from David Maughan Brown in York, UK: Climate Change

Were the ‘Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award’ still around to be awarded on a global basis, the jet stream that is currently playing fast and loose with our weather in the UK would, with a bit of updating of the criteria, be a prime candidate for a fickleness award.   At any rate, there seems to be a good chance that it could be a pointer to our possible fate where our climate is concerned.

A word of explication might be in order here.  Between 1968 and 1973, NBC in the USA broadcast a satirical programme titled Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In which provided, in the words of entertainment.ha.com, ‘a heady dose of comedy and biting satire during a turbulent period in history, and in the process boosted the careers of Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, and others.’  The Flying Fickle Finger of Fate award was used on the show, we are reminded, in a ‘recurring segment that “lauded” noteworthy, dubious achievements by celebrities or government officials. Recipients of this uncoveted award included then Los Angeles Chief of Police Ed Davis, who suggested that gallows be put in all airports so hijackers could be hung on the spot; the City of Cleveland for their Cuyahoga River (it caught fire due to its high pollution levels); and William F. Buckley for his philosophy “Never clarify tomorrow what you can obscure today”.’*

Television was not available to South Africans between 1968 and 1973 because, as Dr Albert Hertzog, the Minister of Posts and Telegraphs, kindly explained in 1959: ‘The effect of the wrong pictures on children, the less developed and other races can be destructive.’  But, once television had been introduced in 1976, there was an obvious need for those South Africans who had TVs to have their attention distracted from the vicious cruelties of apartheid outside their windows, and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In was apparently (and often somewhat mistakenly) seen by the apartheid government as a politically inoffensive distraction.

All of which is something of a diversion from the path of the jet stream.  It is raining off-and-on again today, as it has been for most of the month.  This is because, as the weather forecasts have explained, and can be seen from the weather map above, the UK is caught in a low-pressure loop in the jet stream, and has been trapped in the same loop throughout this month.   Parts of the UK have had three times their average May rainfall already, and our average temperature has been two degrees centigrade below the May average.  This follows one of the driest, and certainly the frostiest, April on record with frosts somewhere in UK every night.     May 2020, by contrast, as I wrote in June last year, ‘was the driest May on record in England and the sunniest month ever, at least as far back as records go; this spring’s sunshine hours smashed the previous record by all of 70 hours, and have only been exceeded by summer sunshine hours in three previous years.’  So ‘fickle’ seems an appropriate word.

The extreme variations from year to year in UK suggest that something significant is going on weather-wise.  This would seem to be backed up by what appear to be increasingly extreme weather events around the globe.  Prolonged droughts leading to devastating wild fires, increasingly frequent and violent hurricanes and cyclones, and serious floods all come to mind.  In his 2003 book Inevitable Surprises Peter Schwartz doesn’t regard global climate change as being a surprise ‘because most of us (by now) have seen it coming’ (p.207).** Donald Trump hadn’t put his ornamental head above the political parapet by then.   But what will be a surprise, Schwartz suggests on the basis of analysis of the fossil record, will be the speed of its impact:  ‘The pattern is consistent: hundreds or even thousands of years of steady-state equilibrium.  Then an abrupt shift, in as short a time as a decade, can alter temperature and rainfall patterns, and ocean currents.’ (p.208)

So what could happen in the next decade that could provide us with a distraction from worrying about Covid-19?  As global temperatures rise, mainly as a result of human activity and the carbon emissions that activity produces, the polar ice caps and the glacial ice in Greenland are melting and cold freshwater is pouring into the Atlantic Ocean.  There is a serious possibility that this could result in the ocean currents being ‘forced into new patterns’, as Schwartz puts it.  Put more bluntly, it could arrest the flow of the Gulf Stream that warms North Eastern Europe.  This has apparently happened before – most recently around ten thousand years ago.  Schwartz quotes Dr Robert Gagosian’s suggestion as to what might happen next:  ‘Average winter temperatures could drop by 5 degrees Fahrenheit over much of the United States, and by 10 degrees in the North-eastern United States and in Europe.  That’s enough to send mountain glaciers advancing down from the Alps.  To freeze rivers and harbours and bind North Atlantic shipping lanes in ice…. These changes could happen within a decade, and they could persist for hundreds of years.’ (p.209)

Schwartz doesn’t claim that this particular manifestation of global climate change is ‘inevitable’, it is merely a distinct possibility.   But, given the manifest fickleness of our current weather patterns, those of us in UK who live on the front line where that particular manifestation of climate change is concerned had better not be fooled by talk of ‘global warming’ into packing our winter woollies too far away.  Speaking for myself, as I clean out the shed in preparation for its demolition, I will make sure not to throw away my good-as-new snow-shovel that hasn’t been needed even once in the past fifteen years.


