Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Lockdown diary, day 15

My wife makes me get on the scales, and as she suspected, I have put on weight while cooped up in the house and unable to be nearly as active as usual.

I am going to have to make a serious effort to lose it, not least because being overweight is a risk factor if one does get this blasted virus.

One positive step: I have a useful conversation with Colin Cox, the county councils director of public health.

Not going to publish the full conversation here but I am sure he would not mind me repeating that one of the wonderful things about how people have dealt with the Coronavirus in Cumbria is that throughout the county communities have come together to support one another, with huge numbers of people volunteering to help and businesses and individuals from Sellafield down to small SME's stepping up to the plate to help deal with the challenges we all face.

Colin says it would be wonderful if we could keep that up after the crisis is over and I agree.

Elections put back to 2021

The government had already made clear they were going to put back this year's elections, but yesterday they formally laid the regulations which will postpone all elections in England which would otherwise have taken place before 6th May 2021 to that date.

That includes Mayoral and PCC elections, scheduled local government elections and by-elections.

To the best of my knowledge the specific regulations which the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) wrote to councils about apply specifically to England: I presume the same will be done for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, though this may be a matter for the devolved bodies.

Obviously this will have caused some inconvenience to candidates and activists of all parties and independents, many people but I don't really see that the government had much choice.

Putting the elections back a year removes the risk of causing a double whammy by having to move them a second time if the COVID-19 situation has not eased by the autumn, and causes less disruption than holding them on any other date.

It's one of the few changes caused by Coronavirus which saves more money than it costs, as the elections can take place at the same time as those which were already scheduled for that date.

I don't see this as putting democracy second to fighting the disease - if the government had let the elections go ahead in May there would have been an atrocious turnout unless they could give everyone a postal vote, which there probably wasn't time to organise.

Far better to put the elections back a year and hold them properly with a decent turnout and opportunities to campaign than to hold a "stealth election" with no campaigning and very few people voting.

If it looks six months out like we might not be through the COVID-19 situation sufficiently to hold a normal election by May 2021 then arrangements should be put in place for all-postal voting.

A prayer for all in intensive care

The Church of England has released a prayer for all in intensive care in our hospitals at this time, including the PM.

Quote of the day April 7th 2020

Monday, April 06, 2020

Lockdown diary, day 14

A fortnight today since the announcement which effectively put the country into lockdown.

Worrying news that the PM himself, who made that announcement is now in intensive care.

It proves that this virus does not discriminate. Anyone can get it. None of us is invulnerable and we all need to follow the advice on social distancing and to wash our hands.

My masonic lodge, the oldest surviving one in the historic county of Cumberland, having celebrated it's 250th anniversary a couple of years back should have met tonight but did not. In fact all masonic activity in England and Wales and I believe the rest of Britain had already been suspended for four months by the masonic authorities themselves before the country went into lockdown.

Over the 252 years the lodge has been operating there have been a few meetings which have been missed, but never for a crisis like the one facing the world today. Instead we had a very moving message from the Master and secretary of the lodge.

Stay well, everyone

Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives.

Best wishes to Boris Johnson and his fiance

Sorry to hear that the PM is in intensive care.

I see that most people whether they voted for him or not have been wishing him a speedy recovery and I of course share those thoughts.

Thinking also of his fiancée Carrie Symonds, who is expecting her first child and herself is self-isolating with symptoms of COVID-19, for whom this must be a particularly difficult time.

Quote of tte day 6th April

This was supposed to be up at 6pm this morning but for some reason did not appear:

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Lockdown diary, day 13

Palm Sunday today.

Very strange not to be able to go to church. We said some prayers however.

And some more for Boris when we heard he has been advised by his doctor to go to hospital for tests.

As I understand it this advice was given because after ten days his coronavirus symptoms have not gone away, not because they have got worse. It was not an emergency admission.

I thought H.M. the Queen was magnificent this evening. Only someone with her long history of decades of service to the nation and the commonwealth and record of having stayed absolutely out of political faction fighting, could possibly have issued a message of such power, such a subtle and yet convincing reinforcement of the Social Distancing advice, and such strong reassurance that we will get through this and will be able to be with our friends and loved ones again.

Has the Leave Alliance twitter account been hacked?

As I've previously written here, I have up to now regarded the Leave Alliance, who unlike the official Leave campaign actually had a rational plan called "Flexcit" for what they wanted to happen in the event of a Leave vote, as the responsible wing of the Leave moment.

So I don't know what's happened to their twitter account this evening. It's put out some really sick stuff.

The sort of thing that the kind of Remain supporters who believe all Leave supporters are evil, stupid, or both might imagine that the most unpleasant kind of Leave supporting person might think.

I suspect that the Leave Alliance twitter account may have been hacked. Either that or they've made the mistake of letting a particularly unpleasant teenager or someone who thinks like one run it.

If they've not been hacked, or otherwise disown what's been put out in their name, I will have to revise downwards my opinion of them.

