From David Maughan Brown in York: Tactical distractions

October 26th

The BBC news this morning greeted the new week with breathless excitement.   A tanker had been hi-jacked in the English channel; the hi-jackers were seven Nigerian stowaways ‘believed to be seeking asylum in the UK’; four helicopters had undertaken a daring mission in the dark; sixteen heavily armed members of the Special Boat Services (SBS) had abseiled down onto the tanker; and ‘with overwhelming force quickly regained control of the vessel.’   Anyone sufficiently excited by the cinematic drama to turn to Google to establish precisely who our heroes from the SBS might be will be instantly enlightened by the ITV website: it is, we are told, ‘a highly covert elite maritime anti-terrorist unit of the Royal Navy.’

My immediate response to this as the BBC’s first news story of the day, still sleepy as I was, was to detect a distinct smell of rat.  I lived too long in South Africa under apartheid to have any confidence whatever in the truth or motives of the national broadcaster, and the past decade of Tory government has instilled in me an equivalent level of cynicism when it comes to any story obviously put out by government ministers.   The whiff of rodent gathered strength as the details of the story started to come out and it became clear that the SBS assault had been ordered by our execrable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, along with her more junior colleague, the Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace.   

The seven stowaways had omitted to take with them the explosives or firearms that might have justified the expense of helicopters and elite ant-terrorist troops, and were unarmed, although this apparently hadn’t deterred the crew from taking refuge in the ‘safe place’ always provided on tankers in case of hi-jackings.  Various versions of the story had the crew being threatened with ‘broken glass’, ‘knives and other sharp objects they had picked up’, and scary ‘verbal abuse.’  The captain, rather significantly one might have thought in the context of a ‘hi-jacking’, remained in control of the tanker’s bridge throughout.   The seven targets of the elite anti-terrorist unit couldn’t have stowed away with the intention of seeking asylum in the UK because they could apparently have had no idea when they boarded the ship in Lagos where it would be heading.  Patel subsequently praised the SBS for its ‘swift and decisive action’, but one wonders how it could have taken 16 heavily armed SBS operatives all of 9 minutes to ‘regain control of the vessel’.

The evidence is stacking up to the point where one doesn’t need to be an irredeemable cynic to assume, until it is demonstrated otherwise, that everything anybody associated with this government ever does (with the possible exception of Rishi Sunak) is either hopelessly incompetent or done with dishonest and deceitful intent.   Presenting the seven stowaways as dastardly ‘asylum seekers’ all too obviously plays into Patel’s racist anti-immigration rhetoric.  But the whole dramatic spectacle of the heavily armed SBS warriors abseiling down onto the tanker under cover of darkness bears a remarkable similarity to the 250-strong raid on the terrace house in Forest Gate in east London in 2006 that I wrote about on July 29th.  In that case the police knew that the intelligence the raid was based on was extremely dubious and that the ‘bomb’ which the 15 heavily armed men, kitted out in their chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear protection suits were searching for, almost certainly didn’t exist, but the police were ordered by the politicians to conduct the raid regardless.   Here, the 16 SBS men will almost certainly have known that the 7 stowaways weren’t armed in any serious sense of the word.  In both instances sledgehammers and gnats come to mind.

So what were these overkill spectaculars all about?  In the Forest Gate case, a training exercise, a message that the government was taking anti-terrorist action seriously, and a distraction.  The report on the police’s extra-judicial murder on the London tube of the Brazilian plumber, Jean Charles de Menezes, was due to be published imminently, and the media needed to be given something else to focus on.   Apart from playing to Patel’s virulent anti-immigrant agenda, today’s tanker-hijacking story was no doubt similarly designed to distract the media’s attention, however briefly, from a range of political awkwardnesses: the very strong criticism by a large segment of the legal profession of Patel’s and Johnson’s attacks on ‘lefty lawyers’ in the immigration and asylum context; the continuing disaster of the Government’s hopeless mishandling of Track and Trace; and the equally self-mutilating stupidity of Boris Johnson’s continuing refusal to support the continuation of school meals.  Take your pick.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Fundamentalisms

October 24

Assuming that any will still be around by the end of this century, social historians may by then have arrived at a consensus as to what it was about the fifty years many of us have just lived through that led to the development of so many different brands of fundamentalism.

