Sunday, 31 January 2021

Death of the Compass boss was surely preventable

 Last week, there was published the report into the light airplane crash in Australia which killed Richard Cousins, his fiancee, his two sons and her daughter. It was found that the pilot had become confused by ingress of carbon monoxide through various cracks and holes. The inquiry recommended fitting of active carbon monoxide detectors in airplane cabins.

This is not the first time that a carbon monoxide leak has been implicated in a fatal crash of a light aircraft. The year before the Australian tragedy, a float plane had flown into a hillside near Anchorage, Alaska, killing the experienced pilot. It was quickly established that CO must have been the primary cause. If CO detection devices had been made mandatory by national air safety authorities as a result of the NTSB inquiry on that occasion, then several other fatal crashes may have been prevented, including that which took the life of newly-signed Cardiff footballer Emiliano Sala.

Friday, 29 January 2021

Covid-19 continued

 Further to yesterday's post, a correspondent to Radio 4's PM programme revealed that Westminster health minister Matt Hancock had intervened when the Oxford University vaccine research team proposed to partner up with a US company to produce their vaccine. He judged that the UK government - and indeed Europe - needed more control over future supplies and instead brokered a marriage with AstraZeneca, the Anglo-Swedish company headquartered in Cambridge. 

As to Pfizer, an industry commentator stated that the prices that the American company obtained for the BioNTech vaccine were $14 a shot in the UK, $19 in the EU and $28 for Israel.

Thursday, 28 January 2021

Covid-19 finger-pointing

Various demands from EU members are not helpful. EU officials said today "that AstraZeneca's two UK plants making its coronavirus vaccine must share production with the EU under the contract the drugs firm signed with Brussels" according to RTE in Ireland. This unfortunately feeds into the paranoia of those voters in England and Wales we would hope to persuade to apply to rejoin the Union.

One can dismiss the claim that AstraZeneca is in the vaccine game solely to maximise its profits, when the company and its research partners in Oxford University have undertaken to deliver their product at cost to developing countries. Another point that the EU president and her health minister do not take into consideration is that, because the UK government committed early to purchase the Oxford vaccine, AstraZeneca was encouraged to start production in its British facilities even before the phase three trials had finished. Thus, any production difficulties could be spotted at an early stage. The EU's hesitation and bureaucracy told against a similar outcome in AstraZeneca's continental factories. 

Unfortunately, the tit-for-tat which some EU members seek, denying export of the BioNTech vaccine to the UK from the Pfizer fa ctory in Belgium, may gain wider support. By committing our stock of this vaccine to a first inoculation, presumably relying on the next Pfizer delivery to provide the necessary booster, the Westminster government has laid us open to a threat that the second shot will not be available even at the end of twelve weeks which their advisors believe is optimal. (It has to be said that few immunoogists outside the UK are prepared to agree that departing from the manufacturer's specified interval is going to be effective.)

WHO investigation

Their fortnight's quarantine over, the investigators from the World Health Organisation left their hotel by bus for Wuhan this morning. One hopes that they will be allowed to speak one-to-one on a professional level with the renowned researchers in the Wuhan Institute without having to go through political intermediaries. Their task has been made more difficult by the unverifiable accusation by the dying Trump regime that SARS/CoV2 was released accidentally from the institute. It is hardly credible that one of the leading research bodies in the field, which was far more aware of the dangers of zoonoses than administrations in the West and indeed consistenly issued warnings about them, would have such lax procedures as to jeopardise their fellow-citizens.

Having said that, I would not be surprised if it turned out that the Wuhan wet market was not the place where the virus first jumped from bat (or pangolin) to human. We have the evidence of infections in France and Italy before Dr Li spotted that a new killer disease was about in the wet market. It is possible that the tourists who brought the virus to Europe came from another province of China, maybe even another Asian country. Personal witness evidence may be inhibited by the Chinese authorities, but there should be enough samples preserved at the institute and in clinics to provide a genomic trail.

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Falklands - Malouines - Malvinas

 In January 1771, Spain formally - but with reservations - ceded control of the Falkland Islands to England. Thus the seeds of one of the key conflicts of the twentieth century were sown.

As to the name of the Islands, this paper implies that "Falklands" has precedence, since the first recorded landing on the islands was on 27 January 1690, by the crew of the British ship "Welfare", whose Captain, John Strong, named the sound between the two islands after Viscount Falkland, the Treasurer of the Royal Navy.

