Friday, 29 May 2020

Contact tracing in England

Further to yesterday's post, here is a full recapitulation of Phil Hammond's (MD) account of the then current "patient zero" from Private Eye of the first week in April, as referred to at the end of that month.

Steve Walsh
returned to the UK from a skiing holiday, the ideal mixing pot for global travellers to swap après ski viruses while singing Sweet Caroline.

Walsh's timeline since returning to the UK, as submitted by a local GP, does not inspire confidence in our public health response. Unchecked, 10 cycles of the virus originating from one person can infect 59.000 others ...

Tuesday 28 January: Walsh flies back from France with Catriona Greenwood and her husband after visiting them at their ski lodge.

Saturday 1 February: He goes to the pub in Hove.

Sunday: MD gets a phone call in the evening telling him A&E in Brighton has a suspected case. Walsh and the Department of Health say he phoned 111 and was told to attend an isolated room at a hospital, then isolate at home.

Monday: He has at last been tested. The Royal Sussex in Brighton doesn't have isolation pods at this point and results are taking 48 hours. He is taken into hospital very quickly. MD contacts the Royal Sussex and is told it has no suspected cases.

Tuesday: The NHS Trust in Brighton is still denying it has any suspected cases.

Wednesday: Test results confirm Walsh is positive for the virus.

Thursday 6 February: Press conference confirms the first British case is a businessman who had travelled from Singapore. [MD  does not tell us whether this case triggered any contact tracing] Meanwhile, Catriona Greenwood is at a safeguarding meeting with about 20 other GPs from the Brighton area in the council chamber at Hove Town Hall. She has clearly not been contacted by Public Health England (PHE) as part of its notification protocol. This is at least three days after Walsh said he had been in contact with a known case and confirmed he was the first British person known to have the virus. Greenwood makes her first phone call to PHE after reading about the "Super Spreader" in the news, saying she thinks she knows him, he had been staying with her, and they'd flown back to the UK together. They tell her not to worry, they'll ring back.

Friday: She goes to work at the surgery in Brighton where she is a locum, although not to see any patients. Continues to make phone calls to PHE asking to be tested.

Saturday: She continues to make phone calls to PHE.

Sunday 9 February: In another call to PHE, she tells them her husband is now unwell ...

It is generally accepted that one of the favoured occupations of doctors of above-average income is a skiing holiday. One would have thought that the news that winter resorts in Italy and France had become hot-spots for Covid-19 would have alerted NHS Trusts in England that they should prepare themselves to take special measures.

Thursday, 28 May 2020

At last: contact tracing in Wales

I would like to say "I told you so", but unfortunately my Facebook comment on the first reported case of Covid-19 in Wales has long since been publicly unavailable. In it, I pointed out that South Wales in particular was vulnerable to an influx of Covid-19 carriers because of our familial connections with Bardi and surroundings. (North Italy was a known hot-spot of infection in Europe.) I did query what had been done about tracking contacts. Anyway, at long last we are to have contact tracing here.

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Tax-dodging and dirty money

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has a couple of good news items this month.


Senegal has ripped up its double tax agreement (DTA) with Mauritius, the island tax haven at the center of our 2019 investigation Mauritius Leaks. (If you want more info on what a DTA is, read here!) The agreement, which was signed in 2004, cost the West African nation $257 million in lost tax revenue. One researcher told us this decision was a “big deal” and could spark similar moves by other African countries.


The European Commission wants a central authority to tackle money laundering and terrorist financing. Executive vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis said the six-point plan would “put an end to dirty money infiltrating our financial system.” Member states have until July 29 to give their feedback, but some – including Malta, Estonia and Hungary – have already taken issue with it. Transparency International says the plan is “high on generalities but low on specifics.”

Hungary (which under Orban has declared an end to liberalism), Estonia (home to at least one bank with Russian oligarchs as clients) and Malta (where rich people may buy citizenship, no questions asked) are all too likely objectors. One imagines that this corruption-tainted UK government is happy not to have to take a public position on the proposed anti-money-laundering authority.

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Peggy Lee

Peggy Lee's actual centenary has passed quietly today, but we are promised appropriate celebrations later in the year (Covid-19 permitting).

Someone who cannily adapted her singing style not only to the prevailing mood but also to take account of the changes which come with age, she was also a writer of lyrics (see Lady and the Tramp).

Who controls the past, controls the future

The guiding principle of the Ministry of Truth in Orwell's 1984 has been thrown into relief by Dominic Cummings' latest escapade. Like Winston Smith in the novel, Cummings amended a historical record (a March 2019 blogpost) to make it appear that he had predicted the threat of coronaviruses.

