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:

 

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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.

 

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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:

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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.

London during the pandemic

Sometimes it feels like a dream. Waking up in the morning, not sure what day it is and it not really mattering. Listening to the news is depressing. The rising death toll is still rising and being constantly reminded of why this is happening. Why we are in lockdown, why we have been told to stay home and save lives. It’s the right thing to do. But who on earth thought this would ever happen?

To be honest, I’ve been OK during this period of lockdown. Yes, it has been disruptive and quite an adjustment, but I have it much easier than many. I recently started a new Piko Contract at the House of Lords doing research and policy work – a role I really love and something I wish I’d got into earlier (a blog for another time maybe). When parliament shut down for a few weeks, that was worrying. But now it is back and sitting online using Microsoft Teams. Doing policy research work remotely is a challenge, but one I’m up for. My other work and contracts have mostly dried up, or have reduced significantly due to COVID-19. And this does make things hard. Fortunately, just before the lockdown, I was able to sort out some of the debt I got into when moved to London in 2017. Had this pandemic struck even a few weeks earlier things would have been much tougher for me. As it is, things are ok and I/ Piko UK will get through this.

For many others, things a considerably worse.

With all the pain and misery being caused by this pandemic it is easy to become very depressed, especially when your movement is restricted and you cannot live your normal life. But there have been positives to this. A major one in London has been air pollution, which is said to have decreased by 40% since the lockdown. According to one study, there have been 11,000 fewer deaths from pollution in the UK and Europe.

During the pandemic, we have been allowed out to exercise during the day. I live in Deptford and am lucky to be very close walking distance to the Thames. The reduction of boats and activity on the river has in a few weeks made a real difference.

I took this photo of Tower Bridge reflecting in the Thames just over a week ago. Usually, the water would be dirtier and boats would be coming and going destroying the reflection.

Walking around London the air feels cleaner. Yes, there is still traffic, but not like before. The city is quieter, the pace of life is slower and it can feel like a different city. Walking along the Thames the water still isn’t clean but is much clearer than before.

Whilst there are positives, there are constant reminders of the reality of this COVID-19 pandemic. Being asked to socially distance ourselves and avoid human contact. People no longer hugging or shaking hands. We are all encouraged to stand 2 meters apart at all times.

Folkestone Gardens 24 March 2020
Helpful reminder in Folkstone Gardens near where I live. 2 Meters is how far apart we should be from people.

My least favourite part of lockdown life is the supermarket shop. I really respect those who have to work in supermarkets as essential workers during this crisis. On top of their usual duties, they have to monitor the number of people in the store at any one time, ensure people are standing two-meters apart when lining up to enter the supermarket and keep people apart while in the store. Many customers are stressed and grumpy, and the poor supermarket worker is often the target of abuse. As for supplies, we seem to have gotten over this strange obsession with buying all the toilet paper. There was never any suggestion that COVID-19 caused increased defecation.

A big city like London can seem overwhelming and easy to be lost in. One of the great things I have found living in South East London is that there is a real sense of community. People look out for one another, even during these times of isolation.

The local pub The Blackhorse has continued to hold its weekly quiz nights over Zoom. These have been great though my team did very badly last time. My other local, The Dog and Bell have set up a delivery service. A global pandemic is no reason to stop drinking real ale, and thanks to Seamus and the team we can get it delivered to our front door.

 

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Drinking 2 pints of bitter out of a milk bottle – how life has changed under COVID-19.

Since the first Thursday of the UK lockdown, people have gone out to their front doors at 8pm and clapped or banged pots and pans to show their appreciation for NHS workers. I filmed this on Thursday 23 April while walking through Deptford Park.

Last weekend a mural appeared around the corner from my house, again showing support for the NHS. Already requests have been made to our local council that this mural is protected and remain on display in the future as a reminder of what happened during this time.

 

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The new NHS mural on Evelyn Street in Deptford.

In an update from London Mayor Sadiq Khan yesterday, he made the below comment about life in London during COVID-19:

Quieter roads and fewer jet planes have made for a more pleasant environment. Londoners will rightly demand neighbourhoods that permanently work for walking and cycling, and a renewed drive to address the climate emergency. 