Monday, 25 January 2021

Milton Obote was deposed fifty years ago

 In a coup which UK agencies may have had a hand in, Idi Amin seized power in Uganda on 25th January 1971. Thus began a decline into economic trouble and genocide of probably the most prosperous of Britain's former possessions in East Africa.

A return to democracy in 1986 has since declined into an elective dictatorship. Yoweri Museveni has again been returned as president in an election which many outside observers have seen as flawed. It is a sign of this government's abandonment of international responsibility that the US has been more concerned about that.

Sunday, 24 January 2021

Rail improvements value for money

 The government has announced £794m of investment in rail infrastructure. The headline improvements are reopening to passenger traffic a line between Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Ashington and reopening Bicester to Bletchley, a link in the east-west rail route. 

Assuming the distance covered by the latter is 19 miles, the cost of the scheme works out at £40m per mile on the government's own figures. The last significant motorway construction in the UK cost £138.4m per mile and that was ten years ago. One can add at least £30m to that figure to bring it up to date, allowing for RPI inflation over the decade. So rebuilding the railway costs 75'% less than making new motorway for at least the same benefit.

Saturday, 23 January 2021

Climate change can affect us all

In my regular weekly phone conversation with my sister in the English Midlands, last Monday I shared worries about storm Christoph.  It was clearly going to dump loads of water on already sodden ground in her area in England after it had finished with us. Neath Abbey and Cadoxton will flood again, I said, they always do. But you should be safe, she consoled, because you live up a hill. 

Thursday's floods in Skewen demonstrated how fragile our confidence can be. Somewhere on the hillside above me, water burst out - probably from historic mine-workings, with which Skewen is riddled - inundating post-war housing development on the Goshen Park estate. The floods continued down Drummau Road (top left in the picture) to the main road and also flowed along Dynevor (Dinefwr) Road (left to right in the picture). The line of trees across the top right of the photo marks the line of the embankment on which the Great Western railway line was built, blocking off the road in which I live and saving a large part of Skewen from disaster.

As I write, the water is said to be still flowing. Residents have been advised not to return to evacuated properties this weekend and that it may be months before their lives are back to normal. The Coal Authority is investigating the source of the outburst and, if it is an old mine-shaft, capping it properly.

Thanks to South Wales Police for the link to this image.

Friday, 22 January 2021

Sicily 1944

 I thought I had better double-check the assertion I made last Friday, that the resurgence of the Mafia in the second half of last century stemmed in large part from the Americans naive resettlement of American Cosa Nostra barons in Sicily after the Allies' successful invasion. My source was a memory of one of the late Alan Whicker's TV presentations of his career in the media. Whicker had been an army captain in charge of a film unit, present at the landings and later. He claimed that the British had managed to set up a civil administration free of fascists which was functioning well. One of the few things which Mussolini can be praised for is virtually killing off the Sicilian Mafia, but this is just what the US government would reverse. The wartime US administration had two problems as they saw it: at home, the power of organised crime dominated by Italian-Americans and abroad, the growth of international communism. This has been a perpetual (one might say, pathological) fear on the part of the United States which had led her to support and even install dictators abroad. There was even some toleration of Hitler because of the latter's anti-communist stance until his ally Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. As HL Mencken was wont to say in several formulations, to every complex problem there is a solution which is neat, clear, simple ... and wrong. The US adopted one such in Sicily by deporting the anti-fascist, anti-communist, Italo-American gangsters so that they could rebuild their empires on the island.

In my checking, I came across this pdf of a doctoral thesis which goes into the background of the invasion of Sicily as well as detail of the British contribution to the Allied governance* of the various communes. It reveals that Mafia activity was not altogether extinguished by the Fascists and that at least one local Mafioso gained a mayoralty even before the US deportations. On the other hand, there was widespread resentment of Fascism on the island at the time of the invasion, clearly more than was realised in Washington, and a great deal of cooperation with the military government imposed by the Allies on the part of local officials. Intelligence was able to produce a schedule of those Fascists who had not fled the island, distinguishing those who were Fascist by conviction from those who were compelled to join the party in order to keep public office.

