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Sunday, May 31, 2020

Super-rich face bigger tax bills because of lockdown

Unfortunately, this article on the Bloomberg site is not about government's imposing a wealth tax in an effort to recover some of the cost of locking us down to minimise the impact of Coronavirus. Rather it records the circumstances whereby events have undermined the tax avoiding antics of the super-rich, and in doing so imposed a form of rough social-justice on them.

Bloomberg say that as nations have closed borders, some individuals are confronting unexpectedly complex tax situations. These include the prospect of higher levies from spending too many days in a foreign locale, or having to shelve plans to obtain tax breaks by moving abroad:

Spending more than six months in a country typically makes someone a tax resident, although the location of permanent homes and family links, travel histories and income sources are also factors. Determining tax residency is complicated -- even more so when each nation applies different criteria.

Nations also have tax pacts with other countries that override domestic laws and would apply to residency disputes in the absence of pandemic provisions. Resolving tax issues from the coronavirus will be a stressful and costly process for some. Goldring said he moved one client across Italy and France this year to ensure they didn’t exceed the U.K.’s residency thresholds.

There are thousands, “if not tens of thousands” of people, stranded in the U.S., many of whom face a thicket of additional tax scrutiny from the Internal Revenue Service, said Paul Sczudlo, an attorney on Withersworldwide’s private client team.

Ordinarily, foreigners can spend up to 183 days in the U.S., counted either in a single year or over the course of three using a weighted-average formula, before they’re required to pay income tax.

The IRS extended the threshold by an additional 60 days last month, but even that might not be enough to shield people who arrived in the fall or early winter from other states and haven’t been able to return home.

Business owners who find themselves unable to leave the country and become de facto tax residents will be on the hook for U.S. corporate income tax on any foreign company in which they own a majority.

“There’s a very wide range of possible impacts on families,” Sczudlo said. “It could affect retirement accounts, trust and estate arrangements.”

At minimum, they’ll face a mountain of additional paperwork to ensure they’re adequately disclosing holdings, he said. Failing to do so risks potentially large fines, calculated as a percentage of assets for certain entities. New York, for example, considers anyone who spends more than 183 days in the state a resident and therefore obligated to pay its comparatively steep income tax.

New York hasn’t issued official guidance about how it plans to treat out-of-state virus refugees, but accountants are advising not to hold out hope for leniency. When Hurricane Sandy devastated houses in the tristate area in 2012, many people moved temporarily into New York City apartments to wait out reconstruction and were taxed accordingly.

The pandemic has also thwarted plans of those hoping to relocate this year to a country with lower taxes. In the past, tycoons including steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal and Daily Mail owner Viscount Rothermere have made use of U.K. tax exemptions on overseas earnings in exchange for an annual charge.

The site goes on to say that when nations reopen their borders, the wealthy may face even more tax trouble from governments looking to recoup the economic costs of a virus that’s heightening global concerns over inequality.

I could say that I am sympathetic to the difficulties facing these super-rich individuals, who in normal circumstances are able to move around the world so as to minimise their tax burden, but I would be lying if I did so. It is this selfish activity which ensures that the burden of funding public services falls on those less able to pay. Now they can pay up along with the rest of us.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

How much political capital does Boris Johnson have left?

It has been a week and Dominic Cummings is still in post. The amount of political capital expended by the Prime Minister to keep his Svengali in post has been extraordinary.

As the Guardian reports, the furore over Dominic Cummings’ breach of lockdown rules has prompted tens of thousands of people to flood their MPs’ inboxes in what some described as the biggest outpouring since Brexit:

A Guardian analysis covering 117 MPs found they have received a total of 31,738 emails since a joint Guardian and Daily Mirror investigation a week ago divulged that Cummings had travelled to County Durham and taken a trip to a beauty spot with his family after suffering coronavirus symptoms.

If that level of correspondence was reflected across all 650 MPs, it would suggest the revelations may have sparked as many as 180,000 items of correspondence. The numbers were either provided in response to the Guardian’s request for figures, or in statements MPs had released to constituents.

Johnson has repeatedly suggested it was time to “move on” from the Cummings row, despite about half of Tory backbenchers – more than 100 MPs – calling for his most senior aide to resign or be sacked, or criticising Cummings. Many said they were motivated by their constituents’ anger.

Several Conservative MPs in marginal seats said they had received more than 1,000 emails about Cummings, in some cases dwarfing their majority. While the average number of emails each MP got was 271, the Tory MPs analysed by the Guardian received 590 each on average.

Many MPs said the emails were from people writing to them for the first time and not the common copy-and-paste messages on a campaigning issue, and for some it has been the most significant volume since the Brexit crisis in parliament.

Meanwhile, the Independent reports that mthan 1 million people have signed a petition calling for Dominic Cummings to be sacked over allegedly breaching the lockdown rules.

In addition, a recent YouGov poll found 59 per cent of people thought Mr Cummings should resign and 71 per cent believed he had broken the rules, while the Tory lead over Labour narrowed to six points, from 15 points on the week before.

Johnson has not just destroyed the trust between the government and those they need to obey the  rules if we are to defeat this virus, he has also demolished his own electability, the one factor that motivated Tory MPs and members to select him as their leader in the first place.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Government bungles plans for Commons return

The UK Government's insistence that MPs return to the House of Commons in person next week has already started to unravel with the revelation that there is currently no safe way for voting to take place.

Both Houses of Parliament have stubbornly clung to methods of working that have been in place for hundreds of years, with apparently little appetite for reform. These include maintaining the voting lobbies, where MPs file though two opposing corridors to record their vote, in a ceremony that can take over 15 minutes for each division.

Now, as the Guardian reports, Public Health England have advised that this method of voting is inherently unsafe and cannot be used. The Speaker has written to MPs to advise:

“There are pinch points in the lobbies where MPs are recorded by clerks and counted by tellers where it would be difficult to maintain social distancing, even though perspex booths were prepared for two of the division desks.” Such votes would also risk taking longer than allowed under parliamentary proceedings, he added.

Hoyle said that if the government and opposition were unable to agree a way forward, he would allow amendments to the government motion for new procedures.

In addition, the Public and Commercial Services union, which represents many security, catering and other support staff in parliament, has also raised concerns about the full return of MPs:

The union’s general secretary, Mark Serwotka, said the part-virtual system had worked well, and said it was “strange why the government is in a rush to change course when a second covid spike is such a strong possibility”.

What is most bizarre about these revelations is that they were entirely predictable at the time the Jacob Rees Mogg forced through a motion summoning MPs back to Westminster.  However, as with Dominic Cummings little road trip, political self interest won-out.

On the bright side, perhaps Parliament will be forced into the twenty-first century at long last.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Dominic Cummings becomes the go-to excuse for breaking lockdown

This is a real road sign, or rather it is a Highways England sign that has been added to by a person or persons who is as annoyed as the rest of us at the way the man who helped formulate lockdown rules was able to blatantly disregard them without suffering any consequences.

As the Mirror reports, West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson says officers are reporting that people breaking lockdown rules are using special adviser Dominic Cummings' actions as an excuse:

Mr Jamieson told BBC Radio 4's The World At One programme that people are telling officers that "if it is okay for Cummings, it is okay for us" and "it looks like there is one rule for us and another rule for the people in No 10 Downing Street".

He said: "Now you can't... if the rules are flexible, and people seem to have interpreted them who are at the heart of Government, then it is almost impossible then for police officers to be able to carry out their job effectively.

He added: "What the police are now saying to me is they are getting quite a push back, not just from some of the younger people who previously where saying why can't I play football, why can't I go out in the streets? They're getting push backs from other generations of people as well.

