Saturday, 27 February 2021

Foot-and-mouth disease: the advice ignored in 2001

It is now twenty years since the first foot-and-mouth disease (F&M) infection in Wales was detected in a sheep at an abattoir on Anglesey. As this BBC summary shows, the initial outbreak in England could have been controlled better and, later, the spread in Wales could have been restricted.

The foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001 proved a classic example of how to turn a crisis into a fully-fledged copper-bottomed disaster. It meant the deaths of nearly four million animals in the UK, and destroyed thousands of farmers' livelihoods. It brought devastation to much of the tourist industry and the rural economy. But there was little reason for it to turn out like that.

The British Government's first mistake was to think, in the earliest days of the outbreak, that it was dealing with a disease that was mainly affecting pigs. Foot-and-mouth spreads rapidly among pigs, and once the disease enters a herd it can cause havoc. But pigs tend not to be moved around the country as much as sheep.

It now looks as if the disease had infected very few sheep at that stage, perhaps fewer than 20 animals. But the second mistake was not to place an instant ban on the movement of farm animals.

Clearly, the Westminster government ignored, or did not seek, expert advice on the disease. It is not as if there were no farmers and vets around with first-hand experience of the previous major outbreak of F&M. I recall discussing the situation with a vet in private practice, a fellow Liberal Democrat, who had been a junior veterinary officer with the then Ministry of Agriculture when F&M struck in 1967.

But the coalition government in Cardiff is not free of blame. Recognising the danger, Liberal Democrat AM, farmer Mick Bates, picked up the phone to the Labour agriculture minister as soon as the news of the Essex case became widely-known, pleading for livestock movement in Wales to be controlled and for livestock markets to be cancelled. He was ignored. It is unlikely that he was the only Cassandra with expert knowledge.

Now there is an automatic ban on cattle, sheep and swine movements when there is F&M about. But so much heartache could have been avoided if governments had listened to the science in 2001.

Friday, 26 February 2021

Post-Brexit trade with Ireland hindered by zealous officials

CBI Wales is complaining that 

Welsh exports to Ireland are being blocked by extra paperwork and costs at customs [...] the authorities in the Republic of Ireland were "zealous" when checking goods which was "causing some delays."

The Irish government has declared that it is keen on facilitating trade between the two countries, and it is clearly in their interest to do so given the close links pre-Brexit. However, what politicians and executives in the capital aspire to and what local functionaries feel is their job at the sharp end are too different matters. 

Brexiteers were warned against such disparities during Mrs May's negotiations, though when I did so I had French jobsworths in mind rather than the Irish. It is now up to governments in London, Dublin and Cardiff to sort this out before more Welsh businesses go to the wall.

Thursday, 25 February 2021

Postal vote

 With just one exception, when I was working away from home, I have always made a point of voting in person. I made a resolution that, as long as I was capable of walking to the polling station, I would continue to do so. However, the Covid19 emergency has compelled me to take the precaution of applying for a postal vote for the next year or so. It is just possible that the emergency might effectively be over by the time of the next Welsh elections, but I do not want to be caught out.

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Unapologetic Rachmaninov and a distinctive voice from New Zealand

 This blog has previously suggested that our public service broadcaster has been slow to take advantage of the fact that New Zealand has been able to mount orchestral performances for some time now with minimal anti-viral restrictions. At last, Radio 3 this week features afternoon concerts by New Zealand orchestras.

However, these seem to be restricted to recordings from 2018. Perhaps the reason for not relaying anything live or nearly live is that New Zealand Symphony and Auckland Philharmonic Orchestras are pushing their own streaming services and are slow to share their performances with broadcasters.

Be that as it may, it was still refreshing to indulge in an unhurried performance of Rachmaninov's Second Symphony on Radio 3 yesterday. That was followed by the first movement  (only! those bleeding chnnks again) of a violin concerto by Claire Cowan, a name new to me but clearly someone who can yet innovate within the tonal orchestral tradition. Like Germaine Tailleferre (mentioned on this blog before) Cowan has a broad audience, including children. Clearly someone to follow.

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

No bubbles for England & Wales women cricketers

 Apart from sporadic local outbreaks, which are quickly stamped on, New Zealand is enjoying a period free of Covid-19 worries. As a result, our women cricketers are enjoying a practically normal tour.

Sitting alongside team-mate Danni Wyatt at England’s base in Queenstown ahead of the start of a three-match ODI series against New Zealand on Tuesday, Tammy Beaumont tells i: “We had to do two weeks of quarantine but after that it’s pretty much been normal life. You have to wear masks on planes around New Zealand but other than that it’s been a normal tour. It’s been lovely, just being able to go out for coffee and dinner and things.”

