Lockdown – Day 20

As the country approaches three weeks of lockdown, over a sunny Easter bank holiday weekend, the full extent of the crisis is becoming clear. Whilst Johnson is recovering from the coronavirus and out of the ICU, the country is suffering from over 900 deaths a day and it’s not getting any better. And there is still confusion as to whether all related deaths, including for instance those in care homes, are being counted and if so how current they are.

One of the scientists/medical people that appear in the daily government briefings on the virus said early on that they would be happy to keep the death toll below 20,000, which sounded shocking at the time. It seems now that that target will not be reached. In fact at one point the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), an independent global health research center at the University of Washington, predicted that the UK would see 66,000 deaths, marginally less than the total for UK civilian who lost their lives in the second world war. The organisation has since lowered the estimate to 37,500. Currently the death rate is thirty times the average for British non-combatants during WW2.

But this disaster, brought on by the lack of decisive action by the government for several weeks after the impact of the virus first became apparent, is not seen in the same way by everyone. At the news of Johnson’s move out of intensive care, but while around 900 deaths a day were being reported, goverment minister Nadine Dorries tweeted, in all seriousness, the following:

Covid-19 Lockdown – Week 1

While the new coronavirus was spreading across China and then Italy and Spain, the UK, under our Brexit-obsessed and otherwise dysfunctional government, went about it’s business as usual. When it did arrive on our shores the plan seems to have been to allow people – expected to reach 60% of the population – to get the disease so that a ‘herd’, and they actually used that word, immunity would emerge. It appeared that the vulnerable people in the herd would have to take their chances.

The one day someone did the sums. Not difficult. With a population of about seventy million and the overall mortality rate of 1-2% it means that the number expected to need hospital treatment far exceeds the capacity of the NHS. It’s even worse for older people, with a mortality rate of around 3% for 60-year olds up to 15% for those in their 80s. Hence the change of tack. At long last Johnson’s government faced up to the potential disaster and did what most other countries had already done. Clearly with reluctance, ‘suggested’ restrictions on movement were introduced until, finally, at the start of this week we entered the nearest thing to a lockdown that a Conservative government could conceive.

This is a nasty virus. Coughing and a fever are the initial symptoms and for the young and fit this can be very mild. But the older and more vulnerable the patient the more likely it is that shortness of breath will follow to the extent that a patient may require a ventilator to help them survive. But it emerged that, along with protective equipment for NHS staff, there is a significant shortage of ventilators, with only a few thousand available to the NHS where tens of thousands will be needed.

This is where the Tory government showed it’s true colours. When existing suppliers of ventilators offered to provide all the machines they had access to, the suggestion was not taken up. Nor did it the government agree to be part of a combined EU purchasing programme which would have speeded up delivery. Instead, Conservative-supporting manufacturers were enlisted to start producing ventilators from scratch. The worst example is the case of Dyson, the vacuum cleaner manufacturer, who’s founder, James Dyson, has been an avid Conservative fan. Dyson is a vocal supporter of Brexit, despite having moved his manufacturing base from Wiltshire to Singapore in 2002 and last year announced plans for his HQ to follow. His company is known for redesigning the wheel into something a lot more expensive. This ventilator redesign, funded by our government, will cause a delay and cost lives.

Now I’m seventy years old and more at risk of a bad outcome from coronavirus than the majority of the population. It’s not that I’m afraid of dying. I would prefer a few more years but I quite accept that there are many people that are more of a priority than me. But I don’t want to die gasping for breath because no ventilator is available, particularly if that’s due to many years of chronic underfunding of the NHS and putting business the way of your chums. If I die, the fault lies fairly and squarely with consecutive Conservative governments who have failed to give the NHS the funding it needs, seek every opportunity to favour their supporters and have cut corners on disaster planning ‘red tape’.

How did we end up like this? Why do people keep voting Tory?

Pfeffel’s Pfolly

Let’s get one thing straight, the people of Britain do not want to leave the EU. All the evidence points to the fact that, if asked, the majority would choose to remain.

