Politics: a pivotal moment

01/06/2021  


News of the moment from the BBC is that the World Health Organisation is to rename the UK (Kent) and other coronavirus variants with Greek letters. The UK variant is now to be called "Alpha", the South African variant is "Beta", and the Indian variant becomes "Delta".

On the face of it, the reason for the change has been made to simplify discussions, as it is so hard remembering complicated names like "Kent variant" and "Indian variant". But the real reason, it seems, is to help remove some stigma from the names, particularly after the Indian government criticised the naming of variant B.1.617.2 - first detected in the country last October - as the "Indian variant".

One does wonder, though, whether the Indian government is being a tad over-sensitive. There is a long-established convention of naming microorganism types (and diseases) after their locations of discovery. For instance, amongst the 3,500 serotypes of Salmonella, we have such delights as Salmonella Newport, Salmonella derby, Salmonella Arizona and even Salmonella heidelberg. There has never been any "stigma" associated with this.

However, regardless of the Indian government's sensitivities, the Guardian obviously hadn't got the memo last night, offering two reports on its website referring to the "Indian variant". I guess the Indians will have to put up with being famous for a new variant of coronavirus.

One of the Guardian's reports firms up on the warning aired in my piece yesterday, about the effects of a third wave. "If India variant starts a third wave", we are told, "England's Covid rules may have to stay". And, with that, the view is that hopes of restrictions ending on 21 June are dwindling as this highly transmissible variant spreads.

New data, it appears, suggest that the "variant of concern first detected in India" has continued to spread across England, with samples containing the variant now found from Cornwall to Canterbury, Bury to Bromley.

According to Sage, there is now a "realistic possibility" that the variant could be up to 50 percent more transmissible than the Kent variant that previously predominated. And, on that basis, University of Warwick modellers suggest that there could be a third wave of Covid-19 with a peak of 10,000 hospitalisations per day - assuming no changes are made to the roadmap.

There is some comfort here in the knowledge that modelling of case rates for Covid-19 in the UK has been consistently wrong, with modellers tending to exaggerate outcomes – cases and deaths. Nevertheless, there is enough concern for the second of the Guardian's pieces to headline: "Scientists call on UK to speed up second Covid jabs as India variant spreads".

The British Medical Association has called on Johnson to honour his pledge to lift measures based on "data, not dates", saying that the government should hold off giving the green light to progressing to stage four of the roadmap "until the latest data can be scientifically considered".

BMA council chair, Chaand Nagpaul, thinks "We are at a pivotal moment", and warns that what he calls a "premature" ending of all legal restrictions may result in a surge of infections that "would undermine our health service" and undo all the progress made suppressing Covid-19. "We cannot afford to repeat past mistakes", he says.

Politically, Labour seems to be getting its second wind on this, accusing the government of being "distracted" by the turbulence resulting from Cummings's testimony last week.

Shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, claims that the single biggest threat to the 21 June reopening is "ministerial incompetence" – which is probably not that far from the truth. Members of the cabinet, he says, are engulfed "by internal rows and blame shifting at just the moment we need a laser-like focus on this variant".

Once again, ministers are on the back foot, as the new data are difficult to read. Cases are going up but, for the moment, we're not seeing a corresponding rise in hospital admissions and the figures for deaths are holding steady. Both are trailing indicators, though, and the situation could change very rapidly.

That left duty apologist, Defra secretary George Eustice, to explain to BBC viewers that the government is as yet unable to say whether there will be any changes to the roadmap scheduling. The key date is 14 June, when the situation will be assessed and a decision made.

Predictably, the hospitality sector is increasingly concerned. Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, says that not being able to fully reopen in June would be "devastating" for venues. Many, she said, were operating at 60 percent capacity (because of social distancing) and "haemorrhaging cash". A delay would "push them closer to the cliff edge of business failure".

Everything, therefore, seems to rest on keeping up the momentum of the vaccine programme. There are calls for the gap between the first and second doses to be reduced to eight weeks for all adults, in addition to cutting the period for priority cohorts which included health workers and the elderly.

Efforts to get the first dose to other adults has also been intensified, especially in areas where the incidence of the India variant is high. Here, though, there is an issue which was raised a while ago by the BBC. With an estimated million-plus "undocumented" workers in the UK, it reported, this cohort presents an "invisible public health risk".

By "undocumented", of course, the BBC means illegal immigrants. These will not be registered with the NHS or social services and will be missed by the current vaccination programme.

It was instructive, therefore, when a "no questions asked" vaccine bus was despatched to London's Chinatown recently, it was mobbed by so many people that the police had to be called to control the crowd.

At least, given the opportunity, the Chinese community turned out to be vaccinated. By contrast, in Indian variant hotspots, a degree of vaccine "hesitancy" amongst ethnic communities has been experienced, potentially creating the conditions for uncontrolled reservoirs which seed the wider community.

Add to this, assertions (paywall) that the success so far of the UK's vaccination programme is giving Britons a "false sense of security", and one has to concede that a substantial increase in Covid incidence is a possibility.

But whether even a delay in the final lifting of restrictions is politically feasible remains to be seen. The chances are that enforcement will become progressively more difficult, as public cooperation is lost. Johnson may find himself having to choose between what his scientific advisors tell him is desirable, and what is actually possible in enforcement terms.

He will also have to consider the growing toll of ill-health occasioned by the cessation of most of the routine procedures undertaken by the NHS. Interrupting the burgeoning catch-up programme to deal with a relatively modest uptick in Covid-related morbidity could do more harm than good – and that is without factoring in the economic damage.

Such are the variables than even a competent, trusted prime minister would be hard-put to choose the right path and make his decisions stick. Johnson could thus find that, whatever he does, he will be condemned – with plenty of people willing to join in.

To that extent, the next couple of weeks could prove to be make or break, for Johnson's political fortunes and for the nation as a whole. We are indeed at a pivotal moment.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 01/06/2021 link

Coronavirus: another day for lying

21/05/2020  


One wonders why the "forensic mind" of Keir Starmer couldn't come up with something better for what was a rather lacklustre PMQs.

"In the United Kingdom, despite two million tests having been carried out, there has been no effective tracing in place since 12 March, when tracing was abandoned", the leader of the opposition said. "That is nearly ten weeks in a critical period without effective tracing".

As a way of setting himself up for a killer question, I suppose, that wasn't too bad. But then all we got was this: "That is a huge hole in our defences, isn’t it, prime minister?"

To me, this hardly seems to be a QC-type question. Rather, it was woolly and open-ended, giving the prime minister far too much latitude. But, even then, Johnson's response was typically economical with the truth.

The "learned gentleman", he declared, had been given "repeated briefings" on the matter and he was "perfectly aware of the situation in the UK as regards testing and tracing in early March". This, said Johnson "has been explained many times to him and to the House".

We have, of course, no means of knowing what has been passed directly to Starmer by way of personal briefings, but an interesting facet of the Commons record is how little the contact tracing situation has even been discussed, much less explained.

Certainly there was no warning to the House that community contact tracing was to be abandoned. For instance, as of 9 March, MPs were assured that "contact tracing is still under way for all cases, including where the route of transmission is not yet clear".

Then, on 11 March - a day before testing ceased, health secretary Matt Hancock was referring to the infection of Nadine Dorries. "Public Health England", he told the House, "has world-class expertise in contact tracing, which it initiated as soon as her case was confirmed".

He then added: "PHE will contact anyone whom it thinks may need testing". At that point, they had considerably less than 24 hours to do the follow-ups, but then we were never told the results.

By the 16 March, contact tracing had been formally abandoned for four days, yet Hancock was preening himself in front of the House, boasting that: "Our actions have meant that the spread of the virus has been slowed in the UK", whence he paid tribute to the officials of Public Health England and the NHS "for their exemplary approach to contact tracing and their work so far".

At no point had Hancock actually told the House that contact tracing had been formally discontinued. That opened the way for shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth, during the second reading of the coronavirus Bill on 23 March. Well into the debate, he noted:
We need more testing, we need more contact tracing and we need more isolation to break the chains of transmission. The World Health Organisation has famously instructed the world to test, test, test - and we agree.
If Ashworth actually knew that contact tracing had been abandoned for 11 days, he gave no sign of it, and nor did former secretary of state Jeremy Hunt, who took up the call, declaring:
all our public focus has been on social distancing, but testing and contact tracing to break the chain of transmission are every bit as important, if not more important. Those countries that have turned back the virus rigorously track and test every case and every suspected case, then identify every single person with whom a Covid-19 patient has been in contact to take them out of circulation. As a result, those countries have avoided the dramatic measures and some of the economic damage that we have seen in Europe.
Continuing with that theme, he added: "Now is the time for a massive national mobilisation behind testing and contact tracing", and then he said:
Contact tracing is manpower-intensive, yet Public Health England has just 280 people devoted to this. We probably need 280 people in every city and county in the country. Every local government official doing planning applications, every civil servant working on non-corona issues and volunteers all should be mobilised in this vital national task.
Even then he had not finished, making a final input on the subject with this intervention:
Testing is also vital for the economy. If we are going to have a year of stop-go as we try to protect the NHS if the virus comes back, testing and contact tracing allows an infinitely more targeted approach and way to control the spread of the virus than economic measures that are much more blunderbuss and do much more damage.
If Hancock, who was present at the opening of the debate, even heard these comments is not clear - but neither he nor any government representative responded. There was and had been no statement telling members that contact tracing had been abandoned.

The very next day, though, on 24 March, there was a Covid-19 update from Hancock. Much of the concern was about testing and social distancing, yet Jonathan Ashworth did observe that, "Enforced social distancing is welcome … but in many ways it is a blunt tool without ramping up testing and contact tracing".

Following that, we saw an intervention from SNP MP Owen Thompson, who referred to the "Keeling Study", which had been published by the government on 20 March, noting that contact tracing has the potential to control Covid-19, although ultimate success relied on the speed and efficacy with which suspect contacts could be contained.

With this in mind, Thompson directly addressed Hancock, asking him: "is the secretary of state ensuring that we have rapid and effective contact tracing? The review showed that such action could reduce the number of people infected by each case from 3.11 to 0.21, and that would be a significant step towards greater containment of the current outbreak".

Then, and only then, can I find any formal admission from the government that contact tracing might have been curtailed, but without any suggestion that it had been abandoned. In response to Thompson, Hancock said:
The hon. Gentleman is right that contact tracing is incredibly important, and the amount of contact tracing that we have done is one of the reasons why we have managed to be behind other European countries in the curve. At this stage in the epidemic, it is not possible to have contact tracing for everybody, as we can when there is a very small number. We are looking at how we can do that better and enable individuals to contact trace, including by using technology.
This was twelve days after contact tracing had been completely abandoned, yet all Hancock could admit was that, "it is not possible to have contact tracing for everybody". Technically, this could be considered a lie by omission. It certainly was not a fulsome statement on the state of play.

Thus, for Johnson yesterday to say that, as regards testing and tracing in early March, this "has been explained many times to … the House", is simply not true. The House has never been properly (or at all) informed of the reasons why tracing was abandoned, which is doubtless why the Commons Science and Technology Committee is pursuing the issue so assiduously.

Nevertheless, bouncing off Starmer's question, Johnson burbled that he was confident we would have a test and trace operation. He also claimed that: "we have already recruited 24,000 trackers, and by 1 June we will have 25,000. They will be capable of tracking the contacts of 10,000 new cases a day".

The Guardian tells us about these "trackers", and how they lack knowledge of the job and are getting the most perfunctory training. Even the recruits describe the training as "shambolic and inadequate". But for Johnson, this is no matter. His rhetoric got him through another day, a wholly unexceptional day - just another day for lying.



Richard North 21/05/2020 link

Coronavirus: in for the long haul

14/05/2020  


In mid-February of this year, the Los Angeles Times published a piece about the original 2003 SARS outbreak. "SARS killed hundreds and then disappeared", it wrote, asking: "Could this coronavirus die out?"

Ominously, towards the end of the piece, it cited Brittany Kmush, a public health researcher at Syracuse University's Falk College. "Viruses spread most", she said, "when they are very contagious and not that deadly". "If a virus is very lethal, patients often die before they can transmit the illness to many other people".

That is precisely the point I made at the back end of March, when I described the Covid-19 virus as "the killer with a benign face" - hardly surprising as it was nothing more than basic epidemiology.

But the point had been reinforced by Kmush, who added that Covid-19's mortality rate compared with SARS may actually hinder prevention efforts. "If [the original] SARS had similar characteristics to this coronavirus, it would still be circulating", she observed.

Now, we're getting official confirmation that we're in for the long haul. Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO's chief scientist, yesterday told an online conference that it could be "four or five years" before Covid-19 is under control, with many difficulties lying ahead.