Helping Brits stranded abroad to get home

The government is stepping up plans to bring home Britons stranded overseas, ensuring airlines can continue to operate and bring people back home safely. 
  • Travellers are facing an unprecedented challenge on a global scale, and people are understandably desperate to get back to their homes and loved ones.
  • That is why the government is ramping up efforts to bring home thousands of travellers stranded overseas by Coronavirus with a new package of extra flights and 10 additional airlines joining its scheme to keep commercial routes open and get British people back to the UK.
  • This will help get the tens of thousands British nationals abroad back home – protecting them from coronavirus and making sure the most vulnerable are not left stranded.

The Queen's Coronavirus broadcast: 'We will meet again'

Sunday music spot: Bruckner's: "Locus iste" sung by Stanford Chamber Chorale

H.M. to address the nation this evening

For anyone who has not already picked this up, Her majesty the Queen is to make a pre-recorded broadcast to the nation at 8pm this evening.

Quote of the day 5th April 2020

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Lockdown diary, day 12

We have followed the direction from Matt Hancock and stayed inside today, clearing up clutter and moving furniture.

As a veteran of many conference calls, I think I spotted something finally happen today at the Downing Street press conference which I had anticipated for what seems like weeks, though it's only about eleven days.

One of the journalists who had joined online was called to ask a question, his image appeared on a monitor and showed him apparently speaking but no sound came.

Michael Gove told him that they couldn't hear him, and he started again and this time he was immediately audible.

I'd bet any money that he had been trying to talk "on mute."

One of the first disciplines that anyone who is used to conference calls learn is to turn off the microphone when you are not actually trying to speak, especially if there is any ambient noise at your location (including the sound of yourself typing as you make notes of the meeting; my boss is one of many people who seem to be able to hear the sound of a computer keyboard no matter how bad the connection is.) This is called being "on mute."

Some conference call systems have a default setting that people are on mute when they join and have to actively switch mute off, or have to have it deactivated by a conference call organiser, before they can speak.

However, people sometimes either forget to turn off the mute function when it's their turn to speak or are asked a question, or it takes them a moment to bring up the right window, get the mouse pointer to the right icon and click on it. And then you get an embarrassing silence. 

Hence I'd been wondering how long it would take before someone manged to be on mute when they were called to speak at the daily Coronavirus press conferences. So we have our answer - eleven days.

Something else which happened today is that the Journalist, former Sunday Times editor and TV personality Andrew Neil made a twitter post which included the word "pleniloquence."

Now, without false modesty I'm fairly widely read and used to people with a big vocabulary, so it is not all that often that I come across a word I've never seen of heard before.

Realising that a the medium-size dictionary I keep in my office at home might not include that word, I get up and went into the room which houses the reference section of my personal library, and picked up the Oxford Reference Dictionary, which is a massive tome, the size of two bricks side by side, to look up "pleniloquence."

It didn't include the word.

So I did a search for the definition of the word on the internet.


Indeed, having found the meaning I am quite surprised not to have ever had this word thrown at me.

Apparently it means incessant or excessive talking.

Must remember it for use at some point on one of the few people whose performance in the talking-the-hind-leg-off-a-donkey stakes is even greater than mine.

Keep well.

Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.

Areema Nasreen and Aimee O’Rourke RIP

Two NHS nurses in their 30's each of whom left behind three children, have died after contracting COVID-19.

England's chief nursing officer and Health Secretary Matt Hancock paid tribute at yesterday's press conference to Areema Nasreen and Aimee O’Rourke.

Areema Nasreen, a 36-year-old NHS nurse from Walsall in the West Midlands, who was believed to have had no underlying health issues, died shortly after midnight on Thursday in intensive care at Walsall Manor hospital, where she had worked for 16 years.

Paying tribute to Nasreen, Toby Lewis, chief executive of the neighbouring Sandwell and West Birmingham hospitals NHS trust, said it was clear from experiences overseas – in particular Italy, where dozens of nurses and doctors have died – that health care workers were at risk. “They are at risk not only from the patients we look after but from each other. There is additional grief counselling and psychological support being provided to staff because they are working in situations that are very different to those that they have worked in,” he said.

Aimee O’Rourke’s daughter Megan Murphy described her as an angel in a Facebook tribute. She wrote: “Look at all the lives you looked after and all the families you comforted when patients passed away. You are an angel and you will wear your NHS crown for evermore because you earned that crown the very first day you started!

Cabinet office minister Michael Gove said in today's Coronavirus briefing conference that the number of NHS health professionals who have died after contracting COIVD-19 is currently seven.

Rest in Peace.

NHS frontline staff are risking their lives for us every day.

The best memorial we can give to Areema Nasreen, Aimee O'Rourke and the other five heroes who have died caring for the sick and protecting us is to protect their NHS colleagues who are still at work by observing the social distancing advice

Stay home; protect the NHS; save lives.


Eddie Large RIP

Edward Hugh McGinnis, better known by his stage name Eddie Large, as half of the "Little and Large" comedy duo, has died at the age of 78 after contracting CIVID-19.

