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, 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 relative 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

Politics: the Cummings crisis

Wednesday 27 May 2020  

The Telegraph, no less, is now calling it "the Cummings crisis". There's fame for you, to have a crisis named after you, although it is not perhaps the legacy Johnson's chief aide would have wanted.

Nevertheless, Johnson's cheerleader would really like this to go away, with its editorial declaring: "It's time to move on from the Cummings saga". But, of course, the media isn't going to move on – not for as long as so many issues are left unresolved.

If anything, Cummings's presser has actually stoked up the crisis, now that people have had a chance to study what he said. And bearing in mind that Cummings was reading from a pre-prepared script, the written word is pretty damning. For instance, he writes:
In terms of the rules, I think that the rules make clear that if you're dealing with small children, then that could be, that can be, exceptional circumstances. And I think the situation that I was in was exceptional circumstances. And I think that the way that I dealt with it was the least risk to everybody concerned, if my wife and I had both been unable to look after our four-year-old.
It was reading this that has now convinced me, without a shadow of doubt that Cummings – and his wife, Mary Wakefield – broke the law. And while a number of commentators keep talking about guidelines, we're actually dealing with law - in the form of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020.

Cummings, of course, knows this. He refers not to guidelines but to "rules", and he can only mean these Regulations. But he then goes on to make the extraordinary claim that: "I think that the rules make clear that if you're dealing with small children, then that could be, that can be, exceptional circumstances".

To put it bluntly, this is typical Cummings bullshit. That's what he does – he always does this, spraying out volumes of it every time he is trying to demonstrate his innate superiority, delivered with such confidence and authority (some would say arrogance), that few think to challenge it on the fly.

It is exactly what he did when called to give evidence to the Treasury Select Committee. And it's exactly what he was doing recently when he edited his blog to enable him to claim he had predicted a coronavirus pandemic.

And bullshit Cummings's latest contribution is. The rules don't make anything "clear" about dealing with small children. Children, as such – whether big, small or average – aren't mentioned at all. And then, as to "exceptional circumstances", there simply is no provision for this. The term cannot be found anywhere in the Regulations.

What Cummings had done – probably deliberately – is confuse the term "exceptional circumstances", which isn't in the Regulations, with "reasonable excuse", which is.

As I mentioned yesterday, the way the law is structured is that it imposes an absolute prohibition on people leaving the place where they are living, but it then modifies this with a qualified permission based on the concept of reasonable excuse.

There follows in Regulation 6, a list which includes the one Cummings invoked, seeking access to critical public services such as childcare. That, on the face of it, was his own personal reasonable excuse. However, he then condemns himself with his own words, when he states:
I thought the best thing to do in all the circumstances was to drive to an isolated cottage on my father's farm. At this farm, my parents live in one house. My sister and her two children live in another house, and there was a separate cottage roughly 50 metres away from either of them. My tentative conclusion on the Friday evening was this: if we are both unable to look after our child, then my sister or nieces can look after him. My nieces are 17 and 20. They are old enough to look after him, but also young enough to be in the safest category. And they had extremely kindly volunteered to do so if needed.
By his own account, therefore, Cummings was not seeking access to childcare – not directly. What he was doing was relocating himself and his family 260 miles to another dwelling, in anticipation of the possibility that he might need childcare in the event that both he and his wife became incapacitated, a situation which did not materialise.

Whatever the motivation and the circumstances, not in the most wildest of imaginings can that be regarded as a "reasonable excuse" within the terms of the law. The government is very explicit that moving home is not permitted (pictured).

On that basis, Cummings broke the law. So did Mary Wakefield. Their "exceptional circumstances" do not qualify as a reasonable excuse. They may be mitigation, but mitigation is not innocence. And therein lies the heart of the issue: equality before the law. Cummings, by his actions, demonstrates that he believes he is above the law.

As such, it is unsurprising that Cummings is being hounded by the media. Most of the journalists are not quite sure how and why he broke the law - they are not very bright. But their instinct is right. A very privileged person decided he was above the law and is refusing to resign, As a story, that will run and run. If Johnson wants to stop it, he can fire Cummings.