So the deportations did not help, and were anyway irrelevant to the struggle against communism which had hardly any traction on the island. Sicilians were probably more motivated by resentment of rule from mainland Italy than by political dogma. However, there would still have been a need to 

*In the Hague Convention, articles 42-56 govern the establishment of an administration after military conquest. It seems that the articles were applied assiduously and successfully by the Allies in Germany and Japan at the end of the war, had mixed application in Italy but were neglected in Iraq after the two Gulf Wars. It is a matter for debate whether the anarchy in  Iraq was better or worse than the corrupted order of Sicily.

Thursday, 21 January 2021

Priti Patel still doesn't get it

It is all very well for the Home Secretary to seek to justify her position (are there rumours that she is to be reshuffled?) by claiming that if it had been up to her, UK's borders would have been closed in March 2020. By March, the damage had already been done and Covid-19 was already running free in most of England and Wales. Ideally, the lockdown should have been imposed on New Year's Day as it was in Taiwan. However, one accepts that detailed knowledge of the virus, only suspicions, were available at that time, so there is some excuse for Western governments to await developments.

But there was no doubt by the end of the month. It was enough for New Zealand to close her borders at the start of February and we should have done the same, at least to the countries where the virus was known to be circulating. They included France and Italy. The first three SARS/CoV-2 patients identified in the UK, late in January, had returned from these two countries and Singapore. At the same time, it would have been realised that we no longer had a viable contact tracing system. Years of false economies in the NHS and GIG had rendered a previously exemplary service unfit for purpose. Yet the people who ran it were still out there and would have returned like a shot to rebuild it, given a chance. That they were not is down to the Tories' dogmatic belief that private enterprise is always better than public service. By the time the epidemic is over in the UK, over 70,000 people will have paid for that prejudice with their lives.

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Simulmatics: a warning from history

 Computer prediction of voting patterns or mass purchasing decisions is not that recent a development. It was fascinating to hear last week's Radio 4 serialisation of Jill Lepore's If Then. (The nerd in me kept wanting continuity announcers to pause between the two words, because they are two parts of a conditional sentence in COBOL, and some other high-level procedural programming languages: IF [condition] THEN [action].) The story goes back to 1959. As Waterstones blurb says:

Charting the history of Simulmatics, the first corporation dedicated to the prediction of human behavior and manipulation of data, If Then reveals the mid-twentieth century forebears to the companies rising out of Silicon Valley.

The Simulmatics Corporation, founded in 1959, mined data, targeted voters, accelerated news, manipulated consumers, destabilized politics, and disordered knowledge - decades before Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Cambridge Analytica. Silicon Valley likes to imagine it has no past but the scientists of Simulmatics are the long-dead grandfathers of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk.

Borrowing from psychological warfare, they used computers to predict and direct human behavior, deploying their "People Machine" from New York, Cambridge, and Saigon for clients that included John Kennedy's presidential campaign, the New York Times, Young & Rubicam, and, during the Vietnam War, the Department of Defense.

In If Then, distinguished Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer, Jill Lepore, unearths from the archives the almost unbelievable story of this long-vanished corporation, and of the women hidden behind it. In the 1950s and 1960s, Lepore argues, Simulmatics invented the future by building the machine in which the world now finds itself trapped and tormented, algorithm by algorithm.

If they had not overstretched by attempting to predict the future of Vietnam, Simulmatics may still be with us today and as the holding oompany for Facebook. Cambridge Analytica would not have arisen.  Rather like Babbage in the 19th century, the moving spirits of the company foresaw the future of computing but were limited by the technology of the time.

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

That worked out well, didn't it?


This is from a Conservative campaign letter addressed to my younger daughter who came on to the Neath electoral roll in time for the 1997 election. It is a reminder that it was that nice Mr Major who was responsible for the worst of the privatisations (British Rail) and for initiating the post office closure programme so enthusiastically continued by Blair-Brown. Time has also shown how specious were the original arguments for privatisation.

Government protects slave-owner statues

 Well, actually it doesn't. The proposed changes to planning legislation will have no effect on "baying mobs". Besides, the worst of the hysteria has passed. A reasonable compromise, relying on the good sense of local authorities and of their electorate seems to have been reached. Memorials to the most egregious exploiters of slaves have been removed from public view while statues of those whose involvement with the trade is more tangential and far outweighed by their good works have been allowed to remain. Context has been added in many cases. 

