Saturday 28 March 2020

Post-Corona: a world beyond all recognition

Coronavirus has rightly taken over the news agenda. Last week I observed that by now, nobody will be giving much thought to Brexit save for the nerds and the cranks on both sides. As with much else in politics, people have a hard time letting go of obsolete paradigms. It's quite understandable. One day you can have a near total command of the issues and the next day everything you know is suddenly irrelevant.

As regards to Brexit, since most normal operations have gone on standby and trade as we know it has all but collapsed, with regulatory compliance going on the backburner for the time being, one wonders if there will be any noticeable difference should we leave the transition without a deal (Inter arma einem silent leges).

Ultimately there is zero mileage in talking about trade governance when it looks like we are about to descend into anarchy. Systems are only as good as the capacity to enforce them. Even if we do crash out without a deal, nobody has the intellectual or physical resource available to police the Northern Ireland protocol for starters, and preserving the customs and regulatory integrity of either territory is a distant concern when saving lives is the priority. 

Certainly an airline services agreement seems somewhat redundant since most flights are suspended and half the airlines may even go under - and afterwards flying may be an expensive luxury. It may well be that in any case we will have to rebuild our trade relationships from scratch, taking into account the new landscape when the dust settles. All the while there is a danger that supply chains, particularly groceries and pharmaceuticals may collapse. We are likely to a face a shortage of logistics and manpower. Panic buying is not helping either. 

At the moment any talk around Brexit seems like an indulgence when it now looks like our worst fears may come true. While we are looking at Italy as the predictor of the epidemic, there are other indicators from Italy that suggests the UK may struggle to maintain order. The mayor of Palermo told Sky News that crime gangs are exploiting people's hardship and inciting violence - he warns a social emergency is next. Governments may have set aside funding but getting it where it needs to be is another matter entirely. Meanwhile the NHS is currently showing signs of maximum strain
Bodies are piling up in the resuscitation area. The hospital mortuary is clearly struggling to cope. Now we are also running out of surgical gowns. Some nurses are wearing bin bags instead, which is horrifying to see. Admin is struggling to keep up with the death rates. An oncologist calls the ward to touch base with one of their patients, only to discover they died from Covid-19 days before. The collateral damage of this virus for normal patients will stay with us for a while.
This comes as the government has given up the ghost on containment through test and trace, and is betting the farm on delay by way of tightening up the lockdown. Additional hospital capacity looks as though it will be rapidly overrun and in all likelihood will add little value. We're about three or four weeks away from a full spectrum civil emergency.

This leaves many unanswered questions about the lockdown. Already the police are having to walk a fine line where measured enforcement gives way to draconian jobsworth policing, meeting widespread criticism, but at the same time we are seeing some crass and selfish behaviours that make tighter controls an inevitability.

Further questions arise when we see a double standard emerging. The police are only too happy to issue fines and fixed penalty notices to those going for solitary walks in the country, but there are whole districts of immigrant communities who are seemingly ignoring the lockdown entirely without consequence. Videos are spreading across social media with little corroboration or acknowledgement from the established media, but if they are authentic then we are seeing parts of our cities where the writ of government simply doesn't run, where the virus will spread like wildfire.

The police are then faced with the choice of either doing nothing, setting up roadblocks to blockade entire districts, or going in heavy handed. Since the latter is out of the question, we probably are looking at Croydon style looting disorder but with no obvious end in sight. If then supplies can't get where they need to go without being intercepted by criminal gangs, we may see Tesco vans with armoured escorts.

A week ago some were telling me I was exaggerating and overreacting but as with no deal Brexit, supply chains are fragile, as is civil society. We can hold the line if basic cultural norms are observed but in our multicultural cities there is no such thing as a cultural norm. Unless the police can hold the line then we will likely see vigilante groups emerging.

It's the same the world over. We saw this in Iraq. The moment allied forces lost the capacity to keep the peace, militias emerged to take over the role of government. Meanwhile drug gangs in Brazil have already imposed their own curfew on the slums of Rio. If government can't govern, someone else will. Power is ultimately in the hands of the group with the monopoly on violence.

Any discussion in respect of our external relations now largely pertains to matter of security and vital supplies. It hits home how modern FTAs are largely a luxury indulgence of civilised wealthy nations. Talk about level playing fields, competition, climate and intellectual property are all completely redundant now. Intergovernmental cooperation still matters but it cannot be bound by the letter of the law of treaties when lives hang in the balance.

As to the politics, this administration enjoys a great deal of public support if the latest polling is anything to go by, but we are not yet at the point where people are being turned away from hospitals - which could very well be the start of the political implosition. With clinicians running short on PPE despite reassurances from ranking public officials, and with unanswered questions over the government's earlier handling of the outbreak, coupled with a breakdown of law and order, the public mood could turn on a dime.

I don't know how bad this is going to get but it will test the state and public resilience to the max. Britain stands a better chance than most of emerging relatively intact, but if this runs much beyond summer and there is a second wave as winter approaches when the cupboards are bare, all bets are off. A country used to a level of affluence and liberty is not one that is going to keep a lockdown discipline for any prolonged period. Eventually we're all going to have to come out and face the music.

At a point where we can scarcely plan for next week, let alone a major overhaul of our relationship with the EU, where events are undoing the best of our intentions, all of our petty squabbles from before look farcical. It was only three years ago to the day that Theresa May signed the letter triggering Article 50. Nobody predicted we would be where we were just before Corona and absolutely nobody was prepared for this. To then impose the politics of yesteryear on a rapidly evolving situation is futile. Neither the UK nor the EU will ever be the same again. This is make or break for both fragile unions.

In respect of the EU, it will be judged on its largely irrelevant role in responding to Corona. The most useful thing it can do for any member states right now is to simply waive its own rules and get out of the way. Its bread and butter daily trifles are of no real urgency and may never be resumed. Schengen is likely dead, customs borders may be back for good. Freedom of movement may also be dead. Eastern European states can't afford to lose their brightest and best and there may not even be work for them elsewhere. Every single one of the core assumptions of the EU now comes into question and with member states needing to take their own unilateral actions the single market may no longer function at all.

Following Corona there we be a renewed questions over what member states expect the EU to do and it will be measured against what it realistically can do. With the Visegrad states diverging politically, with democracy seemingly going on the backburner, with some even facing collapse, the EU may need to reinvent as a provisional administration for the weaker states. All the while, the richer states are not going to be told what they can and can't do while rebuilding a new normal. Those now clamouring for the UK tor rejoin the EU simply have no concept of what form the EU will take when this is all over. There will have to be a new treaty but only after Europe decides once and for all if it can even be sustained.

The smart thing for the UK to do right now is to extend the transition indefinitely if only to buy us options on the flip side. At least inside the current framework there is the option of a deal, but if we close that window it is not so easily reopened. European nations may well decide they don't want a zero tariff agreement. Globalisation est mort. The FTA as we know it could well be dead.

For now the EU is focussed on PR, using its limited resources to ingratiate itself with its supporters, making a big show of its joint procurement programme, and its supporters don't seem to ask or even care if it can actually deliver - or whether national efforts are any better or worse. But mostly the EU is on lockdown, where running normal business over video conferences without the army or interpreters and translators simply isn't possible. Therein lies the fundamental flaw and overall inadequacy of the EU. It's appropriate for large scale long term collaboration, but it simply cannot perform the role of a nation state. It doesn't have the resource, the power or the legitimacy - and never will.

When it comes down to it there is no such thing as a "citizen of Europe". Whatever it says on your passport, when it comes to surviving in a crisis like this, it's community, communication and commonality that matters. We may share certain values and ambitions with Europe, but when it comes to the crunch the manufactured apparatus of the EU cannot compete with the pedigree and legitimacy of the nation state. The European utopian ideal is dead. A new era calls for a new vision and new institutions with a new sense of purpose. Something the dead hand of bureaucracy can never provide.

Corona rewrites the script of everything. As much as anything, in a global crisis, we cannot afford our traditional euro-parochialism. As remarked previously "the world is only as strong as the weakest health system". Going forward, everything we do has to be looked at through a biosecurity prism, and the UK cannot afford to self-isolate internationally. We have to be hands-on globally to control new outbreaks and that requires full engagement and these themes must inform our trade, security, welfare and industrial policies. 

