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Thursday, April 30, 2020

Farage searches for relevance

Poor Nigel Farage. He no longer has a seat in the European Parliament and none of the news outlets want to talk to him because COVID-19 is dominating the agenda. Brexit has been pushed to the backs of people's minds as we struggle with social distancing, a struggling economy, job insecurity and self-isolation. What is a failed politician to do?

What Farage did do, was to travel more than 100 miles, in defiance of lockdown regulations, to film a video rant about migrants. A claim by his spokesperson, reported in the Mirror, that he was acting as a broadcaster who enjoy key worker status as long as they are providing public service information, is just laughable.

As the paper reports, the former MEP chose to travel from his Kent home to a Pett Level, a south coast beach, while ordinary Brits are being told to stay at home. He later travelled further down the coast to Hastings where he interviewed members of the public. The video was later emailed out to supporters under the title "the media aren't reporting this."

Perhaps they are not reporting it because it is not news. Lockdown rules say members of the public are only allowed to leave home for four reasons - shopping for food and medicine, exercise once a day, medical trips or caring for others and essential work. If Farage was acting as a journalist then he would have to be involved in public service broadcasting to justify this trip. That does not appear to be the case.

Perhaps the police could perform a public service and fine him for breaking the rules.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

A new epidemic

The Guardian reports on concerns by the victims' commissioner that refuges providing sanctuary to victims of domestic violence are running out of space, with many full or effectively closed amid an “epidemic inside this pandemic”:

A “perfect storm” of problems is in danger of overwhelming support services for those trying to escape violent and abusive partners, Dame Vera Baird QC warned members of the House of Commons justice select committee.

She also said on Tuesday there was evidence of a newer trend, of older children – principally teenagers – attacking their parents amid frustration about being unable to go outside.

The former solicitor general reinforced concerns about the rapid rise in domestic violence cases during lockdown. Earlier this month, she warned that domestic abuse killings were up to twice as high as normal since lockdown measures confined millions of people to their homes, although the sample size was small.

“There was always going to be an epidemic [of domestic violence] inside this pandemic,” Baird said. “It should have been flagged up a lot earlier. There have been stories from social services of people not being able to obtain admission to [family] homes [to investigate] because they have been told, inappropriately, they haven’t got personal protective equipment (PPE).

“Ministers are working very hard but they are all working in their own silos. It’s imperative that there be more accommodation made available for victims of domestic violence. Refuges are full, others are in lockdown because of coronavirus [so can’t take in new victims].”

There were 72 refuge vacancies in England on 3 April, compared to 170 on the same day last year. The Women’s Aid Annual Survey 2017, carried out on a single day, found there were 3,557 women with 3,919 children and young people staying in refuges across all services in England.

Although this issue is largely devolved, a survey published by Women’s Aid on Tuesday found that over two-thirds of survivors contacted this month said that domestic abuse was escalating under lockdown; 72% said their abuser has more control over their life since Covid-19. Over three-quarters (78%) of victims, the survey found, reported that Covid-19 has made it harder for them to leave their abuser.

This is  a problem that all the national governments need to address as a matter of urgency. More resources need to be allocated to domestic abuse helplines, counselling and support and refuges to meet the surge in need generated by these unique circumstances.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Out-of-control spin on PPE

Most people expect politicians to try to spin their way out of a difficult situation, however, when people's lives are at risk then surely it is reasonable to want a higher level of honesty and some humility about any mistakes that have been made.

That is certainly the expectation most of us have with the ongoing saga over the shortages of personal protective equipment for health and social care staff. It is only now that some of the failings around this issue are starting to emerge, and at the very least an apology is called for, alongside a public inquiry once all this is over to make sure that we don't make the same mistakes again.

The BBC report that an investigation by BBC Panorama found that vital items were left out of the stockpile of PPE when it was set up in 2009 and that the government subsequently ignored a warning from its own advisers to buy missing equipment:

The expert committee that advises the government on pandemics, the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), recommended the purchase of gowns last June.

Gowns are currently one of the items in shortest supply in the UK and they are now difficult to source because of the global shortage of PPE.

Doctors and nurses have complained that there are also shortages of the life-saving FFP3 respirator masks.

Panorama has discovered that millions of FFP3 respirator masks are unaccounted for.

There were 33 million on the original 2009 procurement list for the stockpile, but only 12 million have been handed out.

The government refuses to explain where the other masks have gone.

The BBC adds that Panorama has spoken to a number of NHS insiders about PPE who wish to remain anonymous.

"There is a complete lack of transparency from the government. They are creating panic, as we don't know if they can supply us so we are scrambling to get it elsewhere," a head of procurement told the programme.

The government also failed to stockpile visors, the swabs needed for testing and the body bags needed for the dead.

Professor John Ashton, a public health expert and long-standing critic of the government, told the programme the lack of preparation was breathtaking.

"The consequence of not planning; not ordering kit; not having stockpiles is that we are sending into the front line doctors, nurses, other health workers and social care workers without the equipment to keep them safe," he said.

The government's priority now must be to put this right. However, once this is all over there needs to be answers as to why recommendations were not followed and why we were so unprepared for this pandemic.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Time to recognise the contribution of immigrants to the NHS and our economy

Has the COVID-19 crisis managed to change the UK government's attitude to immigration? Well, according to the Independent, the Home Secretary has told the media that the immigration health surcharge fees paid by foreign healthcare workers – despite working in the NHS themselves – are being reviewed.

She said that she had bowed to pressure to look again at the fees, in the light of the “extraordinary contribution” made by medical staff from overseas during the coronavirus pandemic.

Until now, ministers had held firm that the surcharge – due to soar from £400 a year to £624 this October – is a fair way for all migrants to contribute to the likely cost of their NHS care.

Because it is also paid by spouses and children, the total cost can reach a crippling £8,000 for a family of four on a five-year work permit, or with limited leave to remain in the UK. Even with this review, the issue has not gone away however:

The health surcharge was hugely controversial, even before the current crisis. There is no right of deferral, or ability to pay annually. Instead, it has to be paid in advance for the entire duration of an applicant’s visa or residency permit.

Meanwhile, nurses and junior doctors in training have starting salaries of between £18,000 and £23,000.

They are already paying tax and national insurance, like British nationals, and are therefore being “charged twice” for NHS treatment, campaigners have protested.

Nevertheless, only last month, when he announced his Budget, chancellor Rishi Sunak said it was necessary to ensure that “what people get out, they also put in”.

Once the UK leaves the Brexit transition period – at the end of the year – the government insists it will be paid by all EU citizens, as well as those from the rest of the world.

Around one in every seven NHS workers is foreign-born – a dependence that has attracted growing attention as they have been on the frontline of the fight against coronavirus.

All the indications are that the government are happy to press on with this surcharge in addition to the measures they are also introducing towards delivering a hostile climate to immigrants, despite the huge contribution overseas workers make to the economy and the health service.

The government's intransigence could well cripple the economy once this crisis is over.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Desperate spin as a diversion tactic

It is possible to tell when a government is in trouble during a crisis, when they field a minister at their daily press conference to spin a spurious good news story.

We have officially just passed 20,000 deaths from Coronavirus, the chances are that this is an underestimate, and yet the Home Secretary decides that now is the time to stand up in front of the media and boast that the level of shoplifting has fallen compared to the year before.

Well, yes, that is because you have quite rightly closed most of the shops.

As the New European reports, in her second appearance in front of cameras at Downing Street since the coronavirus outbreak hit, Priti Patel said there had been a fall in overall crime during the outbreak, with “car crime, burglary, shoplifting” lower than the same period last year.

