What can we do?

It would be a good idea to have the words “however”, “but” and “as long as” in mind when considering the new guidelines announced by the prime minister today. This Guardian article (see below) was written before the guidelines were actually published, and is based on the words of the prime minister.

Still, here we go. Here are some first thoughts on what he said:

Can we see family and friends? Yes. Six people will now “be permitted to congregate [an odd, religious-sounding word] in gardens and other private outdoor spaces, instead of just in public spaces. If you’re a bit worried about this, Johnson says “there is no difference in the health risk”. (Presumably like there’s no difference in the health risk between, say, taking someone in a confined space (a car) with an infected person who was displaying symptoms and driving 264 miles with them to another location rather than keeping everybody at home in a larger space where you can practise social distancing.)

Anyway, it’s yes, we can see family and friends. Where’s the “but”? It’s here: we should try, said the prime minister, to avoid seeing people from too many households in quick succession, “so that we can avoid the risk of quick transmission from lots of different families and continue to control the virus”.  (So, is the idea that if I see my neighbours from no. 24 today and wait until tomorrow before seeing my neighbours from flat 19B, this is safer than seeing one of them this morning and the other this afternoon? I don’t know. Perhaps we should use FAQs on gov.uk if we’re not sure.) Anyway, this overall more relaxed approach to seeing family and friends applies to the over-70s too. (It’s not clear why this should be: if I still can’t go shopping in a sanitised Sainsbury’s it may also be wise not to go dancing on the grass with 6 of my neighbours, especially without checking where they’ve been for the last 6 weeks or so.)

Can we have a barbecue? Yes. And the “but”? Enter Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty (you may remember him, he’s been quiet recently, what with one thing and another). He provides the “but”: those having a barbecue, he warned, should remember they can spread the virus by passing things from one person to another. Things, eh? Hmm.

Can we go into other people’s homes? No. Yes. The government says socialising inside is not allowed. But here comes a “however”, a prime ministerial “however”, and it’s this: people can go through houses to access back gardens. This doesn’t conjure up a picture of social distancing really, which the Welsh government noticed immediately. They said, OK, but that they would be publishing guidance on how to do this safely. An illustrated guide would be especially helpful, I suppose. Let’s see. If you live in Wales, don’t unlock until you’ve seen it. Oh, and Chris Whitty popped up again. He said it was acceptable for people to use their host’s toilet (perhaps another illustrated guide would be useful).

Can we travel? Yes. People in England can travel as far as they want to take exercise and spend time outside. Is there a “but”? There is indeed: they cannot stay over at people’s houses. The prime minister was firm on that: “We don’t want people to go to other households and stay there. I’m afraid we are not at that stage.” That sounds as if it might have been a rejected line from an earlier draft statement about the behaviour of a particular individual. Saved for future use on other people, I suppose. Still, scattered like gunshot though his words often are, here he was firm.

Can I do non-essential shopping? Yes. Outdoor retail such as markets and car showrooms in England will be allowed to open in England from Monday. Right, although showrooms are indoors, aren’t they? Isn’t that why they’re called “rooms”? Still, best not to quibble. Go to FAQs again.

Can children go to school? Yes. No comment.

My advice? Do none of the above. Especially the dancing and the toilet activity. And don’t send your children to school.


I was wrong. But my doubts remain

When Labour leader Keir Starmer asked the prime minister merely to lift the NHS surcharge on migrant NHS workers and carers but didn’t call for the abolition of the surcharge on all migrant workers, he was criticised, particularly by Labour Party members (including myself). When Sienna Rodgers, writing in Labour List, suggested that “The party hasn’t retreated policy-wise, it’s just that the new Labour leader reckons he should only pick fights that he has a chance of winning”, I posted: “Sorry, but he’s not going to win it anyway (remember that 80-seat majority).”

