Thursday 30 April 2020

Looking after their own?

One of the things that puzzled me from the outset about the now-abandoned ‘herd immunity’ approach of the English government (it was not a decision to which the devolved administrations contributed) was that it was a strategy which would disproportionately kill their own party’s supporters. And it wasn’t just about those it would kill either; those most affected by severe cases or by bereavement were also likely to be disproportionately Tories. Given the alleged cleverness of the political advisers in Downing Street, it surprised me that a party which had just won an election which it would not have won had the electorate been younger could blithely contemplate allowing hundreds of thousands to die, with the casualties disproportionately impacting those who had so recently voted for them. They had enough information to see this likely impact quite early but chose not to act on it for some weeks. One explanation would be that they decided not to take such a narrowly partisan approach; that would, however, be completely out of character with the way in which so many of their policies were honed to appeal to the interests and prejudices of precisely that demographic.
Whether yesterday’s e-mail from the English Health Minister to members of the English Conservative Party inviting them to apply for coronavirus tests reflects a realisation of the damage they were doing to their own supporters is a moot point. No doubt some will interpret it as ‘looking after their own’ whether that’s the intention or not. More likely, it could just be a desperate last-minute attempt to reach the target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of today by targeting a group of people likely to see themselves as having a vested interest in the government not being seen to fail against an arbitrary target which they set themselves. Those of a more charitable disposition may simply see it as a common sense approach – after all, if one wanted to rapidly identify a large group of people in England over the age of 65, the membership of the English Conservative Party would be a fairly logical place to start.

Wednesday 29 April 2020

The UK leads the world yet again

There is ample scope for debate about the likely impact of Brexit on the UK economy and the wider EU economy; the only thing which is entirely certain is that a country which deliberately places itself outside the regulatory mechanisms of a single market and opts out of agreements on standards and enforcement will inevitably find that there are more barriers to trade than there were previously. How large those barriers need to be is as yet unresolved, as is the extent to which barriers to trade in one direction are compensated for by the removal of barriers elsewhere. Most economists and experts in the field take the view that increasing barriers with our closest neighbours will do significantly more harm than the benefit gained by removing barriers elsewhere. On the other hand many Brexiteers believe (although are rarely prepared to publicly justify taking such a stance) that there is an inherent (non-economic) benefit in being able to set rules without needing to consult or agree with anyone else. The basic economic point, however, is beyond question (except to those who believe in unicorns and other fantastic creatures): opting out of the world’s largest and most successful single market will create barriers to trade with that market, and whilst it might seek to minimise those barriers by demanding exceptional treatment, pushing ahead with the creation of those barriers despite the coronavirus pandemic is the official policy of the UK government.
Which brings me to the UK’s Trade Minister, and the extraordinary letter which she has penned jointly with the trade ministers of Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. In this letter, she (a prominent Brexiteer, although probably most ‘fondly’ remembered for her condemnation of cheese imports, a position which seems rather at odds with the letter’s condemnation of protectionism) and her co-authors argue strongly against creating new trade barriers in the environment which has resulted from the pandemic, stating that “…putting in place more trade barriers would be the worst possible response to global economic uncertainty”. Well, yes, indeed – it would be a very silly response. But then demonstrating to the rest of the world how not to do things when faced with a pandemic is about the one thing at which her government is showing itself able to excel.

Tuesday 28 April 2020

Transparency isn't just a convenient word for a speech

President Trump isn’t the only world leader to have expressed doubt about the accuracy of the coronavirus figures which were reported by China, although he has, perhaps, been the most forthright in the words he’s used to describe the alleged under-reporting. Even if it’s true, whether it would have made a difference to his own response to the pandemic in America is another question open to considerable doubt. It looks more like finding a scapegoat than providing an honest explanation of his own inaction.
Personally, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Chinese figures were indeed understated, but whether that’s a result of deliberate action by the Chinese state, fear on the part of local officials who didn’t want to be blamed, or simple failings in the process of collating numbers in the face of a major epidemic is another open question. What is probably less arguable is that the ultimate response of the Chinese state to the handling of the epidemic was amongst the most effective we’ve seen anywhere. But the fact that a repressive authoritarian state can not only disguise the figures but take extreme action when required doesn’t give us much of a model to follow.
It isn’t only the Chinese figures which are misleading though. Whilst we might suspect that their figures are understated, we know with absolute certainty that the UK’s daily figures are hugely understated – the FT estimates that the true figure is more than twice the 20,000+ being quoted at the daily briefings. I don’t single out the UK government here, other than to the extent that its figures are more familiar to us; I merely note that the potential divergence between reported numbers and actual numbers should cause us to ask questions about the accuracy of figures elsewhere as well. It is surely the case that delays in reporting / registering deaths, difficulties in collating numbers from a large number of institutions and geographical jurisdictions, and even other errors like the one here in Wales which have yet to come to light elsewhere may be muddying the waters in other countries as well. The only certainty is that, if and when figures come to be revised, there is only one direction – upwards – in which those figures will move; in the meantime, there is at least room for doubt about the relative positions of different countries in the rather unfortunate league tables which are readily available.
When the English Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser and the Medical Director for NHS England told us in March that a total of under 20,000 deaths would be a “very good result”, I wasn’t entirely sure whether they were setting a goal which they thought there was a chance of achieving or subtly setting expectations that they already thought that the final outcome would probably be much higher than that. Even if they were only talking about their own area of jurisdiction, England, rather than the UK as a whole, the lack of clarity about the meaning of that number (and the unwillingness to be more open about the outcome) means that the government has ended up being seen to have failed against its own predictions, and doing so by a very wide margin. Even with the numbers now falling (in hospitals at least – they still seem to be rising in care homes), we know from elsewhere that the downward trend is slower and takes longer than the upward trend. The final figure from this first wave currently looks very unlikely to be less than 55,000. And until there is a safe and effective vaccine available in sufficient numbers to immunise almost the whole population (and that’s at least 12 months away, with no certainty that there’ll ever be one) there is an inevitability of further deaths, and possibly further spikes in numbers of deaths, occurring in the interim.
In that context, the PM’s address to ‘the nation’ yesterday can be seen for what it is – absolute piffle from start to finish. There is no ‘success’ here (‘apparent’ or otherwise), no ‘wrestling the mugger to the floor’, and above all no honesty or transparency about the likely course of the disease. There is no plan beyond responding in piecemeal fashion to events as they unfold, no strategy beyond lying and misleading, and no attempt to treat us, the public, as adults who can be trusted. A man who has never knowingly told the truth when there is a better lie to hand expects us to trust him without giving us the facts and data on which he is making decisions. In times gone by, his own party would be taking quiet steps behind the scenes to remove him from a job to which he is so obviously unsuited (and many of them knew that long before he got the job), but he has purged most of the sensible opposition – and it’s hard to identify a credible replacement anyway.
Private Frazer starts to look like an optimist.

