Brexit: shooting the fox

Tuesday 29 September 2020  

Faced with the posturing and tantrums of the British, manoeuvring to position them at fault if trade talks fail, it seems that the EU has developed a strategy to deal with them.

Despite the provocation of the UK's Internal Market Bill, and Gove's insistence that it goes through unchanged, the "colleagues" are not going to walk away from the talks, leaving the high ground to the UK.

Instead, Maroš Šefcovic, Gove's counterpart on the Joint Committee administering the Withdrawal Agreement, has announced that Brussels will not walk away from the talks due to start today.

"I think it's very important to say, to underline that it could never be the EU which would cause the end of the negotiation of the future partnership between the EU and UK", he said yesterday. "We are going to proceed with the negotiations. We are going to use every single minute".

Currently, this is being presented as something of a "climbdown" by the EU, with reports that Šefcovic "distanced himself" from an earlier demand for the Bill to be withdrawn (or amended) "before the end of the month" in order for negotiations on a free trade agreement to continue.

To my certain recollection though, von der Leyen has consistently said that trade talks should continue, adding that: "It is better not to have this distraction questioning an existing international agreement that we have, but to focus on getting this deal done, this agreement done - and time is short".

As regards a response to the Bill, we had "EU diplomats" saying that the EU would be considering legal action, but would not take decisions on whether to initiate it until after the round of talks that are due to start today.

In many ways, this shoots Johnson's fox, as he has quite evidently failed to provoke a walk-out - if indeed that was his intention. This leaves his man Frost to keep battering away in the hope of extracting concessions until the clock runs down and he is out of time.

In the meantime, one presumes, the EU can maintain a façade of sweet reasonableness, happily proclaiming its willingness to cooperate with the Brits, assuring them that they are ready to give them anything they ask for, as long as they don't ask for anything that the EU is not prepared to give them.

Meanwhile, Gove – after insisting that the Bill elements which override the requirements written into the Irish protocol would not be amended – says that they are intended to enter into force in the event that there is no deal during trade talks.

"We want to make sure that the withdrawal agreement is implemented in full but those clauses are there, they're in legislation, supported by the House of Commons, as a safety net, if need be", he says.

This leaves Šefcovic – somewhat wearily, it seems – to repeat von der Leyen's warning that the EU is considering invoking the dispute settlement procedure. "I underscored that the EU will not be shy in using it", he told journalists. "When we will do it, how we will do it. Proceed, you will have to give us a little bit of time and we will inform you in due course", he added.

With that, the Internal Market Bill is well and truly neutralised from the perspective of the talks, which will continue with the current agenda, unaffected by this "distraction". Nothing can be read into it being sidelined, other than the determination of the EU not to allow the UK the opportunity to grandstand over the other side walking out.

Furthermore, despite predictions to the effect that Barnier himself was going to be sidelined, with EU Member State leaders wheeled in to break the logjam, it is pretty clear that this isn't going to happen. Nor was there any realistic prospect of this happening.

This was more or less confirmed by a diplomatic text circulated to EU Member State governments yesterday, informing them that the European Council – due to meet on 15-16 October – "will take stock of the implementation of the withdrawal agreement, and review the state of the negotiations on the future partnership".

That signals the lack of any intent to intervene, the likelihood being that it will listen to a report from Michel Barnier, with probably only a perfunctory debate. The main agenda item, according to the diplomatic text, is a discussion "on preparedness for all scenarios after 1 January 2021".

From this, it would appear that expectations are not particularly high. But then, if an agreement has been brokered, it is up to the General Affairs Council to conclude the negotiations, but then only after the European Parliament has voted on it.

As it stands, there have been references to a 650-page agreement draft, but for the Council to be considering that at its meeting, negotiations will most certainly have to be finalised by the end of this week, ready for the General Affairs Council to look at it when it meets on 13 October. So far, all it is listing on its agenda is a "state of play" report.

Not too much should be read into the length either. The EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) – often cited as a model for this agreement – is 1,598 pages, with several hundred pages devoted to the treatment of tariffs and quotas. A mere 650 pages is likely to be pretty thin stuff, especially if there is to be any detail on fishing.

Apart from that, there is little else to add to my piece yesterday. Earlier yesterday, The Times was headlining, "Brexit officials raise hopes of breakthrough deal on state aid", with the legend that "Britain is increasingly optimistic that there will be a breakthrough in Brexit talks this week…".

As time has passed, however, it seems more and more certain that the optimism is "spin" originating from Downing Street, artfully leaked to gullible hacks, most likely intended to wrong-foot EU negotiators.

The latest from ITN News, though, reiterates the caveats that have been in most reports on the talks, that "significant gaps" still remain, while we also get the mantra from the prime minister's official spokesman, that the EU "still needs to adopt more realistic policy positions".

Meanwhile, Charles Michel, European Council president, is upping the ante, speaking of the UK facing the EU's "quiet strength" over the four years of talks.

Michel claims that "the British face a dilemma" over whether to move away from European standards. "What model of society do they want?", he asks. "Do they prefer to maintain high quality standards – health, food, environmental – or, on the contrary, do they want lower standards, [to] subject their farmers and their competitors to unfair and unjust competition from other regions of the world?"

Noticeably, Michel didn't mention anything about horsemeat, and neither did the bullshit celebrity campaign, demanding assurances that "lower-standard" meat will not be sold in British shops.

That apart, nothing much seems to have changed, and we're not going to get much clarity until the end of the week – if then. One might assume that if the talks do not go into the famed "tunnel" after this week, then the chances of presenting a final draft to the General Affairs Committee on 13 October will be remote.

Even an element of realism seems to be creeping in to the UK side. Government sources are now describing their own earlier reports as "on the enthusiastic side". The prime minister's spokesman says: "Although the last two weeks of informal talks have been relatively positive, there remains much to be done. The fundamentals of our position have not changed from the start of this process".

As we know from experience, though, things can change very rapidly, and EU deadlines can be infinitely flexible – to a point – although there seems to be little enthusiasm for playing brinkmanship with Johnson.

Yet, sooner or later, these games must end. For good or bad, businesses desperately need to know what they will have to confront from 1 January 2021, and continued uncertainty will be highly damaging.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 29/09/2020 link

Brexit: approaching the end game

Monday 28 September 2020  

The tempo seems to be quickening as we approach the final stage of the future relationship talks with the EU, set to begin on Tuesday. Media reports on the talks, however, seem to be all over the place, leaving us guessing – as always.

According to The Sunday Times, if this ninth round of talks is successful, Frost and Barnier hope to enter the "tunnel", at the end of this week, where final details will be hammered out in total secrecy.

These secret discussions would then be expected to last two weeks, allowing an agreement to be presented to the European Council at its meeting on 15-16 October.

Current "mood music" from Frost is optimistic, with him describing a deal as "very much possible". All it needs to get an agreement over the line, according to Frost, is for the EU to "scale back" its "unrealistic ambitions" in areas such as fishing.

What seems to be different – or so we are told - is that Johnson really, really wants a deal, having been pressurised by Gove, the minister in charge of no-deal planning. Gove is said to be "terrified" of the combination of a second coronavirus hit and a no-deal TransEnd.

