Friday, 29 May 2020

Gradual easing needs more detailed advice

It appears that most people in Wales are still backing the more cautious approach of the Welsh government rather than the more reckless approach being taken in England. That seems to me completely appropriate – even if we could believe a word that the English PM utters, his approach seems to be ignoring the best scientific advice. Wales’ moves are driven by minimising the death toll, England’s only by ensuring that the number of people hospitalised doesn’t exceed capacity.
In his statement today, the First Minister seemed to be rowing back a little at least from the widely briefed ‘five mile rule’ for contact between households. That’s sensible in principle – the rule as originally rumoured looked like a very Cardiff-centric approach. A five-mile radius circle around the Senedd would be around 50% uninhabited sea, but the landward half would still include around 300-350,000 people. That’s potentially a lot of social mixing. On the other hand, a five-mile radius circle around my home would be entirely on dry land but include no more than 6-7,000 people. It’s more rural than most admittedly, but not untypical of much of Wales. The difference between the two highlights the difficulty in applying a single standard rule to the whole of a country where such a high proportion of the population are concentrated in a small area.
I can understand why the former Tory leader in the Senedd calls it an ‘arbitrary’ distance, and he’s right to do so. And the First Minister is right to refer to it as a ‘general rule’ rather than an absolute one. But that doesn’t help the police in deciding how and when to enforce the rule, and it doesn’t help those who live in more rural areas to decide, in a responsible fashion, what is or is not ‘reasonable’ in the circumstances. Absolute rules are much easier to enforce but will be less appropriate as lockdown is gradually eased, as this one instance already highlights. The less absolute the rules, the more guidance on interpretation will be required, by the police as well as the public. The First Minister’s caution has rightly been well-supported across Wales to date, but if he wants to maintain that support (and he certainly needs to), then his government will need to put more time and effort into fleshing out the guidance.

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Tory MPs are just grandstanding

There are those who struggle to understand why someone who has spent his whole life aiming to take on the top job should be so willing to risk his hold on it for the sake of retaining one member of his team. But I think that misreads the nature of Boris Johnson’s ambition and the nature of the job that he thinks he’s doing. He never really wanted to be PM at all – the job he wanted was world king. And the sort of monarch he wanted and still wants to be is the absolute variety – none of this ‘constitutional monarchy’ nonsense for him. Being merely the Prime Minister of a small part of the world is a long way short of achieving his lifetime ambition, but in settling for something which isn’t even second-best, he’s trying to do the job as though it were the one he wanted. In his world, if the king says something is so, then it is so – anyone who says otherwise is a traitor.
We know from his time in school that he has always believed that normal rules and constraints don’t apply to him, and he has lived his life accordingly – brushing off and brazening out any and every situation or problem which would have brought down lesser mortals. To highlight just one incident from many years ago, the way he treated his participation in a conversation about having a journalist beaten up as though it was a huge joke should have ended any hopes he had of ever achieving high office. Being sacked for lying – twice – ought to have exposed the nature of the man as well but he has simply carried on regardless. The one thing that he has learned from all this is that the technique works; nothing embarrasses him, nothing makes him feel any shame or regret, nothing dents or damages his enormous ego and self-esteem.
So, faced with an apparent crisis with his chief advisor having been caught out cheating and lying, with his own daily lies being exposed every more clearly, why wouldn’t he believe that he can simply bluster his way through the bad patch until people’s attention turns to something else? What if he is losing support amongst his own MPs – this is a man who turned a majority government into a minority government just a few short months ago by expelling anyone who disagreed with him. He then proceeded to win a huge majority of seats in the general election which followed. Why wouldn’t he believe that he can do it again? “With one bound he was free” was the leitmotif of Dick Barton, but it could equally be the phrase which encapsulates the charmed life of the chancer who currently holds the position of Prime Minister of the UK.
Whilst observers speculate on how long he can hang on to his right-hand man, seen from his position the problem is merely one of riding out the storm until people find something else to talk about. As king, he has the sovereign right to appoint who he wants when he wants; he and his immediate courtiers have the absolute right to do as they please when they please; having to answer questions from subjects is all a bit of a bore and a waste of his valuable time. Mere disagreement from those he regards as lesser people doesn’t and won’t phase him, just as it never has in the past. Some Tory MPs are breaking ranks to express a contrary view but experience has taught him that he can safely ignore them. The Tory party has traditionally been ruthless in removing its leaders but he’s purged the party to such an extent that I wonder whether it is any longer capable of such action. Unless the rebels are prepared to commit regicide, verbal criticism in response to constituent pressure is just grandstanding.