Back in the days when there were between two and four TV channels and nearly everyone watched them - which did at least mean that there were things other than the weather it was easy to have a conversation with almost anyone about - Little and Large took over from Morecambe and Wise as the country's top comedy double act, regularly attracting at their peak audiences of over ten million,

His family confirmed the news "with great sadness" on Facebook, saying he had been suffering with heart failure and contracted the virus in hospital.

Cyril Mead, the "Syd Little" part of the act, said he was "devastated" by the news. "He had been ill for a while but when it happens, it hits you," he said.

"We were together 60 years," he told BBC Radio Lancashire. "It wasn't like having a partner. We were friends."

The comedian's family said they had been unable to visit him in hospital due to restrictions around the coronavirus, "but all of the family and close friends spoke to him every day".

Ant and Dec, who also recently worked with him, said that Eddie Large "Loved to make people laugh."

He was a funny and talented man who many will remember with affection. He will be missed.

Rest in Peace.

Bill Withers RIP

In place of the more usual Saturday music spot, here is a musical tribute to singer/songwriter Bill Withers, creator of songs like "Ain't no sunshine" and "Lean on me" and who has died at the age of 81 of heart complications.

This was his appearance on "The Old Grey Whistle Test" in 1972.

Ain't no sunshine when he's gone.

Rest in Peace.

Working together to defeat Coronavirus

The Prime Minister has this morning written to all leaders of opposition parties in Parliament, inviting them to a briefing with himself, the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser next week.
All party leaders have a duty to work together at this moment of national emergency, and so the Prime Minister will listen to the views of other opposition leaders and update them on the measures his Government has taken so far, including rapidly expanding testing and providing unprecedented support for businesses and people across the country.
The Prime Minister also made clear in his letter that we will always act in the national interest and be guided by the best scientific evidence. We will continue to engage constructively with all political parties in this national effort to defeat coronavirus.
Coronavirus is the biggest threat this country has faced in decades – and we are not alone. All over the world we are seeing the devastating impact of this invisible killer.
The government is working to a scientifically-led, step-by-step action plan – taking the right measures at the right time. We know this will not be a short battle – beating coronavirus will take months, not weeks – but the people of the United Kingdom can come through this together.
The message to the British public is clear: stay at home, in order to protect the NHS and save lives.
Here is a list provided by the Government of actions they have already taken to tackle coronavirus:
"We are rapidly increasing testing and we will provide the NHS with whatever support it needs to get through this, so far we have…
  • Reached our target of 10,000 coronavirus tests per day by the end of March – and set a target of 100,000 by the end of April.
  • Issued a call for action for manufacturers to produce new ventilators – with the first arriving next week and thousands more in the pipeline.
  • Opened NHS Nightingale Hospital at the ExCel Centre in east London, with 500 beds initially available.
  • Struck a deal with private hospitals to put 20,000 staff, 8,000 beds, and 1,200 ventilators at our disposal.
  • We have introduced emergency legislation to help control the spread of COVID-19.
  • £31 billion package of support for our public services, individuals and businesses.
  • Refunding eligible Statutory Sick Pay costs for small and medium sized businesses.
  • £500 million Hardship Fund to support economically vulnerable people and households.
  • We are one of the first countries in the world to develop a test for the new virus.
  • Published guidance for businesses, schools, employers, first responders, social care and transport.
  • A total of £544 million worth of UK aid spent fighting coronavirus – with the UK being the biggest contributor to the international coalition to find a vaccine.
We will protect people’s jobs and incomes…
  • Through the new Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, any employer in the country – big or small, charitable or for profit – will be eligible for a grant.
  • That means workers across the UK can keep their jobs, and will be paid at least 80 per cent of their salary, even if their employer cannot afford to pay them.
  • And we’re offering the self-employed the same level of support as those in work – with those eligible receiving a grant worth 80 per cent of their average monthly trading profit over the last three years.
  • We will pay grants to support as many jobs as necessary.
We’re helping businesses who are hurting now…
  • Through our new Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme, we’re lending businesses millions of pounds interest free for 12 months.
  • And we’ve revised the terms of the scheme to make it even more accessible to businesses.
  • We’re helping with cash flow by deferring the next quarter of VAT, so no business will pay VAT until the end of June.
  • We’re abolishing business rates altogether this year if you’re in hospitality, retail or leisure.
  • We’re providing cash grants up to £25,000 for small business properties.
  • Our total £330 billion package of loans and guarantees - worth 15 per cent of our GDP.
  • We will announce further measures for larger and medium sized businesses making sure they can access the credit needed.
We’re strengthening the safety net to protect those who face hardship by…
  • Increasing the standard allowance for Universal Credit and the Working Tax Credit amount for the next year by £1,000 a year - benefitting over 4 million of the most vulnerable households.
  • We’re suspending the minimum income floor for everyone affected by the economic impacts of coronavirus, so those who are self-employed can access Universal Credit in full at a rate equivalent to statutory sick pay for employees.
  • That’s nearly £7 billion of extra support through our welfare system to protect people’s incomes.
  • We’re deferring tax self-assessments for the self-employed until next year.
We’re helping people keep a roof over their head by…
  • Banning evictions for a three-month period for tenants unable to pay rent.
  • Helping tenants who have struggled financially to put in place affordable repayment plans suited to individual circumstances.
  • Making sure homeowners can get a three-month mortgage holiday if needed.
  • Nearly £1 billion of support for renters, by increasing housing benefit and Universal Credit so that Local Housing Allowance covers at least 30 per cent of market rents in your area.
  • We are standing together with you the British people and our plans for jobs and incomes will keep a roof over your head."

