Brexit: a deal is still possible

Saturday 6 June 2020  

We have a new statement from Michel Barnier. Still there is no sign of progress. At least now, though, the British strategy is clear. It probably has been all along for those still with the energy to follow every twist and turn, but the clue was the release of the UK’s new “global tariff” regime.

It wasn’t the sweeping unilateral liberalisation à la Minford that the Tory right have been agitating for. If anything it was a bit of a tidy up with a few signals and a few red herrings. On the whole, though, the divergence from the EU wasn’t great. It was enough to cause an admin headache for those who contend with rules of origin but tariffs on motor vehicle remained where they are.

This ignited a number of conversations which largely missed the point. The whole exercise was a signal to EU member states as to what tariffs they’d be facing in the event of no deal. They still believe that German car makers will come rushing to the rescue, applying pressure on Mrs Merkel.

I’ve always been sniffy about this. It is not without leverage but it was never going to move the EU away from its fundamental philosophy. The other pincer the UK is exploiting is the timing. We’re seeing no movement on the British side as regards to the level playing field and fishing, and with the firm position on not extending the transition, the hope is that the EU will soften its position in order to secure a deal on tariffs at the very least.

We are told there are signals the EU may move from its position on the level playing field, and it entirely stands to reason that they can. The offer as laid down in the draft treaty is more proscribed than the Ukraine association agreement. The UK can easily argue that by the EU’s own proximity benchmark their demands are inconsistent.

If then the EU does move away from its existing demands in line with the Ukraine agreement, it still gets provisions broadly in alignment with the TFEU state aid rules, none of which present any serious impediment to UK sovereignty unless it intends to go rogue and start subsidising and bailing out without regard to the international implications and possible retaliation.

Though the mood among the commentariat is pessimistic, this is all following the same pattern as last time around, where we see no serious movement until the final hours, so a deal is still within the realms of possibility. That the UK is apparently not engaging seriously outwardly suggest there is no sincere attempt to secure a deal, but this is all consistent with pushing the window toward a looming deadline.

This in our view is a serious mistake. The UK should not be seeking a cut and run Brexit with a deal cobbled together at the last minute. A threadbare deal with minimal regulatory cooperation may be in line with the Tory philosophy but the real world demands of trade suggest we will end up revisiting the relationship, not least when the “global Britain” dogma falls flat on its face.

From the beginning we needed a realistic assessment of the kind of relationship we needed and will inevitably end up in, and taken a more collaborative approach rather than the confrontation we now see. Repairing our EU trade will prove a lot more difficult after the fact and this approach is ultimately self-defeating in that the next major round will be defined and conducted by whoever follows the Johnson administration.

As we continue to point out, tariffs are only of partial significance to trade, and what makes the difference to exporters is the reduction of overheads in the supply chain that comes with regulatory harmonisation. For many this is the difference between making a profit and not making a profit, and without a more comprehensive deal an agreement on tariffs is neither here nor there.

Brexiteers continue to insist that no other third country is expected to adopt EU regulations, but as ever, those with the most assertive opinions on EU FTAs are those least likely to have read one. South Korea adopted the EU’s REACH legislation in order to trade freely with the EU, and Japan took in, unchanged, the EU’s environmental standards on automobile construction. Legislative harmonisation is central to the EU’s “new generation” of comprehensive trade agreements. Especially so for neighbouring countries.

We were always of the view that the UK needs a comprehensive relationship with the EU, and Covid underscores the necessity. With China now renewing interest in CPTPP, Britain is set to leave the single market to join a Pacific bloc dominated by China. This does not strike us as especially sensible. Nor is it consistent with our current foreign policy and general attitude to China. Being that we are also seeing a trend shift back toward nearshoring, and with biosecurity issues set to be the new fashion in trade, our EU trade matters as much as it ever did.

That certainly doesn’t help is the news this week that the UK is dropping its opposition to possible imports of chlorine washed chicken. Brexiteers have it that if you don’t want it, simply don’t buy it, but with the US viewing country of origin labelling as a barrier to trade, consumers will be denied the choice. Moreover this misses the point that regulatory divergence and a weakening of food safety standards has serious implications for our food exports travelling into the EU while adding further complications for Northern Ireland.

The technical aspect of the “chlorinated chicken” debate has always evaded the Brexiteers, and the debate is mired in simplistic nostrums and misapprehensions. This much is understandable for the average Brexit headbanger but the government has no excuses. It’s not as though they haven’t been told even by their own trade gurus.

One could easily be forgiven for thinking that, having committed us to leaving the single market and seeking only a minimal deal with the EU, the UK has little choice having bet the farm (or rather our entire agriculture sector) on a deal with the USA. Either the penny dropped too late or didn’t drop at all.

What’s puzzling here is the CBI’s position on all this. Carolyn Fairbairn, “Director General” of the CBI has told Newsnight that UK business has the “resilience to be able to plan for a ‘no deal’ Brexit,” and that they have “no interest in delaying”. We can only assume the CBI’s been got at. Nobody does a 180 like this without a threat or a bribe. Arise Lady Caroline?

It’s clear there is a plan in motion here. Not a very good one it seems, but it looks like we are going with a pivot toward the USA with a view to extensive deregulation, with the emphasis on a US deal to bind any successor from re-aligning with the EU. A big gamble given America’s present political instability and its present hostility to opening its own services markets. We’re not likely to be offered anything close to what’s obtainable from the EU.

What should concern us all is the lack of transparency in all this. Promises were made as regards to food standards and broken. There is an agenda in play yet we are meant to guess what it is and all under the smokescreen of Covid, without the full attention of the media. This is looking more like a train robbery every day.One thing is clear, Tory Brexiteers couldn’t give a fig about the values Brexit notionally represents. It would appear they’re dancing to the tune of their donors, with the British people a distant second in their priorities.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Peter North 06/06/2020 link

Coronavirus: tractor production

Friday 5 June 2020  

The Guardian is doing the failings of the government's "test-and-trace" system, with no fewer than four critical articles. Yet, for all that, it was a real struggle summoning up enough energy to read them. It's not that I'm not interested, and a scan of one of them suggested that the paper did have some new material to offer.

Unfortunately, for all the novelty value, the story is still the same – the same one I've been writing about for weeks if not months: the "test-and-trace" system, as the government insists on calling it, is pants and, what is more, it isn't going to get better any time soon, if ever.

Actually, my money is on it never getting better. As I've long been writing, almost to the point of tedium, the only way it is ever going to be effective is if it is firmly rooted in a well-resourced and financed local government, with a well-honed local, regional and national infrastructure, to enable local staff to function.

In the first of the quartet of articles, however, we have John Harris evaluating the "boots on the ground" effort at local authority level, finding it wanting.

This, apparently, is not for want of trying but, as Harris observes, part of the instructions given to the locals is to ensure "continuing data capture and information loop at each stage that flows through Joint Biosecurity Centre to recommend actions … Underpinned by a huge public engagement exercise to build trust and participation".

Frankly, any system that can write that sort of incoherent garbage has to be all bad. But the worst of it is that the authors are probably beyond salvation. If they were pets in that much agony, they'd be taken to the vet and put down as an act of mercy.

If one sneaks around the corner to see what Sarah March is writing, though, it gets worse. The system that was supposed to be fully operational on 1 June is now not expected to work at full speed until September or October – according to Tony Prestedge, the chief operating officer of the scheme.

And while one is absorbing that piece of news, we find that the chief executive of Serco – one of the main companies contracted to deliver the service – has communicated his view. He "reveals" his doubts that the scheme will evolve smoothly, but nevertheless is staying with the programme, because he wants the scheme to "cement the position of the private sector" in the NHS supply chain.

