Britain and the pandemic – during an uncharacteristically sunny Bank Holiday weekend
What Britain is like during the weekend that ‘celebrates’ 75 years since the western Victory in Europe (VE) Day – the event is commemorated in Russia on 9th May – and the wild comparisons as the country lives under the lock down due to the coronavirus.
When asked, at Prime Minister Questions (a peculiarly British anomaly which takes place every Wednesday at noon), in the House of Commons on 6th May, the Buffoon was asked a clear question of why they were only able to reach the target of 100,000 tests per day on one day, the day when they could say the Government had reached it’s target by the end of April – not repeated since.
‘Actually I think the Right Honourable Gentleman [another British anachronistic peculiarity] was right last week when he paid tribute to the amazing work of the NHS, the logistics team, everybody involved in getting up from 2,000 tests a day in March to 120,000 by the end of April. Yes, he’s right, capacity currently exceeds demand, we’re working on that, we’re running about 100,000 a day [an outright lie] in the first 5 days of May the number has not exceeded 85,000 per day]. But the ambition clearly is to get up to 200,000 a day by the end of the month and then to go even higher. As he knows, and the whole of the House will know, a fantastic testing regime is going to be absolutely critical to our long term economic recovery.’
So the Buffoon starts by ‘praising’ those who had ‘achieved’ the 100,000 plus, being self-effacing and then completely ignoring the question. Then continues to throw mud on the issue by introducing yet another meaningless figure, that of 200,000 per day but without any proper strategy surrounding this so-called increase.
Chris Hopson, Chief Executive NHS Providers, which represents NHS Trusts, on Radio 4, World at One, on 6th May;
Q. Do we have what the Prime Minister referred to as a ‘fantastic testing regime’ now?
‘I think we should give due credit where it should be given for the extraordinary expansion in capacity we’ve had over the last month, month and a half, and NHS staff and Public Health staff have played a key role in expanding that capacity. But there are three problems we still need to address.
The first one is today’s problem that there are still too many care staff and too many health staff who have got potential symptoms and still can’t get access to a test. I was speaking to a hospital yesterday. About a week, ten days ago, they were able to turn their tests around in a day. They’ve now slipped back to only having those tests turned around in five days. We already know there are plenty of staff in the social care sector who need to be tested because they may have symptoms where actually they can’t be tested because there aren’t enough local facilities.
So hospital, community, mental and ambulance trusts and social care homes need to test. That’s the first point.’
Q. Why does the turn around that used to take one day now take five?
‘There’s some complex things going on here but the first is that we know that there are shortages of chemicals, reagents and testing kits. To give you an example, this week one of the major manufacturers of testing equipment has actually cut back its supplies to the UK because it’s actually wanting to increase supply elsewhere. I describe it as a rather complicated game of rubics cube where, effectively, different laboratories are trying to swop tests between each other to ensure that those problems are overcome.’
Q. It’s not by ramping tests in drive-in centres you are depriving hospitals and care homes?
‘What we are basically saying is that we can see why there was a logic of setting up these drive-in centres but one of the problems which we have heard from NHS and care home staff is that these drive-in centres are quite a long way away from where these people work and therefore they’ve been having long trips of an hour or even two to get to these centres and if you really want to have an effective testing regime you need to ensure that they’re sufficiently local to people who want to be tested.
Point two is, exactly as we have heard the Prime Minister say today, we are heading toward coming out of, easing, lock down and we know that testing, tracking and tracing is really important and we need to get going on that really fast but the NHS organisations that we represent, none of them know at this point what we are meant to be doing in terms of the process.
If we want to mobilise the NHS to deliver that test-track-trace approach we need to know really very quickly what our organisations in the NHS are required to do,’
Q. They’ve heard nothing?
‘From what we’ve heard so far is that it’s a step forward, we’ve heard that there’s a pilot of the approach in the Isle of Wight, but what we need is the lessons of that pilot to be learnt and shared very quickly, but critically our organisations, particularly, for example, 111, GP surgeries, pharmacies, which are absolutely at the first point of contact of the patients of the NHS, they need to know what role they’re going to play in test-track-trace. At the moment they don’t know.
The third one is that there is a growing argument, and a really important one, that if we want the NHS to really re-start its ordinary business and if we want to control, and hopefully reduce the number of deaths in care homes, we really should be testing every single member of staff, every single patient in a health and care setting, because one of the pernicious features of the virus is that, actually, you can have it for 2 or 3 days, be infectious, but have no symptoms. If we want to create safe care homes, if we want to create safe hospitals … (interruption)’
Q. That was promised some days ago.
‘What we were told was that it was important and, to be fair, there are some pilots going, there are eleven hospital pilots going, testing staff on a systematic basis but the issue here, again, is the complicated logistics, which is, at a really conservative estimate, there are a million front line health and care staff that you probably want to test once a week. And if you wanted to do that you need the capacity to be 142,500 tests a day. What was said in the House of Commons today we are currently running at 80,000.