"Now that is a bad sign, showing that confidence in the rules, confidence in Government and thereby the police's ability to enforce it has been undermined very much in the last few days."

This more than anything else underlines how trust has broken down in the government and its lockdown rules. If more deaths arise from this disregard for the rules then it will be on Cummings and Johnson, and their irresponsible behaviour.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Tory unrest continues with Johnson due to face a key committee

If Dominic Cummings' appearance in the Downing Street rose garden was meant to put the controversy over his northern odyssey to rest then he badly miscalculated.

Already, a junior minister has resigned while more than 30 other Conservative MPs called for Cummings to go, many citing inboxes overflowing with hundreds of angry messages from constituents. A snap poll found that whereas 41% of Tory voters thought Cummings should resign before the press conference, this had risen to 46% after it.

The Guardian reports that significant revolts are rare at such an early stage after a thumping election victory, but Cummings was already a divisive figure and his refusal to apologise for an apparent breach of the rules appears to have touched a nerve with the lockdown-weary public:

Calls for him to go came from across the spectrum of the Conservative party on Tuesday.

They included the former chief whip Mark Harper, who said there was “no credible justification” for the drive to local beauty spot Barnard Castle, apparently to test whether Cummings’ eyesight was good enough to make the drive back to the capital. The former health secretary Jeremy Hunt released the text of a reply to a constituent, in which he said of Cummings: “What he did was a clear breach of the lockdown rules” – though Hunt did not call for him to resign, saying: “You do make mistakes in these situations.”

Four more former ministers – Steve Baker, Harriett Baldwin, Stephen Hammond and Jackie Doyle-Price – all called for Cummings to go.

The veteran Brexiter Peter Bone said he had not been reassured by Monday’s statement. “The rose garden interview just confirmed to me that he had driven up to Durham when we were in a strict lockdown. He absolutely should resign,” he said.

“I have 400 emails from people and I’m sitting here with my colleague going through every one, and we’d rather be doing some case work but we just have so many people to reply to.”

Meanwhile, there is controversy over today's meeting of the House of Commons liaison committee at which Boris Johnson is scheduled to give evidence. The Times reports that senior Tory MPs have been blocked from questioning the prime minister at a Commons “super-committee” tomorrow in a move that has prompted anger in the party:

Boris Johnson is set to attend the liaison committee, which usually comprises the cross-party chairmen of 36 Commons select committees, tomorrow afternoon for questioning over the coronavirus outbreak.

Tom Tugendhat, one of the most prominent Tory critics of the prime minister and chairman of the foreign affairs committee, has been excluded, however.

Tobias Ellwood, the Tory chairman of the defence committee who has called for the government to handle the crisis better, is also off the list of those attending.

A series of MPs have accused Bernard Jenkin, the head of the liaison committee, of banning the pair and other critical MPs on the instruction of the Tory whips.

Unusually Mr Jenkin was Downing Street’s sole choice for the nomination for the liaison committee chairmanship, while other select committee chairmen are elected by the Commons.

One select committee chairman said: “Chairs are deeply unimpressed that his first efforts are to try and exclude key chairs in this way. It reflects the lack of independence that chairs were concerned about in allowing this appointment to go ahead. This is a sad start to what is supposed to a programme of scrutiny.”

Other backbench MPs were also unimpressed that an appointed select committee chairman was vetoing elected colleagues. One said: “Bernard has sold his soul and demonstrated that he will suck up to anyone for £16,000 a year [the salary for the liaison committee chairmanship].”

Members of the Liaison Committee are also concerned at the fact that they will only have one and a half hours of the Prime Minister's time and that only a small part of that time will be devoted to questions about the government's response to coronavirus.

The paper says that while the liaison committee asks the prime minister of the day to attend sessions three times a year, today will be Mr Johnson’s first appearance since arriving in Downing Street ten months ago.

He has been accused of “bottling” three previous appearances, including pulling out of a session scheduled last October the day before he was due to attend. He said he had to “focus on delivering Brexit” in response to accusations he was avoiding scrutiny.

Accountability is not top of this government's agenda.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

'Lies, damned lies and statistics'

The UK government has put its Covid-19 testing target centre stage in the fight to eradicate the virus, but is everything what it seems? In particular, with testing for coronavirus a vital component of the test, trace and isolate strategy is the government meeting its targets?

On May 6, the prime minister announced a target of 200,000 Covid-19 tests per day by the end of this month, which followed the target set by Matt Hancock, the health secretary, of 100,000 a day by the end of last month. According to Public Health England and the Department for Health and Social Care the government has so far reached this lower target nine times since Mr Hancock set it on 2nd April.

According to the Times, not everything is as it seems. They say that the number the government uses against its target is a count of tests rather than people tested, though they also publish figures for the number of people tested. Figures for May 20, for example, show 128,000 tests but just 67,000 people tested:

On Thursday the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England confirmed to The Daily Telegraph that diagnostic tests, which involve taking saliva and nasal samples from the same patient, are being counted as two tests instead of one.

This followed earlier revelations that the figure for total tests included those put in the post that day, either to individuals’ homes or to testing sites not run by the NHS.

The Department of Health and Social Care said that when the returned tests were processed they were not included in the total for that day, meaning they were not counted twice. But numbers for how many tests make it back to the lab are not released either, and if the government wants to provide information that is valuable to the scientific community and wider public, these figures really matter.

So far more than 700,000 tests have been posted out in this way and the public have no idea what the success rate is.

The Royal Statistical Society, which has set up a task force to contribute to statistics on Covid-19, issued a statement on the reporting of home test kits, saying they “consider it important that, as part of the easing of lockdown, there should be regular, rigorous public reporting on the performance of the UK’s home-swab-test operation.”

It is little wonder that people are calling for more transparency, and the UK Statistics Authority want the government's strategy to show more clearly how targets are being defined, measured and reported.

At the moment it is virtually impossible to hold the government to account on its promises. That does not aid understanding or accountability and needs to be put right.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Truth succumbs to coronavirus

They say that truth is the first casualty of war, and for Boris Johnson, who continues to hone his best Churchill impression, the pandemic is a war, so why were we surprised at his defence of Dominic Cummings at yesterday's press conference.

To be fair, the misrepresentation of what actually happened lay in the omissions, the failure to answer detailed questions such as, did Cummings stop for petrol on his way to Durham and in doing so interact with others, and how many times has he travelled up north since the lockdown began.

Indeed, the Mirror has published its own list of ten questions that Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings must answer. These include:
Over in the Guardian, John Crace is excoriating about Transport Minister, Grant Shapps appearance in defence of the great northern excursion:

Shapps begged for more time to be allowed to talk about the A66. “It really is very important,” he said. Hell, if it helped he could even talk about a new cycle path in St Albans due to open in 2023. Or a new ferry service across the Ouse.

But Ridge was having none of it. She went for Shapps forensically, and time and again all he could do was smile vacantly, just playing for time knowing that at some point his ordeal would come to an end.

Except it was only just starting as Andrew Marr would be covering much the same ground little more than half an hour later. If anything the outing on Sky had only left Shapps more traumatised rather than better prepared as he became more and more sweaty and less and less coherent during the course of the interview. A low bar admittedly.

The Durham police were basically a bunch of liars who had been caught out telling the truth. And even if Dom had been to Barnard Castle he definitely hadn’t gone walking in a bluebell wood on a second visit to the north-east in April, because he had been assured Dom hated bluebells as they were the epitome of bourgeois remainer flowers.