Personally, I don't have this lefty thing about private provision on the NHS, but I do have a serious hang-up about the "test-'n'-trace" system being in the NHS at all. It should be rooted in local teams employed and managed by local authorities.

These should be working alongside a network of public health laboratories and regional surveillance centres, the latter feeding a national (UK) surveillance centre and reference laboratory, with the whole system responsible to the Department of Health, where ministers take strategic decisions, and formulate policy within the framework of their incident control teams and advisors.

The way it is currently structured, therefore, it is never going to work. The system is either locally-based or it is nothing. You can tweak a top-down system until the cows come home but it is never going to be effective.

And yet, in the Telegraph a few days ago, the news was of a massive "shake-up" in Downing Street, with two centrally-run committees - one covering strategy and the other operational delivery – taking over to "shape Government's approach to pandemic".

Here, it will come as no surprise, is evidence that we have a prime minister who has learnt nothing. We are now nearly five months into the epidemic, the disease is quite obviously still not under control, and there are many indications that things are about to take a turn for the worse.

Yet, here we have Johnson, with the wreckage of past policies and failures stacking up around him, indulging in more of the failed doctrine of centralisation. And part of this, it seems, is so that some of the prime minister's top team can focus on the "Brexit" talks.

The committees, incidentally, are to be known as "CO", presumably for "operations", and the other as "CS", for "strategy". Together they spell out "COCS", which just about sums up Johnson's approach to the management of this epidemic.

We also learn that Number 10 is ending the weekend press conferences - supposedly due to low audience figures, and only holding them on weekdays, when the number of people watching them are probably just as low. I have long since stopped watching them – all we get is a diet of unmitigated bullshit that contributes nothing to our knowledge or wisdom.

Some of that we saw at PMQs last Wednesday, when Starmer challenged Johnson to tell him how many contacts had been traced by his new system, and then twitted him about statistics which "still fall well short of…expectations".

Johnson immediately rounded on the leader of the opposition, declaring that "test and trace" was "a vital tool in our armoury" and that testing levels were " an astonishing achievement", demanding that Starmer should "pay tribute" to the "tens of thousands of people working to support the Government".

Needless to say, the prime minister didn't answer the question about the contacts traced, but we have the Guardian cite an "anonymous worker" saying: "The communication and training have been terrible from the start and I’m yet to know anybody who has made a call to a member of the public". The worker goes on:
We have been paid to do nought and been dossing all day every day on government money. I have personally been sat in my garden sunbathing, drinking and chilling with my pals for two and a half weeks now, occasionally coming inside to stop my computer going to sleep and check my emails. Normally I would be happy about this but when the countries public health is at risk. It is a tragedy.
The only official recognition of this came on 1 June, when remote contract tracers were told by e-mail that their hours would be reduced "owing to a lack of cases coming through". Another email said: "With the operations in its early stages, the data volume at the moment is not at full capacity, and as such you may experience prolonged periods of waiting for a case".

With over 1,800 cases of Covid-19 having been reported yesterday, and each case delivering an average of five cases, that should have been around ten thousand cases to be going on with – albeit not enough to keep 25,000 workers busy. This is two and a half workers to every contact.

But only the most extreme incompetence could have a massive workforce sitting idle, when even the majority of cases that do get reported go unchecked – not that it makes much difference.

So defective is this system that even the Telegraph is moved to report that it is "full of weak links", with the leader of a volunteer pilot scheme saying that: "the idea of the UK having a 'world-beating' coronavirus contact tracing system was 'government by soundbite'".

Here, the man has got it in one. We have a government reeling off statistics on testing, in the manner of Soviet governments in the past boasting of tractor production figures meeting the "five year plan", never admitting that the system was so inefficient that most of the tractors had no wheels.

And that is what is so offensive about this government and its leader. Not only do they feed us bullshit, they don't even try to hide it. Either they simply don't care or they must believe we are stupid enough to believe them.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 05/06/2020 link

Politics: an ugly man

Thursday 4 June 2020  

I've never liked Johnson and, as the years have passed, I've come to loathe him with a passion. I can't stand watching him on video and it is as much as I can do to look at still pictures of him. Thus, I am the very last person to offer a clinical or dispassionate view of the man.

However, in terms of generalities, I think it's fair to say that, as people get older, more and more of their character shines through. It's almost as if temperament moulds the body (and especially the face), reflecting the inner person. As a result, really kind and considerate people tend to look nice.

From that, one might not be out of order in commenting on the prime minister's physical appearance and how it has developed. In his earlier days, as a carefree journalist, some might have been taken by his 'boyish charm' and his jocular irreverence, and found it quite attractive.

But what is quite remarkable about Johnson as he currently presents himself is how ugly he has become (pictured). He really has a quite unpleasant look to him – presenting a thuggish, ill-tempered demeanour. The inner man is showing through.

It is axiomatic, however, that we should not judge by appearances (although we often do), but in the case of Johnson, we don't have to. His behaviour and his speech is as every bit as ugly as he looks.

One might get that impression from reading John Crace in the Guardian, who seems to have as much love for the man as I do – i.e., none at all. This certainly shines through in his latest column, covering yesterday's PMQs, where one might also detect a certain amount of partisanship.

The interesting thing, though, is that you don't have to go to the likes of Crace for an opinion of the man. One can go direct to Hansard, for a record of yesterday's exchange between Johnson and Starmer, and see how the sheer nastiness shines through, without needing any sort of filter.

Crace puts it quite well though. "You can sense the growing disbelief and anger", he writes…
All his life Boris Johnson has been told that he is the Special One. A person for whom all rules are there to be broken. He is a man who has consistently managed to fail upwards. Sacked from one job for lying or incompetence, he has always effortlessly moved on to a better one. Friends, family and children have only ever been collateral damage in a ruthless pursuit of an entitled ambition.
Yet now there is no hiding place, he adds:
Boris has achieved his narcissistic goal of becoming prime minister and from here the only way is down. And it’s a lonely place to be because even he can’t escape the fact that he’s just not cut out for the top job. It's not just that it's too much like hard work and he is basically lazy: it's that he's not that good at it. Lame gags, bluster and Latin free association just don't cut it.
The thing is that you don't have to take the word of the obviously partisan Mr Crace. Even in Johnson's fan club journal, the Daily Telegraph, we see parliamentary sketchwriter Michael Deacon having a pop.

He writes under the headline: The Opposition’s job is to question and criticise. Has Boris Johnson forgotten?", with the sub-heading reading: "At PMQs, the Prime Minister seemed increasingly affronted by Sir Keir Starmer's habit of asking him difficult questions".

Deacon tells us that, when Starmer asked six questions about the government's handling of the pandemic, the prime minister seemed to grow more and more put out by the minute:
His voice grew louder and faster, and his manner more irate. With his index finger he stabbed at the despatch box, stab-stab-stab-stab-stab – like an indignant hotel guest, jabbing at the bell on an unmanned reception desk. Judging by his tone – hurt, aggrieved, and even bewildered – he seemed to view Sir Keir's insistence on questioning him as an unexpected and uncalled-for impertinence.
This, one might suggest, is the Tory sense of entitlement showing through, the arrogance that seems to afflict most senior Tory politicians – and a lot of others besides. But Johnson seems to have refined it and brought it to a new level, reacting to even the most anodyne questions as if they were mortal insults.

Crace, though, puts it better. Not for the first time, he observes: "Boris isn't as bright as he has come to believe he is. In fact, he's quite dim". With a weak leader of the opposition, as we had with Corbyn, this wasn't so obvious, but with an even halfway competent interrogator, Johnson falls apart.

