From David Maughan Brown in York: To mask or not to mask?

August 24th

So the ringmaster, who doubles as the lead-clown in the Tory circus tent, has folded the holiday one he pitched in the wilds of the Scottish countryside in the hope of inducing the Scots to hate him a little less, and is back on his version of the job.  Actually, suggesting that he either pitched or folded the tent himself is almost certainly an overstatement: the hard work is always done by someone else.  Having cleverly avoided being around to answer for the A-level results fiasco, Boris has popped up in time to reassure the parents of children in England not only that it is perfectly safe for their children to return to school, but that there is no need for them to wear face-masks when they do so.  He is obviously hoping that the same parents will have forgotten that he confidently reassured everyone, worried parents in particular, that the algorithm-generated A-level results were wholly reliable – “they’re robust, they’re good, they’re dependable for employers.”   So good, so robust, so dependable, in fact, that they had to be binned a few days after his robust reassurance because they just happened to be grossly unfair and discriminatory.   

It will almost certainly be no coincidence that the two leaders in the Western world who appear to have been most successful in their approach to Covid-19 have been women, Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern, and that, if one feels inclined to take the coronavirus policy of any of the four prime, or first, ministers in the UK seriously, it would be Nicola Sturgeon’s.   Sturgeon is following WHO advice on the wearing of face-masks in the communal areas of schools, but Boris knows better and asserts that they aren’t necessary.  In just the same way, Boris knew better than the WHO when it came to locking down and concentrating attention on tracking and tracing when the pandemic first arrived, and an estimated 20,000 deaths of predominantly elderly people resulted as a direct consequence.   It would, however, probably not be a good idea to bet the house, not even a very little Lego one, on our not being about to see another of Boris’s screeching U-turns.

The best compromise for Boris, given the latest round in the English culture war, this time relating to the singing, or otherwise, of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Rule Britannia!’ at the BBC Proms (of which more in a later entry), would probably be to accept that face-masks are a good idea, at least where singing is concerned, and relent on the masks in public spaces in schools in England.  That would allow him to distribute free Union Jack face-masks to all pupils in English schools (now that the Tories have discovered a forest of money-trees) and turn the return to school into a festival of ‘patriotism’ befitting the Tory circus tent.  Pupils could be encouraged march up and down the corridors wearing their masks and singing patriotic songs that glorify the Empire that still features so prominently in the New Year Honours the Queen awards every year.

From David Maughan Brown in York: The circus has come to Town

July 9th

As those of us who have chosen to stay in what is now largely self-imposed lockdown live our generally uneventful lives, thanking our lucky stars that we weren’t in the impotent position of having had to rely on Matt Hancock to throw a protective ring around us, we watch the world stirring back to life with an underlying sense of apprehension.  When will the seemingly inevitable second wave or ‘spike’ strike?  What are the realistic chances of a vaccine being developed in the relatively near future?  When might we finally get to hug our grandchildren and visit family in far-flung places?  When, long after the 50%-off offer has lapsed, might we feel it is safe enough to try to get a booking at our favourite restaurant? How will all this affect the long-term futures of our children and grandchildren? Will anybody, apart perhaps from Jacinda Ardern, ever get a handle on how to deal, once and for all, with Covid-19?

Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, gave a very good impression in a lengthy BBC Today programme interview this morning of having a reasonably good handle on how to coax the economy back towards something resembling normality.   He may not have all the answers – particularly with regard to the self-employed and the UK’s October furlough ‘cliff-edge’ – but, given that he has to contend with the backwoodsmen on the Tory back benches, it is refreshing to hear him coming across as being just as ‘unencumbered by dogma’ as he claims to be.   Sunak was eminently reasonable and good-humoured in the face of Martha Kearney’s constant interruptions and her dogged insistence on asking the questions she obviously had  on a piece of paper in front of her, regardless of whether he had already pre-empted and answered them.   In fact I got much more irritated by her insistence on interrupting and talking over him than he appeared to.  As an economist, Sunak comes across as far too intelligent, and far too unencumbered by dogma, to believe that Brexit can possibly be a good thing, so I am left wondering what his long term strategy might be.

In the meantime the circus goes on around him.   Boris Johnson, temporarily forgetting that he is the unchallenged world-beating champion of the U-turn, is refusing to back down on his craven attempt to blame the care home managers for the 20,000 care home deaths that resulted from his government’s incompetent handling of the pandemic.   Dominic Raab, our Foreign Secretary, allows an unexpected glimmer of hope that our government might actually have a faint awareness of human rights, despite their perpetual denial by the Home Office, by placing sanctions on a number of prominent Russians and Saudis implicated in human rights abuses.  But that hope is promptly snuffed out by Elizabeth Truss, Secretary of State for International Trade, who rushes to resume sales of arms to the self-same Saudis so that they can get on with bombing civilians in Yemen.  Matt Hancock has stopped boasting about the number of Covid tests being carried out – possibly because he knew that someone somewhere would eventually discover that 30% of the tests that were hurriedly posted out to make up the numbers were never returned.   But that doesn’t stop him from boasting about how successful his Trace and Test programme has been in tracking down all the customers from the three pubs that had to close the day after the great ‘Independence’ opening because one customer from each had tested positive for Covid-19.  That was remarkably stupid, even for Hancock, because by then everyone knew that the Test and Trace programme had had absolutely nothing to do with contacting all the customers: the pubs’ landlords or landladies (mainly the latter) had personally telephoned up to 90 customers each.

The circus is scheduled to be performing every day for the next four and a half years.  The reviews can only continue to be very bad indeed.  The one change of personnel that might make the outcome slightly better would be the promotion of Rishi Sunak, who currently manages the ticket-office, to the role of ring-master.  That would allow Boris Johnson to be relegated to a role he is far better suited to, that of understudy for the clown: the one they call on when they need a clown who isn’t even remotely funny. 

from Susan A. in Ottawa: A Dire Communication

5 April. The communication from the Premier was dire.  Without measures in Ontario – no self-isolation, no physical distancing, no 20-second hand washing –an estimated 100,000 would die over the course of the pandemic, which could last as long as two years.  With those measures plus some even tougher ones, the death toll could be brought down to between 3,000 and 15,000.  That is a relatively clear message – one hundred thousand, or 3,000 to 15,000 will die, and the number depends on all of us behaving as we are told. 

The Premier ended his message: “So please, this weekend will be nice outside, and I know it’s hard to do, I know how difficult it is, but please, stay home. Help us write an ending to our story that we can look back on, that our future generations can look back on and be proud of.”

The weather on Saturday was indeed lovely, sunny and warm.  Did people stay home?  No, our street had many walkers, runners and bikers, and the little park behind us had just a little less of the usual dog walkers.  So the message was either not heard, or heard and not heeded.  Nothing to be proud about.

3 April. Today we await the press conference of the Premier of the province to give us the straight news about how bad it is likely to be.  I will not watch, but will read it after the event.  Video is too hot for me these days; print is a gentler mode of communicating unpleasant information.  But I did make one exception – the recent speech of Angela Merkel to the nation, apparently a rare occurrence and therefore all the more powerful.  To me her words seemed informative enough, instructive enough and calm enough not to be terrifying, although the speech was criticised by the Czech Prime Minister for risking panic.  Compared to some of the incomplete, incomprehensible, erroneous communication on the virus, on the numbers and on the likely outcomes, her message sounded just fine to me.  While on the subject of effective communication, Jacinda Ardern is notable for holding a special press conference just for the children of New Zealand to help them understand the global coronavirus pandemic.  And still on the subject of communication, the repeated warnings about the need to “flatten the curve” could surely be improved upon for clearer, more forceful messaging.