I was wrong. He won, not in a vote against an 80-seat majority, but because the resistance to Johnson’s plan encompassed not just the opposition parties in parliament but also a number of Tory MPs, as well as hosts of people outside parliament, including health-care workers, many of whom took to the airwaves and social media in protest. None of them could stomach the cynicism and callousness of Johnson’s response to Starmer’s question. Even Johnson, who has survived many embarrassments and many a scandal in his career, might not have survived the shame of this one. So within hours the U-turn began. There will now be no surcharge on NHS workers, including health workers, porters and cleaners, as well as independent health workers and social care workers.

So – well done Keir.

But Starmer also said later that he was in favour of abolishing the surcharge altogether (or his spokesperson did). So why didn’t his amendment to the Immigration and Social Security Bill say that? And why didn’t he say that at PMQs? Johnson would surely still have performed his U-turn on the health workers’ surcharge, given the widespread opposition to it that emerged everywhere, much of which he provoked by his statement (which turned out not to be true) that abolishing the surcharge for health workers would cost £900m.[1] So I still have to ask the question I asked in my original post: Why not go the whole hog, if he believes in it, and say “scrap the charge altogether”? And I go back to my original post: “Possible answer: he’s scared of the headlines that will say ‘Labour wants to flood Britain with migrants’.” But if that’s the reason, he has simply put off the evil day. If at the next general election the scrapping of the whole surcharge system goes into the Labour manifesto, he will have to face those headlines then and fight furiously against them. If it isn’t in the manifesto, he will have capitulated.

[1] “Figures from the House of Commons Library showed that £917m was raised over four years from all migrants paying the surcharge. The library estimated it would cost about £35m a year to exempt all NHS staff, and more for care workers.” (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/21/johnson-forced-to-drop-nhs-surcharge-for-migrant-health-workers)


School’s back?

It’s “an exercise in chaos theory”, said Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham about the proposal to open schools on 1 June. I know what he means, but it may be more than that. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson claims his concern is for the kids: “The longer that schools are closed, the more children miss out”, he said today. He then raised the emotional temperature:

The poorest children, the most disadvantaged children, the children who do not always have support they need at home, will be the ones who will fall furthest behind if we keep school gates closed. They are the ones who will miss out on the opportunities and chances in life that we want all children to benefit from what teachers and schools deliver for them.

We shouldn’t be fooled. He has conveniently forgotten that the poorest, most disadvantaged children are the creation of successive Tory governments over the past 10 years, a decade during which they imposed public spending cuts, benefit caps, and all the paraphernalia of austerity, the result of which is that “children do not have the support they need”. The only appropriate emotion, faced with his crocodile tears, is anger.

Johnson has said the argument for lifting the lockdown is not based on economics. But it is. The reason the government wants to get the children back to school is that it wants to get the workers back to work. It has nothing to do with the kids’ education and welfare, or with schools being the place where “they are safe and happy”, as Williamson also said today. It’s so that Mummy and Daddy can get back to manufacturing and producing and providing services and making profits for their bosses.

Another question lurks in the shadows to make us question whether Burnham’s chaos theory is a sufficient explanation for the push to end the lockdown. The New Yorker, in an article about the situation in the US, reminds us that some people

who argue for reopening sooner rather than later say that doing so will allow for a “controlled spread” of the disease, in which more people can develop a resistance and the population as a whole can achieve “herd immunity.” One problem with this approach is the projected number of hospitalizations and deaths along the way, which is very high. Another is that the idea assumes that those who have had COVID-19 will, indeed, be immune. But, as the World Health Organization recently warned, it isn’t yet clear how effective or enduring any immunity might be.[1]

I don’t know if there are still people arguing for herd immunity here. There certainly were earlier on, and they were at the heart of government. But if we reject it for the two reasons given in the New Yorker article, we should reject it above all because if we don’t we will be deliberately  trying to spread the disease (“allow for a ‘controlled spread’”). A lockdown and social distancing try to reduce the spread. That should be our aim. So let’s not reopen the schools.

[1] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/05/11/the-rush-to-reopen

“No, Mr Speaker, it wasn’t true.” Oh yes it was.

Did Boris Johnson, at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) on 13 April 2020, lie and duck and dive about government advice on covid-19 in care homes?

