Tuesday 12 May 2020

Conflict rather than co-operation

There seems to be something in either our British psyche or our system that pushes us towards conflict rather than co-operation.

It is right that the government should make proposals, and that the opposition parties should, where necessary, criticise them and propose alternatives.  I'm happy with that: it is our system.

 Sir Keir Starmer is treading a fine line between probing the the holes in the government's often vague and inadequate proposals and avoiding too bellicose an approach which could alienate the electorate which is still largely supportive of the government.  The Tories are still 20 points ahead in the polls.
 Personally I'd like Starmer to be a bit more aggressive, but that's a matter for him and his party to judge.  I'd also like the Liberal Democrats to be heard but we seem to have been squeezed out.

What worries me is that the government seems to present its proposals without appearing to have consulted the people most deeply concerned.

On Sunday evening Prime Minister Johnson used prime-time television to address the nations (sic) on how we would ease ourselves out of the lockdown.  Unusually for the Tories, who are good at effective PR, the timing was bad, coming at the end of a three  day weekend.  Knowing it was coming many people made their own decisions about what he would say and spent three days cheerfully breaking the existing regulations.

The overall presentation of the broadcast was, except for Johnson's excessive use of gestures (it's as though he's trying to encourage a team of eight year old  footballers to maintain their positions and not all chase after the ball) well done.  There were clear graphics to show, in different colours, five levels of danger, a pie chart with moveable arrow to show the importance of the Reproduction rate, and to my relief, the approach was to be very cautious. He's clearly learned from his own experience of the illness.

So a pretty god over-all picture.  But, as often is the case, the devil was in the detail.

The most glaring howler was that people who couldn't work from home should  report for work the following morning.  For those who start at 7am that's less than 12 hours notice, with no indications as  to:

  • if they were lucky enough to be receive the 80% of pay from the government, would they continue to receive it if they failed to report;
  • how the employers would, in that short space of time, be able to make their workplaces coronavirus proof;
  • whether the employees would have the right to refuse to work and return home if the necessary safety conditions were not in place;
  • if they needed child care and hadn't time to arrange it, would employees still get paid, or even retain their jobs., if they didn't turn up?
Had I been an employee under those circumstances, and anxious to "do the right thing," as is my wont, I should have spent a sleepless night.

The following (Monday) morning Dominic Raab, Johnson's stand-in, said that the prime minister had not meant Monday, but Wednesday.  This morning, Tuesday, another minister (Matt Hancock I think) when questioned on this point, said loftily that if that was all the "Today" programme had to worry about, then everything was really fine.

I've read somewhere that the officer class concentrates on broad strategies and leaves it to the NCOs to fill in the details. maybe that's the trouble.

In the 1960s  and 70s we Liberals argued as part of our economic policy that there should be a joint  council  representing the government , employees and employers (effectively the TUC and the CBI) to hammer our ways to make the economy work more effectively.

Surely the same principle is appropriate here.  

Why is there no joint meeting of the government, unions and employers to work out an agreeable way of re-introducing normal economic activity?  Why is there no meeting of the Department of Education, the teachers' unions, and representatives of the many other workers involved in schools, to work out when and how and in what order to re-open the schools?

And why no "four nations" permanent council to devise a strategy for the whole UK if that is thought desirable? (though I think it isn't  - even in these circumstances  differences are possible and sensible.  That is what devolution is all about)

On the issue of re-opening the schools, as one who has taught every age-group from reception class (not for very long) to pensioners, I'd like to know the argument for starting the re-opening with the infants and year six.   Surely the  infants will be the hardest with which to enforce physical distance (not to mention their parents at the gate), and I'm not sure that 11 year-olds actually need special induction to transfer to secondary schools. Surely they could just watch "Grange Hill."

Maybe this decision to start with the infants is nothing to do with education at all.  Many countries with allegedly more successful educational outcomes than ours don't start school till seven.  But the infant group need looking after, so if they're back at school their parents or careers can go back to work, and the reason is the economy.  If so, we should be told.


  1. The most glaring howler was that people who couldn't work from home should report for work the following morning

    He didn't actually say that. The relevant bit of the announcement read as follows:

    We said that you should work from home if you can, and only go to work if you must. We now need to stress that anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work.

    And we want it to be safe for you to get to work. So you should avoid public transport if at all possible – because we must and will maintain social distancing, and capacity will therefore be limited. So work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t work from home. And to ensure you are safe at work we have been working to establish new guidance for employers to make workplaces Covid-secure. And when you do go to work, if possible do so by car or even better by walking or bicycle. But just as with workplaces, public transport operators will also be following Covid-secure standards.