He is right, the last few weeks have demonstrated how quickly life can change. While nobody wants to live permanently in a state of lockdown and isolation, we’ve now seen how people can change and adapt quickly. The silver lining of this time has been significant reductions in pollution and carbon emissions, and this is opportunity humanity should not waste.

I live on the flight path to London City Airport. Two months ago planes few over every ninety seconds, now you may see one or two in the course of an hour. This will, of course, revert back after the lockdown. But maybe in time if we invest in public transport the number of flights over London could be reduced. Things will be different after this pandemic, it would be nice to think something good came of it all.

Kings Stairs Gardens in Rotherhithe 16 April 2020
Sunset, Kings Stairs Gardens, Rotherhithe. 16 April 2020

 

 

 

Has the EU failed during COVID-19?

In yesterday’s post, I lambasted US President Donald Trump for his attacks on the World Health Organisation (WHO) during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Global governanace plays a considerably important role in the modern world. And during a pandemic having a coordinated international response is utterly crucial. For this reason, defending these global governance institutions is vital.

At this time, global governance bodies have an important responsibility. Therefore it is crucial that they step up to the plate. Sadly the European Union (EU), Europes Regional governance body appears to be failing in this task.

Two days ago the president of the European Research Council Mauro Ferrari resigned from his post claiming he had “lost faith in the system” due to the EU implementing an “uncoordinated cluster of initiatives” in response COVID-19. EU officials have hit back at this saying Mauro’s claim saying he was conducting a public relations exercise in attacking the EU’s response and called into question his own contribution.

Mauro Ferrari resigns from his EU post and has spoken out against the organisations response to COVID-19.

There has also been criticism that the EU hasn’t done enough to cushion the economic blow from the pandemic. The feeling in some quarters is that EU member states are being largely left to fend for themselves with inadequate coordination or planning for how Europe will recover from this crisis. This said such criticisms could be seen as premature at this stage when we still don’t know how deep the economic crisis will be.

Most government structures the world over are struggling during this time. And it would be easy to throw stones at an institution like the EU that has many detractors. Britain has spent the last 4 years trying to leave the EU, which this blog has discussed earlier. Those who supported Brexit would of-course point to the EU failings during this time. Conversely, EU supporters would point to failures of nation-states like Britain to react quickly enough to the crisis and argue that a Europe wide approach which included the UK would be more effective.

It is easy enough to throw stones during this time. What is much harder, is trying to stop the spread of a deadly virus that we still know little about. The time to really assess our response as a society to this pandemic will be after it has passed.

For global governance organisations, this is an important moment. This is the chance for them to demonstrate their worth and coordinate the response. In many ways how these structures respond becomes more important than the response of nation-states. This also is where the deficiencies and shortcomings of such organisations become very apparent. The noise coming from the EU in the last 48 hours is far from reassuring.

The EU structure is a finely balanced attempt to be a United States of Europe type structure, which at the same time also gives considerable autonomy to its 27 members. In reality, this tends to mean that stronger states like Germany dominate, and smaller states do as they are told. This leads to resentment and political backlash. The result of this is there is often a reluctance to step on member state toes by EU.

During a pandemic, having 27 nations with varying degrees of adherence to scientific and medical advise on how to act is not appropriate. Ideally, the EU would have stepped up back in January and coordinated the response to COVID-19 across Europe. This couldn’t happen effectively with the current EU structure.

Things will be very different after COVID-19. For the EU, this could be a real turning point. This could be a time when member states decide to overhaul EU structures and give the organisation more power and direction. Or, it could be the start of a painful demise. Decisions in the coming days and weeks could well decide the EU’s fate.

Pandemics are no time for inward-looking nationalism

The word Pandemic means a disease that is prevalent throughout the world. In other words, a global problem, facing the entire human species who inhabit the earth.

During such a horrible phenomenon, leadership is required. Leadership is about developing people and helping others reach their full potential. It’s about equipping others with the right tools and strategies not only to maximize the success of an organization but also the lives of individuals.

