Brexit: another fine mess

16/07/2020  


Some companies, it seems, are taking the threat of a no-deal TransEnd seriously – according to the Financial Times. Several large listed companies are starting to increase their stocks of supplies, having exhausted stores accumulated ahead of the last time a no-deal scenario was expected.

They are also, apparently, working on contingency plans to ensure that they can manage the worst-case scenarios of high tariffs and hard borders, despite the extra costs they have incurred adapting to the coronavirus pandemic.

This is just as well, as it would appear that yesterday's round of EU-UK talks have not – as expected – broken any new ground. "Team Johnson" is pushing the EU to agree the outline of a deal by the end of July, while Brussels seems not to have changed its stance on demanding concessions on level playing field issues such as state aid.

Three companies are cited by the FT. One is Electrocomponents, the FTSE 250-listed electronics distributor. It says it is building up its inventory in case of a no-deal TransEnd, that will see it hold millions of pounds of extra stock.

"We are building up the Brexit buffer again, which last time was about £30m of fast moving inventory", says chief executive Lindsley Ruth. "Regardless of the outcome of trade negotiations, we are well prepared for the future and have a plan for all scenarios".

Carmaker Bentley – which, typically of the motor industry, relies on just-in-time delivery of supplies from Europe - is to start preparations in the event of border disruption. It has increased warehouse space to carry up to ten days of supplies of parts, up from two days.

Then, Paul Forman, chief executive of Essentra, says his FTSE 250 supplier of plastic and fibre products would "hope for the best and prepare for the worst". His company is beginning to stockpile again.

He tells the FT: "We have had a pretty robust dress rehearsal with Covid. Our plans are in place and have been reviewed by a Big Four accounting firm". He adds: "The B-word started moving back up the board agenda again about six weeks ago. In the second half we will build the inventory up by only £3-4 million".

On the other hand, Geoff Mackey, corporate affairs director at BASF, the German chemicals group, says his company is not actively stockpiling. But it is looking at the government's border operating model (such that it is) for the impact on operations, alongside the costs of switching to a new UK regulatory regime.

In a no-deal scenario, the chemicals industry expects to face average tariffs of about 6 percent. Mackey estimates this could add around £40m to the UK company's costs.

However, illustrating the relationship between the costs of tariffs and non-tariff barriers, he is able to identify the additional costs of re-registered products with a new UK regulatory regime that will come into force at the end of the transition period. This could cost another £60-70 million "with no added value", Mackey says.

Well-established, wealthy international companies such as BASF are better able to deal with such major changes than smaller companies, which lack both the resources and corporate skills to prepare for post-transition life. The Covid-19 pandemic hasn't helped, pushing many to the brink of collapse.

A typical example might be the engineering company Northern Industrial. Its managing director, David Lenehan, says he hasn't given "Brexit" a second thought since the Corona pandemic. He has been fully focused on trying to get through the current crisis. He thinks Brexit "will be a walk in the park compared to coronavirus", but there again, he could be thinking of Jurassic Park.

That brings us to John Glen, an economist at the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply. He warns that the government has problems getting businesses to prepare for 1 January.

There have already been three false starts, he says. "Getting business engaged, and in particular small and medium sized firms, when they are still trying to survive coronavirus will be a major challenge". Finding the right sites for the new customs areas and designing the technology would also be a challenge in five months, he adds. "All of these pieces need to be in place to keep the trucks rolling".

However, life cannot have been made easier by the government's latest plans to give control of around 70 regulatory areas currently dictated by Brussels to devolved UK governments.

Sectors covered include environmental law, renewable energy policy, flood risk management, land use, water quality laws and forestry policy. Matters such as animal welfare, blood safety, the control of hazardous substances, and public procurement are also covered.

These will be devolved to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland governments as part of the government's cunning plan.

Where divergences occur, the government will rely on the principle of mutual recognition of standards, to ensure frictionless functioning of the UK's internal market. Products from any of the four UK areas will be acceptable throughout the whole UK, even if they are made to lower standards in one or more areas.

Reflecting the chaos over facemask policy, where the "advice" from No.10 seems to be all over the place, creating more confusion than clarity, one wonders whether the government has really understood the implications of this move.

In trading terms (certainly within the EU's Single Market), the principle of mutual recognition applies only in the absence of harmonised standards. Thus, if there is a standard applicable to any particular product (or component), mutual recognition doesn't apply.

Where UK companies are planning to export goods to the EU, their products must conform with Union standards, where they exist. But where the products (or their components) are potentially sourced from four zones each with their own individual regulatory codes, demonstrating conformity could get quite tricky.

This is especially the case when it comes to such issues as environmental law, where the "level playing field" requirements could exclude products even where there is nominal conformity with posted product standards.

That problem intensifies over time as legislation is a dynamic field. Future conformity cannot be assured if Brussels changes its laws and any one of the four UK regulatory areas fails to keep up.

At the very least, with no border controls between the areas (with the possible exception of Northern Ireland), Brussels might be expected to intensify its own border checks when importing goods of UK origin, as well as requiring "rules of origin" declarations to identify goods sourced in the devolved areas.

If one didn't know better, it is possible to think that HM government is going out of its way to make things more complicated for businesses, hampering their ability to trade with the EU, above and beyond the basic constraints which will inevitably apply.

Needless to say, Whitehall claims it is doing the right thing by the devolved administrations, arguing that the plan is a "power surge" for them. Even without the EU implications, though, those administrations remain suspicious. Scottish officials fear that Johnson will use this as a back door, bringing in substandard goods from the US, which Scotland and other devolved areas will be obliged to accept.

Michael Russell, the Scottish government's constitution secretary, says that London’s stress on powers that the devolved administrations would gain is a "deceitful smokescreen". Speaking for his government, he adds: "We will not be co-operating in any way with that action and will challenge it in every possible way including in the courts".

Even if the government's intentions were pure, therefore, it seems it will come unstuck on the horns of complexity and suspicion. Any which way, this is another fine mess we have to deal with.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 16/07/2020 link

Brexit: reaping the whirlwind

28/06/2020  


I don't know where I got it from, but I had nurtured the impression that the Daily Express was a halfway decent paper before Richard Desmond got his hands on it. Even though the Guardian suggests he "found ways to lower even a denuded brand", it is hardly in a position to talk.

Anyhow, still working on the new edition of The Great Deception - which is definitely going to occupy me to the end of the year, I've reached the chapter on the negotiations of the Single European Act – the treaty which launched the process of "completing" the Single Market.

In the process – as one does – I happened upon a copy of the Daily Express, published on 2 December 1985, the very day Margaret Thatcher flew to Luxembourg to take part in the final summit which agreed the treaty text.

And there, on page 6 under "World News" is a report headed "Maggie backed in battle to beat Europe terrorist threat" (pictured). Written by Express reporter John Fraser in Luxembourg, its sub-heading tells us: "Border controls to stay", while the text is a classic of its kind.

"Mrs Thatcher", we are told, "won backing last night against Common Market plans which could have flooded Britain with terrorists and drug smugglers". Fraser adds, "The Prime Minister is flying to Luxembourg today for a crucial summit after Euro Ministers were persuaded to keep tough border controls".

These proposals, we learn, "would have forced Britain to open its doors to visitors and goods from EEC countries". What is more, the idea seems to have been "dreamed up by Brussels bureaucrats and backed by many Continental Euro MPs, was to create a barrier-free Europe without travel restrictions".

However, we are assured that doughty "British officials evidently took a hand. They feared it would have led to an invasion of terrorists, drugs, illegal immigrants and rabies into this country".

Needless to say, their concerns "met will little sympathy from other EEC countries and the dastardly French – it had to be the French – "accused Britain of inventing objections to cover up plans to impose trade barriers against European imports".

At the least minute, it seems – according to the Fraser narrative – "sense" prevailed. EEC Foreign Ministers spent the weekend trying to reconcile differences on this and reached agreement. Thus, we were told, Mrs Thatcher's main objective at the summit was, Fraser went on to say, "to preserve Britain's veto over EEC reforms".

Obviously, this would save us from a fate worse than death, as "some militant Euro-MPs" wanted the European Parliament "to have the final say". But that, Fraser opined, "would leave Britain powerless to block the fanatics' more hare-brained schemes".

Seen from this distance, the report has distinctly comedic elements, right down to the formulaic device that the proposals (there is no mention of a treaty) must have been "dreamed up by Brussels bureaucrats", with the idea that opening borders would have led to an "invasion of terrorists, drugs, illegal immigrants and rabies into this country".

Apart from the tone, which the Guardian was later to describe as "malignant and crude", but only after Desmond got his hands on it, what offends is the sheer inaccuracy of the report – at so many levels it is difficult to know where to start.

The Single Market, of course, was very much wanted by Thatcher, although she disputed the need for a new treaty. She thought existing procedures would suffice. But, after that famous "ambush" in Milan earlier in June, when she was bounced into agreeing to an intergovernmental conference, she had enthusiastically pursued an agreement.

The point of contention with Thatcher was not the prospect of "opening borders" but the attempts by Commission President-elect Jacques Delors, to insert in the treaty preamble a reference to Economic and Monetary Union.

At the summit in Luxembourg, therefore, Thatcher was actively considering using her veto. But, on the basis of a Foreign Office assurance that the statement had no legal significance, she agreed the treaty. Even then, she had been misled, as Delors had also inserted two technical articles in the treaty text, authorising work on "convergence of economic and monetary policies", the precursor to EMU.

As Howe was later to report to Cabinet, on 5 December (CAB 128/81): "The conclusions were very satisfactory". The United Kingdom, the Foreign Secretary assured his colleagues, "had secured all its main objectives", including changes "which were desirable for the completion of the Community's internal market".

Without explaining the implications, however, Howe did concede that there would be "an amendment of the Treaty articles to provide majority voting on goods and services". But he was being less than candid.

In fact, no less than twelve policy areas had been delivered into the maw of QMV, not only the ‘internal market’ measures, but a new competence on "health and safety", decisions relating to regional development and an extension of Community competence to air and sea transport.

As later explained by the Commission, QMV had become the "new norm", also covering the common customs tariff, rules on the free movement of capital, research and development and the all-important portfolio.

If one takes the broader definition of a lie to include "act, default or sufferance", Howe was not only lying to the nation, he was lying to his own Cabinet colleagues. The Commission had masterminded a huge power grab, and had laid the foundations for the second part of the treaty, which was to come at Maastricht seven years later.

Delors had in his treaty an instrument which took the Community down the road to "a European Union", as foreseen in the Paris Summit of 1972, the objectives of which were very much alive.

Turning back to the Express, the Guardian latter was to describe it as "a fundamentalist voice of anti-EU hysteria", becoming "the house journal of Nigel Farage and Ukip". But back in 1985, Ukip hadn't been invented, Nigel Farage had only recently celebrated his 21st birthday, Euroscepticism, as an organised movement, was in the doldrums – and Desmond was 15 years away from buying the paper.

Oddly, at the time, the significance of this treaty was barely recognised. Amongst the few journalists interested, there was some concern about EMU, but Thatcher dismissed the new text as 'meaningless', otherwise, she told them, she would not have signed it. Delors, interestingly, had different ideas: "It's like the story of Tom Thumb lost in the forest, who left white stones so he could be found", he said. "I put in white stones so we could find monetary union again".

BBC television news mistook the new treaty as "a few modest reforms of the Treaty of Rome", the Guardian considered Britain had been the victor and The Economist called the treaty a "smiling mouse": well-intentioned but too diminutive to make much difference.

But the media weren't the only ones to have lost the plot. On her return from Luxembourg, Thatcher was challenged in the Commons by Tony Benn about the "long-term objective of political union within a fully federal united states of Europe". She replied:
I am constantly saying that I wish they would talk less about European and political union. The terms are not understood in this country. In so far as they are understood over there, they mean a good deal less than some people over here think they mean.
If Thatcher, unlike Benn, had not yet got the message, neither had the rest of Parliament. When the treaty came to be ratified, the necessary Bill amending the European Communities Act 1972 was pushed through an often thinly attended Commons in just six days.

The main debate was started on a Thursday, knowing that MPs would want to get away for the weekend. After only three sessions of the committee stage, the government abruptly curtailed further discussion with a "guillotine". On the final reading, so few MPs turned up that the Bill passed by a mere 149 votes to 43.

By whatever measure you care to apply the British public were let down by their media, their political leaders and Parliament. But in 1985, they sowed the wind. Brexit was the whirlwind.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 28/06/2020 link

Coronavirus: the politics of delusion

01/05/2020  


At first, they followed the flu strategy to the letter, a process of managed retreat. No attempt was to be made to control the disease; simply NHS capacity was to be ramped up to treat the expected surge of sufferers.

They and healthcare staff were to be dosed with antivirals to minimise the effects of the illness and the whole system would hunker down until a vaccine became available – about four to six months into the epidemic.

As for the rest of the country, everybody was expected to carry on as normal, adopting a "business as usual" mode. Limited adjustments would be made to deal with increased absenteeism, while the public at large would be encouraged to improve "respiratory hygiene" and increase hand washing.

That, in a nutshell, was the 'flu plan', and the fact that the government was following it explains exactly why the Cheltenham Festival was allowed to go ahead, plus many other public gatherings.

This wasn't a "herd immunity" policy, even if  it looked like it. Nevertheless, exposure of some of the population to the infective agent would help, albeit marginally. It would reduce the number needing to be vaccinated (assuming their immune status existed and could be verified), allowing the required level to be reached that much sooner.

But then it suddenly dawned on the geniuses in No.10 and the Department of Health that SARS-Cov-2 wasn't flu. Not only didn't it behave like flu, the antivirals didn't work and there was no prospect of a vaccine becoming available for a year to 18 months, if then. Herd immunity wasn't going to happen any time soon.

When the number crunchers started to get to grips with the idea that the SARS-Cov-2 virus wasn't cooperating with the plan, and reworked their figures, they started coming up with telephone numbers for the death toll. Policy had to be hastily revisited.

Since the government no longer had the capability to control the disease, having finally wound down the traditional system of epidemic control in 2013 – the last of many steps - it took the only option open to it. Unable to take the infection out of the people, by the test, trace and isolate system, it instituted the blunt instrument of a [partial] lockdown, taking the people out of the infection.

Such a drastic and expensive strategy was always going to be rewarded with a downturn in infection rates and – eventually, since it is a trailing indicator – a drop in the death rate.

But at no stage should this have been interpreted as controlling the epidemic. This was the equivalent of Dunkirk. We were running away from the battle, buying time to regroup and re-equip. Only then could we return to the fray, ready to vanquish the "enemy".

The only slight problem with this idea is that, unlike 1940 when we had many years before we were to return to Europe, the lockdown has bought us only weeks. That was not enough time to rebuild and re-energise the public health system, brought down by decades of institutional vandalism.

Thus, when our idiot prime minister yesterday, prattled about it being "vital" that we "do not now lose control", we were watching a man in the grip of a monumental delusion. We can't "lose control". We never had it. We haven't had it since the start of the epidemic, and we don't have it now.

Neither are we "past the peak", as this fatuous man proclaims. There isn't a peak, in the singular, as he seems to think. There is simply an aggregate curve concocted from multiple outbreaks at different stages of development. Many will be declining but the overall figures could be concealing local increases.

Thus, what Johnson is under pressure to do, in relaxing the lockdown early – to maintain the wartime analogy – is to invade France in 1941 with a bunch of Home Guards armed with shotguns and broom handles, crossing the Channel in rowing boats.

What is most likely to happen, therefore, is that when the prime minister allows a limited, cautious relaxation, the case and death rates will start to drift up again. The rise may be quite slow initially, as many of the disparate outbreaks have died out for lack of fresh meat. New ones may take time to get started.

And, of course, the government and its agencies will be fiddling the figures for all they are worth. When they can't get away with that, they will be blurring and obfuscating the data, aiming to confuse and distract, robbing the figures of meaning. They will try anything in an attempt to slow down and weaken the inevitable flood of adverse comment and political blowback.

No doubt, the government team driving the response to this epidemic will be hoping that the plans to install their mobile phone-based contact tracing system can be implemented quickly. If they are, the new system may take the edge off any increase.

It wouldn't surprise me if they were then banking on the inherent lag in the death figures buying them enough time to get us in to the early summer, when the hope will be that the infection rate will drop naturally, exhibiting the seasonal variations which are so often a feature of this type of illness.

