From David Maughan Brown in York: Roosting chickens

October 14th

Flocks of chickens are coming home to roost on our Prime Minister, the supposedly Honourable Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and it isn’t just the odd stray feather they are contributing to his general air of lazy dishevelment.  When the great moment came on Monday for the unveiling the new Covid-19 tiered lockdown system that had been trailed so extensively for the better part of the previous week, Boris Johnson’s Chief Medical Officer, standing a socially distanced few feet beside him, calmly asserted that he had no confidence that it would work.  Immediately after the news conference, the Scientific Advisory Council for Emergencies (SAGE) released the minutes of a meeting it had held on 21st September at which the Government’s own hand-picked scientists unequivocally advocated a short, sharp, ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown as the only way to get the rapidly escalating incidence of infections under control. Boris Johnson rejected their advice and implemented his Rule of Six and the 10pm curfew on restaurants and bars instead, thereby comprehensively demolishing any last remnants of his endlessly repeated claim to have been ‘following the science.’  He can no longer get away with blaming the scientists.

The latest figures show that very nearly 20,000 people were diagnosed as Covid-19 positive in UK yesterday.  There has been an exponential increase in the number of infections, hospitalisations and deaths in the weeks since Boris and his lackeys took that September decision, and we are headed within the next two weeks to equal the March and April numbers in intensive care and we haven’t hit winter yet.  The trailing of the severe Tier 3 restrictions in Liverpool five days in advance inevitably resulted in the predicted partying in the streets on Tuesday night in anticipation of the midnight implementation of the new rules.  The almost unbelievable stupidity of that crowd differed only from the stupidity of the similarly maskless crowd that flocked to Donald Trump’s recent election rally in Florida in that, whereas the stupidity in Florida was suicidal given the age-profile of that crowd, in Liverpool the sozzled revellers appeared to consist largely of young people who probably won’t die themselves but will inevitably be passing the virus on to their elders, some of whom most certainly will die.  The measures brought in by Boris on 21st September as an alternative to the lockdown simply haven’t worked, and there is no reason whatever to imagine that his new Tier system will work either.   The number of infections in York, currently in tier 1, has increased by almost 50% in the past 24 hours.

If the current exponential growth in infections and deaths is stripping the Emperor of whatever clothes he had left, the wedges Johnson’s incompetence has succeeded in driving between the different nations of the supposedly United Kingdom will soon be making his unsightly nakedness even more glaringly apparent.  Northern Ireland has decided to implement the national lockdown Boris is refusing to agree to.  In two weeks time it will be possible to compare the results of the two different approaches to the crisis.  In the meantime the government of Wales has felt obliged to take the extraordinary step of trying to protect the public health of its citizens by banning cars from the North West of England.  Scotland, one gathers, is contemplating taking similar measures.  So some parts of the UK are, indeed, taking control of their borders – but, again, not in the way Boris anticipated.

The flocks of chickens do not cluck in unison.  Johnson is caught between several competing factions.  One flock consist of the supposedly ‘libertarian’, Tory backbenchers who oppose any kind of lockdown on the basis of the damage it does to the economy.   Closer inspection would probably reveal that that group really doesn’t care how many plebs in ‘the North’ die, just as long as their own shares in in the Wetherspoons pub chain don’t take too much of a hit.  That group would be better described as braying rather than clucking.  Another group, including extra-parliamentary experts, is warning the government about the destitution that will result if a lockdown is implemented without adequate support for those whose incomes will suffer: parents won’t be able to buy shoes for their children; women will have to prostitute themselves to keep food on their children’s plates.  The official opposition is demanding a national lockdown along the lines of SAGE’s September recommendations.  The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, is still threatening to bring legal action against the government and refusing to cooperate if restrictions in his area of responsibility are raised to Tier 3 without adequate financial support being put in place

If the variously suicidal or homicidal crowds of revellers and Trump devotees can be fairly described as stupid, their idiocy does not begin to compare with Johnson’s stupidity as he steadfastly lumbers towards a ‘no deal’ Brexit in 10 weeks time, apparently intent on making sure that the worst crisis in UK since World War II gets a whole lot more catastrophic for everybody involved.   And ‘everybody’ includes the entire continent of Europe, even if it will be vastly more catastrophic for us in the still ‘United Kingdom’. Having opportunistically lied and cheated his way into the position from which he can do greatest damage to the country he is supposed to be leading, Johnson fully deserves everything the roosting chickens can dump on him.   If I sound close to despair, it is because I am.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: the divided golf course

May 14. A month ago, on April 14, I wrote a piece on ‘Borders’, describing the ‘insane’ prospect of different lockdown regulations on either side of national borders within the UK.