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Lining up his next career move

Most people are aware of the first law of holes: when you’re in one, stop digging. This is another of those rules for ordinary people to which the PM does not feel beholden, as we saw yesterday. Not only did they not take away Cummings’ spade, they seem to have given him a mechanical digger with which to make the hole many times deeper. Given the well-known generosity of the owner of JCB to the Tory party, perhaps it was a subliminal reciprocal advert, highlighting the efficacy of the machines. During the election campaign, the PM famously used a real JCB to demolish what looked like a polystyrene wall to emphasise his ‘Get Brexit Done’ message; in a display of poetic justice, his chief advisor used his imaginary one yesterday to demolish the wall of lies which the PM had erected on his behalf only 24 hours previously. Not only did he directly contradict some of what had been said in his defence just a day earlier, he proceeded to ‘explain’ himself in a way which has attracted widespread ridicule. Still, if push comes to shove, he’s made himself a hot prospect for a new role as the front man for a prominent chain of opticians. “Should’ve gone to Specsavers” will surely trip naturally from his tongue.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Making the rules unenforceable

Laws are rarely perfect, and laws made in haste even less so. They can never cover every eventuality or exception; almost by definition they have to be general in their application. Most laws are open to differing interpretations – that fact alone keeps thousands of lawyers in gainful employment. The interpretation, though, is something that happens definitively only in a court of law – it is not for ordinary citizens to ‘interpret’ the law for themselves, however ‘reasonable’ their interpretation may appear. At a governmental level, it is the judiciary, not the executive, which decides what the law actually says and whether, and to what extent, that law is compatible with the freedoms and rights of individuals.
In his defence of his chief advisor yesterday, that was another line which the Prime Minister crossed. Having promoted the passing of a set of rules and regulations which were stark in their clarity, and allowed for very few exceptions, he effectively announced that there were other exceptions which were not contained in any of the rules and regulations his government promoted, and that people were at liberty to ‘interpret’ those rules as they wish, as long as they were ‘reasonable’. I can well imagine a series of future court cases as people appeal against the fines that they were given for breaking lockdown rules, arguing that they were ‘interpreting’ the law and that their actions were entirely ‘reasonable’. Even if there are no appeals, I don’t doubt that that will be the defence used whenever the police try to enforce the rules from here on – to all practical intents and purposes, the PM announced yesterday that the enforcement of the lockdown in England is over. Even if the police would still be acting legally by imposing fines, every instance is likely to be publicly compared with what the PM said yesterday – the police’s job has been made near impossible as they try to avoid attracting unwelcome attention to the inconsistencies.
One can argue, of course, that the lockdown rules are unnecessary or excessive: that’s a valid (albeit misguided) political argument. But the rules have been laid down under what passes for democracy in the UK, and those rules apply unless and until they are changed by the same process. Government ministers – even the PM – don’t have the right to exempt individual people or specific actions without changing the rules for everyone. They apparently have the power to do so, however, in practice if not in theory. It’s not clear at present whether he’ll get away with it. His natural instinct will be to believe that he can – this is, after all, a man who has lived his entire life believing that rules don’t apply to him. The press and the opposition will huff and puff, but as long as his own party’s MPs do as they are told he is almost untouchable. His credibility wasn’t great to start with, and it’s now dissolving further in front of our eyes, but the only people who can change anything are Tory MPs. Unless more than 40 of them get to the point – whether driven by angry constituents or their own fear of losing their seats (which may amount to the same thing) – where they are prepared to act against him, the elected dictatorship (as the late Quintin Hogg called it) in the UK can do more or less as it likes. As things stand, there are few signs that sufficient Tory MPs will suddenly develop backbones. In the meantime, people will continue to be infected and to die on a scale which could and should have been avoided.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Bridges to nowhere

