Thursday 28 January 2021

100 000 Deaths: the Indictment.

The landmark figure of 100 000 coronavirus related deaths was officially reached yesterday though I'd thought I'd seen the figure earlier. The Prime Minister has said he is "sorry," and he may be genuinely so, but it has the sound of the routine "sorry for your loss" which features on funeral condolence cards rather than an admission of responsibility for errors made.

Though the 100 000 deaths indicates not just lives cut short but  several hundred thousand grieving friends and relative, the total figure itself is not a measure of the competence with which the pandemic has been dealt.  For that  a more useful measure is number of deaths related to population size.  For that, on yesterday's figures, the UK comes fourth from the bottom, above San Marino (194 deaths per hundred thousand) Belgium (180) Slovenia 163) and UK (148) .

The table of related countries then reads:

UK:               148  deaths per  hundred thousand population

Italy:             142

US                128

France:         109

Germany:        64

Ireland:            61

Canada:          50

Australia:          3.6

New Zealand:  0.53 

World beaten rather than world-beating, Prime Minister Johnson refuses the Opposition's repeated requests for an enquiry into why we are doing so badly.  His argument is that the government needs to concentrate all its resources  on dealing with the pandemic - an argument that held no sway when it was suggested that the  Brexit transition period should be extended for a year.  

Given that one medical expert has predicted  there could easily be a further 50 000 deaths before control is achieved, it would seem to be in the nation's best interest, if not the government's reputation, that an enquiry  be held now in order to establish what went wrong and how to avoid similar errors in the future.

 On the whole criticisms of the government can be summed up in the phrases: "always behind the curve," "too little too late," with trust diminished through  "muddled messages" and a "bad examples," from those making the rules but not obeying them

Here's an outline, as comprehensive as I can make it, of the issues which  should be examined.

  •  inadequate funding of the NHS as a result of the of the austerity programme since 2010, so that it lacks the spare capacity to deal with a major emergency;
  • the failure to act on the  report of the Cygnus simulation of a pandemic in 2018;
  • the consequent lack of personal protective clothing and an effective planning, implementation  and communications network;
  • the  casual, even flippant, attitude towards the virus in the early stage (Johnson shaking hands with people possibly infected and his attendance at an international rugby match,  Goodwood held);
  • the  delayed lockdown in the Spring, 2020, which it is estimated cost 10 000 avoidable deaths;
  • discharge of elderly patients from hospitals to care homes without first testing them for Covid;
  • failure to complete  the promise of laptops to households without them to facilitate home learning;
  • inadequate restrictions on visitors from outside the UK;
  • the failure of the test and trace system outsourced to the private sector and costing £12bn;
  • contracts for services and supplies to apparently ill-qualified "friends" rather than through established procedures;
  • the less than adequate furlough scheme;
  • the premature exit from the first lockdown;
  • the "eat out to help out" scheme which helped spread the virus;
  • Dominic Cummings's trips to the North East and to Barnard Castle, and failure to sack or even censure him;
  • the insistence that  most university students resume their courses on campus;
  • the failure to have a "circuit breaker" in the October 2020 half-term; 
  • the failure of the tiered lockdown scheme;
  • the offer of a five day household mixing period permitted over Christmas, only reduced to one day at the last moment;
  • schools forced to return for the Spring term (cancelled after one day);
  •  the delayed New Year 2021 lockdown.

Further suggestions will be welcomed

 A fair-minded enquiry will no doubt rate some of the above as understandable and perhaps excusable. Most important is to examine the alleged trade off  between preventing the spread of the virus and keeping the economy going.  

Without it, however, the government continues to repeat its mistakes and tackles the pandemic though up-beat language rather than evidence-led thinking



Tuesday 26 January 2021

Holocaust Memorial Day

 Tomorrow, 27th January, is Holocaust Memorial Day.

On pages 141 et seq of his "Is this a Man?"  Primo Levi describes how prisoners  in Auschwitz were selected for execution.

