How Africa has weathered the COVID-19 storm

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that COVID-19 has so far made a “soft landfall” in the continent of Africa – with nearly 100,000 cases throughout and a relatively low number of deaths. Compared to other regions, Africa has been spared high infection and mortality rates.

The relatively low levels of infection are a combination of luck and good management. Many African nations implemented lockdown measures early, having seen the results of the virus spreading in countries like Italy or the UK. That Africa was not one of the early regions to suffer gave it time to take preventative action. Its leaders also had the good sense not to call COVID-19 “a little flu”, and subsequently not take appropriate action and condemn many of their citizens to death.

One of the factors that may have made a considerable difference in Africa is the actions of the African Union currently chaired by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. Under his stewardship, the African Union have worked closely and effectively with the WHO on measures to stop the virus spreading throughout the region. They have also worked closely with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) to push for debt restructuring in response to the global economic crisis this pandemic has caused. Unlike the European Union, the African Union has proactively helped the 55 nation members work together to combat this virus.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has stood out as a leader during this pandemic, implementing one of the toughest lockdowns in the world to stop the virus. His act fast, act hard policy has been widely praised as showing decisive leadership that has saved lives.

 

Cyril Ramaphosa at NASREC Expo Centre in Johannesburg where facilities are in place to treat coronavirus patients. Photo by JEROME DELAY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has been praised for this decisive leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ramaphosa has no doubt learnt from his predecessor Thabo Mbeki’s abysmal response to the HIV crisis in South Africa where inaction by the government caused the virus to spread quickly. Sadly it’s through these sort of deadly mistakes that politicians learn the importance of prevention in public health.

The picture isn’t all rosy in Africa. As virus numbers rise, South Africa is warning it could run out of ICU beds in June. There are also grave concerns for the state of the South African economy as a result of the lockdown, given it was already struggling before this crisis.

Issues in South Africa pale in comparison to the issues in Tanzania, where the government is suspected to have covered up the infection rate and death toll. President John Magufuli has led a crackdown on anyone who criticises the government handling of COVID-19, and opposition politicians have had their phones tapped. Tanzania has been an exception in Africa where most governments have implemented a shutdown. In Tanzania, the president has fired health experts and refused to implement a lockdown. Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged the Tanzanian government to share data on COVID-19 infection rates and remains worried at the lack of data coming out of the country to date. Kenya has closed its border with Tanzania apart from cargo traffic and imposed testing measures on Tanzanian truck drivers after more than 50 of them tested positive for the virus in a single day.

Tanzania is the outlier, with most other African nations acting responsibly and listening to WHO guidance. 100,000 cases of COVID-19 out of a population of 1.216 billion throughout the African continent is a very good result. Africa is the poorest continent on earth, and only a few decades earlier suffered from European colonisation. HIV and Ebola have added further suffering to a war-torn and impoverished region. The actions of the African Union, and the majority of its member states to prevent the spread of COVID-19 could well be a turning point for Africa. While much of the continent remains economically deprived, Africa has now shown the world that its leaders can take decisive action to save lives and prevent suffering. If crippling debt imposed on African nations by better-off countries (who in many cases were former colonisers of the region) can be written off, this region has a real chance to develop over the coming decade.

 

UK Social Care – a longstanding policy failure

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore the longstanding policy failure in UK social care. The UK has the second-highest COVID-19 death toll on the planet, and this is in no small part due to the virus spreading rapidly through residential care homes. But the problem in the care sector is bigger than COVID-19, this is a sector which has suffered decades of neglect and indecision by policymakers and the result has been deadly.

2m extra Government funding for MK Council to tackle coronavirus ...
The UK care sector has suffered decades of neglect and indecision by policymakers

As levels of testing for coronavirus in the UK remain abysmally poor it is difficult to give precise figures. It is estimated that nearly half of the 36,000 COVID-19 deaths in the UK have occurred in residential care homes. Thousands of carers and those needing care have contracted the virus, though many still have not been tested. Some providers estimate that of those showing signs of coronavirus fewer than 25% have been tested. Of those who have been tested, many have had to wait days for their results to come back. In certain parts of the country such as Cumbria, care staff have been told they need to travel two to three hours to the nearest testing centre. Given all this, and the woeful lack of PPE given to care-workers, it is not at all surprising that the virus has spread in the residential care homes so quickly.

To be fair to the government, once the crisis hit the were prepared to spend money, but it hasn’t got to the right places. The government pumped £3.2 billion into the adult social care to support the sector during this difficult time.  Just this week, the government announced an additional £300 million would be given to funding infection control, specifically testing and contact tracing. As Care England CEO, Professor Martin Green pointed out when giving evidence at the Health & Social Care Select Committee this week, the money isn’t going to where it is most needed. In the UK, local authorities are responsible for managing social care. Recent government funding has been given to local councils who are then expected to pass this onto care providers, unfortunately, this has not always happened. As Martin Green explains, both local councils and care providers are very stretched right now, and the underlying problem is they are trying to manage an unsustainable social care system.