Yesterday, the u3a* French conversation group I belong to spent its meeting discussing two articles extracted from French newspapers.  The first, which need not detain us here, gave an account of how the unfortunate Mr Eugène Poubelle, a 19th Century local administrator in Paris, came to give his name to French garbage bins.  The other was a copy of the very unusual, it claims unique, joint manifesto ‘in favour of freedom of expression’ recently published by the French audiovisual and print media titled (obviously translated from the original French), “Together let us defend freedom”.  This was a collective response to the beheading by a religious fundamentalist of Samuel Paty, the French teacher who had shown the Charlie Hebdo cartoons to those children in his class who were not Muslims.

Nothing Samuel Paty could possibly have done could ever have justified his arbitrary beheading, which was clearly the product of an extremity of what the manifesto rightly condemned as an example of the ‘novel totalitarian ideologies that are threatening freedom of expression.’   But I felt I was swimming against the tide of group sentiment when I argued that it was possible for the fervent upholding of the right to freedom of expression to shade into an equally totalitarian ideology.  It would have been perfectly possible for Mr Paty to make his historical point by describing the cartoons, rather than displaying them.  However well-intentioned, his discriminatory ejection of the Muslim students from the class before showing the cartoons demonstrated his awareness that what he was about to do in the name of freedom of expression would be considered highly offensive.  Telling a group of devout Christians that you are about to burn a copy of the Bible, but will kindly close the door so that they can’t witness your doing so, wouldn’t lessen the extent of the offence being occasioned, even if the repercussions would be unlikely to be the same.  As the old saw has it, the right to freedom of expression self-evidently doesn’t extend to shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre, nor should it give totally free license to the provocative causing of unnecessary offence. For Samuel Paty to be posthumously awarded the Legion d’Honneur for his crass insensitivity was to implicate the entire French nation in the gratuitous offence he had occasioned.  My response to the manifesto, and to the huge crowds that gathered to align themselves with Samuel Paty, was ‘I’m sorry, but “Non, je ne suis pas Samuel”.’

An equivalent fundamentalism – in this instance free-market fundamentalism – has been the ultimate cause of the much less spectacular deaths of untold thousands of people in England over the past few months who should not have, and need not have, died from Covid-19.   Our pathetically inadequate test and trace system, which over the past week has been able to return test results within the necessary 12 hours in fewer than 15% of cases, and trace fewer than 60% of all contacts (in a context in which it is said to be essential for at least 95% of contacts to be traced if the disease is to be contained effectively), is the entirely predictable outcome of the Tories’ obsessional devotion to the private sector.   It required a wholly irrational faith in the free market for Johnson and company to by-pass local health authorities and the network of NHS GP surgeries around the country entirely, in the process squandering billions of tax-payer’s money on outsourcing companies with no relevant experience whatsoever, to put their largely useless track and trace system in place and then seriously imagine that it could ever be ‘world-beating.’   It still rankles that they should have been shamelessly deceitful enough to taint the name of our excellent NHS by calling their failing system “NHS Track and Trace”.

*  In the hope of literally downplaying the ‘University’ in the name ‘University of the Third Age’, which rather depressingly for some of us is apparently now regarded as having the potential to put people off joining, the decision has recently been taken to make the subtle change of lowering the case of the logo from ‘U3A’ to ‘u3a’.

From Steph in London: A World Beating system … and absolute incompetence

June 19

Hurrah, with a world beating system the NHS and the country will be saved…

The new track and trace scheme is now up and running.  The management of it has bypassed local public health teams and it’s controlled centrally. So- from a very reliable source …. somebody gives information after testing  positive for Covid on May 31.  The team starts phoning round but can’t get any  joy so on June 10 contacts the local PHE team to take over the contact tracing ….only 10 days wasted and heaven knows how any more infections..

Fortunately, we are on top of the track and trace(!)  and are going to give Google/ Apple a try at the phone app-creating world beating systems temporarily shelved! We’ve only wasted about 3 months and millions but the boys have all the answers.