Now it has come to pass.  The picture above is the view from the bottom of my garden.  Below the field is the Severn, hidden by the trees on the bank.  Almost unnoticed in the current crisis, we have been enjoying a warm, dry Spring and the river is unusually low for this time of the year.  Beyond it, across a few more fields, is Wales, with the Breiddens in the distance.   Were I to go for a walk on the hills, as we often did in peacetime, I could now be stopped by the police.  It is legal to drive to take exercise in England, not in Wales.  It is permissible for people to go to any kind of work in England, not in Wales.  There is a golf course in the border village of Llanymynech, a few miles away, where 15 holes are in Wales, 3 in England.  According to the new rules, only the English holes can be played. 

Some of this is just a trivial irritation.  But there is a more serious event taking place.  The leaders of Scotland, Wales and even Northern Ireland, have publicly condemned Johnson’s broadcast on Sunday, where he announced a partial, if very confused, relaxation of the rules ‘in the UK’.  The nation leaders were quick to point out that they had not been consulted about the new regime and did not agree with it.  They were free to go their own way and intended to do so.  This is partly a matter of local calculation about the state of the pandemic and the risk of relaxing the lockdown.  It is also a consequence of the growing perception that the Westminster government is fundamentally incompetent.  The electorates of the other nations are looking to their own representatives for a road map out of the crisis, and practices are likely to diverge still further in the coming months.

The coronavirus pandemic did not invent the break-up of the UK, but amongst the consequences will be a significant acceleration of that process.  And Brexit is yet to come.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Borders

March 14. Every morning, I draw back the curtains in my bedroom and look across the Severn into Wales.  About six miles away, as the crow flies, there is a volcanic outcrop called The Breiddens in what was once Montgomeryshire and is now Powys.  On the summit of the hill sits Rodney’s Column, a forerunner of Nelson’s monument in Trafalgar Square.   It was erected in 1781-82 by the “Gentlemen of Montgomeryshire” to commemorate the victorious battles of Admiral Rodney.  The Admiral and I greet each other, and go about our day’s business.

The Welsh Border weaves through the Marches, the outcome not of rational planning but the bloody skirmishes fought in the Middle Ages.  If we drive north from our English home, we pass into Wales around Wrexham and then back into England as we approach Chester, once a Roman defensive outpost.  Shrewsbury is not only an English county town, but much the largest commercial centre between England and the Mid-Wales coast.  In the streets you hear Welsh accents, and from time to time a different language spoken by those who have travelled in for a day’s shopping.  The town’s railway station is the main hub for the otherwise fractured Welsh system.

People and cultures are irretrievably mixed.  I was therefore astonished to hear in last Wednesday’s government briefing a journalist ask the Minister whether the four nations of the United Kingdom would adopt different policies of social isolation when it came to relaxing the Coronavirus lockdown.  This would mean adjacent and interleaved communities pursuing different contact regimes.  The prospect seemed so insane that I expected an immediate denial.  None came.  This was presumably because earlier in the day the First Minister of Wales had been widely reported speculating on the policy he might adopt on this critical question, without any reference to what other devolved administrations might do.  He has the power to go his own way, and at present does not seem to be consulting with the English Government.  Today the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has announced that she may introduce her own scheme.   There is evidence that staff in the nations are now fighting each other for essential kit.  Welsh and Scottish care home managers have complained that their usual suppliers have told them that all their PPE stock was now earmarked for England.  Each administration has its own Chief Medical Officer (or did so until the Scottish official was forced to resign because she had twice visited her holiday home in defiance of the lock-down policy she herself had promulgated), and is running its own systems.  The NHS scheme for identifying the especially vulnerable that I discussed on April 6 I now discover applies only to England.  Were I living a few miles to the west, I would not be affected by it. 

Within England, the coronavirus has further exposed the incoherence of devolved power.  To the south of my home the newly created Mayor of the West Midlands has authority over regional transport but little else.  To the north the Mayor of Manchester actually has power over health provision, though it is too soon to know how well that is working.  The adjacent Mayor of Liverpool, on the other hand, is responsible merely for ‘leading the city, building investor confidence, and directing new resources to economic priorities.’  The new Mayor of Leeds, like the West Midlands, just does trains and buses. There is little sense of local ownership of medical services. The Strategic Health Authorities might have pulled an integrated regional policy together, but they were abolished in 2013.  It is now recognised that a reason why Germany has been so much better than Britain at developing coronavirus testing systems is that the Länder, whose identities in some cases pre-date Germany itself, had long built up effective networks linking public and private provision in their regions, which they were able to mobilise in ways in which Public Health England has conspicuously failed to do.  The ritual that has now been established of daily, London-based briefings merely accentuates the sense that everything that matters in terms of decision-making and public spending is based in the capital.

This crisis is placing all our systems under an unforgiving spotlight, not least the incoherent mix of centralisation and regional initiative that has built up in Britain.   This sense of impoverished local ownership and dislocated national devolution had much to do with Brexit, and is now being further exposed by the pandemic.