Specifically, as one might expect, the Guardian is on the case, exploring the inconsistencies between the stories produced by Cummings and his wife.

For instance, Wakefield describes Cummings's "spasms", but fails to mention problems with her husband's eyesight. Yet this was the reason Cummings gave for taking a "test drive" to Barnard Castle, a town almost 30 miles away, before returning to London. He said he had taken his wife and son "for a short drive" on Easter Sunday – Wakefield's birthday – "to see if I could drive safely".

Why, the paper asks, did the couple conclude that the best way to test his eyesight was to take a trip that would have involved using a busy A-road? It also observes that Cummings said the family went to the "outskirts" of Barnard Castle.

But the location where they were seen, next to the River Tees between Ullathorne Rise and Gill Lane, is on the far side of the town from the Cummings family property, and is close to a considerable number of homes. Why, the Guardian wants to know, did they end up there on a drive intended simply to test whether it was safe for him to take the wheel?

So many inconsistencies are emerging that the pressure can only increase. In the event, my guess is that Cummings will have to go. While Johnson's supporters are keen to blame the media for their obsession with the story, trying to dismiss it as a "Westminster bubble" event, YouGov indicates that the public has a different view.

Some 57 percent of its respondents in a recent survey thinks that the media have been "fair" in the way they have reported on Cummings. Only 33 percent fall into the "unfair grouping". As dangerous for the government, we see reports of a "Tory MP revolt". One junior minister has resigned and more than 35 Conservative MPs have called for Cummings to resign.

Then, in a snap poll after Cummings's presser, 63 percent of respondents thought that Johnson should fire his aide, while 80 percent thought he had broken lockdown rules. And, to finish off a bad day for Johnson, in this survey his personal rating has dropped to 37 as against Keir Starmer's 34 percent.

Another poll puts Starmer ahead, with the approval rating for Johnson having slumped into negative figures for the first time since he became PM, at -1 percent, compared with +19 percent immediately before the Cummings story broke and +25 a fortnight ago.

Amid this full spectrum shambles, though, something even more dangerous is evolving. This is a pincer movement between emotionally charged reports of the sacrifices people have made to obey the lockdown, on the one hand, and what might be described as "piss-taking" on the other.

I would not care to predict which will do the most damage but, in combination, they could be fatal to Johnson's credibility, for as long as he keeps Cummings in place.

Richard North 27/05/2020 link

Politics: a constitutional affront

Tuesday 26 May 2020  

Cummings is a very privileged man. He has a father who just happens to own a spare house on a secluded farm into which he and his family could move at the drop of a hat.

But, if the media had really wanted to nail Johnson's chief advisor, all they had to do was ask him what he would have done if his dad's house hadn't been instantly available, from which his family could secure child care. Clearly, other people have managed situations similar to that confronted by Cummings, without the luxury of an alternative home.

When, as he would have to have done, Cummings had come up with other options which (perforce) would not have involved driving 260 miles to a vacant house, that would have demonstrated that his chosen path was not his only possible option.

On that basis, he could not then have claimed he had a "reasonable excuse" driving to Durham with his wife and child, by virtue of his need to access child care (Regulation 6 (2)(i)(I)), it would have been only his preferred option, notwithstanding that no childcare seems to have been sought.

That said, this affair has also shown up far greater fault lines in Britain's system of government than the matter of Cummings's journey north. In the greater scheme of things - the fact that Dominic Cummings, a special advisor, delivered a press conference from the garden of No 10 Downing Street is far more importatnt. This is more than unprecedented.

In this respect, Cummings was not only in breach of the code of conduct for special advisors, he was being treated as a cabinet minister, afforded the full resources of the state for the purpose of explaining himself to the public. That is an affront to the constitution of the United Kingdom.

But the fact that Cummings is even a special advisor relies on a political and constitutional innovation going back only to 1964 when Harold Wilson's first Labour government appointed party supporters to provide political advice to ministers. Since then, the special advisor (SpAd) system has been adopted by all governments.

However, in days gone by (and particularly before 1950, for reasons I will explain shortly), prime ministers who needed close advisors who – like Cummings – had executive roles, did have mechanisms for bringing these people into government.