This last week, some government ministers have been floating the idea of establishing ‘air bridges’ with other countries to enable air travel to restart without quarantine requirements. It’s an interesting idea, based on the assumption that there is a lower risk of transmission by people travelling between any two countries which have the pandemic under control than between two countries which do not have it under control. But the problem with bridges is that they have to have two ends; the idea depends on the countries at the other end of the bridge accepting that the people they admit are coming from a country where the pandemic is controlled. That raises one simple and obvious question – which other countries in their right minds would consider the UK government to have the pandemic under control? This is another classic example of English exceptionalism at its best – assuming that the problem is with other countries, not here in the UK.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Spotting the flaws

There is a certain logic in the government’s position, in an attempt to justify its prevarication, that quarantining people makes more sense when people travel from an area with a high incidence of infection to an area with a low incidence than the other way round. It means, of course, that it would make more sense to quarantine British people travelling to almost any other country in the world than people travelling to Britain. I can just imagine the tabloid outrage at ‘Brits’ being so 'unfairly' treated.
The UK’s proposals for ‘quarantining’ people on arrival look like too little too late – and even now it will be another two weeks before they come into effect. It is one of life’s curious anomalies that the one country which absolutely had to leave the EU in order to control its borders was the outstanding example of not bothering to do so, whilst all those countries which, according to the Brexiteers, had no control of their borders because they’re part of the EU acted swiftly to close their own. It also looks like more of a belated political reaction to the clamour for closing the borders than a response driven by concern about the spread of the virus.
But it isn’t even a proper system of quarantine. If I understand the proposal correctly (and it’s always possible that the government will issue further ‘clarification’ as they invariably do with their half-baked proposals), people (well, some of them – the list of exceptions is growing) arriving in the UK will be obliged to give border officials an address where they will solemnly promise to stay for 14 days in self-isolation. After giving the address to the officials concerned, new arrivals – who may or may not have an adequate command of English or Welsh to understand the instructions they’ve been given – will then be free to leave the airport, railway station or port and travel by car, train, bus or taxi to the duly notified destination, mixing freely with the population at large en route. They will then be trusted to stay in isolation at that destination for two weeks. This will be ‘enforced’ by random spot checks which may or may not be undertaken by understaffed services which are already struggling with their current workload. No, they don't seem to have spotted the potential flaws yet for some reason.

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Is it incompetence or subterfuge?

Yesterday, the English PM told us that his government was recruiting 25,000 contact tracers, who would be able to deal with 10,000 cases per day. Now he could, of course, have been lying, either about the number being recruited (the original target was only 18,000) or about how many cases per day they would deal with. He’s not exactly famous for his honesty. Or, more charitably, he was merely demonstrating his own lack of mathematical capacity. Again, he’s not exactly famous for his grasp of detailed fact. But let us suppose, just for one moment, that he was accidentally telling us the truth for once – what does that mean in terms of strategy?
We know that the rate of new infections has been coming down and is now around 2500 per day. We also know that if there is more testing, then the number of new mild or asymptomatic cases will increase without increasing either the hospitalisation rate or the death rate. And we know that it would be prudent – in the light of the incompetent approach to testing and PPE to date – to ensure that the capacity is higher than the anticipated need (although I don’t really have much faith that the government has learned that lesson yet). We also know that the strategy – insofar as there is one – is not to try and emulate the most successful countries in the world by more or less eliminating the virus, it is simply to keep the number of infections at a level which does not overwhelm the NHS. All that probably tells us that, for the foreseeable future, the government is planning for somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 new cases per day.
It’s a compromise, of course. It’s a question of balancing the extra short term cost and effort involved in a more aggressive elimination strategy (likely to be large, having allowed the pandemic to reach current levels) against a lower longer term cost of simply managing the levels. And if a vaccine emerges fairly soon and if being infected / vaccinated confers a degree of protection (both of which are currently rather large ‘if’s) then it’s a reasonable approach to follow, provided that the limitations and calculations are properly explained. It’s a gamble, though – if neither of those things comes to pass, then merely managing the rate of infection rather than trying to eliminate the virus means that eventually at least 50 million are likely to be infected across the UK. Although they claim to have abandoned the ‘herd immunity’ strategy, their actions speak louder than their words, and it still appears to be the default policy.
Simple mathematics tells us that at that level of infection, it will take at least 5000 (50,000,000/10,000) days (or more than 13 years) before that number of people have been infected. Even if the death rate (given a higher number of detected mild/ asymptomatic infections) reduces to around 0.5% of those infected (another big ‘if’), that amounts to some 250,000 deaths. Because they are spread out over a lengthy period, they may not have the same impact, but that’s little comfort to the deceased or their families. It looks, most of the time, as though the government aren’t taking decisions on the basis of any strategy at all – merely reacting to events and pressures as they occur, bending this way and that in an attempt to escape blame or responsibility. I wonder at times, though, whether all the bluster and apparent incompetence isn’t a cover for the fact that they have taken some big decisions, but just don’t want to share those decisions with us. And I’m not sure which of those two options worries me most.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Ignoring the problem isn't impartiality

