts by Jim Gunther

About Jim Gunther

Husband, father, grandfather, humanist, republican, (very!) amateur anthropologist. Interests: politics, education, ethics, comedy, eclectic music taste. Former corporate manager. School governor, charity trustee, volunteer adviser

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!

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Oven Ready

Our electric oven is not ready. It’s not working. Rather like the British government: not ready for anything. Pandemic wave two. EU trade deal. Test and trace. Anything more taxing than a three-word slogan: cook my dinner!

Oven and Out

Last week, our kitchen oven stopped working. Or, to be more precise, it stopped working properly. Our dinner was cooking nicely in a hot oven: 200 degrees. The only trouble was it didn’t stop at 200 degrees: it kept on getting hotter and hotter. By the time we had noticed, our meal was burnt. Black. Charcoal. Not at all the way we like it.

It’s getting fixed tomorrow: new circuit board: 200 quid. Cheaper than a new oven, we think. Anyway, the oven-as-charcoal-burner reminded me of something.

Oven At ‘Em

Those of you with attention spans longer than our Prime Minister (which is nearly everyone) will remember a phrase from the election campaign last year. “Oven ready”. Following the election, Johnson quickly caved in to the EU’s concerns about preserving the integrity of the Single Market by agreeing to customs checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This was quickly pushed through Parliament following the election and voted on by Johnson’s New Model Army of compliant MPs. It seems that neither Johnson nor those MPs had really understood what they were voting for. Certainly we know Johnson doesn’t bother himself with detail: how many of his MPs, I wonder, knew they were helping to set things up for a no deal crash out of the EU?

Now, eight months later, the CCJ (see last blog post) is bringing before Parliament legislation which breaks international law: Minister Bandon Lewis admitted as much today in the Commons. A senior government lawyer has quit his post because of this. And a senior diplomat compared the UK government to a “rogue state”. Even Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May condemned the move as leading to other countries not trusting the UK in any future trade negotiations.

 We Just Don’t Kerr

Oh, and a bit more about the “senior diplomat” mentioned above. He is none other than John Kerr, now a member of the House of Lords. He is a former British Ambassador to the USA and a former member of the European Convention which drafted Article 50, the procedure agreed by all 28 EU states at the time (including UK) for any member wishing to leave the EU. So not just any old “senior diplomat”, then.

You Have to Laugh

… even when crying, screaming and kicking the dog (no offence) might come more naturally.

It’s the following morning when I’m finishing this piece off. The oven repair engineer hasn’t shown up yet. So here we are: England, September 2020. The country you will never trust again. Break international treaties by all means, but don’t gather in groups of 7. Unless you’re at school. Or a premier league footballer. Or you’ve bred like a rabbit and got loads of kids – one for the Rees-Moggs there, I feel. Simples.

I’d like to end with some good news. I’d like to, but there isn’t any. So instead, here’s a few things that made me smile in today’s Guardian:

“Frosty the No Man”: thanks Marina Hyde, good value as ever, describing the UK’s chief negotiator with the EU.

turkey

And a few extracts from letters from readers, witty as ever: “our PM would have us waive the rules as well as rule the waves”, “perfidious Albion is living up to its name” and “Johnson’s ‘oven-ready’ deal was a turkey”. Thank you all.

Now, where’s that repair man?

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Beware the CJJ

…or, to spell it out, the Cummings-Johnson Junta.

Sliding Into Fascism

Back in the heady pre-EU referendum days of early 2016, I wrote a blog post which I entitled Sliding Into Fascism. Reading it again now, I was struck by how much has changed since then. The issues and concerns about which I wrote seem to have taken place so long ago. Some of the names are the same as now, but all in different jobs. I made reference to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan – remember her? – and her predecessor Michael Gove, then at the Ministry of Justice. George “austerity” Osborne was, of course, Chancellor of the Exchequer and, in a comment in reply to the post, even a junior minister in the Cabinet Office, “Matthew” Hancock, gets a mention.

Some of the themes in the post still ring familiar. The Education Secretary was making threatening-sounding statements to the teaching unions. Opaquely-funded so-called “think tanks” were allowed to continue their right-wing propaganda and fake news whilst charities’ freedoms to speak out were being curtailed. The House of Lords was being stuffed full of extra cronies of the Prime Minister.