Douglas Murray on the problems with "Gotcha" journalism

Nothing in this article is meant to suggest that journalists should not have the right to ask difficult or challenging questions. The article I link to doesn't say it either.

Free speech means that journalists or anyone else should use their right of free speech to ask whatever questions or make whatever comments they think appropriate and anyone who thinks that the journalists concerned have said something daft can use their right of free speech to say so.

The quality of journalism we have seen during the pandemic has varied greatly. Some have risen to the challenge and recognised that the usual rules do not apply at the moment. Some have indulged in the worst kind of "look at me, aren't I clever" showboating.

Even worse, some journalists appear to have decided that when politicians have recognised that in this crisis we need to dial down the factionalism and stand together in reinforcing the important messages about what everyone needs to do, that it is therefore the journalists' job to take over the role of opposition and dial UP the aggression.

I'm not going to attempt to list the worst offenders but I bet most people reading this have a very good idea of some of the people referred to.

There is a balance to strike here and an exchange about the new NHS Nightingale hospital which has just opened with 500 beds and will soon have nearly ten times that, including thousands of ventilators for COVID-19 patients with breathing difficulties, exemplifies the difficulties of striking that balance.

One journalist attacked Matt Hancock over what he's said about the hospital, tweeting that NHS Nightingale "is impressive" but that Matt was wrong to describe it as equivalent to nine general hospitals because of things it doesn't have that a normal general hospital has, e.g. "no maternity wards … it is a giant ventilation centre."

A number of people, myself included, were quite cross about that, and pointed out that a specialist hospital to deal with COVID-19 patients does not need a maternity ward, and that a giant centre able to provide breathing support for Coronavirus patients is exactly what we do need.

Another prominent journalist replied thus to the first tweet:

"This is an example of why so many people are so pissed off with the media. Some 'clever clever look at me' remark that serves no purpose other than to show how out of touch so much of the media is. That includes me btw. I do it myself and am rightly pulled up when I do."

To his credit, the author of the original tweet took this on the chin and responded

"I agree. A bad tweet. I only meant that NHS Nightingale is v impressive and doesn’t need bad spin.

Much of public has gone into full wartime, support the troops mode. The media has to remain cynical to do its job, and so is loathed.

But oh well. That’s our burden, is it not?"

A response which, although it still suggests an attitude which makes it too much about the media rather than the original news, did at least have the merit of some humility in the sense of admission that they may get it wrong sometimes.

Douglas Murray has a good article on the Unherd site arguing that too much "Gotcha" journalism is not what is needed at the moment, which you can read here.

The article is called We don't need 'gotcha' journalism now", and after discussing some of the less impressive reporting we have seen during the pandemic it reaches the following conclusion:

"Journalism is at a difficult enough juncture, and there are many people in the trade who know a great deal. 

But the whole profession would be enormously helped if its most prominent representatives stopped giving off the impression of thinking that the primary problem with real experts is that they don’t listen to journalists enough."

Quote of the day 4th April: This is not a request

"We cannot relax our discipline now. If we do, people will die.

"This advice is not a request, it is an instruction. Stay at home, protect lives and you will be doing your part."

(Health Secretary Matt Hancock at yesterday's Coronavirus briefing. Click on the window below for the four-minute conclusion of his remarks from which this was taken:

or click here for a link to a video recording of the whole press conference.)

And yes, I know that "this is not a request" will trigger some people. But I don't see how we can get everyone to take seriously that people will die if we don't follow this advice unless it is put more strongly than as a request.

Friday, April 03, 2020

Lockdown diary, day 11

A bit overwhelmed with the news of some of the people who have died  over the last couple of days.

They have included Large from Little and Large, the singer of "Ain't no Sunshine" (though I have not seen that his death was COVID-19 related) not of  and two heroic nurses in their thirties, both of whom were mothers.
Will put up formal Obit posts when I have checked some of the details/

This just emphasises the need to follow scientific and medical advice on social distancing.

Stay home: Protect the NHS; Save Lives.

Testing, testing (continued)

Further news on testing.

A further briefing gives more details of the government's new plan to dramatically ramp up Coronavirus testing so that by the end of this month, it becomes possible to carry out 100,000 tests every day in the UK. In the meantime, the most important thing to do is for people to stay at home.
  • Significant progress to increase testing has already taken place across the country to protect the vulnerable, support our NHS, and ultimately save lives. But we need to go further.
  • That’s why the government has published a new 5-point strategy, bringing together government, industry, academia, the NHS and many others, to dramatically increase the number of tests being carried out to 100,000 each day by the end of the month.
The new 5-pillar plan outlines the ambitions to:
  • Scale up swab testing in PHE labs and NHS hospitals for those with a medical need and the most critical workers to 25,000 a day by mid to late April;
  • Deliver increased commercial swab testing for critical key workers in the NHS, before then expanding to key workers in other sectors;
  • Develop blood testing to help know if people have the right antibodies and so have high levels of immunity to coronavirus;
  • Conduct surveillance testing to learn more about the spread of the disease and help develop new tests and treatments; and
  • Create a new National Effort for testing, to build a mass-testing capacity at a completely new scale.
While continuing to test urgently those critically ill patients for whom knowing how to treat them might be a matter of life or death, extra efforts will now be made to prioritise testing of NHS workers, to help ensure they can stay in work if they test negative. This will help protect life, and relieve pressure on our NHS.

