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: Shooting at the moon

September 6th

My first diary entry about our Covid-19 testing incapacity in UK was on March 31st when the UK was managing to achieve some 7,500 tests a day, at a time when Germany was testing 500,000 people a week.  There followed a series of wishful-thinking targets that were never even close to being met, as the our Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Health and Social Care competed with each other to raise the bar to 25k, then 100k, then 200k then 500k tests per day by way of distracting the dumb masses from noticing that each ever more ambitious goal wasn’t being met.   Well over five months later they are still at it.  We are now, in early September, managing to test around 320,000 people a day, still well short of the 500,000 target, but we should all ignore that minor detail and, with joy in our hearts, celebrate the fact that we will soon achieve lift-off.   We will soon be testing four million people a day, a target which was apparently down-graded by the incorrigible pessimists in the civil service who didn’t think it was realistic to aim for ten million a day quite yet.   This wondrous escalation in our achievements will, appropriately enough, be called “Operation Moonshot”.  Seriously.  This isn’t a belatedly discovered Monty Python sketch; not even the combined wit of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Graham Chapman could have come up with something quite so ludicrously absurd.

This is in a context in which Boris’s ‘world-beating’ testing regime is requiring people sick enough to feel the need to get themselves tested to drive over a hundred miles  – from, for example, London to the Brecon Beacons in Wales, or the Lake District to Dumfries in Scotland – to get a test.  Distances that even Dominic Cummings might think twice about before driving by way of an eye-test.   When confronted with what might seem a bit of a flaw in a world-beating testing system, our inimitable Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, was wholly unapologetic and pointed out that there were bound to be ‘operational challenges’ with any national system.   He is undoubtedly growing into the big job his support for Brexit earned him: instead of being diffidently incompetent he is now super-confidently incompetent.   He has also learnt from experience that the best way to appease the plebs is just to change a target: with the lordly manner of the monarch distributing alms to the poor on Maundy Thursday, he graciously undertook to ensure that nobody in future would need to travel more than 75 miles to get a test.   I was irritated enough at having to make a round trip of 53 miles to get a test when I was feeling perfectly well a couple of weeks ago.  If anything were beyond belief where this government is concerned, it would be beyond belief that the man responsible for the nation’s health should be quite happy for a sick person to be expected to drive 150 mile round-trip for a blood-test.  And this is the same man who expects us to believe that we will soon be testing four million people every day.

It is, of course, just remotely possible that I am misjudging Hancock and that the “Operation Moonshot” moniker represents an exceptionally rare moment of honesty for a cabinet minister in the Brexit cabinet.   Perhaps a momentary flash of self-perception has enabled him to appreciate that his new target is wholly unrealisable while he is in charge, and his patently ridiculous name for it is a coded admission that he recognises that he is aiming for the moon.  It is much more likely, though, that the moon he is shooting at is made of green cheese.

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 Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Fixed Point

Matt Hancock: ‘You seem a little confused’

We travel across the country, our first weekend away since Christmas.  The trip was planned as a celebration of the ending of lockdown for the shielded, officially dated from August 1st.  But as we drive, announcements are being made on the radio about the re-imposition of restrictions across a swathe of northern England. 

On Radio Manchester, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock conducts a car-crash interview.  The presenter, who seems not to be point-scoring, just puzzled, asks him: 

‘You said that people could go out of Greater Manchester to another area if they followed social distancing but, the government guidance online says you must not visit someone else at home or garden even if they live outside the infected areas, so can you clarify that for us?’

Hancock: ‘Yes, I’ll make it absolutely clear, which is that there’s a distinction between the guidance and the law, I will absolutely get back to you with exact chapter and verse.’

Presenter (after two more minutes of further incoherence): ‘Forgive me, but you seem a little confused.’

