Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Corona: Britain forgot what government is for

Picking up on yesterday's theme, also touched on by eureferendum.com, 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. 

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