As Twitter user @geraintgriffith commented: “Next up: deaths from the Bubonic Plague are on the wane and dinosaur attacks have dwindled.”

Radio broadcaster James O’Brien wrote: “I’m sooo bored of having to choose weapons grade stupidity or dead cats designed to get us talking about something other than the government’s incompetence. On this occasion, I lean toward the latter.”

Saturday, April 25, 2020

The cost of restoration

With Parliament now meeting virtually now is surely the time to proceed with the much-needed restoration of these historic and iconic buildings. However, as ever MPs cannot agree amongst themselves and nobody in government seems keen to push the project forward, apparently content to see the buildings fall down around them, while projected costs continue to soar out of control.

The Guardian reports that National Audit Office (NAO) has called on the group tasked with the Palace of Westminster’s multi-billion-pound overhaul to take a firm grip on the process after the budget for Big Ben’s construction works alone rose by 176%:

In a report released on Friday, sponsor board members, who took control of the repair programme this month, have been urged to come up with a clear plan so they are not thrown off by competing interests, especially among MPs.

Auditors have also disclosed that an estimated £149.6m to develop the business case in 2020-21 was rejected by the palace’s authorities partly because of concerns about the impact of the pandemic. Formally appointed on 8 April, the board is due to submit a business case, which will include a budget range and full details of the work involved, by 2022.

Before parliament voted in 2018 to approve the renewal works, which will entail decanting the whole building for at least six years, MPs had pushed rival plans that would have seen only a partial vacating required, forcing builders to work around the Commons schedule.

Alternative ideas have been raised again since the coronavirus outbreak. The former public accounts committee chair Sir Edward Leigh said “saving public money” should be the primary concern and last month called on the sponsor board to consider temporarily moving MPs to the House of Lords, rather than leave the premises entirely.

Under the agreed plans, MPs are expected to move to Richmond House, the former home of the Department of Health, while the Palace of Westminster – with a floorplate the size of 16 football pitches and containing 1,100 rooms, 100 staircases and three miles of passageways – is being restored.

Auditors said the £4bn cost previously reported was likely to be a “median” figure, with the final outlay on the Unesco world heritage site expected to be higher. Some estimates put the final bill as high as £6bn.

This is a huge amount of money to spend when key services and the economy are under pressure, but at the same time it is just a fraction of the projected £205 billion cost of renewing the Trident missile system, which we are apparently still going to do.

Perhaps preserving our heritage, although still not as important as funding health, education and social care, should take precedence over weapons of mass destruction.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Voter ID disenfranchises the poor

In a sure sign that life is going on despite COVID-19, the Court of Appeal has been meeting remotely to hear evidence from those challenging government plans to make us take ID to the polling booth.

The Guardian reports that Neil Coughlan, a community activist from Braintree in Essex, argued to Lord Justice Underhill, Lord Justice Mccombe and Lord Justice Green that voter fraud is extremely rare and the electoral trials are unlawful.

He argued, quite reasonably, that pilot schemes requiring voters to produce photo ID at polling stations disenfranchised those who do not have or cannot find their documents and alienate people from the democratic process and that many people did not have the type of photo ID required at a few polling stations in last May’s local elections:

Anthony Peto QC, appearing for Coughlan, said the scheme was “a major constitutional change in the exercise of a fundamental democratic right”.

He said Coughlan lives in a part of Essex that “he describes as run-down and neglected”. Peto added: “He feels that this [scheme] will serve to disenfranchise the poor who already feel [ignored] and where many people do not have photo IDs.”

There was little evidence of voter fraud and personation taking place in the UK outside of Northern Ireland, the court was told. A survey last year found that more than 99% of polling station officials said they had no suspicions of anyone impersonating someone else in order to steal their vote.

Peto said ministerial orders under which the pilot schemes were given the go-ahead were not made legitimately under the Representation of the People Act 2000.

Section 10 of the act gives a minister power to introduce pilots “as regards when, where and how voting at elections is to take place”, the court was told.

“By empowering the minister to make changes ‘as regards how voting is to take place’,” the court was told, “parliament cannot have intended to empower ministers effectively to disenfranchise a section of legitimate voters who would be unable to find and produce specified documents or who would be unable to satisfy local officials on the spot as to their entitlement to vote”.

Coughlan is appealing against the high court’s rejection of his claim. Lawyers for the Cabinet Office told the appeal court judges that the purpose of the electoral trials was to discover what problems might arise and that they were lawful.

This court case will be worth following.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

What is the truth behind the EU PPE scheme fiasco?

The Guardian reports that Ministers are being pressed to reveal the full details of how the government missed out on four opportunities to join an EU medical supplies consortium, in the wake of a U-turn by the top civil servant in the Foreign Office over comments suggesting it was a “political decision”.

A number of MPs believe that the government is covering-up how it came to miss out on four rounds of procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators and laboratory supplies launched by the EU in late February and March.

They say that UK officials failed to take up an invitation to join the steering committee of participating countries that issues orders for medical equipment until 19 March – after the bulk purchases had been made:

[Labour MP, Chris] Bryant said he feared either Foreign Office ministers or the prime minister decided not to be associated with any EU scheme for political reasons “even though it was patently in the interests of the NHS and its staff to explore every possible avenue to acquire masks, gowns and ventilator equipment, as fast and most effectively as possible”.

His intervention came a day after the Foreign Office’s permanent secretary, Sir Simon McDonald, told MPs that ministers had indeed taken a political decision not to join the scheme.

Sir Simon McDonald gives evidence by video link to the foreign affairs select committee. Photograph: House of Commons/PA After his claims, made to the foreign affairs committee on Tuesday, were later denied by the health secretary, Matt Hancock, McDonald wrote to the committee that night saying his original statement of a political motive was wrong and “owing to an initial communication problem the UK did not receive an invitation in time to join”.

However, Bryant, in a view shared by some fellow committee members, senses that in his letter McDonald was limiting his retraction to the advice given to ministers about the EU ventilator scheme, but not to other EU medical product purchase schemes.

Bryant has written to the committee chair, Tom Tugendhat, asking him to seek from the Foreign Office details of British representation at EU meetings held on 31 January, 4 February, 2 March and 13 March “at which EU-wide health security issues arising from coronavirus were discussed and the bulk procurement of masks, gowns, ventilators and other laboratory equipment were discussed”.

He is also asking to see the briefing notes after these meetings, and the list of recipients in Whitehall to which any such notes were circulated.

Bryant contends that McDonald was being asked by the committee about four rounds of EU procurement schemes launched in February and March, but in his letter to the committee correcting what he told the MPs McDonald appeared only to be referring to the EU ventilator scheme. Bryant then demands to know whether ministers were briefed about the other schemes.

Claims by UK officials and ministers that the government only failed to take part in the schemes because of a communication problem linked to missed emails, appear to have been contradicted by a commission spokesman who said UK representatives had been briefed on the EU plans throughout February and March when they could have signed up for the huge purchases of ventilators, laboratory supplies and PPE.

Let us hope that the committee get to the truth.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Not now, Adam

Over to the Llanelli Star, which seems to be the only Welsh paper whose on-line edition is up-to-date, where the Plaid Cymru leader is calling for 'an immediate no stone unturned Judge-led Welsh inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic response in Wales.'

Adam Price envisages this judicial inquiry running in parallel with a UK judge-led inquiry, with its initial findings being ready by the end of summer. He says that learning lessons to better inform future responses and improve decision-making is more important than apportioning blame.