The Conservatives used to highlight a policy of "town hall, not Whitehall". They rightly mistrusted putting too much decision-making in the hands of a central authority. That began to change under Thatcher and has been decisively reversed under Johnson. The principle of good governance has been forgotten in favour of throwing red meat to those who want to strike back at the Black Lives Matter movement. The proposed legislation is at best pointless. It also adds to bureaucracy. At worst, it is tendentious.

Monday, 18 January 2021

We once "owned" Panama

According to one source, on January 18 1671, Welsh privateer Henry Morgan captured Panama on behalf of England and was knighted in spite of his ruthless techniques. Wikipedia gives the date of completion of the capture as 27th January but casts doubt on the value of the enterprise. The date discrepancy may be due to the fact that England and Wales did not change to the Gregorian calendar until September 1752.

Sunday, 17 January 2021

I miss conversations on trains

 The news item that the pandemic has forced cuts in train services in England and Wales reminded me of one of the incidental pleasures of long train journeys. One could catch up on reading the book which had too long rested on the bedside table, enjoy the varied views through the window or even snooze, but the most rewarding activity was striking up a conversation with someone interesting who one otherwise would never have met. 

There was the cricket enthusiast who I met travelling to my first job in London. There was the Welsh athletics official who shared his enthusiasm with my new wife and myself travelling from London to Swansea. (I do hope he was not one of those later convicted of taking advantage of his position.) Many years later, post-marriage and travelling back from a contract in England, I got talking to a lady who coincidentally lived in the same road in Wallasey where in my school years I had boarded with my aunt, uncle and granddad. It was gratifying to learn that all those years later, "The Cottage Creamery" remained open on the corner with the main road. I wonder if it still does? 

The most intriguing chat I had was with a man who ferried cars. He would pick up a motor and deliver it personally to the dealer's or manufacturer's customer, then take the train back. It is sobering to recall now that he revealed towards the end of our journey that he was already in his eighties. Even if I could drive, I doubt that I could take that responsibility and keep up that schedule and I have not quite hit the magic four-score yet.

I had almost forgotten the American family I met on a crowded train either travelling to or from Birmingham, presumably while I was on a family visit. Of course, one meets only the civilised Americans in this country, the minority with passports. This makes it difficult to understand how there came to be a majority of electoral college votes in favour of Trump in 2016. More extensive TV news coverage of American politics has made the situation clearer. Anyway, this meeting was in the Carter years and my new acquaintances were a bit sniffy about the Georgia "mafia" who had accompanied the ex-peanut farmer to Washington. I took them to be liberal Republicans. I wonder what they made of Trump.

Journeys have diminished as the contracts dried up and I do not see as much of my family as I used to. Apart from the occasional trip to Cardiff to watch the cricket. the only other train journeys I have made have been to political events. Sadly, these too have been suspended until we reach the new normality. Let us hope that it is not too far away.

Saturday, 16 January 2021

Tell Jacob Rees-Mogg to let parliament scrutinise Brexit

Thanks to the European Movement UK for forwarding this:

The most significant trade deal in recent history was rushed through parliament in less than a dayIt has never been more important for the Brexit deal and its impact to be examined.

Yet the government is denying MPs any chance to scrutinise Boris Johnson’s deal. This is a threat to democratic accountability.

Brexit will affect the everyday lives of people and businesses across the UK. As a representative of the people, Parliament should have the right to scrutinise this deal.

Sign this petition and tell Jacob Rees-Mogg to reverse this decision and to keep the committee that will scrutinise Brexit.

Share on: Facebook | Twitter | Email

It seems to me that even if you voted last winter for a government intent on Brexit, you would want the process to be monitored and scrutinised by our representatives in Parliament. There was not a clean break on New Year's Day, in spite of the promises given by Johnson, Gove and others. There are still ambiguities to be removed, areas (like financial services) which are still open to negotiate and procedures which can be made more efficient. No doubt the committee would be on the whole critical, but it would be constructive too. Johnson himself has admitted to "teething problems"

To suppress this particular committee is undemocratic. 

Friday, 15 January 2021

Spooks' crime licence attenuated, but not enough

The local party website recently reported that Lib Dem peers were intent on removing the worst aspects of the government Bill which would give our spooks licence to commit crime. Mark Pack now confirms that 

Liberal Democrat peers have helped to pass cross-party amendments to the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill, as the number of Government defeats on the controversial new law rose to four.