So if he and his family had been seen, it must have been one of the many teams of body doubles that have plagued the Cummings family for years now. In any case, even though he definitely hadn’t talked to Dom or Boris over the past day, he knew for a fact that Dom hadn’t done any of this because they had told him so directly. And if there was one thing Cummings and Boris could be relied on for it was their advocacy of the truth.

The final word though must go to a rogue civil servants, who possibly mistook an official twitter account for his own:

I hope that he survives the subsequent inquiry.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

How UK Government's dither and delay cost thousands of lives

The Sunday Times Insight Team has produced a detailed and scathing analysis of the UK government's response to the coronavirus, which sets out at length the key trigger points when ministerial failure to act decisively has led to many more deaths than were necessary. Here are some of the key passages:

The government pursued its contain and delay strategy through the first two weeks of March despite the strong warnings from its two main modelling teams that it could lead to a catastrophic number of people being killed by the virus. The teams from Imperial College London and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) both concluded separately that if the mitigation measures under the delay strategy were followed, it could result in about 250,000 deaths. They delivered papers detailing those findings to a meeting of Sage, the scientific advisory group for emergencies, on March 3 attended by government officials.

It was only in the middle weekend of March that the key decision makers would fully engage with the fact that their mitigation measures risked a death sentence for a quarter of a million people and something far tougher was required.

What is more, this realisation came only after the academic teams took it upon themselves to model a lockdown as the only solution that could avoid overwhelming the NHS — showing how deaths could be kept to the tens of thousands.

The failure to act quickly on the scientific evidence was very costly for many families:

That prevarication proved, for some, to be fatal. New back-dated modelling assessing the historic spread of the disease — which is published for the first time today — estimates the number of people infected in the UK was indeed doubling every three days during late February and early March, just as some of the initial reports from China in late January had suggested they might.

The work, produced jointly by an Imperial College London team led by Samir Bhatt and Oxford University, suggests that on March 3 — the day the government committee gave the warning about the dire consequences of a mitigation approach — there were about 14,000 infections in the UK. Such was the speed of the spread of the virus that 200,000 people were estimated to be infected by the time the government began to change its mind about its policy on Saturday, March 14.

The last nine days while Johnson wrestled over the decision on when and how to go for lockdown were particularly brutal. By the time the lockdown was announced on Monday, March 23, such large numbers were doubling over such a short period that infections are estimated to have soared to 1.5 million.

According to the data, no other large European country allowed infections to sky-rocket to such a high level before finally deciding to go into lockdown. Those 20 days of government delay are the single most important reason why the UK has the second highest number of deaths from the coronavirus in the world.

In the meantime, countries like New Zealand were showing how decisive action could make a big difference. Their early intervention proved highly successful and enabled the country to start to return to normality last month after a relatively short lockdown with just over 1,500 cases and 21 deaths.

In contrast the example being set by Boris Johnson, mingling with the 81,000-strong crowd that watched England beat Wales at Twickenham for example, and shaking hands with COVID-19 patients, was sending out all the wrong messages. Despite denials now, the UK Government was still pursuing a herd immunity strategy with disastrous consequences.

Once the scientists took matters into their own hands, the Prime Minister started to understand the gravity of the situation:

The government’s strategy was in shreds: ripped apart by its own modelling scientists and looking creepily Darwinian after the unfortunate introduction of the words “herd immunity”. More than 200 scientists and academics signed a letter condemning the delay policy and saying thousands of lives could be saved by introducing stricter social distancing measures immediately.

These were the problems confronting Johnson when he summoned a meeting of his inner team at 9.15am that Saturday morning. By then it is understood that his most influential adviser Cummings had gone through a “Damoscene conversion” to being a strong advocate of the kind of suppression strategy that would lead to lockdown.

A source who attended Cobra meetings at the time said: “The libertarian in Boris didn’t want lockdown.” However, Johnson is said to have been won over at the meeting because of the seriousness of the threat, and a decision was made in principle to lock down Britain. He told those around him “we need to be taking all measures necessary”.

But the key issues of how and when to introduce a lockdown would not be resolved for another nine days. A senior Tory source said Johnson “bottled” lockdown during the following week because of concerns about the economy.

The failure to seize the initiative and go into lockdown at that point was a decision that cost many lives. After deliberating over the weekend, the government waited until the evening of Monday March 16 to introduce a package of advisory measures. People were told to work from home if possible, avoid pubs and restaurants and self-isolate at home if someone in their household was ill.

Even scientists on the government’s own advisory committees were alarmed by the delays in introducing more stringent measures. Professor Peter Openshaw, a member of the government’s Nervtag (new and emerging respiratory virus threats advisory group) committee said: “Many of us on the scientific advisory committees were quite keen that action should be taken a couple of weeks before action actually was taken.”

“I think that critical period of delay made the big difference to the peak numbers, both of hospitalisations and of deaths. I think everyone would accept now in retrospect that if we’d gone for lockdown a couple of weeks earlier that would have greatly reduced the numbers of hospitalisations and deaths.”

Every day was vital now as the UK already had an estimated 320,000 infections on March 16, according to the Imperial and Oxford back-dated modelling, and it would double again almost every three days despite the advisory measures which were introduced.

Sir David King, one of Vallance’s predecessors as chief scientific adviser and a critic of the current administration, said the lockdown delay was “grossly negligent”:

“The fact they were short of PPE, the fact they were short of testing equipment. The response of the government has not just been tardy. It has been totally disrespectful of British lives,” he said. “We created an unmanageable situation.”

There had been too much delay. The sheer number of people who had been allowed to become infected meant the country was riddled with the virus and the only defence was the workers of the NHS who had been left critically short of testing and protective equipment.

The UK Government's negligence and failure to act as outlined by the Insight Team must surely be looked into by a subsequent public inquiry.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Dominic Cummings probed

In yet another astonishing example of 'do what we say, not what we do' from the UK, it transpires that Boris Johnson’s key adviser, Dominic Cummings, was spoken to by police about breaching the government’s lockdown rules after he was seen in Durham, 264 miles from his London home, despite having had symptoms of coronavirus.

The Guardian reports that officers approached Cummings days after he was seen rushing out of Downing Street when the prime minister tested positive for the virus at the end of March. Inevitably, and quite rightly, there are now calls for his resignation:

At the time, the government had instructed people not to travel and to stay at their family homes. Cummings, however, was seen in Durham. A member of the public is understood to have seen him and made a complaint to the police.

When asked if Cummings had been warned about breaching the lockdown, a spokesman for Durham Constabulary said: “On Tuesday, March 31, our officers were made aware of reports that an individual had travelled from London to Durham and was present at an address in the city.

“Officers made contact with the owners of that address who confirmed that the individual in question was present and was self-isolating in part of the house.

“In line with national policing guidance, officers explained to the family the guidelines around self-isolation and reiterated the appropriate advice around essential travel.”

Downing Street has previously refused to disclose where Cummings was staying during the lockdown. The Guardian has also been told Cummings was spotted near the gate of his parents’ home with a young child, believed to be his son, at around 5.45pm on Sunday 5 April, five days after the complaint was made to the police.

This was just over a week after he began self-isolating with symptoms of the virus. It was also less than two hours before the prime minister was admitted to hospital after his symptoms worsened.

So far, we have seen Professor Neil Ferguson, the epidemiologist whose modelling prompted the lockdown, quit as a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies for flouting physical distancing rules when he was visited by his girlfriend.

Unrelated to the UK Government, Scotland’s chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, was also forced to quit after making two trips to her second home during the coronavirus lockdown. But the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, travelled to his parents’ home on the same weekend. Jenrick said he was delivering medicine and essential supplies.

