Archive for April, 2020

Sunday Blog12: April 26 2020

Sunday, April 26th, 2020

Many expected Boris to be on sick leave longer. The news that he is returning to work tomorrow will be welcome even by those critical of the government. First on a human level because he has been through an extremely challenging experience, not to mention the torment of his loved ones who will have lived his  three nights in intensive care minute by anguished minute. Second because a time of acute national crisis is not one when the absence of the nation’s political leader is appropriate.

But let us not forget that the terrible Covid UK death toll comes not because it is unavoidable, but because in the critical early days when it became clear that a pandemic was in the making, Boris, especially Boris, most of his ministers and much of Whitehall, were asleep at the wheel. Ever since there has been a race to catch up, with plans and promises in bewildering abundance but delivery of them uneven and fragmented. So we end up with fantastic and brilliant nightingale hospitals with no patients (they should be mothballed for future pandemics for dedicated use to avoid compromising regular NHS facilities) and increased testing capacity at last and very late in the day, but then without the infrastructure to deliver to those who need and want testing.

Boris will need to sort this out. He will also have to bring an end to the damaging mystery surrounding our exit strategy, which merely fuels the fear there isn’t one. He will have to open the nation’s eyes to a very different future too. One not dominated by bankers, hedge fund managers and lawyers, but one in which the forgotten millions become the vanguard. One in which a much bigger state is appreciated, valued and paid for. All of which is anathema to the Thatcherite tradition which has inspired the Tory party for over forty years, but one which by chance Boris, his chancellor and the sinister gang who advise them, are only to happy to dump.

For this Blog, that is the bright light up ahead.

C-Virus Special 2: A Pattern?

Thursday, April 23rd, 2020

A pattern is beginning to emerge. However much it releases, repeats and proclaims its ‘right thing at the right time’ mantra, everybody now knows that, while focussed on the successful expansion of NHS capacity to cope, the government made a mess of the detail at the start of the pandemic in the UK.

Now it appears that while still trying to spin its way past a bad moment, the government is pinning its reputation on a great leap forward in vaccine development, alongside targeted testing for antibodies among a sample of the population.

This will  lead to focussed relaxation of some, but by no means all,  the restrictive measures now in force. Or so the government hints. It is now pulling out all the stops to become the world leader in bringing the virus under real control, sufficient to resume economic activity without the need to continue the kind of strict social distancing necessary at present and, in modified form, for  a long time ahead. Like so much of the Covid crisis, nobody can be sure.

Moreover until Boris returns as full time in charge and until we see what style of leadership he is able to offer after the trauma of his own illness, we cannot tell whether the present line up of ministers will remain unchanged, or whether, like everything else about our way of life, the way we are governed and by whom will have to change too.

Sunday Blog 11: April 19 2020: Pressure Building on Government

Sunday, April 19th, 2020

For a government that prides itself on doing the right things at the right time, there is a lot going wrong. There is an increasing disconnect between ministerial statements delivered in the familiar self congratulatory tone at the daily Downing Street briefings and the realities across the Covid 19 landscape, especially in England. Moreover lone voices hesitantly questioning,  have become something of a chorus and a good deal more strident. Of course it is not all bad news. The extraordinary response of the NHS and its ability to up its critical care capacity is already a legend. The admiration of the whole country for not just NHS workers, but all those essential people who keep the country running at all the basic levels involving care and services, is at an historic high.

The State, previously seen as a drain on taxpayers and the enemy of choice and  individual freedom, is suddenly the friend and critical supporter, one way or another, of every family in the land. Credit must be given to the government for driving the NHS expansion and for having no qualms whatever in building at breakneck speed the biggest expansion of the state since the post WWII era. Moreover when the question is asked by fiscal conservatives about paying for it all, the chancellor does not talk of austerity. No. He talks of massive government investment in industry, infrastructure and communications to invest our way out of the crisis and grow the economy to meet the need.

But there remains mounting evidence that a  failure of testing and procurement, with woolly science and muddled planning at the start, led to a lockdown much too late. It has also led to acute shortages of everything across the piece and significant logistical failures, many if not most still unresolved, in spite of eye catching promises made by a procession of ministers at the daily briefings in Downing Street. This in turn is leading to a longer peak, a bumpy curve and a much longer period of restrictive living than was envisaged or prepared for. Now the WHO tells us there is scant evidence of lasting immunity and that few people tested who have had the virus have much in the way of antibodies. That puts a question mark over the whole programme of antibody testing which was supposed to be a key part of the government’s elusive exit strategy.