The number of people needing social care has been increasing in recent years. It is predicted there will be a 33% increase people living till 85 or older over the next 20 years (and many of these people will be living with long term health issues), so the demand for social care will continue to grow. Despite this clearly looming large as a policy area in need of attention, the response from successive UK governments over the last twenty has been to duck the issue.

The fundamental problem is that unlike the National Health Service (NHS) which is free at the point of delivery, social care is not. At present, anyone who has more than £23,000 in assets must pay the full cost of social care if they or their family members need it. The UK social care arrangements are a legacy of the English poor laws. When the Beveridge Report of 1942 was produced proposing to create the welfare state, there was no assumption that people would start living longer into retirement, often requiring ongoing care. When the NHS was established a few years later in 1948, a National Care Service was sadly not created as an appendage to it. Worse, no government in the intervening 72 years has thought to extend the NHS to cover social care, despite it quite clearly being part and parcel of the public health system.

As already explained, local authorities are responsible for providing social care in their communities. Through local government, there are publically funded social care services for people who have no ability to pay. However local government struggle to meet the demand, especially over the last decade of austerity where funding to councils from central government has been cut drastically. At the same time demand continues to grow. According to The King’s Fund 400,000 fewer older people have access to publicly funded social care than in 2010.

When people need social care, whether this is residential care or support in their own homes, it can cost them and their loved ones many thousands of pounds a year. Many are forced to sell their homes or spend their life savings to cover this cost.

Most care providers in the UK are contracted through private providers. During the COVID-19 crisis, many of the smaller operators have struggled to keep going due to empty beds (either due to COVID-19 deaths and people being reluctant to move into care facilities). The situation at present is that many of the current providers are struggling to keep going, and additional funding from the government is said to not be getting through to care providers. At the same time already stretched local authorities are facing ever-increasing demands for social care in their communities. Add to this the cost of purchasing PPE which remains scarce and expensive.

The other major challenge in the care sector is the lack of investment in staffing. Working in adult social care is not well paid, and people in the sector complain about a lack of parity with staff working in the NHS both in terms of pay and status. Social care workers will often be inaccurately described in the media as ‘low skill’ when nothing could be further from the truth. There are approximately 100,000 vacancies in the social care sector at any given time, and poor pay and stressful working conditions are seen as major contributing factors. The UK government points-based immigration system will likely make it harder care providers to recruit migrants, despite the care sector relying of overseas labour at present.

It would be wrong to suggest that the social care sector in England and Wales is completely broken. In Greater Manchester, the council under Mayor Andy Burnham has established a partnership between the NHS and social care to facilitate joined-up thinking and improve service delivery. The council signed a devolution deal with the government and is now responsible for the health and social care spending in the Greater Manchester area. Initiatives such as this are to be commended, however, there shouldn’t be a postcode lottery as to whether there is a well functioning social care system linked to the NHS.

After the 2019 election, when the Conservatives secured a large majority, Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for a cross-party consensus on how to solve the social care “crisis”.  Social care has been a political football in recent years. In the 2017 election the Tories had to back down on their “dementia tax” policy to pay for social care. This policy was deemed to be an additional tax on those with dementia or those needing long term care, and was very unpopular with the British electorate. Prior to this in government, the Conservatives had passed the Care Act of 2014 based on the principles in the 2011 Dilnot whereby after a lifetime contribution cap, individuals would be eligible for full state support in receiving social care. The Tories in coalition with the Liberal Democrats passed the bill in 2014, but in 2015 once governing alone announced a delay in funding the provisions in the Care Act, and this delay continues to this day. The bizarre situation of the government passing a law, only to then not fund or implement it would be quite funny were it not for the many thousands of people needing social care who have been left in limbo by this action. Social care has been placed in the too hard basket by politicians and clear decisive leadership to resolve the crisis has been sorely lacking. A cross-party consensus would be great as this would provide certainty to the sector, but this would still require making tough decisions, something that has been a distinct lack of to date.

There needs to be a National Care Service connected to the NHS, which is publicly funded to a level that nobody who needs care misses out due to financial hardship or a lack of appropriate care services. The cost of implementing this would not be cheap, and there would need to be an honest public debate about this being funded through general taxation. However, NHS figures showing the number of people admitted to A & E due to lack of social care and the cost and pressure this places on the health system would highlight the need to fund social care. Millions of pounds are spent each month treating dementia patients or others who end up in hospital when they really need social care to remain safe and healthy. In Scotland the devolved government has introduced free social care for people aged 65 years and over, there is no reason other parts of the UK can’t do the same.