Now, in case it is not obvious, I should explain that Blogger (which hosts this blog) and WordPress (another popular blogging platform, and one that I used when I was a councillor) allow posts once published to be amended or even deleted. Indeed, life for a blogger might be fraught if this escape hatch were not provided. Most importantly, a libel - intended or inadvertent - has to be capable of being removed. I believe it is also acceptable to correct spelling and grammatical mistakes, and I have done so. This happens once or twice a month - too frequently for my peace of mind, but still within the bounds of morality. This should be as far as it goes. There are one or two blog posts which I wish I had never posted, because they show my judgment or knowledge in a poor light, but it would be unethical, in my view, to delete them. Even worse would be to alter the sense of a post. If I have significant second thoughts, I add them as a comment (properly dated). What Dominic Cummings did, on top of his other misfeasance, was unforgivable.

What is worse is that Cummings, if he had been fulfilling his duties as a senior adviser to the government, should have been aware of the danger of a novel pathogen from the East. If he really had been concerned early last year about the effects of an epidemic he would have pressed for the implementation of the recommendations of parliamentary reviews of the handling of previous epidemics, in particular regarding preparedness. We ordinary citizens, who do not habitually review the scientific and medical literature, may be excused for not realising the imminent peril of Covid-19. There is no such excuse for Johnson and Cummings. We expect our governments to take care of things which we are unable to cope with ourselves. Just as they should be prepared to defend us in case of war., they should also be alert to other dangers. There is no shortage of scientific advice available to government these days, and even classically-trained civil servants surely read the periodicals appropriate to their Departments. It was shocking to find just how many portents there were out there in the literature going back to 2015 at the latest.

Monday, 25 May 2020

More non-Covid stories

Egypt released violent criminals in an Eid amnesty but kept political prisoners locked up.

Iran gives petroleum products and refinery know-how to Venezuela. One can see why Venezuela is desperate to bring down petrol prices and get its own refinery in working order again, but one wonders what is in the deal for Iran, other than annoying the Americans. The transaction has achieved one thing: the US threats to block the shipments have proved hollow, as one tanker is about to unload and four more are crossing the Atlantic unhindered. Of course, all this cloak-and-dagger stuff could be done away with and the Venezuelan economy restored, if only Maduro were to recognise the democratic choice of his people and yield power to the opposition.

Trump's unauthorised arms sales: probably the most significant story of last week. New York Times and Defense News reported that the inspector-general in the State Department fired by President Trump had been investigating the Trump administration’s use of an emergency declaration to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE. In May of last year, a key Senate committee had

held up the sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, over concerns of how they will be used as part of the Saudi-led actions against Iranian-backed fighters in Yemen, an operation that has led to a humanitarian crisis in that country.

Now, the administration is pushing through those weapons, as well as a mix of unmanned aerial vehicles and aircraft maintenance, using an obscure exemption to circumvent Congress’ ability to say no to foreign weapon deals.

The Arms Export Control Act contains an exemption to sell weapons to partners in case of an emergency, something designed to speed up the process amid a crisis. In this case, Trump appears to be using the tense situation with Iran — based on intelligence reports that have been widely questioned by Democrats, but supported by the Pentagon — as a reason to push through the weapons.
[Senators] Menendez and Murphy hinted at introducing legislation to make sure Trump cannot use the emergency procedure for future sales, but gave no details on how that might work. And in his statement, Menendez specifically warned that U.S. industry may regret Trump’s latest move “With this move, the President is destroying the productive and decades-long working relationship on arms sales between the Congress and the Executive Branch. The possible consequences of this decision will ultimately threaten the ability of the U.S. defense industry to export arms in a manner that is both expeditious and responsible,” according to Menendez. 

Of immediate concern to us on this side of the Atlantic is not only the probable use of these weapons against civilians in Yemen, but also their being passed on to the rebel Haftar in Libya. Currently, the internationally-recognised official government is repelling the insurgency but an injection of more sophisticated weaponry might reverse the situation. Where Saudi- and UAE-backed forces succeed, Daesh follows.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

More thoughts on Covid-19 Pt 2

This is a follow-up to a posting from late last month.

A recent article by Rick in his Flip-Chart Fairy Tales reinforces the point about changing attitudes:

What we are seeing now could become a major cultural shift. Apart from those in particularly exposed occupations, most of us in the developed world, with clean water, clean living space and good sanitation, went about or daily business on the assumption that we were not likely to be infected with anything. Like all deep rooted assumptions, it was so deep rooted that infection barely crossed our minds. If we worked in city centre offices, we would get off filthy trains, go to work at our keyboards, pop out and buy a sandwich, sometimes (but not always) wash our hands and then eat the sandwich while bashing away at the keys we had been touching all day. We would then go to meetings where we would shake hands with, or even kiss, colleagues who had been doing the same thing. We knew, intellectually, that we would probably get a cold at some point during the winter yet it still came as something of an irritation when it happened. If we were unlucky enough to get flu or a stomach bug, we would respond with indignation. ‘How the hell did I get this? I bet it was that restaurant we went to at the weekend.’
That assumption has now been turned on its head. We leave the house now under the assumption that there is a good chance we will catch something and that, if we do, it is likely to be extremely unpleasant or fatal. This risk may be lower than a lot of people think, especially for younger age groups but, for the moment, that is beside the point. People fear this disease and that fear has changed our assumptions. When we leave the house, we react to people in a different way. We get a taste of what it is like to live in a dangerous neighbourhood. We look upon strangers with suspicion and are wary even of people we know. Suddenly, we see other people are a risk in a way they weren’t a few weeks ago. We applaud the bravery of essential workers because, in the course of their jobs, they are going out and mixing with people in a way that would scare the hell out of a lot of us. As we clap, many of us are thinking, ‘Thank God I don’t have to do that.’
(The whole piece is well worth reading for all too plausible scenario for our post-Covid future.)

