Coronavirus: lasting damage

Monday 25 May 2020  

So, those who loathe Johnson will continue to loathe him. His supporters will exult, and continue to support him - and Cummings will stay in post. Nothing has changed, for the time being.

In a sense, though, everything has changed. The headline we see on the front page of the Mail is perhaps the most critical from this newspaper since Johnson assumed office as prime minister. The Rubicon has been crossed.

At a more practical level, there are probably several things to watch for. Firstly, there is obviously discontent within the Conservative parliamentary party. And even if the Mail is exaggerating with this report, there is a situation that needs to be addressed.

Secondly, but probably harder to judge, there will be some resentment in the country at the apparent "one rule for them, one for us" attitude of this government, which may translate into increased reluctance to obey lockdown rules, and more confrontations with the police.

Certainly, that seems to be the view of the police themselves, who are reported as saying that the Cummings controversy will make lockdown "impossible" to enforce.

Thus, senior figures fear that lockdown policing is "dead in the water" and that the public will rely on the "Cummings defence" when challenged, leaving the police with their authority completely undermined.

Johnson's response may also further embolden the opposition, giving Keir Starmer yet more ammunition with which to attack the prime minister, both in parliament when it resumes, and in sympathetic media organs, which will have no hesitation in exploiting any appearance of disarray within the Tory ranks.

Then, overall, this whole episode has had the effect of distracting attention from any number of Covid-related issues, from other political matters and events, the effects of which are difficult to assess at the moment.

The one thing of which we can be certain is that this is an extraordinary situation, where an aide to the prime minister becomes the political story of the day, and has the prime minister personally springing to his defence, in what is quite obviously a display of personal loyalty rather than a clinical assessment of the charges against Cummings.

Such a situation in politics is one I cannot recall, ever. Prime ministers on occasions have in the past risen to the defence of cabinet colleagues, and sometimes put themselves in the line of fire. But there is no instance that I know of where the most senior politician in the country has gone out so far on a limb for a mere aide.

That, in itself, might tell a great deal about the way our politics have developed, if it even needs saying, and of the Rasputin-like grip Cummings seems to have on the prime minister. And one can speculate about the character and the temperament of the prime minister, and his dependence on such a controversial figure.

It would be wrong, though, to suggest that the media are equally split on this issue. The Telegraph - so often the cheerleaders for the Johnson fan club, heads its website (at the time of writing) with the headline: "Alarm in Cabinet that Boris Johnson's decision to back Dominic Cummings could cost lives".

This less than unequivocal support illustrates how cabinet colleagues – like the police – have expressed fear that the move risked "seriously undermining" the government's lockdown strategy. Some even suggested the support for Cummings could cost lives because the public will use it as justification for ignoring social distancing.

One Cabinet source has told the Telegraph: "The discussion among Cabinet ministers at the moment is that this will cost lives. People will look at this and decide that if Dom can ignore the rules so can they, and the consequence of that will be that people get infected who would have otherwise stayed at home. This has massively undermined the lockdown message".

Government scientific advisers have apparently gone even further, saying that Johnson has "trashed" the advice they had given him on how to build trust in measures needed to keep coronavirus under control. Needless to say, the Guardian takes a stronger line, focusing on the prime minister and arguing that Johnson, with an unscheduled appearance at the Downing Street daily presser, "has staked his political reputation on saving the career of Cummings".

The paper notes that the prime minister did not deny that Cummings travelled from his parents' farm to Barnard Castle at a time when non-essential journeys were banned, insisting only that he had self-isolated for 14 days.

As one might expect, the Guardian commentariat is in full flow, led by John Crace, who has long shown that he has very little time for the prime minister. He writes:
Boris Johnson is no more than Dominic Cummings's sock-puppet. A fairly shabby one at that. The reality is that without Classic Dom, there could be no Boris. All that Boris really amounts to is a parasitical ball of compromised ambition fuelled by a viral overload of neediness and cowardice. There is no substance or dignity left within the prime minister. His only instinct is his own survival.
Not often does any political commentator (friend or foe) describe the statements of a sitting prime minister as "incoherent drivel", but that is what Crace is doing. In saving Dom – for the time being at least, he writes, "Boris had tossed away the credibility of his own government. He has been stripped bare and exposed as not very bright, lacking in judgment and completely amoral".

Within an hour, Crace concludes, "he had not only defended the indefensible, he had basically told the nation they were free to do as they please. If there is a second coronavirus peak, Boris will have even more blood on his hands".

For sheer hostility, though, there is nothing to beat the Mirror, which has shared with the Guardian the toil of investigating Cummings.

Its front page headlines proclaim: "A cheat and a coward" in very large capitals, with mug shots of Cummings and Johnson. The one is the cheat and the other is the coward. That paper having a "gutless" Johnson saying that it is "OK" for Cummings to flout the rules.

Only the Murdoch press takes a really neutral line, though. The Times offers the fairly anodyne headline: "Cummings acted like any father, insists PM", while The Sun has "Backed – BoJo stands by top aide".

One has to go to the inside pages of The Times to find Clare Foges writing that "the arrogance and hypocrisy of the PM's adviser, and ministers' defence of him, will do lasting damage to this government". The editorial view is that Cummings is "not out of the woods".

And there The Times meets up with the Telegraph which takes a robust line on the affair. Johnson's personal loyalty to Dominic Cummings, it says, "is commendable but is it in the best interests of the country?" The Prime Minister's first duty is to the UK, it asserts, not to the career of his chief adviser.

In the paper's view, Johnson "appears to have gambled mightily" that the central role occupied by Cummings in his government is so important that it offsets the damage it is doing, "which is considerable". The prime minister "risks jeopardising the entire anti-Covid strategy" which, "unquestionably", has been harmed by the way this affair has been handled.

As to whether in fact Cummings did what he is said to have done, and is guilty as not yet charged, seems to have been lost in the noise. But even the Telegraph suggests that there is prima facie evidence that he has broken the rules.

And as long as that is the prevailing impression, there will be public discontent. While there is no closure, the affair will remain in the headlines, drowning out other news. There can be no doubt that the government has suffered lasting harm, and this isn't even over yet.

Richard North 25/05/2020 link

Coronavirus: the second Cummings

Sunday 24 May 2020  

The Observer digs into the story, declaring: "New witnesses cast doubt on Dominic Cummings's lockdown claims", with the claim that an eyewitness saw him 30 miles away from his isolation site.

Thus, we have the Sunday Mirror headlining: "Cummings broke lockdown twice" – the second Cummings indeed – although the Mail on Sunday has Johnson's "maverick ally" breaking lockdown rules three times.

By way of contrast, The Sunday Telegraph screams "totally false", and has Cummings deny the "fresh claims", while the prime minister and cabinet ministers rush to "shore up" his position.

Meanwhile, the Sunday Times publishes a long report telling us that "three weeks of dither and delay" on coronavirus "cost thousands of British lives". Although the paper has it that scientists, politicians, academics and advisers "reveal the inside story" of the ministers' desperate battle with the virus before the country finally locked down, it actually tells us very little we didn't already know.

The report, however, breathlessly tells us that the intrepid Sunday Times reporters "found that a key government committee was informed at the beginning of the month by its two top modelling teams that Britain was facing a catastrophic loss of life without drastic action".

By then, they tell us, "any hope of containing the virus through contact tracing had fallen through because the government had failed to adequately increase its testing capacity in January and February". 