The last time the question was put to the country was in June 2016, more than three and a half years ago and it wasn’t even a fair fight. On that occasion 51.9% of voters chose the leave option, whilst 48.1% wanted to remain. Leaving aside the fact that there was little information on which to base a vote, what ultimately emerged was that Vote Leave broke electoral law. The organisation overspent by channelling funds through its youth organisation, as well as other transgressions. The Electoral Commission imposed fines and made referrals to the police. Vote Leave dropped an appeal against the £61,000 fine and in November 2019 the police handed a file on the organisation to the Crown prosecution Service. (The Information Commissioner’s Office also fined Vote Leave Limited £40,000 for sending out thousands of unsolicited text messages in the run up to the referendum.)

But in a chaotic campaign they weren’t the only groups to transgress. Other organisations fined by the Electoral Commission for offences under electoral law included the pro-Remain group Best For Our Future, the trade unions GMB and Unison, the Liberal Democrats, and Britain Stronger In Europe (the official Remain campaign group, subsequently known as Open Britain). The BBC also reported that the Constitutional Research Council was fined £6,000 for failing to notify the Electoral Commission about a donation to the Democratic Unionist Party during the referendum.

Then there is the possible impact of foreign interference in the vote. A 50-page report was compiled by the House of Commons cross-party Intelligence and Security Committee into allegations that Russia launched a major influence operation in 2016 in support of Brexit. Although apparently already approved by the intelligence agencies themselves, the dossier, which was sent to Downing Street last October, has still not seen the light of day.

So it was a close result after a corrupt campaign in an advisory referendum. Little enough reason for a fundamental change to the UK’s position in the world. In any country with a written constitution it would have taken a legally binding vote with at least a 60% majority to sign off on such a major constitutional change.

Referendum votes by age group

But what was striking about the referendum results was the difference in voting by age group and its implications. As the chart above from Statista shows, 73% of 18-24 year-olds voted to remain in the European Union, but 60% of the over 65s voted to leave. Even if the vote were a true representation of feelings at the time, sheer demographic changes suggested that as older voters died and young people come of voting age it wouldn’t be long before the pendulum swung the other way. Sure enough, helped by a dawning realisation of the implications of leaving the block, as far back as 2018 the BBC reported that “If there were to be a second referendum now, 52% would vote Remain and 48% Leave, an average of polls over the past three months suggests”. And that was two years ago.

As if to emphasise the point, there were three separate mass marches through London by those who were either against leaving the EU or who wanted another referendum. All three of these peaceful, family-friendly events were among the biggest ever seen in London, with estimates of up to one million people turning up for the final demonstration in October 2019. As far as I’m aware the only demonstration from those who wanted to leave the EU was an ill-tempered protest in Parliament Square in March 2019, the date originally proposed for withdrawal from the EU.

None of this would matter if the stakes were not so high. Think tanks have scrambled to assess just the economic impact of leaving the EU and the results are many and varied, although rarely good. One of the most authoritative comes from The EU in a Changing Europe, which used the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance trade model to calculate the financial implications of Johnson’s proposals. The study found that its most optimistic scenario would leave the public finances £16 billion worse off. The most pessimistic model forecasts a much greater impact on the public purse, of around £49 billion. Even this excludes the case where the country leaves with no deal at all and trades under World Trade Organization arrangements, still a possibility. In this case the loss of GDP would be in excess of £60 billion, or almost £1000 for every man, woman and child in the country.

The study concludes that much depends on the terms of any deal with the EU but “Nevertheless, it should be clear that under any plausible scenario the costs associated with Brexit’s potential economic effects are much larger than the savings from reduced contributions to the EU budget”. To add salt to the wound, the New European has, ironically, estimated that the cost of simply leaving the EU will, by the end of 2020, exceed the net cost of our membership over the previous 47 years. And that’s before we even leave!

There have been more positive views of the Brexit outcome, but generally based more on possibilities than probabilities, if not outright wishful thinking. It’s telling that the government’s own financial assessment of its Brexit bill avoids putting numbers to anything specific and is mostly confined to staffing costs for new departments to deal with post-Brexit bureaucracy.