Boris Johnson also travelled to Chequers to recuperate, even though he has a perfectly good home in London.

It is getting to the stage where the government is losing its authority to tell us what we can and cannot do, and for that reason, and for all our sakes, Cummings must resign before his actions and those of others cause the lockdown to unravel.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Farage all at sea again

When the history of this pandemic is written I am sure that there will be a special footnote entitled 'The misadventures of Nigel Farage'.

The Brexit Party leader has already been visited by officers from Kent Police, who advised him on the restrictions on travel in place to tackle coronavirus, after he travelled more than 100 miles to Dover to film a video rant about migrants during Britain’s lockdown. Now he has been condemned as "callous and heartless" for making a boat trip into the Channel to monitor migrants arriving in the UK.

The Independent reports that posted on Twitter that he had "just hit dry land in Dover" after an early morning foray to track migrants arriving on British shores:

Christine Jardine, the Liberal Democrat shadow home affairs spokesperson said: "The actions of Nigel Farage today are appalling. To disregard those struggling to survive in such a callous and heartless way is a new low, even for him.

"Priti Patel's decision to pander to individuals such as Farage only increases incidents such as these.

"By making it harder to come to the UK safely, the Conservatives are playing into the hands of criminal gangs who exploit desperate people for profit."

She called for a stronger Border Force to stop people smugglers and legal routes to sanctuary to help people claiming asylum.

At a time when immigrants are fronting up our care and health services, putting their lives at risk, it seems more than a little crass to be staging stunts that may well backfire on that section of our community.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Virtual Parliament runs out of oxygen

It was a useful and interesting experiment while it lasted, if only because it showed that it is possible to modernise the House of Commons, but the virtual Parliament, brought in to enable social distancing during the COVID-19 crisis, is to be sacrificed on the altar of Boris Johnson's ego and the need to boost him during Prime Minister's Questions.

As Politics Home reports,  the official reason given by Leader of the House, Jacob Rees Mogg, is that the current hybrid system, where members can enter debates via video-link, “fundamentally restrict the House’s ability to perform its functions fully”:

With Parliament due to go into recess for two weeks for the Whitsun holiday at the close of play on Wednesday, he said when it returns at the start of next month so should MPs.

But the Cabinet minister has come under furious criticism from one of his own colleagues, the senior Conservative Robert Halfon, with the former minister accusing Mr Rees-Mogg of discriminating against members “who are sick, shielding, or self-isolating”.

He said: “Is it really morally just to say in effect to MPs, because you are not Tarzan-like and able to swing through the Chamber, beating your chest shouting to your constituents, ‘Look I am here!’ that you are effectively euthanised from the Commons?

“MPs who are disrupted by this awful pandemic are not just old horses to be sent to the knackers yard.”

And the Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle has also expressed unease about a wider return to the chamber for MPs, saying he will not hesitate to suspend proceedings if he feels it has become unsafe.

It is reported that Rees-Mogg suggested perspex screens should be installed in the chamber to get more MPs inside, which presumably was the source of this jibe in the Times:


Whether Rees-Mogg will be able to get a line up of MPs around Boris Johnson for PMQs to support him is another matter. If social distancing rules continue to be enforced, all that will be achieved is fewer MPs participating in each session.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Security flaws found in NHS contact-tracing app

It appears that the concerns of the Parliamentary joint committee on human rights regarding the data captured by the NHS Covid-19 contact-tracing app are well-founded. The BBC reports that wide-ranging security flaws have been flagged in the Covid-19 contact-tracing app being piloted in the Isle of Wight.

They say that security researchers have warned that the problems pose risks to users' privacy and could be abused to prevent contagion alerts being sent. The researchers suggest a fundamental rethink is required:

Specifically, they call for new legal protections to prevent officials using the data for purposes other than identifying those at risk of being infected, or holding on to it indefinitely.

In addition, they suggest the NHS considers shifting from its current "centralised" model - where contact-matching happens on a computer server - to a "decentralised" version - where the matching instead happens on people's phones.

"There can still be bugs and security vulnerabilities in either the decentralised or the centralised models," said Thinking Cybersecurity chief executive Dr Vanessa Teague.

"But the big difference is that a decentralised solution wouldn't have a central server with the recent face-to-face contacts of every infected person.

"So there's a much lower risk of that database being leaked or abused."

They add that the researchers detail seven different problems they found with the app.They include:
The problem that is most difficult to fix however, is the lack of legislation protecting use of this data and the fact that there is no strict limit on when the data has to be deleted. The government really needs to get that fixed and quickly.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The economic casualties of the virus

It is difficult at this stage to determine who will suffer the most financially as a result of COVID-19. Certainly, the UK Government is going to take a big hit, with debt levels equivalent to those during the Second World War, but how they manage that debt will be crucial for the economy as a whole.

If the government seek to repay loans through austerity measures or taxation, then the likelihood is that we will spiral into a recession. So many businesses are already going under, many more are on their uppers, that once we are anywhere near to normality we are going to need an unprecedented stimulus package to pull us out of it and get some semblance of an economy back again.

After the Second World War, this was accomplished by American-funded rebuilding. That will not be an option next time.

Local government is in trouble as well. Although they have had additional funding to deal with emergency measures such as business grants and rate relief, councils are facing a huge reduction in income from car parks, rents and leisure venues to name but a few. This income can make up a significant proportion of their budget, and there is no prospect at the moment of government making up the shortfall.

And then there is business sector itself. Some well-known high street names have already gone under, more may follow. Social distancing and health and safety precautions which will be imposed in the post-lockdown period, will prevent normal shopping patterns - only so many people in a shop at a time, limited browsing opportunities, the possibility of the virus being passed to other through the handling of clothes, books etc - there is likely to be a continued uptake of online shopping for some time to come.

And what about seasonal businesses, such as the tourist trade. This year has been a write-off, airlines and airports are in crisis, will next year be any better?  As the Independent reports, Visit Britain estimates that £22 billion is set to be wiped from the UK's domestic tourism industry due to the coronavirus pandemic and stringent restrictions on public life.

We don't just need a plan to ease us out of lockdown, we need an economic strategy that will keep the country, businesses and public sector bodies on solvent at the same time.

Monday, May 18, 2020

The HS2 conundrum

In my experience of road and rail capital projects they often veer off-course, are subject to delay and overrun budgets. It seems that the bigger the project the worse this becomes. It is little surprise therefore to find that HS2 is suffering in this way or that serious questions are being asked about its future as a consequence.

The all party public accounts committee has had enough. They have accused the Department for Transport of hiding information about cost overruns and delays from MPs, in a way that has undermined confidence in the entire scheme.

As the Guardian reports they believe that they cannot be sure there will be no further cost increases, as the lessons from previous transport projects that have been dogged by spiralling bills and delays have not been learned:

In particular the MPs claim they were misled by the permanent secretary at the department, Bernadette Kelly, when she appeared before them in May 2019. By then, they say, she had been informed by Hs2 Ltd that it could not deliver phase one of the project – between London and Birmingham – to budget and on schedule. But when questioned she failed to pass on the information to the committee, they say.

The committee chair, Labour MP Meg Hillier, said: “The committee is concerned about how open the department and HS2 Ltd executives have been in their account of this project. It is massively over budget and delayed before work has even begun. There is no excuse for hiding the nature and extent of the problems the project was facing from parliament and the taxpayer.

“The department and HS2 appear to have been blindsided by contact with reality – when phase one started moving through parliament, the predicted costs of necessary commitments to the communities affected have exploded from £245m to £1.2bn.