And yet, while we are also informed that the government was intent on pursuing a "contain" and "delay" policy, "based on the flu model", the reporters fail completely to explore the ramifications of this. Thus, while the explanation for the lack of government activity stares them in the face, they do not understand what they themselves are reporting.

Interestingly, they make great play of the government allowing the four-day Cheltenham festival to go ahead, with the Festival organisers stating that "government guidance" was for the business of the country "to continue as usual while ensuring we adhere to and promote the latest public health advice".

So intent are the reporters on their "secret squirrel" stuff, though, that they can't bring themselves to read the published scientific advice. Perhaps someone should stamp a copy "top secret" and drop it on the pavement outside the Sunday Times building.

Nevertheless, we can reveal that the government believes there are "limited data" indicating that mass gatherings are associated with influenza transmission. Some evidence, it says, suggests that restricting mass gatherings together with other behavioural interventions may help to reduce transmission, but this would be insufficient to consider restrictions by default in a pandemic.

For this it relies on a 72-page document, the latest version of which was published in May 2014. But just to make sure that no one reads it, it is prominently labelled: "Impact of Mass Gatherings on an Influenza Pandemic", as part of the government's scientific evidence base review.

This reports that "there is no convincing evidence that major organised sporting events are associated with significantly increased influenza transmission in those attending the event" and thus concludes that, "in all but the most severe pandemics, compulsory restrictions offer little advantage given the delicate economic and political balance associated with mass gathering restrictions".

Undoubtedly, that was the advice that Johnson was getting – the assumption being fairly sound, as this is actually the official government position. Thus, the prime minister would have been told that the evidence was "not strong enough to warrant advocating legislated restrictions".

As to the definitive policy, this was set out in the 2011 plan which, under the heading, "business as usual", stated:
During a pandemic, the Government will encourage those who are well to carry on with their normal daily lives for as long and as far as that is possible, whilst taking basic precautions to protect themselves from infection and lessen the risk of spreading influenza to others. The UK Government does not plan to close borders, stop mass gatherings or impose controls on public transport during any pandemic.
This policy has been around for ten years, published and unchanged – accessible to anyone who cares to look it up on the government website. When the likes of Sunday Times reporters airily note that the government response was "based on the flu model", the very least they could do is look up that policy and find out what it says.

What we see, therefore, is the basic mistake of failing to produce a plan specifically for diseases such as Covid-19, and then a lack of flexibility in adapting speedily when the situation looked as if it was getting out of hand.

Nevertheless, the Sunday Times comment is pathetic. It complains that "the government had failed to adequately increase its testing capacity in January and February", which meant that "any hope of containing the virus through contact tracing had fallen through". It seems incapable of understanding that, with Public Health England having only 260 staff devoted to contact tracing, an increase in testing capacity would have made very little difference.

Why the media seems to be having such difficulty with this is rather perplexing. The issues have been well aired, with former secretary of state Jeremy Hunt complaining that the service had been cut to the bone. And yet the media continues to ignore the implications.

Interestingly, things might at last be about to change. Firstly, a letter from the NHS Confederation on 20 May complained about weaknesses in the government's "test, track and trace" strategy, stating: "we cannot emphasise too strongly how important it is that local organisations and systems are involved alongside Public Health England".

Then, in a response only two days later - suggesting an element of coordination – the government announced that it was providing £300 million additional funding for local authorities to support new test and trace service.

Local authorities, the press release said, will be central to supporting the new test and trace service across England, with each local authority being given funding to develop tailored outbreak control plans, working with local NHS and other stakeholders. Work on the plans was to start immediately, focused on identifying and containing potential outbreaks in places such as workplaces, housing complexes, care homes and schools.

That we are nearly three months into this epidemic and only now is the government recognising the vital role of local authorities is an absolute scandal, but the news of the development drifted out with very little media comment.

And today, the media is saturated with the news of the second Cummings, while "secret squirrel" reporters elsewhere ignore the real issues in their pursuit of "exclusives" that they can claim to have revealed.

This is all so tedious. I shall have to attend once more to my mental health needs and build another model. My stance on this, is that I am only building one model – the inside of Bovington tank museum. So far, Mrs EU Referendum does not seem convinced.

But my argument is a lot more plausible than anything we have on offer from the media this weekend.

Richard North 24/05/2020 link

Politics: The Great Deception revised

Saturday 23 May 2020  

Readers will, no doubt, be comforted to learn from the Department of Health and Social Care that "life changes due to the Coronavirus outbreak may cause you to feel anxious and stressed".

I wonder if our gifted public servants have ever paused to think that this sort of "No shit Sherlock!" commentary is precisely why anyone with ambitions of holding on to their sanity avoids the Department's website like the plague, if for no other reason than to limit one's exposure to the mind-numbing diet of patronising trivia that comes from this source.

Despite that, it's almost impossible to be unaware that it is mental health awareness week, an event that has been awarded its own Twitter hashtag. This comes complete with unasked-for advice, specifically for men, on how to avoid mental health problems.

One wonders how the "Blitz" generation of the 1940s would have responded to such advice, or what the troops on the front line would have thought about a society that is so self-absorbed that it needs to be hectored by paid civil-servants, telling them how to live their lives.

Interestingly, "tips" common to most of the mental health websites are suggestions to take up a hobby and to develop new skills – strategies that many people have already worked out for themselves.

At a personal level, I've returned to my boyhood hobby of making plastic models. But recently, I managed to acquire another 1/72 Revell Flower class corvette from ebay, at such a low price that it must have been a mistake.

This time round, though, I'm going to take the construction up a level, replacing many of the plastic components with what are called "photo-etch" – sheet brass parts which have to be cut out, assembled and soldered.

For me, soldering is an entirely new activity (I can't say "skill" – I don't have it). I've never tried it before and, after much trial and error, I've managed to put together the first of the assemblies (pictured). This is the "bandstand" – the gun platform for the afterdeck, on which is mounted the two-pounder "pom-pom" anti-aircraft gun. The diameter of the platform is two inches.

It's taken me a week to build and will need an amount of filler and remedial work if it is ever to be used. But it's a start. My problem now is that my index fingers are so spotted with burns from accidents with the soldering iron that I'm now having to type with my middle fingers. Perhaps that's appropriate, given what I've been writing about.

Something not conducive to my mental health though is a task that I have been given by my publisher. I am to update The Great Deception for a new, fourth edition to be released next year. Its publication will mark the point at which it is anticipated the transition period will end and we will be fending for ourselves in a world fundamentally changed by Covid-19, most likely without a comprehensive (or any) trade deal with the EU.

This means writing up the events of the last sixteen years since TGD was updated (having been first published in 2003) – in what must be one of the most tumultuous periods for our relations with the EU, taking in the Lisbon Treaty, the financial crisis, the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan and, of course, the referendum and its aftermath. That will include (as far as I can) the joint impact of Covid-19 and the current negotiations with the EU.

The downside of this endeavour, however, is that I am under the strictest of instructions that the book must be no longer than the current 656 pages - for every word I add, one must be removed. My problem here is that Booker, who held the pen, has done what he was best at – compressing huge amounts of information into the text. It is so tightly written that the editing will be extremely difficult.

Nevertheless, this project will be a labour of love, and will keep me heavily engaged to the end of the year. The narrative starts well before the process of building what was to become the European Union got under way, with a discussion of the battle of Verdun in 1916, which is the acknowledged spiritual and intellectual home of the EU.

To this day, though, I still think we have written the best history of the early events which, with his partner - the English (then) civil servant Arthur Salter – Jean Monnet came to establish as early as 1926 the basic framework for the core institutions which comprise the EU as it is today.