Supposedly, the narrative on offer is that Brussels would water down its demands for "onerous checks" on the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In return, the UK would agree to "baseline rules" on state aid, without having to remain fully aligned to EU rules.

Frost's officials have privately said: "There will be a deal" which, according to a Tory source will allow Boris to say "with a straight face" that "there aren't meaningful restrictions on GB-NI trade and they will get some reassurance on state aid".

Frost himself says: "As we enter the final stages of negotiations we are all focusing on what it might take to get a trade agreement in place. An agreement is still very much possible, but equally very far from certain".

Much the same signals are coming from the Financial Times, which confirms that the target is to make enough headway to justify both sides entering into the "tunnel".

Officials have said that this week's talks will establish whether signs of flexibility in recent EU-UK contacts, including informal talks last week between Barnier and Frost, could turn into real movement.

Apparently, the two sides have discussed the idea that a solution on fish could include a "phase out" process by which EU catching rights in UK waters would decline over a period of years. Nevertheless, officials from EU fishing nations caution that the two sides are still far apart and there were limits to what their governments would accept.

Particular problems include the UK wanting long-term fishing rights to be based on "zonal attachment", which is still a bone of contention. One diplomat says, "It's hard to imagine any compromise based on zonal attachment", suggesting that, "fishing communities would probably sooner opt for no-deal".

On state aid, the FT says that Brussels is seeking to work around Britain's reluctance to spell out in detail its state-aid regime by proposing to write principles directly into the trade deal.

Yet, for all the guarded optimism, the Guardian is doing its best to dampen expectations, with the headline, "Brussels punctures optimism that deal is in sight". EU sources, the paper says, fear Boris Johnson hasn't yet got backing for compromises on state aid to business.

Barnier, at the end of last week told ministers from the 27 Member States that there was "a more open atmosphere at the negotiating table", but he had also emphasised that "substantial differences of opinion remain, particularly on a level playing field" – the issue of state aid to businesses.

The enthusiasm for entering the "tunnel", therefore, is primarily at the Downing Street end. Brussels, on the other hand, is not convinced the prime minister yet has the support of his colleagues to commit to what might emerge. Senior EU officials are treating with scepticism reports that the UK could see a way to secure a deal.

"We cannot trust this prime minister's word, so the EU Member States are not yet willing to go blind into a tunnel negotiation and see what happens", says one source, "It will take more than David Frost telling us Johnson wants a deal".

When the next round of negotiations opens this week, the EU is hoping Frost will present a compromise proposal on state aid. "There is better mood music but no substance yet from London to justify it", one diplomatic source says.

Negative vibes are also coming from the Irish Times, which warns that the most intractable issue remains state aid. Although the EU made a major concession during the summer, dropping its demand that Britain should continue to follow EU rules, there has been no further progress on the issue. Talks over dinner between Frost and Barnier in London last week bore no fruit. There is now "little hope in Brussels" of a breakthrough this week and no sign in London that Frost is about to budge.

Predictably, the CBI is getting a little frenetic about the lack of progress, with director general Carolyn Fairbairn declaring: "Now must be the time for political leadership and the spirit of compromise to shine through on both sides".

Insisting that, "A deal can and must be made", she says that, "Businesses face a hat-trick of unprecedented challenges – rebuilding from the first wave of Covid-19, dealing with the resurgence of the virus and preparing for significant changes to the UK's trading relationship with the EU".

Showing somewhat inflated expectations, she adds that, "A good deal will provide the strongest possible foundation as countries build back from the pandemic. It would keep UK firms competitive by minimising red tape and extra costs, freeing much-needed time and resource to overcome the difficult times ahead".

I've never been particularly impressed with Fairbairn, and her woolly optimism seems to suggest that she is not on the ball. Deal or no deal, some of her members are going to have a pretty torrid time, and most of them will face extra "red tape" and additional costs, come what may.

Slightly more realistic, perhaps, is Ireland's Taoiseach Micheál Martin, who is pessimistic about the chances of an EU-UK trade deal. He says that the Internal Market Bill has "eroded trust" between the two sides, with the EU no longer confident that Britain's word can be relied upon.

The Irish government is preparing its budget in three weeks' time on the basis that there will be a no-deal Brexit. "That's the basis on which we're preparing the budget and we're warning and alerting businesses to that terrible reality", says Martin.

With far too many imponderables, though – and the distinct possibility that both sides are grandstanding in order to establish their positions - nothing can be taken from the flurry of media interest. We must assume we are being told what the players want us to know, which means we can't rule out surprises over the coming week.

We'll know what's happening when it's happened, with at least two weeks to go before we get a final result. Meanwhile, the "noise" will continue.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 28/09/2020 link

Politics: sharks in the water

Sunday 27 September 2020  

Several of today's Sundays have reverted to type, chasing the soap opera of domestic politics, suggesting that the management of the resurgent Covid epidemic is creating serious stresses in Number 10.

To what extent this is court gossip is difficult to assess, but it is interesting to see that, while the while the Sunday Times and the Observer are playing the story big, the Sunday Telegraph has it very much down-page.

If I'm reading this correctly, it seems that Covid has taken over as the main concern of the Johnson administration. Brexit seems to have taken the back seat, while this little local difficulty is sorted out.

According to the Sunday Telegraph, Johnson's immediate problems rest with a backbencher rebellion as a number of MPs are rallying around an amendment tabled by Sir Graham Brady, which would force a vote on future social restrictions.

Johnson, however, appears not to be seeking to kiss and make up. Rather, he is effectively daring the rebels to vote down his entire package of measures this week if the Speaker blocks a vote designed to give MPs a say on new restrictions.

What rests with the Speaker is whether to allow the Brady amendment. Some 60 backbenchers are preparing the back it, if allowed. And if opposition parties also vote against the government, Johnson could face his first parliamentary defeat since the general election.

As it stands, Speaker Lindsay Hoyle is expected to rule the amendment "out of scope", preventing the amendment from being debated. If that happens, there will be calls for Johnson to put forward his own mechanism to allow votes in advance of each future measure, but Johnson is not backing down.

That leaves the rebels with the "nuclear" option of voting against the renewal of the entire Act, something most will not be willing to do. Nevertheless, stomping on Graham Brady could turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory. This is the man who can bring down prime ministers.

Compared with the Telegraph "take", however, the Observer bigs-up the problem, as one might expect. Johnson, it says, is facing "a massive parliamentary revolt", signifying that "confidence in his leadership is collapsing in the Conservative party and across the country".

Piling on the agony, the paper also adds a detail that the Telegraph doesn't have – an Opinium poll which has Labour on 42 percent, three points ahead of the Tories who drop down to 39 percent. Starmer has also pulled well ahead, chosen as "best prime minister" with 36 percent as against Johnson with 32 percent.

Compared with the position at the end of March, the Tories were "powering ahead" on 54 percent, 26 points clear of Labour. Predictably, the Observer rejoices in  this development, chirping about the extent to which faith in Johnson is ebbing away.

This, it says, "is matched by growing admiration for the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, increasingly seen on the Tory backbenchers as more of a unifying figure for the post-Brexit era, and a potential successor to Johnson". Probably, the wielder of the knife never wears the crown, but if this keeps the Observer happy, what the heck.