Even if they manage to hold the case rate down, that doesn't solve the problem. Their app-based contact tracing scheme is unlikely to achieve anything other than a marginal slowdown in the progress of the epidemic. And, if the illness does exhibit seasonal variation, then come the autumn and winter, we could be back where we started

Politics being politics, though, a week is an awfully long time. If the No.10 gang can get through to next Friday unscathed, then that is as much as they need to do. The following week is the following week. Bridges are to be crossed when one comes to them, assuming they haven't been burnt down or blown up.

As for the more distant future, Prof [half] Whitty reckons that a second Covid-19 wave in winter could be worse than the one we have already experienced (if indeed, the incidence can be considered a "wave").

This, of course, may simply be a rather crude attempt at expectation management. But if Johnson is very, very lucky, there is a chance that Covid-19 outbreaks will not flare up immediately. The case numbers may thus be held down over the winter, for reasons entirely unrelated to his attempts to control the disease.

Instead, the disease may grumble along in the background to become endemic, producing a relatively low level of cases. It may even run alongside a "flu winter", with the two diseases vying with each other to kill the most people. The resultant confusion would certainly flummox pundits trying to unravel "excess deaths" data.

Given the remarkable ability of the human species to adapt, this could become the new norm. Coronavirus would lose its novelty and thus its shock value. By the winter, Covid-19 could become a non-story. The media would have become bored with parading their ignorance and move on to something else – like Brexit.

Yet, speculate as we might, everything is in the lap of the Gods. In fact, what this all goes to prove is that the Gods have an overdeveloped sense of humour. We spend decades preparing for pandemic flu and they send us SARS. Then, when the government responds with a lockdown, they give us the sunniest spring in living memory. When the lockdown comes off, we can expect non-stop rain and frigid winds.

Either way, people have had enough of lockdown. They are running out of patience and many have run out of money. The police have issued more than 9,000 fines for lockdown breaches, so it may be only a matter of time before some angry recipients give them something more than a smacking. After 194,000 snitches have been prepared to dob in their fellow citizens, there may also be some local reckoning.

Having had very little choice about imposing the restrictions, therefore, Johnson may have even less choice as to when they are relaxed. There is a limit to tolerance and as tensions increase, more people will be defying the authorities' attempts to enforce the lockdown.

Where this takes us is anyone's guess. Never in recent history (nor even in living memory) has the government had such little control over events. It is being held hostage to fortune by the dynamics of an epidemic it doesn't understand, over which it has next to no control.

Being in the grip of a monumental delusion, therefore, is perhaps Johnson's greatest asset. It is said of wartime soldiers in battle, that fresh troops made up for their lack of experience by their willingness to engage. But, after about three months, they were burnt out by the constant exposure to the horrors of war, and declined rapidly in effectiveness.

Johnson, entirely new to the epidemic game, simply hasn't the first idea of what might await him. His delusional state protects him from having to anticipate the horrors to come. If the worst comes to the worst, he will never have seen it coming.

The old adage, therefore, "ignorance is bliss" seems to apply. And, despite all the things it lacks, government has no shortage of that commodity. However, with Johnson's claim that his response might involve finding "new ways, more ingenious ways" of suppressing the disease, without letting us in on the secret, there seems a determination to share the pain. As always, we the plebs are to be kept in the dark.



Richard North 01/05/2020 link

Coronavirus: of levers and power

24/03/2020  


The last time we saw the police in our road was early in 2019, when two uniformed officers came to question me about squirting a garden hose at a neighbour's noisy dog.

I got two more visits, each time the plod coming in pairs to investigate this heinous crime - the last lot threatening to arrest me – followed by a summons to the central police-station for an hour-long formal, taped interview, accompanied by a solicitor (who advised me to say "no comment" to every question).

Since West Yorkshire Police seem so generously provided with resources that they can afford to pursue such adventures, they should have no problem swooping on me and the rest of the citizens in my street as we take out our wheely bins for the collection next Friday.

Theoretically, it would seem, such a harmless activity has been made illegal by prime minister Johnson who, in yesterday's address to the nation imposed a form of house arrest, all so that we could "beat the coronavirus".

But, while we can't put the rubbish out, we are allowed to go shopping for basic necessities, "as infrequently as possible" – a period which has yet to be defined – and we can also leave the house to take "one form of exercise a day - for example a run, walk, or cycle - alone or with members of your household".

We can also leave to satisfy any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person, and those who have jobs can travel to and from work – "but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home".

One can imagine, though, that any group of scrotes from the council estates in London – or any other urban area – could easily find in these exemptions sufficient excuses to stay out in the streets all day. After all, no one has yet specified how long an exercise walk should take.

In short, therefore – until we hear otherwise – Johnson's "lockdown" will bind those who want to be bound by it, but those who wish to ignore it will be able to exploit so many loopholes that it will become unenforceable.

And that is without those lawfully taking advantage of exemptions, those who can travel to work as normal, without any restrictions apart from the retail, hospitality, entertainment and sports industries. Rubber duck makers – if there are any in the UK – can thus continue their activities, dragging in staff for that purpose.

Thus, while we are told that the police will be able to enforce Johnson's new rules, and impose (unspecified) fines on people who do not abide by them, one wonders whether Johnson is actually serious about controlling the coronavirus.

It seems more likely that he is simply going through the motions, laying down the foundations of an alibi for when the cases hit six figures, whence he can blame us all for failing to observe the rules.

But then, as I pointed out in yesterday's piece, for the next two weeks or so, the die is already cast, with a high probability that we will be seeing around 60,000 cases by the end of the fortnight, with getting on for 5,000 deaths.

With the faux lockdown initially in place for three weeks, that will give Johnson and "team Covid-19" a nervous week waiting to see if the epidemic curve starts slackening off. If it doesn't by the end of the third week, the prime minister will doubtless come under strong pressure to tighten the restrictions still further, reinforcing his reputation for staying firmly behind the curve.

At that point, NHS critical care capacity will be saturated, and the service may be close to collapse. Hence we are seeing reports of plans to turn London's ExCeL centre (pictured) into a makeshift 4,000-bed "field hospital", following in the wake of Madrid.

According to the Guardian, it will be staffed by a combination of NHS staff and military medical personnel. NHS planners are said to think they will need to press it into service in around a month's time. That seems to be their estimate of when all the critical care beds in London hospitals are likely to be full – although it seems hardly likely that they will last that long.

Interestingly, the initial work seems to be being handled by a team of military planners. They have been reported to have visited the ExCeL centre to determine how the centre might benefit the NHS response to the outbreak.

And while this is a welcome move, the intention seems to be to use this as an overspill facility, rather than it being used as a treatment centre in its own right, keeping infected people out of the hospitals – where the concentration of infection puts existing patients at risk, while their treatment interferes with the provision of other medical services to the community.

Madrid, of course, is seeking the same overall solution, using a conference centre to provide an extra 5,000 beds, but one wonders whether it is possible, effectively to manage a unit of this size, to say nothing of the provision of basic services, such as provision of electrical power, drainage and even toilets for such a large number of people on a continuous basis.  

It would surely be easier to organise a network of smaller units, such as converted leisure centres and community halls, each providing care to about 100 patients, dispersed throughout London and the regions.

Disturbingly, while central government seems keen to use the military, there seems to be no role for local authorities, which collectively manage a huge estate and are used to dealing with emergencies, such as the recent spate of floods. Their properties might be more suitable for conversion, and impose less stress on the system as their provision would be on a more human scale.

But this is not the only area where local authorities appear to be left out of the action. As even some Dutch authorities realise the folly of not carrying out testing of all sufferers, with aggressive contact tracing, there are some 10,000 trained and experience staff in local authority environmental health departments who could undertake these tasks and are not being used.

In England and Wales, the very history of modern local government is the history of infectious disease control, with local health boards and their medical officers of health and sanitary inspectors providing the first-line response in the management of epidemics, providing the template for local authorities as we now know them.

Prior to the 1974 local government reorganisation, there were over 400 local authorities, each with their local public health teams but, through progressive reorganisations, their functions have been absorbed into the NHS, executed by "local" public health protection teams (HPTs).

But with the reorganisations came a savage contraction of the system, with better than 400 semi-autonomous local authority units being replaced by a mere nine HPTs, with only one covering the whole of London. When it came to testing and tracing, therefore, there simply wasn't the resource, while the service has lost touch with its local authority roots and is unable to handle a massive increase in workload.

Many years ago, I met Roger Freeman in his office in London, when he was Major's Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Rather wistfully, he compared his role with that of a signalman in an old-fashioned signal box, lined with gleaming levers. These, he said, were his levers of power. "But, do you know what, Richard", he said, "they're not connected to anything".

I was reminded of this when thinking of ministers trying, in the early stages of this epidemic, to organise a "test and trace" routine. But in this case, not only are the levers not connected to anything, the signal gantries have been pulled down and the points grubbed up.

It is all very well writing grand conspiratorial pieces about why Johnson failed to act, but the more prosaic reason is that the public health system in this country is so far degraded that it no longer had the resources or the capability to deal with an epidemic on the scale we are now experiencing.

Thus, with the most effective means of control having been abandoned, we had yesterday a prime minister imposing draconian limits on our liberties in an attempt to control an epidemic that should never have got to this stage.

The tragedy is that, even in the unlikely event that the new measures actually work, the damage done and the suffering caused will far outweigh the rather marginal saving achieved by contracting public health services to a level where they could no longer function effectively.

That much, to be fair to Johnson, is not all his fault: when finally he started to pull levers, nothing happened. And now, with a total of 6,650 people found positive for coronavirus, and 335 patients having died, even the full resources and power of the state hardly seem enough.



Richard North 24/03/2020 link

Coronavirus: a recipe for failure

16/03/2020  


This epidemic is taking me to places in my distant past (and some not so distant) where I don't want to be and which I thought I had left behind. In particular, memories of the Salmonella and eggs crisis of 1988 have come flooding back, reminding me of the events of that turbulent time and my response to them.

To recall those events, against a background of an increasing incidence of Salmonella food poisoning of a particular type - Salmonella enteritidis phage type 4 – the crisis started when, on 3 December 1988, Edwina Currie, then junior minister of health, went on ITN News famously to say: "We do warn people now that most of the egg production in this country is now, sadly, infected with salmonella".

This was on the basis of data from her experts in the Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre (CDSC) – now part of Public Health England – a stance which was quickly endorsed by the then chief medical officer, Sir Donald Acheson who issued his own formal warning, setting out stringent measures to avoid infection.

So was unleashed what was then (until the BSE scare) one of the most draconian regimes ever experienced in the farming industry, with the forced closure of suspect egg farms, in some cases without the slightest evidence, and the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of egg-layers, all on the supposition that they were responsible for the epidemic of food poisoning.

For its part, the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) – soon to become Defra - was convinced, on the basis of data from its experts, that the source of infection in egg-laying flocks was contaminated feed, whence it also unleashed a draconian regime of controls on the animal feed industry, all with the intention of cleaning up the supply.

As it turns out – to cut a very long story short – eggs were not at fault. When I examined no less than 60 salmonella food poisoning outbreaks attributed to eggs, only one of them reasonably could have been egg-associated. For the rest, there was no evidence to support claims and, in some cases, outbreaks were attributed to eggs which, when the illness had started, had not even been delivered to the premises.

In one particular episode, relating to an index case upon which Edwina Currie had relied, I found that a senior scientist from the CDSC had falsified evidence to make an outbreak appear to be egg-related, when his own earlier inquiries had unequivocally shown that this was not the case.

As to the claims of "infected" feed, thousands of tests were carried out, with absolutely no salmonella isolations, even in the rare instance when salmonella was isolated from laying birds. Doubtless, in the very few flocks that turned out to be infected, different mechanisms of infection were involved. In one instance, I demonstrated that the infection had been airborne, from dust sucked through house vents off neighbouring fields which had been treated with manure from a local broiler farm, which was infected with Salmonella.

The point of all this, though – or relevance to current experience – was that I was almost on my own in asserting that the public health establishment had got it wrong. I was almost alone in my own profession as well and, of course, the torrent of press coverage all pointed in one direction, that eggs were to blame for the epidemic.

One might think that all the experts who joined in the hue and cry could not possibly be wrong. But they were. They were similarly wrong in claiming that we were on the verge of an epidemic from Listeria monocytogenes, attributed variously to chilled foods and soft cheese, and were spectacularly wrong in 1996 on BSE, when the lead government scientist predicted an epidemic of the related nvCJD of 500,000 cases.

In both instances, and in others, I was amongst the very few standing out and maintaining that the "experts" had got it wrong. And, indeed, I'm back in a similar position with this Covid-19 epidemic in the UK where, despite the torrent of support for the government scientists, I am convinced they have got it wrong.

The big difference this time, though, is that I'm not alone, even if I have my own specific "take" on where they've gone wrong. There are groups of epidemiologists and experts from the immunology community who are calling into question the government's stance. And we also have WHO, as well as other national teams, who are taking a different approach to the control of this pandemic.

Generally speaking, in terms of high-profile public health and related episodes (such as the 2001 Foot & Mouth outbreak), the "experts" seem to get it wrong more often than they get it right. Far from trusting them, therefore, my default mode is distrust – and especially government experts.

My distrust was heavily reinforced during my five-year-long PhD studies, culminating in 1995 with the publication of a thesis entitled "The quality of public sector food poisoning surveillance in England & Wales". Although the thesis was framed in terms of Salmonella, what I did was subject that part of the public health system in England & Wales charged with the investigation and control of most communicable diseases (the system for STDs being an exception) to intense scrutiny.

My findings were, in a nutshell, that the system as a whole was so substantially degraded that it would have difficulty investigating its way out of a paper bag – with obvious implications for disease control. Serial failures to identify the causes of various public health problems led to massive inefficiencies when it came to trying to eliminate them.

It is much the same system, in principle, which is now charged with the control of the Covid-19 epidemic, with some of the key roles, such as the chief medical officer, and the government's chief scientist, still recognisable.

The system as a whole, though, has undergone a number of fundamental reorganisations since I carried out my study and, while I would like to think that the result was an improvement in a very poor system, I am beginning to confront the reality that, from a low base, it has deteriorated even further.

To put this in perspective, I have been arguing long and hard over the last few days against the government's so-called "delay" phase. Apparently, it has now given up trying to control the epidemic and is now supposedly focusing on slowing down the rate of increase, so as not to overwhelm the NHS treatment capacity.

The resultant attention given prominence with the "flattening the curve" mantra, is a complete invention. In my 40 years associated with public health, I have never met the term "delay phase" in text books or practice.

In the real world, where I have been involved directly and as a critical observer in a number of episodes, there is only one phase, which starts when you realise you've got an outbreak on your hands.

This, I semi-humorously call the "Oh f**k!" phase, whereupon you throw everything you've got at it. If you run out of resources, you scream for more. Only in the worst case do you achieve a delay rather than control, but that means you've failed.

The point here is that no control strategy should ever be designed to fail. But we should not seek to slow down the spread of the disease as our primary objective. The tools are not so precise or certain that we can fine-tune the rate of infection and anything short of a maximum effort risks the epidemic running out of control.

The authorities should, therefore, be working flat out to bring the epidemic under control with the effect that, should we fail, then we might at least slow it down. To set out deliberately to slow it down is to aim for failure, over which extent we can have no control.

To that effect. an element of social distancing - such as closing down the universities, and shutting down the tube network - makes sense. But any measures taken should have regard to the degree of enforceability and the overall effect.

For instance, you might shut down schools, only to have students congregating in the town centres, spreading the disease between them and bringing it home. Meanwhile you lose a lot of your healthcare staff because they are staying at home looking after their children.

In other words, social distancing is not open and shut. In a Communist dictatorship, you might be able to enforce it, but there are elements in a liberal, supposed democracy that you can't control. Thus, the specifics are a judgement call. But whatever is decided in individual areas, there are many other controls that should be applied, come what may. Overall success will then depend not on any one measure but on the cumulative effect of all the measures.

By far the most effective tool in this epidemic, is disease reporting, so that you pick up the maximum number of cases. This is emphasised by Anthony Costello, a UK paediatrician and former director of the WHO. His view is that: "You test the population like crazy, find out where the cases are, immediately quarantine them and do contact tracing and get them out of the community". This, he says, "deals with family clusters. That's the key bedrock of getting this under control".