He is absolutely right of course, such an inquiry is essential, but really, starting it now while Ministers are still wrestling with issues over PPE, ventilators and emergency hospitals? Does he really want to distract everybody from fighting a virus that may still not have peaked, that could return for a second wave and which we still do not have a vaccine for?

Perhaps, the Plaid Cymru leader has too much time on his hands. Maybe, he should concentrate on more constructive scrutiny on specific issues, on working with the Welsh Government in tackling this pandemic and looking after his own community, instead of chasing headlines.

Yes, let's have an inquiry, but let us have it when we have put this crisis behind us, not when we need all our attention to be focussed on saving lives.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Democracy in secret

There is something ironic about an unelected chamber of the UK Parliament debating the issues of the day in secret, almost as if they know they are unaccountable and just want to rub it in. That though is the intention of the House of Lords as they reconvene after the Easter recess.

The Independent reports that Lords authorities have announced that virtual sittings of the second chamber, brought in to help with social distancing, will not initially be broadcast to the public, despite there being no technical limitations to doing so:

On Tuesday both houses will return from an extended recess to discuss the Covid-19 pandemic, but voters will only be able to see what is happening live in the Commons, while the Lords will publish written transcripts later.

Darren Hughes, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society told The Independent: “Voters across the world expect to see the legislators they are paying: it’s a core part of democratic transparency. This seems to be another sign of the Lords failing to meet the democratic standards voters expect.

“The Commons has shown that broadcasting the mostly-virtual hearings is possible from Day one. It’s vital for democracy not to simply be done, but be seen to be done. Unfortunately, any kind of democracy is lacking in Britain’s out-dated second chamber. The Lords authorities must get to grips with this rapidly.”

Despite this some peers are lobbying the House of Lords to still pay them their £323 a day "attendance allowance" even if they only attend virtually. House authorities say only peers attending the palace in person will be able to claim.

The time to abolish this anachronism and to replace it with a properly elected second chamber of the regions and nations, must surely have passed some time ago.

Monday, April 20, 2020

More COVID-19 scams

Following on from Saturday's post about scammers seeking to exploit the lockdown, the Guardian reports that the cybersecurity firm Mimecast has identified around 700 suspicious scam websites impersonating the world’s most-popular streaming service that appeared between 6 April and Easter. Netflix has also been a target of these fake sites:

The newer Disney+, which started its international rollout in earnest last month launching in western Europe’s main markets including the UK, was mimicked by four new websites in the same one-week period.

Some of the counterfeit sites can look extremely convincing, selling subscriptions or free accounts to harvest personal and credit card data, although most are poorly designed and have language errors that mark them out as suspicious.

“We have seen a dramatic rise in suspicious domains impersonating a variety of streaming giants for nefarious purposes,” said Carl Wearn, the head of e-crime at Mimecast.

“These spoof websites often lure unsuspecting members of the public in with an offer of free subscriptions to steal valuable data. The data harvested includes names, addresses and other personal information, as well as stealing credit card details for financial gain.”

Government lockdowns to curb the spread of coronavirus have proved to be a boon for TV – UK broadcasters recorded a 29% increase in viewing over Easter compared with last year – and subscription services.

Disney+, whose content offering includes the hit $100m Star Wars live-action series The Mandalorian, almost doubled global subscriber numbers to 50 million between February, when the virus took hold, and early April.

Netflix, which has more than 160 million subscribers globally, has seen its market value surge to a record $192bn during the lockdown – more than that of Disney, the world’s biggest entertainment company.

The paper adds that cybercriminals are also impersonating official bodies such as HMRC and the World Health Organization in scam text messages and emails in an attempt to exploit the coronavirus outbreak.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Boris Johnson: The lost five weeks

Just how prepared was the UK for the COVID-19 pandemic, and how many lives have been lost because of governmental complacency?

Today's Sunday Times contains a devastating article, which alleges that Boris Johnson skipped five Cobra meetings on the virus, that calls to order protective gear were ignored and scientists’ warnings fell on deaf ears. They add that failings in February may have cost thousands of lives:

One day there will be an inquiry into the lack of preparations during those “lost” five weeks from January 24. There will be questions about when politicians understood the severity of the threat, what the scientists told them and why so little was done to equip the National Health Service for the coming crisis. It will be the politicians who will face the most intense scrutiny.

Among the key points likely to be explored are why it took so long to recognise an urgent need for a massive boost in supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers; ventilators to treat acute respiratory symptoms; and tests to detect the infection.

Any inquiry may also ask whether the government’s failure to get to grips with the scale of the crisis in those early days had the knock-on effect of the national lockdown being introduced days or even weeks too late, causing many thousands more unnecessary deaths.

We have talked to scientists, academics, doctors, emergency planners, public officials and politicians about the root of the crisis and whether the government should have known sooner and acted more swiftly to kick-start the Whitehall machine and put the NHS onto a war footing.

They told us that, contrary to the official line, Britain was in a poor state of readiness for a pandemic. Emergency stockpiles of PPE had severely dwindled and gone out of date after becoming a low priority in the years of austerity cuts. The training to prepare key workers for a pandemic had been put on hold for two years while contingency planning was diverted to deal with a possible no-deal Brexit.

This made it doubly important that the government hit the ground running in late January and early February. Scientists said the threat from the coming storm was clear. Indeed, one of the government’s key advisory committees was given a dire warning a month earlier than has previously been admitted about the prospect of having to deal with mass casualties.

It was a message repeated throughout February, but the warnings appear to have fallen on deaf ears. The need, for example, to boost emergency supplies of protective masks and gowns for health workers was pressing, but little progress was made in obtaining the items from manufacturers, mainly in China.

Instead, the government sent supplies the other way — shipping 279,000 items of its depleted stockpile of protective equipment to China during this period in response to a request for help from the authorities there.

And where was the Prime Minister in all of this? The paper says that, following worrying developments, on Wednesday, January 22, the government convened the first meeting of its scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage) to discuss the virus. Its membership is secret but it is usually chaired by the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, and chief medical adviser, Professor Chris Whitty. Downing Street advisers are also present:

One of those present was Imperial’s Ferguson, who was already working on his own estimate — putting infectivity at 2.6 and possibly as high as 3.5 — which he sent to ministers and officials in a report on the day of the Cobra meeting on January 24. The Spanish flu had an estimated infectivity rate of between 2.0 and 3.0, whereas for most flu outbreaks it is about 1.3, so Ferguson’s finding was shocking.

The professor’s other bombshell in the report was that there needed to be a 60% cut in the transmission rate — which meant stopping contact between people. In layman’s terms it meant a lockdown, a move that would paralyse an economy already facing a battering from Brexit. At the time such a suggestion was unthinkable in the government and belonged to the world of post-apocalypse movies.

The growing alarm among scientists appears not to have been heard or heeded by policy-makers. After the January 25 Cobra meeting, the chorus of reassurance was not just from Hancock and the prime minister’s spokesman: Whitty was confident too.

They add that a Lancet report that day presented a study of 41 coronavirus patients admitted to hospital in Wuhan, which found that more than half had severe breathing problems, a third required intensive care and six had died:

And there was now little doubt that the UK would be hit by the virus. A study by Southampton University has shown that 190,000 people flew into the UK from Wuhan and other high-risk Chinese cities between January and March. The researchers estimated that up to 1,900 of these passengers would have been infected with the coronavirus — almost guaranteeing the UK would become a centre of the subsequent pandemic.

The big problem of course was that while a disastrous pandemic loomed over the UK, the entire government machinery was focussed on implementing Brexit.