During their first few outings, Crace writes, "much was made of how Boris crumbled in the face of the Labour leader's forensic questioning". But now, he says, it's clear Johnson can't cope with any kind of questioning at all. Because even when Starmer isn't at his absolute sharpest, Boris begins to fall apart. It’s as if he knows he’s up against a man of greater intellect and morality and his only defence is to lash out.

In the process, Crace suggests that "Boris has become his own worst enemy", but there's so much competition for that post that I couldn't be sure. One is reminded of a tale about two Labour politicians, Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison, where it is said that someone once remarked of Morrison that he was his own worst enemy. Bevin immediately butted in to say "Not while I'm alive, he ain't".

Line up Johnson's enemies and you'll have a bigger queue than they had in the zombie parliament for the recent vote. It's a competition no-one can possibly win.

But all we have left is a "charmer turned charmless", "Mr Happy turned Mr Angry" – an ugly man who is not up to the job, was never up to the job and should never, ever, have become prime minister. The truth is, says Crace, "Boris is a beaten man even before he stands up to speak at the dispatch box. He knows that. Keir knows that. Worst of all, the country knows that".

That makes Johnson's unpleasantness "just empty, white noise" - a distraction from his own limitations. And that is not good at a time of national crisis, when you need someone who knows what he's doing at the helm, and is on top of his game. Even at his best, though, Johnson is not good enough.

There was a time, of course, when he got away with it. He did, after all, win the election with a stonking majority of 80 seats. But that was against Corbyn. It's not going to happen again, not with Starmer, and not with Johnson's lamentable performance on the Covid-19 epidemic – and it's a long way from being over.

One senses though, weary resignation and, in the print media, boredom: today, the national newspapers, almost without exception, major on the Madeleine McCann story. Johnson has lost the capability to dominate the headlines, and his bluster is no longer entertaining.

This, though, is just the start. Johnson's own MPs are beginning to lose faith, and for the first time in many moons, we're seeing reports of rebellions, as yet another policy unravels.

Starmer himself is picking up the mood, observing that, in this week, of all weeks, where public trust and confidence in the government needed to be at its highest, the director of the Reuters Institute, which commissioned a YouGov poll this weekend, said, "I have never in 10 years of research in this area seen a drop in trust like what we have seen for the UK government".

When he asked, "How worried is the prime minister about this loss of trust?", he didn't need an answer. It showed on Johnson's face. The ugly man who has only one direction to go. The liar, the blusterer and the braggart has run his course, even if we are still lumbered with him.

Typically, Johnson really did not "see the purpose of his endless attacks on public trust and confidence". What he doesn't realise is that more and more people don't see the purpose of Johnson.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 04/06/2020 link

Brexit: the sound of ignorance

Wednesday 3 June 2020  

With the bright sun and cloudless skies mocking me, I've been stuck indoors for the last few days working on the third edition of The Great Deception.

If I ever get to finish it, though, readers will find it's a very different book. I've only just finished the revision of chapter two and already I've lost 5,000 words, despite adding an amount of new material. Mind you, I'm looking to trim 40,000 to give me space to write about the last 15 years, so there's a long way to go.

In terms of the new material, it might be imagined that there was very little more to say about plans for European integration in the period I'm currently working on – from 1918-1945 - but the research environment is very different from what it was at the turn of the century.

These days, there is vastly more original material online, in a number of different archives, so I am able to go direct to source when, previously, we were reliant on extracts and citations in other authors' works. And sometimes, access to the original work offers the opportunity to refresh one's views of past events.

That particularly goes for the National Archives in Kew. Back when we were doing the work for the first edition of TGD, Booker and I spent several days manually trawling through the archives, coming up with some new material that hadn't previously been aired. But the process was expensive (in travel and hotels – as well as in photocopying), and extraordinarily time-consuming.

Now, an increasing amount of material is online and, for the duration of the lockdown, the National Archives have waived download fees, making government records even more accessible. Add to that, we now have online access to Hansard going back to the 18th Century, which opens up many new possibilities for the researcher, especially as the content is electronically searchable.

Even old-school methodology has been transformed. I remember spending hours in reference libraries, ploughing methodically through reference texts, or waiting weeks for inter-library loans to materialise, before one could insert a much-needed reference into copy written weeks before.

Courtesy of Amazon and AbeBooks, one can search online for second hand books held in shops throughout the world, buying them up at affordable prices for delivery at remarkable speed. I ordered a 1962 edition of a biography last Saturday, and had it on my desk the next day.

All of this and much more, one would think, removes any excuse for ignorance. But sadly, the increased accessibility of information does not seem to confer increased knowledge in the population at large. But I suppose that should not be a surprise. Research is a learned skill, and while many dabble, they are more often "factoid mining" – looking for snippets which will support a pre-conceived point of view.

And then the sheer volume of material ends up becoming a barrier. The process becomes one of sorting the wheat from the chaff and, as the noise level gets higher, this becomes increasingly difficult. Nothing is worse, for instance, than to have an arcane subject suddenly become newsworthy. Search engines become swamped and previously easily accessible material can take hours to find.

However, nothing of that compares with the boredom of the daily grind of monitoring the torrent of news on Covid-19, or having to trawl through the same, repetitive dirge that passes for news in the EU-UK negotiations on the future relationship – not that we seem to have either a future or a relationship.

Given that much of the media is indulging in "ignorance farming", pandering to the prejudices of low-information readers (and watchers), rather than seeking to educate and inform them, the filtering one has to do has become more time-consuming than the search process.

Stripping away bias (inevitably inserting one's own), and clearing the thickets of error, and rooting out the different agendas, is now necessary before one can even approach clinically the subject matter on offer. But even more difficult is dealing with sheer, unmitigated stupidity, especially when it is combined with prestige and reinforced with ignorance.

An example of this came a couple of days back when we had in the Financial Times a letter from Sir Malcolm Rifkind headed "A fair deal must set Britain free of EU laws". In this, he was writing as a "remainer", yet arguing for legislative independence.

He was attacking the EU's insistence on a "level playing field", particularly on environmental matters, health and safety standards, and state aids – one of the sticking points in the current negotiations. But he thus asserted that "no other country with which the EU has a free trade agreement has been asked to incorporate in its own laws existing and future EU laws".

This, clearly, is a man who has never read an EU trade agreement for, had he done so, he would have seen South Korea adopting the EU's REACH legislation in order to trade freely with the EU, and Japan taking in unchanged the EU's environmental standards on automobile construction. Legislative harmonisation is central to the EU's "new generation" of comprehensive trade agreements.

But, for Rifkind, it probably wouldn't make any difference if he had read any number of texts. The writing the first edition of TGD we followed his actions in 1985 when, as one of Thatcher's junior Foreign Office ministers, he was charged with representing the prime minister on the Ad Hoc Committee for Institutional Affairs to the European Council in 1985, commonly called the Dooge Committee.

Had Rifkind done his job on this highly integrationalist committee, he might have warned Thatcher of the intentions of the "colleagues" for a new treaty, and she might have been better prepared when she went to the Milan Council in June 1985 where, famously, she was "ambushed" and forced into accepting an intergovernmental conference which led to the creation of the Single European Act.

But, when we tracked down a copy of the final report, with Rifkind's comments appended, we found that they were distressingly rare. For instance, where the Dooge Report declared that member states must demonstrate their "common political will" by creating "a genuine political entity", namely "a European Union", Rifkind had the opportunity to register the UK's dissent (in the context where the UK was opposed to a new treaty), and to raise the alarm in Whitehall.

In the event, he did neither, and even when the Dooge Report recommended the strengthening of the European Monetary System, Rifkind was silent. As to the report's most significant recommendation, the elimination of the national veto in favour of qualified majority voting on many new measures, Rifkind at last intervened.