This will work, even with incomplete social distancing. The sort of social distancing that we will be able to enforce, without this programme, will not work on its own. Yet, the government has abandoned such testing, and is not even attempting a programme of contact tracing. This is a recipe for failure.

Why the government should have abandoned what amount to the basic tools of epidemic control is hard to fathom – until you realise that a system, which in the late 1980s and '90s was already substandard, has so far deteriorated that it is no longer capable of executing basic control functions for an epidemic of this scale.

Thus, it does seem as if the government is setting itself the objective of failure, dressing it up in the fine clothes of "flattening the curve", which has some "experts", much of the chatterati and the Johnson fanboys singing its praises. And in so doing, they are wrong.

But now, it seems, the government doesn't even believe its own rhetoric. The Guardian has picked up a secret Public Health England document which warns that the coronavirus epidemic in the UK will last until next spring. As many as 80 percent of the population are expected to be infected, and up to 15 percent (7.9 million people) hospitalised.

If the mortality rate turns out to be the one percent that many experts are using as their working assumption, then that would mean 531,100 deaths – a death rate of just over six percent of hospital admissions, which is in-line with Italian experience, reporting a death rate of 7.1 percent.

This is, in effect, an astonishing admission of failure, and one for which there is no excuse. A rich, developed country is now at risk of being brought down by a tiny microorganism, in what is an entirely preventable disaster.

A reckoning must surely come.



Richard North 16/03/2020 link

Coronavirus: a question of responsibility

11/03/2020  


There were several pieces I could have written for today's post, and I was sorely tempted to deal with this thoroughly dishonest article in the fanboy gazette about deregulation. I may yet return to it, as it typifies much of what I hate about Toryboy zealots.

What tilted the balance in favour of yet another coronavirus piece, though, was this clip from the Victoria Derbyshire show yesterday, which – albeit unwittingly – makes the point that I raised in Monday's post about dealing with the need to expand our ICU (critical care) provision.

There, I referred to wartime Henry Ford who was asked to build mass-production factories in order to increase the number of aircraft coming on-stream. Interestingly, here is the film, made at the time, explaining how he did it (outtake illustrated above). By 1944, he was producing B-24 Liberator bombers at a rate of one every 100 minutes, seven days a week, eventually producing them faster than the USAAF could use them. Over 400 ended up being scrapped without ever having seen service.

Compare and contrast with the Victoria Derbyshire clip which features Ron Daniels, a consultant in intensive care, telling us that the UK cannot increase its ICU capacity "rapidly enough" to deal with levels of coronavirus patients. Apart from anything else, he says, "We're not going to suddenly find 10,000 extra intensive care nurses".

"We cannot escalate our capacity rapidly enough" to accommodate the patients in this epidemic, he says. And when asked by Derbyshire whether the NHS was ready for the epidemic, Daniels answered, "We're doing what we can with the resources available to be ready" but if the case predictions are accurate, he says, "then we're never going to be ready".

The point that emerges is that, when the USAAF wanted to ramp up bomber production, it took the job away from the aircraft manufacturers and gave it to Ford - a car-maker. The "experts" in plane-making, when it turns out, were not very expert in making aircraft in a hurry. Similarly, I would aver, if you want to ramp up intensive care provision, the very last thing you do is ask an intensive care consultant.

This, would seem to play to the Gove-like anti-expert tendency, but it doesn't really. If I was to be treated in an intensive care unit, then I would doubtless want to be in the care of experts such as Mr Daniels, but it is probably the very fact that he is an expert that rules him out from pronouncing on how to speed up the service. He is not able to think outside the box.

Daniels admits that, under current circumstances, the NHS is "never going to be ready", and patients are going to go untreated. But if we change the parameters, things could look very different.

Thus, in this emergency, the issue should not be how to deliver high quality care, consistently to all patients who are presented for treatment, as is undoubtedly Mr Daniels's aim, but how to save as many lives as possible. And turning away the majority of patients untreated, reserving high quality care to the lucky (or privileged) few, is not the answer.

Instead, we need to look at a "good enough" service that, on balance, will save significantly more lives overall than would have been the case had modifications not been made.

In my earlier post, I suggested that the job could be standardised and broken down into component parts, with tasks allocated to "crews" who can perform with considerably less training and without experience. Thus, when Mr Daniels refers to the need for an extra 10,000 nurses, the response is that we don't need that many.

For instance, current practice demands a nurse-to-patient ratio of 1:1, and a ratio of 2:1 in high dependency units. Dealing with what amounts to a "standard" illness, however, technicians can deal with the bulk of the tasks, leaving – by way of example – one fully trained and experienced nurse to supervise ten patients rather than one.

One can make a parallel here with wartime combat medics. Ideally, it would be nice to have a fully-trained doctor attached to every platoon in the front line, but there were never enough doctors to go round. Thus, combat medics were used, some with only the most basic of training. Lives could have been saved with more doctors, but more lives were saved by having medics than by not having them.

The trouble is that, to take such an approach requires vision, determination and considerable courage – generically known as leadership. It needs someone who can transcend the limitations of his advisers and think about what should be done, rather than what he is told can (and can't) be done. This, I suppose, is the difference between a Churchill and a Chamberlain.

Unfortunately, in Johnson, we seem to have someone much closer to Chamberlain than the revered war leader, as brought into high focus by John Crace, who remarks on how ill-at-ease the prime minister is in dealing with a situation for which, quite obviously, he is ill-equipped.

One can actually see why the man is more at home delivering folksy health education lectures on personal hygiene, or addressing flood victims in Bewdley, weeks after the event. Unable to step outside his comfort zone, he is leading the race to the bottom.

Yet, for all that, it really is quite staggering that the fanboy gazette continues to leap to the defence of its man, even when it is painfully evident that he is not up to the job.

In an editorial headed "Sensible, proportionate behaviour is the way to respond to Covid-19", it tells us that, the Government's approach "is guided by the knowledge that the NHS doesn't have the spare capacity to deal with an outbreak of Italian proportions". Thus, it declares, "it is relying on people behaving sensibly and acting proportionately, virtues with which most of our readers would no doubt concur".

What that amounts to is that the government knows the NHS can't cope, so Johnson is hoping the epidemic will go away all by itself, as long as we all take "sensible, proportionate behaviour", like – presumably - washing our hands.

In effect, the Telegraph, and by inference the government of which it is so supportive, is seeking to convert a government responsibility into a personal one. If the epidemic escalates to the Italian level - with the death toll increased by more than a third, up by 168 to 631, and rising – then it is our fault. The government is not to blame.

I am sure that overworked Italian doctors at the epicentre of Italy’s coronavirus crisis will be sympathetic to that line. They are warning that they are being forced to overlook older, sicker patients to focus on those who are younger and more likely to survive. After all, if governments are not responsible for providing sufficient ICU facilities, then deaths through lack of facilities must be down to personal failings.

In that context, we now hear of health minister Nadine Dorries in isolation after testing positive for coronavirus. As she is an occasional visitor to No.10 and has been there recently, the disease is moving closer to the heart of government than is comfortable for its denizens.

Dorries herself, who is a symptomatic case, to her credit expresses concern about her 84-year-old mother who is staying with her and began with the cough today. But then the stupid woman spoils it all by signing off with: "Keep safe and keep washing those hands, everyone".

Since personal responsibility is all the vogue and the government puts such faith in hand-washing as a means of controlling the epidemic, I wonder, if it turns out that she has signed off what amounts to the death warrant of her mother, she will accept any personal responsibility. Could it have been because she didn't wash her hands often enough? 

And, further into this epidemic, when younger sufferers find that their elderly relatives, in the style of the Italian response, can't even get treatment, are they going to accept personal responsibility for the consequences? Will they accept that it is because of their lack of "sensible, proportionate behaviour"?  That is where the Telegraph is taking us,.

Or will they, as the body count begins to mount, be asking why the government has failed to perform the most basic of its functions – that of protecting the lives of its citizens. Johnson may want us to take responsibility, but I suspect most people will end up being less agreeable than the fanboy gazette.



Richard North 11/03/2020 link

Coronavirus: thinking outside the box

09/03/2020  


Something a mere virus has been able to do, as opposed to the prime minister, is drive Brexit almost completely from the national media. Not since the referendum, nearly four years ago, has coverage been so slight.

Not least of the reasons is that things are not shaping up too well in Italy. Incidence of Covid-19 has leapt 25 percent from 5,883 to 7,375 cases, with the death toll climbing 133 in one day to 366 – a rate of 4.25 percent and rising.

Apart from anything else, that seems to be more than enough evidence to illustrate that we have something serious on our hands – serious enough to warrant fast and effective action if we are to avoid the same fate, and worse.

Instead, we have an idiot prime minister pratting about in Bewdley visiting victims of the recent floods, something he should have done weeks ago, if it were to be done at all.

At another level, there are millions of people who desperately need training in hand washing. But, rather than dealing with matters below his pay grade, there is an urgent need for somebody to take charge on the political dimension of the strategic management of the response to this growing epidemic.

Short of the high level quarantine exercised by the Chinese government, which seems hardly possible – even if it is being attempted (rather badly) by the Italians – it seems that we also need some creative thinking if there is any chance of keeping the death rate down.

One crucial element, it has emerged, is the need for intensive care units (ICUs) to deal with the number of sufferers. Critical care experts in Italy have warned hospitals in Britain and across Europe to prepare for a surge in admissions of people with severe lung failure.

Already, Antonio Pesenti, head of the Lombardy regional crisis response unit, is warning that the health system in Lombardy is "a step away from collapse" as ICUs have come under growing strain from the new caseload.

"We're now being forced to set up intensive care treatment in corridors, in operating theatres, in recovery rooms. We've emptied entire hospital sections to make space for seriously sick people", he says. But it is less than a week since Lombardy's health minister said hospitals had the capacity to deal with patients.

This is redolent of Johnson's boasting - also less than a week ago - that the country "is very, very well prepared". It wasn't, and isn't. And, with many ICUs already at or near full capacity, if Covid-19 develops into a full-blown epidemic, the NHS could go into meltdown. People who could have been saved will die, as patients wait in corridors and ambulances and even die waiting for ambulances to arrive.

Needless to say, Public Health England is making reassuring noises about capacity being expanded, but one does not have to be an expert to appreciate needs will be difficult to meet. As many as ten percent of all those infected with coronavirus may need intensive care.

Of course, much will depend on the rate of increase in the case rate – and that will depend on the broader community measures and the actions of individuals. But the probability is that heroic measures would be needed to meet the expected demand for ICUs – and it is here that the creative thinking will be most needed.

Potentially, there are three main bottlenecks: the space required in secure facilities; the equipment and; the trained staff.

As to the space requirement, while building brand new hospitals in the style of Wuhan is probably not practical, there are buildings which could be pressed into service as single-purpose coronavirus hospitals.

Photographs from the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic show sports halls, leisure centres and even aircraft hangars being used, and there is no reason why we could not adopt the same strategy. This might be faster and easier than converting space in existing hospitals, where infection controls will be needed to protect existing patients and the staff caring for them.

Temporary buildings, however, will need equipping. Beds need not be much of a problem as basic institutional supplies can be accessed. The beds can be discarded once the crisis is over, so durability is not an issue.

The big problem is going to be providing the specialist equipment, of which ventilators are going to be the most expensive and difficult to source. And until coordinated inquiries are made of suppliers (and emergency stocks), it is not going to be possible to determine availability. Ventilators, though, may prove to be the limiting factor in any expansion programme, especially as there will be worldwide demand.

Assuming this problem can be overcome, the availability of trained staff then becomes the major hurdle. What must be recognised is that treating patients with communicable disease in ICUs is even more laborious and time consuming than normal processes.

Staff have to wear complex protective equipment, aseptic regimes must be intensified and concurrent disinfection will be needed. That alone will bring down the utilisation rate of ICUs and the actual number of staff would have to increase even if there were no additional ICUs.

To meet the demand, there is some talk of bringing back retired staff, which is not necessarily the best of options. This cohort will include some of the most vulnerable to severe infection, so patient contact might present an unacceptable risk.

There again, the problem is that ICU medicine is a highly-skilled speciality. Under normal circumstances, additional staff cannot be made available without prolonged training, and there simply isn't time.

According to The Times, Alison Pittard, dean of the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine, says that hospitals will need to take a novel approach as the outbreak progresses. "My main concern for ICUs is capacity", she says. "We're simply not going to have enough beds. To manage the increase in numbers we are going to have to dramatically change the way we work".

Thinking, though, tends to be rather pedestrian and limited in scope. To meet the exceptional demand, we probably need to look outside the medical profession for answers. One place to go might be the flight deck of a US Navy aircraft carrier, where one will see "colour-coded" crews, with different colours for each of the key task groups.

This came about because the US Navy had to contend with a major expansion of the air fleet, using conscripts with low education attainment and only limited time in service. As it was not possible to train crews to high levels, the procedures were broken down to a number of tasks, and crews were trained only for their specialities. Fully-trained all-rounders were not needed.

As to recruiting the staff, a leaf can be taken from the wartime Henry Ford who was asked to build mass-production factories in order to increase the number of aircraft coming on-stream.

When it came to staffing these factories, Ford did not want skilled craftsmen. He preferred untrained housewives, coming freshly into to the labour market, who could be better fitted for fairly restricted, repetitive tasks.

By that token, ICU functions in temporary hospitals could be performed by raiding trainee doctors, nurses and even paramedics, with the care organised on a standardised, production-line (or carrier deck) basis.

All this may be so much pie in the sky as it stands, but what is becoming very clear is that the NHS, as presently structured and staffed, will not cope with a major epidemic.

Here, if the worst-case scenario comes to pass, the figures are staggering. In a nine-week period, we are looking to over 40 million people becoming infected, and over four million seriously ill people needing intensive care – with the best part of half a million people dying, or more if the system breaks down.

On that basis, there is no room for business as usual in the NHS. The new chancellor is saying that the NHS will get whatever it needs to deal with coronavirus. But unless that money is made available right now, and put behind some heroic and innovative measures, he might as well not bother. It will be too late.

And here is where a prime minister worthy of the name might make the difference, as long as he is able to think outside the box. Belated visits to flood areas and more hand-washing photo-opportunities simply won't cut it. We need a strategic political manager. Instead, I rather fear, we have Johnson.



Richard North 09/03/2020 link

Coronavirus: dem hands

07/03/2020  


Contrasting sharply with his reluctance to be seen anywhere near flooded areas, offering somewhat lame excuses for his absence – and after something of a hiatus before he was prepared to get involved with the Covid-19 crisis - it seems impossible to keep our idiot prime minister away from the front line.

One wonders, though, why he feels it necessary to dress up wherever he goes, in order to display himself in some sort of action pose. If it is genuinely necessary for him to wear protective clothing, either because he's likely to contaminate the environment or to protect him from infection, why is he there anyway?

Interestingly, in his rather unconvincing guise as a laboratory worker (pictured) when he visited Bedford Technology Park yesterday, neither he nor the technician he posed with were wearing PPE correctly. Both were thus setting a bad example.

And since Johnson's official workplaces are the House of Commons or No.10, he might be better advised to use the facilities dedicated to his use. All too often he is missing from both, practising his own rather peculiar form of self-isolation.

Then, there is a very real question of the nature of his involvement in this ongoing drama. It is certainly the case that, as prime minister, he should be at the helm, making sure that the machinery of state is functioning as well as it can under the circumstances. But there are good reasons for suggesting that his public interventions should be limited and carefully controlled.

For instance, if you visit the subject of communications strategy in the context of serious episodes of disease and other such events requiring public input, it has long been established that public health messages are best coming from scientists or independent medical experts.

In an outbreak situation, using politicians - and especially controversial figures such as Johnson – can severely impede delivery of a message – as painfully illustrated by this piece.

Thus to have had Johnson recently preach the benefits of hand washing - persisting even yesterday with his charade - was and is precisely the wrong thing to do. He should not allow himself to be in the position of delivering that message – with or without singing "happy birthday". Even if the fanboys adoringly slurp up every instruction, his many detractors will scorn his advice, for no other reason than the fact that he gave it.

As to the utility of handwashing, this is not as clear-cut as it might seem. I have spent the best part of my professional career studying, monitoring and assessing handwashing practices in high risk environments (food and medical), evaluating the results of different strategies, and training personnel in correct practices. And the results can be very mixed.

In the round, handwashing (often imperfectly performed) in a contaminated environment (i.e., any public place) is of very little value. Recontamination from hand contact surfaces is often so rapid that there is little perceptible difference in results between those who wash and those who don't.