And the other point to make is, if you are responsible, as some of our hospital trusts are, for 20,000 staff getting them tested once a week is a huge operational and logistical undertaking. So they need to know now when they are going to be able to start testing these staff, where are they going to be tested, how is the capacity going to grow from the current 80,000 to 140,000 that will be required as a minimum to do that? And the need to know when that’s going to happen. The problem is we don’t have a clear strategy about how that’s going to happen.’
What’s behind the new tracking and tracing apps?
In previous posts I’ve expressed my reservations about these apps (whether the ‘generic one, used or that will be used by a number of countries or the one (using a centralised database) which has been developed by NHSX (an ominous acronym for a health related issue) and which, at present is part of a pilot scheme on the Isle of Wight. How that pans out will have to be seen – as well as what will be the results if or when it gets used throughout the UK.
The ‘debate’ will go on for a long time, I’m sure, with fears and theories abounding. On 8th May there was a story that the NHSX contact-tracing app reportedly failed cyber security tests.
Here I want to highlight issues that might well follow from this supposedly ‘temporary and specific’ form of personal surveillance. If people look at the consequences of what accepting this app could mean then they might not be so keen to accept the reassurances of the Government. Well, some people may not, others are sheep and will do whatever they are told.
On 4th May it was revealed that Britons without the Apple/Google tracing app may not be able to travel abroad. Even before the app has proven itself to be effective governments worldwide are already thinking about making this mandatory for any visitors from another country. And if this is being thought about in many other countries then it’s guaranteed a similar regulation will be applied in Britain.
So in one fail swoop what is being sold now as being voluntary is de facto obligatory – if you want to travel – and who wouldn’t want to get out of Britain as soon as possible after the months of lies and incompetence we have been submitted to since the declaration of a pandemic.
In something I read recently (can’t remember the exact reference) in relation to visas for Russia it was suggested that the installation of such apps would be conditional on obtaining a visa. Presumably there would also be an obligation to keep it switched on and so movements would be constantly monitored.
I assume it is not impossible to have two, or even more, apps installed on a phone so no free movement will become possible in the near future.
Free school meal vouchers
The situation is not getting any better since I first wrote about these vouchers that have replaced free school meals now that all the schools are closed.
The incidences about the difficulty of getting online to apply, receiving the vouchers and then actually using them just keep on growing. All through the structure there are problems and although the scheme may be ‘working’ for the majority of people there is a sizeable minority where there are problems and it is causing a lot of distress.
And, I would argue, the problems stem from the way that this arrogant, free market Tory Government has decided to ‘help’ some of the poorest in society through the pandemic. Those whose companies having applied for ‘furlough’ money get up to £2,500 paid directly into their bank accounts by the Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC). Those who have had to sign on for Universal Credit at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) similarly get money paid into their bank accounts. Yet those families who need help to buy basic foodstuffs are paid in vouchers – for which they have to jump through hoops.
Complaints about them include; a scheme that has changed a number of times since its introduction; a restriction on which stores they can be used (each voucher has to have a designated store); not being accepted online – especially difficult for one parent families with young children who will have problems going to the supermarkets with a gaggle of children and even more so if they are supposed to be self-isolating if one (or more) of those children have special needs; the vouchers are regularly arriving late; they can be temperamental if not printed out perfectly causing humiliation when they are refused in a very public manner; and even if parents manage to get an online order the supermarkets are still charging for delivery – a charge which is disproportionately carried by the poorest by not reaching the ‘free delivery’ threshold.
This contract was handed to a private company which is making money out of the poorest in society (even if their profits come from any additional money from the Treasury it takes that away from helping those in need) and yet, to use that awful cliches, the system ‘is not fit for purpose’.
So far more than £55 million has been spent on these vouchers but there’s no details about how that may be short if all who were eligible had used them and neither is there information on the amount of profit for the private company, Edenred.
But the most important aspect of this is that a society which provides free school meals for those who can’t afford to feed themselves properly, as well as the provision of food banks, does not indicate a caring society but one that is irretrievably broken – and should be, itself, destroyed and replaced with a more just system.
Personal Protection Equipment (PPE)
As with testing this is another issue that will not be with us as long as is the virus. The Government continues to argue that it is doing its best and has provided ‘billions of pieces of PPE’ but six weeks into lock down both NHS but especially care home staff are saying there is still a shortage.