* https://entertainment.ha.com/itm/movie-tv-memorabilia/props/-laugh-in-flying-fickle-finger-of-fate-award-broadcast-from-1968-to-1973-on-nbc-rowan-and-martin-s-laugh-in-provided-a/a/648-21045.s

** Peter Schwartz, Inevitable Surprises, London: Free Press, 2003.

From Brenda in Hove: Give a Little, Get a Lot

3 February

Four days ago I had the AstraZeneca vaccine. I didn’t hesitate one second when I got the text from our medical practice and booked the first available (day-time) appointment in two days’ time. The Brighton Race Course is not a place one would associate with medical activity (except maybe heart attacks) but there it is, fitted out with desks and cubicles and an ‘observation area’ where you are required to sit for 15 minutes after the jab.

The parking arrangements are not immediately obvious nor is the one-way system of getting people into the ‘production lines’ and the howling wind and rain didn’t help. We didn’t go up the right road the first time but I was anxious to not be late so my husband dropped me and I squeezed myself around a gate and through an unavoidable puddle and ran the last 100 metres. There were people directing you at every junction – even outside.

When I clocked in I asked the woman at the desk if she was a volunteer. “Oh, we all are, dear! Every single person here.” So mostly because I wanted to thank people who were giving their time like this but also because I was interested – and sure enough, every one told me they were volunteering. Doctors, nurses, secretaries, every kind of person taking on even the most menial tasks. Not much fun standing outside in that foul weather and directing people, not much fun scrubbing down the seats and tables, not much fun filling in the same forms over and over again, not much fun plunging needle after needle into arm after arm – yet every single one said things like “what else could I be doing that is more important?” or “the least I can do” or “much more cheerful here than stuck at home by myself” or “there is such a good spirit here that I enjoy it all very much” (nurse who works full-time at our practice and has a family but still gives two of her three days off to this exercise) or “best thing I could do with my days off” (doctor). As of today 10 million people have been vaccinated in the UK and counting. Extraordinary.

When my husband found a parking place he was worried as to how he would find me and  asked one of the parking attendants. She said not to worry because there was a one way system and he couldn’t miss me in the observation area. And so it came to be. When we were leaving James leaned out of the window to thank her for her help and she said “I am sorry to see you found your wife!” Hilarious laughter followed – even from me – but I couldn’t help wondering what he had told her. He is not to be drawn!

The last few days since the vaccine have not been easy. 24 hours after the jab I felt as if lead had been injected into my limbs. I could hardly move and felt dizzy and nauseous. As if that were not enough, I cannot sleep. The doctor tells me it will wear off in a week.

Then I will see if I can volunteer myself to do something useful in this national endeavour. Inside the building – not outside.

from John F. in Tadcaster, UK. August in North Yorkshire.

Post no 14.  August 17. We are well behaved in this rural part of the country; masks are universal and even in the little village shop when the postmaster hands me my morning paper, I don a face shield. So far there is no sign of the virus erupting again, as it has in West Yorkshire, not so far away. The local hospital has not had a death since June 18th.

Some of the restrictions are proving frustrating. I saved Rishi Sunak £100 by taking all my grandchildren and parents to a wonderful tapas restaurant last week on a Thursday, just missing the £10 a head gift. The food was excellent as always (far better say the Spaniards whom I have taken there, compared to what they get at home) but the complex ordering system made me cross.

The menu was on the internet, so I printed off copies for everyone to save time. However we could not simply tell the shielded waitress what we wanted, but had to download the menu and an ordering system from a mobile app. As we were spread over two tables there had to be two orders and drinks were also online. The whole ordering process took 45 minutes but the waitress finally relented and accepted a drinks order before we had entered it on the mobile. Payment had to be made before the order could be sent to the kitchen; later the whole process was restarted for the ice creams etc that the children wanted.