That it has taken a global pandemic, where deaths in residential care homes have meant the UK has the second-highest COVID-19 mortality rate in the world, for policymakers to really sit up and take notice is a disgrace. Now is the time for making bold decisions to address the many challenges in adult social care.

 

 

 

Brazil – where the drug gangs show more leadership than the President

One of the more bizarre twists during the COVID-19 pandemic has been how the crisis has unfolded in Brazil. The country’s populist right-wing government has failed to implement social distancing measures, leaving the gangs to implement them in the poorest urban areas.

The response of Brazillian president Bolsonaro to the virus has been to describe it as “a little flu”, and encouraged people to keep going to work. There has been no official government lockdown in Brazil, and the country’s Health Minister was sacked by Bolsonaro for advocating social distancing. Current COVID-19 figures from Brazil are that 193,838 people have caught the virus, and 13,618 have died – meaning the country has the sixth-highest coronavirus infection rate in the world and by far the worse in South America.

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro denounced for joining pro ...
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro coughing while addressing a protest in Brazil recently. This protest was demanding a return to a military dictatorship in the country, a call the president appears to support.

To paraphrase Aristotle, power abhors a vacuum and the presidency of Bolsonaro certainly failed to provide leadership during this crisis. In the absence of the government taking responsibility, it has been left to the drug gangs to implement social distancing measures in the favelas. These gangs have been using WhatsApp and other social media tools to send out messages to people living in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Below are a couple of examples:

“Whoever is caught on the street will learn how to respect the measure. We want the best for the population. If the government is unable to manage, organised crime resolves,”

“We are on the streets taking risks so that you can sleep in peace, we leave our families to protect yours, so, then respect the order we have given. If you are caught out on the street after 10pm, it will be bad”

What is the motivation for organised crime to take this action during this pandemic? Firstly it is good business sense to protect the lives of the people you make money out of. Mass death in the favelas is bad for business, as these are the people who buy your drugs.

Many of Brazils favelas were constructed in the 1970s when rural workers moved to Brazil’s cities. They are often poorly built and in close proximity to one another.

The second reason is ethos (ethical appeal to convince an audience of someone’s credibility or character). These gangs are about building and maintaining power in their communities. One of the key things needed to gain and sustain power is credibility, mass support and appeal. The evidence is pretty clear from the WHO and the scientific community that social distancing is required to stop the spread of the virus. This is logical reasoning or Logos to win support. It is the poorest, most densely populated areas which will be worst affected by the virus spreading. People in these areas will feel vulnerable and scared, so a group providing leadership to save lives will gain emotional appeal or Pathos. So at a time when people fear the virus and science is clear on what course of action is needed to prevent its spread, the way to gain credibility or ethos is to take the logical and popular course of action that the government should have but didn’t.

The third reason is the age-old story of organised crime. Anyone who has watched Peaky Blinders will know that criminals in gangs are usually looking for a way to turn legitimate. Making money from illegal activities poses a significant level of business risk. Though the returns may be high, the cost of being arrested, shut down or murdered by rival gangs or law enforcement is considerable. Providing public health leadership during a pandemic is a great way to establish yourself as a community leader, and get into local politics. There is a well-trodden path from organised crime to mainstream politics and there are many transferable skills when switching from one to another.

It is certainly not an enviable situation where your local drug dealer understands power, politics and leadership better than the man elected to be your country’s president. Much worse is that these same criminals, who make their money off selling additive substances that destroy lives, have shown greater respect for people living in the favelas than the government.

People in the favelas face threats of violence and intimidation from these gangs if they leave their homes during the pandemic. This is a horrible situation to live in. Yet at the same time, the crisis provides an opportunity for the gangs to implement this level of power and control with a level of legitimacy they would have never gained in normal times.

The conditions in the favelas are such that even with social distancing, it is difficult to stop the spread of COVID-19. Houses are built in very close proximity, and often large families are confined into a small living space. In these sorts of environments, it is next to impossible to stop the spread of coronavirus. Attempts to implement social distancing are the best chance people in these areas have of slowing the spread and saving lives. Whilst it is highly undesirable that this preventative public health measure is being run by criminals, someone needed to.

