From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Carry on Testing’

August 3rd

Who would ever have thought that the not particularly fascinating (unless, presumably, you happen to be a virologist) topic of antibody-testing could ever justify being the main focus of 18 of my blogs over a mere four and a half months, written by someone who is very much not a virologist?  Perhaps it isn’t that fascinating; perhaps it is just that lockdown has limited my horizons to the point where even the very smallest things seem interesting.  But this particular very smallest thing happens to be threatening to wipe out a significant portion of the world’s population, and, looking back, I see that I have managed to avoid mentioning Covid-19 testing at all since July 9th. Anyway it may not be the antibody-testing itself that I find interesting; perhaps it is the complete divorce between what the government says about it and what it does about it.  

After somewhere around 20,000 deaths in care homes since the onset of the pandemic had called our unmatchable Secretary of State for Health and Social Care’s claim to have thrown a ‘protective ring around care homes’ into some doubt, Hancock announced in June that from 6th July there would be weekly tests for all staff, and monthly tests for all residents, of care homes for those over 65, regardless of whether tor not they were showing any symptoms of the disease.  The same was promised for all other care homes from the beginning of this month.  This, Hancock assured us, would ‘not only keep residents and care workers safe, but give certainty and peace of mind to families.’   It might, indeed, have done so, had this promise been met, unlike the lamentable litany of other unfulfilled promises on testing targets over the past few months.  Needless to say, it wasn’t. So far, according to an Independent report, only around 3,300 out of a total of some 9,200 homes have been sent the promised testing equipment, and Professor Jane Cummings (one hopes no relation), the government’s adult social care testing director, has now announced that the July 6th testing regime has been put back to 7th September.  Don’t hold your breath.   Hancock’s ‘protective ring’ calls to mind the inflatable swimming rings that toddlers used to wear to keep them safe before they could swim, the only problem being that this one had a very large puncture.  Too bad for the toddler.   

Too bad for the rest of us as well.  The BBC news headlines are now telling us that scientists are warning that unless there is a dramatic improvement in what Boris Johnson, in his post-Covid-19 delirium, thinks is already a ‘world-beating’ test and trace system, we can expect the next wave of the infection to kill twice as many people as have died from it to date.   But it isn’t just the big picture that reveals the shambolic incompetence of the people who have so unwisely been elected to lead us, and supposedly keep us safe, it is the lived experience at an individual level.  To give just one example, a friend’s daughter who lives on the south coast recently felt unwell with covid-like symptoms, phoned for advice and was directed to go to a testing centre.   She doesn’t have a car, and the centre was some distance away, but she wanted to avoid public transport, as per government advice, and the distance was just about walkable, so, in spite of feeling unwell, she walked.  When she arrived she was asked where her car was.  She said she didn’t own a car.  She was told she had to have a car.  Well she didn’t have a car, she had walked all the way, so what was she supposed to do?  Call a taxi, meet the taxi outside the centre, get into the taxi, get the taxi to drive into the centre, and only then could she be tested.  One can only hope that, having been compelled to risk the taxi, she then allowed it to take her all the way home.   If it were even remotely funny, there would be more than enough material for someone to write the screenplay for ‘Carry on Testing’, with Matt Hancock playing the straight-man and Boris Johnson playing himself.

From David Maughan Brown in York: We should be worried

July 7th

I am coming to the conclusion that there is only one way in present circumstances to allow drugs designed to lower my blood pressure any chance whatever of being more useful than a chocolate fire-guard, and that is to lock myself down in a dark room well out of reach of radios, televisions and newspapers.   The drugs can’t compete with the side effects of listening to or reading about Boris, who is now blaming care homes ‘that didn’t really follow procedures in the way they could have’ for the Covid-related deaths of 20,000 or so of their residents.   The managers of the care homes are understandably outraged. They may not have asked for 25,000 patients to be discharged from hospitals without being tested for the virus, many of them back into the care homes that Matt Hancock put such an effective ‘protective ring around’, but they ‘could have followed different procedures’?   One different procedure could have involved refusing to allow the residents back into the care homes and leaving them them to die somewhere else, outside Hancock’s PPE-free ‘protective ring’.  That would have stopped them taking the virus back into the care homes.  Their relatives might have objected to that, but the managers could have explained that the prime minister wanted them to follow different procedures.  Except, of course, that at the time he didn’t.