But all he could offer was the anodyne comment that, where a member state considered that "its very important interests" were at stake, discussion should continue until unanimous agreement was reached – a reiteration of the long-defunct Luxembourg Compromise, agreed with de Gaulle in 1966.

Crucially, when the Dooge Committee decided that major revision of the treaties would be required, and formally proposed an intergovernmental conference to negotiate a European Union Treaty, Rifkind was also silent – thus paving the way for Thatcher's humiliation.

People like Rifkind, therefore, long ago gave up any right or authority to speak dispassionately on EU matters. His dereliction of duty should make him a marked man but, here he is in his retirement, popping up as the great sage, offering opinions on a subject about which he clearly knows nothing.

But it is a measure of where we are that yesterday Rifkind was answered by Denis MacShane, one of Labour's former Europe ministers - and a particularly odious one at that.

Noting that Rifkind had posed the rhetorical question as to whether the UK should accept the laws and regulations of the EU, he argues that, if France or Germany want to trade into, live and work in, open a business in the US, neither Paris nor Berlin can pick and choose which US laws to obey. No one has to obey a single EU law, MacShane asserts.

Thereby does the man completely miss the point. Under the EU's level playing field doctrine, the UK will have to incorporate EU laws into its domestic statute book, whereas the scenario he is talking about is one where companies exporting to the EU have to ensure that their products entering the Single Market have to conform with EU law.

Such is the quality of the debate in the UK, where the subject matter is drowned by the ignorance of its participants, and informed commentary doesn't get heard in the legacy media. Unsurprisingly, I am retreating to my garret to study my books. It is the only sensible thing to do.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 03/06/2020 link

Coronavirus: the second wave

Tuesday 2 June 2020  

In an interesting intervention, Prof. Hugh Pennington writes in the Telegraph that there is no evidence to suggest a coronavirus "second wave" is coming. He's right. There isn't any evidence.

For quite a while now, it's been pretty obvious that there wasn't even a first wave, or "peak" or "spike", or whatever  you want to call it. The single epidemic curve was simply an artefact for the ignorant to get excited over.

In reality, there were simply multiple outbreaks bubbling up, each with a fraction of the case-rate recorded and some of the deaths. The summation over time gave a curve which approximated what a single outbreak curve might have looked like, had there been one.

But the data collection system is so flawed, and the recording so degraded, that the curve conveyed no useful epidemiological information. In a very real sense, it actually obscured what was going on. Yet still, politicians and pundits alike blather about an "outbreak" and a "pandemic" as if it was a single entity, warning portentously about a "second wave".

At least Pennington puts the "second wave" canard to bed. He considers that the evidence supporting the notion of a second wave or peak of Covid-19 infections in the UK that would swamp the NHS "is very weak".

People, he says, are taking the idea of a devastating second wave almost entirely from looking at the profile of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. The first wave occurred in June and July and the second in October and November. The first was mild and the second was lethal.

Although it has yet to be explained why the infections occurred in waves and why the virus faded away after the first and then returned, the fact is that the profile of Covid-19 has been different.

Far more than we have ever experienced with flu, this disease has most commonly occurred in clusters. Says Pennington, in New Zealand (which may well have eradicated the virus), 41 percent of cases occurred in 16 clusters of 13 or more cases in each. And, sadly, in the UK the virus has taken an enormous toll on residents of care homes, many of which have had multiple cases.

He doesn't say it, but somebody must. A number of clusters – unknown in the secretive environment of the NHS - have occurred in hospitals. Given the information from Sage and our own observations, the epidemic profile has most likely morphed, making this largely an institutional disease.

Of course, if we had a halfway decent epidemiological system, we would be getting the information back from the ground and we wouldn't need to guess. But with this half-arsed, top-down system devised by Hancock and his PHE "experts", most of the key information which we need is either not collected or goes missing. What is left is largely unusable for epidemiological purposes.

For Pennington though, he is confident enough to assert that, if we get the easing of lockdown wrong, we are "far more likely" to get "a continuation of infections, many in the form of localised outbreaks, but not waves or peaks".

Needless to say, that would not stop the painfully inadequate pundits, who have acquired all the skills of born-again epidemiologists, again misreading the cumulative curve and coming to false conclusions.

But there is also an agenda here. There is no way Hancock or his minions are going to admit that Covid-19 has become a disease of institutions – meaning that his beloved NHS hospitals are a major part of the problem. Presenting cumulative figures hides that problem – but it also makes sure it is never properly addressed.

At the very heart of the problem, though, Pennington asserts, are the "defeatist flu models". They "still lurk behind current Covid-19 predictions", he says, adding that the idea that the virus will persist for ages "is a flu concept".

These predictions should be put to one side, he says, "Like Sars, and unlike flu, the virus is eradicable. If China and New Zealand are striving to be free of it, we should be, too".

For that to happen, though, requires a level of understanding that is not manifest in the Department of Health, or in the ranks of Public Health England. But it would also need political courage to admit that, after all, Covid-19 is controllable.

Even our cadre of thick journalists might then eventually ask why we failed to take measures to control it from the outset. At the moment, as a collective, they still haven't understood that the model was one of planned retreat, based on the 2011 pandemic flu plan which stated, "it will not be possible to halt the spread of a new pandemic influenza virus, and it would be a waste of public health resources and capacity to attempt to do so".

As it stands, these precious darlings are still bogged down in the idea that shortage of resources prevented an effective response, their limited brains failing to grasp the concept that we didn't have the resources to fight this disease because we never intended to fight it.

Just as an army that doesn't intend to fight doesn't stockpile expensive weapons or recruit and train soldiers, a health system which is not planning on suppressing a pandemic when it arrives on these shores isn't going to support expensive systems that it has no intention of using.

The point that stems from this is that, had Blair's government in 2005 not made a wrong turn, and had not every successive government perpetuated the original error in not planning for a SARS-like disease, and making the resource available, the lockdown could have been avoided or kept very much shorter.

As much to the point, had data collection been properly localised, we would have immediately seen the cluster profile. Local or regional lockdowns – as are being mooted at the moment – could have been the norm. There would have been no need for a national lockdown. In truth, there never was a need, but we didn't have enough of the right sort of information to make that case.

However, there is no getting past the resource issue. As Edward Spalton for the Campaign for an Independent Britain asks, "Could pre-Seventies localism have halted the spread of COVID-19?". The question, of course, is rhetorical.

We have enough information to know that old-school "shoe-leather" epidemiology would have stopped this epidemic in its tracks. As Spalton points out, money is not the only requisite.

The Indian state of Kerala, he writes, has a population about half of the UK’s and its gross domestic product (GDP) per head is only £2,200, compared with £33,100 in the UK. Yet Kerala has done amazingly well under its vigorous Minister of Health, a lady called K K Shailaja.

The reason why is precisely because old-school techniques were used. While the fatuous Hancock has been dazzled by computer models, and misled by his advisors, Shailaja went back to basics and adopted the time-honoured policy of test, trace, isolate and support.

Even now that Hancock is talking the talk, nothing he says can be believed. His "world class" test and trace system is a shambles. It was supposed to be ready last week but now Downing Street admits that it will take a "period of time" before it is fully operational.

Even if it ever gets to that state, however, it will never be fully effective. The fundamental structure is flawed. Without the flaws being recognised and addressed, the requisite improvements can never be made. As the system fails, all they will do is apply layers of sticking plaster to it, in an attempt to make it work. Sooner or later, it will get so top-heavy that it will topple.

Without government intervention though, the epidemic quite obviously is waning – but the price we have paid is far too high and unnecessarily so. And, in the face of continued government incompetence, we can expect Covid-19 to grumble on in the background, in a series of local outbreaks, just as Pennington suggests.