Donald Trump, “leader” of the so-called free world has demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of either of these concepts in his response to COVID-19. I’m not talking about his bizarre and unprofessional press briefings – these are just standard Trump Bluster. I’m not talking about Trump’s insistence on calling COVID-19 the Chinese Virus, a racist and entirely offensive comment. I’m not even talking about the number of COVID-19 cases in the US now surpassing the number in China due in no small part to an utterly negligent Federal Government led by Donald Trump. These are all appalling acts of stupidity in the face of a pandemic and grounds for impeachment. But no. What Trump has done today is far worse, and far more dangerous for the people of this planet.

Yesterday, Donald Trump came out attacking the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) response to COVID-19. Trump threatened to withhold US funding for this vital global governance body during the world’s worst pandemic in over a century. Why? Because they had failed to stroke his delicate ego. Because the WHO had warned that the US along with many other countries were not doing enough to combat the virus. And now when things are turning bad in the US, he is looking for other people to blame.

Global Impact of the World Health Organization's 2018 Digital ...
The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) primary role is to direct international health within the United Nations’ system and to lead partners in global health responses. Threatening to cut the funding of this organisation during a pandemic is highly irresponsible and puts millions of lives at risk.

Increasingly evidence is emerging that Trump was advised about the threat of COVID-19, yet failed to act appropriately. He was warned by top White House advisors back in January that COVID-19 had the potential to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans and derail the US economy. Now, these predictions are coming to pass. So what does Trump do? He says that the WHO blew it and didn’t respond fast enough. Chinese General Sun Tzu famously said an attack is the secret of defence. And Trump is truly on the defensive now.

Trump’s political career has been based on ‘post-truth’ emotive spin and dog-whistle politics that tap into peoples fears. As I’ve previously posted, he has been very successful in this. But there is no doubt that the man is a sociopath. And an extremely dangerous one.

Trump claims that the WHO is China Centric. This claim is nonsense. COVID-19 originated in Wuhan province in China. As the United Nations organisation responsible for World Health, The World Health Organisation had a responsibility to work collaboratively with Chinese authorities to prevent the spread of the virus. That’s right, a global governance body has a responsibility to do whatever it has to do to prevent the spread of a deadly virus throughout the planet. They have done so, in very trying circumstances.

President Donald Trump Tweetstorm – The Saturday Edition – Deadline
Donald Trump: More focussed on beating the nationalist drum for his own electoral gains than stepping up as a leader during a global crisis. Many lives could needlessly be lost due to his failure as a leader.

This is not to say the World Health Organisation doesn’t have its faults. It does. But you don’t improve the work of the WHO by slashing its funding during a pandemic. That is an incredibly irresponsible move that could cost many more lives.

Trump has been quick to shut off international travel to China and later Europe. Yet Trump has done nothing about numerous US states that have not implemented a proper lockdown, despite COVID-19 now being rife in the US. Pandemics don’t care about national borders. These artificial lines in the sand that humans call countries are just that, human-made lines that virus don’t recognise or respect.

Trump is focused on the November US Presidential Election. His anti-Chinese, nationalist, America First rhetoric is his go-to response to keep his political base onside. He is placing his political ambition ahead of millions of lives both in the US and globally. Trump has placed electoral politics ahead of leadership that could save millions of lives.

He either doesn’t understand or has no interest in understanding how a pandemic really works and subsequently has failed miserably as a leader during this crisis. Tragically the actions of Trump, the US Federal Government and the numerous US States that have failed to follow WHO guidance, will cause many more lives to be needlessly be lost.

The economic catastrophe of Covid-19

In the days since my last blog post, the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to intensify. On Monday night UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson made an unprecedented announcement to the British public, limiting people’s freedom of movement and telling the population to stay in their homes. This followed his Friday address to the nation where all pubs, cafes and restaurants were ordered to close.

In New Zealand, the country is also in lockdown for at least a month. Schools are closed and kids are learning from home. In NZ infection rates of COVID-19 are still relatively low, but are rising quickly. By following WHO advice early, NZ hopes to avoid the sorts of terrifying infection and death rates seen in Italy and to slow the spread of the virus to ease the pressure on the health system.