A cross-party amendment (Amendment 15), co-sponsored by Liberal Democrat peer Lord Paddick, places limits on the types of crimes that can be authorised under the Bill – ruling out murder, torture and sexual assault. It was passed by 299 votes to 284.

No mention is made of drug offences. One can see incentive for under-cover officers to get involved in handling illegal narcotics etc. when investigating drug gangs, but as a recent documentary shows, there are dangers in allying with drug barons for other reasons. The United States made this mistake twice, in Sicily in 1944 and during her campaigns in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, resulting in the drug pandemic which gripped the States thereafter. 

We have bad trouble with illegal drugs already. If the UK electorate is not yet ready to accept decriminalisation, then nothing should be done to make trafficking easier.

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Put pharmacies in the front line against the virus

 The English NHS is mismanaging the roll-out of the two vaccines available to combat SARS/CoV2. It is not listening to the GP practices which are able to inoculate their patients expeditiously while targeting for delivery vaccination hubs and even some large clinics which are not as ready. However, the Westminster government is dipping its toe in the water of distribution by high street pharmacy. So far, only six large pharmacies are involved.

Unless there is some clause in the devolution settlement which prevents such an initiative, I believe the Welsh government should go further. They should heed the pleas of the Natonal Pharmacy Association:

At present, pharmacies have to be able to deliver 1,000 vaccines a week, have enough fridge space to store all the doses, and be able to open seven days a week.

Andrew Lane, of the National Pharmacy Association, said now that the Oxford vaccine had been approved, community pharmacies could store and administer it in the same way as they deliver the flu jab.

The Oxford vaccine only needs to be stored at fridge temperature, as opposed to the freezer temperatures of -70C required by Pfizer.

"We're here, we're trained, we will deliver," said Mr Lane

Pharmacies are probably as in touch with local communities as GPs. They are more likely to be within walking distance for people in Wales, thus reducing the dependence on public transport. Permitting all those pharmacies which already administer the 'flu jab to vaccinate against the new virus will take pressure off GPs who were already stretched even before the pandemic.

They do not make any profit from work they do for the NHS, so in some cases the Welsh government may have to extend the support it already gives to small businesses, but surely that is a small price to pay for a more effective vaccination programme.

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Help for small businesses in the emergency

 Liberal Democrats in Westminster continue to fight for support for the small businesses which have fallen through the cracks in government support during the pandemic. However, the latest initiative, to help with posting costs, may prove marginal given the current performance of Royal Mail.

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Lucy Hale, composer

 Lucy Hale, a young British composer liberated from a disability by IT and with a promising future, has died. I am indebted to Elaine Fine's Musical Assumptions blog for passing on the sad news - indeed, for introducing me to Lucy Hale at all. I cannot recall her bring featured on Radio 3 at all, but the string of commissions listed here attest to her standing in the musical world. 

There is more here, including a link to ten of her haunting compositions.

Saturday, 9 January 2021

EU and protectionism

 Continuing yesterday's theme of what the UK can do outside the restrictions of the European customs union, there is at least one useful thing which we can do for poorer countries. While the EU is better than most at allowing in basic foodstuffs, there are barriers to finished products. An example is chocolate. The Netherlands agency for promoting imports to the EU has identified semi-finished products such as cocoa butter, which are allowed, as a growth area. We could go further in helping cocoa-growing countries in accepting packaged chocolate bars etc. on which there is a greater profit margin.

We have at least rolled over 60 of the 70 EU trade agreements which were in force at the time of Brexit, many of which help the third world. From a European Parliament fact sheet of November 2019:

The EBA [Everything but arms] initiative grants duty-free and quota-free access for an unlimited period for all products, except arms and ammunition, imported from 48 LDCs [Least Developed Countries]. Of these, 34 are African countries, eight are Asian countries, five are Pacific countries and one is in the Caribbean (Haiti).

It would help if Brexiteers refrained from distorting the facts. Daniel Kawcynski MP for instance has been caught out in a lie about EU tariffs on non-EU producers.