Whether their enjoyment off the field will be matched by success on it, against strong opposition, is another matter.

Saturday, 20 February 2021

SARS/CoV2 investigation: politics interferes

 As feared, the Chinese state has prevented the Wuhan scientists from cooperating fully with the WHO investigation team. As I understand it, the raw data from the earliest known cases of Covid-19 would have provided "audit trail" evidence in establishing the point at which the coronavirus leapt from wild mammal to human. The summary granted by the Chinese authorities is insufficient.

It may be that there is something about the nature of the original interface which they find embarrassing, say a breakdown in public health in the location concerned. More likely, the RNA sequencing may disprove the Chinese spin machine's assertion that the coronavirus originated in the West. Either way, the lack of transparency is going to lead to conspiracy theories hinting at a scenario which will show China in an ever worse light.

Friday, 19 February 2021

Skewen flood victims to sue Coal Authority

 All but three of the families stricken by the outburst from old mine workings on the 21st January now have access to their homes. However, they will need more than the £500 "garden repair"grant offered to each of them by the Coal Authority to restore their properties to anything like the condition they were in before the flood hit. Accordingly, there is a move by some residents to sue the Coal Authority for realistic compensation which is bound to be upwards of a few thousand pounds per property. 

The Coal Authority may well be able to defend itself on the basis that it is not liable in law for the flood. However, the Coal Authority Framework Document of April 2019 (pdf here) states that:

The Authority works to protect the public and the environment in mining areas in England, Wales and Scotland. It is working towards becoming a world leader in resolving the impacts of mining.


Its specific statutory responsibilities are associated with:  

 licensing coal mining operations in Britain

 handling subsidence damage claims relating to former coal workings which are not the responsibility of licensed coalmine operators

 managing property and historic liability issues, such as surface hazards and treatment of minewater discharges relating to former coal workings

 providing public access to information on past and present coal mining operations [my emphasis]

So there is clearly a moral duty to accept responsibility. As I understand it, the Authority is financially well-endowed, so there should be no trouble in meeting the residents' requirements. One trusts that a settlement can be reached, using arbitration if necessary, rather than going to court, a process which will benefit lawyers more than either party.

The Coal Authority needs to be more proactive in future, considering that climate change will ensure that England and Wales are going to be subject to increased rainfall for some time to come. It seems that a frequently-updated survey of the many old mine shafts hereabouts is essential to head off future disasters.

Thursday, 18 February 2021

Pothole issues will get worse

This Discovery article is borne out of American experience, but the message that

Cold, heat, stress and moisture are some of asphalt's worst enemies. Roads are likely to see more damage as climate change brings higher temperatures and more extreme weather swings.

clearly has implications for local authorities and highway agencies in the UK. 

More grist to the mill of traditional Lib Dem campaigns.

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Nigerian victims of oil pollution will get their day in court

 Years ago, when the catastrophic accident concerning BP's drilling in the Gulf of Mexico dominated the headlines, I drew attention to the plight of Nigerian citizens who also suffered from malign side-effects of oil exploitation. The blog post had some effect locally - I heard it being discussed in a Neath bus queue a few days later - but the wider community quickly lost interest in the story. When the High Court in England ruled four years ago that farmers affected by the oil spills could not sue in the courts of London, where Shell shares are quoted, it seemed that their cause was lost. The Court of Appeal upheld that decision. 

However, 2021 has brought two items of cheer. Firstly, the Hague Court of Appeals has ruled that Shell Nigeria is liable for damages caused by oil pipeline links. (The Anglo-Dutch parent, Royal Dutch Shell, is headquartered in the Netherlands.) Secondly, the Supreme Court last Friday overturned those rulings of the High Court and Court of Appeal.

Any award will come too late for many who have lost their livelihoods and maybe their lives, but thousands of victims will get their day in court which has been denied so long.

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Two great losses

 I should like to add my own small words of regret and condolence to those of my fellow local Lib Dem members and friends at the passing of Hywel Francis. My own conversation with Dr Francis was a brief one conducted by email over a point where the official Labour line was distinctly illiberal. His replies to me were honest and his own, not from a party template. While not grandstanding as so many so-called rebels have done, he declined to support his party in the relevant votes on the matter. He was a man of principle, a vanishing breed in today's politics.