Not least of this comes with the findings of large-scale antibody screening in Spain for SARS-Cov-2, with samples taken from over 60,000 participants. Yet, despite the terrible toll Covid-19 has taken, only five percent of those sampled demonstrated a positive response. Even in Madrid and surrounds, where the illness was more intense, only a 10-14 percent response was noted.

In a country with the second-largest number of cases after the United States, this indicates that we might be a very long way from securing anything approaching herd immunity.

Nevertheless, Swaminathan's comments came on the back of earlier comments by Mike Ryan, the organisation's emergencies expert, who has been warning for some time that the SARS-Cov-2 virus may become just another endemic organism in our communities, and may never go away.

Back in February, shortly after the LA Times had made its observations, Ryan fielded the question of what to do if the organism became endemic. With that status, he noted that some countries took the view that there was no point trying to put the effort into containing or contact tracing. "We should just accept and try and save lives and develop a vaccine and use the vaccine", or so the theory went.

At the time, of course, the disease was breaking out as a pandemic and Ryan was unequivocal about the need for a robust response. As regards the question of containment or mitigation, he said, containment worked. Success, he averred, was "about being ready, it is about a robust and aggressive response very, very quickly".

Needless to say, the UK knew better, having already adopted a mitigation policy. As deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries famously said, the World Health Organisation "is addressing all countries across the world with entirely different health infrastructures and particularly public health infrastructures". We, she boasted, "have an extremely well-developed public health system in this country and in fact our public health teams actually train others abroad".

After hubris, of course, comes nemesis, in the form of what Keir Starmer claimed yesterday was "the highest death total in Europe and the second highest in the world".

Quite how far off the wall Harries really was has yet to be established – and may never be if we have a public inquiry which is about as useless as all the others in living memory have been. But, as I continue to trawl round the subject, I came across this article in the Guardian dated 2 January 2014.

Its headline was "UK 'unprepared for flu epidemic'", but this was no forerunner to Exercise Cygnus, which detected holes in our readiness. This was a review of a report by the think-tank, Centre for Health and the Public Interest (CHPI).

Asking the question, "Is the new NHS ready for Pandemic Flu?", this spoke to much more fundamental defects in the system, where disruption caused by the most recent NHS reorganisation had severely impacted on the UK's public health system.

In a [flu] pandemic, the think-tank said, when there will need to be clear lines of communication and responsibility, with the centre having capacity to direct personnel and healthcare resources towards areas of greatest need, "there is instead fragmentation and a lack of clarity within the newly-created organisational structures about who does what and how the system is co-ordinated".

The potential problems, it added, "stretch from the top, with an ill-defined role expected of the Chief Medical Officer, through confusing multiple and parallel structures embracing the NHS, Public Health England and local government, right down to the front line with its increasing number of private providers".

From all accounts, very little has changed in the last eight years, as indicated most recently by a tweet from Lancet editor Richard Horton.

He had been "in conversation" with someone whom he described as having "a ringside seat for many years" in the public health system, and had noted that "the dysfunctional relationship of bitter rivalry between Public Health England, NHS England, academia, and the private sector was a major cause of England's failed response to this pandemic".

Thus, while yesterday we had Starmer quizzing the prime minister about the recent treatment of care homes, the bigger and – in the scheme of things - more pressing issue goes by default.

As I wrote yesterday, echoing the comments of WHO officials, without a vaccine to give us long-term protection, the suppression process is not a one-off task. Case numbers, I averred, can be brought down to "acceptable" levels (that being a movable feast), so that the disease is brought down from its current epidemic level to become endemic – a background, fairly static level.

Then, as I noted from the Independent Sage Group's comments, we needed a system "which has long term sustainability" … "incorporating locality-based integration (integrated Care Systems) including local government and social care, and crucially with community participation".

For the government, I added, this presents it with a considerable political dilemma. It must recognise that the progressive centralisation of public health services over the last decades has not worked and that the system, as presently structured, is not fit for purpose. It must thus reverse the tide of centralisation and restore local structures, powers and responsibilities.

No sooner said, though, when we learn that the Cabinet Office has announced that five ministerial-led task forces will be established to determine how to re-open pubs, beauty salons, places of worship and leisure centres, as well as re-boot the aviation sector. 

Once again, therefore, we see this centralised, top-down approach and a complete failure to delegate or employ local resources. For most of the issues, the government should have turned to the Local Government Association and asked it to set up a task-force from its members, to come up with solutions. They, after all, will have far more knowledge of the situation on the ground.

With Johnson and his administration coming under increasing scrutiny – especially with a new opposition leader in town – the government is going to find that the complexity of managing this epidemic response is such that it cannot be done without using local resources to their fullest extent.

And yet, we see little sign of Johnson getting the message. Thus, John Crace may not be wrong when he observes that "Boris" is not only incompetent, unprepared, selfish, lazy and amoral, but "just not that bright".

We may be in for the long haul but, on current form, I don't see Johnson going the distance.



Richard North 14/05/2020 link

Coronavirus: paying the price

24/04/2020  


From a standing start, where I started focusing on what became known as Covid-19 at the beginning of March, it took only a month before I was able to write with confidence that the government, in its response to the epidemic, had been preparing for the wrong disease.

Going all the way back to 2005, when the Blair administration under the aegis of health secretary John Reid first produced a pandemic preparedness plan, the emphasis had been on influenza, even though the World Health Organisation had advised member states to prepare for this disease and for a lesser-known and more recent condition known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS for short).

There was no "secret squirrel" stuff here; no moles buried deep in the heart of government, to give me a steer – just the slow, methodical tracking of published documents, following the direction they took me.

Now, weeks later, it takes an interview with a former secretary of state for health, Jeremy Hunt, for the legacy media to wake up to what my blog readers have known for weeks, where Hunt tells The Times that the "Whitehall pandemic strategy focused too much on [the] flu threat".

Thus does Hunt, now chair of the health select committee, inform us that the government response to coronavirus was "flawed", telling us that he wished the government had "looked more deeply" at how Asia had dealt with SARS. He thus says that Britain should have focused more on the threat of a new respiratory virus rather than an influenza outbreak in its pandemic planning.

To be fair to Hunt, although he signed off the 2014 Pandemic Influenza Response Plan, this was a linear descendant of the 2005 plan, which had undergone several iterations before landing on his desk, each version perpetuating the original flaw.

Interestingly, at the time he signed off the plan, he was being advised by CMO Sally Davies, formerly a consultant haematologist, unusually with no background as a specialist in public health.

In all respects, therefore, this is a classic example of a system failure, where no single person can be held responsible. Had Booker still been alive, he might have seized on the planning process as another example of groupthink where, once the machine had gone off the rails, there was no corrective mechanism that could bring it back into line.

Even then, I don't think that Hunt has fully grasped the extent of the failure, and it is certainly the case that The Times hasn't a clue. The article cites the National Risk Register 2017, the most recent version of what is said to be an annual government report that assesses serious threats to the country. Publication of the reports, though, tends to be erratic, but is roughly at two-year intervals.

The paper claims that the 2017 edition of the report states that the likelihood of a new disease like SARS spreading to the UK was low, but if an outbreak of an emerging infectious disease occurred in the UK, and preventative measures were not put in place swiftly, the impact seen could be on the scale of the SARS outbreak in Toronto, where there had been 251 cases.

Typically, though, The Times hasn't checked its facts. The reference to SARS which they cite comes from the 2008 edition of the risk register. In the 2017 edition, SARS is not mentioned at all.

The effective downplaying of the threat entirely contradicts the stance of the World Health Organisation which in 2005 revised its International Health Regulations to list SARS as a disease which "may constitute a public health emergency of international concern" – only one of four, alongside pandemic influenza, which was so listed.

But, according to the current Times narrative, while the initial government response seemed to follow the influenza plan, with the adoption of a "herd immunity" approach - allowing the disease to spread through the population and natural resistance to develop – when the scale of infection and death in Italy became apparent, ministers "suddenly changed direction and moved towards lockdown and isolation to stop the spread".

The inference there is that ministers had recognised the error of their ways and had started to deal with the real issue on the ground – that we were confronting a SARS pandemic rather than influenza, a disease that required a fundamentally different strategy.

Yet that is not the case. Not only does the 2005 WHO checklist for influenza pandemic preparedness planning recommend social distancing and quarantine, the 2014 UK plan also allows for an element of "social distancing".

In fact, the great lockdown was triggered by businesses and the public at large, with F1 and the Premier League leading the way, but with ever-more businesses sending their employees home, and schools and universities shutting down, the government had no real option but to impose order on what would have been a patchy and incoherent response.

The fact of the government imposing a lockdown, therefore, is no indication that it had recognised the SARS threat or that it was adapting its strategy to deal with it. The government was, in the main, still following its influenza plan – relying on the timely production of a vaccine to resolve the crisis.

Only now, when Hancock at last seems to be taking contact tracing and isolation seriously, are there signs that the government is moving away from a slavish adherence to its influenza plan, and starting to embrace the real-life measures which are required to control SARS outbreaks.

Despite that, Hunt is relatively forgiving of the government's tardy response, generously asserting that: "No one can reasonably expect governments to have a crystal ball with a brand new virus, so full credit to the government for being willing to learn from international best practice, first on ramping up testing and now on mass contact tracing".

Bearing in mind that Hunt himself is part of the failed planning process, however, there must surely be an element of back-covering here. The government didn't need a crystal ball. It had been warned by the WHO to prepare for SARS and, instead the British government (along with many others, it must be said) chose to lump this very different disease in with influenza.

At the heart of the government's current difficulties is this core error, repeated not once but many times. It was missed by a succession of experts, the civil servants and politicians, none of whom thought to refer back to the original WHO regulations which categorised SARS separately from influenza.

Even with that, where planning was so much reliant on the rapid ability to produce a vaccine - along with the expectation that we would get plenty of warning of a new viral outbreak - no one thought to ask how we would deal with an epidemic where there was no immediate prospect of a vaccine and where antiviral drugs to aid in treatment would not be available.

The point here is that, in terms of dealing with communicable diseases, the influenza plan is the outlier. Only because technology has become so advanced have we been able to abandon the basic principles of epidemic management. For too long, we have rested on the complacent belief that we can treat the victims of the disease and hold the fort long enough, without attempting to suppress the epidemic, until a vaccine becomes available.

Not once then in fifteen years have the legions of highly-paid, self-important officials, scientists and politicians addressed the nightmare scenario that we have been facing for decades, where we were challenged by a highly infectious and potentially lethal novel virus, for which there was no vaccine.

And yet, in 2002 when the world was confronting a novel virus in the form of H5N1, it was hailed by the WHO as 'the greatest single health challenge' to mankind, greater than HIV/AIDS or malaria.

At the time, it was estimated that a severe pandemic could wipe out two percent of the global economy. In Britain, the government's then chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, claimed that such a pandemic was now "a biological inevitability" – "no longer a matter of 'if' but 'when'".

Then, in 2007, a House of Lords Select Committee had been looking at the handling of the disease and of the risks in general from pandemics.

Its report, published in 2008, recalled "sobering" advice from government ministers that: "While there has not been a pandemic since 1968, another one is inevitable". It had been estimated that the next pandemic could kill between two and 50 million people worldwide, and between 50,000 and 750,000 deaths in the UK.

Twelve years later, we are in the grip of that pandemic and will be able to count ourselves fortunate if the death rate can be contained between 50,000 and 750,000. As for the socio-economic disruption, the Committee was uncannily prescient: "massive" is almost an understatement.

Despite Hunt's generosity, therefore, this pandemic was both predictable and predicted. But when it came to the crunch, government was unprepared. And while it is all very well being wise after the event, there were an awful lot of people wise before it happened. This and many other governments chose not to listen.

As the recorded case total reaches 138,078, with hospital deaths alone at 18,736, we the people are paying the price – and the final account has yet to be rendered.



Richard North 24/04/2020 link

Coronavirus: a lack of preparation (again)

14/04/2020  


Anyone who has been tracking Brexit over the years has learnt to accept that the media, in general, is issue illiterate and largely ignorant on the detail of the functioning of the European Union. And I cannot honestly say that any media organ has got to grips with the technicalities of Brexit, or the options available.

The Covid-19 epidemic, however, has brought to light a new dimension of ineptitude into the legacy media as we see it adding a level of innumeracy so profound that it makes a nonsense of any attempt to track the progress of the epidemic through popular media reports.

Never more so has the aphorism been true that if you don't buy a paper you will be uninformed but, if you do buy one, you will be ill-informed.

To pick on one example, illustrative of the broader tendency, we see in the online edition of the Mail - the content of which appears in the today's print edition – the "revelation" from Dominic Raab that the lockdown will continue.