A big issue was made a couple of weeks ago about PPE coming from Turkey. Forget the farce of when it would all arrive with the RAF sending out a couple of transport planes to bring it to Britain. It has now (7th May) been revealed that the gowns ordered from Turkey fail to meet safety standards.
Like most people I have no idea what the safety standards are or how they are measured. It’s not my job – but it is someone’s. Also if there are strict safety standards then why aren’t those specifications transmitted to the company that’s making the equipment? And why didn’t someone make sure that the consignment met those requirements before the cargo was even put on the planes? If they were no more useful that large black bin bags why did we have to go all the way to Turkey to get them – surely there’s enough here already.
European Union disunion
There has been no common approach on how to deal with the virus in the European Union with virtually every country following a different procedure. Then when it came to paying the costs some of the richer members were less than forthcoming when there were requests from the poorer nations, principally Italy. This could cause a lot of resentment in the near future and will only serve to feed the cause of the ‘anti-unionists’ and there will be a lot of uncertainty about the future of the EU.
We in Britain had to go through almost four years of mind-numbingly boring and tiresome ‘debate’ about leaving the EU and this virus sorts matters out in a matter of weeks!
Constant leaking and speculation about what will be announced
It’s not the virus that’s the problem it’s the system that is ‘dealing with it’. And one of the characteristics of those politicians is the grandstanding that accompanies all they do. Everything’s a game to them and that’s the way they play with those they are supposed to lead.
This attitude has characterised the whole business of the pandemic from the ‘recommendation’ that pubs and bars should close (way back at the beginning of the lock down) to the ‘suggestion’ that people in Scotland should wear masks when shopping (later on in April).
Politicians are constantly playing to their ‘core’ audience, to those they need to keep on side. In 2020 the exemplar of this is the US President Trump, but we have the same situation in Britain. The Buffoon plays the clown as he thinks it makes him (an over-privileged, rich, overweight, white male) ‘attractive’ to those who are everything he isn’t – the average working class Tory voter.
The Nationalist First Ministers in both Scotland and Wales are playing to their constituency to whom they want to impress the idea that they are in control for what happens in the periphery of Britain. They continually attempt to score points over the Buffoon in Westminster – and this was even more obvious when the Buffoon was in hospital and none of the other Tories deputising had the courage to slap them down.
What this leads to in normal circumstances, but which is accentuated at present with the covid-19 pandemic, is that issues, decisions and policies are trailed to build up some sort of anticipation. Everything is directed to a particular time (as with the daily press conferences) or a day (as with the statement to be made by the Buffoon on Sunday afternoon, the 10th May).
The problem is that the time delay, whether it be hours or days, provides time for too much conjecture. When clear leadership is needed all this provides is speculation and ultimately confusion. And almost always the grandstanding just leads to disappointment and further frustration.
Susan Michie, Behavioural Psychologist, Radio 4, World at One, 7th May;
Q. Is it going to be very difficult (in the next stage) to get the message across to the different audiences and how people hear it?
‘It’s going to be very complicated because you’ve got such a huge range, type of persons, and also types of sector. So some people who’ve not actually gone outside for the last six or seven weeks, even though they’re not in the vulnerable group, because they’re very anxious about the situation. They’ve begun to associate home with safety so for that group there will need to be messaging reassuring them that spending time outside is going to be very negligible in terms of the risk of infection.
At the other extreme, polling data has shown, especially with younger men, are getting increasingly bored and frustrated and really wanting to get out there and be back in life as things were before. For that group it’s going to be increasingly important to really stress the staged approach, really stress that all the issues about social distancing, hand hygiene, tissue use, not touching your eyes, nose and mouth, are even more important than when we’re spending more time at home.
So that’s just two examples of different parts of the population that will require different messaging. We are also in a situation where different sectors will be coming back into business at different rates, in different ways even within the same sector. You may have some organisations that could start up because they are able to meet health and safety regulations and others that won’t. So I think there’s another layer there of potential perceived unfairness that will need to be handled and managed incredibly skilfully.’
Q. This will be changing each week. Is there a way of ensuring clarity?
‘One thing that’s very problematic is what seems to be happening at the moment when first messages are being trailed. We’ve heard that we are going to be told about the plans on Sunday and I think what’s so important is the whole plan is given at once so people can understand it in the whole round and the explanations for it can be given very clearly.
What’s happened at the moment, and the only thing I’ve heard trailed is about sun bathing and having picnics outside. Now, I can see the rationale of positing outside as being not a risky situation but this is really potentially very damaging because what seems to be happening is that people, or the press, certain groups, have over-generalised, over-extended, and now there are messages about ‘this is the end of the stay at home message’ – which I’m sure won’t be the case.