And now we move to education, where the leadership has been spectacular. Thank goodness we have Heads and staff working their socks off trying to work out how to get children back into schools realistically..

My daughter in law is a data manager for a 1600 plus secondary school. Normally at this time of year she will have done the timetable for September and head of departments will have ironed out any issues (like double A level Physics on a Friday afternoon!)

This year she has created 2 timetables – a normal two week timetable with all subjects getting their allocated time in the right rooms with the right staff and a shadow timetable that can be slotted in for all pupils…..for simplicity and to ensure all pupils get time in school, they have decided to offer Maths, English and science only on a part time basis if necessary …..It’s the Options that create problems for bubbles and social distancing.

Given the school leaving age is now 18 it may be time for the curriculum police to think about a broader offering for all students for longer.  No Options or GCSE exams at 16, (which no longer makes sense as everyone stays in education beyond that.. the end of year 11 is not a definitive time anymore) Perhaps International Baccalaureate type education?

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: unshielding

June 1.So, a new month, the beginning of meteorological Summer, and the un-lockdown begins. 

There is a special concession for the ‘shielded’, who, like me, have not been out of their house and garden since the last week of March (except for a medical check-up).  My thanks to David Maughan Brown for pointing out the irritating misuse of the verb ‘shield.’  On the other hand, ‘extremely vulnerable’ would appear to be a phrase with meaning.  Now we appear to be slightly less so.

The advice on the government website, updated yesterday, is as follows:

“People who are shielding remain vulnerable and should continue to take precautions but can now leave their home if they wish, as long as they are able to maintain strict social distancing. If you choose to spend time outdoors, this can be with members of your own household. If you live alone, you can spend time outdoors with one person from another household. Ideally, this should be the same person each time. If you do go out, you should take extra care to minimise contact with others by keeping 2 metres apart. This guidance will be kept under regular review.”

This is of course just for England.  Over the border, shielded or not, I can still be arrested if I drive more than five miles into Wales.  The change is scarcely a revolution, but it has raised two profound concerns. 

The first, which has been immanent throughout the crisis, is that the category of ‘extremely vulnerable’ covers a whole host of conditions. It places in the same situation those with only a marginal extra risk and those who should not be out of their home under any circumstances – coronavirus scarcely the only threat to those whose immune system is completely shot.  Without detailed medical advice, which is generally not available (as I know myself), it is next to impossible to make the judgment call about going out of doors.

The second is that the change, and the broader relaxation for the unshielded, is driven more by political convenience or economic urgency than by medical reality.  The ‘R’ rate is still perilously close to 1, and the improvements in the infection rate are at best patchy across England.  No one was convinced when the Number 10 briefing came out with the tortured explanation that the country, whilst at level 4 of risk (where everyone should be in lockdown) is ‘transitioning’ towards level 3.  Further, whilst London may be getting safer, the rest of the country is not necessarily doing so.  Over the last ten days, the infection rate for Shropshire has increased from 233.2 to 253.2.  The scores have also risen from 275.6 to 301.8 in nearby Stoke-on-Trent, and from 267.0 to 288.2 in Manchester. 

As critics have pointed out, we need a much more nuanced approach to the vulnerable, and we need in place an effective track and trace system before we make any significant change to the lockdown.  This was argued in an excellent article on Saturday by Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at Edinburgh University, and her colleague Yasmin Rafiei:

“What we suggest instead is a general strategy of suppression, where governments make a commitment to keeping daily new cases as low as possible through an active testing-and-tracing programme and real-time monitoring of transmission. At the same time, the government should advise those in “shielded groups” about their individual risk, as well as provide them with data about transmission within their communities, and then leave these individuals to make an informed decision about how and when they would like to engage in society.”

Just so.

In the meantime, the changes are bringing some joy.

My five-year-old grandson was so pleased about the prospect of going back to school (four days a week from this Thursday) that during the hour-long family Zoom meeting on Sunday he insisted on wearing his school uniform throughout.

And I have a Finnish friend who tells me that in her country the relaxation of the two-metre rule has been welcomed, as it enables people to go back to their natural distancing of five metres.