That, obviously, is fair enough. It comes straight out of yesterday's presser, with him warning that "the worst is yet to come", as officials announce 717 more UK deaths. But, says the paper, the "daily toll drops for a third day in a row".

It is, as one might expect, this last comment that is particularly irritating. As we have learned, the figures released daily by the Department of Health/Public Health England are composites of multiple days and do not represent any single day. Therefore, no valid trend can be inferred from these figures which, even without the many other errors that could affect them, could conceal an underlying increase.

For sure, the death toll (for the UK), in reverse order, for the last three days stands at 917, 737 and 717 – ostensibly giving some grounds for optimism. But, the current NHS England figures are incomplete and it will take as long as a week before any meaning can be drawn from them.

Furthermore, that latter statement is an absolute. The corrected figures for the last three days, again in reverse order, stand at 516, 443 and 118 deaths. But as the reports come in on successive days, these will be corrected, and corrected again, over the next two weeks. Each figure will look very different from what it is now.

One wonders, therefore, from where Raab gets his information that allows him so confidently to assert that "the worst is yet to come". It can't be the hospital admission figures, which are supposedly coming down (in London, at least). Perhaps it is the daily mortuary figures, which are not released publicly, but which will give a rough indication of which way the trend is going.

Whatever the source of Raab's information, his caution is reinforced by CSA Vallance, who tells us that the lockdown measures will only be lifted "when we are firmly the other side" of the peak, and the rate of infection is coming down. "It would be a complete waste of everything everyone has had to do until now", he says, if measures were lifted too soon and the infection rate simply rises again.

Here, though, Vallance seems to be exploiting the gullibility and technical illiteracy of the media, as a drop in the infection rate is by no means sufficient grounds to lift the lockdown.

In fact, it was only a few days ago, widely reported by the media, that the World Health Organisation set out its criteria for easing restrictions.

It lists not one but six "important factors to consider". Only the first is that transmission is controlled. Secondly, sufficient public health and medical services, which includes the ability quickly to detect, test, isolate and treat new cases as well as to trace close contacts.

Thirdly, outbreak risks in special settings like long-term care facilities must be minimised, fourthly preventive measures must be in place in workplaces, schools and other places where it's essential for people to go, fifth, importation risks must be managed; and sixth, communities are fully aware and engaged in the transition.

Arguably, the UK currently fulfils none of these criteria and even if we saw transmission declining, there would be considerable difficulty in coming up to specification on the other factors – and especially the "test and trace" elements of the public health system.

If, however, the media are content to boil down the criteria into the one factor – whether the transmission rate is down – ministers once again will have been allowed to fudge issue and allow the country to drift into a relaxed lockdown, for which it will be almost completely unprepared.

Specifically, despite the merits of "test and trace" having been well-rehearsed, with good evidence of its value coming from Taiwan, South Korea and New Zealand, there are no indications whatsoever that the UK government is preparing to enhance its public health measures.

Interestingly, even in the United States, with Boston, Mass the example here, the need to track down contacts and test them is being recognised. An "army" of workers is being recruited in Massachusetts, where state officials say they will eventually deploy nearly 1,000 people to do contact tracing.

In the UK, of course, we have local authority environmental health departments which, if pushed (even to the extent of calling up recently retired officials) could field as many as 10,000 trained staff. But there is not the slightest indication that government intends to use this resource.

Neither do we see any serious measures in place to address the serious situation in care homes, where Covid-19 is quite evidently rampant. Rather, the government seems to be intent on sweeping under the carpet this epidemic within an epidemic.

The point here though is that, if infection is rampant in care homes, these units become reservoirs of infection which can re-introduce Covid-19 back into the community even when it otherwise seems to be under control. For a very good reason, therefore, the WHO wants outbreak risks in special settings controlled.

Furthermore, this will extend beyond just care homes to hospitals (which are themselves major reservoirs of infection), and to facilities such as prisons and immigration detention centres, as well as homeless hostels and other accommodation centres where infection can easily be spread. At the very least, there needs to be enhanced surveillance and routine background testing. Yet, as we see, not even suspected Covid-19 cases in care homes are being tested.

As to the risk attendant on workplaces, the private sector has been active in protecting employees, but the efforts have been patchy. In the construction industry, for instance, hygiene facilities were often minimal and social distancing non-existent.

Before we could be sure that it was safe to go ahead with workplace relaxation, we would need to see very clear and sector-specific rules from government, with effective enforcement measures in place.

The "importation" issue is another questionable area. While some governments are imposing mandatory quarantine on travellers coming into their countries – with supervised hotels set aside for this purpose - almost daily we see reports of people flying in from hotspots all over the world and being allowed entry into the UK without screening or any mandatory isolation.

Finally, it is debatable as to whether the public is "fully aware and engaged", to the extent that any transition to a more relaxed regime can be self-policing. But unless we can be confident that people will not go beyond the limits set, then any relaxation could become a very dangerous experiment.

Relaxing the lockdown, therefore, is more than a matter of government offering a few facile slogans and letting nature (in the form of SARS-Cov-2) take its course. This needs to be a structured, carefully managed process.

But, unless the public debate can progress beyond simplistic considerations of a drop in the transmission rate, we risk being as unprepared for the relaxation as we were for the original lockdown.



Richard North 14/04/2020 link

Coronavirus: the wrong disease

06/04/2020  


Spending £350 billion to prolong the lives of a few hundred thousand mostly elderly people is an irresponsible use of taxpayers' money, wrote Toby Young at the end of the month.

Johnson, of course, was too late to have benefitted from the lockdown to which Mr Young so heartily objected (and still does), arguing that it is an overreaction. He asserts that the government should end it as soon as possible and encourage people to return to work. Social distancing measures, he says, should be limited to the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.

Young's original article was actually published four days after the Great Leader had been reported positive for coronavirus, after suffering symptoms for the previous 24 hours. But, after a period of self-isolation and "working at home", we learn that he has been admitted to hospital as a "precautionary step", for routine tests.

If one was to embrace the hard logic of Young's position (assuming we can take his calculations at face value – which is something I will address shortly), one assumes that we should write off the prime minister, as the cost of treating him will undoubtedly exceed the notional value of a person of his age.

Like the rest of the 230,000 theoretically saved by government intervention, he should be written off and allowed to die. After all, there is no shortage of applicants for the position of prime minister, so there should be no particular problem in filling the post (once the accommodation has been disinfected).

If this is taking the argument to extremes, it does nevertheless point up the difficulties of taking a strictly economic view of an event such as an epidemic. It is all very well applying comparative cost assessments to deaths occurring in isolation but an epidemic is a very public event, involving large numbers of people.

That makes it a political event and, even if it did make sense to assess the economic implications of taking action, the "do nothing" response which Young advocates is simply not tenable. At times of crisis, when people are exposed to great peril (real or perceived), the government is expected to act – at whatever the cost. If it didn't, it would very quickly become an ex-government as people took their own actions – which might not exclude violent overthrow of the denizens of No 10.

That is the point that Young misses. Political events have their own rules, as we recall from Jean-Claude Juncker who, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, wistfully declared, "We all know what to do, we just don't know how to get re-elected after we've done it". What makes economic sense (assuming it does) it not always an option.

However, in making an economic case, Young seems to assume that his "do nothing" stance is without cost. But, as we saw in the early days of this epidemic, with government havering about whether to take action, people did start to take their own actions.

We had a number of firms instruct their staff to work at home, football clubs decided to abandon fixtures, leaving the football authorities to abandon the season, and Formula 1 then cancelled its races. Universities started shutting down, as did schools and more and more enterprises ceased to operate as staff and managements voted with their feet.

Thus, the clinical picture that Young paints, with nice, neat divisions between courses of action, simply doesn't exist. The alternative to the government not imposing a lockdown would have been chaotic, unofficial action with a drastic economic impact, and serious implications for public order- while the spread of virus continued.

Even then, we have to consider the arithmetic. Like most amateurs in the field, Young has a naïve respect for the "modellers" and quotes with reverence Neil Ferguson's figure of 230,000 lives saved, on which he bases his economic assessment.

The mistake here, of course, is in treating the epidemic as a single event. Yet, as we have seen, it comprises multiple outbreaks at different stages, with some hotspots, the largest of which are in London and the West Midlands.

Simply taking out of circulation the elderly and those with underlying health conditions (even if it was possible) would mean a far more rapid spread of the virus, with multiple hotspots developing throughout the country. And while the illness is fatal mainly to elderly people and particularly those with underlying conditions, that is not always the case.

One wonders, therefore, whether Mr Young really thinks that people would go calmly about their lives as the epidemic ripped through the country, with the media recounting stories of hospitals overwhelmed, as health staff fell victim to the virus and the government daily announced a death toll soaring up to the hundred thousand level, and then doubling.

But then, as one might recall, Ferguson's estimate of 230,000 is not the only figure in town. The government itself has cited as many as 750,000 deaths and any estimate is precisely that – an estimate. Which government is going to have the nerve to sit tight and test the accuracy of the modelling, and put its money on Ferguson being right?

Then, there are the dynamics of epidemics to be considered. Given that it is still between 18 months to two years before a vaccine is administered to the population, the virus has ample time for second helpings, and even third.

One might recall that the 1918 "Spanish flu" epidemic lasted until 1920 – three years in all. Given three years to rampage, it is unlikely that this coronavirus would obediently stick to a quota of 230,000. What are the chances of a government surviving in that event?

In the real world, therefore – the world in which people exist and even prime ministers are mortal – Young's thesis is absurd. It is simply not a viable political proposition.

What one might also say is that, like so many of his ilk, he misses the bigger picture – lacking any understanding of what could have been. Increasing numbers of voices can be heard advocating the "test and trace" option for controlling the epidemic and I would be happy to argue the case that if this had been adopted right from the very start, the government might not have had to impose a nation-wide lockdown.

The costs to which Young objects, therefore, might be more accurately attributed not to the lockdown, per se but to the failures of successive governments to plan properly for an epidemic, and their willingness to allow the public health system in this country to decay.

If there is a lesson to learn, this might be it. There is nothing to say that Covid-19 is the only epidemic this nation will suffer. The growth in international air traffic and the mobility of the world's population (to say nothing of its growth), might make pandemics a routine event.

Thus, Covid-19 might actually be our wake-up call. But, as it is, theoretically it could be worse and, if from this emerges a better appreciation of what it takes to fight such epidemics and, as Pete points out societal changes to allow that to happen, the money spent will not have been entirely wasted.

For my part, I'm beginning to get to grips with this issue. I would not say I'm there yet as the last time I looked at the epidemiological system for dealing with a communicable disease – for my PhD thesis – it took me five years.

However, I am tending to the view that the first mistake in a fatal cascade started with the promulgation by the World Health Organisation of the 2005 International Health Regulations.

It was these which, for the first time, specifically listed pandemic influenza and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) as potential "events of international public health concern". This formal status required member nations to "develop, strengthen and maintain… the capacity to detect, assess, notify and report" these diseases, and then to the develop "the capacity to respond promptly and effectively to [the] public health risks".

This led to the rash of the preparedness plans produced by members, including the UK, then under the Blair government, supposedly based on WHO guidelines. Where it all went wrong, in my view, is that members were allowed to produce influenza plans and use them as the template for dealing with SARS which, as it now transpires, demands a very different approach.

To that extent, we might have the right plan – for influenza – but it is being used to fight the wrong disease. Covid-19 is not influenza - it is a SARS. And as we record 47,806 cases and 4,934 dead, that represents the true failure, and why we are now having to embark on costly lockdowns.

There were plenty of other mistakes, not least the EU's European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control reporting on 14 February (by which time the UK had reported nine cases) that, "the risk associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection for the EU/EEA and UK population is currently low".

Elsewhere, one might argue that the public health profession lost its way, but that is another, longer story. As it stands, it may be of small comfort to the prime minister that, as he defies Mr Young's spending constraints, the mess we're in is not entirely of his making.



Richard North 06/04/2020 link

Brexit: choose your fantasies

30/05/2018  


The pharmaceutical giant, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), has announced it is reviewing its operations at its Barnard Castle site in County Durham. The local newspaper reports that up to 200 jobs are at risk.

The news has come as a surprise as, only last July, GSK announced it was investing £39 million into the site to expand the production of drugs to treat HIV and asthma. And, although no reason has been given for the sudden turnaround, Brexit is a front-runner in the speculation stakes.

This is by no means the first time that job losses (actual or potential) have been associated with Brexit but, if we get the "no deal" Brexit which some seem to want, there will be a torrent of news of this nature, with unemployment leaping by hundreds of thousands.