Monday 27 April 2020

Why can't they see the obvious?

Apparently, one of the PM’s first tasks on returning to work will be pushing the leaders of the EU states to dedicate more attention to Brexit talks instead of dealing with other minor issues such as the pandemic. He can of course, speak from personal experience here – no, I don’t mean his own dose of the virus, I mean the way in which the government he led ignored the pandemic for weeks in order to concentrate on Brexit. It was an approach which worked out spectacularly well for the UK after all, coming from behind and shooting up the league table for the number of infections and deaths. If only the Germans had given the same undivided attention to Brexit, they too could have had a similar rate of ‘success’.
But of course it doesn’t really require the EU to give the matter too much thought anyway – as the report notes, the UK belief that “…there is ample time to agree and ratify a free-trade deal if the EU changes its position” offers all concerned a straightforward and quick way of dealing with the issue. It merely requires the EU to concede everything the UK government demands, which for such a special and exceptional country as the UK is surely only fair and reasonable. We do, after all, “hold all the cards”,  as Gove put it, and faced with such a winning hand, it is blindingly obvious that the EU has no choice but to immediately abandon its attempts to protect the single market and maintain its own cohesion. What is it, I wonder, which prevents these foreigners from seeing the unarguable truth which is staring them in the face?

Friday 24 April 2020

Cakeism is immune to any virus

Meanwhile, away from the pandemic, talks between the UK and the EU stutter along with the UK continuing to demand the special and exceptional treatment to which its government feels it is entitled. According to reports from Germany, the UK is seeking not only to maintain its current access to Europol databases, but to do so without signing up to the EU’s rules on data protection (which the UK has, apparently, already breached anyway by illicitly sharing data with the US), and with an extra request thrown in that the EU should extend its databases to include additional information which the UK considers might be useful to it. No doubt any failure to agree here will all be the fault of those obstinate Europeans with their inability to understand just how special the UK is.
Interestingly, a German government report on the UK’s position in the Brexit talks says that, in relation to Europol, Britain wants to “approximate the position of a member state as closely as possible”. I suspect that there are many other areas in which sensible negotiators will seek to do likewise but are equally likely to be rebuffed. Of course, some of us can see one very straightforward way in which the UK could “approximate the position of a member state as closely as possible”. I won’t hold my breath waiting for the government to spot it.