When it came to 2003, though, when we finished the first edition, we had no idea how events would turn out in 2016 when the Brexit referendum was held – still less of the events after the referendum leading to our present position.

Those eighteen years ago, we wrote as our subtitle to The Great Deception, "Can the European Union survive" but, as we anticipate events in the near future, we could just as well have asked: "Can the United Kingdom survive?".

Certainly, our membership of the European Union, and its predecessors, have created unique stresses in British politics, leaving us with an unbridgeable divide which shows no signs of healing.

Far from the referendum allowing the British people to "take back control", we seem to have handed power to a self-referential claque which is wedded to extending the power of central government and destroying the last vestiges of local political autonomy. If the intent was to restore democracy to this benighted land, it has singularly failed.

That said, when we wrote the Epilogue to TGD, Booker headed it: "Deception or Self-Deception". As much as Monnet had been duplicitous in concealing his real intentions in promoting European political integration, the real deception came in what our own politicians sold to the British people and in what so many of the British people believed the EEC and then the EU to be.

No greater self-deception can be seen than in the Tory Europhiles throughout the period, who constructed a narrative that the EU was about cooperation between nations and then, primarily, a trade agreement – denying the onward march of political integration.

In that sense, our battle was less with the European Union than it was our own politicians, and then with our own parliament – the one institution that kept us in the EU without our consent.

The Deception, therefore, merges with the self-deception of our political elites who seemed to believe that, for all time, they could keep the UK in the EU, through successive integrationalist treaties without going back to the people to ask for a renewal of their consent.

When it came to the referendum, the complacent view was that the people would vote for the status quo, and no real (or any serious) attempt was made by the "remain" campaign to sell the benefits of EU membership to an increasingly sceptical public. If there was a positive case to be made, the remainers failed to make it.

Sadly, as I will now have to recount, the "leave" campaign was effectively hijacked by that self-referential claque which is currently in power and doing so much damage to this nation – proving inept not only with the Brexit negotiations but also with the management of the Covid-19 epidemic.

Thus, although I will now be writing about the conclusion of our period of membership of the European Union, I fear this will not be the last chapter in a saga which has a long way to go yet.

Oddly, it may not even be the politics which define the final chapter but a microorganism called SARS-Cov-2, which may have more impact on events than the entire weight of the political elite.

But, if in 2003 we had no idea what 2021 would look like, I suspect that we have even less idea what 2039 might deliver – that being as far in the future as we were in the past when we completed TGD. The one thing no one can deny is that it was an epic ride and, for once, I get a stab at writing the history.

It may be a little time before I see my corvette model completed.

Richard North 23/05/2020 link

Politics: countdown to unpopularity

Friday 22 May 2020  

"The pandemic is not going away. Instead, it is exposing the government's failures and inadequacies more brutally with every day that passes". So says the Guardian. And, for once, it's not wrong.

In different ways, and at different times, Pete and I have been saying the same of Brexit, and with the UK corner of the pandemic – its very own epidemic - we have two layers of stress testing. Arguably, either one is capable of causing this government to self-destruct. And, by that measure, the combination will almost certainly be fatal.

As to the Covid-19 epidemic, the problem for the government is that – as I wrote not so long ago – you can't bullshit a virus. The Johnson administration can pull all the crowd-pleasing stunts it likes, but a contented fan base is not going to resolve this crisis. Only hard science and sound epidemiological practice will do that – and this government is devoid of either.

In a sense, the problem with Brexit is the same – despite Johnson's attempts, along with his representative, David Frost – you can't bullshit the EU. The "colleagues" are no more amenable to the charm of the shambles of a man that Johnson has become, than is SARS-Cov-2. And in resolving this crisis to come, the government is all at sea. It doesn't have the first idea of what to do.

On top of all this – waiting in the wings – is the government's answer to climate change: net zero. With the banning of internal combustion engines supposedly scheduled for 2035, we are only looking at three full parliamentary terms before the first phase. There is less time to go to this event than the period between Blair's administration and this incumbent's tenure.

Even with the Covid-19 epidemic, things cannot be the same – not for a long time. It would be extremely rash to assume that a vaccine will be available this year, and it is still uncertain whether a working vaccine is even possible. And, while the Telegraph is happily reporting that "there are encouraging signs of Covid-19 being suppressed", this lies in the realms of fantasy.

On that score, its editorial, calling for Johnson to tell the nation that "we are winning the battle against Covid-19", is delusional, It seriously believes Johnson's boast that a "world-beating" test, track and trace system will be up and running from 1 June, with the paper trilling that: "The battle is being won", asserting: "The Prime Minister can claim credit for it".

For sure, the warnings of a second wave may be overheated. But, despite the Telegraph blathering about pockets in the country "where the virus is being stamped out", it is still out there, in multiple reservoirs of infection with a host population which is still largely susceptible to the disease. We may experience a temporary hiatus over the summer, but we will be very lucky to avoid a resurgence during the autumn and winter.

A harbinger comes with the Swedish experience (paywall), where – despite the attempt at inducing herd immunity, only 7.3 percent of Stockholm residents had coronavirus antibodies – and the "soft lockdown" has been rewarded with the highest Covid-19 per capita death rate in Europe. Relaxations of the lockdown in the UK could deliver similar effects.

Johnson's administration could, of course, anticipate this event, and introduce effective control measures – specifically, a workable trace, test and isolate regime. Applied now and though the summer, these could dampen down the case rate and keep it within the realms of the tolerable. But this won't happen. This government's fatal flaw is an overweening arrogance that prevents it from even admitting the possibility of error, much less responding to it, and improving its performance.

But even if the government was to undergo an epiphany, recognising that most of the measures it is implementing will not exert effective control over this epidemic, it is probably too difficult and too late to secure the sort of changes necessary to tame a potential winter epidemic. Years of decay in the public health system and the dead hand of centralisation cannot be reversed overnight – or even in a matter of months.

A timely illustration of this comes from the Manchester Evening News which reports that public health officials and local leaders still have no idea how many people are testing positive for the Covid-19 virus in Greater Manchester, "due to continued chaos within the national system".

The new antibody test, available to identify whether people have been exposed to infection (but not necessarily whether they are immune) will not make any difference here, and neither will the availability of a rapid test to detect people carrying the infection.

The problem is the way the test results are collated, in separate databases, processed by completely different systems. As collected, they cannot be broken down to local level and therefore cannot be usefully shared with councils. Thus, local officials complain that there are an enormous number of people being tested "but we don't know who they are, where they work, we don't know what their results are".

With a government so firmly committed to its top-down approach, changing the system to make it more accessible would first require a commitment to localism which simply is not part of its DNA. And without the political will, fundamental changes are not going to be made. Yet, on the other hand, without that localism, the government's control measures are not going to work.

A similar paradox exists with Brexit. Without a commitment to an extension of the transition period, it will not be possible to secure a comprehensive trade deal with the EU in the time. Yet, this government seems to be determined on a confrontational path that is more likely then anything to end up with a "no-deal" scenario. Even a "bare bones" deal would be little better.

But, as with the Covid-19 epidemic – where the government is impervious to reason – there is no political will for a more emollient approach to the EU. Confrontation seems to be hard-wired into the Johnson administration.

To an extent, the epidemic and Brexit seem to be feeding off each other. We have heard suggestions that the government feels more inclined to take a hard line with the EU because so many of the predicted outcomes of a "no-deal" scenario have already materialised as a result of Covid-19. Thus, many of the downside effects of a complete break with the EU can be blamed on an inanimate virus.