The impact of the virus, the global infection rate and death will be devastating for all of us. In the weeks and months that follow, life will not be as it was before, and things will be pretty tough. Tougher still will be the economic catastrophe this pandemic leaves in its wake.

COVID-19 has delivered the fastest, deepest economic crisis in human history. Earlier in March, the US stock market declined by 20%, its fastest decline ever. World markets are in flux. Amplifying this, unlike normal recessions where spending is encouraged to stimulate the economy, this time markets are actively shutting down to halt the spread of the virus.

Image result for economic crisis 2020

In another unprecedented move, governments are intervening to pay wages while people are encouraged to stay home from work. In the UK the Government has said it will support businesses to pay 80% of wages for employees who are unable to work during the crisis. In the US a $1.8 Trillion package has been approved to try and save the economy. The bill will bail out struggling businesses and gives $1,200 for every adult and $500 per child living in America.

Predictions of another economic slow down this year have been circulating for months, as this 2018 Guardian article outlines. But few predicted that a global pandemic would be the trigger of the next crisis, nor the potential scale of the crisis. While the World Health Organisation (WHO) has for some time warned of the risks to the global economy of a pandemic, few have paid enough attention.

Whilst the economic crisis is hitting us all, some sectors have already been devastated. Over the last 18 months, I have worked in and with people in the events sector in London. People who work in events, be they music and cultural or corporate have lost all their work overnight. Crew, lampies, sound people, riggers, musicians, promoters, venue staff and anyone else connected with events work had their income completely dry up about a fortnight ago. Many of my friends in London who work in this sector are really struggling now. As freelancers, they are still unclear what the Government compensation package looks like for them. This has happened to the events sector the world over, as this article from Australia explains.

Events are but one example. Another is hospitality, where they have had to close their doors. The number of bars and cafes that will go to the wall during this crisis will be considerable. Many such establishments have tight margins normally, a few weeks of not trading even with Government assistance will likely be fatal.

The 2008 financial crisis caused hardship and suffering to many around the world. Whilst markets recovered, austerity policies and stagnant wage growth meant most of us are still considerably poorer than before 2008. Even when there had been an official recovery, global markets remained far more fragile after the last crash. There is little evidence of global markets being able to weather this latest storm.

It would be easy to end this post leaving the reader with an impending sense of doom. And there is plenty to be pessimistic and fearful of in the coming weeks and months. But humans are tenacious as a species. We find ways to adapt to hostile or changing environments. Already we are seeing Government’s take unprecedented action to protect jobs and people’s incomes to get through this pandemic. From this, new ideas, new ways of working and of managing the economy will emerge.

Things will likely not go back to how they were before this crisis, and this isn’t an entirely bad thing. COVID-19 will force us to look at public health differently. The economic crisis will once again highlight the vulnerabilities of our global economy and force us to consider different and better ways to run our society. The upheaval from this pandemic will likely mean the 2020s will be a time of considerable change. This will not be easy or pleasant. But from it, we have the opportunity to try and make positive changes to our world. If something good can come from this horrible pandemic, then I hope it is this. And I hope to be part of any positive change that comes over the next few years.

Covid-19 and its ugly aftermath

Mid last week the World Health Organisation declared the Coronavirus or Covid-19 to be a pandemic. A pandemic is a disease that is prevalent throughout the globe. Humanity is no stranger to these, throughout history there have been a number of very deadly pandemics. This visual showing the history of pandemics places the current Covid-19 into context.

When the story first broke about this virus, the predominate view was that this was another Swine Flu or SARS. Both these were considered to be an over reaction by the media and a beat up. The counter argument is that by raising the alarm early and ensuring prevention, neither SARS or Swine Flu became as deadly as the Spanish Flu of 1918.

The Covid-19 strand of Coronavirus was only discovered 3 months ago in Wuhan China. It is believed by heavily controlling the movement of people and quarantining those infected, China was able to significantly slow the spread of this virus. The same is now being applied in many parts of Europe, where numbers who have caught the virus has sky rocked.