Councils given new powers to meet remotely

One consequence of the tragic position we are in with Coronavirus is that councils have finally been given from tomorrow a power which we should have had decades ago - to hold meetings remotely using electronic means where this is appropriate.

The power is temporary, but when all this is over I very much hope that it will not be taken away, at least not completely as there are clearly circumstances where this would improve the functioning of local authorities providing the right measures are taken to make what has been said available to the public.

The government has announced today that local authorities in England have been handed new powers to hold public meetings virtually by using video or telephone conferencing technology from Saturday (4 April 2020).

The government has temporarily removed the legal requirement for local authorities to hold public meetings in person during the coronavirus pandemic. This will enable councils to make effective and transparent decisions on the delivery of services for residents and ensure that local democracy continues to thrive.

Meetings will remain accessible whilst ensuring that councillors, staff and the wider public are able to follow government advice by staying at home to stop the spread of coronavirus to protect the NHS and save lives.

Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick MP said:

  • "Local authorities are the backbone of our democracy and they are playing a vital role in the national effort to keep people safe. This change will support them to do that while maintaining the transparency we expect in local decision making.
  • Councillors and staff are already doing the right thing by following our advice to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives. This includes working from home wherever possible, and the new powers to hold meetings virtually will make that easier.
  • It’s critical that they continue to provide essential services and find innovative ways to maintain important economic functions they perform like the planning system and they will now be able to do so.
  • We’ve given local authorities across England an additional £1.6 billion to help their crucial work in the national effort against coronavirus, and we are continuing to ensure they get all of the support that they need at this time."

Local Government Association Chairman Cllr James Jamieson said:

  • "Councils are working tirelessly to support their communities as they rise to the unprecedented challenge of the coronavirus crisis. 
  • Giving councils powers to hold meetings remotely is important to maintaining local democracy and allowing critical decisions to be made during this public health crisis. 
  • Councils need to respond quickly and make very many key decisions. They can now do so while remaining open, transparent and accessible to the public.
  • Remote council meetings will crucially help ensure all those taking part stay at home, helping to prevent the coronavirus from spreading and save lives."

The change applies to all local authorities in England and covers all categories of public meetings including annual meetings, cabinet and committee meetings.

The requirement for public meetings to be made accessible to the public remains, but it will be up to each local authority to decide how they conduct meetings, how voting procedures work and how to ensure that the public has access.

Other relevant news:

The government is also working to bring in new law so that by-elections, local polls and referendums cannot be held before 6 May 2021. The Coronavirus Act 2020 has already postponed local and Police and Crime Commissioner elections scheduled in the UK for Thursday 7 May 2020 until 6 May 2021.

More detail of both these announcements on the government website here.

Friday music spot: Vivaldi Four Seasons: "Winter"

Chronologically inappropriate as it is now supposed to be Spring, but perhaps not so much so from a psychological perspective.

It's a good piece of music, anyway.

Quote of the day 3rd April 2020

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Lockdown diary: day ten

Very impressed with Matt Hancock today at the press conference: he was never going to please some of the fraternity of British journalists, but I thought he gave honest answers about an issue on which we need to up our game, e.g. testing. 

At least it is clear that the issue is being taken seriously.

I was very struck by how many people took part in the "clap for the carers" event at 8pm. I went to my front door at 8pm and it seemed that the residents of just about every home in Foxhouses Road which was in view from my own home had come to their doors to applaud NHS workers, teachers, and the other people who are looking after us at this difficult time.

My wife, who works for the NHS, came to join me at the front door having been in the garden at the stroke of 8pm and it was as if everyone in Whitehaven was clapping, making the sort of noise you usually only get when Haven are playing at home (you can hear the cheers from the Rugby ground from our part of the town.) She said that as an NHS employee it really made her feel much more appreciated and reinforced the idea that "We're all in this together."

Thursday music spot: "Hark, all ye lovely Saints" by Weelkes

Testing, testing

People are rightly concerned to see an increase in the number of tests carried out.

One of the people involved said today that the delays in getting the number of tests up has been intensely frustrating for everyone involved.

We need to step up the number of tests, and therefore is has been announced today that the government is:
  • Publishing a new five-point strategy to significantly increase the number of tests being carried out, with a goal of 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month. We are expanding testing to critical NHS staff and their families, to help ensure they can stay in work if they test negative. We plan to expand testing to all NHS staff, and critical key workers, then to all key workers, and then to the whole population.