“The government unfortunately has a wealth of mistakes on major transport infrastructure to learn from, but it does not give confidence that it is finally going to take those lessons when this is its approach.

The deputy chair, Tory MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, was even more outspoken, accusing the department of a breach of its duty to parliament: “This report is one of the most critical that I have seen in my nine years in total on the committee.

In principle establishing a new high-speed, high-capacity railway between London, Leeds and Manchester, via the West Midlands is a good thing. However, if the project is mismanaged and is plagued by delays, overspends and a lack of transparency then somebody needs to step in and sort it out. The committee has sounded the alarm bell. Will Ministers respond?

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Anger as foreign healthcare workers are betrayed

While Boris Johnson joins a national "newspaper's" campaign to Hail our Frontline worker heroes, his Home Secretary has been busy shafting a significant proportion of them.

The Independent reports that Priti Patel has sparked anger by refusing to cut or axe the huge fees paid by foreign healthcare workers to help fund the NHS – just three weeks after promising to “review” the controversial charges:

The home secretary raised expectations when she hinted at concessions for migrants working in the NHS themselves, as she praised their “extraordinary contribution” during the Covid-19 crisis.

But The Independent has now learnt there will be no changes to what ministers consider the “important” principle that everyone coming to work in the UK contributes extra for the NHS.

It means the immigration health surcharge is still due to soar from £400 a year to £624 from this October – to be and extended to all EU citizens from next January, when Brexit is completed.

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.

The Home Office is now saying there was no “review”, beyond waiving the surcharge where visas had been extended for one year – despite Ms Patel describing it as such on national television.

The British Medical Association (BMA) said the decision “beggars belief”, given the public’s “huge outpouring of support for our frontline staff” in recent weeks, while Labour called it “unconscionable”. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said it had written to the home secretary after her announcement, but had received no reply, and insisted: “This charge must be stopped.”

Health groups had long protested the surcharge as unfair because migrants paying tax and national insurance are effectively paying twice, even before the acclaim for all health staff prompted by the pandemic.

It cannot be deferred, or paid annually, but is demanded 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 only between £18,000 and £23,000.

Around one in every seven NHS workers is foreign-born and therefore subject to this charge. So much for this government treating them like heroes.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Government tracking programme struggles to get off the ground

Key to the whole testing programme for COVID-19 is the ability to quickly track down anybody who has had contact with an infected individual and then test and if necessary, isolate/treat that person. Unfortunately, that aspect of the UK government's programme is not going so well for them.

As the Independent reports, so far only 1,500 people have been hired as part of the government's aim to recruit an 18,000-strong army of contact tracers by mid-May.

A shortage of contact tracers could slow the delivery of the smartphone app, which the English Health Secretary promised would be available by the middle of the month, and which has its own problems. The app, which has been built by the NHS, is currently being trialled on the Isle of Wight.

Adverts have gone up on recruitment website for tracers, who would form part of a team of call handlers, speaking to those with coronavirus and interviewing their contacts. Successful applicants would receive £8.62 per hour and will be able to work from home.

If this is not sorted soon then the government's whole strategy will collapse.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Legislation call on COVID-19 app data

The Guardian reports that the Parliamentary joint committee on human rights (JCHR) has taken the unusual step of producing a draft bill for the government to pass as soon as possible that would require the government to delete all the data it captures using the NHS Covid-19 contact-tracing app after the pandemic ends, and prevent it from using the information gathered for any other purpose than fighting Covid-19.

They say that the impending release of Apple and Google software for building decentralised contact-tracing apps will put more pressure on the government, which took the controversial decision to forge its own path and build a centralised app, in part because it was concerned that the Apple/Google system would not be ready in time:

The decision to go it alone was driven by a belief that contact tracing could be carried out faster if users were allowed to self-diagnose, as well as a hope that the NHS could gather valuable insight from data collected by the app.

But the government has declined to guarantee that the data will be deleted after the pandemic is over. Matthew Gould, the head of NHSX, the health service’s digital transformation arm, told the JCHR that the data “will either be deleted or fully anonymised in line with the law, so that it can be used for research purposes”.

In its findings from a rapid inquiry, the JCHR said the government needed to commit to total deletion and legally bind itself to that promise. “We cannot rely on the current failed mishmash of protections that were never envisaged for this situation,” said the committee’s chair, Harriet Harman.

“We need new legislation. Government collection of our movements and physical contacts would have been unconscionable before, but now it is happening. Big powers demand big safeguards. The government should not resist their assurances being put into law. Parliament completed emergency legislation for new powers. It can do it now for new protections.”

If the government does not take up the JCHR bill, the committee has asked the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, for special permission to let Harman move it as a private member’s bill.

This seems to be a reasonable request by the committee, after all what use will this information be to the government once the pandemic ends? More to the point, if this app is to work then people need to have confidence in it. The fact that information put into the app is being stored centrally by the government does not instil that confidence.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Key Brexit admission by UK government

For months now, UK ministers has insisted that the Brexit deal they agreed with the EU will not lead to separate custom checks on goods passing through Northern Ireland, despite European officials saying otherwise. In fact, Boris Johnson has gone so far as to promise these checks will not be put in place.

Now, however, UK government officials have written to Northern Ireland’s executive confirming that new physical “infrastructure” will be funded at a series of ports. The Independent reports that Declan Kearney, a junior minister at the executive office, told a Stormont committee that London officials had provided a briefing on Monday on the latest stage of trade negotiations with the EU:

He told them that the Westminster government has “confirmed that it will urgently put in place detailed plans with the executive, which does include the physical posts at ports of entry”.

Last November Mr Johnson was filmed telling business leaders in Northern Ireland there would be “no checks” on goods. The prime minister claimed he would “tell them to throw that form in the bin” if they were asked to fill out any extra paperwork.

The fact that Northern Ireland is set to continue to follow EU single market rules on agricultural and manufactured goods after Brexit, while the rest of the UK will stop following these rules at the end of 2020, made this claim nonsense of course.

It is nice to have a bit of honesty from the UK government on this issue, at last.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The facade of the Tory Islamophobia probe

Some of the endemic problems within the Tories resurfaced with a vengeance today, when the Muslim Council of Britain branded a probe into discrimination within the party as a ‘facade’ and an attempt to distract from the party’s problems with Islamophobia.

As the Independent reports, the council said the Tories were attempting to “hide” hundreds of instances of abuse, after the party published the terms of reference of the investigation:

Harun Khan, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain said: “We have previously described the Conservative Party’s attitude to Islamophobia as one of denial, dismissal and deceit. The publication of the terms of reference for its inquiry reflects that regrettable attitude. They are a façade to hide the hundreds of incidences of Islamophobic bigotry we have identified in its ranks. In sum, it seems even today, the Conservative Party refuses to acknowledge that there can be bigotry and prejudice directed at Muslims.”

Sajid Javid, the former chancellor, first called for the investigation last year when he was standing in the Conservative leadership contest.

In the end all the contenders signed up to his call for a probe.

The MCB has submitted complaints detailing what it says are more than 450 cases of Islamophobia from within the party’s ranks to the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

In a statement, the EHRC said that in light of the Conservative probe it would not be “proportionate” to initiate its own investigation at this stage.

But it added: “We will be monitoring the review and requiring the party to provide regular updates on progress.”

This inquiry has been a long time coming, so one would have thought the Tories could have at least got the terms of reference right.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Welsh shambles shows that information is key

The one thing that any government needs during a pandemic is accurate information to enable ministers to properly direct resources and make decisions on the restrictions that need to be imposed to keep us all safe.