In the days since Boris Johnson’s car-crash speech to ‘the nation’ just over a week ago, it seems that the BBC’s reporting has gone from one extreme to the other in one sense. Having spent weeks failing to distinguish between the constituent parts of the UK, leaving most people with the misleading impression that the English ministers were acting and talking on behalf of the UK rather than simply England, they now frequently go out of their way to emphasise when rules apply across the board and when they are more specific. Sadly, sometimes they use those differences to make mischief – the report by BBC Scotland correspondent Sarah Smith a few days ago was a classic example. It looked more like English reporting about Scotland delivered with a Scottish accent than a report from Scotland for the interest of the UK as a whole, underlining the way in which the first ‘B’ in BBC is still the most important to the Corporation.
In theory, the differences between the approaches of the four governments aren’t actually as different as they seem. All four have attempted to produce some sort of roadmap indicating the conditions which need to be met and the sort of relaxations which can follow the meeting of those conditions. There are differences of emphasis between them, and some things might happen in a different order, but the theoretical position is that progress is determined by conditions on the ground. The differences are much less than those between the different regional governments in places like Germany for instance, although the reluctance of the English nationalists running the central government here to learn anything from mere Europeans means, apparently, that such differences are uniquely unacceptable in the UK.
But the real difference between England and the rest of the UK (or apparently, from an English government perspective, the difference between Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland on the one hand and the ‘rest of the UK’ on the other, in another hard-to-believe example of their own exceptionalism) isn’t in the theory, it’s in the practice. Having set out a strategy which makes it clear that the progress cannot be driven by arbitrary dates, England uniquely has gone on to produce an action plan which sets arbitrary dates and is attempting to drive everyone else into working to those dates. Of course it’s true that people want to have an idea about indicative dates, and I can understand the frustration felt by some that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have been so reluctant to do that, but if the plan is seriously based around events not entirely under the control of governments, setting dates, even indicative ones, is potentially dangerous. Turning them into targets is not only utter folly, it also undermines the strategy itself. And even leaving aside the doubts in the other three governments, the plan is falling apart in England itself in the face of opposition from local authorities across England.
The BBC may have gone some way, albeit haltingly and with an occasional lapse into deliberate mischief-making, but they haven’t yet gone far enough in exposing the truth. The problem is England and the English government; failing to make that clear to viewers and listeners isn’t impartial or unbiased reporting, it’s acting as a propaganda tool for just one of the four governments.

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Punishment or deterrence?