As we count the cost of our complacency and continental hubris, the structures and institutions of yore will neither be appropriate nor politically desirable. In most respects, Corona gives us a blank slate far beyond what we imagined by leaving the EU and it's useless to pretend things can stay the same. On the other side of this disaster we are faced with a world beyond all recognition. We need shake off our redundant thinking if we are to meet the many challenges.  

Thursday 26 March 2020

Peak stupidity?

Derbyshire Police have been out in the Peaks filming people out on walks with their camera drone toys. They say "Some number plates were coming back to keepers in Sheffield, so we know that people are travelling to visit these areas. Daily exercise should be taken locally to your home. Under government guidance all travel is limited to essential travel only. We understand that people will have differing views about this post, however, we will not be apologetic for using any legal and appropriate methods to keep people safe".

This was greeted with a wave of revulsion on Twitter. It's a bit over the top. What's worrying about it is the government is now resorting to fining people found in breach of lockdown guidelines. Essentially it's a curtain twitcher's charter and a feeding frenzy for jobsworth authoritarians and, later down the line, council bailiffs. This has the potential to get quite ugly. 

You can, however, see where they're coming from in Derbyshire. The government announces a soft-lockdown and immediately half the population treats it like a bank holiday and heads out to the local beauty spots and seaside towns en masse. Though generally infection risk is minimal, when they take their families along, pulling in to use public conveniences, it becomes a problem. If there is now a clampdown then the public share some responsibility for that. Though I've been in self-isolation since about 2015 there still seems to be a large contingent of people who think it's all a big fuss over nothing.

Ultimately people do need to be a little more considerate. The lockdown we have is largely a  goodwill lockdown that really isn't a big ask, ie. that people minimise their exposure to other people and don't travel unnecessarily. It's not that difficult to comply with. 

But then there's the flip side of this. Now that most people have got the message that this is bloody serious, we can afford for people to exercise a little bit of their own judgement. There is nothing particularly harmful in getting out so long as they take the necessary precautions. The fact is we can reduce risk of contagion but we can't eliminate it. We still have to get things done and a total lockdown would probably cause as many problems as it solves. Unless there's going to be a door to door food delivery service we can't close shops so supermarkets are the greatest liability. It makes a mockery of Derbyshire plod spying on people up in the peak district. 

I'm broadly supportive of the lockdown measures, especially for densely populated areas such as London, and if rural forces have to put up roadblocks to stop people abusing the leeway in the current controls then I don't really blame them. If people are going to be selfish then there must be consequences. One suspects, though, when there's a "tsunami" of new cases, the public won't need any persuading to stay put - and the police will have better things to do. This time next week, nobody will be in the mood for a jolly to the seaside. 

Wednesday 25 March 2020

Corona: the weakest link

We can say a lot about the failings of our Corona containment strategy but as Julian Braithwaite, the UK's Geneva/WTO ambassador, tweets this evening "The world is only as strong as the weakest health system". I couldn't agree more. Going forward, everything we do has to be looked at through a biosecurity prism, and the UK cannot afford to self-isolate internationally. We have to be hands-on globally to control new outbreaks and that requires full engagement and properly funded aid programme

I get quite a bit of stick for highlighting things that go on in the British Pakistani community and disturbing news from South Asia, but what happens there affects us. That's especially true now. Pakistan, says Haaretz, is a Coronavirus Super-spreader. Iran banned congregational prayer. Saudi Arabia closed the Ka’aba to pilgrims. Imran Khan allowed a quarter million Muslims to gather - and returning home, they've spread corona from Kyrgyzstan to Gaza.
Sindh province has seen the highest number of cases across the country, recording at least 352 cases since Pakistan's outbreak began in late February. At least 260 of those cases were tested at a quarantine camp in the city of Sukkur, established to house travellers who arrived in the country from Iran and had previously passed through the Taftan quarantine camp at the border.
The Taftan camp - criticised by those held there as lacking proper medical and social isolation facilities - has been at the centre of Pakistan's outbreak of cases. At least 57 percent of all people who have tested positive for coronavirus in Pakistan passed through the camp at some stage, according to government data.
As to Pakistan's containment strategy, it's nonexistent. There is an absolute lack of treatment facilities, doctors, and no testing worth speaking of in the slums where it is most likely to spread. Meanwhile Imran Khan has said that he was not prepared to place the entire country on lockdown because of the associated economic costs. There is a partial lockdown in Karachi but there lacks the resource to meaningfully enforce it and at least a quarter of the population simply cannot afford to comply. Corona has a foothold but is now expected to explode.

It's not exactly helpful that Pakistan's public health system is dire at the best of times and epidemics are often fuelled by public ignorance. They seem to get hit by just about every preventable epidemic from Measles, HIV and Dengue - and what applies to Pakistan can also be said of India and Bangladesh. It's a regional problem and one that has direct implications for the UK.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Pakistanis are not popular in the UK. They are among the least integrated immigrants and the cause of a number of social problems and if the idea gets rooted that Pakistanis in the UK are superspreaders (and there is anecdotal and data evidence to suggest they are) then pretty soon you have racial friction that could boil over. More urgently, it's not going to matter what controls we implement here if the third world slums of the world with whom we have deep social connections are not taking adequate action to eradicate sources of infection.  

The new populist right are quite militantly opposed to foreign aid - and they are absolutely right to point to waste, corruption and virtue signalling fluff, but biosecurity is a defence and national security issue just as much as Russian bombers periodically probing our airspace. Though there may be calls to concentrate our spending on domestic containment and treatment, Corona is no respecter of borders. Like all epidemics, infection has to be tackled at source. It is imperative, therefore, that the UK takes an active global role, concentrating its aid efforts on disease control. With Corona potentially bringing the global economy to its knees, we can't afford not to.  

Wherefore art thou, Labour?

It isn't healthy for any democracy not to have a functioning opposition. We are drifting toward a one party state with a petitioner opposition the government can ignore if it so chooses. Meanwhile parliament is making an irrelevance of itself at a time when government failures need to be rapidly identified and addressed. The Labour party, or what's left of it, is not up to this task.

This week, insofar as they have made a noise, it's been bleating about financial support for the self-employed and those in casual employment. All well and good but this is well within their comfort zone, largely conceding the points on Corona containment and mitigation.

In this, we have never needed an effective opposition more than we do now. The government was muddled and slow to react for which there must be an enquiry. Furthermore, the soft-lockdown is clearly not going to be adequate, and though the government is taking measures to increase care capacity the data suggests it's not nearly enough and we need to be ramping up our capabilities now.

Furthermore, as hospitals and clinics start filling up with Corona sufferers, ordinary treatments are going to get bumped. People on cancer medicines be it chemo or gene therapy are going to struggle getting the treatments they need which could add thousands more to the death toll.

Then there's the bigger picture. Various industry individuals and junior ministers have assured us that we can feed the nation. As someone quite well versed in trade issues, I have no faith in any of these reassurances. We need a major mobilisation of logistics and air assets to ensure we can get basic foodstuffs and a rudimentary rationing system ready to roll if the situation deteriorates.

Then there is the matter of trade negotiations with the EU. It is my view that a rushed FTA with minimal customs cooperation is a serious liability both for our strategic position in the mid term but also our critical supply chains. We need a minimum one year pause so that we can look at this when there is the proper bandwidth for a national debate. This is not something that can be allowed to be railroaded through out of the public eye.

Labour seem to have gone for the low hanging fruit - the soft welfare subjects that fall within the remit of a socially focussed NGO/welfare charity, which makes them little more than a pressure group and shows them up as being uninterested in the serious business of statecraft.

As regards to meeting the future challenges of Corona, it is clear we need a renewed and revitalised system of local government capable of acting independently and able to take on the responsibility of containing new outbreak clusters when the lockdown measures are eased. We have seen an impressive and heartwarming response to the call for volunteers. They are going to need training and will need to be deployed effectively and moved around to where they are needed. There is a whole host of questions pertaining to their organisation, welfare, PPE and sustenance. What's the plan?

As to the lockdown itself, there are clear costs and threats to liberty - especially when the curtain twitchers get busy. The police need clear guidelines and a beefed up code of conduct. Enforcement will be difficult when there will be other demands on their time and more pressing urban stresses, not least where there is racial friction and cultural sensitivities to take into account.