Today is working Sunday, Arbeitsonntag: we work  until 1pm.then we return to the camp for the shower, shave and general  control for skin disease and lice. And in the yards everyone  knew mysteriously  that the selection  would be today.

The news arrived, as always  surrounded  by a halo  of contradictory  or suspect details . . . Room has to be made for an enormous convoy  arriving from the Ponzan ghetto. . .The young tell the young  that all the old ones will be chosen.  The healthy tell the healthy that only the ill will be chosen.  Specialists will be excluded.  German Jews will be excluded.  Low Numbers will be excluded.  You will be chosen.  I will be excluded.

When their turn for the selection comes Levi and the fellow members of his dormitory strip naked and are herded into a small.  From there they must, one at a time, step outdoors and walk a short distance back to the dormitory.  Each must carry a card a card  with his number on it.  

The Block√§ltester has closed the connecting door  and has opened the other two  which lead from the dormitory  and the Tagesraum outside.  Here in front of the two doors stands the arbiter of our fate, an SS subaltern.  On his right is the Block√§ltester, on his left the quartermaster of the hut.  Each one of us as he comes naked out of the Tagesraum  into the cold October air, has to run the few steps  between the two doors, give the card to the SS man and enter the dormitory door.  The SS man, in the fraction of a second between two successive crossings, with a glance at one's back and front, judges everyone's fate, and in turn gives the card to the man  on his right or his left, and this is the life or death of  for each of us.

. . .

Jammed in the charnel-house  of the Tagesraum I gradually feel the pressure around me slacken, and in a short time it was my turn.  Like everyone, I passed by with a brisk and elastic step, trying to hold my head high,  my chest forward and my muscles contracted and conspicuous.  With the corner of my eye I tried to look behind my shoulders, and my card seemed to end on the right.

As we gradually come back into the dormitory  we are allowed to dress ourselves.  Nobody yet knows with certainty his own fate, it has first of all to be established  whether the condemned card are those on the right or the left.

It turned out to be the left, so Levi survived.

The above is a horrifying illustration of the depths to which man's inhumanity to man can reach when we lose our reason, are told lies by  "the authorities",  believe myths (fake news?) and look for scapegoats.  In both the US and the UK we are a long way from those depths, but we are taking the first steps.  

In two weeks time there is every likelihood that at lest 34 US Senators will decide, in spite of the real events they witnessed and the publicised  evidence on tape, that Donald Trump's urging  of his followers to invade Congress and prevent the confirmation of Biden's Presidency, and which caused five deaths, was not  after all  a "high crime." and so Trump will get away with it.

Thursday 21 January 2021

Towards an Apple Monarchy


UK politicians like to think  we have  a "special relationship" with the US and Prime Minister Johnson was quick to say yesterday that  he is looking forward to working  closely with the new President Biden.

I have have just completed reading Barack Obama's "memoires" of his campaign for and first term  as President (2008 -2012)  The number of references to British and other politicians  is instructive:

Gordon Brown:         

David Cameron:        5

Angela Merkel:        13

Nicolas Sarkozy      15

Dmitri Medvedev:    16

Vladimir Putin:         15

Hu Jintao                   5

To be fair Brown and Cameron shared the British premiership in this period  so taken together (11) they almost equal Mrs Merkel's 13.  On the other hand Merkel's references often run to more than one page, so these extras bring her total to 25. 

(Whereas I had understood that the rescue plan of the world  financial system hammered  out at the G20 summit in 2009 was all Gordon Brown's initiative, according to this  volume the plan was entirely an American idea, though Brown was "on side." and chaired the summit skilfully.

 O wad some Power the giftie gie us 

To see oursels as ithers see us!)

 It's interesting that there are far more references to Russia's leaders than to Hu.  China has increased tremendously in importance in the past decade, and not just because of the corona virus.