The Sunday Times says that in the year leading up to the coronavirus outbreak key government committee meetings on pandemic planning were repeatedly “bumped” off the diary to make way for discussions about more pressing issues such as the beds crisis in the NHS. Training for NHS staff with protective equipment and respirators was also neglected, the source alleges.

As a result the considerable capacity of Britain’s private laboratories to mass-produce tests was not harnessed during those crucial weeks of February. There was also a failure to replenish supplies of gowns and masks for health and care workers in the early weeks of February — despite NHS England declaring the virus its first “level 4 critical incident” at the end of January.

Many of the “just in case” PPE stockpiles had dwindled, and equipment was out of date. As not enough money was being spent on replenishing stockpiles, this shortfall was supposed to be filled by activating “just in time” contracts, which had been arranged with equipment suppliers in recent years to deal with an emergency. The first order for equipment under the “just in time” protocol was made on January 30.

However, the paper's source says that attempts to call in these “just in time” contracts immediately ran into difficulties in February because they were mostly with Chinese manufacturers, which were facing unprecedented demand from the country’s own health service and elsewhere:

The NHS could have contacted UK-based suppliers. The British Healthcare Trades Association (BHTA) was ready to help supply PPE in February — and throughout March — but it was only on April 1 that its offer of help was accepted. Dr Simon Festing, the organisation’s chief executive, said: “Orders undoubtedly went overseas instead of to the NHS because of the missed opportunities in the procurement process.”

Downing Street admitted on February 24 — just five days before NHS chiefs warned a lack of PPE left the health service facing a “nightmare” — that the UK government had supplied 1,800 pairs of goggles and 43,000 disposable gloves, 194,000 sanitising wipes, 37,500 medical gowns and 2,500 face masks to China.

A senior Department of Health insider described the sense of drift witnessed during those crucial weeks in February: “We missed the boat on testing and PPE . . . I remember being called into some of the meetings about this in February and thinking, ‘Well, it’s a good thing this isn’t the big one.’

“I had watched Wuhan but I assumed we must have not been worried because we did nothing. We just watched. A pandemic was always at the top of our national risk register — always — but when it came we just slowly watched. We could have been Germany, but instead we were doomed by our incompetence, our hubris and our austerity.”

The lack of leadership at the head of government however, was also a determining factor. This is the most quoted part of today's article:

Towards the end of the second week of February, the prime minister was demob happy. After sacking five cabinet ministers and saying everyone “should be confident and calm” about Britain’s response to the virus, Johnson vacated Downing Street after the half-term recess began on February 13.

He headed to the country for a “working” holiday at Chevening with Symonds and would be out of the public eye for 12 days. His aides were thankful for the rest, as they had been working flat-out since the summer as the Brexit power struggle had played out.

The Sunday newspapers that weekend would not have made comfortable reading. The Sunday Times reported on a briefing from a risk specialist that said Public Health England would be overrun during a pandemic as it could test only 1,000 people a day.

Johnson may well have been distracted by matters in his personal life during his stay in the countryside. Aides were told to keep their briefing papers short and cut the number of memos in his red box if they wanted them to be read.

His family needed to be prepared for the announcement that Symonds, who turned 32 in March, was pregnant and that they had been secretly engaged for some time. Relations with his children had been fraught since his separation from his estranged wife Marina Wheeler and the rift had deepened when she received a cancer diagnosis last year.

The divorce also had to be finalised. Midway through the break it was announced in the High Court that the couple had reached a settlement, leaving Wheeler free to apply for divorce.

There were murmurings of frustration from some ministers and their aides at the time that Johnson was not taking more of a lead. But Johnson’s aides are understood to have felt relaxed: he was getting updates and they claim the scientists were saying everything was under control.

By the time Johnson departed for the countryside, however, there was mounting unease among scientists about the exceptional nature of the threat. Sir Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease specialist who is a key government adviser, made this clear in a recent BBC interview.

“I think from the early days in February, if not in late January, it was obvious this infection was going to be very serious and it was going to affect more than just the region of Asia,” he said. “I think it was very clear that this was going to be an unprecedented event.”

It was not until March 2nd, five weeks after the first Cobra meeting on the virus, that Boris Johnson took the chair and a full “battle plan” was finally signed off to contain, delay and mitigate the spread of the virus. But there was a further delay that month of nine days in introducing the lockdown as Johnson and his senior advisers debated what measures were required.

The paper says that as the number of infections grew daily, some things were impossible to retrieve. There was a worldwide shortage of PPE, and the prime minister would have to personally ring manufacturers of ventilators and testing kits in a desperate effort to boost supplies.

The result was that the NHS and care home workers would be left without proper protection and insufficient numbers of tests to find out whether they had been infected. To date 50 doctors, nurses and NHS workers have died. More than 100,000 people have been confirmed as infected in Britain and 15,000 have died.

Once this is over there will have to be an inquiry, but surely a central question for that inquest to answer is how many lives were needlessly lost as a result of the UK Government's lack of preparedness, and could those missing five weeks have made a difference in the way we responded to the pandemic?

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Coronavirus and the scams

With the vast majority locked down at home and surviving on line, it was inevitable that a number of unscrupulous individuals would seek to exploit that and, as the Independent reports, this is happening in spades.

The paper says that Google is being forced to block 18 million of the messages per day, as cyber criminals attempt to use the outbreak to lure people into fraud and other attacks:

The messages may come from people posing as authorities looking to spread useful advice, for instance. Or they look to take advantage of people working and studying from home by appearing as if they are from a person's office.

In fact, however, they are from malicious internet users who are attempting to defraud people by exploiting the panic around the disease.

Google said that "bad actors are creating new attacks and scams every day that attempt to take advantage of the fear and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic". The attackers are using "fear and financial incentives" to try and make people respond, the company said.

"During the last week, we saw 18 million daily malware and phishing emails related to COVID-19," the company said in a new update. "This is in addition to more than 240 million COVID-related daily spam messages."

Its blocking systems are being updated to ward off such messages and still 99.9 per cent of them are being picked up before they arrive in users' inboxes, Google said.

Google gave a variety of examples of such attacks, and warned people that they should not respond to any such communications. If Google spots such a scam message, it will show a large red warning saying the same thing at the top of the message. 

Many of the messages claim to be from the World health Organisation, using that identity to ask for donations or to distribute malicious computer files. The messages may start with a genuine-looking message of concern about the pandemic, but go on to ask for donations to be sent in bitcoin to a specific address, for instance.

Others pose as office payroll departments and ask for details that claim to be helping the recipient get paid, but in fact use that information to steal money from the person getting the message. Or they may pose as the government, using the recent US stimulus checks to promise the same.

So beware, don't click on any attached files from dubious sources, don't believe anything you are told online without checking first, and never give bank details to anybody.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Flagging up the new normal

Those of us who are still adjusting to the stresses and strains of the lockdown may be gratified to know that there are many positives, so much so that the vast majority of Britons want to the brave new world the other side of this pandemic to be very different from what went before.

The Independent reports that a new poll has found that only nine per cent of Britons want to return to life as normal after the end of the lockdown triggered by coronavirus pandemic. The paper says that many have seen benefits from the way they are being forced to live now.

The survey - commissioned by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC) and the Food Foundation charity -suggests an overwhelming majority hope to see some personal and social changes continue following the pandemic, with less than one in 10 wanting a full return to how things were before:

Fifty-one per cent of respondents said they had noticed cleaner air, and 27 per cent said they had recognised more wildlife since the lockdown began.