Prior to 1950, when they were abolished, one useful mechanism was the university constituency. Some of these, effectively, were safe seats in the gift of prime ministers, who could insert persons of their choice in the confident expectation that an obedient electorate would return them to parliament.

An example of this was Sir John Anderson, a brilliant civil servant who in 1938 was elected to parliament in a by-election as a non-party supporter of the national government.

He had been proposed by the national government headed by Neville Chamberlain and, by October of that year had been appointed to his cabinet as Lord Privy Seal. In that capacity, he was put in charge of air raid preparations and initiated the development of the famous air-raid shelter named after him.

Had Cummings back in the 1930s been required to take the senior role in government that he occupies now, it is arguable that he would have followed the route taken by Anderson. He would have become an MP via one of the prime minister's grace and favour seats, and shortly thereafter he would have been made a minister.

After 1950, prime ministers who wanted to bring a confidante into government would have to choose the safe seat route but this – and especially after the shock result in Newbury in 1993 - has been considered increasingly insecure. Voters might reject what they see as political carpetbaggers.

In any event, the situation even back in Sir John Anderson's day was never really satisfactory. On the one hand, one cannot deny the right of a prime minister to appoint those people he feels he needs to run his government (although the Labour Party doesn't allow this), but there must be due process and accountability.

When prime ministers have to rely on the artefact of what amounts to a rigged election, the system is being abused. The purpose of elections is to vote for MPs who will represent their constituents in parliament – not to provide prime ministers with a mechanism for creating new ministers.

If we are to address this issue, we need to stop messing about. As set out in The Harrogate Agenda, we must separate the processes of appointing our MPs and ministers, including prime ministers. And that means separation of powers.

In the first instance, then, we need a directly elected prime minister – not a president, but a prime minister. The moment one talks about this, there will always be someone who pops out of the woodwork saying "we don't want an elected president".

Here, one can only agree. We already have a head of state – the monarch. That doesn't change. Directly electing prime ministers doesn't miraculously turn them into presidents. If you directly elect a prime minister, you end up with an elected prime minister.

Direct election would correct a manifest unfairness in our current arrangements. When I first wrote about the Harrogate Agenda, I noted that prime minister David Cameron had gained office by virtue of 33,973 votes in the 2010 general election.

All those votes had been cast in the constituency of Witney, which boasted 78,220 electors. The rest of the nation was not allowed to vote for the man. He may have been elected as an MP, but he was not elected as prime minister through a general franchise.

As to Johnson, out of 70,369 electors in the constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, only 25,351 voted for him – hardly a ringing endorsement of the man, even as an MP. But, as with Cameron and every other prime minister before him, no one actually voted for Johnson as a prime minister. In this country, we have unelected prime ministers – unelected, that is, by universal franchise.

When it comes to ministers, these are not elected either. They are appointed by the prime minister from both houses of parliament. By tradition, Secretaries of State should be MPs so that they can address the Commons.

But we do not see parliament's function as being to provide a distressingly shallow gene pool from which ministers can be recruited. One antidote to the contempt with which politicians are regarded is for parliament to do its job as the protector of the people, rather than the supporter of governments and the provider of its management personnel.

Its main tasks should be preparing legislation for public approval, the scrutiny of government, and then the representation of the people to government. For that to happen, the institution has to attract the right people and be properly structured. As long as its main function is to provide ambitious politicians with the means to enter government, it can never properly perform its proper roles.

Thus we would argue for a system close to that adopted by the United States. Our directly elected prime ministers should be able to select their own ministers, who then should be ratified by parliament before they can take up their appointments. MPs would not be allowed to be ministers and any MPs appointed as ministers would have to resign their memberships.

In the case of breach of duty or alleged malpractice, such as the situation in which Cummings has placed himself, then it would be parliament which should conduct inquiries and decide whether transgressors keep their posts.

With Cummings though, there could be another route into office. In the US system, there is a formal office of White House Chief of Staff. If Cummings is the equivalent for Downing Street, then the role should be formally recognised and its scope properly defined. As it stands, in the British system of government, there is no such post as chief of staff to the prime minister.