In Radio 4's Inside Health last week, there was further evidence from Margaret McCartney (practising Scottish GP and beady-eyed analyst of PR from both pill-pushers and the government) that there was no substitute for traditional methods of tracking and tracing, shoe-leather and feet on the ground. The system as cobbled together by the governments north and south of the border is too top-down, insufficiently integrated so that GPs who should know what is going on in their area, do not.

The Times publication of the numbers of lives lost as a result of the Johnson government's delays (where has The Thunderer been for the last month?) emphasisesd the fact that the countries which have been most successful in counteracting the virus are those which applied good old-fashioned public health measures. They did not wait for technology (though it helped when they had it, as in Singapore and South Korea) but just got on with the job. Nor did they write off old or already poorly people in pursuit of some long-term "herd immunity".

Friday, 22 May 2020

Timing and EU membership

Continued pressure by Liberal Democrats and rather more ambivalent representations by Labour have finally told. The Johnson government has relented over the visa surcharge for migrant health service workers. What tipped the balance was the growing opposition from Johnson's own Conservative backbenchers, clearly swayed by the growing public recognition of the service (and sadly in too many cases, sacrifices) given to the health services of Britain by non-British people. Most of these entered the UK from the continent when we were still members of the EU and enjoyed free movement. One wonders whether, if the membership referendum were held now at the peak of the Covid-19 epidemic, the implications of losing those vital personnel had hit deeply enough to produce a different result.

(It has been clear for some time that if the EU referendum had preceded that for Scottish independence, the result of one or the other would have been different.)

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Other non-Covid stories you may have missed

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are in dispute over the waters of the Nile. Since 2011, Ethiopia has been building on the Blue Nile the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). This will be Africa’s biggest hydroelectric power plant once completed. Negotiations, which have stalled, centre on the pace at which Ethiopia fills the 74 billion cubic metre reservoir behind the dam and the impact that could have on water supplies downstream in Sudan and Egypt. The UN Secretary General has stepped in to encourage resumption of talks.

There is water impact elsewhere in Africa. The worst drought in decades continues to affect Zimbabwe, while hundreds of people have died in floods in East Africa.

Calls for more control over space junk. The remains of a Chinese Long March 5B launch vehicle fell into the Atlantic earlier this month. At 18 tons, it is the largest piece of space debris to return to earth since 1991. Some US newspapers speculated that New York had a narrow miss.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Trump finances

In addition to his disputes with scientific experts over his self-medication and the source of Covid-19, President Trump is in another, behind-the-scenes, battle. Two committees at the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, as well as New York prosecutors, have demanded financial records from two banks that did deals with Mr Trump - Deutsche Bank and Capital One - as well as from Mazars, the president's accountants. Trump's lawyers have resisted, and the cases have been taken to the Supreme Court, which will rule within the next few weeks.

ICIJ investigations suggest that neither the President nor his connections will want this area of his interests floodlit.

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

What is the EU to do with a problem like Hungary?

Last month, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning the degradation of civil rights in both Poland and Hungary.

Of the two, the slide towards elective dictatorship looks more dangerous in Hungary:
Opposition politicians in Hungary are alarmed by a spate of detentions for alleged scaremongering on social media about the coronavirus pandemic. They fear that voices critical of the government are being silenced and accuse Prime Minister Viktor Orban of abusing special powers granted to him in March. [...] 

 Several people have been arrested at their homes and detained for several hours over social media posts. Police said on Thursday that 16 people have been questioned during their investigations. They added that they have been investigating 87 cases under emergency legislation for allegedly publishing "false information", and 27 cases of endangering the public. "Police are continuously monitoring the internet," an earlier statement said. The new law adopted on March 30 widens a pre-existing offence, giving the authorities powers to clamp down on "alarmist comments".

On Wednesday a member of the Momentum opposition party was detained in southern Hungary, over a social media post about a controversial government policy of clearing non-virus patients out of hospitals to make beds available for COVID-19 sufferers. János Csóka-Szűcs shared a post from opposition MP Ákos Hadházy, adding that 1,170 hospital beds in his town of Gyula were being cleared -- a claim that has been confirmed to be true. He was detained for four hours on the grounds that he had allegedly "obstructed efforts to combat the pandemic". 

