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Friday, March 27, 2020

Food aid crisis

The Guardian reports on a warning by food charities that millions of people in the UK will need food aid in the coming days as the coronavirus outbreak threatens to quickly spiral into a crisis of hunger unless the government acts immediately to reinvent the way we feed ourselves:

In just a few weeks, experts say, the pandemic has exposed the extraordinary fragility of the food system. And they worry whether it will withstand the growing pressures expected in the coming weeks and months.

Supermarket distribution systems, based on “just in time” supply chains, are struggling to cope with a sudden surge in demand since Covid-19 took hold. The most pressing concern is finding a way to feed the country’s most vulnerable and isolated people.

Figures produced by the Food Foundation using government statistics suggest some 17 million people fall into the higher risk category for coronavirus because they are elderly, have underlying health conditions, or are pregnant. At least 860,000 people in this category were already struggling to afford enough food before the crisis. And at least 1 million of them report always or often being lonely, and therefore may struggle to find people to deliver food to them.

Anna Taylor, the Food Foundation’s director, said that between 4 million and 7 million people in lower risk categories are also affected by severe food insecurity or loneliness, so having to self-isolate could tip them into crisis.

The concern is that food banks will not be able to cope with the extremely high level of need and are not the answer when people are being asked to minimise contact with others.

Local authorities and other food poverty organisations are trying to organise to deliver food directly to vulnerable people but are finding that there is no clear guidance or funding from central government. They want ministers to keep alternative networks to the supermarkets open, and to use the army if necessary to make sure food reaches people:

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, London, and a former government adviser, said ministers have worked on the assumption that feeding Britain can be left to the market and big retailers. While ministers have been in discussion with supermarket chief executives during the pandemic, Lang argues they are failing to grasp the structural weaknesses in the food system and the scale of food poverty.

“The official line has been that it’s all seamless and would be fine if only stupid consumers would stop panic buying. It is not,” he said. “The just in time system is breaking. Government were only talking to a narrow range of people in industry rather than local authorities and community groups, who know where vulnerable people are.”

Lang added: “Borders are closing, lorries are being slowed down and checked. We only produce 53% of our own food in the UK. It’s a failure of government to plan.”

In normal times, about 30% of calories are eaten outside the home each day, in restaurants, cafes and canteens. The lockdown has significantly increased the amount of food people are eating at home, most of which is sourced from supermarkets.

Shortages have eased in recent days, but many products are still out of stock and supermarket shelves are unlikely to look the way they usually do for a long time.

“Some £1bn extra food and groceries were bought by households in the last two to three weeks. That’s like Christmas but worse because it’s gone on for three times as long,” said Andrew Opie, director of food at the British Retail Consortium, the supermarket trade association.

The problem, Opie says, is “sheer logistics”. There is food, but not the capacity in terms of trucks, drivers, packers and pickers in warehouses to deliver it faster. Supermarkets are recruiting thousands more workers, running trucks through what used to be curfew hours, and editing down their ranges so there is less choice. “We’re nowhere near a wartime economy but supermarkets will not look the way they did in 2019 [for the foreseeable future],” Opie added.

Supermarkets have built supply chains of immense complexity and sophistication over the last four decades, affording customers a choice of more than 40,000 lines from around the world – from dozens of different kinds of pasta to a permanent global summertime of fresh fruits and vegetables.

They have done this by developing long international supply chains and keeping little actually in stock. Shelf space is constantly replenished from centralised distribution centres where, every 24 hours, thousands of products are trucked in from suppliers to be unloaded, reorganised, reloaded and sent out again to stores.

The logistics are controlled by barcode scanning and complex algorithms, with little slack in the system, so a sudden rise in demand can be unmanageable.

The consequences of a disrupted supply chain will be most acute for the millions in households whose incomes are so low that they have depended on food banks or free meals at school or in daycare centres, which have now closed.

This is not a problem that government can ignore. It is urgent that they get the relevant parties together to try and resolve it before the whole system comes crashing down around their ears.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

What will post-virus Britain look like?