This would be a chance for Labour to show that it shares the same concerns as ordinary people but also show that it is capable of governing. Instead we see labour activists bickering among each other over trivialities while largely ineffectual Labour MPs can't wrench themselves out of their comfort zones. Labour has spent the whole time navel gazing, giving Boris Johnson a free pass at a time when basic errors will lead to the needless deaths of thousands. It's time for them to stop dithering and get their act together.

Corona: We're going to need a bigger boat

As far as the mainstream debate goes, trade has gone on the backburner. There just isn't the bandwidth. It is, though, about to become more important as a matter of survival. For the moment we are trying to lock it all down but there soon comes the somewhat urgent question of how the UK feeds its people at a time when household incomes will be taking a pasting.

Here we see that reassurances are not too convincing.
Freight carriers are struggling to deliver goods by land, sea or air as the coronavirus pandemic forces Western governments to impose lockdowns, threatening supplies of vital products including medicines into the most affected areas, such as Italy. While China's draconian steps to stop the spread of the virus are now allowing its economy slowly to come back online, supply chains are backing up in other parts of the world. Problems ranging from finding enough truck drivers to restrictions on seafarers and a lack of air freight are hitting the smooth flow of goods, freight logistics operators say. Stockpiling and panic buying by consumers are also adding to strains.
I urge you to read the whole report. It doesn't look good.
While truck drivers in Spain are managing to deliver goods like food and medicine, there are more queues at border crossings, said Dulse Diaz, spokesman at the Spanish Confederation of Goods Transporters. "Perhaps the most worrying problem is that we don't have enough masks and gloves for all the drivers. Although many businesses predicted this situation and put in orders, all production is now destined for hospitals," he said.
Luis Marin, manager at Asociafruit, which represents producers and exporters of fruit, vegetables, flowers and plants in the southern Spanish region of Andalusia, said transporters were already passing on costs to farmers for journeys. "Normally we send a truck of, say, oranges to Germany and the truck driver comes back with another cargo of anything from ... domestic goods to chairs to compensate the return journey," Marin said. "But production in many sectors has absolutely dried up. So, there is no return cargo. If the producer has to pay for the two-way journey, costs go up."
Patrick Hasani, chief of staff with Britain's digital freight forwarder Zencargo, said stockpiling of goods by British consumers was requiring an extra 35% of capacity on deliveries from the European Union to keep up with the demand. "Lead times are also impacted, with up to one day extra delay from products coming from Poland, Germany and France given disruptions and traffic as driver health and cargo come under border scrutiny," Hasani said. On ocean freight, there are shortages of containers – as many as tens of thousands in Europe and the United States - as shipping lines struggle to send enough equipment after disruption caused by China's shutdown. A shortage of crew for ships is also affecting maritime supply chains.
Helpfully the EU is urging members to create green lanes. As EU countries quickly reinstalled border checks in an effort to slow the spread of the virus, long queues have formed in the past week on the internal borders of the bloc, slowing down supply chains across the continent.

All the same it could still be problematic for the UK which is heavily dependent on imports. Even if supply chains can be safeguarded we may find an unwillingness to supply demand for strategic reasons. Russia has suspended exports of all grains for ten days due to the coronavirus pandemic, it announced on Monday. Russia cites biosecurity concerns.
The Russian Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance introduced for a period of 10 days "a temporary ban on export of all kinds of grains until specific instructions of the emergency team of the State Council of the Russian Federation on the prevention of coronavirus infection spreading in Russia," said the service, which is responsible for imports and exports of agricultural products.
And if you believe that you'll presumably believe China has Coorona under control. More likely Russia is keeping a strategic reserve not only as a domestic safeguard but also because food is political leverage. We will likely see similar scenarios emerging over vital medical supplies. We have already seen a lorry load of face masks destined for the UK intercepted in France. European solidarity doesn't appear to exist right now. 

Then if we are following the same trajectory as Italy, and taking the same quarantine measures, we will likely see a strategic decision to close petrol stations in motorway service stations where only sanctioned shipments can make it around the country. We really ought to have done this already in my view to slow the rate of infection in the regions as people take whatever measures they can to get out of London. Travel restrictions, border closures, air travel cancellations and ports quarantining ships for 14 days or more are now commonplace but it's sure to get worse. I won't be at all surprised to see an emergency rationing system and a huge explosion in the black market as people start to trade their personal stockpiles.

Then in the longer run we will probably see a massive programme fo bailouts and state appropriations as container shipping collapses. Meanwhile the dry bulk sector, which is responsible for shipping cargo such as iron ore, coal and grains, is still struggling under rates far below break-even levels for ship owners. The era of cheap consumables is well and truly over and food prices will necessarily skyrocket even accounting for the drop in the oil price.

The bigger picture looks even more uncertain. We were already seeing a return to near-shoring in response to global trade friction, while the "bipolar structure of the world economy" (the US and Europe consumes, and the rest of the world provides inputs for that consumption as cheaply as possible) has forever broken down.
China has not only joined the US and the European Union as a major global consumer market, but also plays an indispensable role in supplying intermediate goods for manufacturers worldwide. A recent UNCTAD report noted that 20 per cent of all intermediate inputs originate in China, with the US, Europe, Japan and South Korea the most dependent: “Chinese manufacturing is essential to many global value chains, especially those related to precision instruments, machinery, automotive and communication equipment.”
So the globalised economy is not so much being decoupled as being reconfigured. As China’s domestic consumer market has grown on the back of rising wages and enhanced spending power, so more of the supply chain is being “domesticated”. Supply chains are simplifying and becoming shorter to make them less fragile and vulnerable. They are also likely to become more regional – though an audit of which countries have China as their main export market and their main source of inputs makes it unclear just how large that China-dominated region will be.
This reconfiguration has massive implications for airlines, and for the ports and shipping lines that have underpinned the logistics that knit global supply chains together. With that, nations and blocs will need to completely rethink their global and regional trade strategies, not least to adapt to the new order of powers - whatever that may be. Corona has already scuppered Africa's mega regional trade deal ambitions. Trade talks aimed at launching the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) on July 1 are now on hold. Though the intention to resume talks is clearly present it may never see the light of day again when the dust settles.

Worse still, we are sure to see a period of regulatory uncertainty. Everyone will now be reviewing their food safety and biosecurity standards. Due to internal and global pressure even China is undergoing a complete overhaul of its meat hygiene regime. This presents challenges for exporters (assuming anyone is left able to export after this) and even bigger headaches for trade negotiators. 

Priorities and red lines are sure to change. The UK is going to have to radically rethink its "global Britain" strategy and reassess its divergence priorities as regards to Brexit. Decisions have to be taken on the basis of informed speculation based on trade norms - but all the old norms are now out the window. Even the current new model FTA might well be dead as questions are asked about supply chain resilience and the need to keep a strategic reserve agricultural and manufacturing capacity. And that's going to mean tariffs and protectionism - after after Corona, we shall have to take stock of who our real friends are. 

Irrespective of underlying trends in trade, as far as geopolitics and trade is concerned we are now in the Corona era. The data might tell us one thing put public sentiment will demand much more stringent controls on visas and border controls and for a time all governments will be skittish about liberalising any trade. Corona does not respect borders so we are going to have to look very carefully at how other countries continue to manage outbreak control - which as far as South Asia goes, is nonexistent. There was already grounds for terminating air travel from the region - but especially so now for the foreseeable future. Liberal immigration dogma is now a biosecurity threat.

They say decades pass where nothing happens and then weeks where decades happen. As regards to Corona, that is something of an understatement. We are now in a state of emergency that will lead to further emergencies while bad actors, individual and national will seek to exploit the turmoil, and our reactions are sure to transform our politics and our institutions. 

Britain is moving toward a quasi-democratic autocracy, in part thanks to the collapse of coherent opposition, but the role of local government is set to re-establish its importance as we learn the lessons of Corona. With that comes opportunities to rethink our industrial and societal order which has long been stressed by hyper-globalisation, immigration, internet and deindustrialization. There is now a question mark over everything and we have yet to wake up to the scale of the challenges. It's both exciting and terrifying. This is the end of everything as we have known it. Somehow a stockpile of tinned tuna and spaghetti hoops looks somewhat inadequate. We're going to need a bigger boat. 

Tuesday 24 March 2020

Corona: Britain forgot what government is for

Picking up on yesterday's theme, also touched on by, part of the problem with our response to Corona is the lack of an effective local response. This is something we used to get right by way of direct experience but we appear to have lost touch.