If this is the intention of the government, it is making a grave mistake. Even if concealed in part by the Covid-19 epidemic, the effects of a "no-deal" will be real and they can only aggravate the already severe economic pain that this country is already suffering.

Should a new winter Covid-19 peak coincide with the end of the transition period, with no agreement reached, the combined effects could substantially intensify the recession and delay our recovery from it. And then there is the collateral damage, as the death toll from untreated cancers and other life-threatening ailments come to be reckoned.

All this points to Johnson's luck running out. Already, there are signs that the political honeymoon is over – the Guardian has no monopoly of perception. By the winter, we will have a morose population that has not enjoyed a proper summer break (for which many people live), and economic hardship will be biting like never before.

Add to that the very real spectre of commodity shortages as supply chains come under further stress, and an unwelcome dose of inflation, and discontent could acquire a sharp political edge and embolden the opposition.

Should the government then be forced to re-introduce some lockdown measures, the long nights of winter could bring with them a very sombre mood which could boil over into discontent – especially as Christmas is likely to lack much of its traditions. And yet, there will be no quick fixes and Johnson's boyish charms will have long ceased to protect him from the political fallout.

To add to his woes, the incessant drumbeat of fault-finding – against the ever-present prospect of a public enquiry- and with the media picking at the details of the government's actions, gradually exposing the errors, will further erode his political authority and credibility – what little he has left.

This time, though, there will be no general election to act as an escape route. Johnson and his second-rate team of ministers will have to stand their ground, and take the responsibility for their own actions. And, in the political context of a recessionary winter, there will be little tolerance for the bluster and bravado which is the stock-in-trade of this government.

So far, Johnson has had the good fortune to be a popular prime minister with a weak opposition. By January, in the grip of recession, with EU trade evaporating and disease and death rampant, he may experience a level of unpopularity, with which he cannot cope.

It is then that the mettle of the government will really be tested, and there are many who will be unsurprised if it fails the test.

Richard North 22/05/2020 link

Coronavirus: another day for lying

Thursday 21 May 2020  

One wonders why the "forensic mind" of Keir Starmer couldn't come up with something better for what was a rather lacklustre PMQs.

"In the United Kingdom, despite two million tests having been carried out, there has been no effective tracing in place since 12 March, when tracing was abandoned", the leader of the opposition said. "That is nearly ten weeks in a critical period without effective tracing".

As a way of setting himself up for a killer question, I suppose, that wasn't too bad. But then all we got was this: "That is a huge hole in our defences, isn’t it, prime minister?"

To me, this hardly seems to be a QC-type question. Rather, it was woolly and open-ended, giving the prime minister far too much latitude. But, even then, Johnson's response was typically economical with the truth.

The "learned gentleman", he declared, had been given "repeated briefings" on the matter and he was "perfectly aware of the situation in the UK as regards testing and tracing in early March". This, said Johnson "has been explained many times to him and to the House".

We have, of course, no means of knowing what has been passed directly to Starmer by way of personal briefings, but an interesting facet of the Commons record is how little the contact tracing situation has even been discussed, much less explained.

Certainly there was no warning to the House that community contact tracing was to be abandoned. For instance, as of 9 March, MPs were assured that "contact tracing is still under way for all cases, including where the route of transmission is not yet clear".

Then, on 11 March - a day before testing ceased, health secretary Matt Hancock was referring to the infection of Nadine Dorries. "Public Health England", he told the House, "has world-class expertise in contact tracing, which it initiated as soon as her case was confirmed".

He then added: "PHE will contact anyone whom it thinks may need testing". At that point, they had considerably less than 24 hours to do the follow-ups, but then we were never told the results.

By the 16 March, contact tracing had been formally abandoned for four days, yet Hancock was preening himself in front of the House, boasting that: "Our actions have meant that the spread of the virus has been slowed in the UK", whence he paid tribute to the officials of Public Health England and the NHS "for their exemplary approach to contact tracing and their work so far".

At no point had Hancock actually told the House that contact tracing had been formally discontinued. That opened the way for shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth, during the second reading of the coronavirus Bill on 23 March. Well into the debate, he noted:
We need more testing, we need more contact tracing and we need more isolation to break the chains of transmission. The World Health Organisation has famously instructed the world to test, test, test - and we agree.
If Ashworth actually knew that contact tracing had been abandoned for 11 days, he gave no sign of it, and nor did former secretary of state Jeremy Hunt, who took up the call, declaring:
all our public focus has been on social distancing, but testing and contact tracing to break the chain of transmission are every bit as important, if not more important. Those countries that have turned back the virus rigorously track and test every case and every suspected case, then identify every single person with whom a Covid-19 patient has been in contact to take them out of circulation. As a result, those countries have avoided the dramatic measures and some of the economic damage that we have seen in Europe.
Continuing with that theme, he added: "Now is the time for a massive national mobilisation behind testing and contact tracing", and then he said:
Contact tracing is manpower-intensive, yet Public Health England has just 280 people devoted to this. We probably need 280 people in every city and county in the country. Every local government official doing planning applications, every civil servant working on non-corona issues and volunteers all should be mobilised in this vital national task.
Even then he had not finished, making a final input on the subject with this intervention:
Testing is also vital for the economy. If we are going to have a year of stop-go as we try to protect the NHS if the virus comes back, testing and contact tracing allows an infinitely more targeted approach and way to control the spread of the virus than economic measures that are much more blunderbuss and do much more damage.
If Hancock, who was present at the opening of the debate, even heard these comments is not clear - but neither he nor any government representative responded. There was and had been no statement telling members that contact tracing had been abandoned.

The very next day, though, on 24 March, there was a Covid-19 update from Hancock. Much of the concern was about testing and social distancing, yet Jonathan Ashworth did observe that, "Enforced social distancing is welcome … but in many ways it is a blunt tool without ramping up testing and contact tracing".

Following that, we saw an intervention from SNP MP Owen Thompson, who referred to the "Keeling Study", which had been published by the government on 20 March, noting that contact tracing has the potential to control Covid-19, although ultimate success relied on the speed and efficacy with which suspect contacts could be contained.

With this in mind, Thompson directly addressed Hancock, asking him: "is the secretary of state ensuring that we have rapid and effective contact tracing? The review showed that such action could reduce the number of people infected by each case from 3.11 to 0.21, and that would be a significant step towards greater containment of the current outbreak".

Then, and only then, can I find any formal admission from the government that contact tracing might have been curtailed, but without any suggestion that it had been abandoned. In response to Thompson, Hancock said:
The hon. Gentleman is right that contact tracing is incredibly important, and the amount of contact tracing that we have done is one of the reasons why we have managed to be behind other European countries in the curve. At this stage in the epidemic, it is not possible to have contact tracing for everybody, as we can when there is a very small number. We are looking at how we can do that better and enable individuals to contact trace, including by using technology.
This was twelve days after contact tracing had been completely abandoned, yet all Hancock could admit was that, "it is not possible to have contact tracing for everybody". Technically, this could be considered a lie by omission. It certainly was not a fulsome statement on the state of play.

Thus, for Johnson yesterday to say that, as regards testing and tracing in early March, this "has been explained many times to … the House", is simply not true. The House has never been properly (or at all) informed of the reasons why tracing was abandoned, which is doubtless why the Commons Science and Technology Committee is pursuing the issue so assiduously.