Of course many of the impacts of leaving the EU are very difficult to measure. Free movement across 28 countries, joint European scientific research, the Erasmus student exchange programme and continent-wide police and security collaboration are just a few of a multitude of areas where the UK has benefitted from being part of a wide union of countries. Many of these links will be impossible to maintain or replace when we are out of the Union.

So how did a once (a long time ago) great nation, sink to the depths of this massive self-inflicted wound? The simple answer is the vaulting ambition of one Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. A man with the sense of entitlement only an Eton and Oxford education can instil and steeped in the sexism, vandalism and bullying that comes with membership of that most cringeworthy of university societies the Bullingdon club.

As a boy Johnson apparently said he wanted to be ‘king of the world’ and has spent most of his life trying to achieve it. So far he has managed to become an MP, to be elected Mayor of London and, most recently, has led the Conservative party to election victory with a significant majority in parliament. His modus operadi is bluff and bluster, leaving a trail of unanswered questions, broken promises and white elephants. Full details of his obfuscations and misdemeanours are readily available on the web, they’re too tedious and depressing to list here.

Leaving the EU was not a political conviction for Johnson but a means to an end. (He had apparently written two versions of his Daily Telegraph column, one for each possible outcome, and seemed shocked that the Leave campaign had prevailed.) But his single-minded approach to ‘getting Brexit done’ has been the route to the top. If Britain has to suffer as a result then that’s just collateral damage to his ambition. Suffice to say that he leads a divided country into an unknown future. Where we go from here is anyone’s guess.

Johnson has achieved his ambition, although whether he will be able to hang on to the prize for a full five years remains to be seen. But his place in history is assured. He will be remembered for making the UK more insular and divided and ultimately weaker than ever before.

Vote for what you believe in

The Green Party has never had a hope of winning this election.  But we’rSNP logoe now a multi-party democracy with no one party likely to achieve a majority of seats, despite the   Plaid Cymru logo  biased impact of our first-past-the-post system.  Either the Tories or Labour will hold sway, but minor parties have a significant role to play in trying to limit extreme economic and other policies.  TheCoop party logo Green party does not have the people or the expertise to run the country, but should they get a seat at the table they haveGreen party logo a set of policies that might help limit the excesses of ideologically driven politicians and point the country in the right direction (or at least help bring a bad government down).

This election is the first where tactical voting will be counter-prTUSC logooductive.  We need to learn from the Liberal Democrat’s actions after the last election, when they betrayed their ‘tactical’ support base.  Hopefully one day a government will implement a meaningful proportional representation system so that the voters’ views are truly reflected in parliament.  But until then we should vote for the policies we believe in so that minor parties can at least throw the right spanner in the works (although not the Lib Dems, of course, since they don’t seem to stand for anything).

Police subsidise gun owners

It’s a strange world.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the UK is the country that decided the best way to stop binge drinking was to allow pubs to stay open longer and where plain packaging for cigarettes was stopped at the last minute because the tobacco companies were afraid it would result in more tobacco smuggling. All madness, but not as mad as this.

It seems that it costs around £200 for the police to issue a gun licence. That’s reasonable given that it’s in everyone’s interest to ensure that firearms don’t fall into the wrong hands. The problem is that the price of a gun licence has not gone up since it was set at £50 in 2001. Recent attempts at an increase have apparently been blocked by our pheasant-shooting and deer-stalking prime minister.

The net result is that police forces across the country are subsidising gun owners to the tune of £17m a year. Money that might have been used to chase down illegal firearms is being given to people who want to own guns.

The most likely consequence of this financial pressure is that police forces will not be able to continue to give the same level of scrutiny to gun licence applicants. That’s not good for anyone, particularly the police themselves.

Obscene wealth inequality costs us all money

According to a report from The Equality Trust the richest 100 people in the UK have as much wealth as the poorest 30% of households – that’s almost 19,000,000 people. The diagram below gives some idea of the scale of the issue in terms of pay disparity.

14-03-16 Average pay 2012

The more you think about this level of inequality the more obscene it becomes.

But it gets even worse.  According to the report the inequality could be costing the UK up to £39 billion per year as a result of the social consequences, including reduced life expectancy, worse mental health and higher levels of imprisonment and murder. So the government is wasting the equivalent of the entire defence budget in prolonging this inexcusable distribution of wealth.