Wednesday 22 April 2020

Numerical targets miss the point

The statement by the First Minister on Monday that no new target for the number of coronavirus tests to be carried out would be set has unsurprisingly provoked criticism from political opponents. They’ve seen an open goal and aimed at it, even if the Tories’ criticism is more than a little hypocritical given the abject failure of their own government in London to get anywhere near its own targets. And, given that there are reports of rifts within the English cabinet (and, when it discusses health issues, it is indeed acting as an English cabinet not a UK one) as to whether the targets are meaningful or useful anyway, they might be about to be outflanked by their own side. Still, I suppose that’s balanced by Labour’s own hypocrisy in abandoning such a target in Wales whilst continuing to criticize the English Health Minister for not achieving the target he set for England.
On the substance of the issue, I have considerable sympathy for the First Minister’s position. There is little point setting targets which may turn out to be unachievable on issues over which you do not have complete control; it simply sets people up to fail and presents opposition parties with an open goal. And the ‘target’ in this case looks to have been entirely arbitrary – geared more to a compromise between what they thought might be achievable and what would be politically acceptable rather than what is needed to deal with the problem. More generally, I’m not a fan of management or government by target anyway – it can often lead to the ‘wrong’ behaviour. I once sat through a meeting in a local authority at which a senior officer pointed out to the members that they were exceeding one particular target laid down by central government, and that one way of saving money would be to reduce the level of service in that area in order to merely meet, rather than exceed, the target. Targets are often set largely as a means of measuring and quantifying progress towards the achievement of an objective; they are just a proxy for the real goal but can end up being the sole focus. Managing to meet a target encourages people to concentrate on the targets rather than understand and pursue the underlying objective. In politics, they can also encourage oppositions to criticise a numerical failure rather than evaluate the quality of the response in relation to the problem which the government is seeking to solve. Easy headlines is no substitute for quality scrutiny.
That said, the disappointing part of the First Minister’s statement was not that there will be no target, but the absence of detail about how the government plans to achieve the underlying objective, which I assume is to do with identifying and getting on top of any new outbreak quickly before it gets out of control. It is clear that any such strategy inevitably involves conducting significantly more tests but trying to set a precise number is irrelevant – it could be lower (but is more likely to be much higher) than any number conjured out of the air. ‘Whatever it takes’ isn’t easily turned into a nice round number. It should, though, be turned into a strategy and plan, and that seems to be as absent in Wales as it is at UK level at present.

Tuesday 21 April 2020

Restricting liberties

In parts of the USA, people are gathering in crowds with guns demanding an end to the lockdown, while the President encourages them in pursuit of his own re-election. Leaving aside the way in which the standard US response to most things seems to be ‘more guns’, it would be easier to understand the protests, to an extent at least, if they were because of the hardship that the lockdown is causing. One key difference which marks out the US is that it is a lot harsher on individuals who are unable to work than the UK, let alone the European mainstream. But that isn’t the protesters’ motivation – for them, this is about their inalienable right to ‘freedom’, including, apparently, the freedom to catch the virus. As one protester put it, “Even if the virus were 10 times as dangerous as it is, I still wouldn’t stay inside my home. I’d rather take the risk and be a free person”.
It raised a question in my mind, though: if they do get infected and die as a result of such gatherings, should the cause of death really be recorded as being COVID-19? Might not accidental suicide or even insanity be a better description? Or, given the way in which they’re being egged on by the man himself, maybe unlawful killing or even murder might be more appropriate? I’m not the first to suggest that charges of murder should be brought against politicians whose incompetence has increased the number of preventable deaths.
It isn’t really a matter for levity, of course, and the protesters have a point to the extent that actions being taken do indeed limit their ‘freedom’, although describing it as ‘house arrest for the healthy’ seems a bit extreme. There are those in the UK who feel the same way about the restrictions on freedom, although, fortunately, very few of them believe that the answer is more guns. Isn’t taking their own decisions about what level of risk to run at least a part of the reasoning of those who break restrictions? Putting it down to simple selfishness is a dismissive and judgemental response, which ignores and devalues alternative views.
There is always a balance when considering individual freedom; it can never be as absolute as the gun-toting protesters seem to be demanding. Extending an individual’s freedom in ways which potentially damage the lives or liberty of others crosses a line. That is, ultimately, why murder is considered a crime. Applying that principle – limiting the freedom of some to protect others – isn’t always straightforward, though; and it isn’t always obvious how one’s own behaviour might harm others. To use one recent example, if one person sunbathes in a park, it poses little risk to anyone else, but if thousands do so the risk increases rapidly. A decision which is risk-free to one individual who takes it becomes very risky if everyone else takes the same decision. The real issue isn’t the risk to those who decide to take it, even if they make that considered decision after carefully weighing up all the factors – it is the extent to which they have the right to pose a risk to others, including the health workers who would have to treat them.
I remain broadly supportive of the restrictions being imposed by governments, and that seems to be true for most people as things stand. I’m conscious, however, that there are valid concerns about the freedoms being lost – and deeply troubled about the way in which authoritarianism so readily takes root in people’s minds. Rational debate is not aided by governments – like that in the UK – which start from the assumption that weighing up arguments is too difficult for the plebs, who just need to be told what to do. Treating people like adults and explaining the choices is just one more area in which the UK could learn something from the German government. Democracy is about involvement and engagement, not just electing people to issue orders.

Monday 20 April 2020

Seizing the 'opportunity'