 "The silencing of critical voices has begun, namely by police action intimidating people who are writing or telling the truth," Hadházy commented in a Facebook message.

The previous day a 64-year-old man was held for hours in northeastern Hungary over a message posted last month, criticising the government's lockdown policy. It included the remark: "You are a merciless tyrant, but remember, until now dictators always fall". Prosecutors said on Wednesday that the case had been closed.

What a pity that a major nation, the key player in the formulation of the European Convention on Human Rights, is not in there putting its weight behind moves to restore liberal democracy in Hungary.

However, as Euronews states, there is not a lot which can be done at present:
For the moment, MEPs' pleas are likely to go unheard. After all for Brussels, in the middle of a pandemic in which it's helping to fight a virus and battling to keep countries' economics alive, ongoing rule of law issues in Budapest are going to struggle to get on the agenda. 

But when this crisis passes – and it will – what can an increasingly frustrated and angry EU do? Well, it can’t kick Hungary out. While Article 50 allows for a country to leave, there is no such mechanism for forcing out a member state. The Article 7 process, which suspends members' voting rights, is also unlikely to go anywhere. Another member state can simply veto it. And Hungary has the backing of Poland and the Czech Republic.

The quickest and most-effective method could be to use the next EU budget to withhold financial payments, by qualified majority. Or allow the Commission to directly control the reallocation of funds, rather than funnelling them through Budapest. Hungary is a big recipient of these funds – reducing them would hurt. The European Union could also help foster and support democracy movements inside Hungary. The institutions could provide funding directly to municipalities and local governments as well as resources to trade unions, universities, and citizens' movements.

And finally, surely if Europe’s leaders were serious about sending a strong message to Orbán, the EPP, the union's largest political group, would simply force out Fidesz? Clearly, none of these decisions are easy, nor straightforward. But what’s the alternative? Sit back? Say nothing? Pretend it’s not happening? What would that then say about the EU’s values? Indeed, what would it say about the EU project itself?

Monday, 18 May 2020

What's wrong at Transport?

MPs sitting on the Public Accounts select committee have criticised the Department of Transport’s permanent secretary Bernadette Kelly, claiming that she did not pass on briefings from HS2 Ltd suggesting it could not deliver phase one of the project to budget and on schedule. {From reports on BBC and the press.]

It would not have happened in my day (or even that of Peter Black, who has also written on this subject). When I joined the old Ministry of Transport at one rung above the bottom of the clerical ladder, the Perm. Sec was Sir Thomas Padmore, "an outstanding administrator and manager, an understanding and tolerant man of absolute honesty and integrity" (wikipedia). His successor, Sir David Serpell, made a favourable impression on an earlier member of the Public Accounts Committee, Tam Dalyell, who described him in his obituary as an extremely able man, one who really cared. One cannot imagine either of them dissembling in front of the PAC.

Friday, 15 May 2020

The fighting went on in Burma

From Cyril Kirk's wartime diary:

8th May 1945
Victory in Europe announced.
Very little reaction amongst the boys.
Still putting out barbed wire for local defence.
Churchill’s speech messed up by wireless.
9th May 1945
Moved to reform battery. 70 miles journey.
Oil line tapped in many places by natives.
10th May 1945
108 miles from Rangoon.
Stiffest opposition for long while.
Earlier store up.
Letter from Win.
11th May 1945
Went for rations.
Little firing Jap guns opened up at night div target
Battery had moved 85 ……
12th May 1945
Moved back with C troop to SCHEWDAUNG
13th May 1945
Mail up.
4 from Win, 1 mother, 1 bottle beer ½ Brandy. VDAY

Thursday, 14 May 2020

WHO weakness

More evidence that the WHO is not as good as it should be. An EP research briefing states:
Even before coronavirus, the WHO already had a mixed track record, including, on the one hand, successful eradication of smallpox, and on the other, a delayed response to the West African Ebola epidemic of 2014, which may have cost thousands of lives. Its failures, both in the Covid-19 pandemic and in previous health crises, highlight long-standing problems: the agency is weak, underfunded, and its complex organisational structure can get in the way of effective action. Underlying such weaknesses is the fact that the WHO is entirely dependent on cooperation from its member states and can only act within the limits set by them. While Covid-19 has highlighted many of the WHO’s weaknesses, it is also a reminder that diseases respect no borders, and that the organisation’s task of global coordination has become more necessary than ever. [My emphasis - FHL]

The article includes informative infographics. Although it quotes critics of accusing China of having undue influence on WHO, the graph of contributions shows that this is not so financially.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Is EU heading for another constitutional crisis?

It is not one of the obstreperous newcomers, Hungary and Poland, challenging the EU establishment this time, but founder-member Germany. Euronews reports:

“If every constitutional court of every member state starts giving its own interpretation of what Europe can and cannot do, it’s the beginning of the end” proclaimed MEP Guy Verhofstadt last week.