The majority of those, however, will be in institutions such as NHS hospitals, which are not equipped to control infection and will continue to act as reservoirs of infection, keeping the epidemic going. Community-originated infection will remain relatively rare.

Perhaps if we renamed Covid-19, we might get some action. If it was called "government stupidity", I cannot see ministers lasting long if, each day, they have to stand before the nation and tells us how many people have died from that cause. That is what is happening though – all they have to do is admit it.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 02/06/2020 link

Brexit: rage-tinted spectacles

Monday 1 June 2020  

On a site, until the advent of Covid-19, that was dedicated to Brexit, we've been remarkably remiss in not following the ins and outs of the "future relationship" negotiations as we lurch towards the end of June and the near-certainty of a refusal to extend the transition period.

Personally, it is not so much that I lack interest in the subject – how could I be other than interested in a topic that has been an obsession for the better part of my working life? But what kills it in terms of following the ongoing narrative is the very certainty, or near-certainty.

Ending the transition period at the end of the year seems, to all intents and purposes, a done deal. And if that is the case, then the talks are a charade – boxers circling in a ring, where neither one has the intention of hitting the other. They will go round and round until the bell rings and then retreat to their corners.

One could argue, however, that not even Johnson is so stupid as to take us out into the world, lacking a trade deal with the EU. But there is another certainty – he really is that stupid. And he has a lot of equally stupid supporters around him, including one Dominic Cummings, who are ready to reassure him that ending the transition period without a deal is the right thing to do.

What price Barnier warning Johnson that "he must keep his promises if he wants to avoid the double economic hit of a no-deal Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic"? Is this part of the ritual danse macabre or does the EU's chief negotiator really believe that Johnson will suddenly see the error of his ways and come rushing to the table at this month's summit, chastened and ready to talk sense?

Or is it just that Barnier is talking to his own domestic audience when he accuses the UK prime minister of backsliding on commitments made in the political declaration? In which case, what is the point in issuing an ultimatum, telling us that there will not be an "agreement at any cost", especially when it is directed to an English newspaper?

One suspects, though, that the timing might have something to do with it. This week sees the start of the fourth round of 'Brexit' talks, and it may be the last chance for serious negotiation before the end of the month and the shutters come down on the extension window, leaving us with the countdown to disaster.

With that in mind, Barnier is complaining that the UK has been taking "a step back - two steps back, three steps back - from the original commitments" in the political declaration. UK negotiators, he says, need to be fully in line with what the prime minister signed up to with us, because 27 heads of state and government and the European parliament do not have a short memory.

It does sound rather ominous though when he tells us: "We remember very clearly the text which we negotiated with Boris Johnson. And we just want to see that complied with. To the letter... And if that doesn’t happen, there will be no agreement".

This almost has the ring of a Mafia enforcer hinting darkly, "we know where you live", although it'll likely have about as much impact as a bailiff telling a homeless man that he's about to be evicted. Johnson, on the home front, thinks he has nothing to lose.

Already, there are clear indications that this is water off a duck's back, with Downing Street responding with accusations that the EU is trying to drag out the negotiations until it's too late to do a deal.

It is wholly unsurprising, therefore, that negotiations have stalled, and they are not set to go anywhere if senior British government figures are claiming that Brussels is either "not ready or not willing to inject momentum" into the talks, and make the compromises necessary for an agreement.

Needless to say, nothing much has moved since we last looked at the issue. At centre stage is still the same old argument about level playing fields, with no new arguments to inject into a debate so stale that if it was bread, you'd be taking a club hammer to it.

Then, of course, there are the negotiations on the access of the EU fishing fleet to UK waters, which is going absolutely nowhere. There's actually too much bad blood on this for the UK to make any concessions, with too much history to forget. Perversely, it is unreasonable for the EU to expect rationality, but then the Commission has its own problems trying to keep marauding Spaniards at bay.

That said, Barnier does have a point about needing to avoid "the double economic hit of a no-deal Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic". He needs, though, to stop calling it Brexit – we've already left. Perhaps we need something new – like "transend", or "extran". Anything but Brexit.

The trouble is that the Tories seem already to have priced in Covid, arguing that we can now afford to take the no-deal "hit", because the damage to trade and the economy in general has already been done. If there are no aircraft flying, and the ferries are coming over empty (the few that are running), nobody is going to notice when we lose our Single Market rights.

There is also a strain of opinion that has it that we need a clean break from the EU so as to expedite our trade deals with other third countries, and thus speed up our economic recovery from Covid. The ability of some pundits to turn facts on their head is legion. Going "full Boris" with a no-deal "transex" (nah) is going to catapult our economy into the stone age, and delay any recovery.

But what characterises the argument is the lack of it – argument, that is. When you have the morons' mouthpiece, aka the Daily Express headlining, "Boris to defy EU Brexit bullies", it's pretty obvious that the intellectual capacity of the nation has lost some ground.

If – as we do – we have a situation where there is a binary breakdown into "goodies" and "baddies", and the EU is characterised as a "bully", to be resisted at every opportunity, then we only have one direction to go. That is down.

When Barnier thus talks of the need for "damage limitation" and suggests that we have a "joint responsibility" in this very serious crisis, this isn't seen as wise counsel or emollience. Rather, it is another example of EU bullying.

By the same token, when he tells us that the crisis is affecting families, with so many deaths, so many people sick, so many people unemployed that we must "do everything we can to reach an agreement", this is seen through rage-tinted spectacles and taken as another Brussels "threat".

With logic having taken a nose-dive through a tenth-storey window, there is no way back. Pete talks of weaponising groupthink and the concept of "ignorance farming", where the combined forces of the Telegraph, Express, Guido and Breitbart cultivate the ignorance of their readers in order to provide a lumpen mass of support for an increasingly unresponsive government.

With that, Barnier is probably wasting his time. If he thought about it, and expended a great deal of political and intellectual capital, he could probably engineer a better deal to offer the UK.

For instance, where there is quite reasonably concern about the cost of any transition extension – in terms of ongoing contributions – the EU could perhaps be cajoled into offering the UK a substantial discount. Between getting nothing and something, it has nothing to lose.

For the moment though, even if this was on the agenda (it isn't), EU negotiators would not think it worth the bother. The UK will say "no" anyway, and will treat it as a sign of weakness – a platform for demanding more concessions.

As long as the UK is wearing its rage-tinted spectacles, there is no mileage (kilometrage?) in Barnier playing nice. For him and the EU he represents, the negotiations are a lose-lose. He might just as well set out his stall and tell the UK to take it or leave it. And since Johnson seems determined to walk away, Barnier's best bet is to make the loss look as big as possible.

Maybe that's what he's doing. Or maybe not. We'll know by the end of the month, unless there is another last-minute fudge, and we may as well not expend any energy on speculation. We'll need it later.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 01/06/2020 link

Coronavirus: thick as mince

Sunday 31 May 2020  

The one thing for which we can thank Dominic Cummings is his popularising the phrase "thick as mince". Even though it's had currency since 2006, few had heard of it before he so spectacularly applied it to David Davis in 2017.

Giving it an airing again, it is particularly apt to apply it to the witless hacks of The Sunday Telegraph who today really excel themselves in their pursuit of "secret squirrel" reporting, thereby completely missing the point.

In the breathless style so typical of the legacy media, their (online) headline declares: "Revealed", as the hacks, Laura Donnelly, the health editor, and Tom Morgan, then tell us that: "test and trace was abandoned because system 'could only cope with five coronavirus cases a week'". This has been translated into a suitably lurid headline for the front page of the print edition.

Here, they are relying on the newly-released Sage papers as their source, and in particular the minutes of the meeting on 18 February where it is "revealed" that Public Health England (PHE) "can cope with five new cases a week", which will require the isolation of 800 contacts.