As I understand it, local government as we now know it evolved from the Broad Street Cholera epidemic of 1854. For those not familiar with the tale, a good outline is here. This was the birth of modern epidemiology. In the 19th century, drinking water was provided to residents by several competing water companies who operated public pumps in water districts around the city. Most of these companies pumped their water directly out of the polluted Thames River. The source of the outbreak, though, was traced to a pump handle in Broad Street.

Local boards or local boards of health were local authorities in urban areas of England and Wales from 1848 to 1894. They were formed in response to cholera epidemics and were given powers to control sewers, clean the streets, regulate environmental health risks including slaughterhouses and ensure the proper supply of water to their districts. Local boards were eventually merged with the corporations of municipal boroughs in 1873, or became urban sanitation districts in 1894.

The primary functions of these local boards were as thus:
  • Sewers: The local board took over ownership of all public sewers in its district. Where private sewers operated for profit, the local board could purchase them.
  • Street cleansing: The local board was required to clean the streets in its district, removing dust, ashes, rubbish, filth, dung and soil.
  • Public lavatories: The local board could provide "public necessities" (as the act called them).
  • Slaughterhouses: The local board was to regulate slaughterhouses, and was allowed to provide such facilities itself.
  • Street paving: The local board took over the public streets in the district, and could also require that private streets be paved.
  • Pleasure grounds: The local boards were allowed to provide and lay out pleasure grounds.
  • Water Supply: The local board was allowed to supply water, but only if a private company could not provide the service.
Though the scope and powers of these authorities evolved over time the essential functions remained the same for over a century. But as eureferendum notes:
Prior to the 1974 local government reorganisation, there were over 400 local authorities, each with their local public health teams but, through progressive reorganisations, their functions have been absorbed into the NHS, executed by "local" public health protection teams (HPTs).
But with the reorganisations came a savage contraction of the system, with better than 400 semi-autonomous local authority units being replaced by a mere nine HPTs, with only one covering the whole of London. When it came to testing and tracing, therefore, there simply wasn't the resource, while the service has lost touch with its local authority roots and is unable to handle a massive increase in workload.
We see a similar state in the inspection of slaughterhouses. Meat hygiene was broken out of local authority control to become The Meat Hygiene Service in 1995 (responsible for the enforcement of meat hygiene legislation). The Service then merged with the Food Standards Agency in 2010 - a non-ministerial government department of the Government. Fast forward to now when much of its enforcement activity works to EU regulation. The entire system is divorced from local activity - with similarly disastrous outcomes.

By robbing local authorities of their essential functions, expanding their remit far beyond its fundamental obligations to become central government grant maintained nannying welfare agencies, local authorities no longer have the knowledge, expertise or power to usefully act in a time of national emergency. That makes effective disease control all but impossible. 

In recent years I have come to the conclusion that there's a reason politicians don't know what they are for, often playing the role of glorified social worker at local and national level, and it's because government itself - and the general public - have also forgotten what government is for. Politicians spend their time trying to fix problems for people but largely as part of a social engineering agenda. Political parties have got it into their brains that the apparatus of government is there to shape and mould attitudes and habits of people for their own ends. 

To an extent that is a function of government when there is a need promote better habits from a public health perspective to control disease and pollution, but all to often it's rooted in an authoritarian need to push people around when most people just want government to do what it's supposed to do - ie fight crime, empty the bins, prosecute polluters and fight off foreign invaders.

This is partly why our politicians love the EU. It takes care of all the grubby technical details, whose regulatory systems largely dictate the structure of technical institutions and takes them away from local democracy and out of public supervision. The rampant reorganisation and evisceration of our local government and our relationship with the EU is not coincidental.

That said, I'm not going to twist Corona to lay the blame at the feet of the EU. This is very much a British phenomenon. It's a culmination of decades of degradation in public services ranging from the reorganisation in 1974 through to the quangoification under Blair and Major, and the 2008 financial crisis and the cuts that ensued. All the while our politics doesn't concern itself with the fundamentals believing it's all in hand, outsourced and managed by public - private partnerships and performing to a political level of adequacy.

In short we got complacent. Politicians don't go into politics to politics to talk about technical governance. They go into politics to raise funds for their various hobby horses and make laws to make themselves popular. They never imagined something like Corona. We didn't plan for it, we didn't organise for it and we deleted any resilience form the system, What we could have spent on disease control and civil contingency planning we spent on stop smoking coordinators, diversity gurus and LGBT sensitivity training. 

As a country we got sloppy and overindulgent and it shows in every strata of government - from the state of the far-left opposition through to the intellectually barren Brexiteers. The country is just a giant trainset to play with to satisfy their childish fantasies. For a time it was a luxury we could afford - but now the cupboard is bare and nature is having the last laugh. Without the local means to test and trace new cases around the country, it's difficult to see how an unsustainable soft lockdown can do much. Even if we "flatten the curve" we are still pissing into the wind. 

Monday 23 March 2020

Never surrender

If we had good government we'd have had an up to date epidemic plan that local and national officials were drilled on and we'd have locally stored stockpiles of the necessary equipment and a logistics plan requisitioning whatever civil or military logistics necessary. We'd have been ready to roll with field hospitals a week ago and we'd have a volunteer reserve corps of nurses and clinicians in much the same way we have a territorial army.

Maybe we will have all that in the future til Corona is a distant memory and we once again prune the redundancy from the system. This sort of thing is cyclic. We are never so well prepared intellectually than after the storm has passed. Research grants will be awarded and policies will be funded and new think tanks will pop up all urging supply chain resilience and beefed up local government.

One of the greatest tragedies of this outbreak has been the procrastination at the local level waiting on advice from central government. Had local authorities acted sooner we might be ahead of the game. As much as we have a top down government, the public has a top down mentality - and this must change. In the future, local health authorities must be able to make their own judgement call to step in an isolate infection clusters without waiting for permission or instruction from London.

That said, we are where we are. Lockdown. Had we acted sooner this might not have been necessary - or at least not this severe. Meanwhile some are saying this is all a massive overreaction. We're throwing ourselves into a deep and lasting recession and putting our freedoms in danger. Some are asking if it's worth it. If the hospitals are going to be swamped regardless of what we do, isn't "flattening the curve" something of a moot point?

I could almost have some sympathy with that view but then I think what's the point of even being a rich country if we're not going to mobilise every resource we have to save the lives of citizens if we can? I don't see our elderly as expendable. Many still have a great deal to contribute and their experience and memory is the one asset we cannot replace.

What we can do with a lockdown, even if we can't save everyone, is at least buy ourselves a little time to get the necessary resources into place, to accelerate research and feed medical data back to people who can make good use of it. We can innovate our way out of this and we can rebuild. I cannot think of a more miserablist defeatist attitude than to simply surrender to Corona just because of the cost and inconvenience. I'm not a statistic on some Tory balance sheet, nor is my family. I want my parents around for a long time to come. Perhaps it's the trust-fund Toryboys eyeing up their family mansions who are keen to be rid of the olds?

What's ironic here is there does seem to be a crossover between the "economy first" Tories and the no deal Brexiters. They are happy to torch the economy on the name of Brexit, but not in the name of saving lives. Frankly I'm glad we're disregarding their complaints. Britain can bounce back from this. We have the knowledge, we have the infrastructure, and the political will. This is not something we did to ourselves for a dodgy "free trade" prospectus. We're doing this because we are human. Peter Hitchens may be right. There is a health cost to an economy in a depression and maybe in the long run we won't save lives... but I'll give everything just to try. If we're not about that then what is any of this about?

Corona UK: caught with our pants down

Admit it. To begin with you didn't pay any attention to the Covd19 outbreak early on. It was happening in foreign lands. That's just what happens there. We've seen them come and go - swine flu, SARS, bird flu etc. We don't pay attention because it's just something that happens to other countries. And rightly so. We civilised superior Brits don't boil dogs alive, eat bats or munch down on Kentucky Fried Pangolin. Why should we bother maintaining an expensive disease control policy?

Really when it comes down to it, it's only the poor ignorant people in the slums of Lahore who get the plague and it's only the darkies who get ebola. Brits on the other hand are clean and well educated. The icy hand of death does not knock on our door. That's the underlying assumption here. We got complacent.

One Tweeter "Tosh" has it that; "The global economy is basically being destroyed, freedoms sacrificed because global healthcare operates on such a narrow margin of expected needs that when we get a surprise event we let go a full throated shart". Superficially that sounds about right but with 2020 hindsight we could and should have done better. We should have had an early warning system and a contingency plan ready to put into action on the basis of foreign experience - of which there is plenty. We just didn't think it was a priority.