Had we set off on our journey from about thirty miles further north, we would, at this point, have had to turn around and go home.  Hancock does at least seem clear that whilst the new rules / guidance / law means that people can meet outdoors, this does not include gardens, where, on a warm weekend, we did in fact spend most of the time with our friends.  Later a newspaper reports that the Government is considering not only locking down the shielded again, but extending the category to include a larger section of the population.  This is officially denied but that does not mean it will not happen within days.

So what is fixed in the fifth month?  As we once more conduct a risk assessment about whether it is safe to go out, perhaps just this one point.  The factor analysis which various bodies have been undertaking since the pandemic took hold, has produced a picture which is at once complex and very simple in terms of our household.*  There are range of indicators which make it more likely that infection will lead to hospitalisation and death.  These include medical conditions such as diabetes, asthma, obesity, recent organ transplant, some forms of cancer, together with deprivation, gender and race (particularly black and Asian).  But standing out above all others is age, particularly from sixty onwards.

The chef Rick Stein was interviewed last week.  He is seventy-four but said he still felt no more than forty, perhaps just a little stiffer.  We all do this, taking decades off our birth years in terms of our physical or mental capacity. 

We can still, within limits, choose the age of our state of mind.  We can still, within limits, choose the age of our fitness.  But when it comes to our body’s resistance to infection, there is no gaming Bergman’s chess player.  It is the lesson we have been forced to learn in this pandemic.

Seventy, alas, is the new seventy.

* See, for instance, OpenSAFELY Collaborative, ‘factors associated with COVID-19-related hospital death in the linked electronic health records of 17 million adult NHS patients’ (May 7, 2020), p. 11. https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.05.06.20092999v1.full.pdf

From David Maughan Brown in York: Eid Mubarak

July 31st

Wishing Muslims a blessed Eid would be usual on Eid ul-Adha, and I wish Muslims all over the world Eid Mubarak most sincerely. But the good wishes can only feel slightly hollow in parts of the North of England in the context of the reimposition of a lockdown that prevents the usual celebratory gatherings where family and friends come together to share a special meal and exchange presents.  It is like saying ‘Happy Birthday’ to someone when one knows that lockdown has stopped her from enjoying a long-planned and looked forward to celebration.  Tweeting the announcement of the reinstated regulations after 9.00pm on the evening before Eid is  closely equivalent to passing an edict prohibiting friends and family from coming for Christmas after the presents have been wrapped, the stockings hung and much of the preparation for Christmas dinner for the extended family has already been completed.   As with the government’s sudden announcement that put paid to so many summer holidays to Spain, it is the crushing disappointment of the children, in particular, that once again I feel for.

Our fresh-faced Secretary for Health and (supposedly) Social Care, Matt Hancock, has told the BBC’s Today programme that his ‘heart goes out the Muslim communities’ affected because he knows how important Eid celebrations are. He denied that the eleventh hour ban on gatherings was to stop the Eid celebrations taking place.  But he also told BBC Breakfast that ‘most of the transmission is happening between households visiting each other, and people visiting relatives and friends’ so the government had taken ‘targeted action.’   It seems only too obvious who the targets were.  

In a week in which his inimitable boss, Boris, was pulled up by the Office for Statistics Regulation for using statistics on child poverty ‘selectively, inaccurately and, ultimately misleadingly’ on three separate occasions – in other words lying – it is very difficult not to conclude that Hancock was doing his rather inadequate best to imitate the inimitable.   If he knew how important Eid celebrations are and didn’t want to target them why didn’t he wait 24 hours to impose his edict? After all, as others have pointed out, the regulations around face-coverings only came into effect ten days after they had been announced.  How many extra deaths, on top of the more than 20 thousand the government’s negligence and incompetence has already been responsible for, did ‘the science’ Hancock always claims to follow tell him a 24 hour delay would occasion?  Or was it, once again, purely presentational: having been criticised for responding too slowly to the emergence of the virus, was he demonstrating the ability to act decisively, regardless of the cost to a community from whom the Tories probably don’t expect to glean many votes anyway?  Children don’t get to vote, so they don’t matter much.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury UK: Going Local

Matt Hancock

July 14. Here’s an idea.  The health of an area is a complex matter, interacting with a wide range of public services and private behaviours.  Why not appoint a senior figure in each local authority who can work across the three connected fields of protection, improvement and health care.  The role would advise elected members and senior officers and liaise with national bodies such as Public Health England and NHS England.