 

 

Little Richard 1932 – 2020: the King and Queen of rock’n’roll who gave us everything (NME obituary)

Below is the NME obituary tribute to musical legend Little Richard Sometimes you want to say something but someone has already said it best….so you repost their work on your blog:

One of the founding fathers of popular culture has died at the age of 87. RIP

It’s almost impossible to imagine what middle America must have made of Little Richard when he first emerged in 1955; this bisexual black guy, covered in make-up, standing up at the piano and banging out songs about bumming. The original lyrics to his seismic – and, really, that’s too weak a word for a song that tore a hole in the space-time continuum and brought the onset of modern popular culture crashing forward – first hit ‘Tutti Frutti’, changed at the behest of record label Specialty, went, jaw-droppingly: “Tutti frutti / Good booty / If it don’t fit – don’t force it / Just grease it / Make it easy.

Little Richard would still be outrageous and boundary pushing if he was making music in 2020, more than six decades after he conjured the spirit of freedom and rebellion in nine syllables. When he roared, in the opening moments of ‘Tutti Frutti’, “Wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bom-bom!”, it was the big bang that ignited rock’n’roll, the birth of the teenager, the spark that lit the fuse that careered through the sounds of Elvis Presley and The Beatles, and which still courses through the veins of anyone – and anything – hell-bent on resisting the status quo.

Little Richard, who has died at the age of 87, was born Richard Penniman in 1932 in Macon, Georgia. One of 12 children, he earned his nickname due to his diminutive frame, which was not helped by an uneven gait that, some in the local community suggested, gave him an effeminate air. “I look back on my life, comin’ out of Macon, Georgia – I never thought I’d be a superstar, a living legend,” he later admitted. But Little Richard was different from the very start.

His father, Charles “Bud” Penniman, sold moonshine at a bar named the Tip Inn. Richard soaked up the black gospel music from the local church and was taught to play gospel piano by a male musician named Eskew Reeder, Jr., who went by the stage name Esquerita and wore heavy make-up and a flamboyant pompadour wig, which would later become Little Richard’s signature look. He combined these influences – the naughtiness of the bar, the passion of the church and Esquerita’s single-mindedness – with a love of boogie-woogie, which he began to play at travelling vaudeville shows as a teenager.

He spent the early 1950s recording rough blues songs for RCA Camden, a cheapie subsidiary of RCA Records, but it was with the Los Angeles-based Specialty Records that he concocted the raw-edged songs – ‘Tutti Frutti’, ‘Slippin’ and Slidin’’, ‘Lucille’, ‘Rip It Up’ – that, charged with his electric voice, would form the alchemical base of rock’n’roll. The man who would later hail himself as ‘the King and Queen of rock’n’roll’ was washing dishes at the Greyhound bus station in Macon when he was summoned to Specialty’s New Orleans studio to lay down the tracks.

Little Richard has passed away
Little Richard, circa 1957. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

His 1957 debut album, ‘Here’s Little Richard’, which reshaped music forever, ran to just 28 minutes and 30 seconds. It reached Number 13 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart, gave him two hit singles in ‘Long Tall Sally’ and ‘Jenny Jenny’ (‘Tutti Frutti’ had already reached Number Two on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues chart) and led to his eponymous 1958 follow-up. By this time, though, he’d already denounced rock’n’roll and declared that he would dedicate himself to God. Speciality cobbled together the 1958 album ‘The Fabulous Little Richard’ from leftover studio sessions and added on gospel backing vocals to pad out the arrangements.

He claimed that God Himself told him to leave rock’n’roll, sending him a vision of a plane on fire. The prophecy caused him to fly home from his Australian tour 10 days early. Sure enough, the plane he was originally due to catch crashed into the ocean.

Despite his beliefs, Richard supped deep from the cup of rock’n’roll: he indulged in bisexual orgies and angel dust (the hallucinogenic drug PCP) and once claimed that he and burlesque dancer Angel Lee, who became his lifelong soulmate, had a threesome with Buddy Holly. “One time Buddy came into my dressing room while I was jacking off with Angel sucking my titty,” he told GQ. “She was doing that to me and Buddy took out his thing… He was having sex with Angel, I was jacking off and Angel was sucking me when they introduced his name on stage. He finished and went to the stage still fastening himself up.”

His initial dalliance with rock’n’roll was short-lived, but in this time he trademarked the musical cornerstones that would inspire others to push boundaries in the decades to come: The Beatles cribbed his “hooo!” vocal tick; Mick Jagger, Richard claimed, borrowed his lithe and suggestive walk; and David Bowie took his deliciously ambivalent approach to gender norms and rode it to the moon and back.

After three gospel records, Little Richard himself returned to rock’n’roll with 1964’s ‘Little Richard Is Back (And ‘There’s A Whole Lotta Shaking Going On!)’, though he would never recapture the reckless abandon that defined those first two albums (who could?). He later became a kind of pop culture curio, watching from afar at the chaos he had unleashed on music; he returned to gospel music and in 1970 became an ordained minister.

