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.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Common Sense

May 14th

Boris has defended his much ridiculed shiny new ‘Stay alert.  Control the virus. Save lives’ slogan by asserting that he is relying on people to use their common sense.  His increasingly tetchy Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, by contrast, has adopted the tactic of responding to anyone who asks what the slogan is supposed to mean by boldly asserting that everyone obviously knows what it means.  Given that the First Minister of Scotland has asserted that she has no idea what it means and will stick to the original easily understood ‘Stay at Home’ slogan, thanks very much, one can only conclude that the United Kingdom is not as quite as united as it says on the tin.

Common sense appears to be in short supply, so Boris is gambling once again.  One of the BBC correspondents gave us the “shocking news” recently that the sales of new cars had gone down by 97% in the UK in April.  Anyone one who is “shocked” when he discovers that car sales have gone down in a month when every motor showroom in the country has been closed should not be allowed near the air-waves.  The more interesting question was how, in those circumstances, even 3% of previous sales had been maintained.  The news that GDP fell by 2% in the first quarter when it was only the last ten days of the quarter that were affected by the lockdown has similarly led reporters to scurry around asking economists whether they think that means we might be heading into a recession.  The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, who is the only cabinet minister who gives the impression that he has any idea what he is doing (in spite of apparently being a Brexit supporter), must have had his tongue firmly in his cheek this morning when he said he thought it possible that those figures might suggest a recession could be on its way.

The government guidance on how to interpret the new slogan is not, in itself, a shining example of common sense.   We are allowed to play basketball in the park, but people can’t meet both their parents in a park simultaneously, even if they remain socially distanced.  The First Secretary of State had to be corrected when he said he thought common sense dictated that the latter would be OK, and one can only assume that nobody responsible for the guidance has ever watched anyone playing basketball. Similarly, I can drive 50 miles to take a walk in the Lake District but I can’t take a flask of tea and sit down for a chat, appropriately socially distanced, in a lonely friend’s garden.  Why?  Because I might have to go through the house to get to the garden, and it isn’t permissible to meet people in their houses.  My daughter, who I know has been rigorously socially distancing, can’t come to my house, but any estate agent, who might for all I know be stupid enough to shake the hands of Covid-19 patients, can.   One can only conclude that common sense isn’t so common after all.  If you are looking for some from a government, try New Zealand or Scotland.

from John T. in Brighton, UK: A week of sunshine

April 7. It must be at least fortnight since we saw rain and we’re blessed with a week of sunshine. The problem is that we’re like dogs who have been caged for hours on end in showing our enthusiasm to break free. The vast majority still adhere to the Government instruction staying local and restricting themselves to a once daily quota of exercise. But there’s always one … as the saying goes, except in this case rather more than one and some people sit in the park or on the beach or wander around in large groups. Sadly, unlike us humans, Covid does not adopt a happy and benevolent front under the spell of warm spring rays and our guard needs to be maintained.

Matt Hancock is quick to react but I can’t agree with his “threat”.  If people continue to transgress then the lockdown dial will be turned up and all outdoor exercise will be banned. Where I think this is flawed is that exercise is of paramount importance to physical and mental health and is to be encouraged. Add to that the reports of escalating domestic violence and there are very good reasons why we must “find a way”. Which leads to the second point – we would be punishing the vast majority who show social responsibility on account of a small number of recidivists. Cast your mind back a few years – it’s like the whole class will stay in at playtime because the culprit who committed some peccadillo declines to own up. Surely the right solution is to deal with the flaunters, even if that is to be deemed a crime, and let the rest of us out of our kennels for an hour or two.

from David Maughan Brown in York, UK: You couldn’t make it up.

April 3. You couldn’t make it up.  Our government has devised a cunning new strategy for meeting the imperative needs of the country it is supposed to be governing.   When you are busily demonstrating that you are manifestly incapable of meeting the (derisorily low) targets you have set yourself, and you realize that someone has noticed how badly you are doing, what do you do?  You just raise the target.  So, when it was pointed out to Boris that his 10,000 tests a day target wasn’t even close to being met, he dexterously raised the target to 25,000 a day.  When a couple of weeks later it becomes glaringly apparent that the 10,000 target still isn’t close to being met, Matt Hancock in his incapacity as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care earnestly, and with a spirited demonstration of commitment to the cause, raises the target to 100,000 tests a day.  Meanwhile Germany has been conducting 500,000 tests a day for weeks.