It has taken a long time for Matt Hancock, the Minister of Health, finally to accept that 134 such figures already exist.  The post of Director of Public Health (DPH) was created as part of the Lansley reforms of the Cameron government in a creative attempt to compensate for the damage caused by the abolition of regional health authorities.  According to NHS England, “Directors are responsible for ensuring that public health is at the heart of their local authority’s agenda. Using the best and most appropriate evidence, they determine the overall vision and aims for public health in their locality. They then manage the delivery of those objectives and report annually on their activities.”  As the Department of Health’s own website puts it, their role embraces both long-term issues such as obesity and health inequalities and short-term reactions to “outbreaks of disease and emergency community and emergency preparedness.”

The turning point in the deployment of the DPH’s in came in the second week of May, two months after the country began to grapple with the coronavirus outbreak.  The scandal of the infection and mortality rates in care homes forced central government to recognise that it simply did not have the capacity to determine how to prioritise a testing programme.  It turned to the DPHs because of their familiarity with provisions for the elderly in their areas, and their connections with other community agencies.  A DPH was quoted at the time as saying, “We’ve been pushing and pushing government to realise that we exist and that we are best placed to organise things like testing, alongside directors of adult social services, because we know our patch.”

Now, in an article in the Telegraph last Sunday, with the official UK death rate approaching 45,000, Hancock finally recognised that the coronavirus was a local event requiring interventions tailored to local circumstances.   He wrote that “now we can take more targeted local action and less national lockdown, to restore the freedom of the majority while controlling the virus wherever we can find it.”  The much delayed track and trace system can only work if the Directors of Public Health are supplied with all the so-called ‘Pillar 1’ and ‘Pillar 2’ returns so they can fully understand the conditions in communities or workplaces that are giving rise to anomalies, and develop tailored actions for dealing with them. 

With power comes responsibility.  Central government has not lost its appetite for intervention and it was reported over the weekend as threatening to take over running Leicester council if it failed to deal with the crisis in the city.  The Directors of Public Health are finding that their new powers are bringing with them an immense body of work, and an unwelcome exposure to the media.  The Herefordshire Director did not appear at all comfortable yesterday answering questions about the outbreak in a farm, particularly why three of the workers had managed to abscond from the lockdown she had imposed.

Nothing will be easy, and it remains to be seen how permanent is the shift of authority from the centre to the periphery.  But after so much confusion, wasted resources and unnecessary deaths, the belated change in policy can only be welcomed.   

As the far-seeing Dominic Cummings almost said, ‘Take back local control!’  Just now I live not in the United Kingdom, nor in England, but in Shropshire.   Home rule cannot come too soon. 

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 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 Maughan Brown in York: Lockdown blood-pressure

June 14th

For many years in Pietermaritzburg I had my blood-pressure measured more or less every week prior to my having two pints of blood removed so that the plasma could be extracted for the manufacture of an anti-rabies vaccine and the red corpuscles returned to one or other of my arms, both of which still look as if I’ve been mainlining all my life.  My parents had been attacked by a rabid dog in Sierra Leone before I was born; without an effective vaccine I wouldn’t have been born; so it was a kind of pay-back.   Through all the years of apartheid Special Branch harassment, post-apartheid student protests, and everything else South Africa threw at us, my blood pressure, as tested on Monday afternoons, never varied an iota: 100 over 70.  In a much more relaxed retirement, weighing less, and with none of the usual risk factors, my blood-pressure has rocketed over the past two or three months to the point where  I am having to take medication to bring it down from the stratosphere.  Lockdown itself isn’t stressful, so the only possible cause I can come up with is the cack-handed way Covid-19 has been handled and, in particular, the blatant dishonesty and hypocrisy, and the blindingly obvious lack of logic of our ‘leaders’.