I am pleased to note that John Maynard Keynes gets four mentions.  Equally pleasing, on his very first half-day day in office President Biden has proposed a $1.9tr stimulus for the US economy.  Rishi Sunak please note and stop wittering about balancing the UK's.  budget. Now is not the time.

Just to put things in perspective, Obama's younger daughter Sasha gets 45 mentions.

I am not claiming that  this measurement is anything but very crude, but it does signal that preoccupation and consultation with the UK and its leaders does not figure highly in the priorities of US leaders, or at least not this one.

The Brexiteers claim to believe that, freed from the supposed restraints of the EU, the UK will soar back to prominence as an international economic and political power.  I suspect that the reverse will be the case: we shall drift into further irrelevance.  

We cannot be dismissed  as  a Banana Republic becasue we are not competitive growers of bananas and we are a monarchy.  But we do grow lovely apples, and I firmly  believe that Cox's Orange Pippins grown in Britain are the best apples in the world.

So,  an Apple Monarchy.

Sunday 17 January 2021

Why do we think what we think?

 Wikipedia tells me that Think-Tanks were introduced in the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but  my memory is that they came into my consciousness in the UK around the time Edward Heath was Prime Minister (1970 - 74).  I'm sure there are exceptions but until then I think  we felt that most thinking about matters great and small was done in universities who at least tried to explore knowledge impartially  rather than push a particular point of view.

 Not so Think-Tanks, which by and large do seem to want to push a particular point of view.  Some of the most powerful are endowed by very rich individuals or groups and tend to be right-wing because rich and powerful individuals and groups tend to be rich and powerful though the persistence of right-wing ideas, particularly in relation to free-market economic philosophies. (In fairness I suppose some of them think that their prosperity trickles down to the lower orders.  It doesn't)

 In their frightening book "The War Against the BBC" Patrick Barwise  and Peter York helpfully list some of the most prominent on  page 104.  They are the:

  •  Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA);
  • Adam Smith Institute;
  • Taxpayers' Alliance;
  • New Culture Forum;
  • Centre for Policy Studies.

According to Barwise and York "Each . . . has its own emphasis, but they tend to have several points in common, including being opaquely funded, an aversion to being described as a right-wing think tanks, scepticism about government regulations, the scientific arguments about man-made climate change and the EU - and hostility to the BBC."

Although we tend to assume each Think-Tank works independently  Barwise and York point out that  53 Tufton Street, (near Westminster and Whitehall), calling itself "Right wing Policy Central," houses several of them, and others are a stones-throw away on Tufton Street itself,  Lord North Street, Great George Street, and Great Smith Street.  Co-ordination of campaigns is not difficult.

 Barwise and York are particularly concerned by their orchestrated attacks on the BBC, via the licence fee (to open up space for their profit maximising supporters, Fox News et al) and to propagate  right-wing views  as opposed to the BBC's attempts at "balance."

So far vis a vis funding the Think-Tanks have been very successful.  Since 2020, when David Cameron's government came to power the BBC's funding has been reduced in real terms by 30%.  (page 26).  

The newly appointed  Chairman of the BBC, Richard Sharp, is a former banker who has donated £400 000 to the Conservative Party in the past 20 years and is a founder and former board member of the Centre for Policy Studies Think-Tank (see list above). 

Is the BBC in safe hands as far as the right-wing are concerned or as we the public are concerned?  It can't be both.  

When asked to which news source they would turn to for impartial news almost  half the UK adult population (44%) chose the BBC.(p233)  That's more than four times as many as its nearest rival, TV (10%)  A mere 3% chose my main choice, the  Guardian.  But, before you crow that's three times as many as the 1% each who chose The Times, Mail, Independent or Sun.

 The BBC is a precious asset, both here and abroad, and essential to the health of our democracy.

 We should defend it.

 Maybe Mr Sharp, now he's in charge, will change his spots.  He's already agreed that the licence fee is "the least worst option" and  "good value." That should endear it to his right-wing heart.

