From David Maughan Brown in York: Accountability

September 16th

The ‘operational challenges’ (see my September 6th entry) wholly unapologetically identified by our esteemed Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, as being responsible for people with Covid-19 symptoms being sent hundreds of miles across the country to be tested are worsening, and are already resulting in a health crisis months before the predicted winter surge of the virus.  Yesterday more than 100 people, who, after hours – sometimes days – of trying, had found it impossible to book a test, are reported to have flooded the Accident and Emergency Department at a hospital in Bolton in a desperate attempt to get themselves tested.  Front-line NHS staff, including GPs, are having to stay at home and add to the burden being shouldered by their colleagues because even they are finding it impossible to get a test.   Hancock is now petulantly blaming people who don’t have symptoms for blocking up the system by getting themselves tested, or at least by trying to.  Somebody needs to point out to him that one of the many problems with Covid-19 is that people carrying the virus can be infectious even if they are asymptomatic.  So to advise GPs to go to work when they don’t know whether they are infected, as Hancock is implicitly doing, may well add a few more to the thousands of unnecessary deaths this country has already suffered.

One might have thought that running a country of over sixty million people would carry a greater level of responsibility, and should accordingly carry a higher level of accountability, than running a FTSE company.  Under Health and Safety legislation, company directors are responsible for ensuring that their company complies with its obligations relating to the health, safety and welfare at work of its workers.  Company directors whose gross negligence leads to the death of even one of their workers can be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter and find themselves in prison.  But gross negligence on the part of a government, leading to twenty thousand deaths of their citizens, carries no such accountability.   Had it done so, to cite just one example, even our cavalier Prime Minister might have thought twice about not bothering to attend five consecutive meetings of the Cobra emergency committee held to discuss Covid-19 in the weeks before the virus arrived in UK.

But then, if the same code of conduct applied to running the country as pertains to company directorships, Boris Johnson wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a national emergency committee.  According to a Begbies Taylor advice article, ’Company directorship brings with it a legal obligation to act in a “proper” manner when undertaking company business. If you are found to have acted improperly, you may face disqualification as well as other penalties and fines,’ or even ‘a possible prison sentence in the most severe cases.’ The article goes on to point out warningly that, ‘Company director disqualification can stop you from acting as a company director if you fail to fulfil your legal duties or demonstrate improper conduct.’   It might be thought that ‘fulfilling your legal duties’ probably doesn’t extend to unashamedly announcing an intention to flout international law.

In the lead-up to the election of Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party (note the irony in the name), on 25th May 2019, Peter Stubley published an article in The Guardian titled ‘Boris Johnson: The most infamous lies and untruths by the Conservative leadership candidate.’  Johnson has repeatedly been fired from jobs for dishonesty, on one occasion for lying to the then Prime Minister about one of his many affairs.  There can surely be no question that he would have been disqualified from company directorship for improper conduct on more than one occasion, a disqualification that lasts for 15 years.  Yet here he is, negligently mishandling the most deadly pandemic our country has experienced for a hundred years, and simultaneously cocking a snoot at international law as he leads the charge of the morally light brigade over the cliff-edge of a no-deal Brexit.  And there isn’t even a company AGM at which he can be held to account.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Risk Management

August 21st

Throughout my time in University management in England I managed to avoid line management responsibility for staff whose lives were dedicated to Health and Safety and Risk Management.  Very important areas of activity, but ones that never exactly stirred my blood.  I was well and truly inducted into the arcane mysteries of the sect when I was required to attend a Health and Safety Committee meeting as part of my induction to my new university role in York.  It was soon enough after my arrival for me still to be driving my car around York with windows and doors firmly locked to avoid being hi-jacked, and still making a point of backing into parking bays to the same end, both being legacies of having lived in South Africa for the previous 30 years.   There were two substantive items on the agenda:  a four-page paper titled “The Safe use of Ornamental and Christmas Tree Lights” (it was November after all); and a six-page paper titled “The Dangers of Working Alone”.   Enough said.

But the management of Risk Management has now caught up with me in retirement, and is taking its revenge.   When I accepted nomination as Chair of the U3A in York, the crystal ball a colleague gave me as a parting present when I left the University of Natal for a primarily ‘Strategy and Corporate Planning’ role at York St John failed rather dismally in its responsibility to alert me to the impending onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.   U3A is gradually easing itself out of lockdown, and every tentative step has to be risk assessed.  We are acutely aware of the extent to which the vast majority of our members are, by definition, in the ‘vulnerable’ category, and very conscious of our responsibility to try to make sure that, in resuming their U3A activities, they will be as safe as we can possibly make them.   

In some instances, particularly with outdoor activities, that is relatively easy.  So, for example, we just have to review the risk management measures advised by the Croquet Association, and make sure the members of our croquet group are aware of them and happy to abide by them.  But even with outdoor activities there can be complications.  We have a number of walking groups of various sizes.  The Ramblers Association allows parties of up to 30, but we have group insurance through the Third Age Trust and their advice is still that only six people from different households should meet outdoors, as our cycling group is doing.  So is it OK for our large walking groups to divide into groups of six, each with a sub-leader who has reconnoitred the route with the Group Leader, with a view to many more than a total of six going out on the same walk, but at five minute intervals?

The restarting of group meetings indoors makes the complications of outdoor activities pale into insignificance.   We have an excellent relationship with the Friends Meeting House in York where our office is situated and where we rent meeting rooms for a significant portion of the well over 100 groups who meet indoors.   The Friends will take responsibility for the regular cleaning of the meeting rooms, but what about the ‘touch-points’ between sessions: door handles, light-switches, window-catches etc.?  And what about our office, storeroom, and equipment? Assorted Group Leaders, some probably about as absent-minded as I am, will be accessing the office at different times, taking PCs, projectors, cables etc. from the storeroom, and returning them at assorted times.   Is it reasonable to expect them all to remember to clean all touch-points as they go in and out? And what about cleaning the equipment?  None of this is insuperable, and we are expecting a very gradual return to indoor meetings from our understandably cautious membership, but it is taking a great deal of time – particularly for our Groups Coordinator.

A kindly neurosurgeon came to my aid on Wednesday.  He didn’t offer to help with the solution to the problems of cleaning the touch-points in our office, but he did put the occupational hazards of being Chair of a U3A branch with ultimate responsibility for risk management in a time of Covid into perspective.  His aim was clearly to make 100% certain that, in signing a consent form for a fusion operation on my spine, I was graphically aware of the risks involved.  ‘See that thin line there,’ he says, pointing to a very thin line on the MRI scan up on the screen in front of us, ‘if I nick that, you die on the operating table.  It has never happened to me – yet, touch wood, but it has happened to most of my colleagues, but only once.’   I was inclined to think that ‘happened to’ might, perhaps, be more appropriately applied to the patient rather than the surgeon. ‘You obviously have to be lying on your stomach, probably for around two and a half hours, so if we don’t have your head positioned correctly, there is a risk that you could be blind when you wake up,’ he continued, adding as an afterthought, ‘and if we don’t have your arms positioned right you could end up with permanent nerve damage.’  Those were by no means the only risks he enumerated, and he is not a man to pull his punches, but, oddly, he managed to be quite reassuring at the same time.  Reassuring enough, at least, for me to try to fit my signature into the appropriate box on the consent form for an operation which, he hopes, will be in time to ensure I am not one of the 10 million people predicted to be on NHS waiting lists by Christmas.   I just have to hope that there is plenty of coronavirus-free wood around for him to touch from time to time as he goes about his business.