Through all this, though, he continued to play with his outrageous reputation, becoming a muse to the filmmaker John Waters, the self-styled ‘Pope of Trash’, and granting eyebrow-raising interviews in which he addressed the rumours around his sexuality. “Sex to me is like a smorgasbord,” he once explained. “Whatever I feel like, I go for… ‘What kind of sexual am I? I am omnisexual!’”. He was still touring as late as 2013, whenever armed with an eye for the absurd – he claimed “a baby aspirin” saved his life after he suffered a heart attack backstage in Nashville. He denied rumours of his death in 2016, and insisted: “I’m still singing.”

Credit: Getty

Little Richard didn’t invent rock’n’roll single-handedly – he, Elvis, Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins, all now gone, shared the weight between them alongside Jerry Lee Lewis – but it was Richard who, more than anyone, embraced the wildness, the raucousness, the contrariness and the untamed personal freedom that rock’n’roll represents.

In the mid-1950s he brought male bisexuality to a mainstream that’s still that not comfortable with the idea, then rejected the label as reductive; he was a founding father of rock’n’roll, then shunned the culture in favour of God. Little Richard fizzed with the transgressive energy that rock’n’roll passed onto punk, and which punk then passed onto hip-hop, the most super-charged and riotous music of the now. The man was volcanic, his red-hot spirit and blazing attitude continuing to burn through popular culture, and we have him to thank for everything. A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom.

Virtue signalling during the lockdown

Virtue signalling:
 An attempt to show other people that you are a good person, for example by expressing opinions that will be acceptable to them, especially on social media. Cambridge online dictionary
Germany heading for total lockdown if people don't take measures ...
During the COVID-19 lockdowns, there have been many reports of people congregating in parks and not sticking to 2-meter social distancing guidance.

COVID-19 is a deadly pandemic, and responsible Governments around the world have sought to protect their populations by enacting social distancing rules.

The vast majority of people have complied with this guidance as much as possible and understand why a lockdown and social distancing is crucial to stop the spread of this virus.

But there are some who have not stuck strictly to the guidance. There is a minority, who for whatever reason oppose the lockdown and actively defy calls for social distancing. This is particularly bad in the United States, where a vocal minority seem to value libertarian ideas of absolute freedom over protecting human life. These people deserve a Darwin Award.

But then there are those, who just push the boundary a bit. They go out for their daily exercise and they maybe stay out a bit longer. Maybe they sit at the park and read. Maybe they even talk to some friends who also happen to be at the park. Some people even go and play sport, hold picnics or generally socialise. The longer this period of lockdown goes on, the more this occurs. Is this advisable? No, of course not. But we need to remember that humans are social being by nature. We are being told to isolate ourselves in our homes in the interests of public safety. But as a species, this is not what we are designed to do and we will inevitably find ways to interact and socialise. Yes, in the era of Zoom we can do this virtually, but it is not the same.

And then we get the people who like to virtue signal. These are the people, who in normal times will be the first to comment negatively on the actions of others so to make themselves look virtuous and good. They will make a point of complaining about the person they saw park their car in the disabled parking bay outside when they had to park five blocks away. These are the people who will talk disparagingly about the person at work having an affair, despite secretly loving the saucy office gossip. They will slut-shame and mock whoever they don’t like on Love Island that week whilst still watching the show avidly. These are the people who want you to know that they are good, moral and upstanding citizens. And they do this by condemning the actions of others.

During COVID-19 you should only go outside once a day for exercise, and when you need to go shopping. And some people want you to know that they are doing this. They want to be seen as one of the good ones, the virtuous moral citizens doing the right thing. And how do they show this? By letting everybody know what they think of “those people” they saw sunbathing in the park. They want you to know they aren’t like those people playing football, having a picnic, talking to their friends and generally flouting the rules. Those people are scum, they are spreading the virus and the government should have them all arrested and close all the parks just to show them. Those people are out there having fun, while they are at home being responsible. They are going to post on social media and let the world know how good they are compared to those people.

Let’s get some perspective on this. The vast majority of people during this lockdown have significantly reduced social interaction over the last few weeks. We are not catching crowded public transport going to work. The pubs, restaurants, cinemas etc are all closed. People are staying at home. They are working from home. Most people are talking to friends online and not in-person. Even those who are flouting the rules are still interacting with far fewer humans now than they were a few months ago. And this is not easy as we are at our core social beings. We are connected to our families and our communities, and many are not able to be with loved ones while this pandemic is happening.

These are difficult and for many very stressful times. And yes, during this lockdown some people slip up. You don’t need to virtue signal to be a good person. We don’t always know what is going on in other people’s lives. Instead of judging, focus on what needs to be done to get through this pandemic and helping others do the same. We all need to do our best to keep social distancing until we defeat this virus. But we also need to be kind to each other.