To make sure that local NHS bodies can concentrate on fixing the pandemic and don't have to focus on balancing the books until this is over:
  • Writing off over £13 billion of debt for NHS providers, freeing them up to investing in maintaining vital services. The changes will provide much needed financial support during this unprecedented viral pandemic, as well as laying secure foundations for the longer-term commitments set out last year to support the NHS to become more financially sustainable.
Under normal circumstances I would never write one of two of the things above: I still believe that there is no magic money tree and you cannot go on indefinitely spending as though you have one.

But these are not normal circumstances.

A country the size of Britain can afford to forget about the budget for a few months while we concentrate, first on saving lives, and secondly on making sure that there is still an economy to save when things start getting back to normal after the pandemic.

Global pandemic: global response

The coronavirus pandemic is a world problem and it needs a world reponse

That's why the UK is taking a full part in international efforts to defeat coronavirus and save lives, funding international research to find a vaccine.

The coronavirus is a global issue that requires a global response, and we will only defeat it if we work together with countries around the world to coordinate how we tackle it and to develop a vaccine.

Thos is why the UK government has already pledged £544 million to international efforts to fight the pandemic, including by providing the largest single contribution by any country to international research to find a vaccine. Britain will also strengthening fragile health systems in the poorest countries to cope with the outbreak, encouraging people worldwide to wash their hands regularly and helping developing countries deal with the economic disruption caused by the pandemic.

By tackling the virus in vulnerable countries, we will reduce the risk of future waves of infection spreading around the world, including to the UK, and make it easier for economies at home and abroad to bounce back.

Giving those most in need a pay rise

Yesterday, the government increased the National Minimum Wage to tackle the cost of living and put more money in people's pockets – particularly during this time of disruption. 
  • The National Living Wage will see its biggest ever increase to £8.72 – meaning more money in people’s pockets to spend on their priorities – and this will continue to rise to £10.50 by 2024.
  • At the same time and in light of the pressure on businesses caused by the outbreak of the coronavirus, the government has unveiled a comprehensive package of support to protect businesses, including an initial £330 billion of guarantees for businesses, £20 billion in business rates support and a new Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to help pay people’s wages. 

Quote of the day 2nd April 2020

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Lockdown diary, day nine

A tweet, retweeted by Tim Montgomerie in the past 24 hours from a Medical SHO called George Hulston, really hit me:

"Last night I certified far more deaths than I can ever remember doing in a single shift. The little things hit you: a book with a bookmark in, a watch still ticking, an unread text message from family. Pandemic medicine is hard." 


Another way that this is taking a huge toll on the NHS staff who are making fantastic efforts to care for and protect us all.

There was a suggestion from another Tim on one of the comments threads a few days ago that when this is over, just as the Island of Malta got a collective George Cross after resisting the siege during WWII, the NHS ought to get a collective George Cross for their efforts during this pandemic

I think that's an absolutely fantastic idea and have passed it up the line.

The numbers of people admitted to hospital and for the numbers of deaths of people after contracting COVID-19, both nationally and here in North Cumbria, represent a severe human cost.

We all need to take the greatest care of ourselves.

Stay home: protect the NHS - save lives.

The Alex Salmond trial

Until today I had not posted anything about the Alex Salmon trial because, although what has happened is clearly going to have explosive consequences for Scottish politics, one has to be very careful commentating on court cases.

I made a brief and indirect reference to his acquittal in a post earlier today and it's probably appropriate to clarify it.

This country's legal system is built on the principle that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty, and if a jury clears someone of a charge, they must be treated as innocent.

The jury found the former first minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond to be not guilty on twelve of the thirteen charges made against him by nine women, the jury found the thirteenth charge "not proven" - which is a peculiar type of acquittal found in Scottish law but has the same legal effect as "not guilty" but tends to inflict more reputational damage to the accused and less to the prosecution witnesses. A fourteenth charge was dropped.

Therefore he has been cleared on all charges by a court. On the principles that the British legal system is built on, and which I believe in, that means he is innocent of those charges. And any post on the comments section of this blog which suggests otherwise will be deleted the instant I see it.

Equally, if someone is acquitted under a legal system built on the principle that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, that does not prove the prosecution witnesses to be liars. Only if charges for perjury are brought and someone is convicted of that charge can it be said that a court has proved a witness to be a liar.

Some of the "Cybernat" Scottish nationalist keyboard warriors have been posting the most disgusting things about the nine women who gave evidence against Alex Salmond. This is completely out of order.

If we as a society want to protect people from sexual abuse, we need genuine victims to come forward. If we allow partisan supporters of the accused - including an accused person who has been acquitted - to throw vile insults at people who have given evidence for the other side, at least where those witnesses have not been convicted of perjury, we make it much less likely that genuine victims will come forward because they will have reasonable grounds to fear that such abuse might be directed at them.

The things which various Cybernats have written about the women who gave evidence against the former first minister have unwittingly provided some of the strongest evidence I've ever seen for maintaining the anonymity of witnesses in trials for sexual offences.

In the vast majority of cases when charges are made against someone, and they are acquitted this is and should be the end of the matter.