The beginning of the end of the EU? Even by Verhofstadt’s usual punchy standards, this was quite punchy.

His comments followed an explosive decision by the German Constitutional Court, which ruled that the European Court of Justice had acted outside its mandate in allowing the European Central Bank's quantitative easing measures. German judges have now given the ECB a three-month deadline to produce a proportionality assessment that justifies its two-trillion-euro bond-buying to keep Germany’s central bank participating. Essentially, the court is challenging the ECJ’s supremacy.

But the Commission President has hit back. Ursula von der Leyen – herself German – exclaimed yesterday: “The final word on EU law is always spoken in Luxembourg. Nowhere else.” The Commission is even talking about taking legal action against the German government. The Vice President, Věra Jourová, said: “We will look into possible next steps, which may include the option of infringement proceedings”.

Now that seems both pretty unlikely and pointless. It's also a provocation the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, will want to avoid. But the threat will help protect Von der Leyen from allegations she is being soft or favourable towards Germany. So what will this "extraordinary judgement" actually change?

Well, in the short term, not very much. For now, the ECB has no need to stop any of its bond-buying, but will it heed the German court’s demands to produce a “proportionality” assessment on the impact of Quantitative Easing within three months? And if it does produce one, who judges it as meeting the required criteria? Essentially, the European Court of Justice might well get involved again.

In many ways, the German court was reflecting a sense of national public opinion – the deep frustration that Germany is unjustly underwriting the debts of other countries.

It also got to the intrinsic problem at the heart of the EU. For years the ECB has provided cover for governments that have failed to deal with the fiscal implications of a monetary union. This is a sign that those same eurozone governments might have to get their act together.

But there are wider implications, too. The ECJ enforces the rules, regulations and laws of the European Union, of the single market. And that’s led some EU politicians and some German politicians to worry. The leader of the European People’s Party, Manfred Weber, has said: “The supremacy of EU law is at stake, which, for example, keeps the single market together and gives investors the confidence to invest in all corners of Europe. Politicians celebrating this ruling should be careful what they wish for.”

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

More non-Covid news - mostly

There is a reminder that Afghanistan is still a lawless country, and that military action alone will not bring peace there. It is reported that:
Gunmen stormed a maternity hospital in the western part of Kabul, setting off an hours-long shootout with the police and killing 14 people, including two newborn babies, their mothers and an unspecified number of nurses.

At least 14 people were killed in the morning assault on the Barchi Hospital, officials said.

The UN has suggested that Haftar, the Libyan insurgent leader, has committed war crimes in the recent rocket attack on Tripoli and its airport, in which civilians were killed. The Turkish government, whose diplomatic mission in the Libyan capital may have been a target, has responded robustly.

Donald Trump's lawyers have asked the US Supreme Court to quash the demands by Congress committees to have access to the President's tax records.

The first female imam in Denmark has been appointed.

The unequal fight against locusts in Africa continues.

Uganda's motor-cycle taxis are going green. But why are the Germans and not the British taking the lead in the implementation in the capital of this Commonwealth nation?

Prejudices in meat

(Vegetarians should move on to the next blog now.) A discussion which started on VE-Day on Facebook led to my discovery that I was not alone in my aversion to rabbit. To one of the many posts about Vera Lynn's ubiquitous rendition of "We'll meet again" I had added that in the days of meat rationing, the song title had been adapted by wags as "Whale meat again?". (On the only occasion that our mother had brought whale meat to the table, the family found it too tough to eat, exactly as this BBC respondent did, and we had great teeth in those days.) A further comment alluded to the fact that rabbit was not on the ration either, to which I replied that to this day I cannot eat rabbit, however nicely it is prepared, to which the other Facebooker responded that it was the same with her husband, clearly of the same generation as myself.

This psychological effect has little to do with the source of the meat, but more with the circumstances of having to eat it. I enjoy eating lamb - even more slow-cooked mutton when one can get it - but it was a different story for the late John Diamond. He could not stand sheep meat because it reminded him of his impoverished East End childhood when the smell of cheap lamb stewing was all pervasive.

Sunday, 10 May 2020


The number of days since a journalist for the al-Jazeera news organisations was imprisoned without charge in Egypt. A week after World Press Freedom Day, his plight is a reminder of the danger to reporters the world over, including countries which are supported by western democracies.

Saturday, 9 May 2020

The Johnson Game

Whenever I hear one of Boris Johnson's rip-roaring speeches, I am reminded of the con man in David Mamet's House of Games:

Mike: It's called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.

Bear that in mind when you listen to the prime minister tomorrow. Remember his previous confidence-giving speeches and what actually resulted.