Responding to suggestions that Brexit should be delayed in the light of the pandemic, the response from the PM’s office has been blunt and forthright: “We will not ask to extend the transition period and if the EU asks we will say ‘no’”. Given that the government is being forced to give all its attention to the pandemic, and that the same is true of all the EU member states, expecting meaningful negotiations to take place at present is just plain daft. It’s no surprise that the IMF is urging a delay, on the basis that adding further uncertainty at present is an unnecessary additional pain. And the UK’s justification for proceeding regardless (“…we need legislative and economic flexibility to manage the UK response to the coronavirus pandemic”) is patent nonsense; there is nothing that the UK government has done or is seeking to do which EU rules would prevent. In fact, it’s worse than that – the UK Government has failed to take advantage of EU actions and policies which could have helped.
Pushing ahead regardless is not, however, as illogical as it appears to many; from a Brexiteer’s viewpoint it makes perfect sense to see the pandemic as an opportunity, not a problem. That leads me to suspect that they’re unlikely to back down, although many are assuming that they eventually will. The logic is that it will be difficult – probably impossible – to disentangle the impact of Brexit on the economy from the impact of the pandemic. The pandemic thus provides a convenient scapegoat for the damage which Brexit will wreak. From that perspective, Covid-19 isn’t a problem complicating Brexit (which is the way the IMF and most other observers see it), it’s an opportunity to deliver the hardest of Brexits and attribute the problems to something else entirely. Not only does arguing that Brexit adds more uncertainty and damage not counter that logic, it strengthens it. The more damage that Brexit is likely to cause, the more advantage there is in doing it as quickly as possible before it becomes possible to disentangle the two factors.
The problem we face isn’t in the government’s logic at all; it’s in the underlying premise from which they start. If the ‘freedom’ which Brexit confers is inherently a good thing despite its probable economic impact (which many Brexiteers believe, although I’m still not entirely sure about Johnson himself who obviously saw it primarily as his pathway to power), then arguing about the impact isn’t going to change their minds, particularly if they have a golden opportunity to hide that impact behind something else. Any change of course depends not on economic logic but on political logic: Johnson, given his original motive for supporting Brexit, would need to be convinced that pushing ahead is a route to losing power. When it becomes obvious that the current situation isn’t a short-term one, and the extent of the government’s incompetence becomes irrefutable, such a shift in political opinions may well occur; but it doesn’t look imminent to me at present.

Saturday 18 April 2020

Scoundrels and fridges

Trump’s standard response to any problem is firstly to deny that it’s a problem and then to blame someone else and deny that he ever said anything different even when that is clearly a matter of public record. It’s not exactly subtle but it seems to work with his own base support, many of whom seem to believe every word he utters. He also believes that he should be immune to scrutiny and criticism; faced with difficult questions, he simply attacks the questioner. Again, his base seems to lap it up.
In fairness to the UK Government, they are at least a bit more subtle about it. The way the English establishment operates, it’s more about gentle private pressure behind the scenes than an outright assault on the media, pressure to which fellow members of the establishment are generally happy to defer. But the underlying demand is much the same – in a ‘national’ emergency, people should avoid criticism and rally round the government. It’s the false patriotism which Johnson (Samuel, not Boris) denounced as the “last refuge of a scoundrel” (the current Johnson generally seems to prefer fridges as a place of refuge), and it’s being deployed in an attempt to avoid too much attention being devoted to the utter incompetence which the government has displayed from the outset. Some opposition politicians are even falling for it, arguing that the questions can be left until ‘later’ (presumably via a lengthy and expensive public enquiry which reports long after the culpable have departed the scene and produces recommendations which can quietly be filed on one of those long and dusty shelves of which Whitehall has a significant over-provision).
They’re more than happy to deploy the symbols of what they fondly imagine to be a shared concept of what ‘Britishness’ is, or perhaps more accurately, what they think the plebs believe Britishness is all about. Mrs Windsor herself was put into the field of battle on their behalf a week or so ago, and royal sycophants are currently busy calling on us all to unite by singing happy birthday to her. Her family are also rallying around, with reports that her granddaughter is planning an even bigger and more extravagant wedding next year to cheer us all up, having had to cancel this year’s planned extravaganza due to the pandemic. I’m sure that there are millions of people who will be absolutely delighted to join in next week’s singing and enjoy next year’s circus, but the assumption that we all fit into that category belongs to a different age.
Unthinking patriotism may underpin the English nationalism which gave us Brexit and Johnson but it is a feeling no longer as widely shared as it was in the past. Any true patriot would prefer to help his or her country be right rather than blindly supporting the government of the day when it’s wrong. As Chesterton put it, “‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying”. Modern-day scoundrels should stick to fridges.

Thursday 16 April 2020

Divide and conquer?