Image result for Covid 19

The World Health Organisation (WHO) are the global governance body to direct international health within the United Nations. For those cynical of the important role played by global governance organisations, they should consider the mess the world would be in now were it not for the intervention and advise of the WHO during this crisis. The WHO have given clear advise to governments on how to prevent the spread of this virus. Many governments are following this advise, others have been much slower to react. Increasingly though, most countries, businesses, public bodies and institutions throughout the planet are now reacting, and listening to the WHO.

The scary thing about this Pandemic, is that we still know relatively little about it. We know the symptoms are coughing, a fever and trouble breathing. People who have it are contagious for up to 14 days. And we know that elderly and those with underlying health conditions are more likely to die if they catch the virus. What we don’t know is whether this virus could mutate or get worse. Will the virus continue to spread. One theory is that of herd immunity, whereby once most people have caught the virus it can no longer spread. But this could be completely wrong, and a dangerous and deadly assumption to make.

The silver lining, if there can be any of a global pandemic, is that there are now really good public health campaigns about the need for washing your hands and being aware of hygiene.  The spread of viruses is a real problem. According to a International Longevity Centre study of better off/1st world economies, the Flu cost around 159 million working days in 2018 resulting in $39 billion US in lost productivity. The conservative estimate is that in better off countries 91 million people get the flu each year. Many of these infections could be prevented through better hygiene and people washing their hands. Potentially, the current awareness of the need to wash your hands, stay home when you are feeling ill and to cover your mouth when coughing may actually prevent the spread of the flu and other viruses.

The prevention strategies recommended by the WHO will help slow the spread. But they won’t stop the virus. All this can do is buy time, hopefully to learn more about Covid-19 and maybe develop some sort of vaccine or cure. Also to protect the elderly and sick prior to this happening. This is the plan. There are no guarantees this will work, but we need to try.

Whatever happens with the virus, one inevitable outcome will be considerable damage to the global economy. My next post will focus on what has happened to world markets so far, what the likely fallout will be. It will be far from pleasant reading.

This result could lead to the break up of the United Kingdom

On the June 23 2016, Dad and I were driving back to San Francisco from Sacramento, where we’d visited our relatives. We were fairly late, so had on US public radio to help keep us awake for the drive back to our motel. In the previous two weeks listening to US media, international news tended to get only limited coverage. That night was different. The US media were focused on one issue, and that was the result of the Brexit referendum.

Listening to the results being reported while driving on that California freeway, I recall thinking ‘this result could lead to the break up of the United Kingdom’. On hearing that both Northern Ireland and Scotland had voted to stay part of the EU, in contrast to the rest of the country, it was hard to imagine that this would not become a significant issue.

Fast forward three and a half years. Its 10pm, June 12 2019. By now I’m living in London. I’m driving home on the A40 in West London passing The Grenfell Tower, I hear UK general election exit poll predicting that The Conservatives would win a significant majority. I stay up all night to watch the results (though at times I struggle to stay awake). It becomes clear that the Scottish National Party (SNP) has won the vast majority of seats in Scotland. I also watch with interest the Northern Ireland results, where for the first time unionists (those who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom) have failed to win a majority. I recall my thoughts back in June 2016, and once again I think to myself, ‘This result could lead to the break up of the United Kingdom’. 

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Is the break up of the United Kingdom imminent?

Prior to the election I blogged about Scottish Nationalism and why Brexit had revived calls for Scottish Independence. I also blogged about Northern Ireland and how Brexit threatened the precarious 1998 peace agreement.

So what happens now? Well for Northern Ireland, the major development since the election has been that the Northern Irish parliament (Stormont) has reconvened for the first time in 3 years. After the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) dismal result, they have now realised that power sharing in Stormont is their best hope of remaining relevant. Northern Ireland hasn’t suddenly given Sinn Fein or other nationalist parties wanting a United Ireland a majority – their vote remained fairly stagnant. The vote shift was from unionist to more moderate/pragmatic parties who support the Good Friday Agreement and are non aligned to either Unionist or Nationalist factions.

The 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement states the following:

“the Secretary of State” should call a referendum “‘if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.”