When it comes to the dishonesty, where does one start?  Given that I can’t spare the time to write ten pages, perhaps I should restrict myself to the first two blood-pressure-raising examples that to come to mind.  Anyone who has been paying any attention knows that the ‘official’ statistic for the death toll from Covid-19 that the government trots out every day, and the BBC dutifully repeats, having avidly listened with its virtual head cocked to one side like the dog in the His Master’s Voice trademark, is a deliberate lie.  It is the figure only for the number who have died after being tested and, as we know, Hancock and company were culpably slow in getting adequate testing up and running.  Even leaving aside the figure for excess deaths, they should be adding in the figures for those who hadn’t been tested but for whom coronavirus had been cited as a cause for their death on their death-certificates.  Meanwhile Matt Hancock keeps adamantly insisting that he ‘threw a protective ring around the care-homes.’   If he did throw his metaphorical protective ring around the care-homes, he must have smeared it with metaphorical novichok first.  How otherwise can one account for a ‘protective ring’ that results in the deaths of more than 16,000 of those it is supposed to be protecting?  Every time I hear another person grieving about a lost parent or grandparent who died in a care-home, that lie intrudes again.

Where hypocrisy is concerned, government endorsement of Cummings’ ‘perfectly understandable’ eye-test comes to mind, but today’s particular gem is ventriloquist-dummy Johnson, no doubt also listening avidly to his master Cummings’ voice, earnestly telling the world that he and Priti Patel won’t put up with ‘racist thuggery’.   What does he think he and his kindred spirit, Nigel Farage, have been doing for the past three years except deliberately flaming the virulent combination of English Nationalism, xenophobia and racist thuggery which took them to their marginal referendum result, then onward and downward to Boris’s success in the General Election, and has now contributed to the violence exercised against the Black Lives Matter protesters and the police?

Where logic is concerned, nobody appears to have even tried to explain the logic whereby one grandparent living by himself or herself can safely form a “bubble” with a family, but, if both are still alive, neither – let alone both – are legally permitted to immerse themselves in the very same ‘bubble’, irrespective of how rigorously they have been self-isolating up to now.   But the supreme illogicality, particularly for a government seemingly agonized over the economy, lies with the recently imposed quarantine on selected people entering the country.  Leaving the USA, Brazil and Sweden aside, almost every single one of the other 200+ countries in the world has handled Covid-19 better than our government, and has a population less likely than ours to carrying the infection as a consequence.  So our government ‘quarantines’ people who are less likely to be infected than the people they will encounter in UK, first by telling them to self-isolate for 14 days, and then by letting them wander off to catch public transport to whatever address they have decided to give, wherever they please in the country, on condition that they promise, ‘scout’s honour’, to be good.  Surely people don’t need Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, to tell them how stupid that is?  There are however, as one would expect, some sheer genius exceptions.  One of the many categories selected for exclusion from the ‘quarantine’ is long-distance lorry-drivers.  This may be sensible from an economic point of view but, given that almost all the countries in Europe have far fewer Covid-19 infections than the UK, it is very peculiar, to say the least, from the perspective of disease control.   Without wishing to impugn the behaviour of long-distance truck drivers, it is worth noting that the spread of HIV/AIDS in southern Africa has been tracked down the routes used by the long-haul truckers.

There is, however, a possible blood-pressure lowering interpretation of this otherwise absurdly illogical ‘quarantine’.   Perhaps our government, instinctively inclined to avoid being upfront about anything at all, for all the supposed ‘transparency’ of the daily Downing Street news conference, has undergone a radical, road-to-Damascus-type conversion.   Perhaps it has relinquished the comfort of its ‘hostile environment’, recanted on its implicit endorsement of Johnson’s ‘piccanninnies’, ‘watermelon smiles’ and comparison of women in burkas to ‘letterboxes’, regretted its racist handling of the Windrush scandal and decided it really likes foreigners after all.   Perhaps it really likes them so much, in fact, that it wants to protect the ones who are forgiving enough to visit our country from the possibility of being infected by the rest of us.  Two foreigners did, after all, save Boris’s life – perhaps this is his pay-back.  Our government couldn’t, of course, be upfront about so radical a conversion, as that would instantly lose them every last shred of their credibility with their Trumpian ‘base’.  Perhaps – but, then again, perhaps not.