There might, somewhere, be a satirist who had a fleeting thought that having a minister, whose utter incompetence led to care workers being obliged to risk their lives daily by working without PPE, suggest that those workers should be given a badge instead of a decent salary and proper PPE might raise a smile.  But he or she would probably have dismissed the idea almost immediately as lacking the scintilla of plausibility which makes for good satire. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint, the Health Minister doesn’t employ any satirists to help him decide whether something is funny or not.  It also appears that he doesn’t employ any advisors with enough sense to warn him when he’s had a particularly silly idea which will make him and the government of which he is a part appear stupid and callous as well as incompetent.
We shouldn’t, though, judge this particular idea in isolation; it is part of a pattern of thinking coming from the conservative part of the political spectrum which thinks that it can ‘reward’ people with tokens, gestures, and clapping, pass the costs of the crisis onto those who can least afford it, and continue to treat many of those who are taking the risk as unwelcome temporary visitors who can be encouraged to return ‘home’ when they’re no longer required. There are plenty of voices arguing that things cannot return to ‘normal’ when this is all over but reinforcing that old ‘normal’ is what the political ‘right’ are busily trying to do, day in and day out. The idea that the financial racketeers at the heart of the UK economy will willingly agree to doing anything differently in the future is one for the birds.
A fortnight ago, the Low Pay Commission (which I had mistakenly thought existed to try and deal with low pay rather than justify it) suggested that the crisis means that the government “could be forced to abandon targets for ending low pay in Britain by raising the legal minimum wage”.  Yes, that’s right – the lowest paid in our society should continue to be paid very low wages in order to cover the costs of dealing with the virus pandemic.
Earlier this week, the Social Market Foundation called for an end to the ‘triple-lock’ on the state pension, effectively meaning that the poorest pensioners (those dependent solely on the state pension) would see future rises in what is one of the lowest state pensions in Europe be set at a lower level. Their argument is that “…the economic costs of responding to the crisis shared fairly across the generations”, which sounds reasonable enough until one tries to define what ‘fairly’ actually means. (Clue: the paper, available here, does not define the term, but merely asserts that intergenerational fairness requires that older people should repay the kindness shown to them by working age people who have protected them during the pandemic by forgoing an element of future pension increases.)
At the same time, the UK Government has made clear that it is pushing ahead, even during the pandemic, with plans for immigration controls which would exclude many of the NHS  and care workers on whom we are currently reliant, branding them ‘low-skilled’, and oblige even those who are accepted to pay a much higher price for using the NHS services which they are themselves providing.
Taken together, it’s a classic strategy, which reminds me of this cartoon which often does the rounds on social media:

If working people can be persuaded that the enemies are the low-paid, pensioners and immigrants, they will pick on them instead of looking at where the real inequalities lie. Instead of looking at other people who are also losing, we should be looking at who gains. And who might that be, I wonder? Oh look – it’s the same people who always come out on top; how surprising! Tory donors, hedge fund managers, and those who speculate at our expense. Those who argue that things must be different after the pandemic need to start by recognising the real enemies and not allow them to divide us amongst ourselves.

Wednesday 15 April 2020

Different circumstances require different responses

Whether the decision to prioritise England for PPE was a deliberate act of sabotage or just another example of the UK Government’s incompetence is still unclear. I always tend to support the cock-up theory of history in preference to the conspiracy theory.  In this case, it is entirely possible that whoever told the companies concerned that Wales and Scotland had their own processes for acquiring equipment either genuinely believed that to be true or simply didn’t bother to check. And although the antipathy of the present UK Government towards devolution becomes daily more obvious, even a hardened old cynic like me finds it hard to believe that they would deliberately sacrifice people in Wales and Scotland in order to save more lives in England. It may be some time before we know the whole truth, however.
What we do know is that the London government is increasingly intolerant of any decisions taken in Cardiff or Edinburgh which in any way differ from the ‘central’ position, even down to the rather petty question of the naming of field hospitals, where the English NHS decided to call them all Nightingale Hospitals and the UK Government simply assumed that Wales and Scotland would fall into line. English ministers were also unhappy at Scotland ‘jumping the gun’ and closing schools before England did so.  And there is clear annoyance at any suggestion that Wales and Scotland might take different decisions on the length of the lockdown and the way in which it is lifted. But in this last case, the desire for a centrally taken decision which the ‘subordinate’ administrations accept without question is potentially extremely dangerous.
I’ve seen some graphs and statistics pointing out that the death rate in Wales, for instance, is currently lower than that in England.  Factually, that is indisputable, but care is needed in interpreting such a statistic.  Some have drawn an inference that Wales might have got something right where England got it wrong, but that looks to me to be unwarranted at this stage, however much some of us would like to believe that Wales is doing better than England.  We know that the virus spreads rapidly, but it does not spread equally quickly in all areas.  We’ve seen, for example, how it seemed to travel from north to south in Italy and from east to west in France. An alternative explanation for the situation in Wales might be simply that Wales is behind the UK curve, just as the UK is behind the Italian curve.  It could imply that, purely by accident, a ‘late’ lockdown decision for England just happened to be much timelier in those parts of the UK, like Wales, which were at an earlier stage in the pandemic. 
That would also have other implications, though: treating ‘the UK’ as a single entity when it comes to judging the success of the lockdown could also be a mistake. We’ve suffered for years with economic policy being decided on the basis of what’s right for London and the South-East; deciding to relax the lockdown on the same basis could directly lead to more infections and deaths in those parts of the UK which are a week or two behind London.
In this situation, retaining the option of doing things differently, or on a different timescale in Wales (or even treating parts of Wales differently) is not just a matter of respecting devolution – it’s potentially a matter of life and death.  Doing things differently will undoubtedly further annoy Johnson and his Cabinet in London given their obsession with central control and uniformity, but Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon will be doing absolutely the right thing if they reserve the right to make their own judgements based on the needs of their respective nations. That doesn’t guarantee that they’ll get it right, of course; but the validity of their decisions should be judged on the eventual outcomes in Wales and Scotland, not on whether they meekly follow London.