Thursday 14 January 2021

Tough on the causes of death


The government PR machine appears to be manoeuvring to establish that the present danger of the NHS being overwhelmed by the coronavirus emergency is caused by the appearance of a new and more easily transmitted form of the virus and the failure of thoughtless minority of people to observe the government's guidelines.

Given that the flue virus, with which we are familiar, changes its form every year, and perhaps even more often, that the corona virus should change its form should come as no surprise.

As for the thoughtless minority, the Home Secretary, M/s Priti Patel, has instructed the police to move more  quickly to crackdown on those who indulged in "egregious" rules breaches.   

Perhaps the thoughtless minority are taking the cue from the prime minister's seven mile trip to ride his bicycle round the Olympic Park (the rest of us are ordered to exercise only from our own doorsteps) or his journey from London to Bristol for a photo-opportunity at a mass vaccination centre (the rest of us are told not to travel unnecessarily).

 Be that as it may, the main cause of the danger of the NHS becoming overwhelmed is not the "thoughtless minority" who perhaps aren't all that clear on what is egregious and what isn't,  but the government's failure to implement the findings resulting from Exercise Cygnus.  Details of this are given in an earlier post, but here's a reminder.

Exercise Cygnus was the simulation which the government ran in 2016 to test the UK's ability to deal with a pandemic.  


This Conservative party was in power, Mrs May was prime minister and  Mr Johnson was in the cabinet.  The simulation revealed all the facts of under-preparedness, lack of physical capacity, PPE, ICU beds  and staff shortages which have become apparent in the past 12 months.

Yet  the findings were not acted upon.  Instead the report was  kept secret, and only revealed after intense pressure and in heavily redacted form last October.

They knew

Their cheeseparing attitude to public spending makes them responsible for our shameful record, which now amounts to 85 000 excess deaths. 

 When the reckoning  is made in a full  public enquiry I hope M/s Patel and her ilk, or whatever ministers have replaced them, will be just as keen for a "crackdown" on those responsible for this negligence.   

 And we, the electorate, should put aside the silly nonsense that we can have Scandinavian quality public services on minimal levels of taxation and be willing to elect politicians who are prepared to spend public money to keep us safe. 

Thursday 7 January 2021

US "insurrection" - it could happen here.

 On page 276 of "A Promised Land"  former US President Barack Obama writes:

"As the US growth rate started to slow in the 1970s - as incomes then stagnated  and good jobs declined for those without a college degree, as parents started worrying about their kids doing at least as well as they had done - the scope of people's concerns narrowed.  We became more sensitive  to the possibility that someone else  was getting something we weren't and more receptive to the notion that the government couldn't be trusted to be fair.

 Promoting that story - a story that fed not trust but resentment - had come to define the modern Republican Party." 

That is the mood into which President Trump has tapped and which has enabled him to pressure his followers (the left behind?) into believing that he has indeed been robbed of his election victory, and thus precipitated yesterday's mob invasion of the US Congress.

The parallels with the UK are not exact.   Prime Minister Johnson is no Donald Trump (not yet, anyway), but Nigel Farage is a good imitation.  The unfairness in the UK is not so much attributed to the government as to globalisation, immigration and, in particular the EU.  Farage based his appeal on this mood, Troy voters haemorrhaged towards his UKIP and frighted David Cameron into offering the EU Referendum he didn't expect to have to call.

Although Prime Minister Johnson has not, yet, abused our constitution to the extent that Trump has in the US, he has illegally prorogued parliament, has threatened to break international law, is cutting regulatory  conners to allows lucrative contracts to be given to Troy friends, and is ignoring the norms of ministerial reponsiblity.

 We are, I hope, a long way from an attack on the Palace of Westminster, but we urgently need to find convincing ways of making our system  work "for the many, not the few" or we can go down the illiberal road on which Trump has led the US.