It is The Sunday Times, though, which really goes over the top, telling us that Johnson, to his enemies, "is a stubborn politician who never changes his mind or apologises for his previous statements".

That's not quite how I'd put it, but this paper tells us that, behind the scenes, the coronavirus has forced Boris Johnson to rethink one of his most cherished beliefs – assuming, of course, he has ever had any beliefs.

That apart, we learn that Johnson, a politician who has cultivated a reputation as a libertarian controversialist, has embraced his role as the man trying to balance the competing demands of saving lives and the economy in what are very choppy seas.

With the headline "Number 10 at breaking point over the coronavirus", and the sub-heading "Boris Johnson is torn between saving lives and rescuing the economy — something's got to give", you can see exactly where the paper wants to take us.

This weekend, it says, there is the looming threat of a second wave of the coronavirus and differences over the government's approach. Then there are tensions in the cabinet over how to save the economy.

However, unlike in spring, when the first wave came, Johnson finds at his back a fractious parliamentary party in which former leaders and senior backbenchers openly plot against him, while his experts Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance have delivered a "highly sobering assessment" of a "sharp increase" in the Covid-19 infection rate.

Johnson, we are led to believe, has been convinced that Whitty and Vallance represent pragmatic opinion in the centre of the range of experts. But he has also approved a plan to continue with the rule of six, and has introduced a 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants. The practical effects of this, we learn, were not modelled by Sage, but it was seen as "a good symbolic thing because it's a low-cost way of sending a clear message that things are different".

A Johnson ally says: "There's a view around that he's been captured by the scientists, but he has been listening to scientific opinion in all its forms. The position he's taken is one that balances the need to drive down infections and keep the economy going".

This ally adds: "The prime minister is the only one who has to calibrate the Covid deaths, the non-Covid deaths and the cost to society, plus the economic costs. It's like a seesaw. You have to constantly balance it. There are multiple plates spinning and he’s the one who has to keep them in the air".

This, apparently, is where the fun starts. Far from pleasing everyone, this "balancing act" has not endeared him to many ministers or MPs. The cabinet was not as balanced as the scientists. Only Hancock, and Gove have backed a tough lockdown now.

Deep in soap opera territory, we are left to enjoy the prospect of Westminster swirling with talk that Johnson is disgruntled, short of money and still not in peak health.

On the back benches, we are told, "MPs are in open revolt about tougher measures and openly questioning whether he will still be prime minister in a year's time". "The theory has been that the 2019 intake owe their jobs to Boris and will be loyal", says one regular in the SW1 bars. "They're not".

So now we have the ultimate political source, the "regular in the SW1 bars" – we can get no higher. For the rest, once we're past the gossip, we are supposed to accept that Johnson's approach is to try to control the virus with the minimum of economic harm. But, we are told, that will inevitably lead to constant shifts to the rules.

A senior government source – who might or might not be a "regular in the SW1 bars" - says: "What we need is behavioural change. We have delivered a jolt to the system. It's like the paddles on the patient. We hope to resuscitate the kind of behaviour we need without taking further measures".

But the best is yet to come. If people continue to "do a Cummings", a national ban on households mixing will follow in three weeks’ time. "The next thing you would look at, if this doesn't work, is the social element", another source – who might or might not be a "regular in the SW1 bars" - says.

All this does, though, is buy time. Another senior Tory suggests that: "Boris's plan is to try to ride it out and survive until spring in the hope that a vaccine or testing bails him out then". Considering what a mess he's made of testing, he's out of luck if the vaccine doesn't work.

Despite that, Johnson is said to be ahead of the curve. The difference between now and March, therefore, is that he can see a school of sharks in the water. One hopes they have big teeth.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 27/09/2020 link

Brexit: unreported woes

Saturday 26 September 2020  

The attention given to the Dover and Channel ports has rather obscured the situation in other UK ports. And, to judge from reports from the Hull Daily Mail, the problems are just as serious, in their own ways, for the Humber ports - and possibly elsewhere.

Going back to March, we see the chief port health inspector Laurence Dettman, responsible for Hull and Goole, expressing "great concern" over the likelihood of a huge increase in post-Brexit border checks.

This is the man in charge of overseeing food imports through the two ports, amounting to almost all of the 150 million kg which comes through the Humber ports every year from the European Union, destined for wholesalers and retailers across the UK. Until the end of the transition period, none of this is subject to port health or customs checks but, after 1 January such checks will begin to be phased in.

Last March, a new Border Control Post at the King George Dock in Hull was expected to be in operation soon but, said Dettman, setting it up had been a very complex business and had taken well over a year to come to fruition. "Worryingly", he added. "it has not been designed to cope with the potential massive additional number of UK Border Control checks which may be required from January 2021".

The Humber Sea Terminal at North Killingholme, which is within the authority’s North Lincolnshire area of jurisdiction, also had an enormous daily volume of EU trade, with an emphasis on food products of all types. "Currently", Dettman warned, "there are no suitable inspection facilities at the terminal".

Illustrating the scale of the problem, Dettman was one of just five inspectors who had to cover both banks of the Humber, with the assistance of one part-time technical officer and two administrative staff. Six month ago, therefore, there remained "a great deal of unknown territory to be negotiated during the transition period and to what extent the regulatory landscape will change".

By July, government preparations for border checks at the Humber ports were being described as a "shambles".

Port health officials had yet to be told where two new border control facilities dealing with imports on either side of the estuary were to be located. And they had no idea how anticipated the extra staff required to deal with expected increased workloads from 1 January were to be funded.

At that time, the government had only identified a handful of inland sites in Kent for new border control facilities. Local campaigners feared that greenfield sites would be turned into giant lorry parks, as spare dockside land in Hull was in short supply.

At that point, Dettman was far from happy. "The changes coming down the line in five months' time", he said "are the most challenging this [port health] authority has faced in its long history. From where we are now, not withstanding the situation with Covid-19, it's very difficult to get a grip on where we are going with this".

Dettman added: "I get very frustrated and animated because I just don't have the answers to a lot of questions all because of a lack government policy and clarity. The key to this is clarity but time is ticking away".

He estimated that around 20 physical one-hour checks per day would be needed on EU food imports arriving at the Humber Sea Terminal in Killingholme, while a dozen similar daily checks would be required at Hull's docks.

Killingholme had no facilities for physical checks on EU food imports, while the recently-approved BCP at King George Dock in Hull only dealt with non-EU fishery products. It did not have enough capacity to carry out the scale of import checks required in the post-Brexit period.

One of the solutions being considered were inland BCPs, but Dettman warned that this would cause another problem. The port health authority's current powers were limited to port sites on either side of the Humber. "Our jurisdiction ends at the port gates", he said.

Bringing the situation up to date, with only months to go to TransEnd, matters still have not been resolved. Inland BCPs are being seen by the government as a way of easing potential congestion at ports, but Dettman thinks these would increase risks to public and animal health.

Ministers say their preferred option is to base new-look border control posts - which have been dubbed "Brexit lorry park" - on existing port land with funding being offered to port operators to pay for necessary building work but, as yet, no sites on the Humber have been officially announced.