Tuesday 14 April 2020


If there was one aspect of the UK Government’s handling of the pandemic which they got totally right – up until last Saturday at least – it was keeping the Home Secretary off the airwaves.  The extent to which that was the right decision only became fully clear when they finally let her loose. Perhaps their objective in changing the policy was to make the rest of them look half-competent by comparison, but I suspect it failed even in that limited aim. Incompetence comes in many forms – and one of those is allowing someone even less competent to take a lead role.
I can’t imagine that the government’s media advisers didn’t anticipate the demand for an apology for the lack of PPE for front-line staff but if they did anticipate it and briefed her on how to answer, she either forgot or ignored the advice she was given and ended up using the forbidden ‘s’ word to apologise for the stupidity of the public at large in choosing to believe the people working without PPE rather than the government’s spin doctors who insist that there is plenty.  It’s not far short of Trump’s claim that doctors are only complaining about lack of PPE so that they can get on tv. It didn’t work too well for him either.
That said, I’m not a big fan of the ‘demand an apology’ style of journalism. It sometimes seems that some journalists are playing some sort of game of ‘Gotcha’ rather than trying to get at the truth.  It’s true that getting ministers to admit that any mistakes at all have been made is hard (for some reason they seem to need us to believe that they’re as infallible as they believe themselves to be – always a dangerous position from anyone in authority), and a forced apology is an admission of failure, of sorts; but apologies don’t really move things forward.  There’s even a danger that, once an apology has been given, lines will be drawn under events and the important analysis of how and why it happened and what we do to get out of the problem and/or avoid it in future goes undone.
Perhaps, though, for reporters who have failed to get straight answers to straight questions for weeks on end and have instead been subjected to a torrent of demonstrable untruths, ‘Gotcha’ is all that they have left in their armoury.

Friday 10 April 2020

Both over-centralised and powerless?

One of the side-effects of the coronavirus pandemic is that it has highlighted some of the difficulties afflicting the EU.  The inability of the EU to respond clearly and centrally to the crisis because of differences of opinion between member states is leading some Brexiteers to say “I told you so” or something similar and rub their hands with glee at what they see as an impending collapse.  But hold on a minute – what this means is that those who told us that the problem with the EU is that it is an undemocratic over-centralised body imposing its will on member states are now telling us that the problem with the EU is that independent member states have too much power and are preventing the central authorities from taking firm action.  Consistency and respect for reality were never exactly their strengths.

Thursday 9 April 2020

Inequality is still important

The fact that both the Prime Minister and the heir to the throne of England have been hit by coronavirus certainly tells us that the virus is no respecter of social status – anyone can catch it.  But that does not make it the great leveller which means that we are ‘all in it together’, which is the conclusion which some have dishonestly attempted to draw.
Whilst the disease itself does not discriminate, the response to it does.  Those who are able to self-isolate in one of their palaces can call on a medical team from a local hospital to go and assess them; those in high office can get tests very easily, and some can even, apparently, get an intensive care bed purely ‘as a precautionary measure’.  These are not responses available to the vast majority of those suffering from the disease.
It goes further than that, though.  The less well-off and ethnic minorities also suffer a disproportionate degree of infections from this disease as from most others.  The ability of the virus to infect anyone shouldn’t blind us to the fact that there is a significant difference in probabilities.  Viral infections are just one of the ways in which inequality kills.

Tuesday 7 April 2020

Drawing lines in the right places

One of the greatest achievements of the European project over the last 70 years has been the removal of visible borders over much of the continent.  The Schengen area doesn’t exactly match the EU (some EU countries are outside it, and some Schengen countries are outside the EU), but it would have undoubtedly been impossible without the existence of the EU and the single market.  It has shown that the absence of borders and border control does not, of itself, threaten the national identity of anyone.
There are others, though, who like borders and, for them, the stronger and more visible those borders are the better.  ‘Controlling our borders’ was one of the core Brexit messages – and that in a state which wasn’t part of Schengen and had never abolished border controls anyway. The reason that Brexiteers bang on about ‘controlling our own borders’ is that those borders define a demarcation line between ‘us’ and ‘them’, with an often unstated but nevertheless ever-present fear and distrust of ‘them’; and the more visible the border, the greater the degree of demarcation.  Part of my opposition to Brexit is precisely about rejecting that demarcation, that ‘othering’ of foreigners; in European terms, I consider myself to be at least as much a part of the ‘them’ as of the ‘us’, particularly given the narrow and exclusive way in which ‘us’ is often implicitly defined.
I’m uncomfortable with the way in which so many countries have responded to the pandemic by reinstituting border controls.  Movement controls I understand, but are state borders the right place to impose and police them?  In France, the virus seems to be spreading from east to west, and in Italy from north to south; closing the eastern and northern borders respectively look like drawing lines in the wrong places.  Choosing national or state boundaries is an easy option, but it may also be a lazy and sub-optimal option - the determinant of where any lines need to be drawn is the progress of the virus, not nationality.
Here in Wales, I have no argument with the restrictions on movement which have been imposed to respond to the covid-19 outbreak, and accept that there is a need for enforcement of those restrictions, even if I have some doubts about the details of that enforcement.  It follows that I entirely accept the need to stop people travelling to second homes, potentially bringing the virus from urban hotspots into rural areas lacking the resources to respond to any major outbreak.  I can understand why local people in the areas most affected are concerned about people travelling to them under current circumstances. They are right to be concerned. 
There is, though, something that makes me feel uncomfortable about some of the language and rhetoric involved, particularly when it translates into fear and distrust of the ‘other’.  Calls for the effective closure of the Wales-England border when the virus is already circulating both sides of that line look like another example of trying to draw a line in the wrong place. There are holiday home owners in Wales as well, who would be unaffected by any border closure – unless we move to close county (or even community?) borders as well. 
Logically and rationally, restricting movement makes sense and enforcing those restrictions is a natural concomitant.  Those are things which can be undone easily and quickly if and when the situation allows.  But dark human emotions such as fear and distrust of others, once expressed and experienced, are much harder to reverse. Control of movement doesn’t have to be the same thing as managing flows across a line on a map and the association between ‘control of movement’ and ‘enforcement of borders’ is a potentially dangerous one.  Effectively encouraging the idea that people on the other side of an arbitrary line are in some way ‘others’, even if done entirely unintentionally and with the very best of motives, may have undesirable longer-term implications. 