There is no sign that such a referendum will be called in the immediate future. Nor can one say with any certainty how such a referendum would go. But at the end of 2020 we will have a better idea whether the UK has secured a decent trade deal with the EU. We will know the level of alignment with EU legislation. And from here, it will be easier to gauge what the true impact of Brexit will be on Northern Ireland. A United Ireland is always an option, and if the ongoing relationship between the UK and the EU is fraught with difficulty – Northern Ireland may just vote to join the Republic.

Unlike Northern Ireland, Scotland do not have an arrangement where they can hold a independence referendum. At least not one that the British Government has to recognise. In fact PM Boris Johnson has rejected calls for a second referendum on Scottish Independence. This doesn’t stop the Scottish Parliament calling one. The experience of the Catalan independence referendum of 2017 should ring alarm bells with the British Government. If Scotland votes to leave the UK, but the government in Westminster refuses to recognise the result – this could cause an interesting constitutional crisis. Aside from civil unrest from the people of Scotland, internationally there would considerable sympathy for Scotland were they denied independence. Not least from the EU, who would relish the opportunity to take back part of the by then former UK into the EU.

In politics it is risky to make predictions, and I generally try to avoid doing so. But questions of whether Northern Ireland and Scotland will remain part of the UK are now asked daily in the British media. Further, there seems to be an increasing realisation and acceptance from the British public that this could well happen.

UK Labour, still reeling from the 2019 election loss are now in the process of choosing a new leader. Sections of Labour still see Scotland as part of the country they can win back, while others believe this unlikely. In 2014 Labour ran a united front campaign with David Cameron’s Conservative Government urging Scotland to stay in the UK.

Many in Labour fear if Scotland leaves the UK, the party will never have the numbers to form a government in the UK again. This is nonsense. The last time the UK Labour Party relied on Scottish MPs to form a government was after the 1974 General Election. In all 3 elections Tony Blair won, Labour could have formed government without its Scottish MPs. But this is beside the point. For Labour, and the rest of the political establishment in Britain, the issue of Scottish independence should be seen as an issue of self determination and democracy.

If Scots want Scotland to be a separate country, then nothing should stand in their way. If Scots vote to stay in the UK again, as they did in 2014, then the issue is put to bed. But by refusing a second referendum post Brexit, this could bolster support for Scottish independence making it a much more likely prospect.

The break up of the United Kingdom isn’t inevitable. And there are pros and cons if it were to occur. But the calls for this to occur are becoming much louder. The challenge for the political establishment in London is how it will manage this. And if the UK does break up, what does that mean for the future of England and Wales. Would Wales and England stay united? How would a United Ireland and independent Scotland engage with England and Wales? What would be the social and economic implications of such a change?

The next few years will be very interesting for the United Kingdom.

The BBC – a failed public broadcaster?

 

The real disappointment of the 2019 UK General Election was the BBC. Once regarded as the bastion of quality media and the envy of much of the world, the BCC’s reputation is diminished greatly in recent years. From the historic cover up of Jimmy Savile’s sexual abuse, to having to pay compensation to female journalists in equal pay claims the BBC is no longer viewed in as positive light by the British public.

At the 2019 election the BBC had an opportunity to show the world what quality political journalism looks like in the 21st century. It failed. The consequences for this could be dire for the Beeb.

Last week it was announced that the BBC are cutting 450 staff, which will result in fewer stories and greater centralisation in London. The very things that critics believe caused problems with the BBC in recent years are set to get even worse. Is the BBC now in its death throes? And how did it get to this point?

One widely held criticism of the BBC is that it is run by upper middle class predominately white and well educated people. Also that the BBC is heavily London centric. While similar criticisms can be made of other media outlets, it matters more what people say about the BBC. It matters because it’s funded through the broadcasting fee and public funds. It matters because its raison d’être is to set the standard for journalism in the UK and abroad. If its quality is in question, this call into question what its purpose really is.

The first example I recall while living in London of the BBC not hitting the mark was back in 2018 when there were major protests in support of the NHS, and the BBC failed to report on them. As mentioned in my previous blog post it is difficult for the media to report on everything happening. But these weren’t small protests, and NHS funding and the threat of privatisation is and remains one of the major issues in UK politics.