In controlled environments such as limited access areas in medical facilities, there is some effect, provided adequate hand-washing facilities are available, properly positioned, cleaned and maintained. But this can easily be negated by poor aseptic technique, so inveigling untrained personnel to wash their hands, even in these environments, can be of limited value.

When hand-washing disciplines are good, and closely supervised – with the availability of strong disciplinary sanctions - results tend to improve, but sometimes only marginally. In field tests I carried out, our best results came when, in addition to hand-washing routines, we also carried out concurrent disinfection of hand contact surfaces.

One should also note that there is a downside to over-frequent hand washing in that it denatures the skin and provides more and better harbourage for transient pathogens, especially when the skin is kept wet or improperly dried. And if over-enthusiastic washing gives rise to skin damage and discomfort, personnel may be unwilling to continue a regime.

The best option, therefore, might be to wash sparingly, as necessary, making efforts to keep the skin dry and in good condition. In terms of overall results, drying the hands carefully is as important as the washing process. It is then important to adopt aseptic techniques, i.e., the learned behaviour of avoiding touching eyes, nose or mouth, or fingering potentially contaminated surfaces.

This is actually reflected in the current advice from Public Health England. It offers a six-point guide, starting with a warning to cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when you cough or sneeze. Secondly, when dealing with the tissue, they offer a slogan "Catch it, Bin it, Kill it". The tissues should be binned straight away.

The advice goes on to encompass the avoidance of close contact with people who are unwell and only then do we come to the Johnsonian requirement to "wash your hands with soap and water often", using hand sanitiser gel if soap and water are not available.

But the guidance goes on to suggest cleaning and disinfection of frequently touched objects and surfaces (the so-called hand contact surfaces). This must include items such as shared computer keyboards and static telephones, as well as the more obvious things such as door handles, handrails and counter tops.

Finally, the advice wraps up by cautioning people not to touch their eyes, nose or mouth if hands are not clean – the adoption of what are known as aseptic techniques.

Taken as a whole, this is good advice. You will note that it covers my points of adopting aseptic techniques and disinfecting hand contact surfaces. In the context, hand washing is only one precaution. It is not necessarily the most important and, as I point out, may only be effective in concert with other measures. The protection afforded is the sum of its parts.

To over-emphasise hand washing, as the main safeguard - as Johnson did - is actually quite misleading, possibly giving a false sense of security. In a hospital environment, for instance, hand washing is of almost no value unless simultaneously, you are carrying out an extensive programme of concurrent hand contact disinfection.

However, a well-devised programme, properly executed, will contribute significantly reducing the transmission of illnesses such as Covid-19, and there is some room for optimism, especially as the seat of infection in China seems to be under control.

One must always take the greatest of care in accepting any reports from China at face value but it does seem as if the recent news is real, and the health authorities have turned the tide.

There are also suggestions that an aggressive, rapid, pro-active testing programme, targeting those who exhibit signs of flu-like illness - followed by self-isolation or other means of exclusion from the community of those found positive for the virus – is an effective control, especially if accompanied by diligent contact tracing.

But that said, the great sage Simon Jenkins is "taking the coronavirus hype with a pinch of salt". "When hysteria is rife", he writes, "we might try some history":
In 1997 we were told that bird flu could kill millions worldwide. Thankfully, it did not. In 1999 European Union scientists warned that BSE "could kill 500,000 people". In total, 177 Britons died of vCJD. The first Sars outbreak of 2003 was reported by as having "a 25 percent chance of killing tens of millions" and being "worse than Aids". In 2006, another bout of bird flu was declared "the first pandemic of the 21st century", the scares in 2003, 2004 and 2005 having failed to meet their body counts.
Despite those and other examples, though, Jenkins omits to mention the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, which killed an estimated 100 million, when the world's population was only a fraction of what it is today.

Nevertheless, Jenkins notes that the government's action plan points out that the virus is highly contagious, but the "great majority" of those who develop symptoms will experience only a "mild-to-moderate but self-limiting illness". Every medical expert he has heard on the subject, he tells us, "is reasonable and calm".

The caution here might be merited, but possibly not. The most terrifying thing about the Sars-CoV-2 virus – identified as the epidemic organism – is mostly that it produces "mild-to-moderate but self-limiting illness". It is the "mild to moderate" organisms which spread best and while a one percent death rate might seem small, if 80 percent of people succumb, that is an awful lot of dead bodies.

On the other hand, despite the depicted terrors of fictional pandemics, on a par with the Marburg virus (aka Green Monkey Disease), these simply don't spread. The 90 percent mortality rates are so high and illness is so rapid and debilitating that it has little opportunity to spread. For a virus, high mortality in your host is not an optimal evolutionary trait.

To give him his due, Jenkins admits he could be wrong. He could get ill. Millions could die. But, he says, it is also possible that come the spring, this crisis will have passed. We can but hope, but if he is wrong and governments do nothing, the body count will be a multiple of what it might otherwise have been. Newspaper columnists have the luxury of being able to pontificate. Governments don't.

In the meantime, it makes sense to adopt reasonable precautions of known effect, and at the same time to avoid the obvious gaffes to which Johnson is prone.

And while that might also include the occasional washing of hands, measures might benefit more from a higher budget. For all his enthusiasm for promoting ablutions, he is only allocating £46 million to control the epidemic – just a fraction more than one percent of the £4.4 billion expended on Brexit preparations. Johnson's hands might be clean, but his priorities are skewed.



Richard North 07/03/2020 link

Brexit: burning his ships

27/02/2020  


If there was any doubt about whether coronavirus was having an effect on Brexit, all one had to do is look at the front pages of the national media yesterday. Without exception, all were dedicated to charting the latest developments in the global spread of Covid-19.

When it came to the publication of the EU's negotiating mandate – which one might have thought was quite important – this barely got a look in. Between the growing epidemic, the floods, Harvey Weinstein, and even the violence in Delhi, Brexit was crowded out of the news agenda.

What hasn't helped either is that the top line "level playing field" issue has been done to death over the last few weeks. With even the trade wonks all over the place, there was no easy narrative for the media to follow, especially as Johnson has gone to ground depriving the hacks of their usual dose of personality politics.

And the situation has hardly improved overnight. Although Michel Barnier has delivered another of his speeches in Brussels, expanding on and explaining the mandate, this has been given very little coverage.

For this, though, there may be a more sinister reason. Today, we are to see the UK publish its own negotiating mandate, in the form of a White Paper, with Johnson using the opportunity to ditch major parts of the Political Declaration, relying on its status as a document which is not legally binding.

He will thus - we are told - insist on the right to take full control over rule-setting in the key level playing field areas of labour law, competition and state aid, and the environment, arguing that the declaration he has agreed contains only "aspirations and priorities".

This news is given more detailed treatment in the fanboy gazette, where we learn that the prime minister has made it clear that he will not be bound by the Political Declaration. Downing Street, it is said, regards its provisions as having been superseded by promises made in the Tory election manifesto.

While Johnson is right in believing that the Declaration is not legally binding, it still signifies an agreement which, as its description implies, has political force. Unilaterally to change its terms – especially when the other party has invested considerable energy and political capital into the agreement – is bound to be seen as an unfriendly act. And while it might not attract legal sanctions, it is bound to have political consequences.

Without then being aware of Johnson's specific intentions, in his speech yesterday Barnier nevertheless made it clear what those consequences might be. The EU, he said, entirely understands that the UK wanted its own rulebook, and it respected that choice – the UK's sovereign choice.

But, in leaving the EU, there was a simple logic to what followed. If you are a member of the EU, Barnier said, you get frictionless access to a market of 450 million consumers. If you have no preferential trade agreement with the EU, you get access like any third country under the standard WTO regime. If you're somewhere in between, you get something in between.

As of January 2021, Barnier warned, there will be real, tangible change in every domain - in very important areas, such as trade, transport, energy or our mutual security. Many of these changes, he said, will be mechanical, automatic. So we will need to rebuild a relationship – one that is different to what we had before, because the UK is no longer a Member State.

In this context, he added, "the more the UK seeks to distance itself from the common framework of rules that we had built together over the years, the more our relationship will be distant, across sectors".

Here, without equivocation, Johnson is making it clear that he intends to distance the UK from the common framework of rules. The inevitable consequence will be that the UK's relationship with the EU will be distant.

In terms of specifics, even with the best of outcomes, from 1 January 2021, there will be checks and controls on all UK goods entering the Single Market.

As part of these, the EU will need to pay the greatest attention to rules of origin. Inevitably, without agreed procedures that will come with a comprehensive trade agreement, the checks will have to be extremely rigorous: the EU cannot take the risk that the UK becomes an assembly hub for goods from all over the world, allowing them to enter the Single Market as British goods.

Also on 1 January 2021, UK firms will lose the benefit of the financial services passport. No firm from a country outside the Single Market has such a passport. This means that UK financial services firms will no longer be able to offer their services in all EU Member States based on their UK authorisation.

In a well-founded negotiation, the UK would be looking for some measure of agreement which would allow London to retain its primacy as a hub for wholesale financial markets - without becoming a rule-taker of European regulation.

But, says Barnier, "Why should we accept that the profits stay in London while the EU carries the risks?" The UK may not want to be a rule-taker. But the EU doesn't want to be the risk-taker.

When the next financial crisis strikes, who will foot the bill, he asks, averring: "I doubt the UK will foot it for the EU". That is why, he adds, the EU must take the responsibility for its financial regulation, supervision and stability. And without a comprehensive trade agreement, there will be no place for the UK in that arrangement.

And it gets worse. On 1 January 2021, as a third country, the UK will no longer be able to grant marketing authorisations for pharmaceuticals or type-approvals for cars for the EU market. In addition, goods certified by UK bodies will no longer be allowed to be placed on the EU market.

Says Barnier, the EU cannot accept, whatever the sector, to be reliant on the UK – as a third country that is no longer participating in the internal market – for key regulatory, supervisory and certification tasks. This is especially the case when very large volumes are involved. And even more so when we are talking about critical products, such as medical devices.

One really does wonder whether Johnson and those close to him have any understanding of the nature of the shitstorm that is going to hit the UK once the transition period ends, without the cover of a comprehensive trade deal with the EU.

When a "senior Conservative source" tells the fanboy gazette that the manifesto "is very clear about the Government's intention, which is to get a Canada-style trade agreement and take back control of our borders, laws and money".

But do the Johnsonites not realise that, even with such a deal, our goods will be subject to checks at the border, that rules of origin will apply, that our financial services will only have very limited licence to operate in the EU and that we will have to rely on the EU for certification and approvals for a wide range of important goods?  

Since Johnson's line is to reject entirely the level playing field provisions, the UK will be out on its own. Barnier has said that the EU is ready to offer to the UK "super-preferential access" to its markets – a level of access that would be unprecedented for a third country.

This, however, will only come with firm guarantees that the UK will respect the level playing field. Without that, Barnier says, we cannot offer that degree of access. "We want competition in the future but it must be fair – fair and free", he declares.

When it comes to a trade deal with the EU, therefore, Johnson is taking a huge gamble. He is in effect, burning his ships (or burning his bridges, if you prefer) in the hope that this daring stroke will bring him rewards. And while that might have worked for Caesar, such stratagems rarely succeed the second time round. The prime minister might find he has a long swim home.



Richard North 27/02/2020 link

Brexit: dredging up the arguments

23/02/2020  


As the rain continues to pour and the reports of flooding proliferate, we've seen re-emerge the assertion that the real cause of the flooding has been the intervention of the EU and its prohibition on dredging rivers.

Most recently, we've seen this on last Thursday's edition of the BBC's Question Time, when a member of the studio audience was allowed to ask the panel: "Why have the EU stopped dredging the rivers, and then they wouldn't have flooded in the first place?"

Not having watched the programme, I cannot tell whether this point was addressed by the panel but, to judge from the sharp reaction on Twitter, it was allowed to go unchallenged, only later being condemned in a Twitter post as "incredible ignorance".

That single post, at the time of writing, elicited 413 replies, 705 retweets and 2.4K "likes", with a not untypical response being one of denial – as in this claim that "Dredging rivers in England has absolutely nothing to do with the EU".

Another commenter suggests that, "all flooding will stop now we’ve left", while another (one of several) resorts to invective, declaring: "Proof if needed that there is nothing thicker than a Brexshitter".

As to the putative involvement of the EU in our flooding crisis, and its impact on dredging, the claim emerged well before the referendum, gaining currency in late 2015 in the aftermath of the Cockermouth floods which had swamped this Cumbrian market town in the early December, and following the flooding of the Somerset Levels which had captured the headlines over the winter of 2013-14.

The charge in 2015 came from author and former sheep farmer Philip Walling who, in his local paper, wrote that there had been an "almost complete cessation of dredging of our rivers since we were required to accept the European Water Framework Directive (EWF) into UK law in 2000".

No longer were the authorities charged with a duty to prevent flooding, he claimed. Instead, the emphasis shifted, in an astonishing reversal of policy, to a primary obligation to achieve "good ecological status" for our national rivers. This is defined as being as close as possible to "undisturbed natural conditions".

By the end of December 2015, this had been picked up by the Mail. It paraded the headline: "Britain's flooding crisis 'made worse by the EU': Green Brussels bureaucrats have 'banned' river dredging that allows water to drain faster, say farmers", from which point the culpability of "Brussels" became firmly lodged in the Eurosceptic narrative.

What sums up the current state of the art, therefore, is that we have two camps. One asserts that the EU is at the root of all evil, while the other denies any culpability on the part of the EU, and resorts to insult and denigration when confronted with those who disagree.

But what really typifies the "debate", in common with discussions about many aspects of the EU and Brexit, is that neither camp seems to be in the least concerned to bolster their arguments with facts. They are content, from positions of hazy ignorance and denial, to hurl brickbats at each other, never to resolve the issues.

Yet, as we were to see from an article in the Irish Times, days after the Mail had published, the UK was not the only country contemplating the effects of EU directives on flood defences.

In Ireland, Minister of State Simon Harris was concerned that plans to dredge the Shannon would breach not the Water Framework Directive, but the Habitats directive. However, he did observe that, with a humanitarian crisis in some areas, "in those instances protecting those communities may trump any EU directive that is in force".

Harris was not wrong and, in developing his point, I wrote a long piece adding detail to his argument. In so doing, I was able to point out that both the Framework and the Habitat Directives had derogations which allowed works to be carried out to prevent flooding.

As a matter of law, I wrote, the EU did not require the dredging of our rivers to be abandoned. And, in the real world, we had an Environment Agency spokesman saying that: "… over the past two years we have spent £21 million on dredging". In theory and practice, Walling was wrong.

In its own defence, the Commission told the Irish Times, that it was not to blame, its spokeswoman stating that the directives left scope for Member States to decide their own rules on how to manage their water courses.

Our government, in any case, argued through its chosen expert that dredging was not necessarily the answer to flood control and, in certain circumstances, could speed more water towards downstream communities even faster, potentially putting them at greater risk.

That was not the situation with the Somerset Levels flooding though, where proper maintenance of the entire drainage system, from ditches to rivers, could – in theory - have vastly increased the storage capacity of the system and held back the worst of the floods, allowing the excess to be discharged to sea.

However, in the autumn of 2013, Booker and I found, the Levels had been deliberately flooded, the background to which was charted on this blog and in more detail in my report of the floods.

What comes over is the complexity of the system, involving international conventions, EU law, national law and procedures, and local rules. And here, the EU cannot completely (or at all) escape responsibility for the flooding of the Somerset Levels.

It was the EU's insistence that Member States should meet quotas on restoring wetlands that set off the chain of events which led to the flooding of much of the area. The government, with the willing assistance of the Environment Agency and the complicity of the RSPB, decided that areas of the Levels should be allowed to revert to wetland in the autumn of 2014.   

It is far too simplistic, therefore, to assert that the EU "stopped dredging the rivers". Much more to the point, it has over many decades shaped water management policies in the UK and other Member States and which, in the UK and elsewhere, have increased flooding.

Nor can any single measure be relied upon. As this report on progress on flood defences in Somerset illustrates, protection comes from the combined effects of many different solutions.

Despite that, Owen Paterson – who was environment minister at the time of the 2014 Somerset flooding – asserted in 2016 that dredging had saved Somerset from being hit by flooding again.