But in this case the acquitted person himself clearly does not regard this as the end of the matter, and neither do his close allies, some of whom started calling within minutes of the verdict being announced for heads to roll in both the SNP and the Scottish government.

Kenny MacAskill MP (SNP) who is a former Scottish justice secretary called for resignations both on Twitter writing in The Scotsman, saying

"There do need to be resignations within the SNP," adding that the actions of a few people in seeking to "instigate" the prosecution had been "entirely unacceptable."

Edinburgh South West MP Joanna Cherry, the SNP’s justice and home affairs spokeswoman at Westminster, said an independent inquiry into the SNP’s handling of internal complaints against Mr Salmond was now required.

Ms Cherry, herself an advocate and former specialist sex crimes prosecutor, said women who make complaints in such cases must have this fully investigated, but added. But she said:

“I also support due process and the principle of innocent until proven guilty. “Some of the evidence that has come to light both in the judicial review and at this trial raise very serious questions over the process that was employed within the Scottish Government to investigate the alleged complaints against Mr Salmond and I am sorry to say some of the evidence also raises serious question marks over how these complaints were handled by the SNP.” 

The inquiry which she is calling for into the SNP's handling of the matter would be in addition to a Scottish parliament inquiry into the handling of the matter by the Scottish government which has already been launched after Alec Salmond won a court ruling that the Scottish government's initial investigation of the allegation was flawed, following which they had to pay his legal costs of more than half a million pounds.

Without taking any view of the truth of the suggestion, it is somewhere between shocking and horrifying that the former head of a government can secure acquittal in a criminal trial on the basis of a defence which included the strong suggestion that powerful figures in the very government that he recently led have conspired to frame him. On the face of it that would appear to be either a shocking smear or a horrifying fact.

I am going to link to two very contrasting views of the case to give an idea of what sort of thing is being said, both from people who attended the trial.

From a mainstream perspective, a very comprehensive article about the case, the background to it, and the possible consequences, was published today by Dani Garavelli, called

"Scotland after the Trial of Alex Salmond."

I had previously been told by various people who know Scotland well that in Garavelli's words,

"The Scottish establishment is a very small world,"

but nothing had brought this home to me as much are learning that Salmond's lead defence lawyer, Gordon Jackson, used to combine his legal career with serving in politics and was Labour Member of the Scottish Parliament for Govan until losing his seat in 2007 to - wait for it - Nicola Sturgeon.

You can read Dani Garavelli's piece here.

An alternative view - and how - but which gives you some idea about how the more outspoken supporters of Alex Salmond, and those who are sceptical of establishment views of any kind see the case, is provided by an article whose very title - "J'accuse" infers a comparison with the infamous Dreyfus affair in which trumped-up and false charges of treason were broad against a Jewish officer in the French army.

This article is the take on the trial of Craig Murray who was once a British ambassador but now describes himself as an "author, broadcaster and human rights activist" and it may be found on his blog here.

In posting that link I am not endorsing anything in the article - which will probably be a relief to Mr Murray who I doubt would welcome an endorsement from me - but I post it to give an idea what one pole of the spectrum of Scottish opinion appears to think about the case.

As mentioned above there is already an inquiry going on into how the Scottish government handled this and may well be more official inquiries yet. Good luck to whoever has to run them: getting to the bottom of this could be quite a challenge.

Midweek music spot: Gluck's "Dance of the Furies" from Orpheus & Eurydice

News on Cumbria's response to Coronavirus

News this morning is that Whitehaven Sports Centre, the Sands Centre in Carlisle, Penrith Leisure Centre, Kendal Leisure Centre, and possibly also Life Leisure in Barrow will be being turned into temporary hospitals to treat #coronavirus patients . This will provide an extra 500 beds.

Hugo Rifkind on the trade-off between health and liberty

Hugo Rifkind in the Times this week had a piece on the trade-off between liberty and saving people from Coronavirus, which began with today's "Quote of the day."

There are no easy answers on this. I don't agree with those who are attacking the UK government for the admittedly draconian measures they taken to save lives. But I do understand some of their concerns. And Hugo's article asks some disturbing questions about where we will end up when this is all over - will there be long-term effects on our liberties?

You don't have to disagree that the actions the government is taking to cut the spread of COVID-19 are the right actions for now to think that we need to consider now how to make sure these do not result in a loss of our freedoms in the longer term.

Here are some extracts from the Rifkind article, "We will soon tire of Big Brother’s embrace.

"In Derbyshire, there must be something in the water.

"In the case of the blue lagoon in Buxton, there definitely is, because the local police have filled it up with black dye to stop people going for a swim.

The same police force, a few days before, sent a drone over a few ramblers in the Peak District in a bid to shame us all out of unnecessary travel. 

A couple of months ago, in a different context and another age, my colleague David Aaronovitch referred on these pages to the 1940s American journalist Dorothy Thompson’s parlour game, Who Goes Nazi?, in which she’d look around a room, assess the characters, and ponder who would resist tyranny, who would cave and who would actively relish an excuse to pull on the jackboots. There is somebody high up in Derbyshire police, I suspect, who would go Nazi pretty damn fast.