As well as housing UK Border Force staff, the new BCPs are expected to provide a base for port health authority officials and trading standards officers as well as hosting facilities for the Animal and Plant Health Agency to carry out checks on live animals and plants.

Dettman, therefore, is still concerned about the possibility of inland BCPs being established. "It is my belief", he says, "that such a move would reduce the established high levels of portal expertise and place at risk the controls which are necessary for the protection of public and animal health in the UK". The devastating foot and mouth disease epidemic of 2001 serves as stark reminder of such risks.

Discussions with all parties, on new sites are ongoing and it is hoped that firm decisions on the exact size and location of the new facilities will soon be finalised.

However, there will be "a seismic shift" in the way UK port health authorities will be required to enforce food controls from 1 January. Apart from the physical inspections, which will be phased in through to July, initial government forecasts suggest nearly 19,000 documentary checks will be required every year.

Dettman has submitted a £226,347 bid to the government to fund extra staff and training to bolster his existing five-man team. But he warns the funding being offered only covers a period up the end of March next year. It was not yet clear whether extra funding would be offered by the government after that.

All this, though, only deals with food imported from the EU. In abeyance is the question of food exports, which might be delayed by checks when they arrive at the ports of EU Member States.

Again Dettman is the man on the spot. He worries that this "could impact traffic flows within the UK if goods are stopped, ferry schedules are missed and, in some cases, products have to be returned for whatever reason". There are thus provisional plans to use the Humber Bridge car park as an emergency site for lorry stacking.

To add to his woes, fish processing firms on both sides of the Humber who export to Europe faced extra pressures because, under Brexit, the industry would be required to produce export certification for each consignment for the first time in decades.

It stands to reason that other major ports must be experiencing similar problems. This is certainly the case for the ports serving Irish routes, although there is next to no national publicity. We had a generic report from the BBC fairly recently, and one from the Guardian over two years ago, but not a lot more.

Local reports are sketchy, such as this one concerning Plymouth, but we get some hint of troubles to come with transport companies warning of "significant gaps" in readiness.

With so much else going on, and the national media obsession with London and the southeast, one wonders how much is not being reported. This very much seems to be a hidden problem, which may come back to bite us after January, adding another category to this government's list of failures.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 26/09/2020 link

Brexit: the new normal

Friday 25 September 2020  

Even though the nation is focused on Covid-19 – those who are not already bored witless by it - the proximity of TransEnd is beginning to claim media attention, and especially the developing situation in Dover.

Mostly, though, we tend to be looking at the left-leaning press, possibly because reports and editorials tend to be critical, or imply criticism of The Great Leader, prime minister Johnson.

Critical is certainly an appropriate description of today's Guardian, but that's what one would expect.

However, even by Guardian standards, the tone is rather strident as it describes the "new Brexit borders" as "the price of political fraud". What the government calls a "worst-case scenario", it says, is a direct consequence of choices made by Johnson last year.

The paper homes in on the " prospect of a Brexit-induced queue of 7,000 lorries at Dover", each one requiring a permit to enter the county of Kent. I gather these are now being called "Kermits".

It is difficult to dispute the opening line, where it asserts that the reports we're reading at the moment "would once have been dismissed by leave campaigners as baseless fearmongering". But what was once "Project Fear" has suddenly become the government’s "reasonable worst-case scenario" for the end of transitional arrangements with the EU on 31 December.

This is a good point, well made. Both Pete and I have taken endless flak for pointing out the inevitable consequences if certain policy lines are followed, with many seemingly unable to appreciate that, in order to avoid problems (where that is possible), one must first define them and the circumstances in which they might occur.

That we've been doing for long enough, in the hope that our political masters might see the pitfalls and act in good time, before we are adversely affected. That was the original intention but currently, there is little prospect of the government paying attention, so it's just a matter of recording the train-wrecks as they occur.

One of those is the "grim scene" – in the words of the Guardian - which was set out on Wednesday by Michael Gove. It was then that he told parliament that Britain did not yet have an operational border ready for the abrupt reintroduction of regulations and checks necessary to clear a new frontier with Europe's customs union and single market.

The government's "check, change, go" campaign, urging businesses to prepare, the paper reminds us, has been running since July, but inevitably traders' attention has been focused on the coronavirus pandemic. But those that have been worrying about Brexit have found it hard to get through to Downing Street.

What we now have to come to terms with is that the government has no intention of taking responsibility for a border fiasco of its own making. Instead, it seems, two targets are being lined up for blame – the companies that have to handle the trade, and the EU.

In that context, we are directed to a parliamentary committee earlier this week, where George Eustice, the environment secretary, was speaking. I saw the clip on Twitter, and listened to him, with growing incredulity, claiming that "all the work in the world" was being done to prepare on the UK side, but that chaos could not be ruled out as a result of things being "slipshod and disorganised" on the continent.

Not surprisingly, the Guardian calls this a cynical inversion of the truth, and counsels that the frequency with which the government attempts such travesties should not diminish the shock at hearing a new one.

It is entirely fair to say that the European Commission – through its Notices to Stakeholders - has been well ahead of the UK in notifying ports about the hazard of new friction at the border and how to mitigate it. Meanwhile, British freight and logistics companies have been pleading with the government to pay more heed to the practical economic implications of UK policy choices.

The paper says these are driven by "Eurosceptic dogma", but I'm not even sure that is the case. More likely, they are so embedded in their groupthink bubbles that they can't see the wood for the trees.

Herein lies the quintessential problem: Johnson has no interest in dissenting testimony. If Alok Sharma, the business secretary, has doubts about the current plans (or has had doubts thrust on him by anxious traders), the message, says the paper, is unlikely to be forced on a prime minister who expects nodding subservience from his cabinet.

Furthermore, while Gove has more clout in the government's upper echelons, he shows no sign of applying it for the purpose of shaking Johnson out of his complacency.

Instead, the focus is on urging the private sector to do the heavy lifting that the government has been shirking all year. In July, the government promised to train about 50,000 new customs agents to satisfy an expected surge in demand.

The number so far recruited is thought to be substantially less (Gove refuses to give a figure) and brokers do not have resources to pre-emptively hire staff in the autumn to save the government's blushes in winter.

Add to that, IT systems that are meant to lubricate new border controls are not yet up and running. It is impossible for some businesses to prepare fully for new regulatory requirements, because the details depend on the terms of a deal that does not exist.

And so the Guardian's litany of woe unfolds. In a letter to cabinet colleagues, Gove noted that problems at Channel ports will arise "irrespective of the outcome of negotiations". This, in itself, is a major advance, as we have seen so often that problems are associated with a "no-deal" scenario.

At last there is that dawning recognition that the Brexit solution itself is the primary cause of disruption to the passage of freight, the increase in the burden of bureaucracy, and the reduction in the volume of trade, slowing the economy.

Of course, the Guardian wants to pin the blame on Johnson, and I'm quite content with that. But one must remember that Cameron continually spoke out against the Efta/EEA option, and it was Mrs May who ensured that we left the single market.

And that is where the ultimate mistake lies. In the short- to medium-term, the Efta/EEA was the only feasible option, and now we are about to pay the price. The "reasonable worst case" that ministers warn about, says the paper, is not some accident or unintended consequence. It is a function of the plan they hailed last year as a triumph.