Such a role, though, would fit much better into a system where we have a directly elected prime minister, who appoints his own staff – with suitable checks and balances. That way, the prime minister should become responsible to parliament for their conduct, and then to the electorate.

In that scenario, we would not have dominating the bank holiday news in the middle of a crisis, the self-indulgent spectacle of a prime ministerial advisor holding forth to the media on the Downing Street lawn.

To that extent, Cummings has done us a favour in illustrating quite how rotten this particular part of the British system of government has become. But whether anyone will learn the lesson from it is anyone's guess.

Richard North 26/05/2020 link

Coronavirus: lasting damage

Monday 25 May 2020  

So, those who loathe Johnson will continue to loathe him. His supporters will exult, and continue to support him - and Cummings will stay in post. Nothing has changed, for the time being.

In a sense, though, everything has changed. The headline we see on the front page of the Mail is perhaps the most critical from this newspaper since Johnson assumed office as prime minister. The Rubicon has been crossed.

At a more practical level, there are probably several things to watch for. Firstly, there is obviously discontent within the Conservative parliamentary party. And even if the Mail is exaggerating with this report, there is a situation that needs to be addressed.

Secondly, but probably harder to judge, there will be some resentment in the country at the apparent "one rule for them, one for us" attitude of this government, which may translate into increased reluctance to obey lockdown rules, and more confrontations with the police.

Certainly, that seems to be the view of the police themselves, who are reported as saying that the Cummings controversy will make lockdown "impossible" to enforce.

Thus, senior figures fear that lockdown policing is "dead in the water" and that the public will rely on the "Cummings defence" when challenged, leaving the police with their authority completely undermined.

Johnson's response may also further embolden the opposition, giving Keir Starmer yet more ammunition with which to attack the prime minister, both in parliament when it resumes, and in sympathetic media organs, which will have no hesitation in exploiting any appearance of disarray within the Tory ranks.

Then, overall, this whole episode has had the effect of distracting attention from any number of Covid-related issues, from other political matters and events, the effects of which are difficult to assess at the moment.

The one thing of which we can be certain is that this is an extraordinary situation, where an aide to the prime minister becomes the political story of the day, and has the prime minister personally springing to his defence, in what is quite obviously a display of personal loyalty rather than a clinical assessment of the charges against Cummings.

Such a situation in politics is one I cannot recall, ever. Prime ministers on occasions have in the past risen to the defence of cabinet colleagues, and sometimes put themselves in the line of fire. But there is no instance that I know of where the most senior politician in the country has gone out so far on a limb for a mere aide.

That, in itself, might tell a great deal about the way our politics have developed, if it even needs saying, and of the Rasputin-like grip Cummings seems to have on the prime minister. And one can speculate about the character and the temperament of the prime minister, and his dependence on such a controversial figure.

It would be wrong, though, to suggest that the media are equally split on this issue. The Telegraph - so often the cheerleaders for the Johnson fan club, heads its website (at the time of writing) with the headline: "Alarm in Cabinet that Boris Johnson's decision to back Dominic Cummings could cost lives".

This less than unequivocal support illustrates how cabinet colleagues – like the police – have expressed fear that the move risked "seriously undermining" the government's lockdown strategy. Some even suggested the support for Cummings could cost lives because the public will use it as justification for ignoring social distancing.

One Cabinet source has told the Telegraph: "The discussion among Cabinet ministers at the moment is that this will cost lives. People will look at this and decide that if Dom can ignore the rules so can they, and the consequence of that will be that people get infected who would have otherwise stayed at home. This has massively undermined the lockdown message".

Government scientific advisers have apparently gone even further, saying that Johnson has "trashed" the advice they had given him on how to build trust in measures needed to keep coronavirus under control. Needless to say, the Guardian takes a stronger line, focusing on the prime minister and arguing that Johnson, with an unscheduled appearance at the Downing Street daily presser, "has staked his political reputation on saving the career of Cummings".

The paper notes that the prime minister did not deny that Cummings travelled from his parents' farm to Barnard Castle at a time when non-essential journeys were banned, insisting only that he had self-isolated for 14 days.