There were two events during the election where I thought the BBC fell short of what the public should expect of a public broadcaster.

The first was the Andrew Neil interviews with Party leaders. Both Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and Liberal Democrat Leader Jo Swinson were interviewed by Andrew Neil and it would be fair to say took a grilling. Both agreed to the interview believing that Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson would also be interviewed by Neil. The BBC had lead both leaders to believe this was the case, where in fact Johnson had never agreed to do and interview with Neil. Andrew Neil ended up doing an ’empty chair’ speech criticising Johnson for not doing the interview. Yes Boris shouldn’t have refused and interview with a tough journalist. Equally, The Conservatives had never agreed to do an interview with Neil. The empty chair stunt felt like the BBC saving face having mislead other party leaders in claims that Johnson would do an interview with Neil.

The second was BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg’s reporting the day before the election that postal ballot results painted a grim picture for Labour. The UK Electoral Commission issued a warning that these comments were a breach of electoral law. The day before the election postal ballots were still arriving by post, and had not been counted. So the statement being reported by Kuenssberg was not only breaching the law, but at the time it was being made lacked substance to back it up. It’s unlikely Laura’s comments had that much impact on the December 2019 election result. But they do make the BBC look unprofessional.

BBC Political Editor Laura Keunssberg came under fire for reporting on Postal ballot results before the polls had closed.

The BBC get accused of bias often, and this is nothing new. In recent years there have been criticisms that the BBC are too pro EU/anti Brexit and have been too critical of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. In both cases, there have been accusations that reporting on both these things has not been balanced or honest at times. Balance in the media is tough, and journalists and people working in news rooms will often have unconscious (sometimes conscious) bias. Given the generally middle class and urban nature of BBC reporters and its leadership, it is likely this would come through in its reporting.

A public broadcaster has a duty to be challenging and critical. And on Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership it is right that the BBC asked hard questions. In both cases there were plenty of hard questions to ask. But did the public broadcaster allow its middle class, urban and privileged perspective to cloud its reporting?

My view in watching the BBC reporting on Brexit, Corbyn, UK politics and global news is that it as a public broadcaster still operates like its the 1990s. In that context Brexit, Trump and the 2017 election didn’t make sense. Had the BBC really tried to understand why Brexit happened? Did the proponents of a second referendum really deserve as much air time as the BBC gave them? Did the BBC ever really try to understand why Corbyn won two Labour leadership elections? And why Labour’s vote increased significantly in 2017? The BBC took the view that the world had gone a bit mad, but if they just kept on saying and doing what they’d always done normal 1990s service would resume soon.

The BBC as a public broadcaster is owned by the government. The Government set the rules, and most importantly set the funding. After the election the Conservative Government announced that it would consider decriminalising non payment of the licence fee. They announced this at a time when people from across the political spectrum believed the BBC has underperformed as a reliable source of news. There is always a tension between the BBC and government, especially with centre right governments who don’t necessarily believe having a public broadcaster is necessary.

At a time of uncertainty, the BBC finds itself with fewer supporters than at any other time in its history. While still a much loved British institution which still produces a number of popular shows, many now question whether it’s achieving what it needs to as a public broadcaster.

The Fourth Estate struggling in the social media world

Ahead of the 2020 General Election in New Zealand, Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced that her party is committed to run a factual election and has signed up to a social media tool to help prove it. The 2020 NZ election will be an interesting case study of whether in the social media age there can be honest political debate free of misinformation and manipulation of facts.

In the era of fake news politics has become increasingly murky. The recent UK election has been the latest example of this. For politics and specifically democratic societies,  trying to adapt to this new era has been painful and disruptive. However, for  traditional print, radio and TV media the change has been profound. And not always for good.

As I outlined on my blog in November, despite many problems that it has caused, social media overall is a force for good. It allows for greater diversity and gives a voice to those who have been under represented in the media. In an era where everyone has camera on their phone, people can record and share events globally in seconds on a number of platforms. Social media provides a platform where people can build communities of shared interests and beliefs. And in politics, social media has helped engaged young people in democracy. Also social media has meant stories get public attention that mainstream media didn’t bother to report.