Forty per cent said they felt a stronger sense of community in their local area since the virus shut down daily life, while 39 per cent said they had been more in touch with friends and family.

Some 42 per cent of the 4,343 adults surveyed said they now valued food more - with one in ten sharing with a neighbour for the first time.

But while 9 per cent said they felt fitter and 27 per cent were getting more exercise, more than 36 per cent said their physical activity had been curtailed.

The issue with physical activity is of course a worrying one, as it may lead to a less healthy population. The secret must be to take the best of the lockdown and mix it with what we were doing right beforehand.

Nevertheless, my prediction is that within weeks of this pandemic being over, we will be back to where we started. Isn't that always the way with New Year resolutions?

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Badging the UK Government

I think it is fair to say that the announcement by the English Health Secretary that he is to 'rebrand' the caring profession by providing a lapel pin with the word “CARE” on it has been met with incredulity by much of the British public.

As the Independent reports, Hancock claimed that: “This badge will be a badge of honour in a very real sense, allowing social care staff proudly and publicly to identify themselves, just like NHS staff do with that famous blue and white logo. I know that many businesses will want to offer the same recognition and benefits as they do wonderfully to the NHS.”

As Rehana Azam, national officer of the GMB union, says care workers “need more than a badge and a pat on their head to define their precious role in society”. Surely the priority for government should be protective equipment, testing, good working conditions and comparable rates of pay with the health sector.

Important as recognition is for all care workers, it is best delivered through meaningful measures such as those outlined above, rather than throwaway gestures.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

How not to handle a pandemic

One could be forgiven for thinking that if the giant 111 feet asteroid approaching Earth at 22,500 miles an hour was not going to skim past us, but instead plunge into the Siberian wilderness, causing an Extinction Level Event, Donald Trump's first reaction would be to blame NASA for not stopping it and cut off all their funding.

President Harry S. Truman, kept a sign on his desk in the Oval Office with the phrase 'The buck stops here'.  That is a concept that appears to be alien to the existing US President. Instead, he uses his press conferences for grandstanding, refusing to answer reasonable questions about his actions, many of which amount to constructive scrutiny that could well improve his administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and then seeks out useful scapegoats that enable him to play to the inward-looking vision of much of his base vote.

The latest faux pas from Trump was last night's announcement that the United States is suspending funding to the World Health Organisation, while the his administration reviews what he described as the group’s “disastrous” role in “covering up” the outbreak of the coronavirus in China:

“The reality is the WHO failed to obtain, vet and share information in a timely fashion,” Mr Trump said. “The WHO failed in its basic duty and must be held accountable.”

The US president, who has been accused ignoring warnings from his own intelligence agencies of the virus’s severity as well as failing to act in a timely manner, said “delays the WHO experienced in declaring a public health emergency cost valuable time, tremendous amounts of time”.

Mr Trump accused the WHO of “opposing travel bans” and repeating Chinese government “propaganda” that the virus could not be transferred from person to person.

The US leader issues a mild threat to withdraw from the organisation, saying, “we’ll have no choice but to do that”, unless the group changes its actions. The US is the largest financial contributor to the WHO; China is second.

His administration plans to redirect funding meant for the WHO to work with countries on health issues “in other ways”. As usual, he did not describe what those “other” avenues might be.

He repeated his misleading statement that Washington sends the WHO “$400m to $500m” each year. Budget documents show it is closer to just over $100m (£78m) annually. There was no immediate response from the organisation.

There may well be issues with the WHO that need exploring, but the middle of an international health crisis is not the time to be doing it. There will be opportunities afterwards for post-mortems, and recrimination if that is needed, but surely any responsible leader should be looking to bring the international community together and work with responsible bodies, not dismantle the whole apparatus to suit their own agenda.

What Trump has done is to side line the United States on crucial decisions and to give more influence and power to the Chinese, who he is blaming for this pandemic, talk about an own-goal.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Ideology must not get in the way of safety

On the same day that the Doctors Association UK has warned that supplies of protective gowns used to safely treat coronavirus patients have become so depleted that they are no longer available to many doctors in high-risk roles, the Guardian reports that Britain missed three opportunities to be part of an EU scheme to bulk-buy masks, gowns and gloves and has been absent from key talks about future purchases.

The paper says that European doctors and nurses are preparing to receive the first of €1.5bn (£1.3bn) worth of personal protective equipment (PPE) within days or a maximum of two weeks through a joint procurement scheme involving 25 countries and eight companies, according to internal EU documents:

The EU’s swift work has led to offers of medical equipment, including masks, overalls and goggles, in excess of the number requested, a spokesman for the European commission said. The EU is separately establishing stockpiles within member states, with the first being set up in Romania.

The development comes as anger grows over PPE shortages in Britain, with particular concerns at the weekend over stocks of full-sleeve gowns running out. The gowns are designed to resist droplets which can spread coronavirus and were shown to be highly effective at protecting medics in Italy.

A survey by the Doctors’ Association UK found that only 52% of clinicians carrying out the highest-risk procedures said they had access to the correct full-sleeve gowns, while the Guardian understands that a consignment of at least 100,000 gowns from China had to be rejected when it was found to be substandard. Other consignments thought to be gowns had been mislabelled and were other equipment.

The paper adds that The UK government has previously said it was unable to join the EU’s procurement schemes as it had not received an email of invitation:

As a result, the government missed out on mass procurement of medical ventilators, and has called on UK manufacturers to build tens of thousands more. But it has also not been involved in two rounds of bulk purchasing of PPE, which were launched by the EU on 28 February and 17 March.

The EU’s procurement of 28 February initially failed due to a lack of interest from suppliers but was relaunched on 15 March, providing additional time for the UK to get involved if it had chosen to do so. It is understood that officials in Whitehall only realised after those three rounds had been put out to tender that they had not received invitations to join the Joint Procurement Agreement steering committee where the orders are organised.

The UK only took part in its first meeting on joint procurement on 19 March after informing the commission that emails of invitation were being sent to an outdated address, the Guardian has learned. Despite that belated show of interest, British officials did not attend a separate meeting of health officials on 25 March where participants were invited to spell out their requirements for future purchases to the commission by the next day.

The UK is also not involved in joint procurement of laboratory equipment. The EU is also planning joint procurement of therapies for coronavirus, but the UK is yet to state its position on its involvement.

It is not entirely clear why the UK is missing out on these bulk purchases, whether it is incompetence or ideology. Let's hope that it is the former and that they can put things right quickly.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Are the banks hindering aid process for businesses?

We have seen this scenario before: big banks having been bailed out by the government, then failing to live up to expectations to support businesses through a downturn.

Of course they deny it, and certainly, while I was an Assembly Member during the post-2008 crash, I was told by one bank that they were doing all they could to help companies struggling with liquidity problems. The reality was very different, as evidenced by cases I took up on behalf of some of the businesses in my region.

Now, here we are again. The Government has set up a scheme to help small and medium-sized businesses with loans and other financing of up to £5m each, and yet it has emerged that just 4,200, or 1.4%, of the estimated 300,000 firms that sought help online have received rescue loans.

The Guardian reports that tens of thousands of firms are understood to have made formal applications, but amid accusations of excessive bureaucracy and a reluctance among lenders to make loans, only a fraction have been given the go-ahead. We even got to the stage, on 3rd April, when Alok Sharma, the business secretary has had to ban banks from asking for personal guarantees from small businesses seeking help.