Worst of all, these problems appear to be showing through in a grim death tally. Currently our total death rate, calculated as a percentage of the total of those infected, as reported in the daily statistics, is now running at 13.5%. This is higher than Italy 13.2,  France 12.6,  Spain 10.5,  USA 5.2. and Germany 3.2. It could be said that because we have not tested properly, we are understating the critical cases, but as everybody is using the WHO standard of hospitalised confirmed cases, this may not be a valid explanation. On the contrary many experts are now predicting we will head the table as the worst in Europe.

At the very least there are questions the government must now answer on a range of anxieties. Self-justification and fudge will no longer do. It has much to be pleased with, but the central issue of confronting the virus and resolving the threat, remains unanswered with sufficient conviction and enough evidence, to give the country the hope and confidence, upon which ultimate recovery will depend. Positive news of vaccine development at pace is certainly encouraging, but even if such vaccines work they are not for today, or even tomorrow but at least the days after that. The problem for the government seems to be that it has locked itself into a syndrome of planning for yesterday.

Sunday Blog 10: April 12 2020: Government Under Fire

Sunday, April 12th, 2020

The consensus backing the government is breaking up. Attacks are now focussed and telling. There is mounting irritation. It does not stem from government mistakes. Everyone accepts that in an unforeseen chain of events for which there is no template to work from people will, with the best of intentions, get it wrong.

It is the vulgar and unashamed self justification which is pedalled out, like cheap goods at boot sale, at every daily press briefing from Downing Street. There is a naivety that the news can be managed. It cannot. There is a national crisis of undreamed of proportions engulfing every facet of life, society and the economy. And people are communicating with each other as never before, so everyone knows when questions are not answered and plans are not working.

At the centre of it are two lies. The first is that the government is driven by the science. It is not. It is driven by the science that suits it. There is other science which it choses to ignore. The second is that it does the right thing at the right time. It does not. As well it knows.

The country, in other words the people, the ordinary people, have rallied as never before in peacetime, many laying their lives on the line, to save their fellow citizens and their communities. An NHS, managed through a bizarre amalgam of suffocating quangos and agencies, starved of resources over more than a decade, has answered the call on a scale which has stunned and gratified the nation. Every authority and service, each one of which is pared to the bone by cuts and efficiency savings, now responds at levels before unseen to go the extra mile, another one, then the mile after that.

They do this because the government, drunk on Brexit elixir, ignored the early signs of a growing threat, woke up suddenly to the stark fact that with pseudo science amounting to little more than invention, they were leading the country to a biblical scale catastrophe. They changed course. But too late to prevent thousands of unnecessary extra deaths and a cost to the economy almost beyond calculation. What they had to do was to lock down early and make testing the centrepiece of the defence. But no. They knew better. Herd immunity.

Yet still the insulting refrain is sung every single evening from that notorious press room in Downing Street. We are doing the right thing at the right time. With our 67 million we have  nearly as many cases and three times more deaths than China with its 1.4 billion. We are just reaching the peak. China is more or less at the end. So what did they do wrong?

We are now predicted to have one of the worst death tolls in Europe if not the worst. In the first two days of Easter nearly two thousand  people have died, the actual figure is 1819. We still have Sunday’s and Monday’s figures to come. It is okay for the government to come clean and say it made mistakes and it is working night and day do put things right.

But it is so very not okay to tell us that it is doing the right things at the right time.

 

Boris In Intensive Care

Thursday, April 9th, 2020

The reports are rather sparse and clearly subject to news management, so we do not really know what is happening. The fact the prime minister is still in intensive care is enough to tell us he is very ill. He appears not to be getting worse at least, because if so he would be on a ventilator and he is not. He is apparently able to sit up in bed and talk to those caring for him. So while it remains an anxious time, especially for his loved ones and friends, there is optimism.

Meanwhile the country is gripped in perhaps the biggest health and economic crisis in modern history with a daily death toll reach startling levels and predicted to get worse still. The government, Boris’s government, having fluffed about at the start of the crisis in a fog of complacency, is now firing on all cylinders to correct all the things which should have been done better. They are doing their best and by any reasonable judgment they are at last doing it well. Of course there remains the great weaknesses of testing and protective equipment, the mishaps here having without doubt cost  many lives, but little by little things are getting better.

However, many, too many, questions have been raised by commentators about who is in overall charge of the country and with what authority. The answer to the first is known, Dominic Raab, but the second remains opaque. It need not. During the WWII Attlee often took over for Churchill, who had several bouts of pneumonia. When Eden fell ill after Suez it was RA Butler, who again stepped in when Macmillan was in hospital. Attlee was formally Churchill’s deputy and when in the final months of Churchill’s second premiership, the old man suffered a stroke, Eden, his known successor, ran the country from the foreign office.