Sandsend Beach, north of Whitby, UK

Like many people I am still a little uncertain about the regulations; I may well have been breaking them when my wife and I went to the beach at Sandsend, a little village north of Whitby. On a lovely sunny day we joined our grandchildren for a light lunch on the terrace of their holiday house and then in deckchairs on the beach. But what a wonderful orgy of nostalgia it was, as I used to go to that same beach 75 years ago just after the war.  However the young now have 21st century equipment such as wet suits and surf boards and are far more active than I ever was.

The weather has been far cooler than in the south of England and as a result our harvest has barely started. However those farmers that have combined, report low yields of poor quality barley – fit only for cattle feed rather than milling for food (or beer). Straw is very short and stubby so the income from this will be negligible. Wheat has still to be harvested and the potatoes are being drenched by huge irrigation pipes.

As ever, our local church has been slow to restore normal operations. It provides one Zoom service on Sundays for all four parishes in its benefice and a live one in the biggest church; it then lets the local churchwardens open up their churches for private prayer an hour once a week. No plans are given for full live services in the three smaller churches.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Build, Build, Imprison …

July 9.  Here’s a happy tweet from the Ministry of Justice: ‘We are building 4 new prisons to: Improve rehabilitation.  Help local economies.  Support construction industry to invest & innovate.  Part of our £2.5bn plan to create 10k additional prison places.  Delivering modern prisons & keeping the public safe’ (thanks to my colleague Ros Crone, for this). 

Each line has a helpful little illustration.  The one for the construction industry has a crane and jib which at first sight looks just like a gallows.  Next time perhaps.

The prison population of England and Wales has almost doubled over the last twenty-five years.  According to the figures for 3rd July, the current population of 79,522 is just over two thousand less than the ‘Usable Operational Capacity’.* The press release accompanying the tweet stresses that the new cells will be an ‘addition’ to the present stock, presumably, taking into account the need to replace prisons no longer fit for purpose.  They will be on top of already planned new prisons at Wellingborough and Glen Parva, which are to provide 3,360 places by 2023.  The announcement reflects an expectation that prison numbers will expand still further in the coming years.

Last February, the then Justice Secretary of State, David Gauke, announced a policy of abolishing custodial sentences of fewer than six months.  But he took the wrong view of Brexit, lost his Cabinet post, was thrown out of the Conservative Party and is now out of Parliament.  His junior minister in charge of prisons, Rory Stewart, stated that ‘We should be deeply ashamed as a society if people are living in filthy, rat-infested conditions with smashed-up windows, with high rates of suicide and violence.’**  He was quickly promoted to a Cabinet post at the Department for International Development, since abolished (do keep up!), before he was himself abolished, following Gauke’s trajectory out of office and out of Parliament because of his opposition to Brexit (and to Johnson personally).

As noted in my diary entry for June 2, the Ministry of Justice failed to implement an early undertaking to make an emergency reduction of 4,000 in a prison population threatened by mass infection in confined spaces.  Now cause and effect has been reversed.  The response to the virus demands growth not contraction.  The overriding need is to get the economy moving. The MoJ’s press release explains the broader purpose of the announced expansion: ‘Thousands of jobs will be created overall in the areas surrounding prisons during construction and once they have opened.  This will provide a major spur to local economies and support the construction industry to invest and innovate following the Coronavirus epidemic.’  

This is the new mantra of ‘build, build, build’ given form.  There seems no good reason why the Government should stop at 10,000.  We need to be world class at something, and setting aside the United States we are already well ahead of advanced countries in the proportion of the population in prison.   Each new prison takes undesirables off the streets, cures unemployment, boosts the private sector (only one of the new prisons is certain to be run by the state).  What’s not to like?

Quite a lot, according to a new report from the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee.***  It has just demanded that the government ‘should end the Covid-19 visiting ban on children in England and Wales whose mothers are in prison and consider releasing those who are low risk… The committee said it had heard heartfelt evidence from children prohibited to visit their mothers during the outbreak which had exacerbated problems and posed a serious risk to an estimated 17,000 youngsters.’   It further called for the ‘early release for those mothers who can safely go back home with their children.’

The Committee is on the wrong side of history.

*Ministry of Justice, Official Statistics, Prison population figures: 2020.  July 3, 2020.https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/prison-population-figures-2020

**Cited in House of Commons Justice Committee, Prison population 2022: planning for the future

*** https://ukhumanrightsblog.com/2020/07/06/are-squalid-prison-conditions-and-the-response-to-the-covid-19-pandemic-breaching-human-rights/

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Permanence and Planning

Tom Scholar

June 17.  The clue is in the qualifier.  The heads of civil service departments in the UK are called ‘Permanent Secretaries.’  They are in charge of bodies of public employees whose tenure is independent of changes in the political complexion of government.

