Richard North, 05/03/2020  

Back in the early '90s, when Salmonella food poisoning had reached crisis level, the government instigated a draconian control regime against egg producers, in the mistaken belief that this would control the epidemic. But not only (predictably) did its measures have no effect, food poisoning reports increased to new, record levels.

At the time, we could follow this through the "confidential" (but nevertheless widely available) Communicable Disease Report (CDR). Obligingly, the Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre in Colindale (now Public Health England) published the weekly figures, together with the cumulative figures for the year, and the cumulative figures for the previous year at the corresponding period.

As press comment got more and more strident at the failure of the authorities to achieve a reduction, the CDSC simply stopped publishing the weekly figures. Instead, it simply published them monthly, with no cumulative data, either from the current year or the year previously. Looking at the reports, it was no longer possible to ascertain where we stood.

And here we go again, with the Department of Health up to its old tricks. As the number of Covid-19 cases increased from 51 to 85 in one day (and then to 87), and Germany is applying the "pandemic" label", it has issued a terse Tweet, stating that: "As of today, due to the number of new cases, we will no longer be tweeting information on the location of each new case. Instead, this information will be released centrally in a consolidated format online, once a week".

This is absolutely typical of this government. Where any data it produces end up being used to shine an unfavourable light on its performance – be it unemployment figures or economic data, it either changes the baselines, the method of collection or some other parameters, so that it becomes difficult to make valid comparisons. When all else, fails, it simply stops publishing the figures.

In this particular case, the logic is unimpeachable: if you can't control the disease, control the statistics – hence the cessation of daily updates, as well as the all-important location details.

Predictably, this has triggered a round of protests. Prof Paul Ashford, former north-west regional director of Public Health England, complains that the government "should be sharing the data as much as possible, to make the public equal partners in tackling this and help them make decisions about their own lives". He adds: "The public needs to know if it's in their area on a daily basis".

Dr Jennifer Cole, a biological anthropologist at Royal Holloway, University of London, says the move risked the spread of fake news. She says: "I think it's an incredibly ill-advised decision. If it's not released officially, it creates an information vacuum and it will be filled by unreliable sources".

Containment, she adds, "is going to be down to public behaviour and the public response. To not take into account what the public want leaves the government and NHS open to accusations of not being transparent".

Of other news, however, there seems to be less concern, as we see reported the tragic announcement that parliament could be closed down for months, as one of the measures aimed at controlling the spread of coronavirus. The MPs themselves, it is thought, could be a contagion risk and, since they are of very little use, it might be just as well to stand them down.

In normal circumstances, there would be fears that this would hand the executive far too much power but, since the Johnson administration is on its way to acquiring new powers under the Civil Contingencies Act – which will be unopposed by the obedient Tories – there will not be a great deal for them to do.

However, should the closure extend into June, we could have a problem if Johnson decides, contrary to all promises, to extend the transition period, he will need parliamentary approval to do so, not least to repeal the statutory block on applying for an extension. There would be nothing to stop a recall though, although it might then get interesting if the virus establishes itself in the Commons – even more so in the Lords, where the mortality could be substantial.

As for Brexit generally, it seems that the fears of disease spread are doing what our exit from the EU has so far not been able to do. According to Ciaran the Euro courier, on his way back from Brussels and Paris on what could be his last job, every supermarket through France has run out of anything antibacterial, and toilet paper. Long-life milk is getting low, he says, and there are "tons of empty shelves". "It's like one mass panic - and Eurotunnel is dead".

That latter comment is especially interesting. It seems we are indeed getting an early taste of what might be the no-deal Brexit facing us at the turn of the year, with cross-Channel traffic seizing up and supplies dwindling. Add to that the collapse of Flybe and it begins to look as if Christmas has come early, although not at all in a positive sense.

Retailers and food manufacturers, so far, are confident about keeping supermarket shelves stocked, but that is dependent on staff availability. Given that up to 20 percent of the workforce might be affected with Covid-19 at any particular moment, there simply may not be enough people to do the necessary work.

This might be especially relevant for truck-drivers, where there is already a Europe-wide shortage, and much abuse in the system. If we see an extension of cross-border travel restrictions and a loss, for whatever reason, of key personnel, then an already creaking system could be under real stress.

Pete makes the point that the treatment of truck drivers does seem to suggest that, for all its talk of labour rights, fair competition and sustainability, the EU is all mouth and no trousers. There is no serious attempt to root out malpractice, even though this scandal is long-standing and of considerable importance.

Here, of course, we are directly in "level playing field" territory and, if they had their wits about them, the UK negotiating team could make a meal of the EU's demands in this respect. It could point out that the EU can't even enforce standards in its own Member States, yet wants commitments from the UK that are not kept elsewhere.

Although smacking of tu quoque, it would not be totally out of order to remind the EU's team of the egregious breaches on the continent of EU labour laws, allowing us to suggest that we might be prepared to offer firm, treaty-driven commitments when the EU is prepared to enforce its own law.

For the moment, though, "Team UK" seems to have more pressing problems, having been warned that the country will have a "catastrophe" on its hands unless Johnson and his ministers stop repeatedly claiming that there will be no checks on goods crossing over the Irish Sea.

This is part of a ongoing stand off which has yet to be resolved and which could poison the talks being carried out in Brussels. There is no more egregious example of the UK's bad faith than its refusal to acknowledge its commitments under the Withdrawal Agreement.

Irrationality, however, no longer (if ever) seems to be confined to Whitehall. Back in Brussels, Frans Timmermans is arguing that tensions at the Greek-Turkish border and the coronavirus show why the European Union needs a climate law that binds member states to net zero emissions by 2050. We've heard of the need for "more Europe", with every budding crisis, but this just about takes the biscuit.

Perhaps the last word, therefore, should go to Ryanair boss, Michael O'Leary, who asserts that the EU should "focus on how you build an efficient single market and how you implement regulation" instead of dabbling in geopolitics, which he said is not its forte.

Nor, he says, is coming up with fancy job titles like commissioner for the European way of life - "What the f*ck is that about?", he demands. "As Europe moves away from its focus on an efficient single market and into all these political f*cking squabbles and defence and immigration, it's hopeless," he adds. "It's utterly f*cking useless at delivering any of that".

What O'Leary doesn't seem to realise, though, is that the EU has always regarded the Single Market as a means to an end, the end being to indulge in its geopolitical ambitions. Had it been any other way, Brexit might not even have happened.

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