 

It is too soon to end the UK Lockdown

On Sunday UK PM Boris Johnson will be making an announcement about the lockdown. There has been much speculation as to whether the UK could start easing up restrictions just as other European nations such as France and Italy have done this week. A recent poll shows that the majority of Britons oppose easing the current lockdown restrictions. Despite this, a vocal minority is calling on the Government to ease restrictions. These calls are supported by Iain Duncan Smith and various others within the Tory Party.

For the UK to end or even significantly ease the lockdown now would be very unwise. In fact, it would likely cause an already horrific death toll to rise further. The UK now has the second-highest death toll from COVID-19 on the planet, with Trump’s America being number one. The UK’s slow response to the virus allowed it to quickly spread, and by the time isolation policies were implemented COVID-19 had already taken hold in the UK. Other countries now easing up on restrictions have done a better job of testing and have reliable data to show the curve is flattening. In the UK data is still not reliable, and the available information suggests it would be a terrible mistake to ease up on the lockdown now.

So why on earth is an easing of restrictions being suggested?

It would be wrong to say that nobody in the media is asking hard questions. Ironically some of more right-wing journalists, traditionally more sympathetic to the Tory Party are leading the charge. Piers Morgan has recently been very critical of the Government’s handling of this crisis. In this interview, he roasts the government over the lack of PPE and has on several occasions challenged the Government on its initial slow response, the continued poor rates of testing and general mishandling of the crisis. This usually pro-Tory journalist’s tough questioning of the Government is the exception in the UK media. On the day the official UK COVID-19 death toll passed 30,000 the newspapers had the following to say:

 

Image may contain: 11 people
30,000 dead from COVID-19 in the UK. The day this figure was announced, the tabloid press were reporting Adele’s make-over and encouraging the end of the lockdown.

 

While the media had to report that UK COVID-19 deaths were the highest in Europe and the second-highest in the world, they did their best not to dwell on it. Owen Jones’ column in the Guardian highlights how the media focusses on the sex life of a senior scientist and member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), rather than the horrendous UK death toll. Contrast this to the Sydney Morning Herald report who describe the government’s response to the pandemic as the “biggest failure in a generation.”

The UK media, with some notable exceptions, have failed to hold the Government to account at a time of serious crisis. Worse than this though, they have actively pushed the editorial line which encourages the ending the lockdown. They are creating a situation where politicians will now feel pressure to reduce restrictions, despite the dire public health consequences. The Financial Times in late April reported that many newspapers suffered a serious decline in sales during the lockdown. It is difficult to feel any sympathy for print media given the way it has reported this crisis.

 

Image may contain: 6 people
Same paper, same day, different side of the border

One paper who has held the Government to account is the usually Conservative Party leaning Times, whose 19 April report 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster very clearly and methodically lists the many mistakes of the current government. Specifically, Prime Minister Boris Johnson missed five Cobra meetings in February and early March where the COVID-19 pandemic was discussed. Boris Johnson and his Cabinet promoted the idea of herd immunity, and in one interview the PM said Britain should “take the hit” and let the majority of the population catch the virus so they’d gain immunity. A very risky strategy for a new virus where scientists weren’t certain herd immunity would work. This is the same Prime Minister who in early March boasted that he continued to visit hospitals and shake hands with COVID-19 patients. A few weeks later he was in ICU fighting for his life after catching coronavirus.

In early February Boris Johnson gave a speech in Greenwich where he had the following to say about coronavirus:

…there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.

And here in Greenwich in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.

The rhetoric of the Prime Minister was one of Britain having this great proud history as the traders of the world. That post-Brexit Britain would be the champion of free enterprise and any sort of shut down of the economy would be “beyond what is medically rational”  and would do “unnecessary economic damage.” By early February the WHO were clearly warning governments that their populations may need to go into isolation to stop the spread of COVID-19. Had the Prime Minister attended Cobra meetings during this time he may have known this. Ironically having delayed taking appropriate preventative action to stop the virus spreading throughout the UK population, the country’s economy will likely be hit much harder and be closed for business far longer than it would have otherwise been.

It was revealed that Boris’s Political Advisor Dominic Cummings had been attending the SAGE meetings, which were supposed to only be for scientists to meet and make recommendations to the government. Cummings, a political hack not a scientist, has attended a number of these meeting and advocated for the group to take certain stances. Even Tories want Dominic Cummings banned from SAGE meetings it has now been reported, showing the tensions are building within the Government over how this crisis has been handled. This week the Government released SAGE’s scientific advice, however, the Government ensured that the documents were censored, to the dismay of many SAGE members. The Government appear to have a strained relationship with its key scientific advisors, which is concerning during a pandemic.