Two of the most senior members of this cadre, Tom Scholar, Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, and Alex Chisholm, Permanent Secretary at the all-powerful Cabinet Office and formerly at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, were interviewed on Monday of this week by the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on their preparations for a pandemic. 

Dominic Cummings said earlier this year that he wanted to recruit to the civil service “some true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole.”  Scholar, the son of a knighted civil servant, fought his way out of the hell hole that was Dulwich College public school and Trinity Hall, Cambridge, Chisholm struggled up from Downside public school and a degree (in history) from Merton College, Oxford.  They are in charge of sections of a civil service that has so far resisted attempts to politicise its membership.

The question is, what are the demonstrable gains from this oasis of institutional stability?  Over the last three years, there has been an obvious need for a locus of stable management of the affairs of a troubled state.  There have been three Chancellors of the Exchequer since 2016, one of whom, Philip Hammond, ended up having the whip withdrawn and retiring from Parliament.  The Department for Business has also had three heads, and the Cabinet Office, the central unit for co-ordinating the government machine, no less than five in four years.

What the PAC wanted to know, was whether the Permanent Secretaries had formed plans for the management of the economy during a pandemic, following the Cygnus simulation exercise in October 2016, which had modelled a scenario in which 50% of the population was infected by a flu-like virus.

It had cause to suppose that the civil service had a particular responsibility for this kind of planning.  The politicians were living day-to-day through the prolonged crisis set in motion by the Brexit referendum in June 2016.  Ideological commitment overwhelmed long-term thinking.  Ministers ate, drank and dreamed the pursuit of negotiating deadlines.  Cohorts of civil servants were taken from their normal duties to work with Brussels, but compared to their political masters, there remained wide areas of the government machine with the time and space to engage with medium and long-term futures.

The answer to the Committee’s question was that there had been no planning for the economic impact of a pandemic.  The measures taken once the real thing arrived were made up as the crisis deepened.  The chair of the PAC pronounced herself “quite dumbstruck” by this omission.  “Could you do us a follow-up note on the lack of economic planning for the pandemic?” she said.  Chisholm confirmed that he would. 

Countries which have done best in this crisis have been characterised not by their particular political complexion, but rather by their capacity to have in place and then fine-tune long-term plans for crisis management.  When the history of the UK’s lamentable performance is written, it will not be just the politicians who are in the firing line.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Bedtime stories.



HMP Bronzefield -women’s prison

June 16. There are three ways of identifying the impact of the coronavirus:

  • Pre-existing problems exposed by the pandemic
  • Pre-existing problems exacerbated by the pandemic
  • Pre-existing problems which the response to the pandemic failed to fix

In the UK, the prison system sits under all three headings.

Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons has just published a report on three women’s prisons, Bronzefield (the largest purpose-built women’s prison in Europe), Eastwood Park and Foston Hall.* It focusses on actions being taken to protect the prisoners from infection.  “We found”, reported the inspector, “that self-harm had increased from the high levels seen prior to the restrictions being implemented.”

In these prisons, and across the system, levels of self-harm, up to and including suicide, were already at an unacceptable level, and would have remained so without the impact of coronavirus.

As I discussed in my diary entry a fortnight ago, the key failure of the Ministry of Justice was not implementing a plan to reduce the size of the prison population, particularly those serving short sentences which would have included many women.  This is confirmed by the new report:

The two early release schemes in operation had been largely ineffective in reducing the population. Despite the process taking up significant amounts of management time, only six prisoners had been released. This was a failure of national planning.”

Instead the women prisoners were subject to a host of restrictions to protect them from the virus.  They were kept in their cells for all but an hour in two of the prisons and half an hour in a third.  Face-to-face education ceased, although it was noted that “some limited one-to-one teaching support was given at cell doors.” Schoolteachers and university lecturers don’t know what they are worrying about. All family visits were suspended, which “had a particularly acute impact within the women’s estate.”