Now, Johnson is creating borders where there were none, inflicting cost where none was previously levied, erecting barriers, closing doors and calling it freedom. As the moment of implementation nears, the Guardian concludes, "fraud inherent in the whole enterprise is getting harder to conceal".

It's a pretty rum do, however, that we find ourselves so closely aligned with the Guardian position, although it might have helped if it had supported calls to adopt the Efta/EEA option. As it is, the paper metaphorically "sat on its hands", and now it's bitching that we're going to Hell in a handcart.

However, there does seem to be a glimmer of good news. INews is suggesting that a trade deal is looking close (or closer), "despite the sound and fury between UK and EU over Internal Market Bill".

Negotiators on both sides, we are told, are quietly plugging away at a free-trade agreement even while politicians snipe at each other. There is a draft legal text weighing in around 650 pages, with just two outstanding issues remaining to be agreed: fishing rights for European boats in UK waters, and the state aid rules imposed by Britain’s Government after the end of the transition period.

The key now, we learn, is for the UK to convince the EU that it can be trusted not to undercut the continent on state aid, by pouring cash into British industry which would otherwise be unviable; a compromise on fishing would almost certainly follow.

Thus, even though things look bleak right now, just like with the withdrawal agreement last year, a deal would ensure all the remaining issues – including the Internal Market Bill – can simply be shelved with no loss of face for either party.

For all that – if it is true – border friction is not going to go away. That is going to be the new normal,

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 25/09/2020 link

Brexit: a slow dawn

Thursday 24 September 2020  

I'm a little puzzled as to why the Kent permits should suddenly be such a story right now, when it was covered in early August after the publication of a Government consultation.

The time to have made a big thing of this, surely, should have been then, when the consultation was open, thus sponsoring the sort of debate that should be part of our democracy. Since the consultation finished on 23 August, it's a little late to turn this into a rampant media controversy. The permit system is a done deal.

Furthermore, it is a little perverse that the media are only just now coming to terms with the idea of a permit system to control the flow of trucks to the Channel ports, and especially to Dover.

I was, after all, writing about the very real possibly of queues as early as December 2016 and I raised the possibility of permits in March 2017. In February 2017, I was back on the trail, writing about the concerns of the Road Haulage Association, and their warning that customs problems could cripple supply chains.

Then, in March 2017, we saw something of a misstep by Barnier, warning – amongst other things – of truck queues at Dover if Brexit talks failed. Interestingly, he was talking in terms of a "bold and ambitious free-trade agreement", but even then he was insisting on "a level playing field" on tax, labour law and consumer rights.

This was picked up by Deutsche Welle and I noted it on the blog, and it is possible that the rhetoric about the importance of a deal misled people. However, I was back on the beat in June 2018 and once more two weeks later, yet again considering the possibility of a permit system and a mechanism for controlling traffic flows.

This is not to claim any great perspicacity on my part as it always seemed to me pretty clear that, with or without a trade deal, our departure from the Single Market and Customs Union meant that border controls would apply to UK traffic seeking access to EU Member State ports.

Sadly, this doesn't seem to have been as obvious to other players, such as the Guardian. Back in June 2018, it was bleating about "gridlock" at Dover Port, in the absence of a suitable trade deal.

The paper at the time was quoting Richard Christian, the port’s head of policy, who was warning about massive disruption to freight traffic on ferries and Eurotunnel services, in the event of a hard Brexit, thus calling for a Brexit deal involving frictionless trade.

What was not being made clear at the time was that there would be severe disruption, whatever type of deal was agreed. And, given that for PR reasons alone, the government could not allow pictures of massive queues outside Dover, it was only a matter of time before we saw measures being considered to avoid that eventuality.

But what was seriously disturbing at the time were the reports that the preparations by the government to make Dover ready for Brexit were "woefully inadequate". More than two years down the line, with the end of the transition period only months away, and it is still the case that preparations are "woefully inadequate".

And yet, even by December 2018, the narrative in certain quarters was firmly fixated on the effects of a "no-deal", with the idea that even if there was disruption to vehicle traffic, it would only be "temporary". The idea that it would become a permanent fixture simply wasn't accepted.

Somewhere, though, it seems that reality began to take a hold. In July 2019, I had another report, this one picking up on an article in the Telegraph, which told of an agreement between the Port of Calais and Channel shipping lines, which meant that trucks without the correct paperwork would not be allowed to board ferries.

This scenario had Dover being used as a "filter" for traffic headed for the mainland. But that left the obvious possibility of massive tailbacks and disruption this side of the Channel. Vehicles without the necessary paperwork would be intercepted and stacked at Manston airfield as part of Operation Brock – provisions which, even then, were known to be insufficient.

A month later, though, we saw Sky News telling us that hauliers would face increased fines and civilian traffic officers will be granted new powers in the event of a no-deal Brexit under government plans to try and avoid debilitating customs delays at Dover.

Proposals had been set out in a Department of Transport consultation, which would see Highways England Traffic Officers (TOs) given the power to demand and check drivers' documentation for the first time. These TOs would also work with police to levy new increased fines, perhaps as high as £300, on drivers who ignored orders to take an alternative route or head to holding areas.

What was interesting here, though, was that the controls were still being placed in the context of a "no-deal" Brexit, allowing for the assumption that things could somehow be better if we had a deal.

July of this year, of course, saw the "Mojo" story, with the start of the programme of building extra lorry parks to take the overflow traffic. At last, it seemed, the government was beginning to take the problem seriously. That didn't stop me writing, though, about the government being asleep at the wheel.

But if the government has been asleep, so has the media. Individual media organs have occasionally dipped into the issue of Dover traffic congestion and its broader impact on the economy, but there has been no continuity or sustained follow-through. Thus, years down the line, the media collective suddenly seems to be surprised that there will be traffic restrictions in Kent.

The extraordinary thing is that, back in 2012, Defra commissioned a report, pointing out the vulnerabilities of Dover, and the potential effects of disruption on our food supply. And that was long before Brexit was a thing.

Now, we're left with a perfect storm which was basically predicted eight years ago, while the media has let the grass grow under its feet, unconstrained by its own ignorance. But at least now, we have a slow dawn of realisation – but it is far too late to influence policy. The only point now of reporting this is for our entertainment.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 24/09/2020 link

Politics: a concatenation of woes

Wednesday 23 September 2020  

"Never in our history has our collective destiny and our collective health depended so completely on our individual behaviour", says Johnson, in a TV address to the nation, where he uses the word "we" no less than 71 times.

"When the sickness took hold in this country in March", the man says, "we pulled together in a spirit of national sacrifice and community. We followed the guidance to the letter. We stayed at home, protected the NHS, and saved thousands of lives".

But actually, "we" didn't, if that "we" includes Dominic Cummings. And while "we" – those of us that did – stayed at home to "protect" the NHS, the NHS hasn't protected those many thousands of cancer patients and many others who desperately need treatment.

Nor, if we are to be blunt, have "we" been well-served by a government that still, to this date, hasn't been able to organise an effective contact tracing system, which is absolutely key to the control of this disease, in the absence of an effective (or any) vaccine.