Nobody has a crystal ball of course, but there is an excellent article by Martin Kettle on the Guardian website that is worth reading. He argues that we need to anticipate a change in public mood once the COVID-19 crisis is over. His concluding paragraphs are worth quoting in full:

Everyone in these debates could use a bit of humility and a dose of open-mindedness. That’s true on both sides. It’s true for all of us. The right has been forced to relearn the prime importance of the state as guarantor in a period of emergency. It is having to accept the state’s irreducible responsibility to the most vulnerable. It has also, perhaps, learned that what a health service can achieve reflects the investment that has been made in it, although no health service anywhere has been or could have been fully prepared.

But the left has lessons to learn too. Many of the takeaways from the Covid-19 crisis may seem obvious. But what is true during a crisis is not necessarily true or desirable when the crisis is over. The NHS needs whatever it takes in a crisis, but at other times health service spending is as long as a piece of string and there has to be a cut-off point, if only to allow spending elsewhere. The borrowing that may or may not save the economy from recession in a crisis will also have to be paid for when the crisis is over. People may trust Johnson with powers they would not want Jeremy Corbyn to possess.

We are sailing in the dark towards an unknown future. Britain’s mood after the first world war and the flu pandemic has been described by the historian Richard Overy as “the morbid age”. It was, Overy says, an era of fear and paranoia about a dystopian future. Few put their faith in traditional politics. Britain after the second was very different. “Never again” was its more optimistic motto. No one can say which of these moods, or what other mood, is likely after the Covid-19 pandemic . Instead of insisting that the pandemic confirms everything we thought beforehand, it would be better to start thinking about all the unwelcome changes that the pandemic may bring in the decade to come.

Things may never be the same again.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Confusion and uncertainty haunts the UK Government's response to COVID-19

For a government that only a few months ago had secured a substantial Commons' majority through a clear and focussed campaign featuring message discipline and good communication strategies, the present uncertainty over how to tackle coronavirus is difficult to fathom,

As the Guardian reports, No 10 is facing criticism after a day of widespread confusion over its coronavirus lockdown advice, with a lack of clarity about who is allowed to travel to work, whether couples who live apart can still see each other and what counts as exercise.

As a result, Ministers had to give further guidance on a raft of different scenarios, after people expressed worries about what they were allowed to do and who they could still see:

The biggest confusion occurred over workers still travelling in packed tube trains to non-essential jobs, such as construction, with employees complaining they were being forced to work despite feeling unsafe.

Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, and Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, said construction workers should not be attending their workplaces.

However, the government overruled them, saying employers could still require staff to attend their jobs in person – even though the overarching guidance is for people to “stay at home, where possible”.

Other areas of confusion included:
Meanwhile it is evident on the ground that government support for business has huge holes in it.

Amongst all the grants and business rate relief being put into place, there is no provision for the sole trader operating from home like window cleaners, gardeners, plumbers, electricians etc not all of whom are classed as essential trades. There are large numbers in my ward, many of whom cannot work because of social distancing etc.

If an employee of a small or medium business furloughs their employees then they can claim back 80% of their wages and continue to pay that out. They can also claim a refund on their business rates and other grants.

A sole trader operating from home with just a van and a valued skill, will not be paying business rates, and is not eligible for the grants or the 80% wage. All they can get is universal credit at the level of statutory sick pay. I am told that government recognises this deficit but cannot work out how to address it.

It must be time surely for the government to stop fence-sitting and get these issues sorted.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The UK's social rights failings

A report by the Council of Europe sheds new light on why many of the Brexiteers wanted to leave the EU. As the Guardian reports, that body's annual review of each state’s adherence to its social charter has found that the UK is out of step with social rights in six areas.

They say that the UK’s low age of criminal responsibility, minimum pay rates for young teenagers and the failure to outlaw all forms of corporal punishment breach Council of Europe standards for social rights:

Criticisms in the report – which mainly covers the years 2014-17 – include permitting pain-inducing restraint techniques to be used in young offender institutions, the “inadequate” level of statutory maternity pay after six weeks and that family members of migrant workers are not granted an independent right to remain after exercising their right to “family reunion”.

The Council of Europe, which has 47 member states and is separate from the European Union, said the conclusions of its annual review are legally binding in the same way that judgments relating to the European convention on human rights have to be applied by member states.