Monday 6 April 2020

Making assumptions about attitudes

Yesterday’s call from the queen for us all to take pride in the UK’s response to the pandemic reminds me of a speech at a Plaid event many years ago by a guest from the SNP.  She talked about having been on a British cruise ship in the Mediterranean which suffered engine failure followed by a breakdown in the power in the kitchens.  Drifting in the middle of the sea with only cold food to eat, one of her fellow guests referred to the stoic nature of the response by saying “Doesn’t it make you feel proud to be British”.  Her quick response was to say that she’d have been rather prouder had the ship been underway and had they been eating hot food.
And so it is with the UK response to the pandemic. Of course it’s good to see most people responding responsibly and accepting the temporary deprivation in mostly good spirit, but I’d find it a great deal easier to be proud of the UK if the government hadn’t spent 10 years cutting back on the NHS and other public services, four years working out how to cut ourselves off from our nearest neighbours and sources of support and mutual aid, and two months underplaying the extent of the crisis, doing too little, too late, and increasing the toll of preventable deaths as a result.  There’s more pride in competence than incompetence; a willingness to learn from and work with others is a better cause for pride than pretending we’re exceptional, different, and know better than anyone else; and honesty and straight talking generate more pride than obfuscation and lies.
I don’t doubt that there are many in the UK whose attitudes are coloured by a rose-tinted folk memory of ‘the war years’.  Most of them weren’t actually there, of course, but they hark back to a sense of unity and resolve, ignoring the huge rise in crime and selfishness which was also a major characteristic of the time (if anything, the real surprise today is not that some people flout the rules but that so few do). For that group, the presentation of facts which undermine that interpretation is not only unacceptable, it’s almost treason. The government and the monarch are assuming that those attitudes, that ‘official’ version of history, is one shared by all, or almost all the population, and that an appeal to that folk memory will rally the populace. That might well turn out to be just another miscalculation by an out-of-touch elite.

Friday 3 April 2020

The lessons of history, according to the Tories

At first, I thought that the daily cabinet briefings on coronavirus were a good idea, an opportunity to provide information and answer concerns in an open and transparent fashion.  It hasn’t turned out like that, though.  It was clear that the PM was thoroughly bored with the whole thing within a few days – he probably saw catching the virus as a good opportunity to get out of doing something he didn’t really want to do anyway – and even when he did them, it was just another opportunity to lie and obfuscate.  To the extent that they were providing useful information, the fact that the data and some of the policy announcements don’t apply outside England is never made clear, leaving many people thinking that they’re getting ‘UK’ information when they are not.
As time has passed, however, they have come increasingly to look like auditions for the PM’s job (the Cabinet, at least, understand that his days are numbered, even if that hasn’t yet become clear to him, especially since even the Tory press turned on him yesterday for the government’s utter and obvious incompetence in the face of crisis), in which a succession of cabinet ministers show off their rhetorical skills and treat all questions as an opportunity to repeat propaganda rather than provide any information.  And when they come in for criticism for failing to answer, their response is not to provide better answers, but to hire an extra spin doctor to help them get better at avoiding answers.  There is, apparently, nothing wrong with their non-answers, merely the way they present them.
Yesterday, it was Matt Hancock’s turn to show that a spell of illness has not dented his ability to avoid questions, promise things that he has no idea how he will deliver, and add his own little rhetorical flourishes.  He even introduced the novel approach of allowing follow-up questions, giving him a second chance to avoid providing answers, setting a bar which others might well feel a need to emulate.  When his boss returns to the front line, he is not likely to thank young Matt for that particular ‘innovation’.
As part of his rhetorical flight of fancy yesterday, Hancock managed to tell us that “…history has shown that when the world unites together against a common foe then we will prevail”.  I’ve racked my brains to think about a single common foe against which “history has shown” that the world has both united and prevailed – and I’ve failed.  There’s no shortage of common foes which I can identify, mind – there’s poverty, hunger, and climate change for starters.  And what history actually shows in each case, just like in the current coronavirus crisis, is that many individual states prefer to compete with each other than co-operate, to grab more than their fair share of resources, and to resort to divisive rhetoric rather than united action.  In that sense at least, “history shows” that Matt Hancock and the government of which he is a part are responding in the same way governments have always responded.