Friday, 8 January 2021

Andrew RT Davies misspeaks

 I would not go as far as Labour in calling for the former Tory leader in the Senedd to be suspended. However, his likening peaceable and constitutional Remain supporters to the violent insurrectionists on Capitol Hill this week needs an official rebuttal and quickly. There is a danger that "Remainer" is going to go the same way as "Liberal" in the States as a pejorative with bad overtones. 

And what is it with Brexiteers? There was the case only last week of John Redwood's warming over some economic arguments against the EU using carefully selected statistics. They won, and should get over it. Are they trying to distract attention from the already broken promises of Gove, Johnson and Cummings by raking up old arguments and new lies about the Remain campaign?

I am prepared to look for the (admittedly scant) positives of leaving the Union and move forward. Why do the Brexiteers not move on too?

Thursday, 7 January 2021

Washington DC, twinned with Bangul

 In an election widely seen as the most democratic in the republic's history, in spite of intimidation leading to violence at a few polling stations, a presidential challenger wins by a narrow majority. Almost immediately after the declaration, there is an insurrection believed to have been fomented by the ousted president with the aim of regaining power by force. This is the scenario in many a third-world nation in recent years, the latest example being in the Central African Republic. Conservatives in the West viewing the footage of the riots might typically use such words as "savages" or more kindly "immature", "children".

One would not expect to see almost identical footage streamed from the capital of the self-proclaimed leader of the free world. Most shocking of all was the image of guns being drawn in the chamber of the Capitol building. One shudders to think what might have occurred if Washington DC did not have the strictest gun control laws in the States. 

Questions are already being asked about the lack of preparedness by the authorities. There is a contrast between the show of force by the administration in response to peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations and the laissez-faire attitude to security when it was known that President Trump was encouraging civil disobedience and that his fans were going further on social media. In spite of denials by the Department of Defense, the Mayor of Washington is adamant that his request to deploy the National Guard was rejected by the administration.

Order has now been restored and the formal procedures for anointing the new president have resumed, but the world will have been looking on in astonishment. The US claim to be a beacon of democracy, to justify her military adventures on the grounds of bringing freedom and order to less fortunate parts of the globe, already shaky, will hardly be believed any more.

And what of other Western democracies which have fallen under the spell of populist leaders whose ineptitude has been exposed by the hard realities of government? Will these now go quietly when they are rejected by their people at the next election? Would London's under-funded police be able to withstand a rabble roused by the likes of Farage and Cummings?

Covid-19: DfT acts twelve months too late

 The UK's Department for Transport is considering applying the same sort of preventative measures against SARS/CoV2 as Taiwan did in January 2020 and as New Zealand did a month later.

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

Israel's world-beating vaccination programme

 Israel has inoculated virtually 12% of her population against the SARS/CoV-2 virus, well ahead of Bahrain at 3.5% and the UK, who started first, on 1.5%. Questions have been raised about the low priority given to Palestinians, but it is still an outstanding achievement. The Irish Times explains how Israel managed to obtain sufficient supplies of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine in order to accomplish her programme. 

There was another factor brought out by an Israeli spokesperson on Radio 4's PM programme on Monday: universal healthcare. According to wikipedia, "Healthcare in Israel is universal and participation in a medical insurance plan is compulsory. All Israeli residents are entitled to basic health care as a fundamental right. [...] In a survey of 48 countries in 2013, Israel's health system was ranked fourth in the world in terms of efficiency"

On PM, Evan Davies protested that the UK also has universal healthcare. Well, up to a point. Although Israel's services are delivered by independent providers in the same way as France's or Germany's, they do seem to be less fragmented and uncoordinated than the UK's. Most importantly, they are well-staffed. Stumbling and Mumbling on the same issue says:

There is much talk of how Covid is putting pressure on the NHS. Such talk, however, often misses an important fact – that although NHS capacity is more or less fixed in the short-term, it is certainly not in the long-run. And past political choices have limited this capacity. For example, the UK has 2.8 doctors for every 1000 people compared to an average of three in OECD countries generally

The figure of Israel is 3.6. I have little doubt that the ratio for other health-care workers, nurses, laboratory staff and other ancillaries, shows a similar superiority over ours.

Tuesday, 5 January 2021

Codes of Conduct

 Notwithstanding Peter Black's optimism over the Priti Patel affair, the evidence is that codes of conduct have proved not to be as effective as their authors believe. The ministerial code did not deter Patel, nor her leader before her when Johnson resumed writing for the Daily Telegraph without informing the parliamentary watchdog as he should have done. 