Nevertheless, bouncing off Starmer's question, Johnson burbled that he was confident we would have a test and trace operation. He also claimed that: "we have already recruited 24,000 trackers, and by 1 June we will have 25,000. They will be capable of tracking the contacts of 10,000 new cases a day".

The Guardian tells us about these "trackers", and how they lack knowledge of the job and are getting the most perfunctory training. Even the recruits describe the training as "shambolic and inadequate". But for Johnson, this is no matter. His rhetoric got him through another day, a wholly unexceptional day - just another day for lying.

Richard North 21/05/2020 link

Coronavirus: the blame game

Wednesday 20 May 2020  

While the government slips out its negotiation position with the EU, the coronavirus crisis continues. The Brexit crisis can wait – it will have its day, if there's anything left.

Meanwhile, our current crisis seems to be moving into a new phase. As the pressure mounts, the key players are looking over their shoulders and anticipating the public inquiry to come. And if there is honour amongst thieves, the same cannot be said for our esteemed public servants. The cracks are beginning to show.

For the moment, the major fault line seems to be between the politicians and scientists and, in the blue corner is work and pensions secretary, Thérèse Coffey (pictured). Chatting with Sky News, she took the opportunity to defend her government's position, saying that "wrong" advice at start of the  epidemic could have led to mistakes.

This intervention has been enthusiastically picked up by the legacy media, not least The Times (paywall), this paper turning Coffey's diffident "could" into a suggestion that mistakes made by the government in its early response to the coronavirus crisis "were because ministers got the 'wrong' advice from scientists".

Defending her own position, Coffey had told Sky News: "You can only make judgments and decisions based on the information and advice that you have at the time", then adding: "If the science was wrong, advice at the time was wrong, I'm not surprised if people will then think we then made a wrong decision".

Nevertheless, she did concede that: "We are getting advice from the scientists. It is for ministers to decide on policy", then claiming: "We have tried to take, every step of the way, making sure that we listen to the science, understand the science, and make decisions based on that".

Elsewhere, Coffey – who seems to have had a busy morning – explained further to the BBC about the problems with the testing regime. 'We had a small amount of capacity at the very start", she said. "It was solely based on Public Health England's capability of being able to have about 2,000 tests a day".

From The Times, though, we learn that Coffey's comments came after the incoming head of the Royal Society had warned ministers to stop saying "we are simply doing what the scientists tell us".

This is Sir Adrian Smith, who takes the view that the "extraordinary amounts of uncertainty" with new viruses has been played down in a political environment where ministers felt they needed to appear decisive. Thus, he concludes, any backlash over the handling of the epidemic would not be aimed at the scientists because politicians made the decisions.

"The danger", Smith thinks, "is if the politicians keep saying, 'We're simply doing what the scientists tell us'. That could be awkward. Politicians ultimately must make the decisions".

"There will be a post-mortem on this", he avers. "But I think the use of science and the re-establishment of experts is something that won't go away. And I think it won't be the backlash that, you know, the scientists, got it wrong". It had been a failing of the government’s coronavirus strategy that much of the decision-making had gone on behind closed doors.

However, these two are not the only players in the blame game. The Mail is exulting in the label "boffin blame game", citing Dame Angela McLean, chief science adviser at the Ministry of Defence at yesterday's Downing Street presser.

She says that ministers dropped vital coronavirus contact tracing too early in the outbreak because Public Health England (PHE) "did not have capacity" to test enough people. This is seen as "furious finger-pointing" over the failures in the handling of the epidemic, with McLean saying that the advice given to ministers to abandon efforts to track individual cases "took account of the testing that was available".

"With the testing [capacity] we had, the right thing to do was to focus it on people who were really sick in hospital ... it was the right thing to do at the time", she said, leading to the formal community testing programme being abandoned on 12 March.

Then entering the fray was Duncan Selbie, chief executive of PHE. In front of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, he denied responsibility for the UK's testing strategy, saying that this had been led by the Department of Health and Social Care.

As to allegations that PHE prevented tests in private labs, Selbie insisted that "any testing facility with the right technology" could have conducted them after security restrictions had been lowered on 3 March. "PHE did not constrain or seek to control any laboratory either public, university or commercial from conducting testing", he claimed.

These, though, are only the latest in the war of words that seems set to become increasingly bitter, as the government fails to get a grip on the Covid-19 epidemic and looks for scapegoats.

Already, we've seen the opening shots from the Science and Technology Committee, which in its recent letter to prime minister Johnson had a pop at PHE, declaring that its failure to publish the evidence on which its testing policy was based "is unacceptable for a decision that may have had such significant consequences".

Yet, with this, as with much of the speculation, there is a seam of intellectual laziness and superficiality which is dogging inquiries. The Science and Technology Committee, for instance, prefers to rely on oral evidence from the great and the good, instead of getting stuck in to a review of all the evidence – much of which is in document form.

There is also excessive reliance on the media "take", with the "secret squirrel" findings dominating much of the thinking. Most commentators are also constrained by a timeframe which is far too tight, rarely going back further than the 2016 Exercise Cygnus.

Most of all, I suspect, there is a very limited grasp of the way governments actually work, and almost no understanding of the complex bureaucracy of the NHS, its funding arrangements and its governance. This 2013 report, for instance, pointed to the difficulties which PHE might have in a pandemic, where it has neither the authority nor the budget to carry out major sampling exercises or contact tracing.

Crucially, any evaluation of the government's performance must look at a timeline which goes back to 2005, and embraces multiple plans produced and agreed by successive governments. When it comes to the testing, therefore, the likes of Angela McLean have turned reality upside down. It was not a lack of capacity which led the government to abandon community testing and contact tracing.

Working to the pandemic influenza plan as it was, there was never any intention of mounting an extensive community testing programme. It was always intended that, once the detection and assessment phases were over, community testing should be ended. That was a fundamental part of the plan, in place since 2011. Thus, there was no capacity for extensive community testing, because it wasn't thought necessary.

As for some of the other seemingly inexplicable actions of the government – such as allowing the Cheltenham Festival to go ahead – its stance had been long agreed, going back to 2011 when the "science" was settled and the rationale published.

Here in the "Scientific Summary of Pandemic Influenza & its Mitigation", we see the Department of Health state that "there is no convincing evidence that major organised sporting events are associated with significantly increased influenza transmission in those attending the event", which was precisely the finding that guided ministers.

To frustrate the "secret squirrel" merchants, though, this scientific evidence review is published, and if media and political researchers got off their backsides and followed the extensive library of published material, much of that which is currently speculation would become clear.

Oddly enough, Sir Adrian Smith opines that, when it comes to government advice, "openness and transparency would have been by far the better option", evidently unaware of quite how much has actually been published. It is much easier it is to complain about secrecy than spend the time reading the public record. Even Hunt (paywall) is playing this game.

Nevertheless, having different commentators blindly lashing out, each airing their own particular brands of ignorance, provides just the sort of material that the legacy media loves. There is enough fuel here for endless episodes of the soap opera, which is why we are going to see a great deal more of this.

Richard North 20/05/2020 link

Coronavirus: the honeymoon is over

Tuesday 19 May 2020  

Both the Telegraph and Guardian sketch-writers are today remarking on the weariness of Matt Hancock, the mendacious health secretary.

In more normal times, his plight might evoke some sympathy. Holding down the top job in the department of health is hard enough, but standing up for a government which is visibly losing its grip on events, while tackling the Covid-19 epidemic, might be considered the ultimate definition of stress.

Since the epidemic is now in its fourth month, with no sign of the political pressure abating, perhaps we ought to be thinking of organising job shares for senior ministers, or doubling up on the posts so that they can work shifts between them.