My concern about this is that people will hang on to what they want to hear, build on that. Prior to Sunday we’ve got a three day Bank Holiday weekend coming up, I think the weather will continue fine and people may say ‘well, we’re going to hear on Sunday of the end of the stay at home policy, let’s all go out because that’s going to happen on Sunday anyway’. And once people have stopped obeying the rules then it becomes very difficult to get them back again.’
Below are a number of snippets I have come across in the past few weeks. Some of them are old (not enough time or space to include them before) but the aim of this blog is not to provide up tp date news – people get that from other sources. Here I just want to create one space where the idiosyncrasies of how the pandemic has unfurled here in the UK can be found. Some may have been superceded by events, others may just be waiting to come to fruition.
Supply of testing kits
UK food banks face record demand in coronavirus crisis. And as with the need for the provision of free school meals, their very existence should be considered a disgrace by any reasonable nation.
France’s first known case ‘was in December’. This is an interesting one as it starts to ask questions of how the virus spread. I’m sure that the general idea was that the outbreak started in China and then gradually moved westward. That was definitely the situation in historic pandemics but in the present ‘globalised’ world that’s not the case. Yet another aspect of the covid-19 pandemic that could lead to a greater understanding which will could mean to a much more co-ordinated and efficient reaction to the next one – not if but when.
Shopping during a pandemic
There’s a lot to be said about ‘shopping’ and how the State ensures that all of the population get access to what they need in a situation such as this pandemic. Until then a couple of items.
Shoppers stock up on alcohol amid lock down – not really surprising this and it really has been going on since the pubs were closed way back in March. The future of the so-called ‘traditional’ English pub has been in question for some years now – the pandemic might be the last straw. However, the brewers aren’t concerned about pubs closing as they’ll make their profits from supermarket and off license sales.
Shops ‘exploiting’ pandemic by profiteering – yet another news story that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Once the pandemic was an accepted fact there should have been a monitoring of shops, at all levels, to prevent profiteering, but such a move is an anathema to the free market Tories – no matter how much that might adversely effect some people.
Where did the virus originate?
It’s interesting how some stories dominate the airwaves for a few days and then (if only for a short time) completely disappear. The Trumpites were making all kinds of accusations about the cause of the virus – without providing a shred of evidence. (It has to be said that equally wild accusations have been made in response – which is as foolish.)
Although not being a biochemist I think I’ve understood from various episodes in the past that it is relatively easy for experts to determine whether a virus was manufactured or was just a natural occurrence. That would make proving the matter one way or the other, I would have though, relatively easy.
What always strikes me in situations like this in the past is the demand from governments in the west that the facilities in other countries should be opened up for ‘international inspection’. It happened in Iraq (and we know how that turned out) and also in Iran (but that didn’t make life easier for the Iranians). After the poisonings in Salisbury a couple of years ago there was speculation in Russia that the poison came from Porton Down (the UK chemical and biological warfare facility) which is just down the road. Would the British government have been ‘open and above board’ if the Russians had asked for an ‘international inspection’ of the laboratories?
Dr Michael Ryan, head of Emergencies, World Health Organisation (WHO), 1st May;
‘We have listened again and again to numerous scientists who have looked at the sequences and looked at the virus and we are assured that the virus is natural in origin and what is important is that we establish what the natural host for the virus is.’
After public sympathy
The Buffoon ‘revealed’ that ‘contingency plans’ made during his treatment for the virus a few weeks ago. He was obviously playing for the ‘sympathy vote’ here. Why his case should be any more revealing of the reaction to this virus is beyond me. But I did think he was taking it a bit far when he described these contingency plans. When it comes to comparing himself with any other world leader the Buffoon comes way down the scale – when it comes to comparing himself with Joseph Stalin he’s way off the scale. And if such ‘contingency plans’ were indeed needed then woe betide us.
Toxic leak at chemical plant in India
The world, and especially the wealthier countries in the northern hemisphere, are totally obsessed with the pandemic. But the rest of the world goes on, having to deal with serious issues that they have to confront – covid-19 or no covid-19.
The tragedy of the leak of toxic and deadly chemicals at the LG Chem factory in Andhra Pradesh shows that the capitalist ‘normality’ is a bigger threat to health than the present pandemic – it’s been going on for centuries and kills millions a year due to starvation, non-potable water and general oppression and exploitation as well as surrogate wars fought by the imperialist powers which has a greater impact upon the poorest on the planet.
This leak also should make us remember the crime of the incident at Bhopal in 1984 – where people are still suffering the consequences and the American based company has never (and will never) be held to account.