In fact, if the Treasury forecast of an eight percent loss in GDP from a "no deal" Brexit is anywhere near correct, the relationship between GDP and employment suggests that job losses might top a million. But, assuming a chaotic fall-out, total losses could run into many millions out of the 32 million workforce.

Some experts already argue that Brexit is already an economic disaster, with the economy having failed to bounce back after the "beast from the east". But if the pundits can't offer certainty either way, it is also true to say that, given the political uncertainty, no one can predict a happy outcome from the path we are currently pursuing.

It ill-behoves the likes of well-padded commenters such as Daniel Hannan with his fanciful nostrums about trade liberalisation, but if there is one thing the Brexit referendum has done is open the floodgates to any number of snake-oil salesmen peddling their favoured remedies.

Of the many things I'm sick of hearing about are the perpetual wibbling about how the city states of Hong Kong and Singapore offer an example for us all, free-trade nirvanas which, if followed, will lead us to an eternal economic paradise.

It was good to see Hannan taken down in his own comments, with just one commenter making a more than adequate case against this illusion. Hong Kong and Singapore, he observes, are not viable economic development models. Hong Kong is a unique historical anomaly; it's not an independent nation, its eminent position is the result of Chinese State containment of a colonial power.

Singapore is an authoritarian single party state, in effect, that exercises hundred percent state ownership of land and eighty percent of property. Both Hong Kong and Singapore are served by armies of immigrant labour.

That last observation alone should give cause for warning as the studies have been done which show that there is a darker side to the Singapore "economic miracle", with the bulk of the population paying a price that none of us here would be prepared to pay.

However, it is also the case that Singapore has a higher per capita number of billionaires than any other country in the world. To be mega-rich in that land is an exquisite experience denied to the vast bulk of the people living there, suffering a population density of well over 7,000 per square kilometre.

It is always instructive, therefore, to have the well-heeled defining for us certain economic models, the consequences of which their wealth enables them to avoid.

As we ourselves have observed before, though, people such as Hannan are entirely immune to criticisms. Mostly, they insulate themselves from them so that they scarcely realise they exist – like the poverty that their policies would create. That allows them to trot out the same old nostrums, again and again, without having to change their messages.

That said, in the space of six years, Hannan's views seem to have undergone quite a radical transformation. In September 2012, he was stressing to his readers that "no one – no one – is suggesting that Britain should disengage from European trade". He went on to tell us that "withdrawal from the EU does not imply withdrawal from the European market". Indeed, he said, "under Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, the EU is obligated to negotiate a commercial accord with any state that leaves".

Six years later, in the new version of the Hannan reality, he would have us merely "aim to have as deep and comprehensive a trade deal with the EU as possible". But, he says, if we can't get one, "we can secure most of the benefits simply by continuing to accept EU exports without restriction".

That's fine and dandy, and what we would almost certainly have to do – just to keep the population fed - notwithstanding that we would have to apply the same terms to the rest of the world in order to stay WTO compliant.

It is quite staggering, however, how casually Hannan writes off EU exports, valued at £276 billion in 2017 – representing a 14 percent hit to the GDP if we lost the lot of it – plus the additional losses arising from the massive disruption to our economy.

Unfortunately, Hannan is not alone with his fantasies. Another one who has created his own form of reality is my former friend and colleague, Owen Paterson, who is now dismissing the Irish Border question as "a hugely exaggerated non-problem". The border, he says. is not a tax control point, adding: "Nothing happens at the border itself, everything happens at the point of shipment and the point of landing".

You have to give Paterson one thing. In a remarkably few, deft sentences, he has totally demolished the entire concept of the single market which the EU holds so dear. The essence of that is an area of free circulation of goods, protected by an external border to which entry is prohibited to goods from third countries except under the most rigorous of conditions – including extensive border controls.

In a few words, therefore, Paterson has abolished the whole gamut of EU controls and would have us ship goods freely across the border, a freedom afforded to no other third country on earth, and a concession which the EU will apparently grant us simply because we want it this way and can't bear to accept the consequences of our leaving the EU.

It does not matter to the likes of Paterson that the EU has consistently rejected his "non-solution" to what it considers is a very real problem. The fantasy world of the former Northern Ireland secretary must prevail. The Irish border it is a non-problem, purely because he stands up in front of a most audience and says so.

Creating personal fantasy worlds, however, does not seem confined merely to the rabid end of the Brexiteer spectrum. The Guardian, this time with the help of its friends in the Local Government Association. is quite capable of creating its own.

Raising the alarm on food safety when we leave, it says that regular alerts are sent by the EU for things such as pesticides residue, mercury, salmonella and E coli "in order to avoid a repeat of controversies such as the horsemeat scandal".

The point is fair enough in general, as we do rely on RASFF - Food and Feed Safety Alerts from the EU. But to suggest that this system would prevent another horsemeat scandal - when it was failures in the EU food safety regulatory system which allowed the first episode – is something of a stretch.

It is also the case that we need food safety data from a much wider area than just the EU (or EEA) and it would be much more preferable to have the World Health Organisation (WHO) coordinating intelligence – something we could promote once we have left the EU.

Rejecting that reality, the Guardian has its own. Brexit, therefore, does not look as if it is going to open us up to the real world. Merely, it provides the opportunity for the opposing sides to chose their own disparate fantasies, to which the public are invited to subscribe.

Meanwhile, of course, the clock ticks away the time to 29 March.



Richard North 30/05/2018 link

Brexit: regulatory philosophy

27/07/2017  


We've written a great deal on the general issue of non-tariff barriers, most often in the context of regulatory barriers. In so doing, I've given considerably less space to what might actually be the most serious barrier of them all, and the most difficult to surmount – regulatory philosophy.

Although some of the issues involved may be complex, this relatively easy to define. What it amounts to is different ways of doing things: individual governments have different ways of achieving the same regulatory outcomes.

In trade deals, the big problem arises when the parties seek regulatory harmonisation – not just the same outcomes, but the same way achieving those outcomes. This can be for wholly selfish reasons, on the basis that compliance costs must be equalised so that no single party gains a trading advantage through less rigorous regulation – the so-called "level playing field" doctrine.

There can, however, be perfectly legitimate reasons for regulatory harmonisation – not least of which is transparency. The outcomes of regulation are not always obvious or easy to measure (or measured in the same way), so it is easier to monitor a trade deal, to see if the parties are playing fair, if everybody is working to the same rule book.

Where one has developed nations, though, each party to an agreement may already have their own systems in place – many of them with historical antecedents, underpinned by powerful cultural determinants.

At its most simplest, a difference might be that, in one country, a particular issue might be regulated at local authority level while, in another, a central body might be responsible. In other areas, one authority might rely on a prior approval model as against a system which relies more on post-release legal sanctions – either criminal or civil.

And, as we have seen with the "chlorine chickens", the differences might be between technical control systems – farm-to-fork versus chemical intervention, with no obvious or clear advantage to either. How typical it is, though, for George Monbiot to get hold of the wrong end of the stick. He argues that this is an example of the UK being forced to accept lower food standards, that being "only a small part of the harm done by globalisation".

As an example of the impoverished level of debate, though, Monbiot seeks to determine whether using chlorination in the processing of poultry actually works. Here, relative to the two main types of food-borne diseases related to poultry - Salmonelloses and Campylobacteria enteritis – we found that contamination levels in US and EU produce were difficult to evaluate.

In short, there is no correlation between the changes in the prevalence of the causal organisms in poultry and the incidence of disease, or good evidence of a relationship with different control systems. Salmonelloses in the EU, for instance, can be very low or high in the EU, dependent on country, where chlorination is prohibited, with US incidence higher than the lowest and lower than the highest.

Monbiot, however, chooses a different tack. He cites the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) report on the issue, and a claim that if chlorine immersion wasn't effective, "one would expect foodborne illnesses carried by chicken to be much more prevalent" in North America. But it claims that figures from the World Health Organisation reveal that salmonella and campylobacter infections there are "not out of line" with rates in the European Union.

The man checks the WHO study and finds the incidence of campylobacter similar as between the EU and the US but then, staggeringly, misreads the report and goes not to food-related Salmonellas but to the separate diseases of typhoid and paratyphoid, known respectively by their biological labels: Salmonella typhi and Salmonella paratyphi.

The statistics, for these, he says, show that the burdens of infection per head of population from these two species are, respectively, four times and five times higher in North America than in Europe. He is unable to state that this is caused by chlorinated chicken, "as the WHO doesn't provide such detail". But, on the basis of these figures, he "can state that the Adam Smith Institute's claim is false".

For the specialist, this is laughable. Monbiot has confused food poisoning salmonellosis such as Salmonella typhimurium and enteritidis - referred to in the report as non-typhoidal Salmonellas (NTS) - with their more serious cousins.

The typhoid group comprises diseases which can be passed from person to person or, in roughly equal measure, by foods and water. And yes, the US figure is more than four times the EU figure. But, in the US, up to 75 percent of cases are attributable to international travel (mainly to developing countries) while in the EU, 85 percent of cases were associated with foreign travel, mostly to the Indian subcontinent.

In other words, typhoid and paratyphoid are primarily diseases of less-developed countries. They can be associated with virtually any food, and especially uncooked fruits and vegetables, but are not generally or specifically associated with poultry, even in less-developed countries. Processing plant isolates in either the EU or the US are very rare indeed. Finding either type would be regarded as a major incident.

What we are left with, therefore, is not only a laughably worthless evaluation from Monbiot, but the central question of his thesis left open.

In relying on WTO work, however, he might have referred to its definitive study on (NTS) Salmonella and Campylobacter in chicken meat – as indeed might have ASI. Crucially, amongst the experts compiling the report, there was no agreement on the necessity for what were termed "processing aids" in the control of these pathogens.

The importance of this is that if a global assembly of experts cannot reach a conclusion on such an issue, it is hardly for either the ASI or Monbiot to pronounce on the issue, the latter using it as an example of a globalisation gone wrong.

Had he been more astute, unlikely though that might be, Monbiot might have realised that he was looking at an unresolved example of differences in regulatory philosophy – a type of problem which appears to be growing in scale and significance, even though it is barely recognised for what it is.

Nevertheless, there is a sense that he does vaguely understand that there are unresolved issues. He talks of European Union rules, which currently prevail in the UK, taking a "precautionary approach to food regulation", permitting only products and processes proved to be safe. In contrast, he says, the US government uses a providential approach, permitting anything not yet proved to be dangerous. By limiting the budgets and powers of its regulators, says Monbiot, it ensures that proof of danger is difficult to establish.

That is the essence of a difference in regulatory philosophy. It is an issue that, unless resolved, will prevent the advance of globalisation – which seems to be precisely what Mr Monbiot wants.

Even then, he gets it wrong. Helpfully, the Commission defines the precautionary principle and how it should be applied, telling us that it "presupposes that potentially dangerous effects deriving from a phenomenon, product or process have been identified, and that scientific evaluation does not allow the risk to be determined with sufficient certainty".

The Commission then argues that judging what is an "acceptable" level of risk for society is an eminently political responsibility and thereby offer a structured approach to decision-making, outlining the factors which should be taken into account.

This is very far from the pastiche that Monbiot offers and, in the round, is far more reasonable than he makes out. Uncertainty is something all regulators have to deal with, and this is one approach. Another might be to allow the risk-taker to judge for themselves, and then to penalise them if they get it wrong – elements of which might guide US authorities on some matters.

Either way, those who want to pursue global trade, and especially those who are dealing with the fallout of Brexit, need to be aware that serious barriers to trade can arise from differences in regulatory philosophy. They need to develop strategies for dealing with them.

The solution which Monbiot might rail against – and not be on his own – is absorption, where one or more parties to an agreement might absorb the system prevailing in the territory of another (usually dominant) party. Thus, in reaching an accommodation with the United States over chlorinated chicken, the answer might be for the UK to adopt what are called Pathogen Reduction Treatments (PRTs) into its own regulatory code.

A variation of this might be to merge systems, whereby a technical compromise might be found which all parties would adopt. Thus, in poultry processing, a modified (i.e., relaxed) farm-to-fork approach might be adopted, together with PRTs under carefully defined and monitored circumstances.

The next option is one of coexistence, where each party adopts the systems of the other parties, as well as their own, allowing the market (as in consumer choice) to decide which should prevail.

This might be preferred by the free trade zealots but, when dealing with infectious disease, public health will often trump consumer choice. In public health law, for instance, highly infective and potentially deadly smallpox sufferers were not allowed the choice of using public transport. They could be arrested and detained if they did.

That principle would apply to poultry producers, who would not be allowed to offer choice of levels of pathogenic contamination in their products. Basically, the prevention of foodborne disease is a public good which transcends consumer choice. The consumer is not allowed to buy unfit meat (for human consumption), and a supplier cannot offer it even if there is a market for it.