From David Maughan Brown in York: No Recourse to Public Funds

28th May

Apart from the community spirit that has manifested itself and seems, at least where we live, to be surviving, there aren’t a whole lot of positives to take from the lockdown.  One of the few positive outcomes has, ironically, been the product of a kind of double negative:  as the pandemic’s very negative social and economic pressures have increased, some of the more pernicious aspects of government policy, particularly towards migrants, have been forced out of the woodwork and into the unforgiving spotlight of public scrutiny.   

Yesterday’s bumbling and inarticulate performance from our Prime Minister during his meeting with the Parliamentary Liaison-Committee shone a light on NRPF (‘no recourse to public funds’), one aspect of the Home Office’s virulent ‘hostile environment’ policy that I wasn’t aware of.   The fact that the Prime Minister obviously didn’t have a clue about it either in no way lessens my sense that I should have known about it, but at least it was his, rather than my, ignorance that the Labour MPs Jess Phillips and Angela Eagle variously described as ‘quite phenomenal’ and ‘unbelievable’.  The bottom line with NRPF is that until immigrants are granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK they are not entitled to benefits such as Universal Credit or the Employment and Support Allowance.

This was raised at the meeting by Stephen Timms, Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee in the House of Commons, who cited the case of a couple in his constituency with two young children. The parents came to UK from Pakistan and have both been here working full-time for seventeen years, during which the two children were born.  Through all that time they have been paying income tax and National Insurance and, on top of those, paying exploitative visa fees and the NHS surcharge.  Renewing their visas every two and a half years costs them around £4000.   Because after 17 years they still haven’t been granted indefinite leave to remain in UK they, like over 100,000 other families, still have no recourse to public funds.  This means that the father lost his job when the lockdown was imposed because he couldn’t furloughed. The family immediately lost 60% of their household income. The money the children’s mother earns isn’t enough to pay their rent.  Whether by design or mere incompetence, it has taken the Home Office ten months so far to process their application for indefinite leave to remain.   

The Home Office justifies a policy that is driving so many families towards destitution under lockdown on the grounds that “this has long been established as being in the public interest”. The same could obviously, and for far longer, have been said of the death penalty, until it was belatedly recognised that it wasn’t in the public interest after all and was duly abolished.  The Home Office claims to have a much higher purpose in implementing NRPF than the obvious one of trying to deter immigration by squeezing as much out of immigrants as possible: “Those seeking to establish their family life in the UK must do so on the basis that prevents burdens on the State and the UK tax payer.  It is right that those who benefit from the State contribute towards it.’ Contributing to the state by propping up our NHS and social care services, or our hospitality and agriculture industries, isn’t enough.  Paying income tax and National Insurance in addition to that, like the rest of us, still isn’t enough.  On top of that, immigrants still need to pay extortionate visa fees and an NHS surcharge (regardless of whether they happen to work in the NHS) for the privilege of being allowed to remain in UK to listen to xenophobic politicians ranting against immigration.  And their NRPF status can go on for seventeen long years. 

Having learnt at the meeting about the policy of the government he leads, Johnson promised to look into the matter.  That has as much chance of making any difference as Matt Hancock’s promised review of the fines handed out to people who had, like Dominic Cummings, broken the lockdown regulations.   So the pandemic is resulting in injustices being revealed in all their ugliness.  But injustices aren’t only unjust in times of emergency, even if those are often the times they reveal themselves most starkly.  Now that the spotlight has been shone into this dark corner of the hostile environment, it will be difficult for anyone, even Boris, to get away with knowing nothing about it.