As one might expect, the Guardian commentariat is in full flow, led by John Crace, who has long shown that he has very little time for the prime minister. He writes:
Boris Johnson is no more than Dominic Cummings's sock-puppet. A fairly shabby one at that. The reality is that without Classic Dom, there could be no Boris. All that Boris really amounts to is a parasitical ball of compromised ambition fuelled by a viral overload of neediness and cowardice. There is no substance or dignity left within the prime minister. His only instinct is his own survival.
Not often does any political commentator (friend or foe) describe the statements of a sitting prime minister as "incoherent drivel", but that is what Crace is doing. In saving Dom – for the time being at least, he writes, "Boris had tossed away the credibility of his own government. He has been stripped bare and exposed as not very bright, lacking in judgment and completely amoral".

Within an hour, Crace concludes, "he had not only defended the indefensible, he had basically told the nation they were free to do as they please. If there is a second coronavirus peak, Boris will have even more blood on his hands".

For sheer hostility, though, there is nothing to beat the Mirror, which has shared with the Guardian the toil of investigating Cummings.

Its front page headlines proclaim: "A cheat and a coward" in very large capitals, with mug shots of Cummings and Johnson. The one is the cheat and the other is the coward. That paper having a "gutless" Johnson saying that it is "OK" for Cummings to flout the rules.

Only the Murdoch press takes a really neutral line, though. The Times offers the fairly anodyne headline: "Cummings acted like any father, insists PM", while The Sun has "Backed – BoJo stands by top aide".

One has to go to the inside pages of The Times to find Clare Foges writing that "the arrogance and hypocrisy of the PM's adviser, and ministers' defence of him, will do lasting damage to this government". The editorial view is that Cummings is "not out of the woods".

And there The Times meets up with the Telegraph which takes a robust line on the affair. Johnson's personal loyalty to Dominic Cummings, it says, "is commendable but is it in the best interests of the country?" The Prime Minister's first duty is to the UK, it asserts, not to the career of his chief adviser.

In the paper's view, Johnson "appears to have gambled mightily" that the central role occupied by Cummings in his government is so important that it offsets the damage it is doing, "which is considerable". The prime minister "risks jeopardising the entire anti-Covid strategy" which, "unquestionably", has been harmed by the way this affair has been handled.

As to whether in fact Cummings did what he is said to have done, and is guilty as not yet charged, seems to have been lost in the noise. But even the Telegraph suggests that there is prima facie evidence that he has broken the rules.

And as long as that is the prevailing impression, there will be public discontent. While there is no closure, the affair will remain in the headlines, drowning out other news. There can be no doubt that the government has suffered lasting harm, and this isn't even over yet.

Richard North 25/05/2020 link

Coronavirus: the second Cummings

Sunday 24 May 2020  

The Observer digs into the story, declaring: "New witnesses cast doubt on Dominic Cummings's lockdown claims", with the claim that an eyewitness saw him 30 miles away from his isolation site.

Thus, we have the Sunday Mirror headlining: "Cummings broke lockdown twice" – the second Cummings indeed – although the Mail on Sunday has Johnson's "maverick ally" breaking lockdown rules three times.

By way of contrast, The Sunday Telegraph screams "totally false", and has Cummings deny the "fresh claims", while the prime minister and cabinet ministers rush to "shore up" his position.

Meanwhile, the Sunday Times publishes a long report telling us that "three weeks of dither and delay" on coronavirus "cost thousands of British lives". Although the paper has it that scientists, politicians, academics and advisers "reveal the inside story" of the ministers' desperate battle with the virus before the country finally locked down, it actually tells us very little we didn't already know.

The report, however, breathlessly tells us that the intrepid Sunday Times reporters "found that a key government committee was informed at the beginning of the month by its two top modelling teams that Britain was facing a catastrophic loss of life without drastic action".

By then, they tell us, "any hope of containing the virus through contact tracing had fallen through because the government had failed to adequately increase its testing capacity in January and February". 

And yet, while we are also informed that the government was intent on pursuing a "contain" and "delay" policy, "based on the flu model", the reporters fail completely to explore the ramifications of this. Thus, while the explanation for the lack of government activity stares them in the face, they do not understand what they themselves are reporting.