Above all, in the case of prisoners “with very high levels of need”, who had been “previously receiving significant structured support from a range of agencies”, the services “had stopped or been drastically curtailed at all three sites, creating a risk that these prisoners’ welfare could seriously deteriorate.”   The consequence was felt in all three prisons: “Self-harm had risen since the start of the restrictions at Bronzefield and Foston Hall. The number of incidents was beginning to reduce at Foston Hall in May but remained above the level seen before the restricted regime was implemented.”

The report paints a picture of staff doing their best in impossible circumstances, working around obstacles as best they could, and in some cases finding new ways of alleviating the stress on prisoners.  The inmates had phones which they could use in limited circumstances.  At one of the prisons these were employed to help compensate for the absence of family visits.

“At Eastwood Park”, the inspector reported, “managers had established a scheme where prisoners could read a bedtime story to their children each evening.”

Makes you weep.

* Report on short scrutiny visits to Prisons holding women by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (19 May 2020)

From John in Brighton: What a Load of Rubbish!

Rubbish on a remote Indonesian island

12 June. It was instilled into me at a young age that you don’t leave litter. I don’t recall so many public bins back in the 60’s and the message was clear – pack up your rubbish, take it home and bin it. On the face of it not difficult to understand or to execute so why has litter been a thorn in our side for as long as I can remember?.
Yesterday evening in a local park was an overflowing bin and litter strewn all around – a small vignette of a much bigger problem. One hot weekend last summer 23 tons of rubbish were collected off the Brighton and Hove beaches and the Council planned for a further 300 new bins over a stretch of about eight miles along the sea front. This included recycling so blue for plastic bottles and cans, maroon for glass and black for ordinary rubbish. Again I’d ask, what could be simpler? But there’s a sense of deja vu with the recent burst of hot weather and the beach near the pier had an ugly coating of nappies, wipes, takeaway items, cans and drinks bottles aplenty. Enough in fact for volunteers to fill twenty five bags of 5 Litre volume over about a three mile stretch. 
And it’s not just the beaches but also the parks. Preston Park, Brighton’s largest, might take park attendant Bill at least a couple of hours to clear after a hot day he tells us on the local radio. And last spring 500 bags of rubbish were collected from two of the main roads in Sussex the A27 and A23 – some may have blown in but the majority probably expelled from drivers’ windows. Yet go up on the nearby Downs and litter is practically non-existent as witnessed by a ten mile cycle this week and spotting one item. Perhaps this simply reflects a far lower number of people but I suspect also a different mentality. And maybe if you see no rubbish it induces you to follow suit, positive reinforcement even if there is no tangible reward..
I try to understand why people leave so much rubbish. Is it simply laziness or lack of facilities? Often bins are overflowing but isn’t the appropriate response to find another even if that means taking it home? Is it a perception that it’s somebody else’s responsibility to sort – “that’s what they’re paid for”, except that they aren’t and a lot of the clearing rests with volunteers? A lack of any civic pride – maybe it’s the band of London day-trippers who are solely responsible but I doubt it. Or just a lack of self-discipline, perhaps exacerbated by the restrictions of lockdown and the new-found freedoms nurturing a low-level anomie? But last summer’s findings predate Covid and imply a more chronic problem. Or maybe it’s quite simply the absence of any consequence – identifying culprits is practically impossible. Politicians repeatedly praise the adherence of the general public to the lockdown so the principles of self-discipline are well understood but regardless of rules and directives from on high arguably the biggest incentive there is avoiding a potentially life-threatening disease. No one dies from leaving a bit of litter………but fauna might. The plastic pollution of the oceans and its consequences have been highlighted in the last couple of years. Recently there have been reports of micro-plastics in rivers and affecting the bird life, not all of it from litter but it may contribute. And better still for the miscreant is the difficulty of policing litter louts – last year Brighton introduced a team of “litter cops” and the threat of a £300 fine but how can they effectively patrol a large area 24/7 although the threat might be a subliminal deterrent to some? After a leave of absence the enforcement officers re-emerged last week so I’m hoping for a cleaner city as the summer progresses but won’t hold my breath and I still question why such a measure is needed.
Education and Public Information Films have been tried – going back to the 60’s Roy Hudd did one. Then there was that catchy slogan “Find a Bin To Put It In” so I fear this may be as difficult to unravel as the Gordian knot and will remain an issue in another fifty years time. But it’s not all bad. Back to the 60’s and the footpaths were littered with faeces (usually canine)  but no longer.  An eighty quid fine surely helps to focus the attention but again I suspect the mindset and understanding the rationale is the most important thing. Again it begs the question as to how people generally comply with this but not so well with garbage disposal.

from Steph in London: education …

When I agreed to write a blog, I swore I wouldn’t make any political comments … after over two months of lockdown I am about to fall off the wagon … why does education have to be politically governed? Or rather why does it have to be politically governed by people whose only interaction with schools was decades ago when they went. If we were an authoritarian state into indoctrination, perhaps interference is needed but I have yet to see a politician whose raison d’etre was actually the good of the young instead of their own career.