Similarly, if the government (after due process) decides that one particular method of securing reductions in pathogens is better than another, then this is a qualified judgement it is entitled to take. It is not for the market to decide.

Another way out of the quagmire is perhaps more acceptable and commonly used – the principle of mutual recognition. Each side continues to use their own systems, and each party accepts the products produced by other parties. The chlorinated chicken could be an application of this, and could be the eventual outcome if, for instance, the WTO eventually makes a ruling which favoured the US.

Finally, there is the option of deregulation, partially or fully. The state can walk away from the process completely, and leave the market to decide, possibly with a statutory requirement for labelling so that the consumer knows what they are buying. This is not usually appropriate for public health issues, but may be an option for GMOs.

Come what may, if we are going to make any progress with Brexit, and with our ambitions to expand global trading, regulatory philosophy needs to be placed firmly on the agenda and kept there. Resolving philosophy issues, where they arise, may be the key to our success as global traders.



Richard North 27/07/2017 link

Global governance: at the bottom of the regulatory food chain

09/09/2013  

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Grumbling on behind the scenes is a not-so-small example of how government has gone off the rails, one which has been charted by Booker as part of what he calls the "asbestos scam". The particular example for today though is agriculture. Farmers are particularly vulnerable to the scam because some 50,000 British farms have buildings containing asbestos cement, made from white asbestos, which must eventually be replaced. 

And now, the new Control of Asbestos regulations, which came into force in April 2012, are – according to Booker - set to cost the industry an estimated £6 billion, despite the country's leading independent experts saying that the controls are wholly unnecessary.

However, the Health and Safety Executive – responsible for enforcing the regulations - refuses to listen to their arguments, even though a study by its own experts confirmed that the farmers and their scientific advisers are right.

Not least of those advisors was Sir John Beddington, the government's former chief scientific advisor. As Booker reported, his team not only tiptoed round the scientific evidence but played as a trump card the fact that white asbestos is classified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a "Class 1 carcinogen".

Nevertheless, efforts are continuing to relieve farmers of their expensive burden, with some hope that a new chief scientific advisor will take a more "liberal" view of the problem.

That he faces almost insuperable problems, though, is hinted by Booker's earlier reference to the "trump card" of the WHO, which is actually one of the key drivers of the regulatory regime. But, as the chart (see pg 21) reproduced above shows, the WHO is only one part of a huge and complex international system which is driving the regulatory agenda.

For sure, at the pinnacle of the hierarchy of influence is the WHO, but the actual body that "informs" this organisation is the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Based in Lyon, France, with an annual core budget of €41 million, it is the specialised cancer agency of the WHO. 

It is this agency which has been making the running, through its "working groups", setting out the basis for policy in its Monograph 100, the full version of which runs to 526 pages.

It is this work which justifies the classification of all types of asbestos as a "Class 1 carcinogen" and as long as the authority of the "IARC classification" stands, it is almost impossible to make any progress. Not least, we then see the EU adopt the standard, which is then treated with great reverence by the European Parliament.

But, as our chart illustrated above also shows, these are by no means the full extent of the players. Another key player is the International Labour Organisation. Based in Geneva, it has produced its own code of practice, which is constantly updated, and used as a model for national regulatory systems.

The ILO, in turn, is "informed" by the International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH). Founded in 1906 in Milan as the Permanent Commission on Occupational Health, it is now recognised by the United Nations as a non-governmental organisation (NGO) and has close working relationships with ILO, WHO, UNEP and ISSA.

The policy of the ICOH is to support "a global ban on the mining, sale and use of all forms of asbestos … to accomplish the elimination of asbestos-related diseases". There, it links back to the IARC monograph which asserts that chrysotile causes malignancies of the lung, pleura and peritoneum. Therefore, it says, amphibole-only bans are inadequate; asbestos bans need to include chrysotile (white asbestos) as well.

By such means is the loop closed, and then we see (in the chart) the trickle-down through a veritable alphabet soup of international and national organisation, which include professional organisations, insurance companies and labour unions. Against such weight, even the voice of the UK's chief scientific advisor is reduced to a whisper, while our own politicians are virtually powerless.

Here then is a classic example of world governance. Interestingly, the chart referenced even talks of "soft law" and "guidance", which is so influential in driving the system, so that by the time the it reaches us, in the form of EU Directive 2009/148/EC, there is very little chance of making changes.

And, while the current law has an EU label, the origins stretch back to Geneva and beyond, taking in Lyon on the way, part of an invisible system which puts us at the bottom of the regulatory food chain, subject to controls and agencies, the existence of which most people are completely unaware.

When it comes to "reform", therefore, the EU is only the tip of the iceberg. In order to regain control, even invoking Article 50 would only be the start of a long and complex process.

COMMENT THREAD



Richard North 09/09/2013 link

Media: an episode of candour

18/07/2013  

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I have to admit that I do get a bit morose at times, especially when the feeling overtakes you that you are banging your head against a brick wall. And then, up pops Mary Ellen Synon with a stonking piece on trade, Iceland and the ongoing "mackerel war" – and the "top table".

Here is pure magic from a journalist who actually gets it, a master of her craft who is honest enough to write the truth:
The fact is that if Britain leaves the EU it will have far more influence on international trading policies set by organisations such as UNECE than it does as a member of the EU. Britain will not be "isolated", it will be empowered, freed from memos from the Foreign Office reminding the British negotiating team of EU "positions".

But of course not one in a thousand of you has heard of UNECE. The Brussels propaganda is that the trading regulations spring from EU decisions, so by being a member of the EU, countries have a seat at the top table.

Except they don't: the EU is not the top table. Trading regulations spring from such organisations as the World Trade Organisation, regional bodies such as UNECE (the UN Economic Commission for Europe, which has 56 members including Russia and the US but not the EU) and global bodies such as OIE (the World Organisation for Animal Health, with 178 members but not the EU).

There are hundreds of such organisations: and, okay, if you want to explore the jungles of the CODEX Alimentarius Commission, created in 1963 by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation and World Health Organisation to develop food standards, go right ahead. You will eventually find the EU in it, but lost in the crowd of 186 other members.

The negotiations on trade regulation go on in such intergovernmental organisations, then the new regulations are sent to the eurocrats in Brussels. We, most of us, only hear about them after the commission dresses up the new agreements as EU directives and regulations.
Mary Ellen is good enough to acknowledge the blog on this. Alongside Dellers and, of course, Booker, that means we are getting some exposure. And we know that other journalists read our posts, but never, ever quote them, much less link to them.

In Mary Ellen's case, she also brings some additional and valuable comments to the table, focusing on the latest developments on the Icelandic response to the latest EU threats on mackerel. They make her tale a powerful story that would be at home on the pages of any serious newspaper. But none of the British media cover it, even though we have a dog in the fight.

Intelligent and comprehensive analysis of this issue would show the bully-boy EU to be wrong and the Icelanders and the Faroese in the right. As importantly, the issue demonstrates the power of being independent.

Any of this is open to any journalist. But only Mary Ellen has the honesty and integrity to tell this particular story, and then only for the Irish Mail. Her lucidity and candour tells its own tale, and puts her colleagues to shame.

The worst of it, though, is that the silence of the British media can't be accidental. There is an agenda at work here, in an industry where publishing objective news seems to be the last and least of its objectives - especially when it comes to the EU. They are worthy of contempt, and should get it in good measure.

COMMENT THREAD



Richard North 18/07/2013 link

Booker: in Europe and "ruled" by Geneva

27/01/2013  

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It is an unfortunate headline for the Booker column this week, as it could never be said that we are "ruled" from Geneva in the same way that we are ruled from Brussels.

However insidious "global governance" might be, it is largely undertaken on an intergovernmental level which means that, unlike the supranational EU, we can chose to accept or reject agreements "done at Geneva" and other global venues – for the moment, at any rate.

What makes the column particularly relevant, of course, is the coincidence of David Cameron's speech (the theme would have been broached this week, even if Cameron had not spoken).

Delivered at eight o'clock on Wednesday morning, that speech, says Booker, put one in mind of the White Queen's boast that she could "believe six impossible things before breakfast".

Cameron wanted us to believe that he could persuade the EU to change its nature and the purposes for which it has been built up over 60 years. He wanted us to believe that it could breach its core rule that powers of government once surrendered to Brussels are never handed back; and that he can somehow persuade Brussels, and the other 26 members, to allow us to retain full membership, while opting out of much else except the right to continue trading freely in the single market.

He would also have us believe that he can win the next election on the promise of such negotiations, and that they could be completed by 2017, to be part of a new treaty the EU is planning, for quite different purposes – even though the requirements for such a treaty, including a lengthy intergovernmental conference (and convention), could not possibly be completed by that date.

Finally, he wished us to believe that the results could then be put to the British people in a referendum, without telling us what the question might be if his negotiations fail.

However, the moment that above all showed Mr Cameron as living in cloud cuckoo land was when he dismissed the idea of Britain gaining the kind of trading relationship with the EU that Norway has, as a member of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA); because, he said, although Norway has full access to the single market, "it has no say at all in setting its rules".

Like many other people, Mr Cameron is clearly unaware that recent years have seen a mighty and accelerating revolution in the way that rules are made in our globalised world.

A huge proportion of the regulations governing the single market now originate from global bodies even higher than the EU; and in the tortuous process of shaping those rules, Norway is not only a very active player but also enjoys more influence, as an independent country, than we do.

Britain is increasingly represented on these bodies only as part of the EU, on the basis of a "common position" agreed by majority voting, where we are just one of 27 member states, with eight percent of the votes.

Rather than seeing Brussels as the source of many of our laws, we should be looking at another European city, Geneva, where vast buildings house the largest number of UN employees on the planet (34 organisations, comprising the United Nations Office at Geneva, or UNOG) and such powerful bodies as the World Trade Organisation, the World Health Organisation, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the UN's Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), the International Standards Organisation, and the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with its sponsoring bodies, the World Meteorological Organisation and the UN Environment Programme, to name but a few.

As I have been reporting, for more than five years, it is bodies such as these that set in train the process that, down the line, results in a great many of the regulations that emerge from Brussels. The famous working-time directives, for instance, derive in large part from the ILO, set up in 1919 by the Versailles Treaty, which actually included the promise of a 48-hour week.

The vast thicket of EU technical standards dictating every detail of how motor vehicles are made now originate from UNECE, a body in which Norway is an active participant, even though it has no motor industry – while Britain, which last year produced a record 1.5 million vehicles, is only represented by the EU.

When it comes to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), whose subsidiaries set global standards on food safety, plant health and animal welfare, Norway, with its worldwide fishing interests, actually chairs and plays host to the powerful committee on fish and fisheries products.

It played a leading role in setting the rules controlling Antarctic krill fishing, providing food for the world's fish farms, another big Norwegian interest – while our own Scottish fish farmers must merely comply with the resulting regulations passed down to us by Brussels.

Last week, Booker referred to an EFTA report that shows that more than 90 percent of the regulations of the single market cover policy areas that are ultimately the province of global bodies, from the immense array of technical standards to the rules governing accountancy and the compiling of official statistics.

Not only does Norway, acting in its own right, enjoy more influence on these international policy bodies than Britain; it also, as a member of EFTA and the European Economic Area, even reserves the right to opt out of single-market rules that it considers damaging to its national interest.

When Royal Mail was forced by Brussels to put its bulk mail of items below 50g out to tender (thus costing it the most lucrative part of its business), Norway, realising that this would render its own postal service unviable, refused to comply.

Similarly, Norway is refusing to comply with new single-market regulations on the safety of oil rigs. Meanwhile, our own oil and gas industry says that it is "extremely concerned" that the EU rules will "dismantle the UK's world-class safety regime, which is built on decades of experience". Although the UK Government agrees, it is likely to be outvoted in Brussels and our industry will have to obey.

When Mr Cameron insists that he wants Britain to negotiate a wholly new relationship with the EU, "with the single market at its heart", he clearly hasn't begun to understand that this is precisely the position enjoyed by Norway.

Whether we would wish to follow Norway's example in all respects is a matter for debate. But the irony is, as we have observed before, that the only way for Mr Cameron to get the results he outlined last week would be to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. This alone would compel the EU to negotiate with us. But first he would have to announce that Britain wishes to leave the EU, the one course he has already ruled out.

Without that, the rest is just pie in the sky. It will not bring him a single one of those "six impossible things" he wanted us to believe before breakfast on Wednesday morning.

COMMENT THREAD



Richard North 27/01/2013 link

EU politics: decoupling from "little Europe"

15/01/2013  

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On the BBC Radio 4 Today programme yesterday, Mr Cameron confirmed his view that, as a trading nation, we need access to the Single Market. "More than that", he added, "we need a say in the rules of that market".