First Secretary of State Dominic Raab has said that lockdown changes being announced this coming Sunday will be ‘modest’ and ‘small’. This is hardly surprising when earlier in the week the national statistician Professor Ian Diamond said that COVID-19 infection rates could be increasing. In particular, the number of cases being reported in care-homes appears to be increasing. Adding to the pressure both the Scottish and Welsh ruled out any significant relaxation of the lockdown rules.

The problem the Government face is that UK levels of testing for COVID-19 remain poor. One survey of care workers found that only 22% of those who showed symptoms of the virus had been tested. The UK has failed to meet its testing targets meaning the true rates of infection are unknown. Poor levels of testing mean easing off the lockdown restrictions is very unwise as the Governments ability to track and trace those with the virus is very limited.

The situation is particularly bad in care homes. Initially, many COVID-19 deaths from care homes were not reported. Recently care home deaths, dating from mid-April onwards have been added and the UK death toll has increased. The official figure of 30,000 COVID-19 deaths in the UK could well be too conservative.

It seems unlikely that the Government will be announcing significant changes to lockdown rules this coming Sunday. But there seems to be growing pressure for the lockdown to ease. While it is entirely understandable that people want this to end, most Britons understand that doing so too soon would do more long-term harm. Having already made serious mistakes at the start of this pandemic, the Conservative Government would do well to ignore Iain Duncan-Smith, the moribund tabloid media, and those who value profit over human life.

 

 

 

UK Labour – the leaked report

In the middle of a global pandemic, it seems almost trivial to be writing about internal disputes within the UK Labour Party. Certainly, the UK media seem to have taken this view towards the recently leaked report. I’m sure, this is the only reason the media have paid it so little attention.

The leaked Labour report exposed a cache of WhatsApp messages from the Labour HQ from 2014 to 2019. These leaked WhatsApp messages expose that senior party staff undermined the Party’s 2017 election campaign and delayed investigation into antisemitism to maximise political damage to Jeremy Corbyn.

The leaked report is over 800 pages long and names a number of individuals. Like many who follow politics, I have seen this report.  I will not be sharing it or naming individuals. I will surmise, however, that many of the ‘senior officials’ named were also rumoured to be front runners to be the new party General Secretary or to fill other roles in the party under its new leadership. This possibly explains the timing of the leak and the motivation behind it. This is just my speculation.

The leaked draft report essentially said that UK Labour’s ability to deal with the antisemitism issue was “an abnormal intensity of factional opposition to the party leader” which had “inhibited the proper function of the Labour party bureaucracy.” In other words, for the party apparatchik undermining Jeremy Corbyn was a higher priority than stopping racism.

The many transcripts show that while there were many antisemitism complaints in 2019, the majority of these were from one individual and upon investigation, these were dropped due to lack of substance. Many of the earlier antisemitism investigations were delayed, by senior Party HQ officials and not by the Corbyn or his team. The report also makes it clear that these senior Party HQ officials were working very closely with Deputy Leader Tom Watson, who was very outspoken in the media about Labour’s handling of antisemitism. It is likely he a) knew or had some idea that early antisemitism complaints had been delayed by his friends in party HQ, rather than Corbyn’s office and b) that the many complaints in 2019 were originating from one vexatious litigant in the party rather than there being hundreds of genuine complaints.

Opposition to the Corbyn project by Party HQ was at fever pitch. The leaked WhatsApp messages show that these senior officials became despondent when Labour’s support increased during the 2017 General Election. These texts confirm that party funds were funnelled to their friends and allies in safe seats, specifically Tom Watson. For candidates in marginal constituencies who were seen as too supportive of the Corbyn project, Party HQ starved these campaigns of resources. These officials even joke about the fact that they were doing little work during the campaign in their WhatsApp group.

In July 2019 BBC current affairs show Panorama did a report on antisemitism in Labour. Ironically many of the whistleblowers from this Panorama documentary were the people named in this leaked Labour report as having frustrated antisemitism investigations. Were it not for COVID-19, we can be sure the BBC would ensure this was properly reported on to ensure a balanced and factual news service had been provided. Or maybe not?

Former Labour MP for Kensington Emma Dent Coad responded that she was  both furious and vindicated by the leaked report. On being elected the MP for Kensington, officials in Party HQ were both surprised and annoyed, describing her as a ‘Grade 1 tool’. In the 2017 election, Emma thought Labour HQ had failed to provide help with her campaign because the Party thought it so unlikely she would win. But even in the last three weeks, when it was clear Labour had a chance in Kensington, there was still no assistance from the Party at all. This lack of support from the Party continued after the election when the Grenfell Fire happened in her constituency. Despite desperately needing support with casework, Party HQ failed to step up.