And this is the issue with mainstream media. It has never reported everything. It couldn’t. There is too much news in the world to fit into one 30 news broadcast or a 40 page newspaper. Often accusations of bias or corporate media blackouts steam from the media not covering stories, are due to limited space. These days much more can be reported, as what doesn’t make the headline news can still be put online. And if the BBC or the Financial Times don’t report a story – chances are it will still end up on social media and if its of interest it will quickly go viral.

The downside of this is that we live in a world where anyone can get anything published on social media. And anything online can go viral. Often this is good, but also it can mean fake news (aka bullshit) ends up filling peoples twitter feeds.

For this reason traditional media still matters. People may not buy papers like they did 25 years ago, but they take a report by CNN or The Daily Telegraph as far more creditable than say some guy called Nick Kelly who does his own blogs (with questionable uses of apostrophes and grammar). But how do these respected media outlets cypher through all the “news” online and seperate wheat from the chaff? The truth is they have really struggled.

About a decade ago there was a spate of fake celebrity death posts online. People would create a fake news that say Jon Bon Jovi had died – CNN or whoever would report this as being fact – and minutes later Jon would contact the station informing him of it mortal status and the report would be swiftly removed. This was embarrassing for media, and upsetting for fans (and even more so for the poor sod reported dead).

Fake news and lying is nothing new in politics. Politicians are being economical with the truth is par the course. And yes often they got away with it. But sometimes a clever journalist would catch them out. The old rules of engagement were, if you get caught that it was game over.

One of Trumps legacies in politics will be the way he has managed to blatantly lie and contradict himself, yet survive. The guy contradicts himself on his own twitter feed. He is calculated to have lied 5276 times since becoming president. But he gets away with it, at least till now, by saying his critics are spreading fake news. In 2020 it is now difficult to tell what is true and what is false. When once respected mainstream media have again and again been caught out reporting fake news events, someone like Trump has free rein to lie.

In the 2019 UK election accusations of fake news were constant. Days before the election an image was published of a child at Leeds hospital lying on the floor due to a lack of hospital beds. I used this image in my blog post about The NHS. Soon as the image was published, there were multiple posts online claiming the image was fake. So while papers like The Mirror were reporting it as real, other media were reporting that the image was fake. In the end many who supported the government chose to believe it was fake. Whereas those supporting opposition parties were likely to believe the image was real. The truth became a matter of opinion, based on what you choose to believe.

Complete objectivity in reporting is a bit of a myth. There is not and has never been a purely objective news source. Certainly in politics where there are conflicting policies, values and ideologies being neutral and objective is near impossible. This is not to say that there aren’t ways media that can provide a reasonable degree of balance. And some journalists do this very well. But sadly in 2019, the media struggled.

It is easy to blame journalists and the media. But we also need to understand the environment they operate in. Newspaper circulation has declined rapidly in recently years. While papers can publish stories online, they have to compete with other free media, so make no money in posting stories online other than what they gain through advertising. The decline in revenue has meant fewer journalists, and pressure to do quick high impact stories rather than invest in in-depth investigative journalism.

Breakdown of UK daily newspaper circulation, 1956 to 2019.
The above graph shows the decline in print media circulation from 1956 to 2019.

In TV and radio, commercial pressure have created an environment thats is not conducive to quality reporting. Some still manage it, but many believe the quality of journalism has been dumbed down over the last 30 years.

In 2020 it will be interesting to watch the NZ election to see if the governments announcement about running a factual campaign works out. In particular will the opposition parties sign up to similar factual campaign pledges. Whilst this may seem unlikely in NZ, the chances seem far slimmer in the US where Donald Trump is up for reelection this November.

The future of journalism is uncertain. Traditional media will more and more be operating within the realms of social media both to seek information and to disseminate it.  There is a great need reliable and trustworthy sources of information, as far as this is possible. Certainly one would hope that public broadcasters will be up to this challenge. Sadly, as my next blog will outline, the UK’s BBC so far has not stepped up to the plate.