On Wednesday the British Chambers of Commerce said only 1% of firms responding to its survey had managed to secure a loan under the scheme, while 7% had received one of the grants offered to small businesses by the Treasury. It is little wonder that thousands of companies are on the verge of collapse.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Effective modelling and good political judgement needed

Throughout this crisis all the governments have insisted that they are following the best scientific advice in the decisions they are making, however as David McCoy, a professor of Global Public Health and director of the Centre for Public Health at Queen Mary University of London, points out in this excellent article, technical evidence can only take us so far.

He says that there is a non-scientific element to decision-making which involves choosing between competing demands and needs in society, determining what is ethical and moral, and balancing challenges that are current and immediate with those that will only emerge in the future. For example, a model that incorporates value judgments is needed to balance the direct, visible and dramatic harms of Covid-19 with the more indirect, chronic and hidden social and economic harms of lockdown.

He illustrates this by pointing out that countries that lived through the experience of Sars and Mers appear to have been better prepared to deal with Covid-19 than those that didn’t. And in Canada, the success of British Columbia in controlling Covid-19 compared with other provinces has been partly attributable to the combined ingredients of political experience and good judgment.

He alludes to Professor Neil Ferguson who has been described as being “more influential right now than any politician”. Ferguson leads a team of modellers at Imperial College London whose mission has been to predict the pattern and health impact of coronavirus transmission in the UK under different scenarios, and thereby help government make the right decisions about how best to protect the population.

Andrew Marr described Ferguson as being the most influential person in the country, and while that may have ben rhetorical, McCoy argues that it hints at the perception that epidemiological modelling has played a disproportionately influential role in shaping the UK’s strategy and plans. The rest of his article and the conclusions therein are worth quoting in full:

Others have pointed out that some of the earlier modelling work had gaps that have adversely affected policy decisions. These include not accounting for the potential role of testing and contact tracing in mitigating the epidemic; not modelling the impact of sick patients on intensive care beds and other parts of the health system; and not modelling the epidemic across different regions of the UK.

It is not clear what caused these omissions. Perhaps they were the result of blindspots that persisted due to the lack of external scrutiny and challenge. In the case of the sidelining of testing and contact tracing, perhaps it was because the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) had concluded that these measures were not worth while – a view that is understandable if Sage also saw the building up of herd immunity through natural infection as part of its strategy.

There has been lots of speculation as to why the UK delayed lockdown compared with other countries; why it was slow to increase viral testing capacity; and why the NHS was left so poorly prepared. Now is not the time to look backwards. Neither would I want to place any criticism on modellers. Rigorous modelling is done by clever modellers; but the design and testing of models, including the assumptions built into models and the questions that modellers have been asked to help answer, is a collective responsibility.

Modelling is vital and could assist greatly in going forward. In particular, two things should be urgently modelled. The first is to model the impact of different strategies that will help us avoid the harms of draconian, population-wide lockdown. This should include modelling the costs and benefits of weekly viral testing of the whole population (not 100,000 tests a day, but 10 million tests a day), or a more modest but greatly expanded testing regime, combined with aggressive case detection and contact tracing, coupled with continued physical distancing and improved hygiene. The former idea may sound radical and extreme, but is a serious proposal that could be implemented if there was sufficient political will.

Second, we must model (and then keep monitoring) the health and socioeconomic impacts of both the virus and the control measures, with short-, medium- and long-term timeframes, and with a social lens to look at how the virus has impacted differentially across society. For some reason, there was no modelling of the socioeconomic impact of lockdown. This was an omission – and as we enter the beginning of what could be a global economic recession, we could see thousands of lives cut short from this collateral damage.

Finally, from a policymaking perspective, there are two things needed. First, we need greater transparency and participation to allow effective scrutiny and challenge from scientists and public health specialists who are more independent of government. This will avoid the danger of groupthink and blindspots. Second, we must better acknowledge the limitations of evidence-based policy and recognise the importance of expertise, experience and sound judgment.

Some sage advice here.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Overzealous police forces are undermining lockdown

Already this week we have seen video of a police officer instructing a man that he and his family are not allowed to play in their own front garden, people doing yoga in local parks being told to go home, socially-isolating families being ordered off beaches even though they are within walking distance of their homes, Cambridgeshire police telling people what they can and cannot buy in supermarkets and Northamptonshire Police saying they might set up roadblocks and could start searching shopping trolleys.

What is worse is that some of these police forces do not understand irony. Hours before Cambridgeshire police tweeted about the “non-essential aisles”, they had tweeted messages of thanks for chocolate gifts members of the public had given them – presumably bought from shops during lockdown.

All of these actions have a basic purpose, to keep people safe, and in some instances may be perfectly justified, but as a whole the picture being painted is that of a government giving police officers unprecedented powers for a democratic society, and then those powers being abused by overzealous officers.

This has led to the remarkable sight of Home Secretary, Priti Patel emerging from self-imposed exile to chastise officers for “heavy handed” measures such as roadblocks and searching trolleys to enforce coronavirus restrictions because they are "not appropriate".

And then. as the Independent reported yesterday, Number 10 Downing Street has had to step in as well to confirm that shops currently permitted to open are allowed to sell whatever they have in stock.

There is little doubt that a significant minority continue to flout regulations regarding travel, self-isolating and social distancing, and that police are needed to help enforce that regime. However, the sort of heavy handed responses I have just alluded to only serve to undermine goodwill, and entrench people's resistance.

We are all in this for the long-term, surely it is time that some of these police forces allowed a little leeway where there is minimal risk from doing so.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Hedge funds raking in billions

As the Guardian reports, it is not just Jacob Rees Mogg's company that are profiting from the current economic uncertainty caused by the lockdown.

The paper says that Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC trade union body, has accused Hedge funds of raking in billions from market bets during the coronavirus crisis while care workers in high-risk environments can barely scrape by.

Her comments come after it was revealed one London hedge fund had made £2.4bn betting on market moves as investors panicked over a global economic shutdown:

News of the multibillion-pound windfall came as Crispin Odey, the Brexit supporter who made millions betting against the pound in the run up to the EU referendum, said his fund had made its biggest monthly gain since the financial crisis.

O’Grady said: “It’s a sign of our broken economy that hedge fund managers are raking in billions, while care workers who are putting their lives on the line can barely scrape by. When the immediate crisis has passed, we need to rebuild a more equal economy. The super-rich must be made to pay their fair share and ordinary workers should get the respect and pay they deserve.”

Ruffer Investment, which was founded by multimillionaire financier Jonathan Ruffer, told clients it had made $2.6bn (£2.4bn) during the coronavirus pandemic-induced global stock market collapse after a series of cheap “protective investment” bets on market volatility delivered huge returns. The story was first reported by the Financial Times.

It also came to light that a US hedge fund made a 4,144% return betting on a stock market collapse in the year to the end of March. The Miami-based Universa Investments fund, which is advised by The Black Swan author Nassim Taleb, made a return of 3,612% in March alone. “I think we’ve shown Universa’s method of risk mitigation to be the most effective,” Mark Spitznagel, the fund’s president and chief investment officer, said in an investor letter seen by Bloomberg.

Odey Asset Management declined to comment on the TUC’s call for hedge fund owners to pay a “fair share” towards the fight against coronavirus. The fund made a return of 21% in March.

Once all this over, perhaps governments need to team up internationally to tax these excessive profits in an attempt to recover some of the cost to the public purse of maintaining this essential lockdown.

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Accountability needed

With Parliament effectively shut down until after the lockdown the problem of how to scrutinise and hold ministers to account rears its head once more. This is not about scoring points, but effective scrutiny can actually add value to what the government is doing.