David Hall, Chairman, Somerset Rivers Authority, was to make the same claim more recently, with a repeat performance by Paterson who last week asserted that: "Leaving the EU is a chance to rethink our disastrous flooding policy".

All this demonstrates, though, is how little Paterson learned while he was environment secretary – and what little attention he gave to the reports I wrote for him. As I explained with some care, underpinning the EU's Habitats Directive are the 1971 Ramsar Convention and the 1979 Berne Convention, both of which will continue to apply even though we have left the EU.

The real point about the EU, therefore - I wrote in 2016 - is that it is unnecessary. It simply adds another layer of government and adds to the confusion and lack of accountability in areas where clarity and certainty are required.

What leaving the EU won't do is change the essential direction of our water management policy – which is determined by international agreements - and nor, when one judges the way Brexit has been handled, will it necessarily lead to any improvement in its execution.



Richard North 23/02/2020 link

Brexit: in whom we Truss

07/02/2020  


In her alter ego as a remainer, Liz Truss was in full flood a month before the referendum, telling The Sun that Brexit-backing bosses were "living in cloud cuckoo land" if they thought leaving EU would help business.

A vote to leave, she declared, "would be a triple tragedy – more rules, more forms and more delays when selling to the EU". Our firms, she said, "would drown in forms, which would hit profits and then pockets as jobs are cut and prices go up".

Now, in her born-again role as a Johnson groupie, she occupies the lofty position of secretary of state for the Department for International Trade, and is now launching a public consultation "to inform the UK's new independent global tariff policy".

With the UK having left the EU, her department's press release burbles that the government "is free to make its mark as a champion of free trade, safeguard against the forces of protectionism on the rise across the world, and crucially ensure that our tariff strategy is best for businesses and consumers across the UK".

The consultation seems to be based on the assumption that goods coming into the UK will no longer be subject to the EU's Common External Tariff. Her department thus believes that the UK's "new Global Tariff Policy" will coming into effect on 1 January 2021 for imports from any country with which the UK does not have a free trade agreement.

That itself is something of an assumption which could very well depend on the outcome of the trade talks with the EU. If we are to avoid complex and costly rules of origin applying to our exports to the EU, we would be best off aligning our tariffs with those of the EU – at least in those areas where our trade is concentrated.

But, without taking this into account, the government would have you believe that it is intent on "simplifying and tailoring the tariff" to suit UK businesses and households.

Truss has in mind removing tariffs of less than 2.5 percent and rounding tariffs down to the nearest 2.5, five or ten percent band; removing tariffs on key inputs to production which could reduce costs for UK manufacturers; and removing tariffs where the UK has zero or limited domestic production "which could help to lower prices for consumers".

Gone is any idea of "more rules, more forms and more delays when selling to the EU". High tariffs, Truss gaily informs us, "impinge on businesses and raise costs for consumers". This is our opportunity, her press release says, "to set our own tariff strategy that is right for UK consumers and businesses across our country".

Needless to say, the fanboy gazette is on the case, delivering a trilling headline that claims: "Households could save £8.3bn a year from post-Brexit plan to slash tariffs".

This, apparently, is based on "research" from the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), which – we are told – has estimated that the proposed new regime would "save Britain's 27.8 million households £300 a year, a total of £8.3 billion, based on the tariff cuts reducing bills by about one percent".

Strangely, Julian Jessop, an economics fellow at the IEA, is prepared to put his name to this figure, saying that: "This would be the immediate impact based on existing spending patterns", although he adds that: "The impact could increase over time as competition grows and consumers switch to cheaper suppliers".

However, if we turn to the European Commission, a reasonable respectable source of data on the income generated from customs duties (which includes the sugar levy), the total revenue from the UK in 2018, was a mere £2.9 billion (less the 20 percent paid to HMRC for collecting the tax).

Given that Liz Truss is not proposing to eliminate all tariffs, and is only reducing them in some areas, it is a little bit difficult to see how this activity will save £8.3 billion, when the total income at the moment is only just over a third of that.

Oddly enough, though, we've seen this game played out before, with exactly the same claim of saving £300 per household. This came in February 2017 – nearly three years ago – via The Sun, with Owen Paterson in the Sunday Telegraph putting his name to the absurd £300 figure.

Not least of the errors in the Sun's survey – which was widely trashed at the time - was that it applied the percentage savings to the retail prices, whereas in the real world tariffs are applied to the landed price (including shipping and insurance), which is a fraction of the price charged to the final consumer.

In any case, as I pointed out at the time the factors influencing retail prices are far too complex to apply such simplistic calculations.

But never let it be said that the fanboy gazette is incapable of making a complete arse of itself as it too applies notional savings to retail prices – the product of three of the Telegraph's finest minds, Lizzy Burden, an economics reporter, Tim Wallace, the deputy economics editor and Gordon Rayner, the political editor.

In another piece, stuffed with comfort quotes, Burden has Ruth Lea backing Truss's proposals as "eminently sensible". Not anywhere, of course, is there any mention of the increased costs that will be imposed on both imports and exports through the explosion of non-tariff barriers, which are variously estimated to add as much as 20 percent to trade costs.

Interestingly, as I reported in a piece on non-tariff barriers written in 2015, the IEA had three years earlier stressed that: "Non-tariff barriers need to be brought to the forefront of the trade debate".

Eight years down the line, it is far too much to expect the IEA to remember its own nostrums – or even to get its facts right. But one cannot help but feel that it is supporting Truss's little venture in an attempt to keep attention away from the more unwelcome effects of Brexit.

Throughout the Brexit debate, most of the pundits seems unable to drag their thinking past tariffs and this initiative is very much playing to the gallery. By talking up savings from reduced tariffs, and ignoring (for the moment) the increased costs of trade friction, the public can be kept vaguely "on-side" until reality hits.

From the look of it though, the government is going to be struggling on this. Apart from the fanboy gazette, there had been very little media coverage of Truss's initiative. Only latterly has The Sun picked up the story, telling us that "Brits could enjoy cheaper coffee, trainers and wine as ministers plan to cut import tariffs from next year". But, those "savings" could include 42 euro cents per kg off sugar. Never mind the sugar tax.

One cannot tell whether this is a reflection of general disbelief or the boredom factor that blights Brexit, but it does not augur well for the government's propaganda machine if it can only enthuse the Telegraph. But if we were to ask in whom we Truss, the answer coming back would probably not be a happy one.



Richard North 07/02/2020 link

Brexit: farming for dereliction?

18/01/2020  


Slipped by with rather less attention than it deserved last week was the first of the government's major, post-Brexit policy initiatives – the replacement of the EU's Common Agriculture Policy with what passes for our own domestic farming policy.

This is to be achieved – in theory at least – by the 94-page Agriculture Bill which, with its own explanatory notes running to 68 pages, was introduced to the House of Commons on 16 January, under the aegis of environment secretary Theresa Villiers.

Needless to say, the noble representatives of the fourth estate could not be asked (or even arsed) to read material of such length (or complexity). Thus, Defra has obligingly produced a 700-word press release, complete with conveniently packaged quotes from Villiers.

As one might expect, it is this which became the basis of most of the press coverage on the day, spun according to the particular obsessions of the authors, the likes of the BBC, for instance, stressing that "soil" was at the heart of what it called a "UK farm grant revolution".

Sky News, however, decided that the key feature was that farmers were "to be paid to protect the environment and improve animal welfare". But this was not for the Guardian. It thought that the "Food security plan after Brexit" was the main element of the "biggest shake-up to farming in 40 years".

From a time when every major newspaper had its own farming correspondent, so far down the media agenda has the issue slipped that neither the mighty Times nor the Telegraph seems to have bothered reporting this "revolution", leaving much of the second-tier media to rely on a general purpose agency headline which told us that [the] "New UK Agriculture Bill to move away from ‘inefficient and overly bureaucratic’ CAP system".

Straight out of the Defra press release, we are thus told that the Agriculture Bill is part of a radical shift to move subsidies away from the EU Common Agricultural Policy system of direct payments, which correlates payments with the total amount of land farmed.

Instead, the legislation sets out how farmers and land managers in England will receive "public money for public goods", such as better air and water quality, higher animal welfare standards, improved access to the countryside or measures to reduce flooding.

In doing so, says Defra, it aims to move the UK one step closer towards "a future where farmers are properly supported to farm more innovatively and protect the environment".

If one was to attempt to be fair to our lacklustre media, which usually fails to step up to the plate when the analysis of anything complex is needed, one might argue that a full analysis of a highly technical 94-page Bill was always going to be a bit of a challenge.

Thus, even when we see the official NFU response, we see a fairly cautious and limited appraisal from President Minette Batters, with the promise that, in the coming days, the union "will scrutinise this Bill in great detail to ensure that it provides the policy for a thriving farming sector post-Brexit".

Despite all that, to gain an insight into where this Bill is going, though, does not actually require any lengthy study of what, in fact, is a deeply unhelpful instrument.

The main issue, in my view, is that it replicates precisely the flaws of the CAP that it seeks to replace. With the EU's policy, the problem was that there was a single "one-size fits all", top-down policy, covering a geographical area stretching from the near-Arctic tundra of Sweden and Finland, through the temperate regions of Northern Europe, to the semi-arid fields of Malta, Greece and Portugal.

And, although the climatic variations in the England are not as great (to which the policy applies), it is still the case that the hill farms of Cumbria and the Pennines, the lush dairy country of Cheshire, the fertile Vale of York and the "barley baron" territory of Lincolnshire and East Anglia, alongside the chalk downs of Southern England and the Exmoor hills, present such a vast contrast that a single policy for them all is just as inappropriate.

Yet, if ever there was to be a revolution in agricultural policy, it would have encompassed devolution, down to regional or even County Council level, setting up truly autonomous units with their own budgets, to manage their own policies. Instead, we have more of the same, with the top-down control from Brussels being replaced by top-down control from Whitehall.

And from there, if at all possible, it gets worse. While there was a great deal wrong with the CAP, over the decades is has undergone several transformations to emerge as a relatively stable system which delivers subsidies of about £3.4 billion a year to UK farmers.

The bulk of this comes in the form of direct payments, related mainly to the acreage farmed, a system which gives a high level of certainty to farmers, enabling them manage their finances in an otherwise unpredictable and risky business.

But, over a transition period of seven years, the proposal is to delink payments from the land, abolishing direct payments. The main flow of cash will then be directed to this concept of paying for "public goods", which may encompass (but are not limited to) environmental protection, public access to the countryside and measures to safeguard livestock and plants.

While this sounds fine in theory, though, the scope of such payments is vast, covering ten major headings, which includes supporting activities which mitigate or adapt farming to climate change, as well as supporting "ancillary activities", which range from "selling, marketing, preparing, packaging, processing or distributing products deriving from an agricultural, horticultural or forestry activity".

The point here is that, while the £3.4 billion or so annual subsidy is a lot of money - to which the government is still committed for the next parliament - there are about 200,000 agricultural holdings in the UK and, within the scope of this new Agriculture Bill, as many more non-farming enterprises which might qualify for financial assistance.

For instance, financial assistance may be directed at managing land or water in a way that "maintains, restores or enhances cultural or natural heritage. This may include a building, monument, site, place, area or landscape identified as having a degree of significance due to its archaeological, architectural, artistic, historic or traditional interest".

While such spending might be seen as highly desirable, traditionally it does not belong to the agricultural budget. Currently, it might be covered by funds directed at English Heritage, the National Trust and Natural England – all of which organisations will doubtless be pitching for grants under the new system.

On this basis, the new scheme not only represents an effective reduction in agricultural support, because its scope is so wide and so many more enterprises are covered, there is a risk that the funds will be spread very thinly – so thinly that the amount directed at any one sector might be insufficient to have any material impact.

Then, given that the distribution of this finance is within the gift of the secretary of state, and thus open to the ebb and flow of political whims, there is a very real danger that spending will be devoted to populist causes, which may not only change with different administrations but also become prey to volatile and changing public fashions and obsessions.

Whatever might be the outcome of that, the system seems certain to lose major elements of stability and predictability, depriving working farms of the certainty they need for financial planning and investment – quite possibly to the detriment of food production in the UK.

Now that agricultural policy is reverting to the UK, though, one might like to think that public debate might once again embrace this issue, having been rendered useless as long as the power resided with Brussels. But that would include the major media players reappointing knowledgeable farming correspondents to their teams.

Sadly, there is no sign of that happening, any more than we are likely to see the break-up of Defra, and the reinstatement of a dedicated ministry of agriculture, now that we have a domestic agricultural policy to manage. And, faced with this Agriculture Bill, we need a far more vibrant debate than we have seen to date.

As we know from experience, a derelict policy can very quickly lead to derelict farms.



Richard North 18/01/2020 link

Brexit: a legal trap

13/01/2020  


Today, the House of Lords is to entertain itself with the second reading of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill 2019-20. This, when given Royal Assent, will amend the 2018 version and provide the legal template which will enable the UK to execute Brexit.

But, while it has been given a free passage in the Commons by Johnson's adoring claque of newly-elected MPs, reservations on certain details are being expressed, and may be the focus of some argument when the Bill is debated today.

One such issue came to the fore on 18 December, when it was reported that the lower courts would be given the power to roll back case law arising from ECJ judgements. This was a departure from the 2018 version where the incorporation of all ECJ case law would have left the supreme court as the only body able to overturn these decisions.

Typically, the Guardian , noting that Downing Street had confirmed the plan, wrote of it in alarmist terms, focused on its particular issues of interest. Thus it reported that the plan had "prompted concerns" that it would become easier to challenge European standards in areas such as workers' rights and the environment.

At the time, a Downing Street spokesman said: "The Bill will ensure that the supreme court is not the only institution able to consider retained European court of justice rulings. This is an important change, which will ensure that we do not face a legal bottleneck and inadvertently stay bound by EU rulings for many years".

Needless to say, this was accompanied by a dose of the Johnson mantra, with the spokesman adding: "We will take back control of our laws and disentangle ourselves from the EU’s legal order, just as was promised to the British people".

However, taking back control is not exactly the issue. What is dealt with in the new Bill (clause 26) is the level at which case law may be disapplied. And, given that case law is effectively the law of the land, this is of some importance as it can override or modify statute law.

In my own time, I've had some interesting times with case law, in particular provisions on the contamination of food. In the old 1970 Regulations, there was a prohibition on the exposure of food to contamination, failure to conform with which was a criminal offence. The Regulation, though, was modified by case law, requiring that any "contamination" had to be harmful to health.

When one of my clients was faced with prosecution for placing a tray of raw chicken carcases on the floor, partly in contact with a less than clean table leg, EHOs were confident of a conviction. However, I successfully argued in court that the primary source of contamination, in accordance with the case law definition, was the raw chicken. And while the dirt of the table leg had been unsightly, it was my experience that long-standing organic dirt has a bactericidal effect.

Thus, in my view, this was not a case of the table leg contaminating the chicken but the other way around. And since there was no intention of selling the table leg for human consumption, there was no offence.

Such is the impact of case law that one quite obviously needs to be careful about how, when, and by whom it is changed. Hence we see in today's Times the celebrated QC, David Pannick, expressing his own concern about Clause 26.

There is no question of peers trying to block the Bill, he says, but we will perform our function of scrutinising the legislation and, where appropriate, make suggestions for improvements to its content. And, he avers, Clause 26, concerning judgements of the Court of Justice of the EU, requires particularly careful scrutiny.

Setting the scene, Pannick reminds us that, when we leave the EU, much of the EU law will, for the time being, remain in our legal system - so-called "retained" law. To ensure legal continuity and certainty, he says, the Bill confirms that almost all of the EU law which currently applies in this country will continue to do so unless and until parliament or ministers amend or repeal it.

That law, as it stands, includes all judgements previously handed down by the ECJ, with the original 2018 Act stating that such judgements would remain binding on our courts and tribunals, unless it was overturned by the Supreme Court and the final court of appeal for Scottish criminal cases, the High Court of Justiciary.

Crucially, in the interests of ensuring continuity and certainty, only those courts could overturn the ECJ judgements. But Clause 26 adopts a different approach. Ministers, says Pannick, are to be given power to make regulations governing which of our courts and tribunals should, after the end of this year, no longer be bound by these judgements. Additionally, Ministers will be able to regulate the binding force of previous decisions of our own courts when they applying EU case law.

Pannick has two concerns about this. Firstly, he writes, legal certainty will be undermined as we leave the EU if lower courts are given power to reverse well-established decisions on competition law, environmental law and equal pay, among many other subjects.