Nor should we forget Doug Mountjoy, whose death was also announced last Sunday. He was not as much at home in front of the TV cameras as so many of his fellow snooker stars, but one sensed a genuine warmth of personality. He also had a quiet determination. He arrested a decline in form by finding a sports guru who enabled him to remodel his cue action and gain a few more competitive years before he retired.

Monday, 15 February 2021

The other D-day

 Fifty years ago today the UK's money went decimal, only 122 years after the first tentative steps were taken with the introduction of the florin.

Saturday, 13 February 2021


The Welsh government is determined that the next general election will go ahead on the 6th May as scheduled. 

However, traditional canvassing is out. Here, as a reminder of happier times, is a cartoon from the much-missed Gren.


Friday, 12 February 2021

Aussie tennis fans Covid-19 ban blamed on poor quarantine hotel management

 The state of Victoria has imposed a 5-day lockdown because of an outbreak of SARS/CoV2. Among the public gatherings banned is the Australian Open tennis tournament, which will continue for at least five days without the presence of fans. It is reported that the Kent mutation of the virus is responsible for the outbreak which started in a quarantine hotel. These hotels have been set up to enable the isolation of returning Australian citizens. The concept is being brought to the UK by the Johnson government, but, considering that the Victoria outbreak is not the first in an Australian quarantine hotel, perhaps it should be looked at again more carefully.

It has been suggested that the hotel air-conditioning system is at fault. Certainly, compromised air-conditioning systems have in the past been found to have spread bacteria, most notably legionella (a form of pneumonia). Unlike a bacterium, a virus would not normally survive long outside a host, but it appears that coronaviruses are particularly hardy beasts, surviving in aerosols for up to three hours or nine days on some hard surfaces. My thoughts immediately turned to the spread in the DVL building in Morriston which incorporated a (novel for the time, as I recall) combined heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) system when it was built. 

However, there was some reassurance in this paper from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) which suggests that well-designed HVACs may actually be of help in impeding the spread of coronavirus. Interestingly, that paper fingers restaurants among other closed spaces as hotspots of infection, which rather makes a nonsense of the distinction made by ministers of health in both Westminster and Cardiff between pubs and restaurants when imposing restrictions.


Thursday, 11 February 2021

Racist abuse in football

 Just a day after I posted about Neil Taylor's mentoring role, the major discouraging factor for players of an Asian background reared its head. Yan Dhanda, Swansea City's midfielder whose father is Punjabi, came in for racist abuse on his Instagram account after the FA Cup defeat by Manchester City. Swans' official response was commendably swift and robust. 

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

The omens are not good for Prevent

Peter Black has frequently drawn attention to the financial corruption which surrounds the Johnson government. In particular, the current Covid-19 epidemic has given many opportunities for contracts to be awarded to friends or family members of people close to government and to donors to the Conservative party. Little regard seems to have been paid to the capability of the contractors in question.

There has also been an insidious corruption of the machinery of government by the introduction of advisers and Quango executives on a doctrinaire basis. A recent example has been the appointment of a former director of a neoconservative think-tank to head a review of Prevent, the government's anti-terrorism programme. This was set up as part of the CONTEST strategy established by the Blair-Brown administration and continued under succeeding Conservative prime ministers.

Middle East Eye voices its concerns:

In February last year, the Home Office said it was committed to appointing a reviewer through an open and transparent process after human rights campaigners threatened it with further legal action.

However, the future of the review, which the government first committed to two years ago, has been uncertain ever since. In May the government pushed back a legal deadline for its completion from August last year until August 2021.

Shawcross's appointment is unlikely to be welcomed by campaigners who have raised concerns that Prevent is discriminatory against Muslims and who say that a fully independent review must consider whether the strategy ought to be scrapped altogether. Shawcross is a former trustee and director member of the Henry Jackson Society, a controversial neoconservative think-tank that has been accused of stoking Islamophobia. He is currently a senior fellow at the right-wing Policy Exchange think tank.

During his tenure as head of the Charity Commission from 2012 to 2018 the regulator was accused of unfairly targeting Muslim charities during a period when many organisations were involved in sending aid to rebel-held areas of Syria. The commission denied targeting Muslims or any other religion or type of charity.

Commenting on the appointment on Twitter, Miqdaad Versi, a spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain, drew attention to comments attributed to Shawcross in 2012 when he has been quoted as saying: "Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future. I think all European countries have vastly, very quickly growing Islamic populations".

Versi said the MCB, an umbrella group representing about 500 Muslim organisations, had initially welcomed the government's commitment to a review of Prevent and had faced criticism for doing so.

