From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Every country has the government it deserves.’

Who could be nasty enough to deserve this government?

July 8th

Ruth Davidson, the admirable former leader of the Tories in Scotland, went on record this week to warn Boris Johnson that the Tories will be seen as the “nasty party” if they persist with the 0.2% reduction in the UK’s Financial Aid budget.[1]   It seems reasonable enough to consider that being responsible for the unnecessary deaths of a few hundred thousand children around the globe, who would not have died had the £4 billion cut not been made, might be regarded as a symptom of nastiness.  But it isn’t as if it is the only indicator pointing in that direction.  Nor is it just a question of possibly being regarded as nasty at some hypothetical time in the future.   Johnson’s government exudes nastiness from every pore, as exemplified by three of his four senior cabinet ministers.  Dominic Raab merely exudes complacency.

Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, comes across as the sanest and most level-headed of all those in the cabinet, but it is he who insisted on the cut to the Financial Aid budget, despite the clear commitment to maintaining the legally mandated 0.7% of GDP which was promised in the in the Tory election manifesto,  and it is he who is insisting on cutting £20 a week from universal credit payments in the near future.  Rob Merrick tells us in an article in Monday’s Independent that the cut will affect six million households and push an estimated 200,000 more children ‘below the breadline’.[2]

This comes on top of the quaintly termed ‘Covid catch-up tsar’, Sir Kevan Collins, having felt obliged to resign his role because Sunak’s Treasury had only agreed to fund £1.4 billion of the £15 billion required for the schools’ catch-up programme. An utterly derisory £22 for each primary school child in England is going to compensate for an average of 115 days of school missed as a result of the pandemic?   One could be forgiven for concluding that nasty parties don’t much like children, even the children from their own country.  Perhaps that is because it is pensioners, rather than people who still have their lives to live, who tend to vote for the Tories.

Our bright-eyed and bushy-tailed new Secretary for Health and Social Care, Sajid Javid, can’t be held responsible for what happened in that department before his over-promoted predecessor, Matt Hancock, was caught on camera following his Prime Minister’s example by having a steamy extra-marital affair, but the sickening cynicism and ingratitude of the award to the NHS of a George Cross for bravery in lieu of a pay-rise greater than an insulting 1% that was announced soon after his take-over of the portfolio is quintessentially Tory and indisputably nasty.   It also requires a certain nastiness to be able blithely to announce that abandoning all Covid restrictions could result in 100,000 new infections every day and (you don’t have long to wait for the inevitable adverb) ‘sadly’ a number of deaths.  But, sadly, ‘We will just have to learn to live with it.’

And then, of course, we have our Home Secretary, Priti Patel, the distilled essence of Tory nastiness.   Further to her exploration variously of Ascension Island, Gibraltar and Rwanda as suitable – i.e. far-away and out of sight – places to transport asylum-seekers to for ‘processing’, Patel has now hit on the wizard wheeze of forcibly turning back the small boats that asylum-seekers, denied access to more conventional routes, have been using to try to cross the English Channel. This practice is known as ‘pushback’ and is, according to the UNHCR (the UN’s Refugee Agency), ‘simply illegal.’  The title of May Bulman’s report on this in Wednesday’s Independent says it all: ‘Illegal, dangerous, morally wrong – campaigners decry Home Office asylum plans.’[3]  Bulman quotes Steve Valdez-Symonds of Amnesty International who says that pushbacks ‘are disdainful of international law and dangerous for the people subjected to them.’  Moreover, contrary to Patel’s misconception, he asserts that: ‘It is people’s right to seek asylum and there is no requirement [in international law] for them to do that in any one country.’  Not that this is likely to cut much ice with Johnson and his obsequious cabinet who have already demonstrated their contempt for international law via their disdain for the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol.

A Local Government Association analysis has concluded that: ‘Significant government funding cuts, soaring demand for child protection services and increasing costs to give children the support they need mean that budgets cannot keep up.’[4]It calculates that there is currently a £1.4 billion budget shortfall if Councils are going to be funded adequately to keep even the present reduced level of children’s services going.  The government argues that this expenditure is not affordable, given the hit our economy has taken from the pandemic.  But that simply doesn’t wash from a government prepared to spaff tens of billions up the wall, to use Johnson’s elegant terminology, on a hopelessly ineffectual Track and Trace system, on PPE and other Covid-related contracts for its chums, and on transporting asylum-seekers to Rwanda.

Joseph de Maistre is credited with the saying that ‘Every country has the government it deserves.’   The only representatives of the UK that come to mind right now who are deserving of a government as irredeemably nasty as this one are those mindless sections of our football crowds xenophobic enough to boo the opposition’s national anthem and to shine laser pointers in the eyes of opposing goal-keepers as they get ready to save penalties.