Precedent – as he rightly reminds us - is vital to the integrity of our legal system. If settled case law could be overturned in lower courts, a flood of litigation would hit companies and individuals. And it will come as no surprise to learn that the main beneficiaries of such litigation would be lawyers.

You can actually imagine the situation. While case law is widely published, and available on the legal databases used by practising lawyers, that is not always the case with the decisions of lower courts and tribunals. A case, therefore, which was decided on the basis of an ECJ precedent, could be upheld in one court or tribunal, but overturned in another, bringing something close to anarchy to the legal system.

For his second concern, Pannick suggests that ministers should not be giving themselves power to regulate a fundamental aspect of our legal system – this is not something in which Ministers should interfere.

Deciding which of our courts should no longer be bound by these precedents, he says, and what test judges should apply, is a matter of principle for parliament to determine, after full debate, especially in a system that values the separation of powers between the judiciary and the executive.

Pannick then goes on to add that the parentage of clause 26 is "unknown". It certainly does not look like a child of the Ministry of Justice and the attorney-general’s department, he says, leaving us to wonder why it was inserted when the hazards are so evident.

One suspects, however, that doctrine rather than legal sense is at work. And the implications are even more profound than even Pannick indicates. When we are entering a process of negotiation where the degree of alignment will determine the level of access we are given to the Member State markets, this will undoubtedly assume that conformity with EU law includes conformity with relevant ECJ judgements.

Where, however, these judgements can be overturned by the lower courts, and even tribunals, often without the knowledge of Ministers, in a process they themselves have initiated, the EU would be entitled to take the view that the UK is no longer in a position to police or enforce any trade treaty it secures. At the very least, it might make any treaty agreement conditional on the removal of the amendments introduced by Clause 26.

Should the Clause amendments survive, the UK could in future, find its own trade agreement with the EU undermined by its own courts, and be forced to intervene to reverse their judgement, in order to preserve the integrity of the treaty.

This is not really a situation in which the government wants to place itself, as there will be, no doubt, break clauses built into any new treaty, operable in the event of non-compliance by any party. The government could find itself continually fire-fighting, just to maintain the status quo.



Richard North 13/01/2020 link

Media: the dustbin liner of history

29/12/2019  


The end-of-year reviews which the media so love, providing opportunities to fill space in an otherwise sparse news environment, take on a special significance this year. This time round, we not only have the end of a tumultuous twelve months but the end of a decade which has not been entirely uneventful.

The short period until just after the new year becomes the point at which the rough, first draft of history gets locked in as the second and often final draft, as the hacks solidify their narratives.

By dint of multiple repetition, memes get translated into fact, then to provide the raw material for lazy researchers who will repeat them dutifully, representing them as a faithful historical record, often drowning out any proper understanding of the events that have occurred.

You can see how this works in this (mercifully short) review published by I-News, where political editor Nigel Morris manages to list factors "which drove the vote for Brexit", without once mentioning the Lisbon Treaty or its precursor, the Maastricht Treaty, which did so much to energise the Eurosceptic movement.

Thus, although he correctly surmises that the seeds of the United Kingdom's current upheavals were sown before the 2010s even dawned – an easy guess as history is nothing if not a continuum – Morris shows few signs of understanding the genesis of the events about which he writes.

Bearing in mind that this blog was set up in 2004, largely to compensate for the inadequacies of the legacy media in reporting EU issues, things clearly have not improved, pace yesterday's dismal effort when dozens of newspapers turned a routine response from Ursula von der Leyen in a boilerplate interview almost into a declaration of war.

It is this tendency – certainly in respect of EU politics – to turn almost every story into a conflict between the UK and the Community – which tends to distort that narrative so much, although this "biff-bam" tendency is by no means confined to this subject.

Long ago, a Brussels correspondent remarked to me that much of his copy was barely recognisable by the time it was printed, once the foreign desk had "Londonised" the politics, and "planted a Union Flag" on the issues. Straightforward reports that didn't embody a conflict between us and the "Brussels eurocrats" rarely saw the light of day.

But what has made this decade infinitely worse has been the emergence of social media, as noted in a long piece in the New York Times. Potentially an antidote to the distortions of what too many people insist on calling the "mainstream" media, it actually serves to amplify them, giving them greater reach, but at the same time driving the polarisation of opinion.

This, the NYT puts down to an acceleration of the "filter bubble effect", brought about by the development of algorithms designed to maximise user "engagement" (and therefore maximise ad revenues). These feed people customised data and ads that tend to reinforce their existing beliefs and interests.

In days gone past, when people were reliant on print newspapers, the radio and a limited number of television channels, these news providers tended to be "broad church" so that recipients tended to be exposed to a wider range of views.

But an unintended consequence of the explosion of information made possible by the internet, is a narrowing of scope, where content is pre-selected according to viewing histories and then further refined as recipients confine their own exposure to subjects and sources that no longer challenge their views.

Looking at this from an US perspective – as one might expect – the NYT suggests that this is why Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, increasingly have trouble even agreeing upon shared facts. It goes on to say that this development has undermined trust between different groups, fuelled incivility and sped up the "niche-ification" of culture that began years ago with the advent of cable television and the internet.

In addition, the paper says, platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have enabled politicians (as well as advertisers, Russian agents and alt-right conspiracy theorists) to circumvent gatekeepers like the mainstream media and reach out directly to voters.

This, to an extent, is special pleading. It fails to recognise that the longstanding inadequacies of legacy reporting have driven the search for more reliable alternatives, and a relief from the torrent of trivia, conflict and personality politics that pollutes the daily news agenda.

Nevertheless, in the view of the NYT, "influencers" have replaced experts, scientists and scholars. Memes and misinformation have started to displace facts. What it doesn't say, of course, is that "experts, scientists and scholars" so often chosen by the legacy media for their "comfort quotes" have their own agendas and have long-since ceased to be dispassionate purveyors of factual material and reasoned analysis.

Nevertheless, the paper does have a point when it observes that, over the last decade, as the news cycle spun faster and faster, our brains struggled to cope with the flood of data and distraction that endlessly spilled from our phones.

In an era of data overload and short attention spans, it says, it's not the most reliable, trustworthy material that goes viral. It's the loudest voices, the angriest, most outrageous posts that get clicked and shared.

We see this almost daily on platforms such as Twitter, but it should not escape notice that, as they compete for attention, legacy media journalists are often those who are sending the "angriest, most outrageous posts" to their followers, who faithfully retweet them in their thousands.

For all that, the NYT delivers a passage with which we could not begin to disagree. It says:
Without reliable information, citizens cannot make informed decisions about the issues of the day, and we cannot hold politicians to account. Without commonly agreed upon facts, we cannot have reasoned debates with other voters and instead become susceptible to the fear-mongering of demagogues.
However, one only has to look at the hash that the legacy media made of Ursula von der Leyen Les Echos interview to realise that it is no longer a source of reliable information – if it ever was. Perhaps the only thing that has changed is the wider realisation that much of what we are served up with is not worth the paper on which it is no longer written.

More so, we can look at the generality of the Brexit "debate" which intellectually – as Pete notes is still firmly lodged in square one. If Brexit has shown up the fault lines in our politics, it has also brutally revealed the inadequacies of our media.

But the NYT also has a few words to say about politicians. When they constantly lie, overwhelming and exhausting us while insinuating that everyone is dishonest and corrupt, it says:
… the danger is that we grow so weary and cynical that we withdraw from civic engagement. And if we fail to engage in the political process - or reflexively support the individual from "our" party while reflexively dismissing the views of others - then we are abdicating common sense and our responsibility as citizens.
There, however, the paper goes off the rails. Politicians have always lied to us, and in a democracy, blind trust should never be part of our politics. A healthy scepticism is an essential part of the civic toolkit and where, as seems to be the case, the political system is terminally broken, cynicism is probably the only adequate response.

What is actually different is the partisanship, where the lies of politicians from "our" party are acceptable – and even applauded – while no blemish of the other side is too small to be held up to the light. That's very much the NYT's problem which has never got over Trump's victory, but it's also the problem with the Telegraph over here, which acts as the fan club magazine for Johnson, applauding and preserving his lies.

If we are to understand this decade, therefore, we have to understand that history is more than a sequence of narratives bolted together to make a story. While the media excel at setting their narratives, as a first draft of history, their only real role is to line the dustbin.



Richard North 29/12/2019 link

Brexit: just add water

14/11/2019  


According to the Telegraph, the Tories did after all offer Farage an electoral pact, in exchange for him targeting just 40 key seats.

The deal was that the Tories would put up "paper candidates" in the Labour-held constituencies, carrying out only minimal campaigning in order to give Farage's party a relatively free hand. This, however, was not good enough for Farage. He wanted the Tories to drop their candidates altogether, otherwise they might still attract votes.

As a result, says The Telegraph, talks broke down late on Tuesday but, as the deadline for nominations approaches at 4pm today, Farage is still under intense pressure to stand down more of his own candidates.

Clearly, the pressure is all on Farage as another poll, this one from ComRes, shows the Brexit Party losing vote share, currently at seven percent having dropped two points since 11-12 November. Moreover, analysis of these results has the Telegraph reporting that this puts the Tories on course for a 110-seat majority.

Apparently, working-class voters are flocking to the Conservatives, redrawing the electoral map, based on divisions between leave and remain. Thus, the expectation is that the Conservatives will win 380 seats, Labour 194, Lib Dems 19, Scottish National Party 36, Brexit Party 0, Plaid Cymru 2 and Green Party 1.

With this trend undoubtedly known to Tory strategists, it is perhaps unsurprising that Johnson is in no mood to make concessions to Farage. With the scent of victory in his nostrils, even at this early stage in the campaign, the Brexit Party is looking increasingly irrelevant.

All Johnson has to do – as he did in his speech in Coventry yesterday – is repeat in his bumbling best, that only the Tories will deliver Brexit. As a rather unfortunate aside, to a largely indifferent group of factory workers, he described his efforts as a "Pot Noodle deal" – all you had to do was "add water".

The Guardian's John Crace was quick to pick up the insensitivity of that remark, but I too heard it broadcast on BBC TV's six o'clock news and observed that it would go down really well in Yorkshire, where the prime minister in office had just been, hearing complaints of his tardy response.

One would expect a Guardian writer to be critical of Johnson, and I can hardly claim any lack of bias here, but I think that any objective observer of Johnson's public speaking performances would admit that his speeches are largely an incoherent shambles and his delivery is dire. He may have some kind of magnetic charm on a one-to-one basis, but as a public performer he simply doesn't cut it.

The great fortune of the man is that he is up against Jeremy Corbyn, a politician with slightly less charisma than a plank of wood, and a delivery style that is not altogether dissimilar.

Yesterday, Corbyn was trying to pretend that Brexit didn't exist, focusing entirely on the NHS, offering a message that amounted to: whatever the Tories promise to spend, I will spend more.

Most of us, I rather feel, are already tired of these bidding wars. Apart from their unreal nature, people within the NHS are saying that the immediate problems are not money, per se, but a growing staffing crisis, with thousands of posts left unfilled. And that, whether Corbyn likes it or not, can to some extent be attributed to Brexit. Yet, the opposition leader seems set to exacerbate these problems with his promise of a four-day working week.

That said, as a frequent user of the NHS, while one would readily concede that the organisation has its problems, the bits with which I am in contact seem to be working remarkably well, and can be commended for their speed and efficiency, with minimal waiting time.

What I particularly dislike is Labour's rhetoric about privatising the NHS. Eight years ago, almost to the day, I had a life-saving heart operation – carried out in a private hospital under contract to the local health trust.

The operation didn't cost me a penny, which seems to me to conform entirely with the NHS ethos of "free at the point of delivery", and I cannot understand why there should be any objection to contracting out services to private suppliers.

Currently, I'm going though a series of diagnostic tests and these too have been contracted out to the private sector, once again with minimal waiting time and maximum efficiency – and the parking is free. I would sooner Corbyn stopped wasting his time on this wild goose chase and expended his energies on Brexit. 

Here, it is not as if he is without material to work on. We have, for instance, ex-minister David Gauke warning that a Tory majority will lead to a "disastrous" no-deal Brexit.

The former justice secretary has picked up on Johnson's intention to complete the next round of EU negotiations by the end of 2020, without calling for an extension of the transition period. He thus believes – not without good cause – that: "The Conservative Party is wanting to take the country in a dangerous direction". Far from getting Brexit done, he says, "we are going to enter into a negotiating period that isn't going to deliver a free trade agreement in time".

While Gauke wants us to "lend" our votes to the Lib-Dems, Michael Gove has rushed to defend Johnson's position, asserting that it is "feasible" a deal will be done by December 2020.

"No country is closer to the EU at the moment in terms of its economic relationship than the United Kingdom", he says, "and Simon Coveney, the Irish Deputy Prime Minister has said he believes it is entirely feasible that we can conclude all the negotiations that we need to conclude in 2020".

Never mind that both Barnier and Juncker have said that a comprehensive, Canada-style deal cannot be done in the time. A little bit of cherry-picking is the perfect antidote to any Tory problem.

Here again, though, we have had an argument we have heard before. Because we already have a high degree of integration, it goes, it should be easy to craft an agreement where most of the principles have already been established.

Needless to say, this completely misses the point. As it stands, we have a high degree of economic integration, the reward for which is that UK goods and services have a degree of access to EU markets which are not afforded to third countries.

The task which will be facing UK negotiators then becomes one of unprecedented complexity. For the first time in history, we have a nation trying to unravel one of the most sophisticated internal markets yet devised, while trying to maintain as high a level of access as possible.

At the same time, the negotiators will be trying to minimise the need to conform with the wide range of flanking policies which invariably accompany the EU's comprehensive trade deals.

By any measure, this is going to involve slow, delicate negotiations. The idea that the process can be completed in eleven months is absurd, yet here we have senior Tory politicians effectively arguing that black is white.

If it wasn't for the fact that Corbyn's own policy on Brexit was so incoherent, he could have a field day, deconstructing Johnson's mess. But so compromised is the Labour leader that his best strategy is to stay clear of Brexit and – as we saw yesterday – to focus on other issues.

The only thing is, every time politicians raise subjects in this election which aren't about Brexit, one is tempted to ask what they are hiding about their Brexit policy – what is it that they don't want us to focus on? If this is supposed to be the Brexit election, then the very least our politicians can do is keep to the point and talk about Brexit.



Richard North 14/11/2019 link

Brexit: a moment of truth

13/11/2019  


While Johnson defends himself against criticism for his slow reaction to the floods, while his opponents seek to make capital out of his discomfort, Farage is probably wondering what hit him.

After unceremoniously dumping 317 of his candidates, he is now facing something of a backlash as yet another group have learnt a lesson that others before them have learnt: they are expendable when they conflict with The Great Leader's ambitions.

The Guardian cites Darren Selkus, now former candidate for Epping Forest. He says Farage had "betrayed my incredible volunteers and thousands of constituents who will have no one to vote for". In a statement on his local party website, Selkus said that as soon as Farage made the announcement at a rally on Monday in Hartlepool, he and other ex-candidates were immediately locked out of their Brexit party emails and supporter databases.

More reaction comes from Robert Wheal, who had been due to stand in Arundel and South Downs. He believes Farage's argument about protecting Brexit was "absolute codswallop", complaining that, "Brexit party supporters have worked their socks off for that party and he's dropped them like a stone at 12 o'clock yesterday".

Claire Mowbray, who was to have taken on Theresa May in Maidenhead, tweeted: "I can't tell you how disappointed I am", adding: "I will be closing this Twitter account".

While bruised egos come to terms with their own redundancy, there are more immediate concerns. For instance, it appears that Arron Banks is still not the bestest of friends with his protégé Nige.

At least Banks is on the ball, after urging Farage to stand his troops down in Labour marginal seats. "Brexit is under threat", he says. "We need to see further moves to stand down candidates in marginal seats they can't win and go for the 40 or so Labour seats where the Tories (Conservatives) haven't got a hope".

Banks is asserting: "There are 48 hours to save Brexit and save the country from a Corbyn government", adding that, "Nigel has remade the Conservative party in his own image, the Conservative Party is the Brexit Party". Thus, he says, "The only way Brexit is going to get delivered is by a Boris majority".

Banks is not alone in asking Farage to call off the hounds. George Farmer, who gave £100,000 to the Brexit Party in May and June, also wants half of the 300 Brexit Party candidates to stand down.