Interestingly, they make great play of the government allowing the four-day Cheltenham festival to go ahead, with the Festival organisers stating that "government guidance" was for the business of the country "to continue as usual while ensuring we adhere to and promote the latest public health advice".

So intent are the reporters on their "secret squirrel" stuff, though, that they can't bring themselves to read the published scientific advice. Perhaps someone should stamp a copy "top secret" and drop it on the pavement outside the Sunday Times building.

Nevertheless, we can reveal that the government believes there are "limited data" indicating that mass gatherings are associated with influenza transmission. Some evidence, it says, suggests that restricting mass gatherings together with other behavioural interventions may help to reduce transmission, but this would be insufficient to consider restrictions by default in a pandemic.

For this it relies on a 72-page document, the latest version of which was published in May 2014. But just to make sure that no one reads it, it is prominently labelled: "Impact of Mass Gatherings on an Influenza Pandemic", as part of the government's scientific evidence base review.

This reports that "there is no convincing evidence that major organised sporting events are associated with significantly increased influenza transmission in those attending the event" and thus concludes that, "in all but the most severe pandemics, compulsory restrictions offer little advantage given the delicate economic and political balance associated with mass gathering restrictions".

Undoubtedly, that was the advice that Johnson was getting – the assumption being fairly sound, as this is actually the official government position. Thus, the prime minister would have been told that the evidence was "not strong enough to warrant advocating legislated restrictions".

As to the definitive policy, this was set out in the 2011 plan which, under the heading, "business as usual", stated:
During a pandemic, the Government will encourage those who are well to carry on with their normal daily lives for as long and as far as that is possible, whilst taking basic precautions to protect themselves from infection and lessen the risk of spreading influenza to others. The UK Government does not plan to close borders, stop mass gatherings or impose controls on public transport during any pandemic.
This policy has been around for ten years, published and unchanged – accessible to anyone who cares to look it up on the government website. When the likes of Sunday Times reporters airily note that the government response was "based on the flu model", the very least they could do is look up that policy and find out what it says.

What we see, therefore, is the basic mistake of failing to produce a plan specifically for diseases such as Covid-19, and then a lack of flexibility in adapting speedily when the situation looked as if it was getting out of hand.

Nevertheless, the Sunday Times comment is pathetic. It complains that "the government had failed to adequately increase its testing capacity in January and February", which meant that "any hope of containing the virus through contact tracing had fallen through". It seems incapable of understanding that, with Public Health England having only 260 staff devoted to contact tracing, an increase in testing capacity would have made very little difference.

Why the media seems to be having such difficulty with this is rather perplexing. The issues have been well aired, with former secretary of state Jeremy Hunt complaining that the service had been cut to the bone. And yet the media continues to ignore the implications.

Interestingly, things might at last be about to change. Firstly, a letter from the NHS Confederation on 20 May complained about weaknesses in the government's "test, track and trace" strategy, stating: "we cannot emphasise too strongly how important it is that local organisations and systems are involved alongside Public Health England".

Then, in a response only two days later - suggesting an element of coordination – the government announced that it was providing £300 million additional funding for local authorities to support new test and trace service.

Local authorities, the press release said, will be central to supporting the new test and trace service across England, with each local authority being given funding to develop tailored outbreak control plans, working with local NHS and other stakeholders. Work on the plans was to start immediately, focused on identifying and containing potential outbreaks in places such as workplaces, housing complexes, care homes and schools.

That we are nearly three months into this epidemic and only now is the government recognising the vital role of local authorities is an absolute scandal, but the news of the development drifted out with very little media comment.

And today, the media is saturated with the news of the second Cummings, while "secret squirrel" reporters elsewhere ignore the real issues in their pursuit of "exclusives" that they can claim to have revealed.

This is all so tedious. I shall have to attend once more to my mental health needs and build another model. My stance on this, is that I am only building one model – the inside of Bovington tank museum. So far, Mrs EU Referendum does not seem convinced.

But my argument is a lot more plausible than anything we have on offer from the media this weekend.

Richard North 24/05/2020 link

Log in

Sign THA

The Many, Not the Few