Right now things are less clear. The government is a new one and the dynamics of power personalities has not had time to develop. All the lead jobs are with newly promoted second tier ministers, with the exception of Gove. So why Raab? Perhaps because he is said to be very good at detail, Boris’s weak spot. And perhaps because whatever he does he could not possibly outshine Boris. But the ambiguity should end. First among equals is too pompous a mouthful and actually meaningless to ordinary people. Every team has to have a captain. A captain on the field of play. Butler used the term Acting Head of Government. Maybe that’s how Raab should be referred to. Then we know who is in charge for the moment, but the assumption remains that Boris will be back.

That would end the speculation. Remember while all this is making news people are dying. Hundreds of them every day. And NHS staff, care workers and workers in essential services and industries, millions of them, are risking their lives, and too often losing them, for the greater good of us all. That is the story.

C-Virus Special

Tuesday, April 7th, 2020

Everyone knew the pandemic was spreading. They knew it was spreading quite badly in London and among the ruling and celebrity class especially. Even Prince Charles fell victim to a mild attack. But the news that it was in Downing Street was a shock for sure, even though the good humoured prime minister assured the nation via twitter that he was okay  and still working normally.

Gradually the list at the epicentre of government grew among staff,  even the sinister Cummings. It included the PM’s pregnant fiancée. But the show stopper was news that Boris had been taken to hospital as a precaution, because he was not getting better. The pulse of the nation quickened. Uncharted waters bubbled up ahead.

Then it came. The moment when fluent correspondents stumbled for words, then went into a circular monologue repeating themselves over and over to update millions tuning in by the minute. The prime minister, our prime minister of the United Kingdom no less, was in intensive care. In intensive care in the midst of the greatest crisis the country has faced since the second world war, maybe the biggest health threat since the days of recurrent plague, which as a spin off has the power to wreck the economy.

But keep calm. Raab will take over.

Who?

The Foreign Secretary.

But isn’t he the one making an absolute horlicks of repatriating Brits trapped abroad, making them last line  to get home days or even weeks after Americans, Germans, Swedes, whatever, set foot on their home soil?

Yes.

Oh.

That is the politics of it. But this is also a human story. Boris is struggling against a very nasty illness, which is life threatening. Everyone is hopping and praying that he will get better.  People of every political stripe and none stand behind his family and friends in a time of great personal anxiety.

Sunday Blog 9: April 5 2020: Do We Know Where We Are?

Sunday, April 5th, 2020

The Government

The government was formed with a single track mind, composed of people with one political driver, having won an historic victory on the slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’. Brexit. Brexit. Brexit. As the Tory party celebrated its victory, not for one moment in a wildest dream anywhere among the singing and drinking multitudes, was there a thought that within weeks their jobs would be gone, they would be locked down in their homes, while a pandemic of biblical proportions would sweep away the world as we had come to know it. Yet that is what has happened. The depth and extent has not even begun to sink in.

So it is hardly surprising that the government made mistakes in almost every direction. But it did. It first did not take the risk seriously enough, following the ‘moderate’ rating of a misguided committee. They were then slow to gear up equipment of every sort and kind, they were seduced by abstract modelling and theories, like first year students years away from having to test them in practice, they ignored raw data coming from the front lines in Asia and they told us we would be okay if we washed our hands and sang happy birthday. Twice.

Yes . Well. So now we have more deaths than China and we have not reached the peak. The entire economy has been brought to a halt and daily we are told the worst is yet to come. I will not go on and on, because as the Queen will tell us later, now is not the time. But I am haunted by a thought which will not go away. Late in February I received a call from across the world, which set out with crystal clarity what was coming and what could go wrong, if the government, which was getting the same information, did not respond. When all this is over there will be an inquiry. When that happens it will be found that very many lives lost could have been saved if the government had acted when it was warned it should.

But for now we are where we are and we have to press on. There are signs that at last the government has got the message and is scrambling to catch up. Such is the determination of the nation as a whole at every level, in the midst of a mobilisation as great as any in war-time, that in the end, we will do better than at the beginning.  And when we do, we shall find we own a quite different set of values.

Our enormous admiration and gratitude for those at the bottom of the income pile, under resourced and under paid, whom society was taught to regard as a burden upon taxpayers yet who together will have saved the nation, will ensure that never again will they be other than the first in line. For everything.

Labour Leadership

Sir Keir Starmer has won a landslide. Beside him is the  formidable Angela Rayner as Deputy Leader. This will be a game changer for British politics. Just wait and see.