It was disturbing therefore to find that Betsi Cadwaladr and Hywel Dda university health boards failed to report 85 and 31 Covid-19 deaths respectively. As Wales-online reports, the reason for this was that they were not using the correct IT system.

As the Chair of the Senedd’s Public Accounts Committee says, a significant amount of public money has been spent on NHS ICT systems in Wales and yet we still cannot get it right. This includes the recently introduced 'All Wales' ICT system.

Wales is  not a big place. It has a devolved system of governance that should be on top of all these issues. The fact that Ministers cannot get such a small number of health boards to use all the same reporting systems is a major failure on their part and does nothing to help us deal with the current crisis.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Is it too late to reverse climate change?

While we are all preoccupied with COVID-19, it seems that a more persuasive threat to human life is gathering its forces for one last assault, and I am not talking about the 'Murder Hornets' currently establishing themselves in the United States.

The Guardian reports on a new study, which has found that intolerable bouts of extreme humidity and heat which could threaten human survival are on the rise across the world, suggesting that worst-case scenario warnings about the consequences of global heating are already occurring.

They say that scientists have identified thousands of previously undetected outbreaks of the deadly weather combination in parts of Asia, Africa, Australia, South America and North America, including several hotspots along the US Gulf coast:

Humidity is more dangerous than dry heat alone because it impairs sweating – the body’s life-saving natural cooling system.

The number of potentially fatal humidity and heat events doubled between 1979 and 2017, and are increasing in both frequency and intensity, according to the study published in Science Advances.

In the US, the south-eastern coastal corner from eastern Texas to the Florida Panhandle experienced such extreme conditions dozens of times, with New Orleans and Biloxi, Mississippi the hardest hit.

The most extreme incidents occurred along the Persian Gulf, where the heat and humidity combination surpassed the theoretical human survivability limit on 14 occasions. Doha, the capital of Qatar, where the World Cup will be held in 2022, was among the places to suffer – albeit briefly – these potentially fatal weather events.

The ominous findings come as something of a surprise to scientists, as previous studies had projected such extreme weather events would occur later in the century, mostly in parts of the tropics and subtropics where humidity is already a problem.

“Previous studies projected that this would happen several decades from now, but this shows it’s happening right now,” said lead author Colin Raymond from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “The times these events last will increase, and the areas they affect will grow in direct correlation with global warming.”

Earlier studies relied on average heat and humidity recorded over several hours in large areas, whereas the Columbia team analysed hourly data from 7,877 individual weather stations, allowing them to pinpoint short, localized incidents.

In dry conditions, the body sweats out excess heat through the skin, where it then evaporates away. Humidity impedes evaporation, and can even halt it completely in extreme conditions. If the body’s core overheats, organs can quickly begin to fail and lead to death within hours.

Meteorologists measure the heat/humidity effect on the so-called “wet bulb” Centigrade scale, known as the “heat index”, or “real-feel” Fahrenheit readings in the US.

Even the strongest, well-adapted people cannot carry out ordinary outdoor activities like walking or digging once the wet bulb hits 32C, though most would struggle well before that. In theory, humans cannot survive above 35C on the wet bulb scale – the peak suffered in small areas of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and United Arab Emirates, according to the study.

Slightly less extreme but more frequent outbreaks were detected across India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, north-western Australia, and coastal regions along the Red Sea and Mexico’s Gulf of California.

It is possible that the migration of 'Murder Hornets' are a consequence of this climate change. Either way things do not look too bright for the human race.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Government PR disaster puts lives at risk

In a time of national crisis, the last thing we need is for the government to start spinning and briefing announcements in advance, before backtracking spectacularly, and in doing so leading people into a false sense of security and putting lives at risk.

And yet, that appears to have been what happened last week, when journalists were briefed on the contents of Boris Johnson's speech at 7pm tonight and were led to believe that the lockdown is to be significantly eased.

In reality, the Prime Minister could not take the other nations with him, and with Wales leaping in to extend lockdown for three weeks, with some minor and difficult to police concessions, it is now likely that Johnson will backtrack and follow suit.
But it does not end there. The government has now abandoned basic rules of communication of delivering a consistent and clear message that is easily understood, and started to change their messaging mid-stream for what can only be described as a confusing jumble of phrases.

The logo above is appallingly designed and will do nothing to promote behaviour change. It is too vague and not actionable. The average person understands how to stay home, save lives and protect the NHS. Ask someone how they stay alert, control the virus and how they save lives, and you will get blank looks.

For a Prime Minister who was elected because of his ability to relate to and communicate with people, this crisis is proving to be a disaster.

It is not just that their organisation of key essentials such as PPE has been incompetent, that they allowed themselves to be lulled into a false sense of security and acted too late to lockdown the country, at the cost of thousands of lives, but they cannot even get the basic messaging right to back up the decisions they have made.

The inquiry when it comes, is going to have a lot to think about.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Can a contact phone app work in a democratic society?

With lockdown extended for another three months in Wales, and with England due to follow suit, albeit with some relaxation of the rules, the UK Government appears to be placing all its hopes on us returning to normality on a phone app.

As ABC News reports, this has worked very well in China, where the Chinese government has begun to track some of its citizens through software that analyses their personal data to sort individuals into color-coded categories – red, yellow or green – corresponding to their health status and level of risk for COVID-19.

However, will it work here, where we value our freedoms and are not just suspicious of state overreach but actually have the ability to refuse to cooperate? Parliament's Human Rights Committee has some legitimate concerns.

As the Mirror reports, they want an independent scrutiny body to be created to keep tabs on how the app is being used. The app, which was designed on the advice of NCSC, an arm of GCHQ, the government's surveillance agency, is currently being tested on the Isle of Wight:

The government has claimed all the data collected by the app would be anonymous and users privacy would be protected.

But in a report pubished today the committee warned these assurances would "carry no weight" unless the government was prepared to pass a law setting out how data gathered could be "used, stored and disposed of."

NHSX has drawn criticism for choosing to gather data from users of the app in a centralised database, rather than using a system offered by Apple and Google which would store most data on the user's own phone.

Critics say the centralised version puts the data at risk of hacking and fraud.

The committee said a new body should be formed to keep tabs on the app - and it shouldn't be the Information Commissioner's Office, which was involved in the app's development.

And they warned the app would be useless if the public didn't trust the government with its data. The report said: "The amount of data the contact tracing app requires on the private and family lives of individuals is not justifiable if the app does not contribute meaningfully to the easing of lockdown restrictions and the combatting of Covid-19."

It added: "Uptake will be lower without user confidence in privacy protections—therefore robust privacy protections are themselves key to effectiveness of the app and the digital contact tracing system." The committee also called on the government to commit to reviewing the app every 21 days and to publish an impact assessment on how the data is being used.

The government claim that users can delete the app and its data whenever they want but this is not entirely accurate. While users can delete the app, and any data held on their phones, this does not delete any data held on the government's server.

While these doubts remain, it is unlikely that this app will gain the widespread acceptance it needs to be effective.

Friday, May 08, 2020

UK Government failed to learn lessons

A key 2016 report, which identified a "lack of joint tactical-level plans" for a pandemic and warned that demand for services would outstrip local capacity was not heeded by Ministers and has left us unprepared for the coronavirus crisis, according to this report in the Mirror.

They say that the analysis is based on a 2016 simulation of a flu pandemic, codenamed Exercise Cygnus, which found major issues with how well the UK was prepared:

The document identified a "lack of joint tactical-level plans" for a public health emergency, with demand for services outstripping local capacity.