The UK government, however, has traditionally shrugged them off on the grounds that they merely have to be “taken into account”. Virtually every country is criticised by the committee for violating regulations in some manner. Only Iceland was deemed to be in a state of total conformity.

On the criminal age of responsibility, the report said that it should be no lower than 14 years. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 10 years old; in Scotland it is 12.

The study noted that the number of children aged between 10 and 17 remanded in custody in England and Wales has fallen by 66% in recent years. However, the report said: “Sentencing children to periods of detention must be a measure of last resort, for the shortest time possible and subject to regular review.”

In terms of corporal punishment, the Council of Europe is critical of England, Wales and Northern Ireland where smacking, defined as “reasonable chastisement” remains legal; it was recently banned in Scotland.

On apprenticeship pay for young teenagers aged 16 and 17, the report said the wage levels have not been fair.

The report also expressed concern that “migrants and women with insecure immigration status” who experience domestic violence and rape “refrain from seeking protection and support services for fear of having their immigration status reported to authorities”.

On child benefit levels, it commented that “the amount of the child benefit has remained the same since the year 2009 and has therefore declined in proportion to the median income, in particular in relation to the second and subsequent children”.

The chances of the UK Government paying any attention to the report must be slim to nil, while the absence of any public clamour to address these issues underlines what a socially conservative society we live in.

The one bright spot lies in the fact that as Wales is about to ban the defence of 'reasonable chastisement' in child assault cases, there will at least be some improvement in our standing next year.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Nature reasserting itself part two

Yesterday's Observer contained a follow-up to the Guardian's report on how Venice is being transformed by the coronavirus lockdown, highlighting social media posts about animals frolicking through deserted cities. Not all the reports are true however:

We must sadly report that many of these optimistic posts have turned out to be fake – there were no dolphins in Venice’s celebrated canals, or drunken elephants ambling through China’s Yunnan province.

But as the coronavirus crisis changes the rhythms of urban life, there are some early signs that animals – especially the creatures that lurk in the periphery of big cities and suburbs – are feeling emboldened to explore.

In Nara, Japan, sika deer wandered through city streets and subway stations. Raccoons were spotted on the beach in an emptied San Felipe, Panama. And turkeys have made a strong showing in Oakland, California, home of one Guardian editor.

“Normally, animals live in the parts of our cities that we don’t use,” said Seth Mangle, who directs the Urban Wildlife Institute at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. “It makes them an unseen presence, kind of like ghosts.”

Gangs of wild turkeys aren’t an uncommon sight in parts of the Bay Area but it seems they’ve got a bit more room to wander through neighborhoods they might not normally visit. Boars have been known to descend upon European cities – but Barcelonans on lockdown have marveled at how the wild animals romp through quiet, deserted streets.

In American cities under shelter in place orders, walks and jogs are one of the few excuses for people to go outside. “It’s going to be a really cool time to spot wildlife,” Mangle said.

In San Felipe, where restaurants and bars have closed and tourist traffic is almost non-existent, Matt Larsen has noticed some new visitors on the beach near his home. “There were three raccoons, just frolicking along right at the edge of the surf,” said Larsen, the director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. “I’ve lived here six years, and it was something I had never seen before.”

The paper quotes Paige Warren, an ecologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who says that quarantines could continue to affect wildlife in unexpected ways: “I’ll be interested in whether creatures like coyotes and foxes start acting more bold in American cities,” she said. At the same time, fewer people in the streets could drive some species away, she said, especially those who subsist on whatever humans feed them – or leave behind in the trash.

That is the case in Nara Park, where the sika deer – which look like Bambi – have grown accustomed to tourists lining up year-round to feed them rice crackers. Now that the park is devoid of human visitors, the deer have begun wandering into the city looking for food. They’ve been spotted crossing city streets and walking through subway stations, snacking on potted plants.

But the narrative that wildlife populations will dramatically rebound and retake cities is fantasy – albeit one that might comfort those looking for meaning amidst the crisis. Instead researchers say that urban foxes and coyotes might venture out of their hiding spots a bit more. Birds might roam, graze and hunt new pastures as they adjust to the quarantine.