Having thus completely failed to address the issues which only government can manage, Johnson has some nerve to appeal to the collective spirit of the nation which he has served so badly, effectively to compensate for his own inadequacies – not that it's much of an "appeal" when it is backed by the force of law and a raft of draconian fines.

And behind that is the threat of calling out the Army – not to help out with the testing or even logistics – but men with guns, here on the mainland, with their weapons turned on British citizens, all so that the civilian police can impose Johnson's laws on the population, while real criminals roam free.

Interestingly enough, even some of the writers in the Fanboy Gazette haven't been too impressed – although, to be fair, Jeremy Warner has never been too impressed with the Oaf.

Warner starts his current piece with an apology for starting with a cliché: "what a complete and utter shambles", he writes. And that, of course, is what it is where, in the absence of effective government action, it is unlikely that any of the measures announced yesterday will have a significant impact on the course of the Covid epidemic in this country.

For the hospitality sector, though, the new restrictions are just enough to drive many pubs and restaurants into bankruptcy, and many other businesses may follow, while the redundancies mount as the response to the disease continues to exert its malign grip on the economy.

Warner then concluded his piece, saying that the year ahead is going to require exceptionally skilful economic management and judgement which, he observes, on the evidence of Covid, it would, perhaps, be unwise to bet on it. That being the case, we are most probably doomed.

Even if Covid on its own is not enough to do the deed, though, evidence continues to build that we are in for a torrid time, come the end of the transition period.

The latest on that front is that operators responsible for up to 70 percent of trucks travelling to EU Member States after 31 December might not be ready for new post-Brexit border controls.

This comes to us in a leaked letter from Michael Gove to trade groups, with the Cabinet Secretary warning that in a "reasonable worst-case scenario", queues of 7,000 port-bound trucks could face two-day delays in Kent.

Officials calculate that up to half of lorries crossing from Dover across the short straits – about 20,000 – might not be border-ready. We are thus told that they "expect sustained disruption to worsen over the first two weeks [of January] as freight demand builds".

Personally, I don't see this. It doesn't seem logical that operators will risk the cost and disruption of sending trucks to the continent, unless they have already assured themselves that the necessary paperwork has been completed.

The more logical outcome is that there will be a rush of traffic just before the end of the year, as traders both sides of the Channel stock up with essential goods, whence operators will stand down their trucks for the first few weeks of the New Year, until they get some sense of how the systems are running.

Gove's letter suggests that a winter spike in Covid-19 could reduce demand for freight, but there is also a possibility that problems at Dover could be intensified if border staff are stricken and are away on sick leave.

These, however, are not the only problems affecting cross-Channel traffic. According to Tim Reardon, head of Brexit planning at Dover, the government has still not released funding for vital infrastructure work at the port.

Reardon was being questioned by MPs on the Commons Treasury Committee, and complained that, with just weeks to go until the transition period ends, some essential projects had not started because government funding was not yet available.

"Government has a funding scheme which is due to open for application later this month, clearly that's cutting it quite tight for stuff to be actually delivered and in place when significant civil works are involved by early next year", Reardon said.

Not only are the problems confined to funding issues. Dover also needs a "wharf approval", a required designation for any port handling international goods, but HM Revenue & Customs has yet to provide it, Reardon adds.

He also pointed out that government on this side of the water needed to be ready with a number of things which are currently in the planning stage but are not finally delivered.

While he was in front of the Committee, MPs asked him what would happen if lorries turned up at the port when the required paperwork for them had not been completed.

Reardon's response, apparently, was quite blunt: "They need to be ready. Their ability to embark on a ferry bound for France will be conditional upon their having made the declaration that French authorities require. If they haven't made the declarations they won’t be permitted to embark on the ferry".

Lorry drivers without the correct paperwork would have to turn around and leave the port, risking huge disruption at the site. "Dover is a gateway. It is not a depot where lorries can park up while somebody waits for somebody else to do a declaration", Reardon said.

But then, there are always the 29 new lorry parks which are being built, the construction riding roughshod over local residents, who have no say in the process. Once they are completed, one assumes they will be used, which means the government is anticipating a very large number of idle trucks.

And it is not only UK operations which will be affected. The Irish are also getting worried about the vulnerability of their so-called land bridge, where trucks travel from Ireland to Great Britain and thence to the Channel ports, as the quickest way to reach the continent.

The Irish Road Haulage Association is urging its government to help set up a fast, direct daily ferry service with continental Europe for lorries to avoid post-Brexit disruption on the land bridge route, preferably into the French port of Le Havre, supported initially with subsidies.

Irish hauliers, it seems, are already suffering serious delays from migrant and security checks at Dover port, resulting in drivers taking more than three hours to travel less than a mile, causing knock-on nine-hour delays due to driving limits.

"Any interference with the passage of Irish drivers through the UK land bridge, whether by political manoeuvrings or administrative zeal, will have cataclysmic impacts on Irish trade and our people", says the IRHA. "The government needs to recognise this now and plan accordingly".

There's optimism for you: governments recognising problems, and planning in good time. But then there's the luck of the Irish in not having Johnson for a prime minister.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 23/09/2020 link

Brexit: masking the detail

Tuesday 22 September 2020  

Someone far more cynical than I might suggest that the sudden surge in Covid-19 cases is rather convenient for the denizens of Downing Street. Otherwise a certain Mrs May might be on the front pages, causing Mr Johnson serious embarrassment.

As it is, Mrs May's attacks on the "reckless" Internal Market Bill and her warning of "untold damage" to the UK is consigned to the inside pages and the intellectual desert of Sky News.

In fact, from dominating the headlines only a few days ago, Brexit has almost disappeared – again. The virus has captured the attention of the fourth estate, which needs no persuading to abandon the complications of leaving the EU for the more entertaining (in journalistic terms) prospect of a resurgent Covid pandemic.

One can see the likes of The Times positively slavering in anticipation of the carnage to come, with the headline: "UK on course for tens of thousands of deaths and six months of restrictions, experts warn".

As we come to the end of September, six months takes us almost to the end of March, and those heartless cynics who are thinking in terms of convenience, might also be struck by the fact that this gets us well past the end of the transition period.

If the quasi-lockdown, that isn't a lockdown, has the anticipated effect of dampening down economic activity, then it will tend to mask the worst effects of TransEnd, and therefore buy time for our political masters to cobble together an alibi to explain away the disaster, while seeking measures to mitigate its effects.

At this late stage, those wicked cynics might be tempted to suggest that, if coronavirus didn't already exist, it might have to be invented. But that, of course, is not the case – this is an entirely natural phenomenon which owes absolutely nothing to the incompetence of the government.

Then, apart from anything else, it stretches the bounds of credulity to suggest that this government would engineer an incompetent response to Covid, just to cover up its incompetence on Brexit. For it even to think of so doing is a contradiction in terms, as it verges on competence, albeit at a Machiavellian level.

What we must come to terms with, therefore, is that the confluence of the Brexit and Covid disasters must be regarded as a coincidence – a thesis that makes more sense. As the government has been incompetent in its handling of Brexit, it stands to reason that its management of the Covid epidemic would also be deficient.