Friday, 8 May 2020

VE Day and after

Is it too much to hope that the 75th anniversary celebrations will mark an end to the digital channels' obsession with the Nazis and the war in Europe? While the analysis of the Nazis' rise to power, especially Goebbels' use of state-of-the-art media, has served as a warning for our own times, the flood of footage from 1933 to 1945 has been overwhelming. One cannot blame the channels' editors for making use of the copious amounts of film, professional and amateur, shot by the Nazis and clearly available relatively cheaply. However, enough is enough. I do not need to know how the type 86 Kübelsitzwagen differed from the type 82. I am also uncomfortable with the glorification of "our boys'" victories in Europe and North Africa.

There is a case for switching attention to the forgotten wars in the Far East. Japan stubbornly refused to lay down arms in spite of the loss of her major ally, with the consequent freeing of Allied forces to prosecute the Pacific war. There were to be three more months of gruelling fighting in Burma and British prisoners of war continued to die or to suffer in Japanese work camps.

But we should also be looking at reconstruction, the Marshall plan and the benevolent imposition of a model democratic structure on post-Nazi Germany. Victory in Europe was not only victory for the Western allies but also for the democratic and liberal elements in continental Europe, not least in Germany herself. The successes and failures (the snaffling of rocket and security experts by the US comes to mind) of de-Nazification should be examined. The British Army's rôle in rebuilding German industry deserves recalling.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Government extra-judicial interference in local government investment slapped down by Supreme Court

The news item from last week which touches most closely on the average council tax payer should have been included in my posting of this morning. It was not given much publicity outside the specialist press, partly because the subject may have seemed to editors to be arcane but partly I suspect because of the identity of the successful litigant.

The Supreme Court has overturned ministerial guidance to the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) that was intended to put a stop to certain types of ethical disinvestment.

Judges ruled by a 3-2 majority in a case brought by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) that the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government had exceeded his powers by issuing the guidance.

The Secretary of State published ‘Local Government Pension Scheme: Guidance on Preparing and Maintaining an Investment Strategy Statement’ in September 2016, which included a provision that the scheme’s administrators should not pursue policies contrary to UK foreign or defence policy.

This would in effect prohibit measures such as the boycotts supported by the PSC.

The PSC argued that the Secretary of State’s guidance was outside the statutory purposes authorised by the Public Services Pensions Act 2013 and the Local Government Pension Scheme (Management and Investment of Funds) Regulations 2016.

The High Court had agreed, but the Court of Appeal later overturned this.

Giving judgment, Lord Wilson said the Act identified the procedures and strategy that administrators should adopt.

But in the passages of the guidance under challenge, “the Secretary of State has insinuated into the guidance something entirely different…an attempt to enforce the government’s foreign and defence policies”.

Lord Wilson said the Secretary of State “was probably emboldened ... to exceed his powers” by the misconception that scheme administrators were part of the machinery of the state and discharge conventional local government functions”. That though failed to recognise that their duties are similar to those of trustees, who should act in their members’ best interests.

He said the Secretary of State’s claim that contributions to the scheme were ultimately funded by the taxpayer was misleading as the fund comprised contributing employees’ money, not public money.

[Thanks to for the extensive quotation]

The Court was split 3-2 on the matter but one suspects that if the immediate cause of the action had been less controversial than boycotts of Israeli goods then the margin would have been greater. It is clear that the Tory government was intent on putting curbs on local government investment decisions which were not legally authorised. It would have been the thin edge of an unacceptably authoritarian wedge.

Away from Covid - mostly

Gantz-Netanyahu coalition can go ahead

There was just a chance that the complicated job-share agreement between the two main party leaders would be seen as conflicting with Israel's basic law. While the prime minister has immunity from criminal action by virtue of his office, the same is not true of other politicians, including ministers. Benjamin Netanyahu has indictments for corruption hanging over him from which his office has so far protected him. The supreme court has ruled that he is still protected, even when Gantz is presiding under the alternation arrangement under the coalition agreement. So Israel avoids yet another election, but it looks as if the hard line against Palestinians and non-Jewish citizens of Israel will continue.

Venezuela "invasion"

In what looks like an attempt at diversion from the poverty inflicted on his country by his communist ideology, and now exacerbated by a Covid-19 epidemic, President Maduro of Venezuela has had arrested two American citizens. They are accused of being an invasion force funded, as I understand it, by state oil company .money seized by the US government and channelled to the parliamentary opposition leader, Juan Guaido.

This does seem an unlikely scenario, even for President Trump. It is politically sensible not to waste money on an expedition, even a sub-contracted one, against Venezuela which is no threat to the US. Moreover, while she remains a pariah state, she cannot sell her oil on the international market, thus helping to put a floor on the price for oil, to the benefit of US producers. One cannot see Maduro surviving internal pressures for much longer, even by raising the American bogeyman.

Brazil corruption

Al-Jazeera reports:
In mid-April, Bolsonaro fired Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, a popular public figure, following disagreement over measures to tackle the coronavirus outbreak. Mandetta, like most health experts, had recommended that social distancing be imposed across the country - a move Bolsonaro fiercely opposed. The president replaced Mandetta with an advocate for reopening the economy, prompting protests by residents who banged on pots and pans out of windows and balconies demanding that Boslonaro resign. 