“If anything, these times may serve as a reminder that animals have always lived in our area,” Mangle said. “We may not think of our cities as a part of nature, but they are.”

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Has BBC's Question Time run its course?

I have not watched Question Time for a number of years. Frankly, I have too much respect for my blood pressure and the safety of my TV set. The problem as I perceive it is that some time ago the programme's producers abandoned the concept of informed debate and political balance, and chose instead to opt for sensationalism. The constant presence of Nigel Farage was just one symptom of this trend.

Reports I have read indicate that the post-coronavirus edition without an audience was a measurable improvement. Instead of the baying masses, and politicians seeking applause lines, we had panellists who were seriously trying to answer the question. However, that does not address the fundamental problem, that the show no longer understands what its purpose is, and tries to treat politics as entertainment.

When there is an audience, the BBC apparently seek to pack it with controversial people and then pick out the most outrageous parts to promote the show, as if the concept of political balance no longer applied to them. It is little wonder therefore that the Observer reports that the BBC has been asked to clarify if any efforts are made to “deliberately invite or attract” members of far-right groups to the audience of its flagship political programme, Question Time:

Baroness Warsi and Labour MP Debbie Abrahams have written to the BBC’s director general Tony Hall, asking him to consider also introducing a new code of conduct for panelists and the audience, and to stop sharing inflammatory videos from the show on social media.

It follows the BBC’s decision last month to upload on Twitter comments made by one recent audience member who claimed migrants “were flooding in” to the UK and costing public services too much.

Later, the individual was alleged to have stood in a general election for the neo-nazi National Front and be an active a supporter of the far right figurehead, Tommy Robinson, founder of the Islamophobic English Defence League.

Warsi and Abrahams, co-chairs of the new all-party group Compassion in Politics, argue that the BBC has a duty to avoid inflaming hate. Their letter asks how the Question Time audience is sourced and seeks a response to their assertion that far right supporters are invited to appear on the show.

The letter says: “We understand the producers of the show seek out ‘controversial members of the audience – including those of far-right campaign groups – in an attempt to curry large ratings.”

Recently the Question Time presenter, Fiona Bruce, described the “level of toxicity” on the show and admitted she had not anticipated how angry the show’s audiences would be.

Warsi and Abrahams write: “By providing a platform for views that are racist or sexist, the institution is normalising them and contributing to the coarsening of public debate and the growing toxicity of our politics.

“We therefore invite the BBC to let us know what steps it will now be taking to ensure that the recent controversies surrounding Question Time are not repeated.”

These concerns are all valid and deserve a considered answer, not the usual bland reassurances you get when making a complaint to the BBC. But let's go further - isn't Question Time past its useful role? Wouldn't it be better if the BBC just axed it altogether?

Saturday, March 21, 2020

During the crisis, nature reasserts itself

As the coronavirus crisis grows and we become more isolated and self-contained, the impact on town and city centres is becoming more marked. In Italy and Spain, people have been confined to their homes unless they have a very good and specific reason to do otherwise, and as this article in the Guardian explains that is giving nature an opportunity to reboot as well.

The paper says that under Venice’s strict rules of self-confinement to prevent the spread of the coronavirus – all journeys but a trip to walk the dog or buy food are forbidden – the ancient city has been transformed almost overnight:

La Serenissima’s hundreds of canals have been emptied of speeding motorboat taxis, transport and tourist boats. The chugging vaporetti water buses now run on a reduced timetable. Even most of the gondolas are moored.

The clarity of the water has improved dramatically. Swans and cormorants have returned to dive for fish they can now see. At the Piazzale Roma vaporetto stop, ducks have even made a nest. “Someone has put up a sign saying, ‘Don’t tread on the duck eggs,’’” Beggiato said. “All totally unimaginable a while ago.”

As the death toll from coronavirus in Italy outstrips that of China, the government of Giuseppe Conte has tried to keep citizens at home using a mix of social media and police controls.

But locals are still moving about cautiously to do their daily shopping – except now in a city without visitors. It is a remarkable transformation for a city that until recently saw protests against overtourism under the No Grande Navi (“No more cruise ships”) slogan.