Even The Sun is taking a hand. In a "Sun says", comment piece, it declares: "Nigel Farage must swallow his pride and stand down more Brexit Party candidates - only Boris Johnson can achieve Brexit".

"Farage", it says, "is taking a monumental gamble with Brexit and his place in history. He should rethink and stand down dozens of candidates today. To his credit he did Boris Johnson a big favour pulling out of Tory seats", but it adds, "it is a giant risk to assume that in Labour marginals his Brexit Party will lure Labour voters but not Tories".

The paper agrees with Arron Banks in having the Brexit Party focus on a handful of Labour Leave constituencies. The Tories, it says, could take a back seat there, while becoming the sole Leave option in scores of winnable Labour marginals. If Boris cannot take those, the Lib-Dems and SNP will gift Corbyn power. "Painful as it is", it concludes that Farage "must swallow his pride. It's not a 'sellout' to the Tories. They simply should not be rivals".

However, if Farage does as he is asked, laying off another 150 or so candidates, it would reduce the Brexit Party to a tiny rump, with little political heft. Targeting a mere 40 seats would be even worse. Either would deprive Farage of his publicity platform, relegating his status to that of a bit player.

Predictably, therefore, The Great Leader is refusing to move, reacting defiantly, saying: "I put country before party yesterday and now will take the fight to Labour. Three hundred nominations have been signed off - time to get on the road!"

His party chairman Richard Tice is equally defiant, declaring that "Arron is talking nonsense. We are not here to help the Conservative Party".

This does rather leave the election more open than Farage might have intended. His idea of leaving Conservative-held seats uncontested was supposed to take the heat off Johnson but fighting the marginals could still cost the Tories a significant number of seats.

That, of course, pre-supposes Farage is still able command a respectable proportion of the vote. But the events of the last few days may have damaged the credibility of a man who for the past few months has been riding high. And so much of a one-man party is his creation that, if Farage goes down, his party could go down with it.

Here, the next few days might be critical. Even before Farage pulled more than half his troops out of the battle, his poll ratings were plummeting (some say that is why he acted in the way he did) and if they continue downwards then it could be game over for "our Nige" – the end of a long career.

Doubtless, there will be plenty of pundits prepared to write Farage's political obituary, and the Mirror seems already to have made a start. Under the headline, "Brexit Party implodes after Nigel Farage's general election 'dodgy deal' with Tories", it tells us that the party had been set to hold a rally in Westminster today, but this was quietly cancelled as members vent their fury at Nigel Farage over his "dodgy deal" with the Tories.

That is possibly more telling than other recent events. The party had been assiduously promoting its rally, which was due to be held at Church House in Westminster. But a spokesman has confirmed it is "not happening". He said the party had "already said what we needed to say".

This is a far cry from the heady days of Farage's launch. Now, his best chance of achieving any significant effect would be if Johnson would agree to stand his candidates down in the 40 or so seats where Banks believes the Tories "don't stand a chance".

But, so far, there is no sign of any pact in the offing. There may be local deals, with individual candidates standing down, but there is unlikely to be anything official. If it is to happen, though, tomorrow is the day, when candidate nominations have to be in.

What may doom Farage though is the latest YouGov poll. Commissioned by The Times, it has the Tory lead widening to 14 points after Farage had withdrawn his candidates.

The Tories are on 42 percent, Labour is on 28 percent and the Lib-Dems are on 15. Crucially, though, on standard measurement, Farage's party takes nine percent of the vote. But, when the removal of 317 candidates is factored in, his percentage vote drops to a mere four percent. Not only does that make Farage electorally insignificant, it also suggests that, if he drops more candidates, his vote share will simply fade away.

To that extent, Farage is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. As he approaches his moment of truth, he is damned if he gives up more candidates, and damned if he doesn't. Those political obituary writers had better get sharpening their pencils.



Richard North 13/11/2019 link

Brexit: ours is but to do or [panic] buy

21/08/2019  


The BBC seems to have joined Project Fear big time, running a story revealed unto the sainted Faisal Islam about how a no-deal Brexit is going to run us out of fuel and we're all going to die – or something like that.

This was something touched upon in the "Yellowhammer" dossier, where it was reported that tariffs applied to UK refined petroleum products would make their export to EU Member States uncompetitive.

Industry, the dossier says, had plans to mitigate the impact on refinery margins and profitability, but UK government policy to set petrol import tariffs at zero percent inadvertently undermines these plans.

This, we are told, will lead to big financial losses and the closure of two refineries (which are converted to import terminals) with about 2,000 direct job losses. It is then hypothesised that resulting strike action at refineries would lead to disruptions to fuel availability for 1-2 weeks in the regions they directly supply.

I have a little difficulty with this as the EU provides us with its Market Access Database which lists the tariffs for thousands of product codes. And, as far as I can make out, refined petroleum gets the code 27090010, which gives us a zero tariff.

The BBC knows different, of course, and it is reporting that the current EU tariff on fuel imports from third countries is 4.7 percent, which will be applied to our exports to Ireland and other EU Member States, once we have left with a no-deal Brexit.

On the other hand, since the UK government has decided to apply a zero tariff on our imports, that means the UK market will be open to a flood of cheaper imports from Russia and other major exporters, while we lose out on exports to the EU states, which become "uneconomical".

The theory is that the resultant closure of UK refineries would lead to a long-term increase in consumer prices. Somehow, though, this has been elided into the general rhetoric on fuel shortages, which are supposed to arise in the first instance from congestion around the Channel ports, which disrupt the distribution of supplies.

When we add hypothesised strike action, this obviously makes the situation worse and, should that ever happen, it's pretty certain that panic buying will kick in and there will be empty tanks at the garages, long queues and rationing.

To beef up their story, the BBC has "seen" some of the contingency plans for local authorities. And, although Aberdeen City Council lists as a low risk "reduced/lack of fuel affecting waste disposal, school transportation etc", the state broadcaster still manages to work in its name alongside suggestions that "fuel supply could be an issue".

The thing is that, typically, the national transport fleet averages half-empty (or half-full) tanks so, if collectively, the bulk of owner/operators decide to keep their tanks full, that in itself is enough to trigger a shortage at the pumps, even without any downturn in production.

With that, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the tariff issue is being overstated. Petrol is subject to massive duties plus VAT. This is charged on the duty-inclusive price, so we have a situation where customers are paying tax on a tax.

In Ireland, for instance, some 60 percent of the pump price goes to the government in duty and VAT, making a 4.7 percent tariff rather small beer.

One also suspects that Ireland, with established supply arrangements, could compensate for any tariffs by reducing slightly the duty payable, so that the net effect would be revenue-neutral, with no increase in the pump price either.

Altogether, therefore, it would look as if Aberdeen City Council has got it right, listing as a low risk "reduced/lack of fuel". And so far, only the BBC has been running the shortage story big – as lead item on the main evening TV news.

The rest of the media seems to be holding off, although the likes of Sky News is making the most of the "Yellowhammer" story.

Three days into that story, since the Sunday Times broke it over the weekend, we're getting a taste of how the media will be playing Brexit as we get closer to the 31 October deadline. Throughout the decades, the media has never needed an excuse to run headline stories on scares, and has never been troubled by minor things such as facts.

I think my favourite was at the height of the 1988-9 Salmonella and eggs scare, when the Observer gave its front-page lead to the graphic tale of a man who had eaten a fried egg for his breakfast, and was being hospitalised with salmonella food poisoning by lunch-time.

Given that the typical incubation period of Salmonellosis is 18 hours, and less than eight hours is unheard of, a period of just over four hours rates as extremely improbable – and demonstrably so. But that didn't stop the Observer running with the story.

Over the next couple of months, I rather suspect that we are going to see an increasing flow of Brexit-related scare stories, rising to a flood as the day of our departure draws closer. This will not be Project Fear, as such, but the natural tendency of the media to exploit bad news for its own commercial purposes.

In terms of supplies – whether food, medicines or fuel – such stories can very easily trigger panic buying, turning predictions into self-fulfilling prophesies. Largely random and unpredictable, these could frustrate planners' attempts to maintain the flow of key products.

And this is not helped by the lack of certainty as to the outcome of the Brexit process. Although I have little doubt that we are facing a no-deal exit on 31 October – especially after the response of Donald Tusk to Johnson's letter – at this late stage the possibility of a last-minute deal cannot be ruled out, even if that is extremely unlikely.

If, as some suspect, Johnson is indulging in a devious blame-shifting strategy, where he wants to pin the responsibility firmly on the EU – thus clearing the way for a general election – then we can expect the uncertainty to continue to the last minute. It will be necessary to maintain the charade of "talks" right up to the eleventh hour, to give the impression that serious attempts are being made to reach an orderly settlement.

Where the European Commission is relying on a form of words - as it did in yesterday's response to Johnson – to the effect that it stands "ready to work constructively with the UK and within our mandate", hope will forever spring eternal that something can be fixed – right up to the moment when it can't.

And when Angela Merkel is also talking in terms of the EU being "ready to find a solution to the backstop issue" – although she is confining the prospect of any talks to the political declaration – this would appear to leave the door open in a way that can be exploited by Johnson and his advisers.

All of this creates a febrile atmosphere, where rumour and misinformation can thrive, and where the media – as with the BBC and its petrol story – can build on slender threads to start multiple scares running.

The lack of information then feeds on itself, intensifying the uncertainty and making it very difficult for non-government actors to do any serious planning without incurring what may turn out to be unnecessary expense.

Unable to take considered action, we are all reduced to the role of spectators where, in terms of action we have little available to us but to respond to the ebb and flow of [often baseless] media scares. It might be said that the only things now open to us are to do or [panic] buy.



Richard North 21/08/2019 link

Brexit: full stop at the border

27/06/2019  


A little while ago, I wrote a piece which referred to the "naming of parts", stressing the importance of clarity and precision in the use of words, remarking that sloppy use of vocabulary leads to confusion and muddle.

But it isn't just the avoidance of confusion and muddle that is at stake. Clarity and precision also goes to credibility. I used for my example the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) rifle and one can imagine the reception which might be given to a self-proclaimed expert on the rifle who referred to the magazine as, say, "the bullet container".

In that context, one takes a rather cynical view of the self-styled Alternative Arrangements Commission (AAC) and its Interim Report. The report is put together by supposed experts but displays an alarming number of what might be called "rookie errors". For instance, if one turns to Chapter 9 (page 109) one sees the assertion that:
Under EU law, there are multiple regulations requiring inspections of animals, animal products, food and plants ("Veterinary and SPS goods") at the EU's external borders. … For example, under EU law, imports of plants and plant products must comply with phytosanitary measures that require the goods to … undergo customs inspections at the BIP at the point of entry into the EU.
From this short passage, a few points emerge. Firstly, one sees the reference to "Veterinary and SPS goods", which is rather odd. SPS stands for Sanitary and Phytosanitary – respectively products of animal and plant origin. The "sanitary" goods are veterinary goods. The term SPS is sufficient – the addition of "veterinary" is tautologous and is not used by practitioners.

Secondly, customs do not carry out SPS checks. They are not customs inspections and are carried out entirely separately to customs controls. They include veterinary border controls and plant protection controls, many of which come under the generic term "official controls".

Thirdly, plants and plant products are not inspected in Border Inspection Posts (BIPs), as such. The BIPs are veterinary inspection posts. Legally, under EU law, plants and plant products go to Designated Points of Entry (DPE). However, foodstuffs of plant origin, for the sake of administrative convenience, are often inspected in combined units which are both BIPs and DPEs.

Even if insistence on accuracy in this instance might be regarded (by some) as pedantry, the manifest inaccuracies certainly go to the credibility of the AAC. If they can't get such details right, what credence can be given to the rest of their report?

Furthermore, there is an important omission in the short passage to which I refer. While it is indeed the case that plant and plant products are inspected at DPEs, there is no reference to an important exception which allows approved importers to have their checks carried out "at a place other than the point of entry into the Community or at a place close by". This is quite a crucial point as there is already far more flexibility in the system than is indicated by the original assertion.

As it happens, official controls (which are not mentioned anywhere in the AAC's report by their correct designation), form an important part of the report – understandably so, as they create major problems in the event of Brexit, with or without a deal. Under almost all circumstances, the Republic will be required to install on its border with Northern Ireland what are to be renamed Border Control Posts (BCPs), where mandatory SPS checks will have to be carried out on goods imported from the UK (and other third countries).

Given the length of the Irish land border and the multiple crossing points, and the relatively high volume of SPS traffic, this presents one of the most intractable problems for Brexit, and doubly so in the event of a no-deal. Thus, it is one the AAC is keenest to solve, in terms of proposing "alternative arrangements".

But here, the AAC's report is not tainted just by inaccuracy but by a downright lie. Desperate to sell the concept of "beyond the border" inspections, the AAC wants to replace the BIPs/BCPs with "mobile inspection vehicles" which are "capable of providing the platform for required veterinary inspections in-situ on farms and food producers locations".

I will return to the concept of mobile units shortly, but currently, the AAC report does at least acknowledge that, "As a general rule, veterinary inspections must be conducted at BIPs which should be located in the immediate vicinity of the point of entry for the importation of the animals and veterinarians must be present to carry out such inspections".

This is set out in Regulation (EU) 2017/625 although the AAC also asserts that "SPS goods may also be inspected at an approved inland location, for example in a cold storage facility where a container is unloaded". I am unable confirm the veracity of this claim – it is unreferenced and I can find no such exception in EU legislation.

Interestingly, all references are omitted from the AAC report, but it does go on to make a more substantive assertion, that:
EU law contains an exception that, where necessitated by geographical constraints (such as an unloading wharf or a pass), a border inspection post at a certain distance from the point of introduction may be tolerated if approved by the EU through the applicable procedures and, in the case of rail transport, at the first station stop designated by a Member State. For example, in Rotterdam the BIP is located 40km inland from the container terminal in the harbour.
And here we have the lie direct, with a degree of creative ambiguity which is quite obviously calculated to deceive. Firstly, EU law, currently, doesn't contain an exception – not at the moment. A new law, Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) 2019/1012, has recently been promulgated. But this does not take effect until later this year, on 14 December.

The point here is that a law not currently in force cannot apply to the existing situation in Rotterdam where it is claimed that "the BIP is located 40km inland from the container terminal in the harbour". But the lie is more subtle, seen last year in a report written by Peter Lilley.

As I wrote at the time, not only is this not true in principle, it is disingenuous at several levels. Rotterdam is not so much a port as a port complex, stretching from the Maas estuary at the North Sea end, with the Kloosterboer Delta Terminal, into the heart of the city, with an outpost Dordrecht on the Oude Maas. In all, it extends over 40 kms from end to end.

Putting this in context, even if the BIP was bang in the centre of the port complex, it would still be 20 km from the "border" – i.e., the seaward edge of the complex. As it is, there are four separate BIP facilities registered by the EU within the Rotterdam Port area, including one at the Kloosterboer Delta Terminal, right at the entrance to the estuary.

But, as far as the AAC is concerned, no lie is so egregious that it cannot be usefully recycled, and then swallowed uncritically by the gullible. And that brings us to the creative ambiguity, the claimed exception to the "immediate vicinity" rule set out in Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) 2019/1012.

Although the AAC would have you believe that this is a wide-ranging exemption, it is remarkably limited. Basically, it applies to points of entry: with a geographical configuration that imposes major constraints on the transportation system; which are subject to recurrent floods in certain periods of the year; where maritime wharves are surrounded by cliffs; where border roads cross a high pass; where rail transport of animals and goods makes it necessary to locate the border control post at the first station stop; or where there is no suitable land in the vicinity.

Spelling out the detail makes one thing abundantly clear: nothing in the new regulations would permit the movement of BCPs away from the Irish border, much less allow "veterinary inspections in-situ on farms and food producers locations". The AAC scheme is pure moonshine.

As for using "mobile inspection vehicles", at the top of this page is a picture of a BIP (one I have used before). These are substantial buildings, with the requirements set out in Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/1014. The detail reflects the range and complexity of the functions carried out in them. And the AAC thinks they can use vehicles to do the job? Seriously?