From David Maughan Brown in York: It’s all in the stars.

December 23rd

Manston Airport in Kent: 22/12/20

‘It’s all in the stars’ – or, more accurately, to be a bit of a killjoy, in the planets.  A Grand Conjunction only happens once every 800 years so it must, of course, be redolent of cosmic significance, and Jupiter and Saturn chose to align for our benefit at the winter solstice in 2020.  What could be more significant than that?  Given what 2020 has dished out to everyone, astrological significance should come as no surprise, but when it comes to comprehensive interpretation one has to rely on the wisdom of astrologers.  What better authority to call on to tell us what it all means than the Daily Telegraph’s tame astrologer Carolyne (sic) Faulkner who informs the world that this conjunction is occurring in Aquarius, which is an air sign, and that all other conjunctions for the next 200 years will be occurring in air signs.  She goes on to say that whereas “Earth energy triggers people to become more grounded, practical, sensible; to have respect for politicians and institutions. Air energy triggers cerebral, less tangible happenings.”

I’m glad she told us that.  If we had been told that it was Earth energy that was holding sway over us we would have had to conclude that the energy, like that of the pink mechanical rabbit in the battery advertisement, was grinding to an arthritic halt.  There is very little that is grounded, practical or sensible in the way we are being governed, and respect for politicians, and many institutions – the NHS being a notable exception – dribbled away long ago.   On the other hand, if air energy ‘triggers cerebral less tangible happenings’ that explains why our entire economic and societal future is currently caught up in an ideological wind-storm with no tangible benefits whatever in prospect.  To take the latest example of the utterly delusional cerebral forces determining our future (giving the benefit of any doubt that anything resembling a brain is involved), one only has to cite our representative Home Secretary, the inimitable Priti Patel: ‘The government has consistently, throughout this year, been ahead of the curve in terms of proactive measures.’  She then went on to correct Boris Johnson’s absurd claim that only 170 HGV’s were queuing in Kent, by claiming the number was 1500, in itself a serious underestimate (today there are said to be 5000- 8000), and then pointing out that the number was constantly fluctuating as “lorries are not static”.  Tell that to the drivers of the seemingly motionless lorries ‘stacked’ on Manston airfield in the photograph above.   She might also like to tell them where they are supposed to find food, water and loos – never mind somewhere to sleep – for the three or four non-‘static’ days they are having to spend in Kent before being forced to be away from their children for Christmas.

The Grand Conjunction, symbolically hidden from the view of most of the UK by impenetrable clouds, should probably be taken as nothing more esoteric than a stark cosmic warning – a preview projected in the stars – of the much less grand, but probably equally far reaching, conjunction of Covid19 and Brexit.  The French government, understandably panicked by our callow Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock’s, ill-judged statement that the new variant of the virus was ‘out of control’, promptly closed their borders to all people coming from UK, and every single state in the EU, apart from Greece and Cyprus which are retaining strict quarantine regulations, immediately followed suit.  Many other countries around the world have now done the same.  So our proudly independent and sovereign little island nation is completely cut off; nobody wants us anywhere near.  Our rabidly jingoistic tabloid press promptly and predictably erupted with age-old Francophobic fury, accusing President Macron of playing politics.  Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian politician, reflecting on the current chaos and probably on the empty supermarket shelves to come, commented that the British people “will now start to understand what leaving the EU really means….”  Matt Hancock, gaze fixed firmly on the national navel, and unable to see beyond the white cliffs of Dover, had been intending his comment to persuade those living on his little island to abide by their Tier restrictions, oblivious to the fact that the rest of the world was bound to be listening.  Those trying to argue that lorry drivers don’t pose any risk of transmitting the virus because they spend their time ‘alone in their cabs’, and should have been allowed to cross back to France, have the same problem with national navel-gazing: they would appear not to have heard that HIV/AIDS research in South Africa has demonstrated very clearly that the spread of HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa can be traced along the routes taken by long-distance truck drivers ‘alone in their cabs’.

The timing of the Grand Conjunction so close to Christmas 2020 has reawakened discussion of the theory that the star of Bethlehem in the story of the nativity could have originated with the conjunction of Jupiter with Venus (rather than Saturn) in 2BC. For those inclined to read messages into astronomical events, there might be a message there for our nationalistic ‘Christian’ xenophobes as they ponder the Nativity story in their unsung Christmas church services.   Perhaps the writing in the stars might be inviting them to compare the fates of two families, and two very young children in particular.   On the one hand, 15-month-old baby Artin who drowned in the English Channel in 2020, along with his parents, Rasoul and Shiva, his nine-year-old sister Anita, and his six-year-old brother Armin, after the family had fled from the violence in the near East, travelling from Iran to Turkey, Italy and France before having to try to cross the channel in a small boat because Priti Patel had closed off all legal and safe ways to get here under the pretext of Covid.  On the other hand, Jesus of Nazareth, whose parents had also had to flee violence in the near East, but who found refuge in a non-Christian country that was happy to provide refuge to asylum seekers long before there were international agreements requiring countries to do so.