    So, no actual dates mentioned at all. Not Monday, not Wednesday, just a vague 'change of emphasis' — because of course there has been no change to the rules: it has always been the case that a reasonable excuse for leaving your home was to go to work, if your work cannot be done from home. There has never been a requirement — nor guidance, even — that only 'key workers' should go to work.

    So while you can reasonably criticise the advice for being too vague, I don't think your criticism that there was a flip-flop from 'turn up on Monday morning' to Wednesday sticks.

    (As to whether it was too vague… the thing is this is not a stage that can be done with cut-and-dried, black-and white lines. The aspiration is to allow as many people to get back to work as possible, within the existing regulations; obviously preparing for that will take different lengths of time for different business. So a blanket 'everybody turn up on Wednesday morning' would have been just as inappropriate.

    What is needed is for people to use their best judgement, and for the government to trust them to do that, rather than try to provide detailed rules for every possible situation — something which would clearly be impossible.

    Why is there no joint meeting of the government, unions and employers to work out an agreeable way of re-introducing normal economic activity

    Um because they all have different, contradictory demands and there doesn't exist a course of action which would be acceptable for them all, so in the end, somebody has to make (and take responsibility for) the final decision, after taking input from those affected but without giving them a veto over the result.

    1. re Monday or Wednesday or whenever:if that is the relevant bit of the transcript then you are right, but I definitely had the impression the return time was "tomorrow." I remember when I went to bed thinking how worried I would be if the "instruction" applied to me. Curiously both the Guardian (OK they may be biasses) and the BBC had the same impression.

      re the meeting: true they might not agree, but thorough Discussion beforehand could narrow down the areas of disagreement. then the government would have the final say.

    2. if that is the relevant bit of the transcript then you are right, but I definitely had the impression the return time was "tomorrow."

      Assuming the transcript at:


      is accurate, the word 'tomorrow' only occurs once, in the sentence:

      'I will be setting out more details in parliament tomorrow and taking questions from the public in the evening.'

      true they might not agree, but thorough Discussion beforehand could narrow down the areas of disagreement. then the government would have the final say

      Right. So the government asks them for input, they tell the government their position, the goverment makes the decision, then they brief bitterly against the government in the press because they didn't get exactly what they wanted.

      How is that not exactly what happens now?

    3. Face to face discussion can produce more reasoned results.

    4. Face to face discussion can produce more reasoned results.

      Bit difficult at the moment though.

  2. Surely the infants will be the hardest with which to enforce physical distance

    True, but they're also the ones that some of the evidence suggests are least like to catch and pass on the disease. I suspect Switzerland, where grandparents are being encouraged to hug their young grandchildren, is being watched carefully: if that doesn't result in mass deaths of Swiss grannies I think we will see schools opening more quickly, but if it does I think we'll see that slipping down the agenda.

    Frankly I think the idea of distancing in schools (and workplaces) is a bit misplaced anyway: sitting in an enclosed classroom breathing the same trapped air as someone who's got the Wuhan flu, you're probably going to get it whether you're six, twelve, eighteen feet away. The only benefit to social distancing measures (and it is a big one) is that if it means half as many pupils in a class, or half as many people in an office, that's half as many people who can be infected and therefore a slower spread (which is what we need, to have a flattened curve which build up resistance in the population without overwhelming hospital capacity).

    So whether the children can distance themselves is secondary, really, to having them in smaller bunches.

    Maybe this decision to start with the infants is nothing to do with education at all

    All the parents of toddlers I know are desperate for nurseries to open again so they can once again spend some time away from their little bundles of joy.

    1. You make a reasoned case and it would surely have been useful for the unions involved to have had discussions with the government before the decision was announced.You never know, they might have reached agreement. Instead we have conflict because the teaching unions seem pretty determinedly opposed.

    2. Instead we have conflict because the teaching unions seem pretty determinedly opposed

      Of course they are. It's the job of the teaching unions to object to anything which would see their members going back in without being 100% safe. But guaranteeing 100% safety is impossible in the current situation. So conflict is inevitable and good, because it's precisely having the different actors agitating for their different goals that ensures proper scrutiny of policy.

    3. "Quiet calm deliberation disentangles every not." Or if it doesn't quite, it has a better chance than where the modus operandi is for the big Beast in the piece to declare its position and then wait for the brickbats. That's the confrontational approach.

    4. "Quiet calm deliberation disentangles every not."

      Do you disagree with our court system, then? You'd rather a continental style where the judge, the prosecution and the defence all work together to fit someone up?

      Having the opposing viewpoints fight it out is the best way to get to the truth; or in this case, the best way to make sure every point of view is taken account of.

    5. Knot: what was I thinking of?

      I wouldn't dismiss the "continental style" as being more prone to "fit someone up" than our adversarial system has been repeatedly prone to error. But this argument isn't about our legal systems, but how best political decisions can be made. Germany has done very well out of the co-operative style,and France not too badly either.

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