Other measures reported in the post seemed all to point in one direction: namely, changes designed, bit by bit, to consolidate the Tories’ stranglehold on the electorate to perpetuate a de facto one-party rule. Since the, matters have taken a turn for a whole lot worse.

Under a Bus

The fact that the vast majority of the press are Tory supporters, often advocating policies and actions even more extreme that the government itself, doesn’t seem enough for the CJJ. Cummings’ power grab for political advisers effectively reporting to his command and the widespread sacking of senior civil servants is all part of the so-called “hard rain” falling on the Civil Service. Mark Sedwill from the Cabinet Office, Jonathan Slater from Education, Sally Collier from Ofqual are just three senior heads to roll in recent days. Veteran journalist John Humphreys weighs into the debate in an article for YouGov here. (His article also served as a reminder of a resignation early in 2020 following bullying by Home Secretary Priti Patel.)

The head of the FDA (the senior civil servants’ “trade union”) put it this way: “This administration will throw civil service leaders under a bus without a moment’s hesitation to shield ministers from any kind of accountability”. History shows that power without accountability always leads to greater and greater abuse of that power.

Taking the Central Line

Centre of Power

The United Kingdom as a state has always been centralised compared with many of its counterparts. The freedom given to the government of the day by our unwritten “constitution” fails to provide the checks and balances which act as a safeguard elsewhere. But the centralisation of power into Westminster has proceeded more rapidly since the days when Thatcher was PM. Local government has been reduced almost to a cipher whose job is to do the bidding of, and beg for discretionary funding from, central government.

The pandemic has thrown the results of all this centralisation into stark relief – but it has also shown how ineffective it is, compared to more successful countries (i.e. nearly all of them) in managing the effects of coronavirus. Early on, repeated failures in supply of PPE followed a centralisation of procurement in the NHS. Confusing and unsafe repeated changes of policy on wearing PPE were undoubtedly driven by rationing shortages rather than any public health “science” claimed by ministers.

Centralised Test and Trace has been the opposite of Johnson and Hancock’s “world beating” claim. The number of times this and similar phrases are used by those in positions of power show just how insecure they feel inside about the alleged “Greatness” of Britain. Puerile hysteria about blue passports and the offensive jingoistic lyrics of some “traditional” songs are further evidence of this insecurity.

Without a Trace

Where?

The main reason that Track and Trace has been such a disaster – failing to meet its targets nine weeks in a row – is the dogmatic obsession with running everything from Whitehall and subcontracting (and sub-subcontracting) everything to the government’s mates in the private sector. The announced U-turn on handing more work and power to local Directors of Public Health with the necessary local government spending is happening only painfully slowly. Hancock is acting like a drowning man, not wanting to let go of any scrap of centralised power for reasons of pure dogma and an authoritarian instinct. The true black hole into which power is being sucked goes by the name of the man whose eyesight needed testing on the road to Barnard Castle.

Oh, in case you missed it, here’s a couple of things about Dido “Dodo” Harding, head of Track and Trace and the bits of Public Health England that the government hasn’t forgotten about, you may find interesting. As CEO of TalkTalk, Marketing magazine described her in these terms: “TalkTalk boss Dido Harding’s utter ignorance is a lesson to us all.” So that puts her on a par with every member of the Cabinet. And the second thing is her horsey connections as a board member of Cheltenham Racecourse. Matt Hancock is MP for Newmarket. Health experts have reckoned that at least 20,000 lives could have been saved if the UK had locked down a week earlier. And what happened during that, literally, fatal week? Why, the Cheltenham Festival, of course. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Judge Dread

One other key plank in the “abolish all dissent” plans of the CJJ concerns judicial review. Gina Miller tweeted today: “Sneaky Govt! On 31 July they announce Independent Review of Administrative Law via a press notice. Tonight they quietly put on http://Parliament.uk the scope & who’ll decide if to act on recommendations. I’ve highlighted & abbreviated.” (Gina Miller is the lawyer who won two court cases between the 2016 referendum and the 2019 general election. The first ruled that the government must seek a Parliamentary vote of approval before signing the withdrawal agreement: this led to the notorious Daily Mail “Enemies of the People” front page. The second ruled Johnson’s 2019 proroguing of parliament illegal. Between them, they reinforced the principle that ministers are not above the law.)