In light of the high number of deaths in care homes, the allegation by Keir Starmer at PMQs was that

Until 12 March, the Government’s own official advice was [that] “It remains very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home will become infected.”

Johnson replied:

No, Mr Speaker, it wasn’t true that the advice said that …

Oh yes it was. It did say that. In fact it said it twice, with slightly different wording each time. In a subsequent letter to Starmer, Johnson himself quoted from the official advice, but from a different bit of it, and included the preceding sentence, which Johnson put in bold type although it wasn’t in bold type in the guidance:

This guidance is intended for the current position in the UK where there is currently no transmission of COVID-19 in the community. It is therefore very unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or in the community will become infected.

Starmer’s quote comes from para. 7 of the guidance: “Face masks”. Johnson’s comes from para. 1. But they say the same thing.

But Johnson’s point seems to be that, because the guidance was “intended for the current position in the UK” (i.e. the date when the guidance was issued, 25 February), there was nothing wrong with the advice. That’s a different answer to the one given at PMQs, obviously, but there’s worse. The guidance was issued on 25 February. On 28 February, the UK confirmed the first covid-19 transmission inside the country.[1] On 4 March, UK officials announced “the biggest one-day increase so far as 34 cases bring the total to 87.”[2] By 10 March, six people had died in the UK and 373 people had tested positive for the virus, including the UK’s junior health minister Nadine Dorries.[3] On 11 March, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak “announced a £12bn package of emergency support to help the UK cope with the expected onslaught from coronavirus.”[4] The guidance was only withdrawn two days later, on 13 March. Till then, the advice that it was “very unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or in the community will become infected” was current, operational, and deadly.

So yes, there was a lie in a Commons answer this week, ducking and diving in a letter, and a mounting infection-rate and death-rate among care-home patients and staff.

For the guidance see Guidance for social or community care and residential settings on COVID-19, http://www.gov.uk

[1] British Foreign Policy Group (BFPG), Covid-19 Timeline, http://www.bfpg.co.uk.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.


There is a skull beneath the skin all right,

But beneath the bone

A brain.

And though the hard

Outlives the soft

In the reckonings of decay

That hardness too in dust’s betrayed

While that other can, and can choose to

Leave Changes

– And one of those isn’t discarding the grain and

Milling the chaff

Iain Banks, 1973

Seeking justice: Lockerbie will not go away


“… the government of the United States and the United Kingdom stand exposed as having lived a monumental lie for 31 years, imprisoning a man they knew to be innocent and punishing the Libyan people for a crime which they did not commit …”

Of course. They have lived many a monumental lie, and for longer than 31 years. But this is a shocking story.

In March 2004, journalist Paul Foot[1] wrote the following article for The Guardian. It needs to be read:


It is, perhaps, difficult to believe anything will be done about it now. But, in the tradition of Paul Foot, we should never give up on justice.


[1] Journalist of the year 1972 and 1989 (Granada TV, “What the Papers Say”); Campaigning Journalist of the Year (British Press Awards 1981); received the George Orwell prize for journalism (with Tim Laxton), 1994; Journalist of the Decade (1990s), by Granada again, in 2000. He died on 18 July 2004.

Hypocrisy unlimited – and unashamed

The Guardian report below is about people sleeping in bins. The government has made a promise about it, what it calls a “commitment”. Here it is:

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “It is completely unacceptable that anyone should have to face sleeping in these conditions in modern Britain. This does not reflect the society we should be and this is why we have committed to ending rough sleeping by the end of this parliament.”

Anyone who has followed government promises for any length of time knows this promise will not be kept. We know the government has no intention of keeping it. The government is laughing at the homeless and at us. This ranks as one of the most cynical statements ever to be spewed from the mouth of any government lackey. As for the Secretary of State, words fail me … I wonder if Dickens could ever have thought, in the 19th century, that Scrooge would still be alive and well and stalking the corridors of Whitehall in the 21st century. If the poor would rather die, said Scrooge, “let them do it, and reduce the surplus population.” We mustn’t kid ourselves: this is how the government today thinks about the poor, the homeless, the sick, the elderly, the disabled.


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