Maybe, even, we might consider virtual clones, driven by AI. That way, there could always be a fresh minister available to explain away the latest crisis or to give the media statements on demand, without having to put up with impudent sketch-writers making personal comments.

Furthermore, the point is not without serious dimensions. We do not allow airline pilots or even lorry drivers to soldier on endlessly without breaks. Yet it is apparently acceptable to drive politicians to the brink of exhaustion and beyond, yet still expect balanced decision-making and seamless policy.

On the other hand – and especially with this government – one could argue that ministers such as Hancock are the authors of their own misfortune. The top-down structure and their determination to micro-manage every aspect of the epidemic response means that they are over-worked and unable to distance themselves from the front line, nor able to take a strategic view.

It would be unrealistic, however, to expect this government to loosen its grip on the reins of power, or to entertain any significant restructuring of operations which might have the effect of reducing the burdens on ministers. As stress and fatigue take their toll, therefore, one can expect an ongoing deterioration in performance – if indeed that is possible.

Not uncommonly, high stress and fatigue levels trigger a rigidity of mind and a lack of flexibility, as well as a defensive demeanour and an inability to handle or respond adequately to criticism – evident in the reports from the media sketch-writers. In Hancock, we are looking at a seriously dysfunctional secretary of state.

The situation is not helped when the government has a great deal to be defensive about, not least in the handling of the care home crisis, where the more outspoken political commentators are beginning to muster the courage to call a spade a spade.

Thus we have mega-mouth Piers Morgan holding forth, telling the world how he has been "sickened" by the behaviour of Hancock, Gove and Johnson "in telling brazen lies about the situation in care homes". This is "a scandal not a protective shield", he says.

Even the egregious Polly Toynbee is pitching in, referring to Hancock's "dumbfounding claim" that, "right from the start" the government has "tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes … we've made sure care homes have the resources they need".

"What sentient voter doesn’t know that to be a flat-out lie?", Toynbee observes, firmly staking a claim for territory where Andrew Marr and the BBC fears to tread. "Taking the public for fools destroys trust", she says, arguing – not without good cause – that "trust is ebbing away".

As the situation deteriorates, even initiatives which might otherwise have attracted strong public support are attracting scepticism, if not downright cynicism.

Thus, Sunday's announcement of the government's intention to boost funding on research and manufacture of a coronavirus vaccine – to the tune of £84 million – was seen in some quarters as an attempt to distract attention from the care home crisis.

When this coincided with what had all the hallmarks of a government sponsored good news story on the possible availability of "30 million doses" of vaccine by September, the cynics were out in force.

The reference was to the vaccine under development by Oxford University, with a global licensing agreement having been signed between the university and AstraZeneca to manufacture 30 million doses for the UK, as part of an agreement to deliver 100 million doses in total.

As it turns out, the cynicism seems justified. Yesterday brought news that this "front-runner" vaccine had failed to perform in animal trials, leading to concerns that, even at best, it may be only partially effective.

The vaccine had been administered to rhesus macaque monkeys as part of the ongoing development and all became infected when challenged as judged by recovery of virus genomic RNA from nasal secretions. There was no difference in the amount of viral RNA detected from this site in the vaccinated monkeys as compared to the unvaccinated animals.

According to Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, the lack of difference in viral load was "very significant", suggesting that the vaccine might not be able to prevent the spread of the virus between infected individuals. This is enough, Ball suggests, to warrant "an urgent re-appraisal" of the human trials.

While this could spell the end of the line for the Oxford vaccine, there are around 80 other candidates, and a US trial is delivering promising results, the vaccine demonstrating an ability to provoke antibodies during tests on humans.

However, this is only the first stage of many, while the Oxford setback is extremely bad news. Not days after the announcement of September availability, this is looking unrealistically optimistic – which it always was. Hancock, who has pinned his personal reputation on the early availability of a vaccine, is not looking like a lucky general.

In all respects, it is beginning to look as if the Johnson "honeymoon" is running out of steam. Bad news continues to mount on the care home front, as it emerges agency staff were spreading Covid-19 between care homes, a situation known by Public Health England in April, yet care home providers were only told last week.

A similar failure of communication has been reported in hospitals, where NHS England failed to inform hospital trusts of the extent to which Covid-19 infection was spreading on the wards.

The government is also attracting criticism for its delay in recognising loss of smell and taste as possible symptoms of Covid-19, the result being that up to 200,000 cases may have been missed, with the lack of self-isolation contributing to the spread of the disease.

With a new mood of criticism in the air, UK regional mayors are complaining about the London-centric approach to controlling the epidemic, while local authorities are beginning to wake up and demand a "much more locally focused" response to the coronavirus crisis.

Schools are still the centre of controversy and the debate continues over whether, and how, students should return, and whether it is safe to do so – with unhappy evidence mounting.

The usual suspects are making waves about the lack of transparency in the government's approach, while tension is increasing between government and its scientific advisors, as the blame game escalates.

Peston is on the case and even parliament is beginning to stir. The science and technology committee has written to Johnson, attacking the government for missing the "critical moment" to stop Covid-19, as it made its "pivotal" decision to cut back testing. Their 19-page letter offers some friendly advice on how to manage the epidemic. Next time, when the advice has been ignored – as undoubtedly it will be – it might not be so friendly.

Meanwhile, the virus that is the cause of it all continues to surprise. Care homes in London are reporting possible fresh outbreaks, with residents testing positive more than 30 days after suffering first symptoms.

And that points to the real issue. For all their efforts and impending exhaustion, ministers still haven't got a grip on this epidemic. People are now less tolerant and want answers. Sympathy might be hard to find.

Richard North 19/05/2020 link

Coronavirus: the uselessness of Marr reprised

Monday 18 May 2020  

When Michael Gove was challenged on yesterday's Marr Show about the government's stance on care homes, few would have expected the minister to roll over and tell the truth. They were not disappointed.

What is interesting in a macabre sort of way, therefore, was to see how Gove evaded the questions and the skill with which he stretched the truth way beyond breaking point – and yet managed to get away with it.

The issue at large, of course, is the way patients were dumped on care homes in order to clear the decks for Covid sufferers, thereby spreading the infection into the care sector.

Specifically, on 19 March, NHS hospitals were instructed to discharge 15,000 patients to make room for the expected "surge" of Covid-19 patients, anticipating that about half of these would need support from health and/or social care.

Gove's "defence", to say the very least, is disingenuous. He does not deny that this happened. Rather, he claims that "the number of people being discharged from hospitals into care homes has been falling throughout this crisis and has been far less this year than last".

Needless to say, the point is irrelevant, so Marr comes back to him, asserting that the problem related to "the people who were in that position right at the beginning". Some of them, he said, "were infected with Covid-19 and you put people who were infected with Covid-19 out of hospitals and into care homes and you knew that was happening".

Unfortunately, Marr – as so often – misses the point. He does not refer to the instruction to the NHS hospitals on 19 March but instead refers to "government guidance on two care homes", current until the 15th of April. This read: "Some of these patients admitted to a care home may have Covid-19. Negative tests are not required prior to admissions in care homes".

"That", says Marr, "was a terrible mistake", but it is not the relevant point, and it lets Gove off the hook. "Well let me say three things", Gove counters. "Firstly on testing we've significantly increased the number of tests so that tests are now available for all those who are symptomatic in care homes".

Secondly, he says, "our guidance has altered over time but that is as a result of our scientific understanding of the virus changing over time". And then he has a "third thing". The critical point, says Gove "is, the decision as to whether or not a patient is in a hospital or in another setting, a care home or home is a clinical decision".