Government announcement

Johnson has found a sympathetic chair in Edward Faulks QC. Now, the next bit you simply couldn’t make up. Faulks’s middle names are “Peter Lawless”. Yes, Lawless. His wife Catherine is a Tory councillor. Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove have taken upon themselves the role of deciding what the government will do following the Review. The intention is already clear. Johnson wants to put himself and his government above the law. These are the actions of a dictator and not those of Head of Government in a supposedly democratic state.

Wise Words

I’d like to end with some wise words. The first come from the leader writer in today’s Guardian, who writes of the Cummings-Johnson Junta as “an administration that refuses to delegate but fails to govern”. To those who find this all a bit boring, the second words come from no less a figure than Plato: “The price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men”. That just about sums it up. You were warned.

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Mountain of the Dead

Or, How to Stay Cheerful, in spite of the evidence…

Anyway, some bad news first.

The most reliable way of comparing countries in the coronavirus pandemic is to measure excess deaths. (It’s the least dodgy of all the various statistics.)

Top of the Charts

The PM refers to the UK government’s handling of the pandemic in England as a “massive success”. That’s only true if you count “success” as the height of the pile of dead bodies. Here’s a chart showing the excess deaths for several European countries, measured as a percentage of the total deaths expected at the time of year. Cumulative figures since the start of 2020 show England top of the charts with 7.5% excess deaths:

The Mountain Top

The charts below look like a series of mountains and show excess deaths for the four worst-hit European countries week by week. Although the other “top 3” (for deaths) show sharper peaks, it’s clear it’s taken England and Wales longer to control the outbreak: note the two smaller peaks in later weeks for England and Wales: no such pattern exists for the other countries shown.

Mountains

A much fuller analysis, using official government figures, can be found at the ONS website here.

For a more readable analysis, why not try this piece from the New Statesman: Why England Was Hit Harder by Covid-19 than Any Other Country in Europe?

Economy Tanked: News v Propaganda

There are those who argue that there is a balance to be struck between saving lives during the pandemic and saving jobs. Not so. The Johnson government has failed on both. The Guardian, perhaps unsurprisingly today (as I write) runs the story UK to Plunge into Deepest Slump on Record with worst fall in GDP among G7. For political “balance”, compare and contrast that with, also today, the Telegraph headline “UK Poised to Suffer the Biggest Covid Blow of Any Major Economy”.

Still, not to worry. If you live in the fantasy universe of Johnson and his gang, it’s good news all the way. This was faithfully reported in that fantasy-filled rag, the Daily Express, a couple of days ago:

Propaganda rag

As I saw commented on Twitter that day, this front page would be what one might only expect to see in the most repressive dictatorships imaginable. It’s a disgrace to the sort of journalism that we should expect in a supposedly democratic country. (I was bemused to see, incidentally, that Express copywriters haven’t cottoned on to the fact that the UK has been measuring temperatures in degrees Celsius since 1963, only 57 years ago. Still, I suppose it fits with the paper’s target readership: those whose brains ceased to function at least half a century ago).

The Brex Street Kids

Even more good news: we don’t even have to wait until the end of the year to suffer from the entirely self-inflicted damage at the end of the EU Exit transition period. Today’s Observer cheerfully reports the exodus of the brightest and best in a piece entitled Br*xit Fuels Brain Drain as Skilled Britons Head to the EU. The “brain drain” started soon after the 2016 referendum result, the paper reports.

And yet, the Brex Street Kids running the country remain cheerful, it seems. As long as companies making Tory Party donations continue to win government contracts without due process of competitive tendering, all seems right their world. If ever there was doubt before, the “it’s one rule for us and another rule for the rest of you” attitude of those in power is plain for all to see. Blatant rule-breaking, rampant misogyny, cronyism (here’s a view from abroad) and corruption all get the blind-eye treatment by Johnson and his gang. OK, I admit that the last link on corruption takes you to a rather partisan source. But this story has been running, in various forms, in mainstream media (including the FT) on various dates since at least May. Just put “PPE contracts Tory donors” into your favourite search engine to see for yourself.

Give Us a (Second) Wave

Sea air?

Feeling the heat after all this doom and gloom? Then why not head off to Bournemouth beach? I’m sure you will find yourself in good company: that total stranger might shuffle up a bit to give you room to sit down. Give them a wave: after a second one of those, you may be feeling the heat a little more.

Whilst you’re there, why not bury your head in the sand?  Don’t worry, that good old English Exceptionalism will see us through! And with the Brex Street Kids in charge, what could go wrong?

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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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