All human societies need a system of rules and need to enforce those rules. But approaches to setting and enforcing rules differ. One approach is to maximise social solidarity – to ensure buy-in from all members and work largely through persuasion. An alternative is authoritarianism, where transgressors are harshly punished and where those punishments are intended to deter others from transgressing in future. In practice, the differences are not so clear-cut – real human societies operate somewhere in between those extremes and invariably contain advocates of both approaches.
The coronavirus pandemic seems to have brought out an authoritarian streak in Wales as in the rest of the UK, with even those politicians whom I would instinctively have expected to support an approach based primarily on persuasion and social solidarity apparently baying for police crackdowns and harsher penalties. In the face of hard reality, the differences between those who claim to be on the political ‘right’ and those who claim to be on the political ‘left’ turn out to be less significant than I would have expected. It’s not clear to me what the purpose of higher fines would be – acting as a deterrent is the obvious motive but the rhetoric sounds much more like a desire to punish those who don’t comply. Whether higher fines would act as a deterrent is a moot point anyway; for the scale of the punishment to discourage a particular act depends on an assumption that the person considering committing such an act carefully weighs up the pros and cons first – and to the extent that he or she does that, the calculation of the probability of getting caught is likely to be at least as significant as the amount of any potential fine. For all the publicity given to a few exceptional cases, I suspect that the probability of getting caught is quite low, and that those ignoring the rules know that.
There are those who doubt that we need the restrictions on movement at all but I am not among them. I accept that the best route to controlling the pandemic lies in placing restrictions on our lives for the short term, and I accept the concomitant necessity for some form of enforcement. But where are the traditional advocates of persuasion and social solidarity in all this? It feels as though many have simply given up and joined the lynch mobs.

Monday, 18 May 2020

Watching the collapse in slow motion

The debate about when schools should re-open highlights yet again that the key to leadership during a crisis is honesty and transparency. Parents and teachers want to be as certain as they can be that both they and the children will be safe, and they are naturally seeking that reassurance from government. The way in which not only Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but also an increasing number of local authorities in England itself, are declining to accept assurances from a government which seems to have alighted on an entirely arbitrary date of 1st June and turned it into some sort of macho test of its own strength and determination indicates the extent to which people feel that they cannot trust the word of ministers. What started out as an aspiration to re-open schools starting on 1st June has turned – in the way in which arbitrary goals are regularly treated by this government – into a target which must be met, even if that involves taking on and traducing teachers, unions, parents and local authorities.
In terms of building the necessary trust, Gove’s performance yesterday, in which he managed both to ‘guarantee’ the safety of all concerned and also state that no-one could be certain of absolute safety didn’t help. He was right the second time, of course – there can never be any guarantee, the decision necessarily involves weighing up the risks. But the ease with which the initial lie tripped off his tongue goes to the heart of the growing lack of faith in the government – it seems that lying is invariably the first option, and that honesty has to be prised out slowly and laboriously afterwards.
Last week, we also discovered that the UK’s most senior civil servant, the Cabinet Secretary, had been ill with coronavirus, and that a deliberate decision had been taken not to tell the public because, apparently, it was regarded as being news too sensitive for the public to handle. Why they thought that we could handle the illness of the PM and several others around him but not that of the Cabinet Secretary remains a mystery. But what I really don’t understand is why no-one realised that it was bound to come out at some point, and that keeping it secret wouldn’t exactly build confidence. And also why no-one seems even to have considered the possibility that the public at large might start to wonder ‘if they are keeping something as minor as that back so as not to panic us, what else aren’t they telling us?’ The question is such an obvious one – only people with some sort of bunker mentality could seriously have failed to understand, even for a moment, that keeping this secret might just turn out to be a really bad idea. But no, they went on to compound the error by denying that he was ill and claiming that he was working normally.
I’m glad that I’m not a parent of a school age child in England, having to make the decision as to whether to keep my child home from school on the basis of information the accuracy of which is unclear and which is being delivered by proven liars, and I feel sorry for those who are in that situation. And I’m glad that the Welsh government is taking a more cautious approach. It’s no surprise that the level of confidence in the English PM and his government has plummeted since his car crash speech last weekend – we seem to be watching a government implode in slow motion under the weight of its own dissembling. The surprise is that they don’t even seem to understand what is happening or why and simply respond by doubling down on the lies. There will be, of course, a solid base of Tory supporters who will stick with their man come what may, although even some of those must surely be struggling to defend the lies with a straight face. But parents of school age children, relatives of residents of care homes, friends and family of front-line carers and health workers – these aren’t negligible sections of the electorate to be carelessly gambling with their support. I even find myself wondering whether he’s deliberately testing the validity of the Trump doctrine about shooting someone not being enough for him to lose support. The danger is that Trump might actually have been right about that.