Watching the different acts going on under the big-top of Boris’s world-beating circus while reading numerous accounts of the ways in which repressive governments around the world have used the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse for cracking down on the people they govern, has raised questions for me about the resilience or otherwise of our own democracy.  Precisely who is our prime minister accountable to for the next four and a half years, after having dissembled his way to a referendum victory followed by a landslide general election?  Boris certainly doesn’t feel accountable to parliament, as evidenced by his sending our fresh-faced friend Matt Hancock in his stead to try to explain away Boris’s care home comment, in the manner of a public school prefect sending his private fag off to run an errand for him.

Boris demonstrated his contempt for parliamentary democracy clearly enough prior to the general election via his abortive attempt to prorogue parliament to avoid democratic accountability .  That attempt was thwarted by the judiciary, which prompted immediate threats about the judiciary needing be brought into line.  We should be worried.  Boris has demonstrated his contempt for the independence of the civil service by easing out Sir Mark Sedwill, its most senior official, and replacing him as national security adviser with a political appointee, David Frost, who is manifestly under-qualified for the role.  At the same time, Boris has made it transparently clear that the likes of Dominic Cummings and Robert Jenrick, his unelected aides and his hand-picked cabinet ministers, will be untouchable, regardless of how badly they behave, just so long as he doesn’t want them touched.  We should, again, be worried.

Boris clearly doesn’t even feel accountable to the people who unwisely lent him the votes that won him the referendum and the general election.   The former was won in part by stoking fears about immigration, as in the lie about imminent Turkish accession to the EU.  But Boris clearly had no qualms whatever, never mind feeling the need to consult anyone, before inviting three million Hong Kong residents to come to live here.  And, in spite of knowing full well that employment is one of the chief anxieties leading to voters’ anti-immigrant sentiment, he issued his invitation at the precise moment when the UK is facing its worst unemployment crisis in decades.   All in the interest of throwing a gauntlet down to China to demonstrate his independent, post-Brexit macho credentials.  If China doesn’t behave itself he’ll doubtless send a couple of gun-boats around to sort them out.

Where are the checks and balances? How can a prime minister in circumstances such as these be held accountable?  Boris can win an election to ‘get Brexit done’ on the back of earnest assurances that he would obviously never contemplate a no-deal outcome to the trade negotiations, and then, having won the election, he can go hell for leather for a no-deal outcome.   Such an outcome might succeed in further enriching Boris and his chums, but even without the fall-out from a global pandemic it would have done enormous damage to the rest of us, as his own government’s analyses showed. In present circumstances it seems likely to prove catastrophic.  A no-deal Brexit was not on the ballot paper, either at the referendum or the general election, and by the time we left the European Union all the polls were showing that a significant majority of the electorate do not want a no-deal outcome.  So much for democracy.  We should be very worried indeed.

From David Maughn Brown in York: ‘Unskilled workers’

May 18th

As the lockdown, with its social isolation and social distancing, wears on, I am finding my emotions rising to the surface more insistently than usual.   The broadcast media seem at times deliberately to set out to play on those emotions with their extensive and insistent interviews with the bereaved members of the families of those who have been killed by Covid-19.   The cameras linger just that little bit too long on the anguished faces of the partners and children of those who have died as their fortitude wears out and they break down in tears.   One expects families to be grieving after the deaths of loved ones, what I hadn’t anticipated and have found equally moving has been the manifest grief of the managers and staff of care-homes who have been interviewed after the deaths of residents whom they have cared for and clearly loved.  It doesn’t, however, take very long for sympathy to mutate into impotent fury that they should have lost residents they care for very deeply as a result of the extraordinary negligence and incompetence of those responsible for Health and Social Care in this country who allowed elderly residents of care homes to be discharged from hospitals back into those care homes without being tested for Covid-19.

The anger is compounded when those responsible have themselves filmed  ostentatiously ‘clapping for carers’ at 8.00pm on a Thursday evening by way, supposedly, of thanking them for the difficult and dangerous role they are playing during the pandemic, and then walz along to Parliament on Monday morning to support an Immigration Bill which makes it abundantly clear that those same care workers aren’t really wanted or needed in this country.   There are 122,000 vacancies in the care sector at present, not including the gaps left by the 150 or so care workers who have died of Covid-19.   But prohibitive, and wholly unjustified, visa charges are currently in place to deter non-EU foreign care workers from coming now, and as soon as the Brexit transition period comes to an end on December 31st a shiny new salary-threshold based imitation of the Australian points-based immigration system will be put in place to keep them out altogether.   Roughly 25% of care-workers in UK are currently not British and without them, as those directly responsible for managing the homes know all too well, the whole sector will collapse.   But our xenophobic Brexiteer government doesn’t like foreign ‘low-skilled workers’, and one can only presume that the fantasy-land they live in is populated by hundreds of thousands of UK citizens champing at the bit to fill all the existing and prospective vacancies that will ensue.