The 57-page Public Health England report, leaked to The Guardian, also identified concerns that the social care system wouldn't be able to provide the level of support needed in the event of a serious outbreak.

Latest figures from the Department of Health showed 30,076 people had died in hospitals, care homes and the wider community after testing positive for coronavirus in the UK, as of 5pm on Tuesday.

It is the highest death toll in Europe, amid long-running concerns about a lack of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) among frontline health workers and care home staff, as well as worries over the Government's testing capabilities.

The document analysing the efficacy of the simulation identified four key lessons, including to be more prepared for a pandemic by better understanding of how the public would react to a worst-case scenario health crisis.

It also stated the Government was "lacking" the capability and capacity to surge resources into key areas were a pandemic to be declared.

A further 22 recommendations included:
The report concluded that "The UK's preparedness and response, in terms of its plans, policies and capability, is currently not sufficient to cope with the extreme demands of a severe pandemic that will have a nationwide impact across all sectors."

The failure to address the issues raised by this report is evident in the way that the UK Government is dealing with the present crisis. There really is a need for a rapid catch-up.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Charities on the brink?

Over at The Times, there is a disturbing report of the crisis facing many charities as a result of the lockdown. Many of the UK's 192,000 charities are facing an increase in demand for their services at the same time as a fall-off in income:

Vicky Browning, who runs an organisation for charity chief executives, says that the worst hit are those that followed advice to develop new sources of income such as shops, letting premises and providing training.

“Over the last ten or 20 years the sector has really been encouraged to professionalise, to not be so reliant on grant finding but to diversify its income,” Ms Browning says. “The irony is all of that is what has stopped. Any that were still largely reliant on grant funding are doing the better, which does seem quite cruel.”

A striking feature of the pandemic has been a reaction among many to raise money for the NHS rather than for struggling charities, regardless of the pledge by Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, to give the health service “whatever it needs, whatever it takes”.

The veteran army officer Tom Moore, the celebrity fitness coach Joe Wicks and Premiership footballers led by Jordan Henderson, of Liverpool, decided to raise money for the NHS via hospital charities. Many young people did the same with a “run 5, give 5, nominate 5” challenge on social media, which as raised £5 .5 million to support NHS staff.

Hundreds of grassroots groups sprang up on the eve of the lockdown to mobilise volunteers to support vulnerable people in their communities under the banner Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK. Not only did this movement bypass established charities, despite their expertise in vetting, training and deploying volunteers, but it refused to co-operate with them.

Bizarrely, its umbrella group advised volunteers not to work directly with charities, public bodies or the police, saying that they should “maintain their independence”.

The instinct to leave out existing charities was shared in government. Ministers surpassed expectations by recruiting 750,000 volunteers to support the NHS. For logistics they worked with a charity, the Royal Voluntary Service, but it is an NHS-branded initiative.

In March voluntary sector leaders estimated that charities would lose £4.3 billion in revenue over the next three months. Yet when they asked for government support there was a long delay before ministers allocated barely one sixth of that amount, £750 million, with many strings attached. The Treasury was reluctant and wanted to give much less, several people involved say.

The danger is that once this crisis dissipates and people turn their attention back to established charities, there may not be much left. Expertise and networks could be lost very easily as income dries up, leaving those most in need of the services offered by these organisations having nowhere to turn. Isn't it time the government recognised this and acted?

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

What's in a name?

Even as a former Welsh Assembly Member and a strong supporter of devolution, I am struggling to mark the so-called historic rebranding of the Assembly as a Welsh Parliament or Senedd with anything more than a resigned shrug.

As the BBC report, the new name is meant to reflect powers and responsibilities the institution has gained since it was set up in 1999. The names of the politicians will also change - from Assembly Members (AMs) to Members of the Senedd (MSs).

For many this will be a significant development. As the BBC says, Wales' last Parliaments were convened in Machynlleth and Harlech in the 15th Century during Owain Glyndŵr's rebellion against the English crown. In modern times it was David Lloyd George's Cymru Fydd movement that were the first to call a new Welsh Parliament to be established in the 19th Century.

This is not a move towards Independence as some will wish (and others fear), nor does it indicate any significant change to the way the Senedd operates. In fact AMs (as they then were) copped out of making the really significant constitutional reforms when they passed the bill to effect this change.

We are still waiting for an enlarged Senedd, elected by a proper PR system, which would be far more effective in holding the government to account and ensuring those laws which are passed are fit for purpose.

For most people this change will barely register a glance, if they notice at all. Devolution has delivered a great many benefits for those of us living in Wales, but the Senedd, and the government it is meant to hold to account, still has a lot to prove on the key issues that impact on us all - health, education, environment, housing and the economy.

Once we start to see real improvements in those areas, it might be appropriate for Members of the Senedd to start patting themselves on the back. In the meantime, I suggest they get back to work and stop pretending that a name-change will make any difference to our lives.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Does unrepentant Farage think he is above obeying the law?

According to the Mirror, Nigel Farage has admitted that he was visited by police officers after travelling more than 100 miles to Dover to film a video rant about migrants during Britain’s lockdown.

The trip had sparked complaints that the politician had defied the UK's stay-at-home orders when he travelled to Pett Level, a south coast beach. He later travelled further down the coast to Hastings where he interviewed members of the public.

Sussex Police confirmed they had been sent the clip, and issued a reminder of the lockdown rules in response to Mr Farage’s seaside visit. The force asked members of the public not to make non-essential journeys.

Despite this the Brexit Party leader was unrepentant. He tweeted that the police visit ‘a total waste of time and money. He wrote last night:

"Lockdown lunacy. Two police officers just knocked on my door to advise me on essential travel.

"They had received a complaint that I had been to Dover to report on the illegal migrant scandal taking place. What a total waste of time and money."

What is it exactly that makes Farage think he is above the law? He is in a position of leadership, he should be setting an example for everybody else, not putting himself and those he comes in contact with at risk.

Perhaps, if he does this again, he should be locked up and the key conveniently lost until this crisis is over.

Monday, May 04, 2020

Confusion at the heart of government?

We may well have passed the peak of infection but we have a long way to go before we are completely out of the woods. Despite that it seems likely that Boris Johnson is going to outline a road map out of lockdown later this week which, if implemented prematurely could see another round of infections and more deaths.

It would help of course if UK Ministers understood their own directives on this issue. As the Independent reports, Matt Hancock, who has responsibility for health in England, sowed some confusion over the weekend about whether those aged over 70 should be self-isolating from coronavirus or not – after appearing to muddle up the government's instructions to different groups.

He took to social media to claim that "the clinically vulnerable, who are advised to stay in lockdown for 12 weeks, emphatically DO NOT include all over 70s". That statement appears to contradict government advice that over-70s should minimise contact with the outside world, as well as Mr Hancock's own prior statements:

The government's own webpage, last updated 28 April, says that "clinically vulnerable people include anyone aged 70 or over, as well as those under 70 with an underlying health condition".

In March Mr Hancock said that over-70s would be asked to "shield" themselves by self-isolating for several months, because of increased vulnerability to Covid-19 infection.

But in a string of tweets responding to an article published in the Sunday Times, he said: "We have strongly advised all over 70s to follow social distancing measures.

"However, there is no 'blanket ban', and the suggestion that the clinically vulnerable include 'people aged 70 or older regardless of medical conditions' is wrong and deeply misleading."

But twitter users appeared confused, with one commenting: "The over 70s didn’t all shut themselves away for a laugh. You told them them they were clinically vulnerable, regardless of medical condition."

Another said the comments were "blatantly not true" and pointed to screenshots from the government's website.