Why have we not got a decent education minister? In fact, the last decent one was in the 90’s. She actually understood education – such a novelty.

So, our esteemed MOE wants children taught in a bubble up to 15 pupils all day … I wonder how any schools have classrooms big enough for social distancing. A local school with 1,400 pupils only has classrooms large enough for 8 socially distanced. The mathematicians amongst you can work out how many rooms and how many teachers will be needed.

Then compute the options for the older pupils – 240 pupils per year. Pupils choose up to 12 subjects, practical subjects including the sciences needing more space and staff … bubbles might work for the core subjects but all the other subjects would place pupils and teachers in so many different groupings.

Rotas seem a good idea – different year groups in at different times … but no! He doesn’t want schools to run rotas as happens in Holland and other European countries.

The Heads I know are really trying to work something out- not least a timetable for the next academic year.

Rant over- back to the garden …

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: being local

Caroline Testout – a climbing rose

May 21.  In my corner of our village are three households containing five adults.  Fields containing three horses, thirteen sheep (newly shorn) and six bullocks (newly arrived) separate us from the rest of the community.  Our neighbours are in the middle course of their lives, have no resident children, and are taking great care of themselves.  They pose no threat whatever to my health or that of my wife. 

The question of the moment is how far that small bubble of security can be pushed out.  What distance can I move before the risk of infection becomes tangible?  That assessment is founded on information.  I know from informal contacts and the parish website that there is no coronavirus not only amongst my immediate neighbours, but throughout the village.  Beyond that, what is the data?

At present, the daily record is maintained at city and county level.  The ‘rate of infection’ (total infections divided by population multiplied by 100,000) for Shropshire is 233.2 as of yesterday.  Given that there are probably more sheep than people in my county, it might be expected that the rate is relatively low.  But the nearby cities of Manchester and Stoke-on-Trent at 267.0 and 275.6 are not significantly higher.  There are curious anomalies in the national picture – Oxford is 390.1 whereas Cambridge is 175.7 – but these can be left for geographers to explain at some later date.

The absence of sufficiently granular data on infection, and yet more critically, on transmission, is crippling the strategy of emerging from the lockdown, both as a public policy and as a guide to individual action.  The Scottish public health expert Devi Sridhar said in The Times on Saturday that ‘We have to listen to people who want to make an informed choice.  The thing we are really missing and which I think could be transformative is local-level data.  If people knew in their neighbourhood, whether in Glasgow or in Edinburgh, or if they are in a rural area, what the rates of transmission were, that would help.’

At this point, the local is only possible if the right actions are taken at the national level.  In particular the programme of test and trace has to be established before confidence can be invested in neighbourhood changes in behaviour.  The Financial Times summarises the problem: ‘These errors of management, judgment and public communication have eroded trust.  They now threaten to haunt every step towards normality, including wider re-opening of schools.’

The situation has been compounded by a wrong sense of national self-sufficiency.  I have no competence at all in software development, but from extensive experience of senior management in complex higher education institutions, I do know one truth in this area.  If the choice is between an off-the-shelf programme, which may lack full functionality but is already up and running, and a software product which may deliver every desired outcome but is yet to be written, then there is only one answer.  This the more so when the new product would have to be produced at great speed, and failure would cost lives.  The NHS has decided to write its own track and trace programme, rather than install the simpler and operational Apple / Google app.  To no-one’s surprise, it is already in trouble and missing deadlines.  At this level, the bespoke solution is a mistake.

So we are left with a patchwork of responses to the national (English) policy of opening schools on June 1, and with companies in trouble because sections of their workforce have declined the invitation to go back to work (today Dyson reports such difficulties).

And for ourselves in our corner of rural Shropshire, the local remains micro for the foreseeable future.