Developing that point, he argues: "it is often the case that for a patient it will be far better for them – they will receive better care if they are in a care home than in hospitals".

Marr makes a half-hearted counter, asking whether they might not be "infecting other people in the care home as a result?", but Gove thinks he's on a winner: "The key thing", he says, "is a clinical decision is made both about the patient and about the infection risk".

In hospitals, he adds, "there is also a risk of infection as well, as we know, and hospital beds are there for people who require a particular type of intervention because they have an acute problem, so it is a difficult judgement to make but it is one where the clinician is in the lead". That's his key defence – blame avoidance: "it wasn't me guv, it was them clinicians".

Had Marr been better prepared, he might have cited the 19 March instruction. It starts:
This document sets out the Hospital Discharge Service Requirements for all NHS trusts, community interest companies and private care providers of acute, community beds and community health services and social care staff in England, who must adhere to this from Thursday 19th March 2020.
This is a direct instruction to NHS trusts, which goes on to say that: "Implementing these Service Requirements is expected to free up to at least 15,000 beds by Friday 27th March 2020, with discharge flows maintained after that". It adds:
Acute and community hospitals must keep a list of all those suitable for discharge and report on the number and percentage of patients on the list who have left the hospital and the number of delayed discharges through the daily situation report.
This is unequivocally a direct instruction – there is no clinical judgement involved. Hospitals are given no choice. They must clear the decks. The choice of the individuals may be up to the clinicians, but the numbers are not in question.

But Marr fluffs it. Apparently unaware of the instruction, he chooses a different point. "I don't dispute that it's difficult", he says, "but when you say clinicians are in the lead, Ministers were warned back in 2017 in the Cygnus Exercise that this was going to be a problem". He continues:
The government's own assessment of this said there’s going to be a problem in the care home sector if take during a pandemic people out of hospitals and put them into care homes. And the care homes may not be able to cope – as they have not been able to cope. All of this has been proved. Ministers knew about it ahead of time.
Gove is now off the hook. "Well, this is the reason why we have had fewer people being discharged from a hospital into care homes this year", he says, "40 percent fewer. That’s one of the steps that we've taken".

Marr gives it another half-hearted push: "It doesn't matter how many if they've been infected with Covid-19 when they go into the care homes", he protests. But Gove is home free: "No, no, this is the key thing. 40 per cent fewer overall", he says, "and at the same increased investment in the care home sector of the kind that I mentioned, 3.2 billion pounds".

In full flow, he boasts: "And at the same time deliveries of personal protective equipment, and at the same time an increase in the provision of the tests so that we now have more tests in this country than any other European country".

It goes on a little longer, but it's all over bar the shouting. Gove's final throw is that, "if we look at the proportion of people in the UK who've died in care homes, that is significantly lower than the proportion of people in European countries who've died in care homes".

Sadly, this is not the first time we've commented on the uselessness of Marr, but this time he has sunk to new lows – as has the BBC. The sheer amateurism of his approach and his lack of preparedness are a stain on the corporation and the continual use of a supposed "star" who is clearly not up to the job.

But then the media generally have lost it. Even when they manage to produce something of value, they fail to give it the prominence needed, and effectively throw the game.

In this context, we have the Guardian preening itself for its "exclusive" on Covid-19 and hospital infection. "Up to 20 percent of hospital patients in England got coronavirus while in for another illness", it declares, adding, "Some infections were passed on by hospital staff who were unaware they had Covid-19".

The upshot of this extraordinary situation is, effectively, that up to 6,000 of the 30,000 hospital deaths recorded in this epidemic have, in one way or another, been caused by hospitals – and that is without adding the deaths in care homes which must be attributed to the hospital discharge policy.

Such matters should be on the front page of every newspaper, the "breaking news" that, in this epidemic, the biggest single cause of infection, the most deadly killer of all is the hospital system. But this is by no means the main concern of the media. It gets far less attention than the idiots who are out each week to clap.

Thank you media. Forgive us if we don't applaud you.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 18/05/2020 link

Coronavirus: spoilt for choice

Sunday 17 May 2020  

Public safety was substantially enhanced here in Wibsey, the night before last – if the conspiracy theorists have got it right.

As witnessed by this intrepid reporter, the plod was out in force to close off a neighbouring road yesterday, to allow the dismantling of a 5G mast which had mysteriously caught fire overnight. But, as a bored PCSO guarding the site – brought in from the local Bradford suburb - said, "I can't believe people are stupid enough to believe in that theory".

Meanwhile, the Observer is playing a somewhat devious game in trying to link a downturn in approval for the government over its handling of the Covid-19 epidemic and reported unease over its strategy for easing the lockdown.

It is possible that the two are linked, but I don't think the case has been made. Yet, that doesn't stop this paper making the association which amounts to little more than guilt by association. If the police tried the same tactics, one hopes that the Observer would be suitably outraged.

Nevertheless, the downturn in approval is interesting – as measured by the pollsters, Opinium, which has been tracking public views since March. It has found that approval has "plummeted" by nine points in the last week, while net approval ("approves" minus "disapproves") – which stood at +42 percent on 26 March, it has now fallen to minus three.

Some of this might have more to do with the government's treatment of care homes, even if it is only the Sunday People which gives the issue any prominence, with the front page proclaiming "Dumping Ground", with the lead story telling of a Kettering home that had to be closed after 15 elderly residents died and staff fell sick following a "sudden influx" of patients from NHS hospitals.

There are times, one feels, that the tabloids are more in tune with events than the supposed "quality" press. Out of left field in this respect though is not another newspaper, but Reuters, the news agency. This is running an online report, drearily claiming to be an "exclusive", headed: "Review contradicts Boris Johnson on claims he ordered early lockdown at UK care homes".

This by-passes the liar Hancock and goes straight for the liar-in-chief, Johnson, pointing out that there is "no evidence that any such early lockdown was ordered". Referencing its own report about care home victims, the agency is very clear that there was no formal order or any government guidance for care homes to close before the general lockdown ordered by Johnson on 23 March.

Not for the first time, we wonder if it might be no bad thing if Reuters cut out the middle man and went direct, as it is doing a better job than the media it serves. One must bear in mind though that, when it comes to the media, the term "quality" is relative – especially when it comes to the Express (which struggles even to be considered a newspaper).

Its front page tells us that Britain is "on fast-track to virus recovery", having prime minister Johnson hoping to get the country "near to normal" by July. It says something for the Express (and the media in general) that it also runs a story headlined: "Is Britain close to a second wave? Alarming map shows which UK region is most at risk".

This, in a way, sums up the entire English media. With pro- and anti- lockdown stories - spiced with "project fear" reports on an impending second wave, spiced with the occasional optimism, the papers are having difficulty working out how to treat the Covid-19 epidemic.

Yesterday, for instance, the Telegraph was running another of its "secret squirrel" exclusives, telling of a "Second more deadly wave of coronavirus 'to hit Europe this winter'". Today, we are told: "Don’t place too much faith in models predicting another coronavirus wave".

However, at least The Sunday Times has Matthew Syed tell us that: "fixated on the flu and shrouded in secrecy, Britain's scientists picked the wrong remedy", getting half the story, a month after this blog worked it out.

Down this road, unfortunately, the BMJ has yet to travel. Focusing the blame squarely on government for "delay and dilution", it still finds "inexplicable" the move from the "containment phase" to the so-called "delay phase", and the cessation of community testing.