It’s appalling that consecutive governments have continued to allow the social impact of this state of affairs, but it seems insane that they actually waste huge amounts of money to achieve it.

Why does the BBC support climate change deniers?

BBCThe BBC’s Charter states that the organisation’s mission is to inform, educate and entertain, but when it come to climate change, the emphasis seems to be firmly on entertain.

Last Sunday evening, two consecutive programmes on Radio 4 emphasised the point.  In Westminster Hour, presenter Carolyn Quinn was mediating between various politicians on the subject of the recent floods when she came out with the extroaordinary statement “And we know that there is a difference of opinion among scientific experts and among politicians over this”.

There may well be varying views among politicians, but not among scientists.

Perhaps the most authoritative scientific source is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to which 195 member countries of the United Nations have signed up. The organisation ‘considers new evidence of climate change based on many independent scientific analyses from observations of the climate system, paleoclimate archives, theoretical studies of climate processes and simulations using climate models’.

In its latest report – Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis – the Summary for Policymakers says that:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.

And:

Human influence on the climate system is clear. This is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming, and understanding of the climate system.

There have been a number of studies into the extent of agreement among scientists. For example, back in 2010 a group of academics researched and reported on the issue:

Here, we use an extensive dataset of 1,372 climate researchers and their publication and citation data to show that 97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of ACC (anthropogenic climate change) outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.

And if you still don’t believe it, check out this list of 197 scientific organisations world wide that hold the position that climate change has been caused by human action.  A list that NASA quotes on its web site.

I could go on, but you get the point.

So why did Carolyn Quinn say there is a difference of opinion among scientific experts when there clearly isn’t? The usual reason given is that the corporation needs to present both sites of any argument, but in this case there isn’t one. In any case, using the BBC’s logic, the Corporation should be interviewing someone from the Flat Earth Society whenever any discussion suggests the world is a globe. The Society is alive and kicking with it’s own minority views. It’s only a matter of degree between the number denying climate change is happening and those maintaining the Earth is flat, so where’s the tipping point? When will the BBC accept climate change without argument? Clearly 97% of the views of the scientific community is not enough.

But, getting back to last Sunday night, that wasn’t the end of it. What the Papers Say swiftly followed up with the press coverage of the floods and the climate change implications, or not.

It started with a comment from Nicholas Stern, who’s 2006 report first brought climate change to wider attention in the UK. But the longest quote in the whole piece came from car comic Clarkson, who’s scepticism established that climate change was a subject for anyone to get their point across on the BBC. Fortunately a real comedian, Mark Steel, helped to set the record straight. This was a report on what the press were saying, so didn’t pretend to be fair, but the way the content was selected added weight to the non-scientific view.

I don’t understand why the BBC, with such a wealth of scientific content in its broadcasts,  won’t take climate change seriously. If it did, it’s coverage of the deniers might at least distinguish between those who deny climate change is happening and those who deny it’s man-made. Of course, science shows that both are true.

NHS = No Health Secrets?

NHSSo there’s a plan afoot to upload all your NHS records to a central database. That’s not such a bad idea if it means that anyone who treats you has immediate access to your complete medical history.  In fact that was the idea behind the National Programme for IT, a multi-billion pound programme which was ignominiously abandoned a couple of years ago.

This time round it’s different because it’s not being done for clinical reasons. In a leaflet sent out with the junk mail you get through the post, the NHS says that the data will be used to see how well the organisation itself is doing and where improvements need to be made. It avoids spelling out exactly who will get access to the information, but does say that:

NHS organisations share information about the care you receive with those who plan health and social care services, as well as with approved researchers and organisations outside the NHS(my emphasis).

‘Approved researchers’ could include insurance companies, pharmaceutical corporations and the like.

The data uploaded will need to be able to identify you personally so that the information from various NHS sources can be brought together. But the leaflet tries to reassure readers:

Records are linked in a secure system so your identity is protected. Details that could identify you will be removed before your information is made available to others, such as those planning NHS services and approved researchers.