The troubling thing about this is the media's inability to focus on more than one thing at a time. Most of the newspaper titles and all the broadcasters have become versions of the Covid Gazette. We complain of the NHS having become the CTS (Covid Treatment Service) but the media is just as bad.

Certainly, if you are watching the BBC TV news these days, it is hard to discern that there is anything else happening in the entire world, apart from Covid – unless you have a special interest in the victim statements from the Manchester bombing inquest.

However, some Brexit news does manage to trickle though the editorial filters, such as the report that the UK has so far failed to negotiate access to the European passporting scheme for banks.

The immediate practical effect of this is that thousands of expats (estimated to be between 150,000 to 300,000  in France alone) who hold accounts with UK-based banks have been told that their accounts will be closed and credit cards withdrawn.

This is happening because some of these banks have decided it's not worth the hassle of licensing new operations within the territories of the EU Member States, as they will be required to do if they administer accounts of people domiciled in those states.

The relative paucity of news on Brexit, however, is in stark contrast to the torrent of stories we were getting in the immediate aftermath of Cameron's 2015 general election victory, when many papers were carrying two or three stories a day, every day, topped up by frequent opinion pieces.

Without Covid, I would warrant, we would by now be experiencing a steady flow of Brexit-related stories in the countdown to the end of the transition period. But now, all the government has to do to keep Brexit out of the news – or way down the running order – is to ramp up the activity on Covid.

That desire to keep Brexit out of the news could in some way have affected the timing of the Whitty-Vallance show yesterday, where we were regaled with tales of 50,000 cases by mid-October, and 200 deaths a day shortly afterwards.

Yet, although these sombre figures have captured all of today's front-page headlines, from memory I seem to recall figures of 500,000 being touted around during early March, with many more deaths.

Then, we had Chris Whitty, in a solo performance, offering a worse-case scenario of 80 percent of people becoming infected, with 95 percent of all cases occurring within a nine-week period. Of those, he forecast that between 15-20 percent might need hospital care, with ten percent of the total case load requiring a period in a critical care bed.

Half of coronavirus cases in the UK, he said, were likely to occur over just three weeks, as he painted lurid pictures of the NHS not having enough beds to cope with them. There was a "slim to zero" chance of avoiding a global pandemic which could see "huge pressure" on the NHS, making it impossible for everyone who needs a bed to get one.

Contrasting with these blood-curdling predictions in March, what Whitty has to offer at the moment seems relatively benign and, if his predictions are as accurate this time as they were last time he put on his soothsayer's hat, we don't have so very much to worry about.

The current alarm, however, has given Johnson yet another opportunity to play the statesman, conveniently shedding the embarrassment of his law-breaking on the UK Internal Market Bill, as he takes on the role of our beneficent saviour, stepping into the breach to protect us from this modern-day plague.

That will place Johnson centre-stage in the media today, the focus of saturation media coverage as he announces new restrictions, which will include early pub closing and a return to home working. For that, we have to suffer a television address as the man acts out his part as a concerned statesman, leading the way to safety.

Putting all this in perspective, when we go way back to 7 June 1944, the day after D-day when the news had been released to the public, the invasion coverage dominated the front pages, but there was still plenty of coverage of other issues.

It is something of that spirit that we need to see returning. We really do need a media which is capable of reporting more than one issue at a time, and one that can keep its eye on several balls at the same time.

Whatever one's view of Covid, Brexit is still important and, if there is a successful vaccine developed for the disease, by next year it might be history. Unfortunately, there are no plans to produce a vaccine for Brexit, and there is no known antidote.

Covid, therefore, should not be allowed to obscure developments on Brexit. Our right to be informed means that we need more than just plague journals. Our media needs to do its job across the board.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 22/09/2020 link

Coronavirus: a few modest proposals

Monday 21 September 2020  

"'Punitive' fines for failing to self-isolate could 'undermine adherence' to the rules, Sage member says". So goes the Telegraph headline, retailing the view of Professor Susan Michie.

Michie says that the "punitive" new fines announced yesterday "will hit the poorest hardest and risk undermining trust in track and trace". And if Prof. Michie can see this, one wonders why the geniuses who thought up this policy didn't think of it as well.

Oddly enough, Andrew Rawnsley is in similar territory. He is asking, in effect, why the superforecasting genius Dominic Cummings is unable to forecast what time it will be in five minutes, even when he's looking at his watch.

Rawnsley takes a few hundred words or so to come to his conclusion, using Cummings's own favourite tome, Superforecasting, by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner. These authors have worked out that the worst forecasters are "those with great self-confidence who stuck to their big ideas", something which the great Cummings himself noticed.

These people, Cummings wrote in a review of the book, "are lousy at understanding the world and coming to good judgments about it". By contrast, the more successful are "those who were cautious, humble, numerate, actively open-minded, looked at many points of view".

Thus does Rawnsley ask: "which is a better description of the Johnson-Cummings method of government?". He asks his readers to guess if it is: "Cautious, humble, numerate, actively open-minded, looked at many points of view"?

That doesn't leave many alternatives, In fact, there's only one left: "Great self-confidence", which leaves them stubbornly wedded to their "big ideas". By the process of elimination, we are invited to conclude that that might just be the better description.

Such word games are great fun, and they do help us understand the world a little better, especially when we also have Nick Cohen explain what "meritocracy" means when viewed through the distorting filter of Cummings's mind.

However, what nobody seems to be keen to explain – or even venture a guess on – is how long the "ordinary Joe" is going to tolerate this succession of train-wrecks flowing from the desks of the No.10 policy wonks – as endorsed by Cummings.

It's all very well Matt "the knife" Hancock telling us we're in "last chance saloon", and that he will impose "heavy measures" unless the public responds to his last lot of "heavy measures".

But if people are not going to respond to the £10,000 fines that are the current offering, perhaps the next step is to impose million-pound fines. Perhaps he should make them a trillion a pop. That way, the national debt will be cleared up in no time – what's a few sub-prime outstanding fines between friends? They can still look convincing on the balance sheet.

Certainly, the plod most definitely seem to have got the hang of this Covid business. They and the courts have given up prosecuting ordinary criminals, thus clearing the decks to concentrate on lockdown-breakers, and isolation cheats.

For sure, there will have to be special, intensive courses for these brave defenders of the Hancock writ. After all, it isn't everybody who can count to six, and it's a bit difficult when you've got a big stick in one hand and a taser in the other.

Perhaps they'll have specially-trained "six-counters" with empty hands so that they can count on their fingers when they see groups of people, to work out whether the "rule of six" is being breached. You can see why Hancock wants to keep the number down. More than ten, and the plod would have to walk around bare-footed, to keep those extra digits handy – or footy.

Meanwhile, thousands of thugs, thieves and drug offenders can roam the streets unmolested. What is mere crime, when you can pick up a starving self-isolator off the streets? Who cares that they are out shopping because even Covid-positive people need to eat, and if you are living on your own, there isn't much alternative.

Largely, though, it ain't going to happen – at least not very much. A track and trace operation that can't even trace its own samples isn't going to be very efficient at passing the names of sample results to the plod. And, at the speed Harding's wonders are currently working, by the time the local plods have got the details, most of the isolation periods will be over.