This Donnelly and Morgan wrongly interpret as the reason why Britain’s disastrous decision to abandon testing for coronavirus occurred, asserting that because PHE's Covid systems "were struggling so badly", routine testing and tracing of contacts was stopped.

Had the pair understood what they were reading in the next few lines, they might have come to a different conclusion. There, we see that Sage agreed that there was a need to feed into trigger points for decisions "on when the current monitoring and contact tracing approach is no longer working", with the committee noting that, "when there is sustained transmission in the UK, contact tracing will no longer be useful".

It was thus expected that, at the following meeting, PHE would present a paper proposing trigger points "for when the current approach to monitoring and contact tracing should be reviewed, revised or stopped".

For anyone familiar with the 2011 Flu Pandemic Strategy, which was being followed at the time, this "trigger point" concept is used to signal when the first two phases of the pandemic response are to be concluded.

These are the "detection" and "assessment" phases, where PHE take the lead, collecting and analysing detailed clinical and epidemiological information on early cases. But, as set out in the plan, once evidence of sustained community transmission of the virus is detected, i.e. cases not linked to any known or previously identified cases, these two phases are ended.

The plan then moves on to the "treatment" and "escalation" phases, where the management authority is handed to the NHS. The PHE local contact tracing teams end their community work and revert to providing support services to the NHS.

Thus we see at the next Sage meeting on 20 February, the comment that PHE's proposed triggers for reviewing whether to discontinue contact tracing "are sensible", with the comment that, "any decision to discontinue contact tracing will generate a public reaction – which requires consideration with input from behavioural scientists".

The "any decision" phrasing is somewhat weasel wording, because the decision trigger point has already been decided. The previous Sage meeting had said that "when there is sustained transmission in the UK, contact tracing will no longer be useful", at which point it was to be stopped.

On 25 February, therefore, we see Sage agreeing that PHE's surveillance approach provides sufficient sensitivity to detect an outbreak in its early stages, with further agreement that "increasing surveillance coverage beyond the current approach would not significantly improve our understanding of incidence".

Again, this requires an understanding of the 2011 plan, where it has already been decided as a matter of policy that "it will not be possible to halt the spread of a new pandemic influenza virus, and it would be a waste of public health resources and capacity to attempt to do so". The committee members, therefore, are simply watching for the point when surveillance activity (i.e., testing and tracing) is to be discontinued.

This point is identified on 5 March when, under the heading "situation update" it is noted that UK surveillance of intensive care units has identified Covid-19 cases. Not all of these, the committee is told, "have had overseas travel or contacts, suggesting sustained community transmission is underway in the UK".

Although not explicitly stated (because everybody on the committee will understand the implications), this signals that community contact tracing can now be brought to a halt, as the response moves to the next stage. We get the confirmation of this on 13 March, where we see the laconic remark that "community testing is ending today".

In their reporting, Donnelly and Morgan simply haven't understood this sequence and the reasons for it. Presumably in an attempt to stoke up indignation, they then report that Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer for England, later claimed abandoning testing was a policy choice because "there comes a point in a pandemic where that is not an appropriate intervention".

The Government's consistent position at the time, the pair write, "was that they were following scientific advice" – which is precisely the case, as the 2011 plan represents the cumulative scientific wisdom, distilled into one document. The pity was, of course, that it was directed at the wrong disease.

Nevertheless, Donnelly and Morgan have their narrative. Citing former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has said the decision to abandon testing and tracing will rank as one of the "biggest failures of scientific advice to ministers in our lifetimes", they move on to explore the PHE capacity issues.

Had they read the current edition of the New Statesman and this in the BMJ, they might have learnt that cutting back on the public health system was a matter of deliberate policy.

But what they don't even begin to understand is that the contraction of the system was considered acceptable because, in the pandemic planning, it was never anticipated that extensive contact testing would be required.

This is a chicken and egg situation. PHE didn't have the capacity to carry out extensive contact tracing and testing (for control purposes), because there was no intention to control the pandemic, when the infection arrived in the UK. Thus, testing and contact tracing wasn't stopped because of lack of capacity. There was a lack of capacity because it was always expected that testing and contact tracing would be stopped.

Where the errors come, therefore, are at the planning stage, in not preparing a contingency plan for a SARS-like disease and then, as this pandemic took hold in the UK, the response wasn't flexible enough (or quick enough) to realise that the flu plan was no longer viable.

It is true though that, had the scientists and assembled "experts" at Sage realised the game was up, there was nothing immediately that could have been done, because of capacity issues. But, at least, they could have sounded the alarm, and got an expansion programme underway.

As it is, it was some weeks before a decision was made to reinstate the test and trace operation, on a flawed basis that has little chance of working effectively. But that is another story.

Given that the media seems to be incapable of understanding the failures at the initial stages of the response, we do not need to hold our breath in the expectation that they will be able to follow the developments. We seem to be suffering the perfect storm of an incompetent government scrutinised by an incompetent media, obsessed with "secret squirrel" reporting.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 31/05/2020 link

Coronavirus: the killing machine

Saturday 30 May 2020  

I spent most of yesterday working on the new edition of The Great Deception, scarcely looking at the news websites. With that, over the last few days, a last ritual as the light fades has been to water the garden, during which time I fell into discussion with one of my neighbours.

With the conversation turning naturally to the lockdown and matters related – with him knowing where my interests lie – he asked me what I would do if I was in charge. Faced with such a proposition, and after briefly entertaining the idea of commissioning a number of firing squads, the answer I offered would come as no surprise to regular readers here.

First, I argued, we need an effective trace, test and isolate programme – one that actually works, as opposed to the government's train-crash ideas. Secondly, I said, we need to sort out the hospitals (and care homes). At this stage of the proceedings, with the infection established there, they become reservoirs of infection, re-seeding the communities they serve, and keeping the epidemic going.

This is no more than I have stated here and elsewhere on the blog – in this piece on 17 April, I actually wrote:
… as long as the hospitals themselves are reservoirs of infection, they will keep the epidemic going, re-seeding the community (together with the care homes). The lockdown, now renewed, is not necessary to protect the NHS. It is needed to protect us from the NHS. Until they sort out the hospitals and care homes, it will be unsafe to lift it.
Returning to the fray, I found that the government (responding to considerable pressure, and possibly to take attention away from a certain SpAd), has published a bundle of SAGE Minutes - not that the media seem to have taken the bait.

One exception, though, is the Mail which has read some of the minutes and reports: "Coronavirus 'R' rate could be as low as 0.5 outside of hospitals - with the national average inflated by the huge infection rate in medical settings, say SAGE scientists".

This is a reference to the twenty-fifth SAGE meeting on Covid-19, held on 14 April – three days before I wrote my blogpost on sorting out the hospitals. It does indeed note that transmission had slowed in in the community, while there was "significant transmission in hospitals" which "may have been masking the decline in cases in the community".

The difference in the R numbers rather confirms my view that the general use of this index is a complete waste of time. Like the national epidemic curve, it conveys no information of any epidemiological value and, as indicated here, can actually serve to obscure vital detail.

That "detail" is indeed vital, such as the observation by the SAGE committee that in some hospitals, "outbreaks will be self-sustaining", and the fact that nosocomial cases are "making up an increasing proportion of overall cases".

This, of course, puts a completely different complexion on the Cvoid-19 epidemic which, as it develops, is likely to become increasingly hospital-centred, breaking out occasionally to re-seed the community.

Still, though, we get the crass deification of the NHS, an organisation which, in this epidemic so far, may have killed around 6,000 people through nosocomial infection. I suppose it is quite appropriate that they should fly a Spitfire out of Duxford with the legend: "Thank you NHS" painted on its underside (pictured) – from one killing machine to another.