Thursday 2 April 2020

Maybe it will take six tries...

It was entirely predictable that the Chancellor’s plans for dealing with the current crisis would rapidly unravel in the real world and, sadly, it is fairly predictable that his fifth try at a budget (due later today, I believe) will fail to get to grips with the issue – I suspect it will take at least a sixth go before he gets it right.  The problems with what he’s announced to date are not with the scale of his proposals so much as with the delivery mechanism and the consequent timescales.  Delivering cash to businesses and individuals who need it has been made contingent on three things, all of which have an impact on timescales.
The first is that it is largely being delivered through the banks, all of whom have their own lending criteria which need to be satisfied – the approach of threatening them with a big stick, as the Business Secretary appeared to be doing yesterday, doesn’t overcome their requirement to protect the viability of their own businesses.  The second is that it depends on businesses ‘doing the right thing’ and agreeing to keep staff on the payroll, even if there is no work for them to do.  Many are simply not playing ball, either because they don’t want to, or simply because they can’t.  And the third is that it depends on the submission of applications, which need to be evaluated and considered.  The net effect is that, whilst the scale of the cash which could be made available may be of the right order (although there are always questions of detail), the timescale of delivery depends on an assumption that businesses and individuals can somehow muddle along for three months before getting the cash.  That isn’t a problem, I’m pretty sure, in the social circles in which the Chancellor moves, but it isn’t the real world faced by most.
What is needed is an urgent delivery of cash to people and businesses now, not in a few months’ time.  The need to ensure that no cash goes to the ‘wrong’ beneficiaries is driving a process which means that the ‘right’ beneficiaries aren’t getting it either.  Better to run the risk of giving it to all and reclaiming any excess later than reduce people and businesses to ruin first and then try and recover later.  It isn’t, though, an easy thing to do – the government doesn’t have all the information that it needs to get cash to everyone, or even all businesses (although the second is easier than the first), but waiting until it can do the job ‘properly’ for everyone is equivalent to doing nothing for anyone.
I’ve long been attracted by the idea of a universal basic income (UBI), and the idea has been promoted by Plaid again this week as a potential solution in Wales.  There are some not insignificant issues of detail which would need resolution, but I don’t doubt that if such a system had been in place before the virus came along, we would be much better placed to protect people now than is currently the case.  That isn’t the same thing, however, as trying to introduce one in the middle of the current crisis. It seems to me that advocates of such a solution are underestimating the degree of change needed in order to implement UBI.  Merely identifying who should receive it and how they can be paid (collecting bank account details for 50 million people is no small ask even if there existed a list of names and addresses in a useable form – and around 10% have no bank account anyway) is a task which a civil service at full strength would struggle to undertake rapidly, let alone one depleted by sickness.
The question facing us now isn’t designing a perfect long-term solution (although we’ll need one in due course so we’re not caught unawares by the next pandemic) but getting cash to as many as possible as quickly as possible.  That means using existing systems and processes as far as possible, but getting rid of the requirement for applications, making the payments automatic, and recovering any over-payments later.  That would also help to free up resources in the short term to deal with the exceptions (such as the million applying for immediate universal credit) who are going to be increasingly desperate, by making emergency payments to them.  It depends, first and foremost, on the Chancellor abandoning his obsession with not giving money to anyone 'who doesn’t need it'.  I’m not convinced that he’s going to get there again today.

Wednesday 1 April 2020

Shared values?

Faced with confused and confusing statements from government ministers, many of which seem to be at variance with the detail of the laws that they have rushed through, it is no surprise that the enforcement action taken by police over the coronavirus pandemic has itself been patchy and inconsistent. Why should they be expected to understand the detail of what those responsible for designing the rules are unable to agree with each other about?
It is clear that most people are accepting of the need for exceptional rules in exceptional circumstances, and understand that the goal of protecting us all is both valid and important; a short-term interference with civil liberties is a small price to pay for the protection of the vulnerable. I’ll admit that I do have a concern that governments which take powers to themselves in a crisis tend to find it difficult to relinquish those powers later, identifying excuse after excuse for keeping legislation active.  And it doesn’t help that, in Priti Patel, we have a Home Secretary who gives a good impression of someone who’d like to lock up as many as possible of those citizens who she has not either had deported or hanged.
More worrying has been the way in which events have brought out an authoritarian streak in people. It isn’t just an occasional bit of heavy-handed policing where a quiet word might have been a better approach, it’s the way in which some people have been urging the police to come and arrest their neighbours for various perceived infringements of the unclear and inconsistent advice. I don’t want to understate the importance of us all following the guidelines as closely as we can, but there’s something very ‘un-British’, dare I say it, about some of what we’re seeing. The ‘British values’ that the government is always banging on about turn out to be rather more ‘flexible’ than even I had thought.  A crisis like the current one can provoke either a growth in social solidarity – and there have been many good examples of that – or else an outbreak of authoritarianism. Both cases require rules under which we operate and both require that those rules be enforced, but the way in which we collectively choose to enforce those rules tells us a lot about which approach we prefer and our own core values.  Not all of it is turning out to be entirely comfortable.