At the world-famous and usually overcrowded Rialto market, most of the fish and vegetable stalls are still open, though customers are few and far between. All markets are allowed to serve customers at a minimum one metre distance.

In a queue to buy fish, Franco Fabris, an architect, reminisced: “When I was a kid growing up, there were far less boats in the canals and lots of kids would jump in and go swimming.”

“For the moment I am not going out fishing as all the restaurants I supply have closed, so what is the point?” said Franco Folin, a fisherman. “But when this all over, we may well see more fish returning because for the moment pleasure fishing is prohibited – there will be an awful lot of extra marine life in the lagoon.”

The apparent cleanliness of the water is not in fact due to a lack of pollution, said Davide Tagliapetra, an environmental researcher at the Institute of Marine Science. He told a local TV station that the reason is the absence of motorised transport, which normally churns up the muddy canal floor.

Matteo Bisol runs the vineyard restaurant Venissa on the tiny lagoon island of Mazzorbo, and has been campaigning for a more eco-responsible, sustainable model of tourism in Venice for some time.

“For goodness sake, it is not surprising there are fish in the canals of Venice,” he said. “If there were not, then we should all be worried as the lagoon here is a fragile ecosystem. People need to realise that if we control and cut down boat traffic in Venice and its lagoon then we could all discover a unique biosphere.”

It is an interesting lesson that nature is dishing out to us - that once (if) things get back to normal, we should try to do things in a more environmentally friendly way, and perhaps we will discover a whole new world out there that we will want to co-exist with, rather than trample all-over.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Will the Government get off scot-free over latest scandal?

In many ways the publication of inspector of constabulary Wendy Williams in long-awaited report into the Windrush scandal has come at a fortuitous time for the Home Office and the UK Government - the vast majority of the public and the UK media are so engrossed in tackling the coronavirus crisis that the report's damning conclusions will struggle to gain any traction. Nevertheless it is worth recording Williams' conclusions.

As the Independent reports, the inquiry found that the Home Office demonstrated “institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness” towards the issue of race and that those affected were let down by “systemic operational failings”:

In a damning indictment of the Home Office, inspector of constabulary Wendy Williams, the report’s author, stated that the fiasco, which saw people with a right to live in the UK wrongfully detained or deported to the Caribbean, was “foreseeable and avoidable”.

She said: “Warning signs from inside and outside the Home Office were simply not heeded by officials and ministers. Even when stories of members of the Windrush generation being affected by the immigration control started to emerge in the media from 2017 onwards, the department was slow to react.”

Ms Williams accused successive governments of trying to demonstrate they were being tough on immigration by tightening immigration control and passing laws creating, and then expanding the “hostile environment”, with a “complete disregard” for the Windrush generation.

The report identifies organisational factors in the Home Office which created the operating environment in which the mistakes could be made, including a “culture of disbelief and carelessness” when dealing with immigration applications.

It concludes that the Windrush scandal showed “institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness” on race issues which is “consistent with some elements of the definition of institutional racism”.

As David Lammy MP says, the review is a “brutal indictment” of the Home Office which showed it was “wholly unfit” for the society it is supposed to serve:

“The review shows the Windrush scandal was not an innocent mistake, but a systemic pattern of appalling behaviour rooted in a toxic internal culture and a failure of the department to understand Britain’s colonial history,” he said.

“When the problem is institutional, the only solution is to tear out the ruined foundations and rebuild the institution brick by brick. This is what the Home Office needs.”

Once this current public health crisis is over, we really need to revisit this review properly and insist that corrective action is put into place. To do otherwise risks future governments repeating the unfair and racist treatment of British citizens that should never have happened in the first place.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Profiteering in a crisis

The Guardian reports that private health firms have come under fire for profiting from the coronavirus pandemic by selling thousands of testing kits for up to £295 each – while frontline NHS workers go without.