It’s all in the stars – if one only knew how to interpret them.

From David Maughan Brown in York: “V Day”

December 9th                                                                                                                                  

‘O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’, as Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwock might say, chortling in his joy.  Never was there such a glorious day.  VE Day, and VJ Day both marked a triumph, but the V in both of those had to be qualified by the E and J respectively, and the British triumph had, however grudgingly in retrospect, to be shared with allies.  Now V Day stands tall, sovereign and unqualified on top of the world – finally, an unquestionable world-beater.  People say the V stands for Vaccination, but we know that that is just natural British deference and that V stands, as ever, for Victory.  Britannia rules the air-waves (and the print media.)  We were the first to run the four-minute mile; now we have proved ourselves the fastest in the world to approve a vaccine developed in another country, and produced in a different other country, and to inject it into the arm of a 90-year-old British citizen.  During an interview with Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain, Matt Hancock, our more or less grown-up looking Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, was moved to tears in his excitement at this unwonted triumph.  But then being in the presence of Piers Morgan must, in itself, be enough to reduce many a fully grown-up man to tears. 

The unlikely 90 year-old celebrity who was the heroic recipient of the first approved vaccination, and whose photograph has appeared on the front pages of most UK newspapers, was one Margaret Keenan whose not particularly distinguished biography is now known to everyone in UK who reads the front pages of newspapers.  Demonstrating that, in true Christmas spirit, it is almost as good to give as to receive, the nurse who administered the epoch-making vaccination, May Parsons, is allowed her share of the glory by appearing in many of the photographs at the very moment of the impact of that first needle on that first flesh.   Only almost as good to give, though, as the file photograph of May in the act shows her uniform-clad left thigh and buttock looming very large, but her face not featuring at all.  

In the photographs and news-clips Margaret Keenan looks somewhat bemused by all the fuss, as well she might, (insofar, that is, as one can tell how anyone looks behind a face-mask.)   But so, for that matter, does the wide-eyed penguin on her Christmas jumper, who is breaking hospital rules by not wearing a mask. Given her new-found and obviously wholly unexpected celebrity status, the look of bemusement may have had something to do with wondering how she should respond when the invitations to “I’m a Celebrity, get me out of here” and “Strictly Come Dancing” start rolling in.  From what one can see of her above the mask, she looks unlikely to relish the idea of eating tropical creepy-crawlies, so those invitations should be relatively easy to turn down, but she could hardly be worse dancing-wise than Ann Widdicombe, so she might have been taking the idea of Strictly somewhat more seriously.

The media missed a trick in their coverage of the very first triumphal vaccination, as the very second person in the entire world to receive the vaccination was a certain Mr William Shakespeare who hails from Warwick.   If Newspapers like the Daily Mail and the Sun can persuade a gullible British public to believe that Brexit heralds a glorious future in which a ‘sovereign’ UK will ‘prosper mightily’, in the imperishable words of our esteemed Prime Minister, they could surely have made an equally persuasive claim that V Day was so unique and glorious a day in our history that the Bard had felt compelled to rise from the dead to share it with us.  Instead, they had to make do with photographs of Margaret Keenan being wheeled out of the hospital along a  corridor lined with a guard of honour of clapping hospital staff, as though she had just survived 70 days in intensive care on a respirator rather than having had to endure a needle being stuck in her arm by a nurse in exactly the same way as she will have had a needle stuck in her arm at least once every year for the past ninety years.    I couldn’t help feeling that the 40 thousand volunteers who had come forward to be injected with the vaccine before it was shown to be safe were more deserving of the clapping.

When a media campaign is so obviously being carefully orchestrated to hype-up the good news, long experience has taught me to wonder precisely what it is that the hype is designed to distract our attention from.  In this instance I suspect we are being inoculated with the good news as insurance against the likelihood that our portly superman of a Prime Minister, who has flown to Brussels to the rescue of a Brexit deal that will allow him both to have his cake and eat it, will come back empty-handed and hungry.   Nobody but the sovereignty-fetishist loons on his back benches will regard that as good news, so Margaret Keenan’s vaccination will have to do.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Of lights and tunnels

3rd December

“The beginning of the end,”  “the light at the end of the tunnel”, the clichés roll out towards Dover today to greet the ‘unmarked’ lorries as they emerge from the Channel tunnel bringing the UK our first batch of the newly approved Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.  ‘Unmarked’, presumably, lest anyone have the bright idea of hi-jacking the tens of thousands of vials of vaccine to do a bit of do-it-yourself vaccinating, sell them on the black market, or ransom them back to Boris.  Good luck with that: I would have thought that freezer boxes of a vaccine that needs to be kept at minus 78-80 degrees centigrade would be about as difficult to shift as the Mona Lisa. 