There’s a certain, but very limited, schadenfreude to be had from watching what was always going to be the most incompetent UK government in living memory, if not history, floundering in the face of the present emergency.  It is only very limited because their hopeless inadequacy is resulting in thousands of unnecessary deaths.   If the sole criterion for appointment to a senior position in government is going to be support for Brexit, as it was with this cabinet, don’t expect the combined wit of the whole assemblage of Secretaries of State and other Ministers to be up to organizing the proverbial in a brewery, let alone to protecting the public in the face of a global pandemic.   Support for Brexit required nothing more than a blind determination to ignore all advice to the contrary and crusade on down some imaginary yellow brick road to what the ridiculed experts predicted would be a wrecked economy.   Not the ideal qualification for addressing the worst crisis the country has faced since World War II.  The irony is, of course, that a long predicted and entirely unplanned for virus has come along to show them exactly how to wreck an economy.  Not, needless to say, that that has so far managed to persuade any of them that it might be a good idea to postpone the deadline for the final departure from the EU beyond January 1st.  If their thinking is that the economy is already in its death throes so they might as well get on with performing the last rites, one could understand, if not sympathise with, it.  But they won’t be thinking that.  They will be convinced that, like Jesus raising Lazarus, their longed-for Brexit will somehow miraculously bring our economy back from the dead.

4th April. Apart from 90 minutes or so spent weeding between the autumn raspberries, which are beginning to show signs of life on our allotment, most of the day has been spent in a frustrating and ultimately unsatisfactory wrestle with IT.  Nothing could have been better calculated to highlight for me just how much we will miss by way of sun, wind and birdsong if, as seems likely, the government’s answer to the idiots who are gathering in parks and on beaches as soon as the sun comes out is to tighten the lockdown and force everybody to stay at home rather than going to their allotments.

Susan’s no more than middle-aged Apple laptop has been hobbling along geriatrically, behaving erratically during its long pauses for breath, so an update of the anti-virus software and a deep-clean (to use current virus terminology) is needed.  The software is purchased and uploaded with various difficulties I don’t need to go into, solved in part with the assistance of a brother in Swakopmund; the computer is scanned; 58 (!) assorted viruses are identified; and we arrive at the moment of eventual triumph when I get to press the button that delivers the coup the grace.  My finger hovering eagerly above the button, I discover I’m being set a multiple-choice test with three possible choices:  ‘Trust’, ‘Quarantine’, and ‘Repair’.

‘Trust’ is easily enough discarded as the wrong answer.  Why would I bother to go to all the trouble to identify the viruses as viruses, and therefore, presumably, in 1066 and all that terms ‘not a good thing’, if I was then going to ‘trust’ them?  Trust them to do what?  Behave themselves and stop messing around with the computer?  No way.  I’m in quarantine myself and am fully intending to get out as soon as possible, so ‘Quarantine’ looks to be a merely temporary solution.  Unless, of course, viruses somehow starve to death in quarantine, which seems unlikely.  The third option threatens to blow what is left of my mind.  ‘Repair’ a virus?  I don’t want to ‘repair’ the damn things, I want to nuke them.  If they aren’t doing as much damage as they are supposed to do, that can only be a ‘good thing’.  To abuse the overworked viral analogy once again, it’s as if the devilish Wuhan scientist who invented the Covid virus (according to the racist conspiracy theorists on social media) were to be asked to ‘repair’ it because it wasn’t killing enough decadent Westerners.  ‘Repair’ seems a straightforward enough word, but I obviously don’t understand English any longer, and don’t want to press either ‘Trust’ or ‘Quarantine’, so the finger, getting tired of hovering, takes the plunge and presses ‘Repair’.  A long wait later, the message comes back telling me that all the viruses can’t be repaired after all.  So out of sheer exhaustion I press ‘Quarantine’ and hope that whatever ‘quarantine’ means the viruses can’t escape from it as easily as the idiots in the parks.

5th April. We have just, for the fourth time in 24 hours, been told in some detail what the Queen is going to tell us when she broadcasts to the nation at 8.00pm tonight.  I admit to listening to the news too often – but that is beside the point.  This is only the fourth time in her 68 year reign, we are repeatedly being told, that she has broadcast to the nation at a time other than for her annual message at Christmas.  We are to understand from this that these are uncommon times and circumstances.  We might not have realized that if we hadn’t been told so often.  But what are all the tasters, tempters, teasers or trailers (take your pick) all about?  Who thinks it is a good idea that everyone should have heard what she is going to say up to ten times (if they listen to the news even more often than I do) before she gets to say it herself?

Is this a way of giving the plebs an opportunity to get their heads around a long string of words, some of which have more than two syllables, so that they can understand what she is saying when she finally gets to say it?  Is it, in other words, a variation on the ‘Get Brexit Done’ mode of communication:  things need to be said over and over and over again if people are to take any notice, and the Queen, bless her, can only say it once herself?   Or is it, much more simply, an attempt by the BBC to get their money’s worth out of Nicholas Witchell as their long-standing Royal Correspondent.   Witchell was appointed as Royal Correspondent in 1998, by which time Her Majesty was already 72.  It is my private suspicion that he must have been appointed in anticipation of her soon to be lamented departure.   Witchell’s lugubrious expression and doleful tones equip him perfectly to sound appropriately funereal when the time comes.  In the meantime he serves the very useful purpose of discouraging the hoi-polloi from envying the monarchy, and resenting the extent to which it depends on their taxes, by managing to make the life of the royal family always sound so irredeemably miserable.