But just in case there might be any uncertainty about what is intended, yesterday we saw Shanker Singham address the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, where he was asked by Lady Hermon about these famous mobile inspection units. Said Singham:
You have to differentiate between veterinary checks and classical SPS checks done inland in facilities and veterinary checks which historically have had to be done at border inspection posts at the border. So the UCC and the Border Inspection Post regulation allows you to move in certain cases the infrastructure off the border, so that's the first step. The first step is to move the infrastructure off the border.
Questioned about this specific aspect, Singham reiterated that, "the BIP regulation allows you, you don't have to have a Border Inspection Post at the border for SPS checks". Lady Hermon quickly asked which inspections were going to be moved, whence Singham asserted:
The point is that in the ordinary case, when a border emerges like this, there would be a requirement to have a Border Inspection Post at the border. Obviously, we can't do that for the island of Ireland so we what we need to do is what are the current Union Customs Code derogations that allow you to have a check away from the border, or the inspection post away from the border. So we've take advantage of that, and we've also taken advantage of the direction of travel of the European Union regulation. There are new European regulations coming out that say you can do more of these veterinary checks outside even a Border Inspection Post, that you can do them even with these sort of things, mobile units and veterinary teams.
Needless to say, the Union Customs Code does not apply to SPS checks, so Singham is perpetuating the rookie error of eliding official controls and customs controls. The exemptions (not derogations) on BIP locations are set out in the Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) 2019/1012 and they are as previously stated.

There is, however, an exemption where a "mobile official control team" can be used, but that applies to border control posts, "which, due to the long coastline or borders of the Member State concerned, only operate at the time of performing controls on consignments of unprocessed logs and sawn and chipped wood". The BCPs are not replaced, and the checks can't be done "away from the border". What this allows is for several specialist posts dealing only with unprocessed logs and sawn and chipped wood to be staffed, under certain conditions, by a mobile team of officials.

This misrepresentation is way beyond moonshine. But, returning to my original "naming of parts", if your gullible audience doesn't know what a rifle magazine is, then the "expert" gets away with calling it a "bullet container".

So, yesterday, we had Shanker Singham spouting the most unbelievable guff at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. There wasn't a single MP ready to call him out, pointing out that the mythical mobile units were a complete invention and can't exist within the framework of EU law.

The reality is that Brexit creates a requirement for multiple Border Inspection Posts (BCPs). But, says Singham (quite rightly): "Obviously, we can't do that for the island of Ireland". So he invents a fantasy solution which, with a straight face, he puts to a committee of gullible MPs, to the plaudits of most of the members, some of whom are on the board of his commission.

It is no wonder we're getting nowhere with Brexit. When liars stalk the land, polluting the debate with their poisonous nostrums, and no one calls them out, we cannot progress, especially when the Guardian is more interested in Mr Johnson being "criticised for [his] male-dominated campaign team".

And it gets even worse. It is this garbage, as the Independent notes, on which Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson relies.

Singham claims that the job of his AAC was "to come up with the arrangements that we think will makes sense". But the only "sense" here is that he and Johnson, liars both, deserve each other. Yet, as is reported equally uncritically by the BBC, he still gets away with saying that his "alternative arrangements protocol is intended to supersede and make the backstop unnecessary. It would be almost like a 'front stop'", he says.

Sadly, once the European Commission has finished with it, it would not be a "front stop" so much as a full stop.



Richard North 27/06/2019 link

Brexit: cutting an absurd figure

01/10/2018  


Jeremy Hunt's speech to the Tory conference yesterday was particularly disturbing not just for the choice of words but for its illustration of the foreign secretary's lack of grasp of the issues.

If Mr Hunt really believes that the EU thinks that the way to "keep the club together" is to "punish a member who leaves, not just with economic disruption but even by breaking up the United Kingdom with a border down the Irish Sea", then we have a minister who is so far detached from reality that he is probably beyond salvation.

On one level, it would be possible to dismiss the speech as crass Tory dog-whistling, telling the conference faithful what they wanted to hear. That is certainly a context for the assertion that, "The EU was set up to protect freedom. It was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving".

But then Hunt went on to say that: "The lesson from history is clear: if you turn the EU club into a prison, the desire to get out won't diminish it will grow, and we won’t be the only prisoner that will want to escape". Taken together, these phrases dragged the speech into a different dimension.

To appreciate this, all you have to do is look at Article 50 – and recall that once a Member State notifies the European Council of its intention to leave, withdrawal is automatic on the second anniversary of the notification – unless all the parties agree otherwise.

In any literal sense, therefore, it is simply not sensible to assert that the EU is a prison. When a Member asks to leave, the doors automatically spring open after an elapse of time needed to discuss exit arrangements, and the UK is free to walk away – with no conditions other than those to which it agrees.

It would be logical and acceptable to make the "prison" argument if Article 50 did not exist, but it was precisely because the "colleagues" did not wish to have their political union regarded as a "prison of nations" that the Article was introduced. To argue now that the EU is a prison is perverse.

But what Hunt is also doing is indulging in what amounts to blame transference, evidenced by his complaint that the EU intends to "punish a member who leaves, not just with economic disruption but even by breaking up the United Kingdom with a border down the Irish Sea".

Taking the issue of "economic disruption", this puts Hunt in a fantasy world of his own making. He needs to realise that the UK is leaving the EU – it is walking away from the non-prison. And no-one sensible will disagree that the consequence of that departure will be – as a matter of inevitability – an amount of economic disruption. The only variable is how much.

As to "breaking up the United Kingdom with a border down the Irish Sea", it is simply not correct to present the EU as the progenitor of any such effect. By seeking to make this the responsibility of the EU, Hunt is demonstrating that he simply doesn't understand what is going on.

This he has in common with many others in the Conservative Party, who simply do not seem to be able to cope with the idea that, after Brexit, the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland becomes part of the external border to the European Union.

When you think about this – clearly – there should be no questions arising out of this new status. Border controls should automatically apply, the consequences of which should be that there will be a "hard" border, with control posts at every major crossing.

On that basis, the very fact that the EU is prepared to work with the UK to devise an exception to its own rules, allowing the free flow of goods across the border, is a major concession. If it wanted to be bloody-minded, it could refuse to discuss the issue, and remind the Irish Government of its obligations under the Union Customs Code and the requirements to impose border checks.

For the EU to waive checks at this border, however, does not relieve it of the obligation to protect the integrity of the Single Market, without opening itself to claims of a breach of WTO anti-discrimination rules. Thus, in acceding to the need for a soft Irish border, the EU is presenting itself with technical and legal problems which it could have avoided had it taken a more rigorous, inflexible stance.

Unfortunately, if the EU removes controls at the Irish border, that opens a potential back door into the Single Market for goods and services from the UK. They can be routed via Northern Ireland into the Irish Republic, whence they will be deemed to be freely circulating within an EU Member State. From there, they can be exported without any further controls to any other Member State.

Equally, if the UK decides to have a relaxed import regime with the rest of the world, goods (and to an extent services) flooding into the UK can then be re-exported to the EU, via Northern Ireland and the land border with the Republic, circumventing any of the controls that would apply if they were exported directly from their originating countries.

What the state of play is at present is an irrelevance. If there is a soft border on the island, and no controls on goods (or services) flowing from the mainland UK to Northern Ireland, then the EU is allowing a huge gap in its trade defence system. Obviously, this cannot be tolerated.

Looking at the problem from a technical perspective, there are only two realistic solutions. The first is to impose border controls on goods crossing over from the mainland into Northern Ireland, requiring full conformity with EU law before being allowed entry. This is precisely the option to which the UK government is objecting.

The alternative is for the UK as a whole to maintain full regulatory alignment with the EU, imposing controls on its own borders and preventing the entry of goods from third countries unless they also conformed with EU law. To all intents and purposes, that would mean the UK continuing to participate in the Single Market – something Mrs May has said she will not do.

As it stands, this leaves the EU in an impossible position. But, recognising that, the UK have been offering a variety of "fixes", with the standing proposal amounting to the Chequers plan. This accepts regulatory alignment for a limited range of products – but not services – confined to those products which are currently trafficked across the internal border.

For entirely understandable reasons, the EU is uncomfortable with this arrangement. To add to this, it sees itself as being asked to permit "frictionless" trade with the UK - a privilege given only to fully-fledged Member States (and Efta/EEA states, with some modifications), effectively allowing full participation in the Single Market without the UK complying fully with the rules.

This, the EU cannot do. It is not a question of "punishing" the UK. Rather, the UK cannot be given a better deal than Member States as a "reward" for leaving. Jeremey Hunt has got it arse about face. This is not keeping the club together by punishing a member who leaves. It is a refusal to reward a leaver with a better deal than the members enjoy. To do otherwise would most certainly weaken the "club".

This is where we have been right from the beginning of the negotiations and Chequers does not bring us anywhere near the finishing line. For a deal to be acceptable, Mrs May will have to ensure that the UK remains in full regulatory alignment with the EU.

Additionally, the UK will have to participate in the regulatory "ecosystem", with its provisions for joint market surveillance, supervision, enforcement and dispute settlement. This is not negotiable. Regulatory conformity alone is not sufficient to ensure frictionless. Furthermore, the UK will have to satisfy the EU that it has dynamic mechanisms for ensuring continued regulatory alignment. Divergence simply will not be permitted.

Now, when one sets this out in this fashion, it becomes embarrassingly evident how far behind the curve Mr Hunt is. He can blather all he likes about "Dunkirk spirit", but this is not about standing firm against an enemy which, when push came to shove, didn't have the military resource to invade this island.

This is about the technical minutiae of trade rules, where we have to interface with one of the most sophisticated and advanced trading blocs in the world. Standing on the cliffs of Dover and waving one's fist at the non-existent invading hordes doesn't cut it. The mental image is bizarre.

But this is the current foreign secretary who is saying: "… if the only way to deal with the UK leaving is to try to force its break-up, as someone much more distinguished than me once said, the answer is 'No No No'!".

When he then adds: "Let me say one more thing about these talks. Never mistake British politeness for British weakness because, if you put a country like Britain in a corner, we don't crumble – we fight", he does not come over as a heroic or even a resolute figure. This is a silly little man, cutting an absurd figure.

Really, if Hunt – to say nothing of prime minister May – can't do better than this, then we are looking down the nose of a "no deal" scenario. The EU will have no option but to walk away in despair, unable to negotiate with a nation represented by politicians who are so inept.



Richard North 01/10/2018 link

Brexit: the realisation dawns

27/09/2018  


International Air Transport Association (IATA) CEO Alexandre de Juniac has been talking to Bloomberg about the oncoming "Brexit chaos" in aviation, ruminating on the views of the industry's paying customers.

"Everybody thinks there'll be a solution and so they're not deterred from buying a ticket", de Juniac says, "but the closer we get to April, the more uncertain things are and the bigger the impact will be".

That, though, seems to be very much the sentiment across the board – and inside most industries. To date, even senior executives of major listed companies have been convinced that it'll be alright on the night – as we found from personal experience. But, as we get closer to the day, people are beginning to have second thoughts.

Talking of his own industry, de Juniac says that the notion that the issue of grounded flights could be addressed in the final hours approaching the Brexit deadline is nonsensical.

"It is crazy", he told Bloomberg. "To think that you could negotiate such technical matters in the last hours on as sensitive a subject as aviation, with the safety issues. It's totally unprofessional, risky and disrespectful to the passengers who will have bought a ticket".

And, if elements of aviation industry are beginning to see the light, so too, it seems, is the National Farmers Union NFU). To date, it has displayed an almost Pollyanna level of optimism over Brexit but, according to the Guardian, it is finally getting the message, warning that a no deal Brexit "'would stop British farming exports for six months".

It has certainly taken long enough for the realisation to dawn. I wrote about this in January 2017 and many times afterwards, including this piece in July of last year, with a Monograph setting out the detail in the April - over 17 months ago.

But if the media and the politicians are in their own little bubble, so too is the NFU. Having ignored my work, and the European Commission's Notice to Stakeholders, published in February of this year, it has finally realised that a hard Brexit will close down the export of products of animal origin to EU Member States for the foreseeable future.

The farmers' union could, of course, found this out for itself - all it had to do was look up the relevant EU law. But, despite its resources, it has had to wait to be spoon-fed from Defra and the European Commission to point out what it should have already known for several years.

The crunch comes with the NFU having been told "informally" that although Britain is in complete regulatory alignment with the EU, if there is no deal, the same health checks countries such as China and the US undergo will apply to UK suppliers.

More to the point, before any products of animal origin can be exported, the UK must be listed by the EU as an approved exporter, with separate approvals required for each product sector. This has also been published in one of the government's recent "technical notices", this one entitled: "Exporting animals and animal products if there's no Brexit deal".

In the key passage, we see that, "the EU would require the UK to be a listed third country". The document then adds: "In the unlikely event of a 'no deal' scenario, the UK would apply for this status but cannot be certain of the EU response or its timing. Without listed status no exports to the EU could take place".

For approvals to be given to the meat sector, some 6,000 abattoirs, processing plants and cold stores will have to undergo inspections by the UK "competent authorities" for their establishment numbers to be re-issued. A sample of these must be checked by EU officials and then the UK food safety plan must be submitted.

Once all the hurdles have been overcome, the standing veterinary committee makes recommendations for approval, and Commission must them submit the UK for listing to the Council which must publish a formal notice of approval in the Official Journal. The whole process, the NFU has calculated, will take six months "at a conservative reading".

This realisation has led NFU's director general, Terry Jones, to declare that: "What we are talking about in effect is a six-month trade embargo until such time we can get the product in". And then, he says, "from that point we will face the European's external tariff wall meaning we will be priced out of the market".

Jones then observes that the UK government is planning to keep imports flowing by allowing goods to enter without checks to Britain, with tariffs reduced to keep food inflation below five percent.

Thus, he notes that, in order to keep the shelves full and food inflation down, the government is going to adopt one stance. But, from the discussions the government is having with the EU, it appears that the EU will not start the process of approving the UK as an exporter until 30 March – after Brexit.

On that basis, however, we could find ourselves with a surplus of certain products, such as Welsh lamb. Fastidious British consumers are also less inclined to by offal and dark poultry meat, much of which is exported to the Continent.

If such products cannot be exported, they are likely to be used in food processing and, for a while, that will drive down the prices of some manufactured foods. The effect of a "no deal" Brexit, therefore, could be mixed. For a while, we could be looking a some foods being considerably cheaper than they are now.

It may also render unnecessary the government's appointment MP David Rutley as the minister to oversee the protection of food supplies through the Brexit process. Rather like drought ministers whose appointments have been accompanied by rain and floods, Rutley may find himself presiding over a surplus of food in the short-term.

Overall, though, the "take home" point is the recognition by the government that, all things being equal, exports of products of animal origin will cease if we have a "no deal" Brexit – despite regulatory alignment on day one of Brexit.

This completely contradicts the nonsense churned out by Shanker Singham and the IEA – to say nothing of Mr Rees-Mogg and his ERG colleagues. We are finally seeing a dose of reality impinge on the debate, with the government also pointing out that – when exports are allowed to resume - all animal products and live animals from the UK to the EU "would need to travel through a Border Inspection Post (BIP) within the EU".

This requirement will apply even if we do negotiate a deal, such as Canada plus. The Guardian thus notes that the UK loses the chance of exporting meat through the Dover-Calais route, as there is no BIP at Calais.

Wrongly, it says that the nearest border inspection posts are Zeebrugge and Rotterdam, missing out the units at Dunkirk and le Havre – albeit that neither of these have the capacity to handle the extra traffic.

Nevertheless, with glacial slowness, more of the consequences of a "no deal" Brexit are being realised, although we are also told that the EU could introduce emergency legislation to keep food from Britain flowing, but "that is their call, not our call".

This much, we're getting from the Financial Times which tells us that Brussels is making plans to pass emergency rule changes to cope with a "no-deal" Brexit in as little as five days.

This will be a fast-track process that allows European Commission to accelerate passing legal acts, details of which were which was explained to member states on Wednesday, will permit the EU to prepare for a worst-case scenario without undermining negotiations with the UK on a withdrawal deal.

Doubtless, these are the unilateral measures which Sir Ivan Rogers mentioned some time back, indicating that the EU is not going to be sitting back relying on the UK to negotiate the infamous mini-deals. With or without a deal, it is going to be looking after its own interests.

And with the realisation dawning over here that we are in for a torrid time, in the event of a "no deal" scenario, we can only hope that the Cabinet's loss of enthusiasm for a "no deal" Brexit is rooted in reality. One suspects, however, that reality has yet to reach that far.



Richard North 27/09/2018 link
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