"They were roundly criticised by many for implicitly trusting that this would be done fairly. It seems the critics were right," he said.

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Neil Taylor's quest

 It was good to hear the ex-Wrexham, ex-Swansea City and Welsh international left-back on Radio 4 this morning explaining his latest project. He is backing the Professional Footballers Association drive to encourage more players like himself with a sub-continental background to take up the sport professionally. At present, the number of players of Asian heritage involved in the Premier League and Football League can be counted on ones fingers. It was a blow to Swansea City to lose Taylor to Aston Villa, but one suspects that he is now in a better place to further his plans, given the large Asian population of Birmingham, not to mention other English Midland cities.

Monday, 8 February 2021

Self-protection or war crimes?

 Benjamin Netanyahu describes the ICC's proposed investigation of the actions of Israel's army in Gaza as "pure anti-Semitism". If he truly believes that he was doing no more than protection of Israel's citizens in a police action, then he should welcome a judicial inquiry which would put to bed allegations to the contrary.

Sunday, 7 February 2021

Singing like an Egyptian

Having tuned in early to Channel 4 on Friday morning for the cricket, I caught the end of episode 5 of Ramy, a US comedy drama series. Set in New Jersey, this deals with the travails of a son of Egyptian immigrants and has proved a surprise hit in the US. The Channel 4 relay was merely washing over me until the end titles rolled and the opening words of the backing song threw my mind back in Proustian fashion to a room in an Army junior school in Tel-el-Kebir in the early 1950s. One of the girls had arranged with the head teacher to entertain us fellow pupils with a couple of Egyptian popular songs which she had learned. Even at the time it seemed to me that both her family and the school staff were quite enlightened to encourage her involvement with local popular culture. It should be borne in mind that we army families were in the process of being evacuated from the Suez Canal Zone after a violent uprising instigated by the Egyptian military. She would have learnt the songs before the evacuation (TEK was a garrison town) but even so, it was a bold step for those days. The opening words of the first song were "mish mumkin".

 The phrase turns out to mean "it's not possible". I do not have a clear memory of all the words of that song from seventy years ago, but I do remember one other phrase and the shape of the melody. The Ramy play-out was definitely different, but with a little effort I am sure I can find a translation of the lyrics from the wealth of material the TV series has generated. I am left wondering what the earlier song meant and whether that was suitable for a young girl. Indeed, whatever happened to the girl?

Saturday, 6 February 2021

Both Starmer and Johnson miss the point on the European Medicines Agency refers.

Prime minister Johnson in his cheap crack at PMQs this week implied that losing membership of the European Medicines Agency, formerly based in London was a good thing. Leader of the opposition-for-the-sake-of-opposition Keir Starmer, by falsely denying that he had ever publicly regretted the move, went along with that. 

Perhaps Johnson really did see the EMA as a dictatorial body in which the UK had no say, rather than the devolved advisory agency which it is. (By leaving it, the UK can no longer share the burden of evaluating human and veterinary medicines and will have to duplicate the EMA's effort in future.) Johnson never did have much interest in detail. But there should be no such excuse for Starmer. He has clearly completed the switch, begun under Corbyn, of Labour from supporting the EU to becoming a Europhobic party. 

The vaccine issue is a red herring. There was never any compulsion on member states to rely exclusively on a common EU approach to purchasing as Hungary has recently shown in respect of the Russian and Chinese products. 

Friday, 5 February 2021

More Brexit good news ... for some

 Mondelez, the US-based spin-off from Kraft, is to return production of many Cadbury-branded chocolate bars to Bournville. To ease the takeover in 2010, Kraft had given an informal undertaking that it would retain all production in the Midlands but lost no time in shifting production to cheaper facilities on the continent once it had control. Clearly, the additional red tape involved in importing the goods from the EU as a result of Brexit would nullify the advantages of cheaper production and Mondelez would not want to lose the lucrative British market. 

The immediate losers - apart from those interested in public health combating obesity - would seem to be the other brands which have no factories here and the supermarkets' own-label bars which rely on the bulk chocolate provider Barry Callebaut

The specialist manufacturer Hotel Chocolat also has its own factory in England and will see no change in its cost of production because of Brexit. However, it would appear that the company's expansion into continental Europe may well be affected.

Thursday, 4 February 2021

Reduction in tax havens: a possible benefit of Brexit?

 In just under a fortnight, the economic and finance ministers of the EU are to meet in video conference. On the agenda will probably be a vote of the European Parliament on the 22nd January to screen British Overseas Territories for inclusion on the EU's blacklist of tax havens.