He then reiterated his view, expressed previously, that it was not in our national interests to be in the Single Market like Norway: "just accept all the rules of the Single Market, pay for the privilege of being part of it and, as it were, be governed by fax rule".

Thus do we see the perpetuation of the canard which the prime minister introduced into the debate last December, an issue that even the House of Commons Library is getting wrong. In its briefing note on "Norway's relationship with the EU", published yesterday, it wholly incorrectly declares that, "Norway has little influence on the EU laws and policies it adopts".

This basic error arises from a failure to understand the way law is made, and a very limited view of the legislative process, where only the end stage is looked at. It is only at that end of the process, the tip of a huge iceberg, that finished law emerges - much, much more has gone on before the law reaches that stage.

At the European Union level, the law includes the Directive, Regulation and Decision. The formal law-making processes are well known and the procedures are open and visible. For instance, a Directive undergoing the co-decision procedure, requiring approval by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, will most often start its formal life as an official "communication" from the Commission, in what is known as the COM (final) series.

This document will comprise a detailed explanatory narrative and the text of a proposed law. It will go before the European Parliament in a series of steps and, separately, through the Council of Ministers. Both bodies will agree their "common position" and, if there are differences between them, there are procedures by which they might be reconciled.

At the end of the procedures, if successful, agreement will be reached by both parties and the approved text will be formally lodged in the Official Journal as law, thus becoming part of the acquis communautaire.

A Directive will then require transposition by the legislatures of the Member States and the EEA members, to be implemented in those territories. Regulations, of course, take direct effect, and apply once they are "done" at Brussels.

It is the nature of these formal processes which give rise to the claim that EEA members are subject to the so-called "fax democracy". They are not formally represented on the primary decision-making bodies, the Council and the Parliament, nor even the formal committees of the Commission, and thus are not able to vote on proposals.

However, while this is the visible end, the greater part of the law-making process is diffuse, obscure and very often invisible. Thus there is not and cannot be any single mechanism for exerting influence, no single protocol and no single route, by which legislation is shaped. The situation is complex, nuanced and highly variable, exactly reflecting real life and the realities of politics – which are complex, nuanced and highly variable.

Commentators who look at only part of the process, and in particular the visible, formal part of the law-making process managed by the European institutions, have thus come away with a completely false picture.

Crucially, it must be appreciated that, in a global trading environment, most of the rules governing trade do not originate with the European Union. Increasingly, they are originated or agreed at higher levels, either at global or regional (supra-EU) level, through international treaty bodies.

One of the most important is the World Trade Organisation (WTO), its mission being the supervision and liberalisation of international trade. It came into being on 1 January 1995 under the Marrakech Agreement, replacing the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which goes back to 1948.

The WTO, though, represents only the tip of a gigantic iceberg. Many of the standards-setting international bodies act under the aegis of the United Nations. Furthermore, trade orientated law is often supplemented by the work of international trade bodies and standards organisations.

The output of these bodies has been termed "quasi-legislation". It is not law, per se, but is the root of law. To be implemented, it must be turned into legislation and bedded into an enforcement and penalty framework, the conversion of which is the job of regional bodies such as the EU and individual national states. Because of the international origin, and the output requires two bodies (at least) in the passage to law, it has been termed "dual-international quasi-legislation", abbreviated to "diqule".

The reach of the diqule is phenomenal. For instance, the most important banking rules, governing the conduct of the international banks, emanate as "diqules" from the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision. 

International food standards are often initiated as diqules  – which are then adopted regionally and locally. These are determined by the Codex Alimentarius. The 27 EU Member States are all members of the Codex Alimentarius Commission. In 2003, the European Community joined, sharing competence with EU countries depending on the level of harmonisation of the respective legislation. Since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty on 1 December 2009, the EU became the nominal body. The EU and its Member States draw up EU position papers on the issues discussed in the Codex Commission, the various Codex Committees and Task Forces.  The Committee on Fish and Fishery Products is hosted by Norway. 

Matters relating to trade in agricultural products, and in particular barriers to trade, are handled by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). At a global level, this organisation takes the lead on agriculture, forestry, fisheries and rural development, feeding in to WTO negotiations.  It also co-ordinates implementation of the 1992 Earth Summit’s Agenda 21. 

Amongst other things, the organisation deals with best farming practice, plant health and farm animal welfare standards, guiding the EU’s Animal Welfare Strategy, 2012-2015. The FAO also hosts the Secretariat of the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), a body which is working on establishing "an international regulatory framework for the protection of plants from pests through which member countries agree to adopt science-based international standards for phytosanitary measures".  

The IPPC is one of the "three sisters" of international standard setting organisations recognised by the WTO Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement: Codex Alimentarius, OIE and the IPPC.  This is a wide-ranging agreement which allows that, "no Member should be prevented from adopting or enforcing measures necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health, subject to the requirement that these measures are not applied in a manner which would constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination between Members where the same conditions prevail or a disguised restriction on international trade".

Contracting parties to the IPPC have a series of obligations that are considered of key importance, among which is to establish and administer a National Plant Protection Organisation (NPPO), to nominate a single IPPC contact point, exchange certain official information, and to develop and take into account phytosanitary standards.  In many respects, the SPS agreement is now the driver of EU policy.

Since disease knows no boundaries, animal health controls come from the Office International des Epizooties (OIE) – created in 1924. Traffic in protected species is regulated in the first instance by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). Human health standards and the controls and monitoring of infectious disease are determined by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Labour laws are devised by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) which was set up in 1919, by the Versailles Treaty . 

At a global level, environmental issues are determined and co-ordinated by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Climate Change issues are agreed through the aegis of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships is dealt with by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), which came into being in the wake of the 1912 Titanic disaster and spawned the first international safety of life at sea - SOLAS - convention, still the most important treaty addressing maritime safety.

Rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the world's oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, the environment, and the management of marine natural resources, are dealt with by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Aviation the province of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), created in 1944, now comprising 191 members. It claims for its mission, safe, secure and sustainable development of civil aviation through the cooperation of its Member States.

Under the aegis of IACO is the Air Navigation Commission, which considers and recommends, for approval by the ICAO Council, Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) and Procedures for Air Navigation Services (PANS) for the safety and efficiency of international civil aviation.

There is even an International Committee for Weights and Measures (abbreviated CIPM from the French Comité international des poids et mesures) consists of eighteen persons from Member States of the Metre Convention (Convention du Mètre) appointed by the General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) whose principal task is to ensure world-wide uniformity in units of measurement by direct action or by submitting proposals to the CGPM.

The General Conference on Weights and Measures (French: Conférence générale des poids et mesures - CGPM) is the senior of the three Inter-governmental organisations established in 1875 under the terms of the Metre Convention (Convention du Mètre) to represent the interests of member states.

Initially it was only concerned with the kilogram and the metre, but in 1921 the scope of the treaty was extended to accommodate all physical measurements and hence all aspects of the metric system. In 1960 the 11th CGPM approved the Système International d'Unités, usually known as "SI".

These global organisations are supplemented by regional bodies, such as the 56-member United Nations Economic Commission Europe (UNECE), which for historical reasons includes the United States.

It is responsible, inter alia, for most of the technical standardisation of transport, including docks, railways and road networks. It also deals with the very detailed technical harmonisation of vehicle construction and safety standards. With UNEP, it administers pollution and climate change issues, and hosts regional agreements.

Another important regional body, often forgotten in the shadow of the EU, is the Council of Europe. Against the EU's 27 members, it has a membership of 47 European countries. Over term, it has agreed 214 treaties including its own founding treaty and, most notably, the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR).

Then there are huge number of single-issue treaty and non-treaty bodies, which set standards or agreements, or influence the global agenda, from which rules emerge and which are then implemented by signatories directly, or via groups such as the European Union, the latter acting as a law processing factory on behalf of its Member States.

Just one, and a rather arcane example of this type of body is the "Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety" (IFCS). This describes itself as "an alliance of all stakeholders concerned with the sound management of chemicals", claiming to be a global platform where "governments, international, regional and national organisations, industry groups, public interest associations, labour organisations, scientific associations and representatives of civil society meet to build partnerships, provide advice and guidance, and make recommendations". The IFCS thus describes itself as "a facilitator, advocates systemising global actions taken in the interest of global chemical safety".

A more formal but equally arcane body is the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). was established by the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, provides a protection system for the intellectual property rights of plant breeders. The Convention was adopted in Paris in 1961 and it was revised in 1972, 1978 and 1991. UPOV's mission is "to provide and promote an effective system of plant variety protection, with the aim of encouraging the development of new varieties of plants, for the benefit of society".

Arcane though this might be, after the accession of the EU to the Convention in 2005, it is driving the EU agenda on the intellectual property rights on plants. Norway, incidentally, became a member on 13 September 1993, leading rather than following the EU.

The rules produced by this plethora of international bodies are formalised long before they reach the EU institutions. When they are adopted by the EU and published as formal proposals by the EU Commission, it is invariably too late to make any changes. Any chance of influencing the rules by then has long gone.

Most of such rules are passed by the Council and Parliament without a debate and without a formal vote. In the rare instances where there is a vote by the Council, it is by QMV, where it is difficult to block a measure. Even then, the rules themselves cannot be changed unilaterally by the EU. Where international agreements are involved, votes in Council can only reject or accept proposals.

Yet these are the very rules which have already been agreed at a higher international level,  negotiated by individual countries, on an intergovernmental basis, many of which can be vetoed at that level. That is where the influence counts.

Thus, it is important to be involved at this stage, to shape the rules before they become formalised, at a stage when they can be shaped, advanced and even rejected. And it is this arena that Norway is fully involved. Not constrained by the "little Europe" of the 27-country European Union, it is able to operate as a fully-fledged global actor.

Thus, the relationship between Norway as an EEA member and the EU is far from one of a supplicant to a greater power. Norway plays a very active part in the international community, and is heavily involved in the framing of international law, much of which is then adopted by the EU.

While Norway often has freedom of action, as long as we are isolated in the EU – shackled to "little Europe" - we have less control than we would like over the formulation of these "diqules". Whether it is technical standardisation of transport requirements from UNECE, common banking rules from the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, international food standards from Codex Alimentarius, the animal health requirements from OIE - or labour laws from the ILO - we usually defer to the "common position" decided by the EU.

Decoupling from the EU and thus the process of political integration, and re-engaging with the international community, would allow us to restore our status and resume our proper role on the international stage, breaking free from "little Europe" and rejoining the world. That would place us alongside Norway which enjoys that freedom already. 

And that is the way to look at leaving the EU. We are breaking free of "little Europe" and rejoining the world.

COMMENT THREAD



Richard North 15/01/2013 link

A "disproportionate" response

26/01/2011  


An almost certain way to ensure that a subject gets nowhere near the MSM is to have a committee of MEPs look at it. That has proved to be the case with the EU's "disproportionate" response to the outbreak of the H1N1 (swine flu) virus in 2009-2010. Despite the press release and the full resources of the EU parliament press team, the only newspaper we can find that has carried news of the investigation is the Sophia Echo.

The issue is now the subject of a resolution adopted by the EU parliament's public health committee, addressing the cost of vaccination programmes and relative risks that were faced. MEPs criticise the EU commission and member states for their "disproportionate" response and their ill-co-ordinated vaccination programmes .

The criticism arises from differences in vaccination schemes in various EU, the excessive expenditure on vaccines, "the potential influence of pharmaceutical companies in response processes," and the conflicts of interest. Billions of euros were spent in total, yet H1N1 had caused 2,900 deaths in Europe by April 2010, compared with 40,000 for seasonal flu in a moderate year.

This is an issue we looked at a number of times, most notably here, but we also looked at the attempts to highlight the way the World Health Organisation and other public health bodies had "gambled away" public confidence by overstating the dangers.

At the time, of course, this was a classic scare, obviously so, and we said as much. Yet, while this has been latterly recognised, not least now by this MEP committee, none of those who succumbed to an expensive and damaging panic seem to be able to recognise the similarities in the dynamics of the global warming scare.

What also deserves comment is the way the public authorities - so quick to spend our money on their "moral panics" as they are sometimes called – are less enthusiastic about examining the results of their folly, and learning lessons from it. To that effect, we should offer one small cheer to the EU parliament, although the motivation here was to have a pop at "big pharma" rather than the thought that they might do something useful.

So it is that this one is going to get away – billions spent, and no real lessons learned. What makes me think that, once the global warming scare collapses, we will be faced with exactly the same thing?

COMMENT THREAD



Richard North 26/01/2011 link

Useless parasites

27/04/2010  

Not uncommonly, the more intelligent comment on recent events in newspapers comes in the form of readers' letters. That certainly proves to be the case today, with a letter from professor David Campbell of Durham Law School.