From John in Brighton: Two Baby-steps for Man

20 May. After seven weeks of “shielding” (a euphemism for imprisonment for the uninitiated) this last weekend represented a couple of baby-steps back towards normality for me. I’d better own up that I have dumped my shield numerous times – but only to cycle  ten miles along the seafront as I deemed the benefits to mental and physical health justified the miniscule risk. There was a positive feel – football was reappearing albeit German and with cardboard cutouts, Eurovision was all but cancelled (seriously good news) and the weather was set reasonably fair. But it was bumbling Boris’ baby-steps and a case of needs must that really did it for me.
First off meeting a couple of friends for coffee. Confession number two it was in the back garden not a public place but we’re not stupid and pursued social distancing so I feel not an inkling of guilt or worry. No hugging, not even a handshake. If it’s any consolation to BJ the nip in the air ensured that we stayed alert. After years of NHS guidelines and policies I conclude that those that work best are clear and concise with no grey zones and brief enough to be manageable, no one reads a series of fifty page documents. Two-thirds of the public find the government’s new rules unclear apparently. The lack of logic and confused messages from bulldog-spirited BJ and his cabinet of spaniels makes me think that we should use our common sense as our Pole Star rather than any parliamentary edict. Returning briefly to football I am reminded of a well known chant albeit less heard since VAR took the ultimate control “Yer don’t know what yer doin'”. Anyway bearing in mind that one difference between humans and primates is our better-developed language it was really good to have an hour and a half of conversation in vivo, a bit of culture to add to my already lengthy reading list and to share the machine-gun trill of a rather vocal wren. And in case you’re worried the boys in blue (is that a bit Sergeant Dixon era, should it be persons in blue?) were obviously too busy patrolling the beach to worry about any geriatric misbehaviour. 


Sunday’s baby-step was a case of needs must as the DIY click and collect system was unavailable. Not Wickes or B&Q but the arrangement whereby I click a list, daughter shops for it and we meet and I collect. Works a treat if you haven’t tried it and all for the price of a bar of chocolate and a few satsumas. But she was busy, so armed with my new-found liberation I opted for the elderly and vulnerable slot at Waitrose. A real life allegory unfolded in lieu of the deficiency of church sermons at present. Being my first visit in lock-down and because the queue bent invisibly round a corner I spent ten minutes oblivious to the formalities whilst hanging around the door. Come opening a woman bellowed at me that there was a queue – instead of just watching me couldn’t she have told me that before?

By this point it was half way across the car park, heart-sink…..But a kind lady with whom I used to natter  back in normal times agrees to let me in, the lady behind seconds the motion  and like a game of snakes and ladders I’ve shot up from 26th to 5th in the blink of an eye. My goal is to get round and out as fast as possible and the only potential hindrance is that “she who is aggrieved of queuing” is visibly surprised and put out to confront me – “how did you get in?” she asks clearly concerned that a grave injustice has come to pass.

What is the matter with some people? Doesn’t she realise she could be on a ventilator or using a food bank? But maybe she is stressed for some other reason and so I opt to stonewall rather than engage in messy discussion. Get to the checkout by 9.50 for a ten minute wait but I’m still only second in the queue. First is a young oriental lady and she turns and asks if I’d like to go first, almost insistent – presumably because I look suitably geriatric and vulnerable. Inculcated with the proprieties of queueing and so taken aback that anyone should make such a kind offer (unprecedented as per the current demotic) I decline despite her repeated offers. I’m out by ten past ten, no one sneezed or coughed on me and so hopefully all will be well. But the experience was valuable on two counts – got a few bits for sustenance and more importantly The Observer which was the primary purpose of the mission.  But an unanticipated spin-off was to experience the stark contrast of human nature between the angry and rude as opposed to the kind and considerate. It reminded me that the latter is the camp I need to be in. We’ve seen outpourings of community spirit during the loc-kdown and long may that live and on a small scale I hope to emerge a kinder person and for more than the seventy two hours or so that we reduce our driving speed after passing an accident.


It’s over fifty years since Neil Armstrong took his “small step for man” but with my two baby-steps I’m over the moon. I still have reservation that there could be a second wave of virus and will be very selective in any external activities but the tips are reopening in Brighton and the lure of clearing several crates of garden waste may be my next baby-step . Need to ensure that I stop it becoming a baby-toddle at this stage but if hairdressers get the kiss of life then the temptation may be too much.