Prominent in the line of fire will be the British Virgin Islands, which the ICIJ describes as "one of the world’s most popular tax havens" which

attracts legitimate business corporations, celebrities, multimillionaires, and criminals alike. The island offers cheap and simple shell companies that allow their owners to avoid registering their names in public.

While owning and piping money through BVI companies is legal, shell companies created on the island are a regular feature in the world’s most notorious scandals. BVI companies appeared in a $2 billion scheme in the name of a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the “corruption pact” that last week saw Israeli tycoon, Beny Steinmetz, sentenced to jail. 

 Allegations of corruption have now become too strong for the authorities to ignore:

BVI Governor Augustus Jaspert announced a commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of corruption and the misuse of millions of dollars in public funds.

The inquiry will focus on a range of claims and alarming discoveries. In a Facebook video posted during his last week as governor, Jaspert referred to accusations he heard during his time in office from officials, journalists and members of the public, including one case in which $40 million earmarked for COVID-19 relief was allegedly siphoned to political allies. In another case under investigation, the BBC reported, cocaine worth almost $250 million was found in the home of a local policeman.

There is more on the ICIJ web pages.

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Myanmar military coup had a forerunner

 The pretext for the military takeover in Myanmar and the arrest of government members and officials was of course specious. The overwhelming majority given to the National League for Democracy in the November elections could hardly have been achieved by fraud without it being obvious at the time. In fact, international observers, including the respected Carter Commission, observed no significant irregularities. The outcome credibly reflected the will of the people.

Some correspondents have drawn parallels with Donald Trump's unsuccessful attempt to prevent the inauguration of President Biden on similar, and equally dubious, grounds. But there is another country where insurgents cite electoral fraud. The UN has endorsed the result of the latest ballot in the Central African Republic, but it may be overturned by military force. CAR's future clearly hangs in the balance.

The closest recent analogue to Myanmar is Egypt. The military have been in charge there since the revolution which overthrew the monarchy in 1952. They not only hold civil power but also control large swathes of the economy. There was a brief glimmer of democracy in the wake of the Arab Spring, but a free vote returned a president - Mohammed Morsi - and a Muslim Brotherhood dominated government of which the army plutocrats did not approve.  So rather than wait for another election, they mounted a counter-revolution. This coup did not interrupt the flow of financial support from the USA. Perhaps Myanmar's c-in-c is hoping that, in spite of the rhetoric, the West will continue to support Burmese institutions. Signs so far are that he will be disappointed.

It is generally accepted that the Myanmar military is close to China. Reporters have drawn attention to the fact that shortly before the coup, the Chinese foreign minister visited Myanmar. He did meet Aung San Suu Kyi and signed some infrastructure deals with her, but afterwards met the man who went on to lead the revolution.

On the other hand, there are respected commentators who believe that China will not want to see a Myanmar regime which is clearly at odds with its people. They say that China appreciates stability and that will only come with a return to democracy.

Tuesday, 2 February 2021

Stray thoughts on Myanmar

Coincidentally (or perhaps not, because Anu Garg often comments obliquely on political situations) the Word of the Day yesterday was "Faustian".  Did Aung San Suu Kyi strike a Faustian bargain with Min Aung Hlain when she accepted continued military domination of the political process in  return for free elections in which she would undoubtedly achieve power de jure? It did seem unlikely that the person who delivered an eloquent speech to our parliament in defence of democracy and human rights should have her heart in the persecution of the Rohingya in Rakhine State

If that was so, the erstwhile commander-in-chief now has her body as well as her soul. 

A young Burmese speaking to a TV reporter movingly described his country's brief glimpse of democracy. We were a bird just learning how to fly, he said, then the military came along and broke our wings.

Monday, 1 February 2021

Former Bank of England governor to provide "Get out of jail free" card to polluters?

 DeSmog UK reports:

Many of the world’s most polluting companies are being handed a “get out of jail free” card by being invited to shape a scaled-up offsetting market, campaigners claim.

The Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets is due to publish its “roadmap for implementation” on Wednesday, four months after it was launched by former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, who is now a UN Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance.

Carney’s group wants to hugely scale up the existing market, making it “large, transparent, verifiable and robust”. This, it claims, will help private corporations meet the UK’s net zero target by 2050, in line with Paris Agreement targets to limit the worst impacts of climate change by restricting global warming to 1.5C or “well below” 2C.

But critics have questioned whether the taskforce’s membership – which includes oil majors, banks and airlines – is best placed to shape the future of that market, given their problematic histories of delivering carbon offsetting projects.