Under the heading, "Paying for flight ban", he observes that it is "very worrying" that the government is seeking to escape liability for the closure of British airspace by saying that this was the result of Britain's participation in the international system of air-safety regulation.

This system, prof Campbell writes, is but one of a number of international safety systems co-ordinated by UN agencies, in this case the International Civil Aviation Organisation. These agencies continually attempt to regulate beyond their competence without regard for the costs, and the normal result is fiasco.

Campbell adds: "We usually see this in the form of absurd and costly health scares, and we must at least be thankful that this episode did not involve the cruel killing of millions of animals in the way regularly contemplated by the World Health Organisation."

Then we get to the "killer punch" and the professor asks: "As these agencies are effectively unaccountable, if our national government is not accountable, who is?" And that is precisely the point about the recent debacle that should give us most cause for concern.

We saw the mechanism in a recent statement from the Department for Transport when a spokeswoman said: "The decision made by safety regulators to restrict airspace was made in line with long-standing international guidelines and information from aircraft manufacturers that any volcanic ash could pose a danger to aircraft." She added: "The whole of Europe has been in the same position, acting according to the same aviation safety rules.”

And therein lies the problem. With so many different agencies involved, responsibility is diffuse and accountability there is none.

Interestingly, similar sentiments were expressed by G K Snape of Blackburn, Lancashire, in a letter published on Thursday 22 April.

Speaking as a geologist, former pilot and meteorologist, he wrote, "I would say the Met Office is not to blame for the airspace debacle. It is the Civil Aviation Authority and the National Air Traffic Service." Snape continues:
However, the inevitability of the recent large-scale commercial disruption and human misery was secured by the system of responsibility established by successive governments. The responsibility lies directly with the Government.

Flying through volcanic ash has proved to be extremely dangerous. This did not, though, prevent someone from using knowledge, common sense and a sense of responsibility to determine what was safe and what was not.

The CAA and NATS are trusted by government to keep all air problems at sufficient distance to absolve it of blame in the event of any misfortune. Since the government has no one among its members resembling a scientist and no one capable of making meaningful decisions, circumstances forced the recent misery upon us, not the ash cloud or the Met office.
The two letters provide an admirable counterpoint, and the intelligent reader can easily see the parallels between this episode and so many other events which affect our daily lives. The bottom line is the progressive dilution of responsibility and accountability, issues which are not being addressed during this general election campaign.

Politicians need to get to grips with the fact that outsourcing their responsibilities – whether to quangos, national or international agencies, or supranational governments – renders them impotent and makes their posturing vacuous and irrelevant. They become merely useless parasites (pictured), and they should hardly be surprised when they are treated with the contempt they deserve.

ICELAND'S REVENGE THREAD



Richard North 27/04/2010 link

Huge parallels

29/03/2010  

How ironic it is that The Guardian, of all newspapers, should be picking up on the "flu pandemic" scare which afflicted the nation last year.

We touched on this in late January but now this newspaper is reporting the findings of a draft report to the Council of Europe. It asserts that the World Health Organisation and other public health bodies have "gambled away" public confidence by overstating the dangers.

Says Labour MP Paul Flynn, vice chair of the council's health committee, the loss of credibility could endanger lives.

As to the report, it declares that, "This decline in confidence could be risky in the future. When the next pandemic arises many persons may not give full credibility to recommendations put forward by WHO and other bodies. They may refuse to be vaccinated and may put their own health and lives at risk."

As we now know, the discrepancy between the estimate of the numbers of people who would die from flu and the reality was dramatic. In the United Kingdom, the Department of Health initially announced that around 65,000 deaths were to be expected.

By the start of 2010, this estimate was downgraded to only 1,000 fatalities. By January 2010, fewer than 5,000 persons had been registered as having caught the disease and about 360 deaths had been noted.

It cannot be stated often enough, or with sufficient emphasis, that we have been there before. This is exactly a parallel with the salmonella and BSE scares – the latter with the 500,000 deaths a year forecast, with senior medical officers and "scientists" solemnly pronouncing that we were all in mortal peril.

And, of course, the media lapped it up, giving short-shrift to the "sceptics" like myself, who said it wasn't happening, wasn't going to happen and that the "experts" were talking out of their backsides.

Here we are again with global warming – the same "consensus", the same certainty from a gang of so-called experts, the strident calls from the politicians and the media, all piling in to pronounce that we are all in mortal peril. But, with the lack of joined-up thinking that so profoundly affects papers like The Guardian, they cannot see the connections.

But all these experts can't be wrong, the experts bleat. Yet, history and recent experience tells us that experts are quite frequently wrong. When a madness such as the salmonella scare, BSE, swine flu and the rest, take hold, most likely the prevailing orthodoxy will always be wrong.

So it is with global warming – but this time the scaremongers have picked an unfalsifiable theory, and falsified the evidence, so that their dishonesty is concealed. Despite that, the dynamics are the same – there are huge parallels, and only the retarded and the self-interested can fail to see them.

COMMENT THREAD - CLIMATE CHANGE



Richard North 29/03/2010 link

Déjà vu all over again

27/01/2010  

More than half of the experts who advised the World Health Organisation (WHO) to declare swine flu a "pandemic" are linked to drug-makers that have reaped huge profits from untested vaccines and flu drugs.

This is from the Institute of Science in Society which tells us that eleven of the 20 members of the WHO Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) have profited from work done for the pharmaceutical industry or are linked to it through their universities. Many have declared interests in GlaxoSmithKline, the vaccine maker that stands to benefit the most from the pandemic.

At the height of the pandemic scare, UK's Chief Medical Officer warned of up to 65,000 deaths. The death toll now stands at 251; and the UK Government is now trying to offload up to £1 billion worth of unwanted swine flu vaccines.

Among the three UK experts with industrial links is Prof Sir Roy Anderson – of Foot and Mouth fame - rector of Imperial College, London, also non-executive director of GlaxoSmithKline. He received £87,000 for six board meetings in 2008 and £29,000-worth of shares. Since the swine flu outbreak the shares have risen in value by more than 10 percent.

Earlier, we are told, a Danish newspaper revealed, through the Danish Freedom of Information Act, that Prof Juhani Eskola of SAGE and director of the Finnish research vaccine programme THL received nearly €6.3 million in 2009 for his research centre from GlaxoSmithKline, which was not declared on the WHO website. Seven other WHO experts have ties to the pharmaceutical industry, most of them not declared on the WHO website.

One member of SAGE, Dr. Albert Osterhaus at Erasmus University Rotterdam in The Netherlands, heads the European Scientists Fighting Influenza, and is financed by Baxter, Crucell, Novartis, Hoffmann-La Roche, MedImmune, Nobilon, Sanofi Pasteur, MSD, Glaxo SmithKline and Solvay. He was under investigation for gross conflict of interest, which dates back to the earlier bird flu scare.

And there we have another classic example of the nexus between "science", government and international organisations – especially the UN. Anyone who thinks the climate change industry is any different is in the land of the fairies. With global warming, as with any other scare, follow the money.

CLIMATE CHANGE – NEW THREAD



Richard North 27/01/2010 link

The Irish nemesis

02/10/2009  

There is a very large measure of comfort in prospect of a "yes" vote in the Irish referendum. For, if as widely predicted - although by no means in the bag - the Europhiles prevail and the vote clears the way for the full ratification of the constitutional Lisbon treaty, today, 2 October, will go down in history as the day the EU started to unravel.

To understand why this might be the case, one has to delve into the deeper recesses of the "project", way down into the engine room. There, one will discover, as I did an obscure animal, known as the "dual international quasi-legislation/comitology mechanism". In this creature, which is far more common than most would even begin to imagine, lies the reason why the EU has been successful.

And, if the EU had stuck to their "diqules", as they have come to be known, it would have lasted forever. But hubris has intervened in the form of the constitutional Lisbon treaty, and that will be its downfall, its nemesis. Let me explain - for the secret of the current success of the EU lies in six reasons.

Firstly, at the heart of modern government (in fact central to all levels of government, local to international) is a terrible secret. Government is boring. In fact, it is more than boring. It is mind-numbingly, crashingly tedious - the sort of tedium that, if it was instituted as a form of torture would even be banned by the Peoples' Republic of China as inhumane.

Secondly, most government is invisible. What you see on the television and read in the newspapers is only the tiniest fraction of what actually goes on. We get to know about less than one percent of one percent, and the politicians even less. And so boring is it that we don't even want to know.

Thirdly, most politicians have no aptitude for government and few even understand how it works. They are, therefore, in the main, entirely content to let their officials run the nuts and bolts, while they act as front men for the system, going on the jollies and working the media.

Fourth, the European Union has become part of a nexus of legislative bodies, linking international agencies of the United Nations with regional, national and local bodies, to form one continuous, seam-free administrative machine. So embedded is it in the administrative fabric of this and other nations, that the national systems could not function with it.

Fifth, this situation, far from being unwelcome, is highly convenient to the ruling and administrative classes. It saves them no end of work and relieves them of the obligation of having to pay lip-service to democratic procedures.

Sixth, the system acts as a useful lightning conductor, diverting dissent into the labyrinthine maw of international institutions, where activists can be contained, absorbed and then neutralised (or bought off), leaving national actors untroubled… you can always blame the EU.

Over and above that, the system is now so complex that no one (not even the players) really understand it, so no one will be brave enough to touch it in case they break something they don't know how to fix. And, since it defeats even the players' attempts, the critics do not have a chance. The likes of Eurosceptics can be left to blather uselessly round the edges, their criticism so unfocussed and wide of the mark that it has little effect.

Here, one can take a core objection of the sceptics – that sixty, seventy, or is it eighty percent of our laws are now "made in Brussels". Much of this, of course, is dry technical stuff, like the dimensions of rear view mirrors on busses, the composition of cheeses from various regions, or the level of permitted toxic emissions from crematoria.

Now, while this sort of law may come from "Brussels", it would be more accurate to say that it has a Brussels label. But the bulk are no more EU than they are national laws.

Behind that screen, there are hundreds – possibly thousands - of what are known as "quasi-legislative bodies", working on a global and regional scale. These act under the aegis of obscure organisations such as the OIE, which deals with animal health issues, CODEX alimentarius, created in 1963 by FAO and WHO to develop food standards, guidelines and related texts such as codes of practice, the IPCC which, of course, deals with climate change matters, and the World Health Organisation, which deals with public health and infectious diseases.

Another of these fascinating organisations is UNECE, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe – with not 27 countries but 56, including Turkey and Kazakhstan and also, for historical reasons, the United States.

One of its particular functions is to deal with transport, acting via a skein of agreements and conventions, such as the "Agreement Concerning the Adoption of Uniform Conditions of Approval and Reciprocal Recognition of Approval for Motor Vehicle Equipment and Parts, done at Geneva on 20 March 1958", copy here.

It is actually through this Agreement that international standards are worked out for things like the size of rear-view mirrors for busses, which are then handed down to the EU. It then implements them as law in the member states.

The standards themselves are not law, but become law in the EU once implemented, which is done through the comitology system, the twin-track process – through UNECE and the EU – which has acquired that rather cumbersome title of "dual international quasi-legislation/comitology mechanism".

Interestingly, the EU does not get a look in when it comes to formulating these standards, but countries like Norway do. The EU is then used to write the specific legislation for Norway as a member of the EEA. So much for "fax-machine" law. The commission is simply acting as a service provider, making laws for states which have already agreed at a higher international level to implement them.

That digression aside, so useful to the member states are the technical/legislative services provided by the EU – and so necessary are they to the functioning of modern economies – that it is unthinkable that any member state could or would even wish to dispense with them.

Therein lies the genius of the EU. It has harnessed these essential administrative functions to its own ambitions, creating structures and institutions to deal with them in the hope, one day, they will be transformed into something more than a technical organisation. Then, they hope, the EU will be able to assume wider responsibilities in the "high" political areas which include foreign policy and defence. That is what the constitutional Lisbon treaty is all about.

As we observe, so far the Union has been successful. It is still in the game, its ambitions are intact and it is exercising power. But, in the new treaty, it has over-reached itself. It is moving from its "invisible" base to take on board the "high politics" spectrum. But with the additional powers it acquires, it becomes much more intrusive and much more visible. Therein lies its vulnerabilty.

For as long as the "elephant in the room" could be ignored, for as long as it confined itself to the engine room, the political classes have been content to let it continue. They have been able to carry on with their preening and posturing, keeping up the pretence that they were still in change. But, as it becomes ever-more evident who is really in charge, even our most enthusiastic myopics will change their tunes.