Michael O’Leary, the boss of Ryanair, interviewed by the BBC this morning, referred to the Government’s bizarre decision to start implementing a two-week quarantine on anyone flying into the UK at this juncture (there’s nothing like waking up to a good idea two months too late) as ‘idiotic and unimplementable’.   Any policy that aims to keep poorly paid health and care workers who aren’t British out of this country, and imagines that our NHS and care sector will survive, is equally idiotic and unimplementable.  The notion that poorly paid nurses and care-workers are ‘unskilled’ is, of course, as stupid as it is offensive.   The equation of salary-level with skill is the kind of stupidity one should probably expect of a government led by an Old Etonian who recently acknowledged that his life has just been saved by the skills of two foreign ‘unskilled workers’, but is apparently blind to the contradiction.  Anyone who wants an example of ‘unskilled workers’ has only to look at Boris (although ‘worker’ is an exaggeration in his case) and Priti Patel, his Home Secretary, who, in spite of their £140k plus salaries, are manifestly lacking the skills needed to do the jobs they have maneuvered themselves into. Of all the sickening features of the whole sorry post-Brexit immigration debate, perhaps the least edifying is having to watch the spectacle of Priti Patel, whose parents immigrated to UK after being expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin, frantically pulling the ladder up behind her.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Conspiracy theories

April 14th

Times of heightened stress and anxiety are, we are told, breeding grounds for rumours, fantasies and conspiracy theories.  In my time at different universities I had to deal at examination time with groups of students manifesting a range of different examples of this, from anxiety about a ghost stalking the corridors of a student residence, to students convinced, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that there was a serial rapist on campus. Entirely justified anxieties about the Covid-19 pandemic have, predictably enough, bred their own conspiracy theories.  The most notable of these is the absurd notion that the disease was deliberately engineered in China and is not being propagated by a virus but via the signals from 5G masts.  Fed and watered on social media, recently given credence by Eamon Holmes on ITV, the moral panic fostered by this conspiracy theory has led to assaults on telecommunication workers and damage to masts.

I heard the 5G theory rightly being dismissed as “incredibly stupid” by two scientists on Radio 4 this morning, with a bluntness that I have not as yet heard being applied by our over-deferential media to our prime minister’s demonstration of anti-Covid-19 leadership via the shaking of victims’ hands.  But one of the most insidious features of conspiracy theories is that the more they are debunked by people who know what they are talking about, the easier it becomes for the people who don’t know what they are talking about to say “well, they would say that wouldn’t they”, and thereby co-opt the debunking as evidence of the truth of the conspiracy theory.  The more “establishment” the officials denying the conspiracy are seen to be, the more oxygen, to use a currently pertinent cliché, the theory gets.

It would be easy enough for anyone with nothing better to do under lockdown to make a few dodgy connections and overstretched deductions and come up with a conspiracy theory to float on social media.  So, for example, what happened to that vaguely genocidal idea of ‘herd immunity’ floated by scientific experts early in the pandemic and allegedly favoured by Svengali Cummings?  What, for that matter, has happened to Cummings, last seen (as far as we know) running away from Downing Street accompanied by his backpack?  ‘Herd immunity’, involving allowing 60% people to develop immunity by contracting the virus, was apparently dismissed as unacceptable to the public. It would have seen swathes of elderly and vulnerable people no longer being a burden to an economy that will take a very long time to recover, even with a boost like that.  So, the conspiracy theory would go, how do we know Svengali isn’t locked away somewhere cunningly orchestrating the same outcome for the elderly?  Why aren’t the statistics of deaths of elderly people in our care homes, in particular, and the community more generally being collected and published in the same way as the hospital statistics?  Why, allegedly, are death certificates not accurately reflecting the Covid-19 effect?  Why are the carers in care-homes not being supplied with adequate personal protective equipment?  Is it surprising that so many elderly people are dying?

The questions are mostly, individually, legitimate questions.  Link them together like that and you have the makings of a conspiracy theory that might well, if it were to be put out on Facebook, gain significant traction.  And the more it was denied by those in a position to engineer the allegedly sought-after outcome, the more truth it would perversely be credited with.  As my novel Despite the Darkness explores in some depth, you can’t prove a negative.   But such a corralling of disparate factors into a coherent conspiracy theory would, of course, be nonsense, even as it makes a perverse kind of sense.  Apart from anything else, it would demand a level of co-ordination, competence and organizational ability that is, all too obviously, lamentably lacking in our present government.   But it would still be interesting to know what Cummings is doing these days.