It turns out, though, that Johnny Foreigner is well ahead of the game. The government of Hidalgo, Mexico, has set up an inflatable hospital in Pachuca to deal with a possible influx of patients infected with the coronavirus Covid-19. At time of publication there were no confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the state. They had a plan and they were ready. Not so the UK where the picture is grim.

One comment on
I just got this from a friend whose daughter is a care nurse in a provincial hospital. A short series of messages combined.
(Daughter) reports Corona 'bed cases' up from 3 to over 50 in a week reaching capacity. Staff starting to go down with virus and a shortage of protective kit (PP3 masks). She thought that it was pretty inevitable (she would get it) She has just finished a 72 hour six day week and now her days off are cancelled. Work load is off the scale. Evidence that severity of infection proportionate to infection dose. Two ENT doc's in London (late 20's) were on ventilators having contracted the virus, having received heavy doses of the virus through work. All F1 doc's being promoted early (5 months) to F2 without pay rise and med students being brought in to replace them. Volunteers urgently sought from Biochem students (unpaid) to deal with increase in testing. I try not to think about it but it's not so easy. The virus got into the geriatrics ward and killed 7 of the 12 patients. Three of her team are in isolation with it out of just 10. She is also at risk of being a carrier so is not meeting anyone. Now her partner (a bio chemist) has been called into to set up new testing facilities. The hours she is putting in are ridiculous. All of them have dermatitis from the frequent hand washing which puts them at additional risk.
It seems that system failure is probably days away. After that, deaths increase, but reported deaths don't match the increase because so many will die at home untreated. The number of medical staff ill and dying will become significant.

Like Mexico, we should have set up the emergency treatment centres to keep the infected out of the hospitals. Now, the hospitals are very dangerous places to be, where people with ordinary illnesses dare not go. As this progresses, the untreated - and especially, but not exclusively, cancer patients, will die unnecessarily (or early) through lack of treatment. We then see, in effect, a collapse of the NHS. After that... god help us. 

There is presently no reliable picture overall but if that one little insight above is representative of the system as a whole (which it probably will be this time next week) then we are super screwed. The moment we let Corona into our hospitals was the moment we lost the war. Now the best we can hope for is effective test and trace response to contain new outbreak clusters - where local authorities really should be ready to respond but are likely working to outdated undrilled procedures without the proper equipment with no real plan in place. Our civil contingency planning appears to be nonexistent.

This combined with a muddled and incoherent response from central government, coupled with the selfish actions of a largely spoiled and overindulged population, and you have a perfect storm. So acute is the immediate problem, we have yet to even entertain the idea that public order will break down and food supply will become a problem. We are supposed to take reassurance from government but these are the same people who only recently woke up to the significance of the Dover port in their Brexit estimations.

When the history of Corona in the UK is written it will speak of a country where governance was tested - and failed. Social democracies in the west have been absorbed by trivialities and indulgences, using state funds to buy off their respective voter bases, hollowing out resilience in the system while neglecting the basics - the very foundations of national and local government. Local government began as sanitation authorities. That was their primary function then and now, but this week my local rural council was using my council tax for LGBT sensitivity training.

The most depressing finding of any future enquiry will be that Britain, a first world rich nation, had every possible opportunity to contain this outbreak just by having an outline of a plan and half a clue when and how to implement it. But as we have seen with Brexit, Britain doesn't do plans nor does it do leadership. We've had  it too good for too long and it shows. Britain forgot how to do good government - and now we count our dead. 

Sunday 22 March 2020

Corona: a rebirth moment?

Coronavirus is bloody inconvenient. As much as it knocks everything else off the agenda, it rewrites the script entirely. All of our base assumptions about the shape of the future relationship with the EU have gone out the window. Some of the more hardline positions take on a certain wisdom when faced with a disruption of this nature. Moreover, with imminent shortages and a repurposing of industry, what and how we export is something of a moot point for the time being.

Moreover with this being a global pandemic, with resources stretched to the max, it's becoming every man for himself. As to rules and regulations, they all go on the backburner. Getting things done is more important than compliance right now. You can either be compliant or fast but not both. This is happening in the private sector as well as in government. Hiring and firing policies are going on the bonfire while the governments won't give EU rules a nanosecond's thought in their response to Corona.

This is where the EU has to tread carefully. It can't be seen to be doing anything to obstruct mitigation or containment measures and apart from the PR fluff there's not a lot it can do but get out of the way. All the while it is vulnerable. Member states will be taking credit for any successes while seeking to blame the EU or accuse it of inaction. All the while, borders are closing and the normal rules of trade don't apply.

Never has the EU looked less relevant to people's lives and it looks weaker now than it ever has. I don't say this from a biased leave perspective, rather it appears to be a matter of fact. People are tuned into their national governments while the messages coming from EU institutions are bland, generic and a touch desperate.

Meanwhile, the politics has changed substantially. The panic buying and viral pictures of empty shelves underscores the need for resilience in our supply chains, where questions will now be asked as to whether we can afford to have strategic production offshored to aggressor nations like China. Economic nationalism is coming back with a vengeance. We have already seen some irrationally militant views over British fishing, but now feeding the nation becomes deadly serious business. Agriculture has long been taken for granted, with Tory advisors recently suggesting Britain doesn't need farming. It's a brave man who would venture that opinion in public now.

Corona has exposed the hubris that underpins the entire world trading system. It can adapt to small wars, shortages, trade spats and political uncertainty, but a global pandemic resets the clock on the whole system. Both the EU and the WTO will face a number of existential questions. Once the rules are brought into question there is no putting that genie back in the bottle. Strategic protection is back in fashion. It could undo decades of trade progress.

The EU could attempt to issue penalties for the more serious abuses but in the end it's pissing into the wind. By the time this is over, there'll be a decades' worth of casework backlog to attend to that will more than likely never see the light of day. It will have to take an amnesty approach, after which its authority is forever compromised. The only power it has is the faith placed in it by member states - which is only ever when it's convenient.

As to where this leaves us with Brexit I don't know. The EU will try to restore some of its own order and uphold the basis of its rules but that might be difficult when even member states are not cooperating. All the while the UK will not be in any mind to sign up to anything binding if there is the slightest risk of it impacting our economic reconstruction efforts. To a very large extent, EU model FTAs are a luxury item for stable economies. I'm not sure any of us now qualifies.

Then, of course, there are political opportunities to exploit. There are some disruptions I had previously thought too radical a departure from the status quo, but again, that is a now a moot point. Corona is no deal Brexit on steroids - where it's worth asking if it even matters whether we have a deal right now. Is there much between crashing out or maintaining the transition since neither side is really in much of a position to do anything about it? There simply isn't the resource or political runtime.

It could be that, given the circumstances, a no deal scenario would see the UK making temporary bilateral arrangements with member states that wouldn't previously have been politically possible. That may become the norm thus undermining the EU. There's a game to be played if we're smart about it - but unwise to venture forth until the dust settles.

Grim though Corona is, it is also an opportunity to rethink the fundamentals of our society, not least our relationship with food. Much of our consumer spending is predicated on cheap food underpinned by exploitation and unfair competition in the haulage industry and and heavily reliant on migrant workers, mostly from Africa, who pick fruit and vegetables for a pittance and live in overcrowded tent camps and shantytowns in Italy and Spain.

Meanwhile in the UK, it is not a fringe opinion in the British livestock industry that meat shouldn't be cheap and shouldn't be a daily commodity. I feel the same way about off season fruit and veg. Our convenience approach to food makes us unhealthy and frees up time we do not usefully use. One thing Peter Hitchens is right about - the underlying conditions that will kill us when we get Corona are those caused by our obese, sedentary lifestyles. It's also not unconnected to our poor mental health.

Moreover, it cannot be right that we are importing workers to work the fields for us. Now that Corona has wiped out a number of jobs, there is no shortage of people available for those jobs we allegedly "won't do". I suspect there will be a lot of soul searching to come in the near future as Corona holds up a mirror to British culture, especially when order starts to break down. There will be a number of areas where it will be glaringly apparent that we cannot afford to neglect certain ongoing concerns any longer - and we shall have to start making serious demands. 