What we really need, I suppose, are instant tests. That way, potential Covid sufferers can turn up to the testing stations to have their status checked. If they are positive, the plod can fine them for not having isolated, and get it over and done with. Everybody gets fined (except real criminals) and no-one has to feel left out.

As for the vulnerable people, the government should learn the lessons from its treatment of the care homes during the first round of this epidemic. Every vulnerable person should register with the local plod station, and then be required to take in an infected person as a lodger.

Very soon there won't be any vulnerable people, and the government can claim credit for sorting another problem. Perhaps Johnson can then claim a pay rise, in order to afford a nanny on top of his alimony and child-care payments.

It comes to something though, when all these good ideas are going to waste. Cummings should realise that he's not the only genius in town and open up to fresh input. Soon, there will be no more Covid-19 and all ten of us can get on with repopulating the United Kingdom.

In the meantime, so tarnished have become the reputations of the current gang of politicians that the powers that be are going to impose Britain's most senior government scientists on us.

Apparently, chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, and his sidekick chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, are to make a "rare" live televised address calling for us to be good little infectees and keep our viruses to ourselves.

Why we should be any more impressed with Batman and Robin, though, is a source of some mystery. These are the people who got the original plan wrong, and decided that a SARS-type disease could be managed in exactly the same way as pandemic influenza.

These are the people who sat quiet while NHS hospitals turfed out the infected elderly from hospitals into care homes, to infect the innocents. These are the people who actually failed to plan for a working track and trace system, before the event, so that we now have to suffer the magical mystery tour according to Dildo Harding.

With that, I rather suspect that these two will have little more effect than the jaded Johncock duo. Generally, there probably isn't very much the government can do to restore people's faith in the system, which means that anything they do will have limited effect.

There is talk, however, of calling in the Army again, but this time they should perhaps be used to shoot lockdown breakers and isolation cheats. That may be a little messy but has the huge positive of avoiding repeat offenders. If we adopt the admirable Chinese practice of charging the relatives for the bullets, the system can also be self-funding.

Even Cummings might approve of that.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 21/09/2020 link

Coronavirus: the Cummings dividend

Sunday 20 September 2020  

More and more, from entirely casual conversations, I hear people dismiss Johnson's "lockdown" measures, with people expressing responses ranging from indifference to defiance.

It wasn't like that earlier in the year, when there was a genuine community spirit and, largely, a high degree of compliance. But that feeling has gone. Again and again, I hear the name "Cummings" spoken out loud.

What's good enough for him is good enough for everybody else. Almost single-handedly, he has destroyed any semblance of public-spirited cooperation. We do what we have to do, but the respect for the rules has gone.

Of course, when willing cooperation goes, all you have left is coercion. Uniformed thugs with sticks, their tasers and the rest of their array of weapons – enforcing the will of a state which has lost the trust of its people.

No better measure of that loss of trust is the announcement of £1,000 fines, growing rapidly to £10,000 for those who fail to follow lockdown rules – a level of absurdity when imposed on people – most people – who simply cannot afford that sort of money.

The lack of proportionality speaks of panic, a government which has lost control – and knows it. Thus, it gives license to its uniformed thugs to impose ridiculous penalties, in the hope that fear will induce compliance, where respect for the law has been lost.

In ordering such penalties, Johnson might have asked himself why he believes such a draconian response should be necessary. But then, if he asked the question, he surely would not like the answer. But the logic is unarguable. If we have a prime minister who has no respect for the rule of law, why should anyone else be bothered?

Underlying this also is a sense of drift. You would have to go a long way to find anyone who believed that the government had a grip on this epidemic, or had any confidence that it knew what it was doing.

And again personalities come into this. The choice of Dido "data loss" Harding as testing supremo, reigning over a failing system, has hardly inspired public confidence. More than anything, her appointment symbolises a rottenness deep in the heart of government that no-one could believe possible in Britain.

Johnson's lack of self-awareness is, of course, a wonder to behold. But how can he possible keep a straight face, when he burbles that: "The best way we can fight this virus is by everyone following the rules and self-isolating if they’re at risk of passing on coronavirus".

This is a man who has never knowingly obeyed a rule in his life, and has stood idly by while the odious Cummings drove a cart and horse through the rules, and then offered a frankly risible explanation for his misconduct.

Now, the man who is masquerading as a prime minister – when he isn't indulging in his penchant for dressing up – tells us that we should not underestimate just how important self-isolation is, for everyone except Dominic Cummings.

The new regulations he has churned out, under emergency powers, will mean you we are legally obliged to self-isolate if we have the virus or have been asked by Harding's failed NHS Test and Trace empire.

I doubt the man has even begun to think this through but, where the task of tracing infected and potentially infected people is already difficult enough, Johnson has just ensured that a huge tranche of people will now stay outside the system, rather than expose themselves to the risk of a draconian fine.

"People who choose to ignore the rules will face significant fines", Johnson says, so who in their right mind is going to get a test unless absolutely necessary, if the consequence is a call from Dido Harding's mates, and a £10K fine for not doing what they tell us? 

Johnson also seems to be locked into a time warp, asserting that we – with the notable exception of Dom Cummings – "need to do all we can to control the spread of this virus". But his rationale is still "to prevent the most vulnerable people from becoming infected, and to protect the NHS and save lives".

Thus, we're getting more of the "protect the NHS" schtick, where its conversion into the National Covid Service has cost and is costing thousands of lives, and untold pain, misery and uncertainty.

And there, under the control of the charlatan Johnson, things can only get worse. More than six months onto this epidemic, he and his advisors seem to have learned very little.

Instead of expanding and consolidating the network of Nightingale Hospitals, so that infected patients can be kept out of the general hospitals, we have the NHS clearing the decks again, to make way for a surge that will prevent the proper functioning of the service.

Meanwhile the track and trace system is a cruel joke, where not only is failing to meet the demand for testing, but the contact tracing has still not been properly organised at a local level, and the staff who are engaged are deprived of timely information that will enable them to do their jobs.

This, however, is so typical of this government. In the "us and them" stakes, it can mess up without a hint of penalty, leaving "us" to bear the consequences, and now be heavily penalised as the government attempts to make good its own shortcomings.

And yet, the worst is yet to come. Where the government clearly does not have a grip on the epidemic, when the case rate continues to rise, it will have nothing left in the locker – unless Johnson wants to raise the fines to £100K. And what then? Does he send in squads of bailiffs to chase up the people who can't or won't pay – or does he commit them to prison?

As the implications of the latest moves sink in, though, this inadequate hulk of a man will find that, far from improving the system, he has substantially damaged it as people identify "test and trace" as a coercive arm of the state.

But then, at least he may have temporarily solved the testing crisis. If applying for a test exposes the applicant to the risk of a massive fine, demand should fall off sharply. Perhaps that's the real reason.

In the longer run, though, the government has made a rod for its own back. What little residual cooperation and community spirit there was has just evaporated. The bully boys and their big sticks have taken over, and the state has become the oppressor.

We didn't think Johnson could make an even bigger mess of this than he has done to date, but one might take some little comfort from that fact that he still has the capacity to surprise.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 20/09/2020 link

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