They say that one chain of private clinics in the Midlands has ramped up the cost of its home delivery coronavirus testing kit from £149 to £249 in just a matter of days – a 67% price increase. Another firm, which normally lets patients book face-to-face GP appointments via an app in London, is selling home tests for £295, boasting laboratory results within 72 hours for what it warns is a “lethal” disease. The firm claims it was in talks with an unnamed NHS body after being approached about providing testing for staff:

It comes amid growing concern that NHS workers are not getting access to tests, with some forced into isolation for two weeks if someone in their household is showing symptoms – meaning they cannot treat patients.

Celebrities, sports stars, the wealthy and businesspeople have talked of testing positive or negative for Covid-19 while members of the public and health professionals with clear symptoms of the virus have been unable to get tests via Public Health England (PHE).

Idris Elba, the star of Luther, posted on Instagram this week that he had tested positive for the virus even though he had not displayed any symptoms. The Arsenal head coach, Mikel Arteta, also tested positive for Covid-19, and the club tested the whole team. A spokesman for the club declined to comment on the suggestion that the team were tested privately.

PHE moved last week to stop testing people for coronavirus if their symptoms were not severe enough to warrant hospital treatment. However, on Wednesday Boris Johnson announced plans to dramatically scale up its operation and to test 25,000 people a day for the disease.

This sort of profiteering from a health crisis is appalling, but it seems that the only way it can be stopped is if the government provides tests for all those who want it, thus undercutting the market. Surely that is something that needs to be actively considered in any case.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Context and proportionality in a time of coronavirus

On 25 July 1911 the then UK Government, in an atmosphere of widespread hysteria, responded to the Agadir Crisis, in which the UK threatened war with Germany, by introducing the Official Secrets Act in the House of Lords.

The act was rushed through Parliament, with little debate or opposition, passing through all of its stages in a single day - 18 August 1911 - and receiving the Royal assent four days later on 22 August.

The act contained extremely wide ranging powers, replacing the earlier Official Secrets Act 1889 that had provided criminal sanctions only for breaches which could be shown to be contrary to the public interest. It was not until 1989 that the act was replaced with a more reasonable and proportionate measure, following a number of controversial court cases.

In 1974 the first Prevention of Terrorism Act was enacted following the IRA bombing campaigns of the early 1970s. The Act was introduced by Roy Jenkins, then Home Secretary, as a severe and emergency reaction to the Birmingham pub bombs.

The conception of the Bill was announced on 25 November, when the Home Secretary warned that: "The powers... are Draconian. In combination they are unprecedented in peacetime." Parliament was supportive and had passed the Bill by 29 November, virtually without amendment or dissent.

The Bill passed through the Commons on 28 and 29 November and passed through Lords on 29 November. In fact, much of the Bill had been drafted in secrecy during the previous year, as shown in the only full length television commentary on the legislation by Clive Walker.

It was rewritten in 1976, 1984 and again in 1989, but continued to stay as emergency 'temporary' powers, that had to be renewed each year. The first three Acts all contained final date clauses beyond the annual renewal, this provision was not included in the 1989 Act.

In 2000, the Acts were replaced with the more permanent Terrorism Act 2000, which contained many of their powers, and then the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. See also Terrorism (Northern Ireland) Act 2006.

It is absolutely right that in a time of crisis Parliament should act to legislate to give the authorities the powers to deal with every contingency. I think the lesson of these two acts however is that such powers need to be proportionate and last only as long as they are needed.

In that context the proposed Coronavirus Bill (whose contents can be seen here) is absolutely the right way forward. However, that bill proposes to remove some safeguards in the context of health and mental health, and to temporarily repeal some advances in the field of social care that need to be reinstated as soon as this crisis is over.

There are also some civil liberties concerns over the powers being proposed to enable the government to restrict or prohibit events and gatherings during the pandemic in any place, vehicle, train, vessel or aircraft, any movable structure and any offshore installation and, where necessary, to close premises;
and to enable the police and immigration officers to detain a person, for a limited period, who is, or may be, infectious and to take them to a suitable place to enable screening and assessment.

In the attempt to contain this virus these powers may well be necessary, but I question why they need to be in place for two years and I would like some reassurances that once the crisis is over they will not continue to exist, even in a watered down form.

Experience shows that in times in crisis, Parliament often legislates in haste and repents at leisure. Let's beat this disease and then get back to normal as soon as possible.

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