All the old certainties are now gone. The petty obsessions of Brexit watchers on both sides are obsolete. The future is now a blank cheque. We know things are bad and set to get worse, and the geopolitical situation could rapidly deteriorate too. This could go beyond even my worst nightmares. That said, I can't be the only one who sees a silver lining. I've long felt we were in a phase of managed decline. With Corona as an accelerant, it could be a rebirth moment for British society. This is certainly the end of the normal I have known - and I'm not sorry about it. 

Friday 20 March 2020

New world disorder?

It's difficult to absorb the enormity of what's in motion. We are seeing first hand how fragile so much of we take for granted is. It's bad, it's going to get worse, and we are only one catalyst event away from chaos. You could be forgiven for expecting the worst.

Today the order was given that pubs and restaurants should close. We are slowly moving toward a lockdown. Further measures have been taken but in some respects are exacerbating the problem and without public cooperation a lockdown may be entirely futile. Most people will do all they can to abide with the containment measures but in London we have a large feral population that will exploit the situation.

I believe it is highly likely we will see a repeat of the 2011 looting, probably within hours, where the police will end up adopting the same hands-off tactics. They don't have the manpower or the resources to mount a full scale fightback, all the while half the force will either be off sick, AWOL or tasked with policing hospitals and guarding key infrastructure. I'm not sure when it will come but we are sure to see outbreaks of violence at hospitals when the NHS starts to turn away patients. I expect to see the army deployed in London sooner or later.

London though, is only part of the problem. Parts of the north with large muslim populations are going to be problematic. The Independent reports that 25% of all deaths in UK are Muslim elders as Muslims are not stopping from mixing with their elderly and each other. It's a language and culture issue.
"in pockets of Muslim communities, there is mistrust – or simple unawareness – of government advice. The official NHS website on the coronavirus, which has been prominently plugged during the prime minister’s daily press conferences, is available only in English.
This leaves many minorities whose English is not proficient enough to fully understand medical terms like “quarantine” and “pandemic” reliant on foreign or social media sources for their information.
The rest of the Independent report makes for grim reading. Bradford's muslim population is effectively a state within a state, where authorities have to be sensitive since they aren't actually in control - which is going to be a problem. I won't be the remotest bit surprised to see a repeat of the Manningham riots as the Pakistani youths challenge police authority. 

Ultimately councils need to be as ruthless about containment of infection clusters as they are when they're hounding elderly people for council tax. If they hogtie themselves with political correctness again then they'll get a lot of people killed. 

Then, of course, there's that small matter or what happens when a bored and restless population have had enough of being cooped up, the weather improves and supplies run short. The smart move for the government will be to ration petrol to stop people travelling but whatever we do we're going to be in a perpetual game of whack-a-mole. I don't think containment is remotely realistic.

As much as keeping order with the existing stresses is difficult it becomes all the more difficult when the population is competing for basic amenities and supplies, with rumours sparking panics and internet theorising running wildfire. If civil order does start to break down we may even see civil militias forming to bolster police efforts. 

I sincerely hope I'm wrong about this, but as with Brexit there is a great deal of complacency. The full apparatus of the state is being mobilised to cope with what's coming, which will necessarily see a downgrading of normal services, where gaps in provision can be mitigated but not over the long term. Outside of Coronavirus there are still the regular health and social care demands and basic sanitation functions that need to be maintained. When these things start to break down it demands the people themselves step in and improvise. Ordinarily that would be encouraging but not when you're trying to contain the spread of a deadly virus.

Britain has shown extraordinary resilience in times of crisis but we've never been tested like this before. Never have we had such a fragmented self-oriented society with such varied and complex demands of the state. Moreover, this is not just a national emergency. This is especially a Europe wide problem meaning our food imports could soon run into trouble. Reassurance from government counts for so little when so many miscalculations have been made over Brexit. All the while we see lorries backed up on the German border. Normal trade flows are about to collapse. 

For the moment the government seems to have the confidence of the nation, and a great many believe this will blow over after a few weeks of disruption. That can turn virtually overnight. If the army is deployed in London then there's the danger of a Bloody Sunday type incident that could see all hell break loose. From there the government could rapidly lose control. If then the food situation starts to look hairy then we can easily descend into anarchy. I hope it won't come to that but even in the best case scenario, there is probably no undoing what we are about to do to ourselves. There is no return to normal. The normal we knew is gone for good. 

Tuesday 17 March 2020

All the king's horses

Ain't no doubt about it. The government has bungled this on several levels. Schools are now closing due to absenteeism and heads are taking their own actions unilaterally. Moreover, to the casual observer, with the debate littered with incoherent, ambiguous terminology and glaring inconsistency, they've left themselves wipe open to all manner of accusations - some true, some malevolent fiction. The government has lost control of the message and people have clearly lost confidence in the government.

As to what is actually going, it's difficult to get any clear picture through the sheer volume of noise, with the media moving from one distraction to the next, unable to usefully hold the government to account. To Brexit watchers this will all sound familiar. Once more it has become a battle of the talking heads with each respective mob urging us to trust their preferred experts.
As it happens, entirely by accident, I stumbled upon a Facebook post by a Steve Hjioff, epidemiologist and a communicable disease physician, who remarks that "In the UK, the actual experts on this sort of thing are known as "Consultants in Communicable Disease Control". In other countries there are different arrangements. While others, such as intensive care specialists, microbiologists, virologist, mathematicians, journalists, acute physicians, behavioural psychologists have a contribution to make, they are not experts on disease spread in the community and should not be regarded (or present themselves) as such".

This is where the media should be able to make the distinctions but can't and doesn't, so anyone presenting as a medical professional is touted as an expert - with some even offering homicidal advice. Hjioff, though, confirms that the first course of action in any outbreak is containment, where you isolate cases and trace and test their contacts. Not an easy feat, especially on this scale. This, as I understand it is precisely what isn't happening. The government has abandoned track and trace but now reassures us that it is ramping up testing - which is not the same thing; a distinction the media has not yet picked up on. Consequently the media has the limited reassurance it demands and nobody is asking the right questions.

As I understand it, in order for containment to work you have to isolate the infection clusters, and if you aren't doing that early on then sooner to later, probably sooner, you are going to lose control. I rather suspect we already have in which case we need a maximum mobilisation of the state to meet the nutritional, logistical and medical needs of the country. And that's without even looking at the economics.

In respect of that, with the NHS already feeling the pinch and the UK being two weeks behind Italy on the curve, we have only a few days which simply isn't going to be enough. We simply have to wait out the posturing and the baloney and watch this horror show gradually unfold. The government dropped the ball and there's little we can do about it now.

At this point everything goes to hell in a handcart. For the time being the government is sticking to the line that we will leave the EU on schedule even though negotiations have been postponed, and we can only guess what comes next, but the one guarantee is that by next week, nobody is going to be talking about Brexit. Corona will have our absolute undivided attention.

Should Brexit come up for air Johnson will have to make a decision. Nobody sane would even contemplate disrupting supply chains at this point and one would hope this would occur even to the oaf Johnson. At the very least there will need to be an interim contingency deal. In the meantime Corona probably will require a bonfire of regulation on both sides of the Channel just to get things done. It might be difficult getting things back to normal.

A delay might well enrage the Brexiteers who are already grumbling on Twitter, but you'd now have to be extraordinarily thick not to realise why our trade relationship has to go substantially beyond an FTA (and why proximity matters). We need a delay if only to reevaluate our objectives.

When this blog warned of the dangers of no deal, much of what I outlined was dubbed "project fear" even though I am leaver, but the point then was that it takes so very little to cause major disruptions to normal life. If that is true of Brexit then it goes thrice for Corona. There is now a question mark over everything from airlines through to pizza delivery. Once things start imploding, putting Humpty back together again (in a shape even loosely resembling his fabled egg shape) may prove difficult. It will have spiralled beyond anyone's control and we can't move forward til we see what and who is left to pick up the pieces. 

Sunday 15 March 2020

The public needs reassurance - and they're not getting it.

If you have a bad cold your boss will usually tell you to stay home so that the entire office doesn't come down with it. Offices are pretty unsanitary places - especially with all those grubby telephones and keyboards. Similarly warm tube trains with moving air are a ideal conditions for the transmission of bugs. As to cinemas, they tend to be viral petridishes at the best of times. Most people understand that much about the spread of viruses.