One Minister who is proving particularly elusive is the Home Secretary, somebody who one would have thought would be playing a crucial role in the Government's response to COVID-19 and have a much higher profile that she does so far.

Correspondence the Guardian has seen reveals that Priti Patel, has been accused by an influential group of MPs of avoiding scrutiny at a time of national emergency:

Yvette Cooper, the chair of the home affairs select committee, has written to Patel six times – most recently in a letter issued on Wednesday – in an attempt to fix a date for the home secretary to give evidence in public to the committee, but a date for a hearing has not been confirmed.

After repeatedly ignoring correspondence from Cooper, Patel replied to the committee chair on Tuesday telling her she was “disappointed at the increasingly adversarial tone of our exchanges” and declining an invitation to give evidence remotely on 15 April. She reluctantly agreed to appear before the MPs at the end of the month, but did not set a date.

Cooper, in her latest missive, points out that the justice secretary, work and pensions secretary, transport secretary and health secretary have given evidence to their select committees already or have agreed a date to do so.

The paper says that the committee has been pressing Patel to provide evidence since the end of January, during which time the secretary of state has been accused of belittling officials and presiding over an “atmosphere of fear” at the Home Office. Sir Philip Rutnam resigned as permanent secretary at the Home Office, claiming constructive dismissal and accusing Patel of bullying her subordinates.

With the understandable impact of the lockdown on civil liberties, surely, it is important to get some answers on what exactly the Home Secretary has been doing during this crisis and why she has been so invisible for most of it.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

How New Zealand is beating the virus

There is a very interesting article in the Independent about what is happening in New Zealand which in turn, raises a number of questions as to whether the UK response to COVID-19 is adequate or not.

The paper says that the country's elimination approach has turned the tide with the number of new cases falling for two consecutive days, despite a huge increase in testing, with 54 confirmed or probable cases reported on Tuesday. That means the number of people who have recovered, 65, exceeds the number of daily infections:

How has New Zealand, a country I still call home after 20 years abroad, controlled its outbreak so quickly?

When I arrived here a month ago, travelling from the epicentre of China via the hotspot of South Korea, I was shocked that officials did not take my temperature at the airport. I was told simply to self-isolate for 14 days (I did).

But with the coronavirus tearing through Italy and spreading in the United States, this heavily tourism-reliant country - it gets about four million international visitors a year, almost as many as its total population - did the previously unthinkable: it shut its borders to foreigners on 19 March.

Two days later, Ms Ardern delivered a televised address from her office - the first time since 1982 that an Oval Office-style speech had been given - announcing a coronavirus response alert plan involving four stages, with full lockdown being Level 4.

A group of influential leaders got on the phone with her the following day to urge moving to Level 4.

“We were hugely worried about what was happening in Italy and Spain,” said one of them, Stephen Tindall, founder of the Warehouse, New Zealand's largest retailer.

“If we didn't shut down quickly enough, the pain was going to go on for a very long time,” he said in a phone interview. “It's inevitable that we will have to shut down anyway, so we would rather it be sharp and short.”

On the Monday, 23 March, Ms Ardern delivered another statement and gave the country 48 hours to prepare for a Level 4 lockdown. “We currently have 102 cases,” she said. “But so did Italy once.”

From that Wednesday night, everyone had to stay at home for four weeks unless they worked in an essential job such as health care, or were going to the supermarket or exercising near their home.

A few hours before midnight, my phone sounded a siren as it delivered a text alert: “Act as if you have Covid-19. This will save lives,” it said. “Let's all do our bit to unite against Covid-19.”

From the earliest stages, Ms Ardern and her team have spoken in simple language: Stay home. Don't have contact without anyone outside your household “bubble”. Be kind. We're all in this together.

She's usually done this from the podium of news conferences where she has discussed everything from the price of cauliflowers to wage subsidies. But she also regularly gives updates and answers questions on Facebook, including one done while sitting at home - possibly on her bed - in a sweatshirt.

The paper adds that there has been a sense of collective purpose with the police phone line for non-emergencies being overwhelmed with people calling to “dob in” others they think are breaching the rules.

And it is having an effect, with the daily number of new cases peaking at 89 on 2 April, before ticking down to 67 on Monday and 54 on Tuesday. The vast majority of cases can be linked to international travel, making contact tracing relatively easy, and many are consolidated into identifiable clusters.

Clear leadership, good communication, cross-party cooperation, clear guidance properly enforced and a collective will to eliminate the virus have all contributed to this outcome, so much so that the country is rapidly reaching the point where, with strict border control, restrictions could be gradually relaxed and life inside New Zealand could return to almost normal.

A salutary lesson for the UK.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Blame game

This report in this morning's Guardian is astonishing, if only because in the midst of a major national crisis it is alleged that senior politicians in the government are briefing against civil servants in an attempt to pass the buck for failures on testing and PPE:

From the BBC to bin collectors, shop workers to care home staff: all have suddenly been recognised as vital and appreciated by public and politicians alike.

However, as pressure mounts over the capacity for coronavirus testing and the supply of personal protective equipment and ventilators, finding someone to blame rather than fixing the problem seems to be the priority for some at the heart of government. Well-placed anonymous sources have started pointing fingers at everyone from the cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill, to Public Health England.

They “bumble along, occasionally banning Coco Pops or something, but for the most part entirely out of sight” is how one source from within government described some of the most senior public health professionals in the country. Elsewhere, an unnamed minister has been happy to lay the blame for the lack of testing at the door of Public Health England, while a “senior figure” was busy pointing the finger at NHS England for a “system” that had given “incorrect” and “overly optimistic” information to ministers.

Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA Union sums it up: 'Right now, we need ministers and their advisers focusing on saving lives, not their careers. While public servants across the UK are working night and day – literally putting their lives on the line for the country – some within government are still putting self-preservation first. It is not only cowardly and shameful, it’s also destructive.'

And so say all of us.

Monday, April 06, 2020

Lockdown sees rise in domestic abuse calls

The BBC report that National Domestic Abuse helpline has seen a 25% increase in calls and online requests for help since the lockdown. Refuge, the charity which runs the helpline has said that it received hundreds more calls last week compared to two weeks earlier:

Campaigners have warned the restrictions could heighten domestic tensions and cut off escape routes.

The charity said pressure on other services and awareness campaigns could have also led to the increase.

One woman, who fled her abuser a few days ago, told the BBC life had become intolerable since the lockdown started.

'Tara', who asked the BBC not to use her real name, said she had been suffering mental and physical abuse from her partner for six months.

When the lockdown began things became markedly worse.

To start with the abuse was subtle: "Isolating me from my family and friends… thinking I'm cheating on him when I'm with him all the time… just controlling".

Her abuser deleted her social media accounts and stopped her from seeing family.

She says he was "mentally abusive, verbally and obviously hitting me… recently it's obviously been getting worse, since the lockdown."

"It's been bad… I didn't care if I didn't wake up like from the night before... I just knew what was going to happen the next day, I just wanted the days to go past."

"As soon as he gets up, he tries to cause an argument out of nothing, and if I fire back he'll just hit me."

Tara has now fled to a refuge in Wales, and is being supported by Llamau, a charity for young people and vulnerable women.

Another high-profile campaigner, Rachel Williams, believes domestic violence and potentially homicides will escalate as social distancing restrictions in the UK continue.

Many perpetrators already use isolation "as a tool of control" Sandra Horley, chief executive of Refuge said.

She said last year 1.6 million women in England and Wales experienced domestic abuse, and "while in lockdown or self-isolation, women and children are likely to be spending concentrated periods of time with perpetrators, potentially escalating the threat of domestic abuse and further restricting their freedom.