Codes of conduct can range from the unexceptionable to the all-embracing, even oppressive. However strong they appear to be, there must be cast-iron sanctions for breaching them if they are to be taken seriously. The record of the Johnson government shows that the current ministerial code is about as strong as a pair of paper knickers.

Dismissal is an effective sanction in business. However, if the company's code of conduct is not carefully and reasonably framed, the employer could end up in court or in front of an employment tribunal. Besides, the employer him- or herself must be sure that they have not breached the code!

Codes of conduct promulgated by voluntary organisations are a different matter. One such is that insisted on by the Welsh Liberal Democrats from all their candidates in national elections. There is practically no remedy at law in the event of a dispute between whoever controls the state party and a candidate whom they deem to have transgressed, because, once elected, there is nothing the party can do to stop the new member from serving out their term and therefore there is no immediate financial penalty. 

There is, though, at its basest level, the threat of deselection and thus the loss of party backing at the next election. More important in my opinion is the threat of expulsion from the only party whose stated aims match ones own, and from the Liberal Democrat family. All this at the whim of the "state party" (that is, whoever holds executive power in the Welsh Liberal Democrats - in this case - at the time).

I hold the old-fashioned view that the existing approval process, involving face-to-face assessments, is strong enough to make a firm judgment on a candidate's character. Thereafter, he or she should be trusted to conduct themselves appropriately. If I wanted to be a compliant unquestioning cog in a centrally-directed machine, I would have joined the Labour party. 

As framed, the code of conduct gives too much scope to the executive to change policy and punish those who do not swing with them. Younger members who I have discussed this with are comfortable with it, seeing it as unexceptionable. I take comfort from the fact that my disquiet is shared by an eminent Liberal who is a strong proponent of the party's ethos of individual liberty. To be sure, there are many "mam and cawl" clauses which one cannot object to - but why is there a need to sign up to them specifically? And surely clause 13, "You must not bring, or risk bringing, the Party into disrepute" is already covered by not only clauses 1 and 2 but ones very membership of the party?

There are more dubious clauses. For instance, "You must give consent to and provide the details necessary for the Party to undertake (or to authorise an approved third party to undertake) an audit of your social media profile when requested."  Would you give the keys of your house or car to a stranger? I have a good idea of how far my personal details will go if I share them with those people I know and respect within the local party and region, but what about the people at HQ? There is an even greater risk of data insecurity at election time when young and inexperienced people are drafted in to help. 

"You must abide by the Party’s internal selection and election rules, and by any other Code of Conduct that has been signed up to by the Party." Does this bind the candidate to any future changes willy-nilly? The clause is ambiguous.

"If asked by your state party, you must complete a post-election review after each general election, whether or not you stood as a candidate." Unnecessary bureaucracy.

"If asked by your state party, you must agree a Candidate Compact with the local party (or parties) within three months of being selected as the prospective parliamentary candidate for a seat." More bureaucracy, involving not only the candidate but also the local party which could well do without the extra form-filling.

" If elected, and if asked by your state party, you must make a reasonable contribution towards ongoing party activity, which will include a financial element [...]" A system of tithing has been mandated by a Liberal Democrat conference in the past, but was widely ignored. It was, though, fairer in specifying a proportion of an elected person's earnings rather than the ambiguous "reasonable contribution". One man's reasonable amount is another's unbearable imposition. I was happy to give monthly a proportion of my councillor's allowance to the local party, but I am a single man with no longer any family commitments. It would be different for an individual with a young family and a partner who might have to give up a job because of the increased demands on the other's time - or an individual caring for a dependent relative.

"You must appoint an election agent who has been trained and certified by the Party, provided that a suitable person is available and willing to undertake the role." The point has been made that electoral law is changing at an increasing pace and that it is therefore necessary to have a certified trained person in the role. However, there is no substitute for experience and I would rather have an experienced agent who satisfies me that he (or she) has kept up to date with the legal requirements than someone who is merely fresh off a training course. Besides, the clause as worded impies that if no trained agent is available then the candidate must be their own agent, which all the agents manuals I have seen down the years warn against.