This is, of course, extremely good news.  Having just scraped over the 75 year-old bar, I find myself in the fortuitous position of being in priority category number 3, a poor but eager third to the medical staff, carers and retirement home inhabitants in category 1, and the over-eighties in category 2 – not that that will be much use to us, given that Susan remains languishing in the over-70 category 4.  But there does seem to be a realistic hope that we might both have been able to receive our two doses by Easter and be able to start living a rather more ‘normal’ life again.  But, inevitably, the good news had to be soured for most of us by our cringing embarrassment of a government’s having felt compelled to leap on the opportunity for some of the jingoistic competitive crowing one might expect to hear in the playground of an independent prep school.

The fact that the UK just happened to be the first country ‘in the world’ (as distinct, presumably, from on Mars, Venus or Jupiter) to approve the roll-out of the vaccine has been held to be evidence that Boris Johnson’s regular claims that the UK is ‘world-beating’ have finally been proved true.  It matters not that Pfizer just happens to be an American company and that the vaccine is manufactured in Belgium: we approved it first.  This, according to the wholly inimitable Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, lest we forget, was ‘because of Brexit’ which unshackled us from the pedestrian ‘pace of the Europeans who are moving a bit more slowly.’   

Not to be outdone in the jingoist stupidity stakes, Gavin Williamson, our overgrown schoolboy of an Education Secretary, who is even further out of his depth in his portfolio than Hancock is, if that is possible, went further in an interview with LBC this morning.   His imperishable words in response to a question as to whether Brexit could be really held responsible for this world-beating achievement deserve to be quoted in full:  “Well I just reckon we’ve got the very best people in this country and we’ve obviously got the best medical regulators.  Much better than the French have, much better than the Belgians have, much better than the Americans have. That doesn’t surprise me at all because we’re a much better country than every single one of them, aren’t we.”   I’ve listened to the clip; I can vouch for the fact that that is exactly what our Secretary of State for Education really did say.  There we have it in a nutshell:  Brexit was necessary because we didn’t want to be held back from our glorious destiny by that inferior lot across the channel.  As we have always believed, even if political correctness has got in the way of saying it, Worthy Oriental Gentlemen start at Calais. 

Leaving Brexit and the question of whether our glorious destiny lies in the 21st or the 19th century aside, the immediately self-defeating stupidity of the playground boasting about being world beating lies not with the offence it will have given to the French, the Belgians and the Americans, but with the open invitation it provided for doubt to be cast on the credibility of the approval process.  If it was the fastest approval process in the world might it have been the least thoroughgoing?  After all, Boris was the fastest and first person in the world to approve of a twenty-five mile drive to Barnard Castle as a good way to test one’s eyes, but that didn’t say a whole lot for the credibility of the approval process.   Why would that matter?  Because the main obstacle to achieving the ‘herd immunity’ to Covid-19 across the population as a whole that is essential to the return to a ‘normal’ life, lies with the anti-vaxxers who are looking for reasons to persuade their social-media followers not to accept the vaccination, and appear already to have recruited a significant number of people to their cause.

Hancock’s and Williamson’s juvenile bragging invited the inevitable responses from the countries they were demeaning.  The most telling of those has probably been the one from Anthony Fauci, Donald Trump’s least favourite Director of the USA’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who is on record as stating that the UK ‘really rushed through that aproval’.[1] Fauci compared it to running ‘around the corner of the marathon’ and joining it in the last mile, and then touched on the anti-vaxxer issue in suggesting that if the U.S. “had jumped up over the hurdle here quickly and inappropriately to gain an extra week or a week-and-a-half, I think that the credibility of our regulatory process would have been damaged.”  Fauci went on to be even more damningly specific: “… they just took the data from the Pfizer company. And instead of scrutinizing it really, really carefully, they said, ‘OK, let’s approve it. That’s it.’ And they went with it.”

So there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, however hard our esteemed cabinet ministers try to extinguish it with their rancid hot air.  But I’m not waiting with bated breath for my two doses to speed through the Channel tunnel to rescue me from self-isolation.   It will have taken the lorries a few hours to get here from Belgium today; my two doses won’t be coming until after the 31st December, by which time the queues of lorries could be taking many days.  If it was seriously stupid to claim that Brexit had speeded up the approval process for the vaccine, it would be manifestly insane to imagine that Brexit won’t slow its delivery down immeasurably.


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.

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.