It is all very well the experts complaining that the lockdown is being lifted prematurely, but until the hospital problem is addressed, any relaxation will always be premature.

One way or another, we will eventually have to address the stunningly inappropriate policy of sending highly infectious patients to district general hospitals. If we are to learn to live with Covid-19, we will need a new generation of "fever" hospitals, designed specifically for handling infectious diseases such as Covid-19.

As far as I'm concerned, my suggestion of multiple-use buildings stands, with leisure centres and the like built to allow rapid conversion to hospital use when the need arises.

But as well as that, we will have to revisit the structure of public health provision once again. The transfer of public health functions to the NHS is a wrong turning and it can never be the case where the most potent cause of infection in the community is allowed to police itself.

And this is a point which has been completely missed. Public health is a hard-edged discipline which isn't interested in the fate of the individual, per se, but seeks the greater good. It takes in a powerful law enforcement element which is entirely incompatible with personal healthcare services.

So far, therefore, in its handling of the Covid-19 epidemic, this government has got the fundamentals totally wrong, and as long as ministers are obsessed with hospitals and the NHS, things will not get better.

Interestingly, this is a point picked up by Richard Vize in the Guardian, who writes of Matt Hancock's "warped priorities". The pity of it is that he's writing in the Guardian, where he – like everybody else - will be ignored by this government.

Nevertheless, in spite of the source, Vize is right. He complains of Hancock seeing everything through the lens of the NHS, marginalising and ignoring local government, and throwing money at private companies to fill the gaps left by public sector cuts.

Setting himself up as the champion of the health service, the “protect the NHS” mantra quickly became pivotal to Hancock's entire approach to the pandemic. This warped priorities and cost lives, says Vize, as the government initially decided to treat the sickness rather than prevent the illness.

However, our Guardian man concludes that this pandemic has been an extreme demonstration of why healthcare needs to think and work as a collaborative local system across the NHS and local government. He wants prevention and early intervention at the heart of the system, instead of relying on hospitals to fix us once we are sick.

What he clearly hasn't realised is that the government was (and is still, to a very great extent) working to the flu plan, where attempts to control the epidemic were abandoned at an early stage, in preference to treating the ill while holding the fort until a vaccine turned up.

Here, though, there is an essential flaw in perception and in community values. It is easy to applaud the heroic medical teams battling to save lives (even if the effect is to kill a fifth of the patients), but it is less easy to recognise and value the dogged, unglamorous "shoe-leather" work that goes into disease prevention.

To that extent, in their deification of the NHS, ministers are playing to the gallery, hoping that some of the gratitude afforded to the NHS will rub off on them. This is why Johnson and Hancock are so keen to be seen in hospital settings.

But if ministers don't go into bat for public health, as well as healthcare, then prevention will never get the recognition it needs to be able to function. The trouble is, in the grip of their obsession, they are not thinking clearly – if at all. Thus, they will continue to make their mistakes, and people will continue to die unnecessarily.

Next time round, if Duxford wants to mount another fatuous aviation display, it should borrow the BBMF Lancaster and drop bombs on the nearest housing estate, with "NHS" painted on them. At least, this might be a little more realistic.

For the moment, though, I feel like Charlton Heston shouting, "Soylent Green is people", only I'm saying: "The NHS kills people". There, I've said it. Come friendly bombs …

Richard North 30/05/2020 link

Coronavirus: great intentions

Friday 29 May 2020  

Obviously fed up with merely moving on, an increasingly irritable prime minister has resorted to drawing lines. He has yet to specify the crayons or the colour but, since the primary schools are still closed, there is plenty to choose from.

However, while Johnson wants to stand behind an uncrossable line, it doesn't look as if the rest of the world is too keen on playing. The Cummings crisis is just as active as ever it was, making it not so much uncrossable as dotted.

And yet, if we are to pay careful heed to the words of the prime minister, when he was asked at yesterday's presser why anyone should take the rules seriously if Cummings didn't, he actually said: "I've said quite a lot on this matter already. Durham Police said they were going to take no action, and that the matter was closed". Only then did he add: "… and I intend to draw a line under the matter".

So, actually, Johnson hasn't got round to borrowing a crayon set from the local primary. He only intends to draw a line. And knowing this prime minister, that could be any time, or not at all. If this man shakes your hand, you count your fingers. As for lines, you cross them when you come to them.

Nevertheless, all this talk of lines rather took the journos' eyes off the ball – or perhaps they were never really on it. Not one has ever asked why, in order to lift the lockdown, Johnson has devised five tests while the WHO has suggested six.

Furthermore, Johnson's five tests are in important respects significantly different from the WHO criteria. These require that public health and health system capacities are in place to identify, isolate, test, trace contacts and quarantine them, and that outbreak risks are minimised in high-vulnerability settings, particularly in homes for older people, mental health facilities and crowded places of residence.

Since neither of those criteria are in place, one can only assume that the WHO would not be too happy with Johnson's lockdown relaxation programme. But since they are not on the list, the prime minister can fudge the figures and make out that we are on the way to a brighter, more relaxed future – which is exactly what he did yesterday.

As he intends to draw only one line, though, we have a little bit of difficulty. In order to read between the lines of what the prime minister was saying, we really need two to be going on with. And with only an intention to work with, we can't even dart round the edges of the forthcoming line and pretend it's two.

But intentions are really what Johnson is all about these days – all he's ever really been about. For instance, he doubtless intended to be a good prime minister, but that somehow got lost on the way.

In his attempts to beat the virus, he intended to have a world class test and trace system up and running by 1 June. But yesterday we learnt that it would not be fully operational until the end of June.

This came out in a conference call between the disaster-prone Dido Harding and a group of MPs. Not all the 25,000 people who had been recruited, she admitted, had been fully trained – and that was even accepting that the process undergone by the gig-economy telephone operators actually constituted training – and the all-important process of integrating with local government and its teams of experienced contact tracers "was yet to be completed" .

That, however, is only the half of it. As the system opened for business yesterday, the website crashed, with staff unable to log in and commence work. Others found their phones not working and other technical faults, leading one new recruit to observe that the system was "a sticking plaster", made to look as if it is being delivered.

As to the local government operation, Devon county council is one of the so-called 11 "beacon areas" identified by the government for extra funding to enable it to put a test and trace system in operation.

Yet, although it has been told it has until the end of June to put its plans in place, it hasn't been given any detail about how it’s supposed to link up, or how to enforce against people who don’t comply with requests to self-isolate. All they've been told is to have a plan in place.

To add to their woes, a potentially fatal flaw in the system has been reported: up to 350,000 test samples – those carried out at drive-through centres between 2 April and 6 May – have been taken without recording individual NHS numbers or full addresses.

This was picked up by the Manchester Evening News last week and reported on this blog, flaws which make the data effectively unusable to local investigators.

This, to an extent, was foreseeable. In my very first major outbreak investigation – back in 1976 - we had something like 600 cases dumped on us in a matter of days.

As it transpired, one of the forms which accompanied the samples we took was badly designed . Inspectors kept missing vital information, because it was not clear what was wanted. Many of the samples collected were unusable and, midway through the outbreak, a substantial resource had to be devoted to re-sampling.

The point here is that sampling is the easy bit. The crucial part is to make sure that the administrative system is effective – so that the samples go to the right lab, with the right data, and the results are then processed and returned to investigators in a timely fashion.

Getting a working system up and running is never simple. There are so many working parts, and so many things that can go wrong, that systems have to be devised, trialled and refined, until all the bugs have been sorted. Put an untried system into the crucible of a major outbreak and it will most likely collapse – which is exactly what is happening here.