Even if the database itself is secure (and the Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden cases suggest that putting large amounts of data together in one place where lots of people can access it is an invitation to leak) it doesn’t mean that the information in it will stay private.

Mark Davies, the Public Assurance (sic) Director of the Health and Social Care Information Centre, which is running the project, even admitted to the Guardian newspaper that there was a “small risk” that patients could be “re-identified” because health sector companies had their own medical data that could be matched against the “pseudonymised” records. Who’s he kidding? By now we all know that there is much more information stored on each of us than anyone cares to admit and companies will soon be working flat out to match it all up with our medical histories.

The leaflet says you have to speak to your GP practice to opt out of your records being passed on in this way. But in fact all you need to do is fill in a form and deliver it to your surgery. There’s a web site – medConfidential – where you can download a form.

If you value your medical privacy you should fill it in.

What particularly galls me about all this is that the information has been sent out in junk mail.  If you’ve opted out of receiving these unaddressed Royal Mail deliveries then you may never have known what’s going on and of course your medical records will be uploaded by default. I only found out from John Naughton‘s weekly column in the Observer, which I would recommend for those that have an interest in how technology is impacting all our lives, whether we like it or not.

Government by numbers – statistics and lies

The headlines yesterday included the news that the UK unemployment rate has fallen to 7.1%, apparently the best since early 2009. But the comments and discussions that followed are a reminder of the dangers of using statistics as a shorthand for government achievements.

For a start the 7.1% is a national figure and disguises significant variations. For those under 24 not in education, 18.1% are out of work and more than a quarter of these have been looking for a job for over a year.

Nor does the headline figure mean that all problems have been solved for those people who have found work. The newsworthy figures don’t show how many more jobs are only part-time, temporary or on zero-hour contracts. If there’s no guarantees of actually work in a role that can be whipped away at a moment’s notice, it hardly counts as a success. The resulting low wages also mean that for the first time since records began the majority of people in poverty are actually in working families, according to a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published last December. And Ed Miliband claims that average wages have gone down £1,600 a year since the 2010 general election, making it tougher for everybody. Employment figures only tell part of the story of how well we’re doing.

Government figures always need to be taken with a pinch of salt. They can be selective and misleading after ministers apply their own spin. But they can also be just plain inaccurate or self-fulfilling.

Last week the UK Statistics Authority, the independent body who’s aim is to safeguard the production of official statistics, downgraded the crime figures for England and Wales because of a belief that the police figures may not be reliable. In its Statistics on Crime in England and Wales report the organisation refers to comments from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) that the problem in crime figures could be due to the fact that ‘a growing number of crimes reported to the police are not being captured in crime recording systems’.

Just today, the National Audit Office released a report into NHS waiting times for elective care in England which found significant errors and inconsistencies in how NHS trusts record waiting time, masking ‘a good deal’ of variation between trusts in actual waiting times.

Even if reported government figures are correct, they may not be all that they seem. My own favourite example also relates to the NHS and the government’s aim of ensuring that patients can see their GP within 48 hours. In the case of my local surgery, the initial response was to ensure they fulfilled the target by not allowing appointments to be booked more than two days in advance. If there were no slots available, tough. It resulted in a Glastonbury-like phone scramble every morning as people speed-dialled to try and book an appointment – heaven help those too ill to participate. But it helped the government to claim that the 48-hour rule was being complied with.

Another example of figures not quite being what they seem is the recent panic over immigration, now that Bulgaria and Romania are in the EU and their citizens entitled to work in Britain. Leaving aside the way the government has spread panic about an invasion of workshy foreigners, it turns out that the goal for reducing immigration is actually based on net migration, i.e. those arriving minus those leaving the country. So the target can equally be met by getting more people to leave the UK, which means there are alternative solutions. One springs to mind. Bankers are continually threatening to leave the country if their bonuses are cut or taxes increased. So with one piece of legislation we could simultaneously prevent the increasing wealth inequality in the UK and at the same time reduce immigration. A win-win.

When you hear the claims of government success based on a set of figures, it pays to look more closely. Check, if you can, to see if the numbers are accurate, what they actually mean and if they tell the whole story. Remember, the police can’t even get the crime figures right.