Remarking that "there was no future plan for community based case finding, testing, and contact tracing", it still hasn't sussed that the government was following the protocols set out in its own pandemic flu plan.

There is a suspicion in some quarters, though, that "scientists" are being lined up to take the fall, when public confidence is finally lost and the blame game starts in earnest. That we might also be seeing in The Sunday Telegraph which is running a story headed: "Coding that led to lockdown was 'totally unreliable' and a 'buggy mess', say experts".

Interestingly, this is, effectively, a re-run of this story first published on 6 May in a blog, reviewed on EU Referendum. True to form, though, the Telegraph makes no reference to a blog, rewriting the story spiced with "expert" opinions to give it the added prestige.

For all that, the story is the same, rehashed to tell us that the Covid-19 modelling "that sent Britain into lockdown, shutting the economy and leaving millions unemployed", has been "slammed by a series of experts".

This, of course, is Neil Ferguson's modelling, and his computer coding was derided as "totally unreliable", this time by "leading figures" in the industry. One of these, David Richards, co-founder of British data technology company WANdisco, warned it was "something you wouldn't stake your life on", describing it as a "buggy mess that looks more like a bowl of angel hair pasta than a finely tuned piece of programming".

What puzzles me is why Ferguson achieved the prominence he did, almost universally accepted by the media as the "go to" man on Covid. Looking at his CV, the man is a physicist. He has no medical qualifications, he isn't an epidemiologist and he has neither status nor qualifications as a software developer.

Something the media might ask itself is why it took Ferguson at his own valuation – not only on Covid-19 but on Foot & Mouth and other issues – when he so obviously lacked professional qualifications in his chosen field. Of course, it never will, as it would have to admit to being besotted with prestige, and blinded by anything which has a credible label attached to it.

As we pick our way through a litany of unforced errors, where the media is performing almost as badly as the government, the one thing we can complain about is a shortage of choice. Perhaps with so much to work on, the media is confused by being spoilt for choice.

For the moment, though, there is less coherence in its stance than the 5G mast-burners, and considerably less entertainment.

Richard North 17/05/2020 link

Coronavirus: top-down lies

Saturday 16 May 2020  

Under pressure to explain the surge of infection in care homes at yesterday's Downing Street press conference – one of the main reasons the death toll is so high – health secretary Matt Hancock did what he must have thought was the only way out of his personal mess. He lied.

"Right from the start", he claimed, "we've tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes. We set out our first advice in February... we've made sure care homes have the resources they need". (Transcription courtesy of Sky News).

The evidence to support this is unequivocal, furnished by the Telegraph on 24 April, in an article which explored the "reckless"' order for NHS hospitals to discharge patients suffering from Covid-19 to care homes.

Unusually, the paper published links to the evidence, in what it called two "damning policy documents" published respectively on 19 March and 2 April, in which officials told NHS hospitals to transfer any patients who no longer required hospital level treatment, and set out a blueprint for care homes to accept patients with Covid-19 or who had not even been tested.

The documents, as I wrote in this blog were indeed damning. The first of the two, dated 19 March 2020 effectively required the hospital service to turf out 15,000 patients to make room for the expected "surge" of Covid-19 patients, anticipating that about half of these would need support from health and/or social care.

The second document, dated 2 April 2020, made unrealistic and, bluntly, scurrilous assertions that patients with Covid-19, whether symptomatic or asymptomatic, could be safely accepted in care homes, on the basis of guidance set out in the document.

And, as I wrote at the time, to give the Telegraph its due, in an editorial, it asked: "How does the Government explain its advice to care homes?" Is it possible, it pondered, "that in the rush to reduce pressure on the NHS and increase capacity, decisions were taken that passed the risk on to care homes instead?"

That was indeed the case. Not by any imagining, and not in any conceivable way could it be said that the Department of Health or the NHS tried to throw a "protective ring" around care homes.

Quite to the contrary, the NHS hospitals sought to protect themselves from being "overwhelmed", by the simple expedient of dumping thousands of vulnerable patients onto the care sector, spreading the infection to thousands of others who were least able to defend themselves from it.

By any measure, therefore, Hancock told an egregious, unconscionable and deliberate lie yesterday, when he addressed the press conference – a lie of staggering proportions.

And yet, what did our brilliant legacy media do? Well, the Telegraph, which originally published the links to the "damning" official documents – behaving for a short while like an actual newspaper, has chosen not to notice the lie.

With its front page lead devoted to the squabble about whether schools should be re-opened, the coverage of the press conference majored on care homes and hospitals driving the rise in Britain's coronavirus infection rate. Hancock's "protective ring" lie wasn't mentioned.

Largely today, the school issue is dominating the front pages, and the only paper to offer even a tentative query is the Financial Times, with the headline: "Hancock claim of ‘protective ring’ round care homes questioned" – offering a tepid intervention from Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, which represents care homes, saying he wanted to "see the evidence of what exactly the protective ring consists".

And that, it would seem, is the best the British media collective can do. Even though it wets its collective knickers over Keir Starmer's "forensic" questioning of Johnson over care homes, when the health secretary is caught out in an obvious and provable lie, the media are silent.

Even then, this is only one of the ways in which this government has completely botched the response to this epidemic. When Ambrose Evans-Pritchard's friendly Covid cardiologist recently complained that, "Basically, every mistake that could have been made, was made", he wasn't exaggerating.

The latest of its cock-ups its inability (Times paywall) to recruit enough people for its contact tracing scheme, with Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, admitting that only 1,500 or 8.5 percent – of the 18,000 target had been hired.

Adverts for the 15,000 call centre jobs are offering an hourly rate of £9.42 per hour, only slightly higher than the national minimum wage, and recruiters are looking for "those with a customer service, care or retail background".

The job, apparently, is "to call people who are infected with Covid-19", and then telephone all of the people with whom they have recently been in close contact. The job listing for a "Contact Tracer Customer Service Advisor", also requires post-holders to "to update the in-house system and be able to record accurate data" as well as "show empathy and compassion at all times".

Of the 3,000 "Clinical Contact Caseworkers", their salary range is £16.97 to £27.15 per hour, for which they become NHS employees, with jobs advertised for London, Liverpool, Hull, Birmingham, Manchester, Milton Keynes, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Redditch, amongst other locations.

But there lies the crucial evidence that the government has no intention whatsoever of handing the contact tracing operation to local authorities. This is to be another top-down operation, in an approach that has blighted the response from the very beginning.

This top-down attitude, according to the Municipal Journal has meant local areas being "left in the dark", as central government has excluded local partners from key intelligence and failed to share enough information.

The local bodies set up to deal with crises are the Local Resilience Forums (LRFs), which are largely being ignored. Central government is mainly engaged in "broadcasting", with communication operating "only one way". However, a former senior civil servant said: "The findings of this review are not surprising… We’re already quite a centralised country but this administration in particular likes centralising".

This one-way government is nothing new, of course, and its doctrinaire approach has Michel Barnier complaining of the latest round of EU trade talks that it has been "a round of divergence, with no progress".

Not content with making a complete mess of the Covid-19 response, the government seems determined to repeat the process with our EU negotiations, potentially adding even greater economic stress to an already fraught situation.

At least we need not take the lack of government responsiveness personally. It is not just us – Johnson is ignoring everyone, apart from his tight little circle of advisors. And when caught out, they do what their boss does – they lie, and the media says nothing.

One can only wonder how much longer a docile British public will put up with this, before we finally see a rebellion.

Richard North 16/05/2020 link

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