 That anger has only been compounded by a major political crisis that escalated at the end of last month. Bolsonaro's justice minister, Sergio Moro, resigned in late April, accusing the president of interfering in an investigation and firing the federal police chief for personal and political reasons. In a scathing 45-minute televised presentation, Moro accused the president of seeking to interfere in investigations that involved two of Bolsonaro's sons, and had requested access to intelligence files. Moro also said that Bolsonaro had pressed him to replace the chief of the federal police with someone who would be a "personal contact" of the president. The comments triggered calls to impeach Bolsonaro - a move supported by nearly half of Brazilians, according to the most recent Datafolha survey. Bolsonaro denied Moro's accusations and said he had the authblority to replace federal police officials. But the Supreme Court authorised an investigation into the allegations that Bolsonaro tried to interfere in the work of the country's federal police force for political motives.

It is significant that the military, which initially supported Bolsonaro's election, has publicly declared its dedication to upholding Brazil's democracy. In spite of the demands of Bolsonaro's extreme followers the army has no wish to repeat the military rule of 1964-1985.

... and some good news

Deutsche Welle reports that scientists at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine have found that a drug already developed to counteract heavy metal poisoning blocks the effects of some snake venom.

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Covid-19: stretching the time-line

In a post on Facebook some time ago I speculated that Italy's surge of Covid-19 infections was unlikely to have been caused by just the two Chinese tourists diagnosed in February while they were in the country. That supposition was supported by clinical evidence towards the end of the month. As the Guardian reported:
Massimo Galli, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Milan and director of infectious diseases at the Luigi Sacco hospital in Milan, said preliminary evidence suggested the virus could have been spreading below the radar in the quarantined areas.
“I can’t absolutely confirm any safe estimate of the time of the circulation of the virus in Italy, but … some first evidence suggest that the circulation of the virus is not so recent in Italy,” he said, amid suggestions the virus may have been present since mid-January.

Now we have evidence from France that a man who recovered from pneumonia (apparently) over Christmas had actually contracted Covid-19.
Dr Cohen, head of emergency medicine at Avicenne and Jean-Verdier hospitals near Paris, said the patient was a 43-year-old man from Bobigny, north-east of Paris. He told the BBC's Newsday programme that the patient must have been infected between 14 and 22 December, as coronavirus symptoms take between five and 14 days to appear. The patient, Amirouche Hammar was admitted to hospital on 27 December exhibiting a dry cough, a fever and trouble breathing - symptoms which would later become known as main indications of coronavirus.

This was four days before the WHO's China country office was informed of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause being detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

- and three days before the Wuhan accidental whistle-blower, opthalmologist Li Wenliang, correctly surmised that a patient had been infected with a virus similar to SARS. A further six cases came to light. It should also be noted that Dr Li remarked that all these patients had links to Huanan Seafood Market (not the Wuhan laboratory).

The Wikipedia entry continues:
On 8 January, Li contracted the coronavirus when he came into contact with an infected patient at his hospital. The patient suffered from acute angle-closure glaucoma and developed a fever the next day. Li then began to suspect that the patient might have a coronavirus infection. Li developed a fever and cough on 10 January, which soon became severe. Doctor Yu Chengbo, a Zhejiang medical expert sent to Wuhan, told media that although most young patients do not tend to develop severe conditions, the glaucoma patient whom Li saw on 8 January was a storekeeper at Huanan Seafood Market with a high viral load, which could have exacerbated Li's infection.

So it is likely that Covid-19 was established in continental Europe in December at the latest, and probably from more than one source. Chinese who made their money in "wet markets" could have visited tourist attractions and ski resorts both in Italy and France, in the latter case passing through Charles de Gaulle airport, whence  the Bobigny patient may have caught it via an asymptomatic wife. Another possibility is that a French trader with links to former colonies in south-east Asia may have visited a wet market there. French efforts to find their own "Patient Zero" continue.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Mike Pompeo continues to blame the Chinese for the fact that Covid-19 is running wild in the USA. He states, correctly, that on the 3rd January the authorities in Wuhan suppressed Dr Li's evidence and threatened him with criminal action over the leak on scoial media of his warnings to medical colleagues. What Pompeo did not add - thus implying that the Chinese government has continued to be obstructive - was that on 11th and 12th January the China national health authority gave detailed information to WHO about the outbreak and have continued to cooperate with the world body since. Local officials who allowed the virus to spread were sacked or censured.

The rigid centralised communist system in China is at fault in one respect, I suggest. Control is exercised from the top. Information flows from top to bottom, less from bottom to top and clearly not horizontally. The Wuhan laboratory could publish in scientific journals world-wide, but would surely be in trouble if it issued warnings against wild animal trade inside the country. Politics militates against science. The Wuhan officials were more concerned about keeping intimations of trouble away from the media and, more importantly, their party bosses. Even if they knew about the science  - which is unlikely - they believed that keeping up the pretence that all was for the best in their socialist city was more important than saving the lives of a few pneumonia sufferers.