It is difficult then for the public to reconcile the government's stated aim to slow the spread of the virus while taking no tangible measures to close down those places most likely to spread the virus. The government has argued that timing is crucial whatever action they take - which is entirely reasonable since a lockdown is difficult to enforce and maintain, but there are basic measures they could be taking - such as closing down universities - and they're doing no such thing.

Because there are no tangible signs of action we are now seeing the public panicking and taking matters into their own hands. "Covid19Walkout" is currently trending on Twitter, with parents now saying they will unilaterally take their children out of school if the order does not come soon. As many are now aware, this course of action comes with its own problems, but there trust in government is crumbling as the public sees other countries taking action while the British government appears to be sitting on its hands. Coupled with mixed messages about herd immunity, the public is left to guess whether the inaction is deliberate.

With the government seemingly inert, and viral pictures of empty shelves in supermarkets, and with the situation in Italy rapidly disintegrating, you actually can't blame the public for panicking. Furthermore, the government's position is simply not credible. By the time we do take action we will be where Italy was last week when their health system was already at breaking point. Nobody believes the NHS will fare any better. Under-equipped and stressed front line health services will see a high rate of absenteeism as the infection rate climbs, so just as the capacity is needed most, it will be reduced.

All the while public opinion is very obviously divided. Some are already self-isolating and keeping their exposure to people to a minimum, while a great many are seemingly oblivious, carrying on as normal. With symptoms taking weeks to appear, carriers are unwittingly spreading the virus. This at a time when advise should be to stay at home wherever possible, if only to give isolation efforts a fighting chance.

It would help if there were unity of opinion among scientists, but the UK approach is entirely at odds with the rest of the EU now taking measures to go into lockdown. Both can't be right. The government's approach, therefore, is a gamble. Our fate lies in the toss of a coin. Why then would the public not take their own precautions?

As points out, "social distancing" can only be considered a partial course of action, but as far as the layman is concerned, it's the clear and obvious course of action. If the government wants to secure the confidence of the public it needs to show some sign of pragmatism, balancing their working theory with the common understanding.

What I suspect, though, is that we have already lost control of the situation and it's going to get worse - and whatever our policy response, it's not going to be enough. If their current strategy was ever going to work it needed to be enacted sooner, and it wasn't likely to work without first securing the confidence and cooperation of the public. Instead they've done everything possible to exacerbate fears.

For now the prime minister has widespread support and nobody wants to be seen to be undermining attempts to deal with the virus, but that is likely to change quickly. There is every reason to believe the UK will follow the trajectory of Italy in which case we'll have failed at delaying anything - and as the deaths mount, so will the public anger. Johnson's excuses aren't going to cut it.

The British government urgently needs to rethink communications

There have been some good questions asked about the government's strategy for dealing with Corona. I have several doubts and have voiced them and instead of credible answers I get shouted down and told to trust the word of the government's scientific officials. Instead of debate we get appeals to authority. We're seeing a great many comments along the lines of "Who do I trust more? The Chief Medical Officer - PhD, DFC, DSO and Bar or @SteveFromWigan5423".

The problem here is that shouting people down doesn't work. What does work is giving people good answers. The longer they go without good answers, the more they are likely to look to others for answers. The more aggressive the Twitter herd becomes in its demands for conformity the more contrarian people are likely to be.

This is where government communications has to play a more sophisticated game. There seems to be a tribal effort to shame dissenting voices or even those daring to air alternate narratives and perspectives. We then get into a game of top trumps as to which source has the most establishment prestige - a hugely irritating facet of any debate, but right now it's especially dangerous.

The government has stepped back (or so we are told) from its highly questionable "herd immunity" strategy, but doesn't seem to be taking any urgent measures to limit public exposure. The more the public goes without seeing tangible reassuring action the more panicked they will get.

This is where the government needs to be monitoring social media to isolate the most frequently asked questions. Rather than being disruptive to government business, Twitter is part of the scrutiny process. The crowd is able to cast a wider net and sift, where alternative narratives rise to the surface. Government must recognise it has to co-exist. Its communication strategy and feedback process should recognise this and respond accordingly.

Managing any crisis is as much a communications matter as anything else. It's not rocket science. You don't need a sophisticated behavioural science computer model to know that people are going to panic buy if they think it's government policy to infect the majority of us with a lethal virus as quickly as possible.

Whatever counter-intuitive strategy the government may have chosen, it conflicts our basic instincts. If the aim is to slow or contain, then keeping bars, clubs and tubes running doesn't seem particularly reassuring. If there is a logic to it, we need to know what it is, and to be able to interrogate it.

This is particularly where the media fails. We've seen this during Brexit press conferences where the star reporters of each network ask their own questions which are often a galaxy away from the questions ordinary people are asking, often badly framed, sometimes completely irrelevant or low priority, and at times, just crass. If the media isn't going to ask the right questions then the government needs to get better at finding our and answering the questions "Steve from Wigan" is asking and answering the more credible critics.

This is not the first time government communications has failed in a crisis. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are textbook examples of how not to do it. In that scenario, as much as you're fighting a shooting war, you're also fighting a propaganda war where every needless death of a solder further erodes public support. This is why it was necessary to beef up our armoured vehicles. As much as the tardy response got a lot of good mean and women killed, it further entrenched the perception that we were fighting an unwinnable war.

In the first instance, the government's response was to wheel out generals to tell the critics they were playing "armchair general" and that the business of war fighting should be left to the experts - the same people who told us that keeping the peace in Iraq could be done with the same equipment and deployments as Northern Ireland. They couldn't have been more wrong.

If the government wants the cooperation of the public then it must do more to inform and reassure and take the time to accommodate critics. The aggressive tone we have seen from MPs and ministers on Twitter (already widely dislike and mistrusted) can only entrench the disagreements. For now the government may have public backing and has an easy ride form a tame media, public attitudes are fickle. When the body count starts to climb the government will start to lose the propaganda warm, whereupon it loses control of the the situation. When that happens, gone is any public cooperation which in the worse cases can lead to civil disorder and rioting.

More authoritarian countries can get away with disappearing critics or shutting down social media channels but in a free society government needs to get good at the communications game. It must recognise that fierce criticism goes with the territory and if managed correctly can be an asset as regards to honing the message. It cannot afford to make enemies of influencers.

That said, one rather suspects this is written in vain. The government cannot come clean because its own internal communications are in turmoil, and its policy is a wreck. It is sitting on top of a train wreck of a public health system which has lost control of this epidemic. Nothing it can say by way of reassurance can be matched by action, so its only course now is to try to suppress its critics.

Britain must seek an extension to the transition.

Brexit to me was necessary because of the way we are governed. Decision are made over the heads of people without their knowledge or consent and without the means to undo or correct them. But Brexit alone is no remedy. Part of the problem was the British establishment gradually ceding ever more powers and signing up to treaties without informed consent and with little in the way of public debate.

One of the greatest outrages was the way in which Lisbon went through on the nod, without any real understanding of what we were getting into. Certainly we did not have the kind of national debate we've had over the last four years. 

This is why the UK must now seek an extension to Brexit negotiations. Corona has absorbed media and public attention. We can't have deals done with the EU without proper scrutiny or informed public consent. That's why we voted to leave. That principle still stands.

As I understand it there is a draft UK proposal doing the rounds, which should have had an airing by the media but little has been said of it. Even if it were given a worthwhile airing by the media, consumers of news wouldn't make time for it simply because there is something massively more important, urgent and interesting going on.

But then there is also a requirement to reappraise our objectives. Thus far the debate as centred around the nuts and bolts of trade without much space given over to the other strands of cooperation such as defence and medicines. Insofar as Brexit has featured in the Corona debate, the issue of our EMA membership calls into question what happens in the event of a Corona vaccine. 

Then as the UK needs to think again on its priorities, so does the EU. We do not yet know the fullest extent of the economic fallout or the political fallout from Corona, but it is sure to present the EU with some fundamental existential questions. Certainly questions will be asked over freedom of movment. It may not be politically sustainable. Member states are unilaterally closing their borders. This could kill Schengen stone dead. 

Then, of course, there are questions to be asked about "free trade". Corona brings into question the concept of globally distributed supply chains, which in this instance could be a major liability in terms getting equipment and resources where they are needed. Right now it seems to be every man for himself, and if you don't have domestic production of strategic essentials then you are stuffed.