"Domestic abuse isn't always physical - it's a pattern of controlling, threatening and coercive behaviour, which can also be emotional, economic, psychological or sexual."

This is going to be a major problem with the lockdown and could see a rise in violence against women in particular.  I would hope that government will recognise this and provide additional funding to beef up support services and refuges.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Business as usual for the profiteers

As tens of thousands of small businesses struggle to survive, and millions struggle to cope on reduced incomes and an uncertain employment future, at least one business is looking to make huge profits out of the COVID-19 crisis.

The Mirror reports that Jacob Rees-Mogg’s firm stands to make a fortune out of the turmoil caused by the coronavirus crisis. The MP owns at least 15 per cent of a company investing in businesses hit by falling share values, meaning he was entitled to a reported £1 million share of last year’s £19.5million profits.:

Somerset Capital Management says investors have a “once in a generation” chance of “super normal returns”.

Mr Rees-Mogg stood down as a director of SCM to become Leader of the House of Commons. SCM said it was focusing on clients’ long-term security.

It came as the UK death toll rose by a record 708 – including a boy aged five.

As millions face financial misery, SCM managers are buying into businesses where valuations have tumbled – but should bounce back. Potential gains of 500 per cent are touted.

Investments so far include private hospitals in Brazil, pharmacies in South Africa and a firm behind a scanning device which checks if people are wearing masks in China.

They add that Fund boss Mark Asquith said in promotional material that investors could capitalise on smaller companies in particular, with prices down up to 50 per cent.

He wrote: “History has shown us that super normal returns can be made during this type of environment.

Market dislocations of this magnitude happen rarely, perhaps once or twice in a generation, and have historically provided excellent entry points for investors.”

Mr Asquith cited 500 per cent profits made after the 2008 crisis and suggested “we could see similar moves”. SCM, which has a £5.7billion portfolio of client funds, is so keen to attract investors it has waived a 0.75% management fee.

This is also the company which set up shop in Ireland, so that it would continue to enjoy the benefits of EU membership at the same time as its founder was advocating Brexit.  This sort of profiteering is immoral. Those benefitting from it are not fit for public office in my opinion.

Saturday, April 04, 2020

A view on the world

The advice this week is to ignore the sunshine and the good weather and stay in to stay safe. Well, there is always gardening I suppose.

But if you want a view of what is going on in the world you could do no better than go to this BBC site where they have collected together some of the great CAM views including from Venice, Times Square, New York, Lapland, a Thai Beach, Gorillas in Africa, Tokyo and even earth views from the space station.

All in real time and most of them as deserted as the streets outside our front door.

Friday, April 03, 2020

DUP politician blames COVID-19 on abortion and same-sex marriage

Some may remember the UKIP Councillor, David Silvester from Henley-on-Thames, back in 2014, who sought to blame the then storms and heavy floods across Britain on the Government's decision to legalise gay marriage.

Just to refresh people's memory, in a letter to the Henley Standard Councillor Silvester wrote:

"The scriptures make it abundantly clear that a Christian nation that abandons its faith and acts contrary to the Gospel (and in naked breach of a coronation oath) will be beset by natural disasters such as storms, disease, pestilence and war."

He added: "I wrote to David Cameron in April 2012 to warn him that disasters would accompany the passage of his same-sex marriage bill.

Well, we now have a 2020 version, with the Independent reporting that a DUP councillor has apologised after he compared himself to Noah in the bible in a Facebook post in which he appeared to suggest the global coronavirus pandemic was the “judgement of God” on the legalisation of abortion and same sex marriage in Northern Ireland, and an “immoral and corrupt government”:

John Carson, who represents Ballymena, in County Antrim, the former stronghold of ex-leader Ian Paisley, has been criticised for his “disgraceful” Facebook post, which he said was “misinterpreted”.

In the original post, he wrote: “I said when abortion was legalised that our nation would be judged by God because of its departure from his word and the legalisation of the murder of the unborn child as well as same-sex marriage.

“I was laughed at and mocked by some but as I said at the time, they laughed at Noah until the rain started.

“You reap what you sow and our nation is now reaping the judgment of God because of an immoral and corrupt government.

“It is time to repent and turn again to the God of our fathers.”

So now we know.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Government needs to get to grips with testing

The free pass that the UK Government have enjoyed to date in managing the COVID-19 crisis with little or no criticism, has dissipated today with even friendly papers like the Telegraph demanding answers as to why the promised testing for the virus has not materialised.

As the Guardian reports, the government have admitted that just 2,000 of half a million frontline NHS staff have been tested to date. This has led to a plea from scientists for Health officials to abandon strict production rules that are hampering the introduction of mass testing.

The paper says that their plea has come as the prime minister was forced to address mounting anger about the government’s failure to increase testing, just weeks after it had appeared to rule out such a strategy. They add that Ministers have been consistently flummoxed by questions on the issue:

The UK’s poor testing figures compared with other nations have caused a huge political backlash, with critics asking why the government is both failing to source the right equipment and refusing to agree to expand testing to the general population.

Only around 8,000 hospital patients and NHS staff are being tested daily – well short of the government’s targets and far below the 70,000 a day achieved in Germany. In total, just 2,000 NHS workers – or 0.4% of those being exposed to the virus – have been tested so far, meaning thousands in isolation cannot get back to work.

Ministers have struggled for four days in a row at No 10’s daily press conference to explain why testing is so slow. In an attempt to solve another logistical barrier, NHS England also directed all trusts to lift the 15% cap on staff testing and use all their spare testing capacity to help solve the problem.

But Prof Nicola Stonehouse, a molecular virologist at Leeds University, said that efforts to scale up testing were being frustrated by over-reliance on specified reagents, enzymes and other chemicals. “It is holding things up,” she said. “If we could get over this, we could get the testing centres up and running so much faster, and that’s got to be a good thing.

“The NHS have very specific requirements and there is good reason for that. It makes sure that standards are maintained. But there are alternatives. They need to be optimised and validated, but you can fast-track that if you have enough people. It wouldn’t take a lot of time.”

Meanwhile, questions are being asked in Wales as to why the Welsh Government has been unable to secure testing on a larger scale with Pharmaceutical giant Roche flatly refuting a claim by Wales' First Minister Mark Drakeford in the Senedd that it had struck a deal to supply Wales with Covid-19 tests.

Assembly Members had been told that starting today six thousand tests would be conducted each day. But because the deal fell through, only 1,100 tests will now be done a day – a loss of 5,000 tests.

If we are going to get to grips with this pandemic then this is an issue that all governments are going to have to get to grips with quickly.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Goats but no bears

It may be April 1st but this story in the Guardian is not an April Fool joke. I remember the goats in Llandudno from my childhood - we used to holiday there every year. They are descended from the goats of the mountains of Kashmir and live on the Great Orme but were always too shy to venture into the town because of all the people there.

Now the 'town is coming like a goats' town... All the clubs have been closed down... ' and people are self-isolating they have ventured far and wide and are snacking on grass and hedges all over the town centre.

The police have tried to be 'goat busters' but have failed to prevent the invasion, and why should they? After all, nobody else is going to be cutting the grass. People complain about kids congregating didn't mean these, but we have a nanny state, like it or not.

Meanwhile, this story about bears returning to the deserted village of Llanawrthmawr (Big Bear Parish) is an April Fool joke. The village is fictional, as is Town Councillor Ebrill Siriol, who is quoted as saying the bears haven’t been seen roaming the streets in centuries.

Ebrill Siriol is Welsh for April Fool. You have been warned.

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