The confusion appears to have been partly fuelled by the fact the government has two separate but similarly named categories, each asked to follow different requirements: "clinically vulnerable" and "clinically extremely vulnerable".

Mr Hancock appears to be wrong to say that over-70s are not automatically in the "clinically vulnerable" group – they are listed as such on the government's website on a webpage updated on 1 May.

These people are being advised to "take particular care to minimise contact with others outside your household" and follow the general lockdown guidelines more stringently than others.

Other than the elderly, this group also includes with people with underlying health conditions like asthma, COPD, emphysema, heart disease, kidney disease, and diabetes. It also includes pregnant women and those who are significantly overweight, or have a weakened immune system.

However, over-70s are not automatically in the additional "clinically extremely vulnerable" category. This second group includes organ transplant recipients; people with specific cancers, severe respiratory conditions, rare diseases; those on immune suppression therapy, and some pregnant women with heart complications.

This even stricter group is being asked to follow what the government officially refers to as "shielding", which requires people not to leave their home at all for the coming months and register for help.

If the English Heath Secretary does not understand his own government's missives then what chance do we have?

Sunday, May 03, 2020

The world turned upside down

We should be used by now to established beliefs being debunked, though with so much fake news out there it is often difficult to know what is true and what is false. Nevertheless, as a student of history, I found the claim in this Guardian article that Victoria Cross medals may not have been made from enemy guns captured during the Crimean war against Russia after all, to be a bit of a shock.

Instituted by Queen Victoria, the Victoria Cross is Britain’s highest award for valour in war and has been awarded 1,358 times. The paper says that Dr Andrew Marriott, a retired lieutenant colonel and visiting researcher at Newcastle University, has concluded that it is “highly implausible” that the medals came from Russian guns after the victory at the siege of Sevastapol in 1855:

His research led him to a newspaper report at the time, asserting that they did come from the captured guns. He also found a letter in the Times from a Crimean veteran suggesting the same thing, and so, he says, the myth was born:

Using x-ray fluorescence scans to examine the composition of Victoria Cross medals from 1856 to 2013, the research showed that part-way through the first world war, and again during the second world war, there were noticeable changes in composition, when compared with the 19th-century medals.

“Although we know that Queen Victoria decreed that the new honour be cast from bronze, there is no evidence to suggest that she wanted captured weapons from Sevastopol to be used for this purpose,” Marriott said.

“Like many at the time, the Queen saw little to celebrate from the victory at Sevastopol, and had displayed little interest in the captured Russian ordnance. The only contemporary record of a Sevastopol connection is a newspaper report of the medal ceremony in Hyde Park in 1857. The correspondent most likely conflated various stories circulating about the redistribution and recycling of captured Crimean guns.”

The 64-year-old, who spent 30 years in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, explained that Hancocks Jewellers in London has been the sole producer of the medal since its inception.

But during the first world war, Hancocks was forced to ask the War Office for a resupply of metal and, believing the myth that had been created, they turned to captured guns.

Marriott said: “Hancocks were running out of metal so asked the War Office for a resupply and it’s probable that staff in the War Office, who were probably thinking about other things than the Victoria Cross, looked at each other and asked, where do you get this metal from? By then there would have been a tradition about Sevastopol guns, so a delegation would have been sent to cut off bits of guns to supply to Hancocks.”

The current source of Victoria Cross metal is thought to be a cascabel – the round protrusion at the back of a cannon – stored at a Ministry of Defence depot in Donnington, Shropshire. Published in Post-Medieval Archaeology, the research found historical evidence that this cascabel may have been taken from a gun captured during the second Anglo-Chinese war of 1860, three years after the first Victoria Cross awards were made.

“While it’s unlikely that even the earliest medals came from the ordnance captured at Sevastopol, it is clear that most of the VCs awarded since the first world war have plausibly been sourced from the cascabels of captured guns – an important and symbolic fact for those who have received the honour in recognition of their bravery,” Marriott said.

As fascinating as this is, the real significance of course, lies in the fact that Victoria had the medal crafted in the first place to recognise those members of the armed forces who showed exemplary courage and bravery in the face of mortal danger.

The medal was awarded to 627 recipients in the first world war and to 181 in the second world war. The most recent person to receive it was Joshua Leakey from the Parachute Regiment for his involvement in a raid in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

As we approach the 75th anniversary of VE day it is important that we remember all of those who fought for the freedoms we enjoyed today, whether they were honoured or not, because the greatest honour is that we will remember them and be thankful for their sacrifice.

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Has Wales failed on testing?

Targets are always problematic. A good target can assist scrutiny, enabling us to test whether the government is performing as it should be. A poor target, one that has been set too far in the future or which is clearly rhetorical - such as we will end all homelessness by 2030 for example - can help a government avoid scrutiny, leaving us with little to measure progress against.

All governments are prone to setting poor targets, the Welsh Government more than most. Does anybody remember the pledge to make all schools fit for purpose by 2010 for example? Or the promise that all social housing would meet the Wales Housing Quality Standard by 2010? And don't get me started on Objective One.

Yesterday we learned that NHS England has hit its target for 100,000 coronavirus tests per day by the end of April. They are also hiring a team of 18,000 people to trace contacts of people with coronavirus when lockdown ends.

There was clearly a large element of spin in this claim, not to mention some dubious statistical sleight of hand - it emerged shortly afterwards that a third of the 122,347 tests included in the final 24-hour period up to the deadline were counted before they had been carried out. Around 39,000 had been sent out to households and satellite testing locations, with no guarantee of the timescale for their completion, but were still included in the count.

Nevertheless, the contrast with Wales is quite stark. Here the Welsh Government had originally planned have capacity to do 9,000 tests a day by the end of April but scrapped those plans after falling short of a mid April target of 5,000.

Scrapping an unachievable target was at least honest, but where does that leave us in being able to effectively scrutinise the Welsh Government's performance? Has Wales failed on testing? The government have made it impossible for us to answer that question.

Friday, May 01, 2020

Is the Welsh Government failing victims of domestic violence?

Two days ago I posted on the concerns of 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”.

Dame Vera Baird QC warned members of the House of Commons justice select committee that a “perfect storm” of problems is in danger of overwhelming support services for those trying to escape violent and abusive partners. This is of course a devolved issue, but the survey published by Women’s Aid on Tuesday, which found that over two-thirds of survivors contacted this month said that domestic abuse was escalating under lockdown, is disturbing.

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

Unfortunately, the Welsh Government do not appear to have got that message. According to this article on wales-on-line, Welsh Women's Aid claim that they have provided no extra cash to deal with domestic violence since the coronavirus crisis began.

They say that the £1.2m to fund community accommodation and £200,000 for furnishings, announced by Welsh Ministers, were already allocated - the £1.2 million was originally announced in December 2019 and the £200,000 is a 2019/20 capital underspend which had been promised last quarter:

In a damning letter to deputy minister and chief whip, Jane Hutt, Welsh Women's Aid CEO Sara Kirkpatrick accused the Welsh Government of "giving false hope to survivors".

She wrote: "While the Welsh Government continues to allude to funds in its announcements, there appears to be a clear disconnect between this and the process of money being allocated to front line VAWDASV (violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence) services.

"This gives false hope to survivors that services will continue to have the capacity to meet their needs, when in reality, we know that even before this crisis 512 survivors were unable to be supported in refuges because of a lack of service space, capacity or resources."

This is strong stuff from a sector, which in the past has been accused of kow-towing to Ministers. Surely the Welsh Government should respond with a proper allocation of money and resources to deal with this escalating problem.

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