Then there is the system on the ground – with this report pointing to some of the practical difficulties, not least the struggle to extract information from healthcare workers, particularly in the NHS.

Notwithstanding the technical flaws, this points to another fundamental flaw in the system. Covid-19 is nothing if not a hospital acquired disease, with hospitals becoming reservoirs of infection, seeding the communities they serve.

Those who have had practical experience of dealing with the NHS – the monolithic nature of the bureaucracy and the natural inclination towards secrecy - already know something of the problems faced. In food hygiene days, it wasn't until we had got rid of Crown Immunity and started prosecuting NHS managers that the service woke up to the need to stop poisoning patients and did something about their kitchens.

The only way the system is going to work is if it is wholly independent of the NHS, staffed by experienced law enforcement officers (such as EHOs) who can prise information out of this organisation.

Fundamentally, contact tracing is a law enforcement function. Under public health powers, we were armed with detention powers, which we were able to use in the event of non-cooperation. This is not a job for amateur call-centre operators, or even Public Health England muppets.

And this, interestingly, is what this report states, noting that tracing "would be backed up by the law, by the environmental health officers who have absolute authority". Our powers, in this respect, were greater than those held by the police, where we could apply for a magistrate's order to detain those suspected of carrying disease.

Unsurprisingly, of that system, we see a report that only one-third of people asked to self-isolate actually complied with the request.

The trouble is that the likes of Johnson and Hancock have no idea of what an effective system looks like, and neither do Whitty or Vallance. They simply lack the practical experience and background, while institutional knowledge has been lost. In short, they haven't a clue, and they're not prepared to listen to those who have.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, to find the Guardian suggest that, after PPE and testing, contact tracing looks like the next UK shambles. Pete has the same idea.

But, for Johnson, nothing of this matters. He intends to provide a "world class" contact tracing system and, locked in his own fantasy world, the great intention becomes the reality. He reminds me of that 1965 Animals song, which went: "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood".

Interestingly, the follow-up was: "We gotta get out of this place".

Richard North 29/05/2020 link

Coronavirus: moving on

Thursday 28 May 2020  

We should, says prime minister Johnson, lay aside party political point-scoring and move on, and move on and move on and move on. And just in case there is any doubt, we should move on. That's what the country wants – to move on.

Johnson, of course – in between weaselling and wriggling out of answering questions for the Commons Liaison Committee - doesn't want us mere plebs to be distracted by all this autobiography. Whatever has been said about his advisor is false anyway and we have the coronavirus to beat. This would be best achieved if we all just moved on. That's what we need to do. Move on.

Tomorrow is a brand new day, and that is now today, which is what happens when you leave tomorrows lying around too long. They become todays, and if you leave them even longer they become yesterdays. But before today becomes yesterday, we have a brand new test and trace system to play with, which starts today.

This is being run by Baroness Harding, otherwise known as Dido Harding, formerly chief executive of the internet provider TalkTalk at a time when it was rated as the worst provider in living history for broadband and landline connections.

She was also at the eye of the storm in the TalkTalk hacking scandal in which the details of 156,959 customers – including names, emails and phone numbers – and 15,000 bank account numbers were accessed by hackers with the company receiving a record £400,000 fine from the information commissioner.

In the best tradition of English public service provision, therefore, we have an entirely new enterprise being run by someone who has absolutely no knowledge of the subject and has a track record of presiding over train wrecks.

Nevertheless, sources close to her say she has made a great start on the detail and is "super-driven" to succeed. Apparently, she sees things from the "customer experience" and is passionate about getting it right. Who knows what a mess she might make if she wasn't so "passionate".

In her favour, she is a contemporary of David Cameron, studying alongside him for that vital PPE qualification in Oxford, and she is now a Tory life peer. She is, therefore, "one of us", and can be trusted to move on, unlike these tiresome plebs who keep asking why a chief advisor had to drive to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight.

Now that Dido is in charge, we can expect calls from gig-economy contact tracers to tell us we've been in contact with infected persons – if that is ever the case. Apparently, the famous app isn't ready yet, and experience in the Isle of Wight indicates that people prefer human beings to tell them they are suffering from a potentially fatal disease.

Presumably though, once told, one can take one's cue from Robert Jenrick. He seems to suggest that one can drive immediately to a convenient location and hole up in a spare house kept for the purpose – especially if one might at some time need child care from relatives.

Once safely ensconced, you must isolate for 14 days, even if you don't have symptoms. This, at the moment, is voluntary but you must do it anyway because Matt Hancock says it's your "civic duty". And just to make sure the message is clear, prime minister Johnson tweets us with the message: "play your part – don't put all the good work at risk".

However, if you don't happen to have a spare house knocking about, you can isolate with your family – if you have one – in your current home. Family (or other household) members do not have to isolate unless they have symptoms. They are, therefore, free to spread the disease to their communities. Thus is Dido in the familiar position of having another train wreck on her hands.

Furthermore, as many people will only get statutory sick pay when isolating (if that), they will not be able to afford the luxury of Mr Hancock's "civic duty". The best thing for them, if a contact tracer comes calling, is to pretend they are someone else, and offer to take a message.

Prime minister Johnson says that if people don't lock themselves up for the duration, he may consider fining them. But, no doubt, they could claim "exceptional circumstances" if they need to drive out to take an eye test, or have an urgent need for childcare.

Moving on, as one does, we are told by Matt Hancock – who is also good at moving on - that the test and trace system is going to be run alongside a new system of "local lockdowns", where individual "flare-ups" are to be investigated, with localised measures taken.

This is only what should have been done from the very start – more than ten weeks ago. The problem is, of course, that the traditional public health system had been dismantled and the capacity was no longer available. Now, under the gifted management of Dido, a whole new system can fail afresh, if for no other reason than our masters seem determined to reinvent the wheel under the NHS brand.

Launched into a post-Cummings world, however, the new system will not enjoy the best of starts. Most people, we are told, now believe there is "one rule for them, and one rule for us", as long as Cummings remains in post.

This is according to Stephen Reicher, an advisor to government on human behaviour during disease outbreaks. He has told Channel 4 News that research on compliance with authority shows that it depends critically on thinking that "authority is part of us, is with us, is for us". Once you create that sense of "us and them", you undermine trust and you undermine compliance.

Furthermore, as another commenter observes, the cost of defending Cummings's actions is "shredding the government's public health messaging". Ministers can no longer give a clear answer on anything for fear of accidentally incriminating him. And without clear rules, the whole lockdown edifice collapses.

As so often with contentious political issues, though, this still has a major element of the ever-present and increasingly tedious binary tribal culture war. But, as Pete complains, "why do we have to pick a side and cheer for any of them?"

Worse still, this is being conflated with Brexit, to the extent that some claim that the outcry over Cummings's hypocrisy is exclusively to do with Brexit. That, it would seem, is the narrative we're being schooled to accept. Says Pete: "If they can turn it into a tribal issue then they can count on the unequivocal support of the bovine populist grunters who worship Boris".

One certainly doesn't have to pick sides to agree with the Guardian editorial, which asserts that Johnson's "refusal not only to sack Mr Cummings, but even to express regret for his behaviour, amounts to a crisis of leadership and authority at the top of British politics".

And that's where the real conflation lies. The management of the Covid-19 epidemic has become caught up in the backlash of a failing prime minister who puts his own interests above that of the nation.

Johnson has created a remarkable situation where one cannot disagree with the Mirror which notes that the government is telling the public to do its "civic duty" while the prime minister still backs "aide who broke rules". It thus asks of Johnson: "why don't you do your duty?"

It's a small wonder that the prime minister wants us to "move on". But, as always, it's one rule for us, and another for him. We must, but he can't.

Richard North 28/05/2020 link

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