In Western democracies, lateral transmission of information is relatively easy. However, there is a countervailing threat, the attitude of populist leaders to "experts". The reliance on gut instinct, remedies learned at mother's knee and "common sense" not only delays seeking expert opinion until there is a crisis but also deters scientists from volunteering warnings, knowing that they will be disregarded.

Boris Johnston likes to compare himself with Winston Churchill. As has been pointed out here before, a major difference is that, for all his faults, Churchill was faithful to the British people and did not single any section of the public out for contempt. Another great difference - and one that was crucial to our survival in the second world war - was his respect for scientists and love of technology.

At least our leaders have not plumbed the depths of the US leadership - yet.

PS - On 5th March, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said that shutting schools and universities because of the corona virus outbreak would have no clinical benefit. There were no plans to cancel large events. That was based on a political interpretation of the scientific advice, and a policy that was to be reversed when the scale of the deaths resulting from it became obvious.

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Alternative to imprisoning women to be sited in Wales

The news that the first rehabilitation centre for women convicted of low-level crime south of the border (the Scottish justice minister has taken a slightly different approach) is to be sited in Wales is to be welcomed. However, there will need to be more than one such centre in order to cope with the physical separation of the regions in Wales. It is important that contact is maintained with families, one of the main objections to sending Welsh women to prison in such facilities as Styal prison in Cheshire. Setting up one single facility for the whole of Wales in, say, the valleys region will make no difference to families in north, mid or even far west Wales.

Monday, 4 May 2020

A forgotten atrocity

That was the melancholy conclusion of Michael Goldfarb in a Radio 4 programme last Saturday. On May 4th 1970, four students were killed and 11 wounded by National Guardsmen during a student demonstration at Kent State University, Ohio, against an incursion into Cambodia by US forces.

The university's own dissection of the events of May 4th is at Note that one of the student victims was not even part of the demonstration but had been walking between classes when the National Guardsmen opened fire.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

World Press Freedom Day

On Press Freedom Day 2020, concerned organisations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists worry that the danger to reporters has actually increased since the Covid-19 pandemic was declared, when the need for independent information and holding authorities to account is more necessary than ever. While we in western Europe can take pride in the fact that the region is recognised as the best in the world for media freedom, we should also note that Saudi Arabia and Egypt, allies of the West, along with Turkey and China, top the league table for imprisonment of journalists.

Saturday, 2 May 2020

350 years a company

From The Canadian Encyclopaedia:

The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), chartered 2 May 1670, is the oldest incorporated joint-stock merchandising company in the English-speaking world. HBC was a fur trading business for most of its history, a past that is entwined with the colonization of British North America and the development of Canada. The company now owns and operates department stores in Canada, the United States, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Originally headquartered in London, England, its head offices are located in Brampton, Ontario. HBC is owned by NRDC Equity Partners, an American private investment firm that purchased the company in 2008.

Friday, 1 May 2020

Dangerous nonsense from Donald Trump

The most insidious conspiracy theories have a germ of truth at base. Covid-19 is a naturally-occurring virus which passed in December last year to one or more humans, probably from a horseshoe-bat or maybe a pangolin, in Wuhan in Hubei province in China. The location was almost certainly a "wet market". SARS and MERS viruses are generally acknowledged to have an animal origin. Wuhan is also the location of one of the leading international laboratories studying zoonoses. (One might think that proximity to an established "wet market" aided research.) Wuhan was the source of the strain of corona virus which has now circled the globe.

On these facts, President Trump has built a scenario in his latest press conference that the Chinese accidentally or (nudge-nudge, wink-wink) deliberately released the killer virus. The illogic of President Xi deliberately killing nearly 5,000 of his own people and endangering states with which China has significant trade passed him by. And why would China target Iran, Trump's bête noire?

The fake news from Washington has been virtually completely refuted as this article demonstrates.
In particular:

the conclusion by a team of American, British, and Australian researchers could not be more clear: “we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible…. Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus,” the virologists stated in a March 17 article published in the scientific journal Nature.

A group of 27 public health scientists from eight countries signed an open letter this March in the Lancet medical journal issuing support to scientists and health professionals in China and “strongly condemn[ing] conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” The letter states that the scientific findings to date “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife, as have so many other emerging pathogens.”

Most of the baseless accusations thrown out at the President's press conferences, intended to improve his chances of re-election later this year, are necessarily aimed at a domestic audience and can safely be ignored by the rest of the world. The Chinese allegations are altogether more dangerous as they are likely to be taken up by vested interests internationally. (I can think of a few Tory MPs poised to repeat them in the Commons.) There have already been physical attacks by ignorant thugs on people of Chinese appearance in several Western countries.  One trusts that the US intelligence and medical institutions will put the record straight publicly and soon.