As this blog has noted, much of the single market is built on the basis of just in time economics with virtually no reserve capacity anywhere in the system - which is why we are so fatally vulnerable in the event of no deal. The single market can meet the varied demands of consumers in optimal conditions but Corona changes everything, very possibly forever. 

Without a Corona cooling off period, any deal struck would likely lack legitimacy, and would almost certainly need to be revisited in the future. Moreover, with things as uncertain as they are, the last thing we need is further uncertainty and distractions for the civil service that will have enough on its plate for the foreseeable future.

If the Tories go ahead and use Corona as a smokescreen to leave without a deal or sing up to a quick and dirty deal, as much as they will inflict greater harm on the economy than we are already destined to suffer, we would pretty much be back where we started - ie. a feral government doing as it pleases without proper scrutiny and without public debate. 

That then bodes ill for British democracy. With an opposition in a permanently weakened state, the opposition is little more then an ineffectual lobbyist in a one party state where the ruling party can be entirely selective about when it listens to parliament. Effectively we would have replicated the EU system of government where elections are largely meaningless and public particpation cannot take control of the agenda. We'll simply have exchanged a technocratic autocracy in Brussels for a much less effective one in London, with the same problems of transparency and legitimacy.

The case for maintaining the transition is obvious. Right now we need some stability and leave things in a state where they can be resumed in the light of day. For the time being normal business for the UK and EU goes on the back burner and I suspect a lot of the rules will be suspended. What happens in the interim will be a learning curve for both sides as to which modes of cooperation neither side can afford to throw away.

Ultimately our systems have evolved without global pandemics in mind. We have grown complacent and our contingency planning is poor, but more than that, our trade agreements, regulatory systems and standards are inadequate if we are to build in future resilience. Because of that there is a danger all the trade progress we have made in the last three decades could all fall apart. We need to save what we can but move forward to ensure whatever comes next resembles the wishes of the public - whatever they may be when the dust settles. After this, politics will never be the same again. 

Friday 13 March 2020

From bad to worse, and worse again.

One day they are telling us that they are not going to shut down mass gatherings and now they are saying something different. Though we are supposed to simply bow to the experts, it seems there is considerable pushback. While the government refused to give the order, a number of large institutions have taken the lead independently.

I suspect this won't be the first shift in the government's plan. Within forty eight hours we could see a complete reversal. There were already holes in the government's case and a number of contradictions in their logic we are supposed to accept without question. But we can't. It's too much of an ask, especially when they roll out their herd immunity scheme which means intentionally allowing vast numbers of people to be infected.

Here has informed doubts that any such scheme could work, but even if it could, there is one missing component. Consent. It's all very well having a master plan but people will rightly take their own precautions if the basic policy of government is to take none at all. I certainly have. I have no intention of contracting the virus. It's probably inescapable but if symptoms do not present anywhere between two and four weeks after contracting it, then I could be unwittingly spreading it.

If carriers are free to go on buses and trains and gather in cinemas and concert halls then they are going to rapidly accelerate the virus when the NHS is nowhere close to prepared and is likely to be overwhelmed in three weeks or less. If there was a delay strategy in play doing nothing at all is a funny way of doing it - especially when the World Health Organisation has stepped up its calls for intensified action to fight the coronavirus pandemic, imploring countries “not to let this fire burn”.

Ultimately there are experts the world over working on this and they don't agree with the UK approach at all. The main supporters of this policy appear to be Boris Johnson loyalists who defer to prestige and officialdom. That inconsistency alone is enough to ring alarm bells. There is something grimly utilitarian about what amounts to a managed cull when most other governments are still working on containment.

But then containment is not an exact science and some measures are potentially more harmful. There is a major public campaing underway to close schools, with a petition to parliament reaching half a million signatures. But its not straightforward. Kids largely don't get ill. If you take them out of school, they will still circulate and interact with adults so you'll still get them passing on disease as asymptomatic carriers - and you'll lose a lot of your healthcare and public service workers who will have to take time off to look after their kids.

Schools have not closed in Singapore because there was no widespread community transmission and few cases among children. Precautionary measures such as reducing mixing across classes or schools have been implemented. That's a starter for ten, but we haven't seen this kind of detailed procedural advice. It might be there somewhere but it's not being broadcast. Critics have pointed out that useful practical advice is thin on the ground - where repetition of the hand-washing mantra is not going to cut it.

There are a number of complex dilemmas where we have to implement containment measures but also keep basic facets of civil society running. There is a galaxy of considerations that would wrongfoot even the most competent of administrations. But then there are some pretty obvious targets, particularly the London tube which has already claimed one driver. Anywhere where there is warm moving air is going to be a high risk environment.

But then there is the propaganda war. If the government wants us to trust it, it has to be seen to be acting and taking viable measures to protect people from illness and death. This is will not manage with a "herd immunity" strategy - especially when there appears to be no coordinated efforts to protect the vulnerable. 

This isn't going to get easier either. A great many will have managed to stock up on food but supplies are not going to last forever and without a food distribution scheme and people to run it, eventually people are going to have to venture out of their caves to forage for sustenance. The government has a point about timing of controls but there doesn't seem to be a credible way to model when this is likely to occur. All the same, you would think the government would be keen to buy itself all the time it can with containment while resources are gathered to massively expand our medical facilities. In either of the modelled scenarios, they must know the NHS will be rapidly overwhelmed. All the lessons are there to be learned from Italy.

Ultimately I have no confidence in this government. I think we have probably missed the window for containment and we are going to face the full brunt of it long before we are ready and it's not going to be pretty. There may come a point where a lockdown may be necessary if only to secure public order. 

We saw in 2011 during the Croydon riots how disorder can spread when the criminals realise the police are otherwise occupied. I sincerely hope it doesn't come to that, but keeping law and order in London especially is not going to be easy. We saw how public anger over Grenfell saw Kensington council HQ besieged. All it takes is a catalyst event and you have potentially murderous conditions. This could happen in every city. We've already seen fights over toilet roll. What happens when medical staff are turning people away? And it only takes a wrong word from a PCSO to make a bad situation worse. 

Though this all sounds terribly apocalyptic for a virus anticipated to have a morality rate of less than four percent, but it actually doesn't take very much. Civilisation is far more fragile than most assume, as are supply chains which is why this blogger so fiercely opposed a no deal Brexit. All those warnings that were written off as "Project fear" may have been mangled by the press to the point of disbelief, but all it takes is a few rumours on social media for the panic buying to start. 

Assuming this epidemic is managed even halfway adequately it's still going to be pretty grim. It's hard to say when it will peak but after the fact we then have to turn our attentions to the social and economic fallout. Businesses will have gone under, rents will be in arrears, benefit payments delayed, invoices late, shortages, you name it. It's going to to take a while to establish anythign close to normal functioning and a recession is sure to follow.  

By that time the government will be in full blame deflection mode, but after the public have been through the rinser, wondering why the government didn't act sooner and why contingency measures were so poor, Johnson could be facing credible calls from his own benches to resign.

I think this is probably already written. To start off with a murderous "herd immunity" policy and do nothing for a week only to change tack later, will always leave him politically vulnerable. He can try and blame the chief medical officer but ultimate responsibility for the strategic decisions lie with him. You may point to the absence of an opposition and assume he is probably safe but at that point, the public becomes the opposition - and this incident will cause a radical re-evaluation of our politics. Possibly Corona will succeed where Brexit failed (or never got the chance).

Earlier I saw a YouGov poll that gave Johnson a 55% approval rating for his handling of the crisis thus far. I'm not sure how much stock we can put in it, but that was immediately following a slick presentation press conference flanked by plausible sounding experts. It doesn't take much to inspire confidence - but then it doesn't take much for it to evaporate either. The reappraisal of the decision to allow mass public gatherings is the first crack in the dam. Being that the public does not consent to be lab rats in an epidemiological experiment his authority is already on the wane and that is likely to snowball.

What's interesting about this is that the divisions of opinion are not following any previous left/right, leave/remain patterns. I'm falling out with Eftarians while agreeing with hardcore progressives and ScotNats. The division is now one of those who trust government to keep them alive and those who do not. I'm firmly in the "do not" camp. If there is one constant in British political scandals over the years it's that if you trust government with your life then it will kill you. 

This is much the same. The Tories who demand our obedience to Johnson remind me of the suffragettes who pinned white flowers on conscientious objectors. It's the same kind of peer pressure to go and be slaughtered for the greater good. Only this time, if they lock me up in Richmond castle it's probably the safest place to be.