With "Lisbon" in the bag, the EU will flex its muscles even more and there will come a point where the number of people it upsets will outnumber those who appreciate its value. The balance of utility will change and the EU will go. Strangely, therefore, getting a "no" vote in Ireland would be the best thing that could have happened to the EU.

But the "colleagues" could never leave well enough alone. If they get their "yes", it will not be the end, or even the beginning of the end. But, as a certain person once said, it will be the end of the beginning. Soon enough, we will see that tipping point in the balance of utility, and from there it will be downhill all the way. For that, if they vote "yes", we will have the Irish to thank.

COMMENT THREAD



Richard North 02/10/2009 link

Sanitation begins at home

08/01/2008  

It emerged from nowhere in the British media in May and then disappeared just as quickly. But the problem did not go away even if it has now re-emerged as a newsworthy item.

We write, of course, of the refuse crisis in Naples which has escalated to the point where local residents are rioting, the police have been called in and have fired tear gas to disperse the crowds and the army has been mobilised to clear the rotting garbage heaps.

This is Italy in 2008, a state whose ministers form part of our government, help define the bulk of our laws and sit in judgement on us when we fail to comply with our masters’ diktats. Yet this is also a state which did not come into being until 1861, years after our first major Public Health Act of 1848, which set in train the legislation for waste disposal which survives to this very day.

Thus, while we kow-tow to the European Union, of which Italy is part, we are enjoined with a state which cannot even keep the streets of one of its major cities clear of refuse, a problem which, by all accounts, has been festering for some 11 years since a tip in the suburb of Pianura was closed and not replaced.

So far, it seems, 110,000 tons of rotting garbage has accumulated in the streets of Naples, with despairing residents torching some of the bigger piles. As a result, the civic authorities have decided to re-open the tip at Pianura. This has triggered the current riots, as residents there sought to prevent their suburb being disrupted by the stinking mass which has been allowed to accumulate.

Such is the state of Italian governance and the competence of the civic authorities that prime minister Romano Prodi – taking time out from not deporting Roma immigrants – has had to assume control. He is expected to announce emergency measures, including an expanded role for the army in clean-up operations.

This being Italy, there is inevitably, a criminal element involved, with the Camorra - the Naples version of Sicily's Mafia - is heavily embedded in the waste business, which means – as Reuters observes, "Naples has failed to get to grips with the problem that was first recognised as an emergency 14 years ago."

Illegal waste dumping and burning is blamed for poisoning the soil, water and air of large zones around the base of Mount Vesuvius. And an incinerator which was supposed to open at the end of 2007 is not ready.

Over here, where we so often complain of bad government – and rightly so – it is worth recalling that it was the so-called "winter of discontent" of 1978-9, with rubbish accumulating in the streets after binmen had gone on strike, that was instrumental in bringing down the Callaghan government. Yet, in Italy, despite years of dereliction in its most fundamental duties, governments come and go, untouched by the piles of garbage they leave behind.

Meanwhile, our supreme government in Brussels is already on the case, having issued in June "a first written warning and requesting information about the measures being taken to protect human health and the environment in the region".

It was then that the commission was citing its own Waste Framework Directive, which - it says - requires member states to take the necessary measures to prevent waste from being abandoned, dumped or disposed of in an uncontrolled way. It took the view that Italy had failed to fulfil its obligations under the directive by not putting in place an appropriate network of disposal facilities ensuring a high level of protection for the environment and public health in the Campania region.

Concerned by a then recent study coordinated by the World Health Organisation which showed increased mortality rates among people living near illegal waste dumps in the provinces of Naples and Caserta, environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas - reflecting "the urgency and gravity of the situation" - gave Italy one month to respond to its warning letter instead of the usual two-month deadline.

Seven months down the line, only now is Dimas suggesting that "Italy is languishing in the last chance saloon". Italian commission vice president Franco Frattini – taking time out from not deporting Roma immigrants – went on national television last night to state that a definitive decision on legal action would be taken by the end of January.

The fact that the EU is at least taking some (tardy) action – compared with 14 years of Italian government inaction – accounts for some of the popularity of the EU within Italy. No matter how bad the EU actually is, the Italian government is incomparably worse, in which context the EU – as so often – is seen as the saviour.

But why we, with our long tradition of effective and stable government – which had binmen out on the streets collecting rubbish before Italy was even a nation – should be tied up with this shower is another question altogether. Sanitation – like government – should begin (and end) at home.

COMMENT THREAD



Richard North 08/01/2008 link

The sucess of the EU

24/03/2007  


Last year, I introduced the world to a major new discovery, the "dual international quasi-legislation/ comitology mechanism".

Despite my considerable bravery in venturing so far up the hitherto unexplored reaches of bureaucracy, to bring back news of this species, my discovery was not exactly lauded and I have yet to be awarded life membership of the Royal Society. Yet, in this creature, which is far more common than most would even begin to imagine, lies the real reason for the success of the European Union – and yes, I do mean success.

Furthermore, it is the reason why the EU will continue to be successful, right up until the day when, for reasons entirely unrelated to is main activities – and anything the Eurosceptic community might do - it will collapse.

Now, for the one reader left, that hasn't walked away in disgust, let me explain six things.

Firstly, at the heart of modern government (in fact central to all levels of government, local to international) is a terrible secret. Government is boring. In fact, it is more than boring. It is mind-numbingly, crashingly tedious - the sort of tedium that, if it was instituted as a form of torture would even be banned by the Peoples' Republic of China as inhumane.

Secondly, most government is invisible. What you see on the television and read in the newspapers is only the tiniest fraction of what actually goes on. We get to know about less than one percent of one percent, and the politicians even less. And so boring is it that we don't even want to know.

Thirdly, most politicians have no aptitude for government and few even understand how it works. They are, therefore, in the main, entirely content to let their officials run the nuts and bolts, while they act as front men for the system, going on the jollies and working the media.

Fourth, the European Union has become part of a nexus of legislative bodies, linking international agencies of the United Nations with regional, national and local bodies, to form one continuous, seam-free administrative machine. So embedded is it in the administrative fabric of this and other nations, that the national systems could not function with it.

Fifth, this situation, far from being unwelcome, is highly convenient to the ruling and administrative classes. It saves them no end of work and relieves them of the obligation of having to pay lip-service to democratic procedures.

Sixth, the system acts as a useful lightning conductor, diverting dissent into the labyrinthine maw of international institutions, where activists can be contained, absorbed and then neutralised (or bought off), leaving national actors untroubled… you can always blame the EU.;

Over and above that, the system is now so complex that no one (not even the players) really understand it, so no one will be brave enough to touch it in case they break something they don't know how to fix. And, since it defeats even the players' attempts, the critics do not have a chance. The likes of Eurosceptics can be left to blather uselessly round the edges, their criticism so unfocussed and wide of the mark that it has little effect.

Here, one can take a core objection of the sceptics – that sixty, seventy, or is it eighty percent of our laws are now "made in Brussels". Much of this, of course, is dry technical stuff, like the dimensions of rear view mirrors on busses, the composition of cheeses from various regions, or the level of permitted toxic emissions from crematoria.

Now, while this sort of law may come from "Brussels", it would be more accurate to say that it has a Brussels label. But the bulk are no more EU than they are national laws.

Behind that screen, there are hundreds – possibly thousands - of what are known as "quasi-legislative bodies", working on a global and regional scale. These act under the aegis of organisation such as the OIE, which deals with animal health issues, CODEX alimentarius, created in 1963 by FAO and WHO to develop food standards, guidelines and related texts such as codes of practice, the IPCC which, of course, deals with climate change matters, and the World Health Organisation, which deals with public health and infectious diseases. 

Another of these fascinating organisations is UNECE, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe – with not 27 countries but 56, including Turkey and Kazakhstan and also, for historical reasons, the United States.

One of its particular functions is to deal with transport, acting via a skein of agreements and conventions, such as the "Agreement Concerning the Adoption of Uniform Conditions of Approval and Reciprocal Recognition of Approval for Motor Vehicle Equipment and Parts, done at Geneva on 20 March 1958", copy here.

It is actually through this Agreement that international standards are worked out for things like the size of rear-view mirrors for busses, which are then handed down to the EU, which implements them as law in the Member States. 

The standards themselves are not law, but become law in the EU once implemented, which is done through the comitology system, the twin-track process – through UNECE and the EU – which has acquired the rather cumbersome title of "dual international quasi-legislation/comitology mechanism".

Interestingly, the EU does not get a look in when it comes to formulating these standards, but countries like Norway do. The EU is then used to write the specific legislation for Norway as a member of the EEA. So much for "fax-machine" law. The commission is simply acting as a service provider, making laws for states which have already agreed at a higher international level to implement them.

That digression aside, so useful to the member states are the technical/legislative services provided by the EU – and so necessary are they to the functioning of modern economies – that it is unthinkable that any member state could or would even wish to dispense with them.

Therein lies the genius of the European Union. It has harnessed these essential administrative functions to its own ambitions, creating structures and institutions to deal with them in the hope, one day, they will be transformed into something more than a technical organisation. Then, they hope, the EU will be able to assume wider responsibilities in the "high" political areas which include foreign policy and defence.

As we observe, so far the Union has been successful. It is still in the game, its ambitions are intact and it is exercising power. How far it goes will depend on whether it over-reaches itself – or the Member States allow it to do so. Its potential nemesis lies in precisely its ambitions to take on board the "high" politics spectrum. The more it achieves, the more powers it acquires, the more visible it will be and the more vulnerable it becomes. 

If it continues on this path, there will come a point where the number of people it upsets will outnumber those who appreciate its value. The balance of utility will have changed and the EU will go. Strangely, therefore, losing out on the Constitution was the best thing that could have happened to the EU. But the "colleagues" can never leave well enough alone – they will keep trying and, in the fullness of time, they will reach that critical tipping point in the balance of utility.

That is why the EU is not going to last another fifty years.



Richard North 24/03/2007 link

Compare and contrast

09/07/2006  

The Business newspaper tells us that G8 leaders have become embroiled in a dispute over competing plans for funding cheap drugs to the Third World. It seems that disagreements over how the programme is to be financed have "dashed hopes" that agreement would be reached at their summit next weekend in St Petersburg.

This was all started by Chirac, with a plan to tax airline tickets in order to provide a fund to buy pharmaceuticals for African States, with special reference to AIDS. France has already imposed a €1 charge on economy class seats and €10 on business class flights for its fund to fight Aids in Africa, and said it has 13 countries willing to sign up.

Now the Italians have weighed in with a rival scheme, which would guarantee subsidies of between $800m and $6bn to pharmaceutical companies for developing cheap vaccines, particularly for pneumonia and meningitis, which kill millions in the Third World. Few African countries can afford to buy these kinds of vaccines.

What is sad about this is that anyone can even think of giving house room to these megalomaniac schemes, especially anything devised by Chirac. No only is the man a crook – a liar and a thief who would have been locked up long ago but for the fact of his presidential immunity – "top down" schemes like his rarely work in Africa. By the time local crooks have siphoned off their cuts, and different countries have imposed their own taxes, there is often little benefit to ordinary Africans.

Now compare and contrast with the scheme highlighted in the Booker column this week.

A small charity called Intercare, based in Leicester, has for 30 years been putting large quantities of drugs surplus to requirements to use in Africa. Thanks to a nationwide network of volunteers, it collects medicines from GPs, which are rigorously inspected by a team of retired NHS professionals - doctors, nurses and pharmacists - and then supplied to 94 clinics in seven African countries.

This is the sort of initiative that does work. It cuts out the middle-men, by-passes the corruption because no money, no government agencies and no NGOs are involved, and ensures that real aid reaches the people who most desperately need it.

That was the situation, but it was to reckon without the mindless intervention of the bureaucrats of our very own Environment Agency. According to their bizarre interpretation of EU waste rules, they have decided that these life-saving medicines are "waste" and must be buried in landfill rather than put to use in Africa.

The drugs are only sent out, to order, when they are in date and in perfect condition, and the operation is approved by the World Health Organisation. It provides 2.5 million Africans in remote rural areas with access to treatment they could not otherwise afford.

However, not only are these cretins in the Environment Agency seeking to put a stop to this work, they are considering prosecuting Intercare for breach of EU waste rules, and the directors have been summoned to an interview under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.

This very much seems to be the way of things at the moment: seek out those imaginative schemes that actually work – and stop them. Meanwhile, hand the problem over to megalomaniac crooks like Chirac, to enable him to grandstand on the world stage with a scheme that is not only doomed to failure, but will likely fuel the very sort of corruption that has kept Africa on its knees.

The worst of it is that the Booker story is tucked in his ghetto in the Sunday Telegraph, where it will likely be ignored by the great and the good, while the Chiracs of this world grab the limelight with their crooked schemes.

COMMENT THREAD



Richard North 09/07/2006 link
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