On the release of this leaked report, current Mayor of Manchester and rival Labour leadership contender in the 2015 leadership election Andy Burnham sent out the following tweet:

A Burnham

Burnham is a moderate, on the centre-left of UK Labour. His politics would fit very comfortably with the moderate wing of the German Christian Democrats who are the main conservative party in German politics. That he felt that the party machine was undermining him when trying to push for pro-NHS or social care policies is astounding. Burnham came second to Corbyn in the 2015 Labour leadership election. Senior officials in Party HQ were still aligned to the policies and politics of Labour under Blair. By 2015 these politics were sidelined and candidates running on these platforms did very poorly. The Party HQ apparatchik could not win an open policy debate as party members and the public was tiring of austerity or austerity lite. So instead they used bureaucracy to undermine those pushing progressive politics.

Newly-elected Labour leader Kier Starmer and Deputy Angela Raynor have announced there will be an investigation into this leak and the issues raised. Whether this investigation focuses more on the leak than on the issues the report raises is yet to be seen. The former UK Labour General Secretary has stood down from his position in the Labour Lords front bench pending this investigation.

The implications of this leak for Labour, and specifically for the new leader are significant. Whilst during the global pandemic the media not have given this much attention, party members and supporters have noticed. And people in politics have long memories.

There will be immediate repercussions from this leak. One Labour councillor is demanding a refund of her membership fees due to the Party misusing funds and sabotaging the 2017 election campaign. Many of those named in the leaked report could also take legal action against Labour, thus the party are actively trying to stop people now sharing this document.

In a candid interview to Sky News, former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has said those former employees from Party HQ who undermined Labour’s 2017 election campaign and failed to act on antisemitism complaints should be expelled from the Party:

McDonell also highlights some of the appalling things said about Party members and MPs by these senior officials in Party HQ. Below is one example of a conversation party officials had on WhatsApp when they found MP Diane Abbott crying in the toilets:

image (1)

For Corbyn supporters, the leaked report is a big case of “I told you so.” And yes, those aligned to Corbyn/Momentum have been saying for the last 2-3 years that the right of the Labour Party was using antisemitism as a tool to undermine Corbyn. They also realised that Party HQ was not committed to getting Labour elected in 2017. Now they have 800 pages worth of nasty, unpleasant and downright revolting WhatsApp messages to prove them right. But none of this really helps them.

This article by Michael Chessum highlights the problem the left face now. Having more than doubled Labour’s membership after Corbyn was elected leader, having come within a stone’s throw of government in 2017, now the mood on the left is despondency. Many of those who joined Labour in the last 5 years are now threatening to leave the party.

I covered many of the issues facing Labour in my Why Labour Lost blog posts earlier this year. Corbyn was from the small group of socialist MPs in Labour with a handful of support in the wider party. He and this group were able to win the Party leadership in 2015 when the other party factions were bereft of ideas or vision. However, the socialists were not expecting to win. And having spent their careers championing policy positions and causes, and were not ready to challenge the party bureaucracy, rules and structures. Momentum was established to try and overcome this challenge, which despite some early successes ultimately failed.

Conversely, the right could not win in a competition of ideas, especially not on policy big picture vision. The game they knew best was using the machine to frustrate your opponents. This works as a defensive strategy to keep and protect your people in their positions of power and to stop your opponents succeeding. But you can’t win this way. Kier Starmer, despite not being from the Momentum wing of the party, has said he will stick to the anti-austerity policy positions adopted under Corbyn. These are the same positions party HQ tried to frustrate not only under Corbyn, but earlier when Burnham was advocating them.

The challenge for Labour after this leaked report is significant. Keir Starmer’s calls to end factionalism may be well-intended but are unlikely to be successful. At a time when the UK has the highest COVID-19 death toll in Europe, Labour is yet again consumed in internal warfare. To potential voters and the public at large, even if they agree with Labour’s policies or positions, the party looks too fractured to provide a viable alternative Government. For the party to change this, it can’t ignore the issues from the leaked report. Instead, it needs to face them head-on. This means calling out and taking action against behaviours and actions that are wrong, even if they are from people from the faction or side of the Party the current leadership supports.

My series of blog posts on why UK Labour lost the 2019 General Election:

Why UK Labour Lost? Part 1: Historical Context

Why UK Labour lost? Part 2: UK Labour’s strange loyalty to First Past the Post

Why UK Labour lost? Part 3: Its Brexit Innit

Why UK Labour lost? Part 4: Oooo Jeremy Corbyn

Why UK Labour lost? Part 5: Antisemitism

Why UK Labour lost? Part 6: New Labour and Blairism

Why UK Labour lost? Part 7: Momentum and the Corbynistas

Why UK Labour lost? Part 8: what it takes to win?

Why Labour Lost? Part 9: What the party needs to do now.