One of those fellow-members I discussed the code with advised that it was unenforceable and therefore I should sign it and not worry too much about its proviions. But it goes against the grain to promise something with no intention of fulfilling the promise when it came to the point. We have had a party leader who did that and much harm came to the Lib Dem cause as a result. That raises a question: Nick Clegg and company would have in coalition failed the provisions of the proposed code of conduct and not just over student fees. Would the English party have taken action?

So my future as a parliamentary candidate is in doubt, but as the code does not apply to local elections I propose to put my hat in the ring as a councillor again.


Monday, 4 January 2021

The first American-born saint

Today is the feast day of Elizabeth Ann Seton who died 200 years ago. She was canonised in 1963 and is the patron "of in-law problems, against the death of children, widows, death of parents, and opposition of Church authorities".


Sunday, 3 January 2021

Politics trumps science (2)

 There was a natural reaction in China to the sort of fake news emanating from the Trump administration (the Sun has an example here). BBC News reports that a senior politician there has countered that SARS/CoV-2 arose spontaneously all over the world. 

It is true that retrospective analsyis has shown that the virus must have been active in France and Italy before it was identified in Wuhan, but otherwise the physical evidence is against the minister. Analysis of the bug's genome positively establishes that it originated in SE Asis in a bat species, and that it must have jumped (possibly via another mammal) to a human or humans in that area. What is in doubt is that this happened in Wuhan rather than an adjacent province or country with whom China trades. The travellers who carried the virus to Italy and France may have come from another area of China and were possibly symptomless. 

It is to be hoped that politicial considerations do not hobble the WHO's investigation of the source of the pandemic. If I were China's president I would change the message. I would point out that it was Chinese scientists who had warned for years that such a species jump was bound to happen, and that the West just did not listen. It was Chinese scientists who identified the virus in Wuhan when the few fatal cases in Europe were ascribed to pneumonia. China, admittedly after a fortnight's delay, released details of the genome to the world early in January last year allowing companies round the world to start work on vaccines. With a handful of notable exceptions, Western governments did nothing for two months. The noise from Trump now is clearly driven by the desire to cover up post-Obama complacency.

Saturday, 2 January 2021

Lidl goes veggie

 The chill cabinets in Lidl this weekend are dominated by vegan and vegetarian meals, and the theme is echoed in other aisles. The supermarket regularly has special weeks, usually dedicated to the specialities of another nation, but I don't recall a takeover on this scale before. Is the anti-meat movement gaining more support than we anticipated?

More relevant to me is the slashing of the price of coffee beans. Half-price is an offer not to be missed.

Friday, 1 January 2021

Politics trumps science

 We had a right to expect that the New Year would bring a more responsible approach to government on the part of Boris Johnson and his advisors. After all, he has a comfortable working majority and has, as the man who delivered Brexit, seen off potential rivals within the Conservative party for the foreseeable future. However, he still seems sensitive to what the tabloid press might say about him.

He is clearly worried that the target of inoculations against SARS/CoV2 set by himself and Matt Hancock might not be met. He has got the agreement of government health experts (including, worryingly, Wales' chief medical officer) to increase the gap between the first and the final booster dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in order to increase the number of jabs which can be made in the first month of the programme. This is against the advice of the company, which stresses that their product has been tested only with a 21 day gap and that it has been certified by health administrations only on that basis. More significantly, the BMA, which represents the doctors on the front line, has strenuously objected. Fortunately, as the New York Times has reported, many doctors have insisted on sticking to the original schedule. 

Coronaviruses are tricky customers, as the attempts to produce a virus against SARS1 showed. That is all the more reason to stick with what has been shown to work, rather than mess with the parameters. Johnson is proceeding on the basis of assumptions, much as he did last February when he failed to use the much-vaunted "control of our own borders" to prevent the invasion of SARS/CoV2 in the first place. 

There is a bright spot in that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine which becomes available in Wales next week has been shown to work with gaps longer than 21 days (indeed, there is a suggestion that it might be more effective with a longer gap). There is still, though, the danger of only partial protection after the first shot and therefore the necessity for a longer period of social distancing.

I am inclined under those circumstances to decline an offer of vaccination if made in the immediate future and wait for an unrestricted roll-out of both vaccines.

In the meantime, I have signed up for one of the ONS's Covid-19 tests to see whether I have had a brush with the virus without knowing it - and, of course, adding to the government's statistical base.