"Or maybe that’s unfair. Maybe it’s decadent. Our parameters, after all, change pretty fast. Sadiq Khan, the London mayor who made his name as a human rights lawyer, declared last week that he was open to a situation in which “our liberties and human rights need to be changed, curtailed, infringed, use whatever word you want”.

"On Saturday night, a friend who has spent the past fortnight sealed in a small flat with her husband and kids texted us in horror to say that the twentysomethings upstairs seemed to be having — of all things — a party. What to do? Call the police? Would that be moral? Or, as a more nagging question, what if I were 23 rather than 43? How would I be acting right now? Better? The same? Or worse?

"This is our new dystopia. Just occasionally, it’s bleakly comic how much it resembles the old ones. Doing the YouTube Joe Wicks exercise class last week, it suddenly struck me that we were spending our early mornings much as Winston Smith spent his, doing physical jerks in front of the telescreen in Victory Mansions.

“ Our technology, at least, is not watching us back. Or at least, not yet.

In parts of China, technological monitoring has been a huge part of the coronavirus fightback. In order to travel, citizens must have an app on their phones which shows a different colour code — red, yellow or green — depending on their medical history and where else they have been. Without the right code you cannot enter a variety of buildings, most importantly metro stations.

Such a system sounds imponderable in a British context, although Jeez, these days, what doesn’t?

Fast forward your mind by a few months, though, and consider a Britain in which many have had the lurgy and recovered, and are maybe now immune. There may even be an antibody test to prove it. Such people could be back at work, keeping the wheels turning, looking after everybody else.

Only, who are they? How do they prove it? Do we just leave it to chance and personal responsibility? Or if not, then what?

So much more is possible. In Israel, for example, phone data is being used to track individuals thought to have come into contact with somebody infected. On an extreme level, your phone could even be used to monitor how often you flout the two-metre rule with strangers while going for a walk. Although, for that to work of course, you’d need to be under an obligation to carry the thing. Last week, a journalist who was subject to mandatory tracking in Taiwan wrote for the BBC about having been visited by police within the hour after his phone battery died.

As the legal commentator David Allen Green puts it, the coronavirus regulations last week summarily suspended freedom of movement, freedom of association and freedom of worship all at once, along with in many cases the freedom to conduct business. Less remarked upon, though, is a clear public appetite, at least presently, for all this and more. One poll last week put the percentage of Brits prepared to sacrifice civil liberties in this fight at 86 per cent. It’s less “Live Free Or Die”, as the American revolutionaries had it, and more “Live Free And Die, So For Preference, Neither”.

This is the easy time. As this horror show drags into summer, I think we can expect divisions and flashpoints, not only from the impoverished and struggling but also from the young, the restless, and the deeply bored.

Today, the government’s greatest challenge is protecting our health. Before long, it will be maintaining our consent to keep doing so. This will take unprecedented transparency and endless explanations as to what is being enforced, and why, and when it will end.

We are not China, and I do not think we ever will be, and for that I am relieved. But it is hard to comprehend, right now, what we are to become instead.

April Fool's Day is cancelled this year

I often try to post an April fool on the morning of 1st April, but how can anyone top the things which are happening for real?

The entire country under what I call lockdown and Jim calls House Arrest - and polls suggest that 86% of us support it.

Some polls find that the politician who has impressed most in the current crisis is a newly appointed chancellor who was a junior housing minister less than two years ago (when I met him in that role I was impressed and thought he would go far, though I had no idea how far how fast.)

A recently re-elected Conservative government which had obtained the first Conservative landslide some Mrs Thatcher's time 32 years before against a hard-left led Labour party has now shut down large parts of the economy and effectively nationalised other parts while spending so much money as to make Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell look like Norman Tebbit by comparison.

The former first minister of one of the constituent countries of the United Kingdom is acquitted of criminal charges in a case in which his defence team argued in court that parts of the senior leadership of the government and party he used to head have conspired to frame him.

Church services, practically all sporting fixtures, and many features of normal life are cancelled.

How can you think of April Fool stories which beat this?

Quote of the day 1st April 2020

"In Derbyshire, there must be something in the water. In the case of the blue lagoon in Buxton, there definitely is, because the local police have filled it up with black dye to stop people going for a swim. I saw the pictures on Saturday. They seemed like an early April Fool."

(Hugo Rifkind, article in The Times)

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Lockdown diary, day eight

Barely a week into severe restrictions of movement and suffering withdrawal symptoms, I want my life back.

Sadly it is going to be a while yet before that's possible.

Some experts are saying it might be six months before we can relax the lockdown: even that may be challenging.

When we get the promised test for antibodies which it is hoped will identify people who have had it, recovered from it and are now immune, it may be that we can start by exempting those people from the restrictions, presumably providing them with some kind of special ID.

Obviously when we reach that stage they will still have to be careful, e.g. keep up the practice of washing one's hands very regularly indeed, to avoid passing the disease to others.

It had to happen one day. After fifteen year of running this blog, during which time a fairly large number of supposedly witty anonymous posts have been put in the comments section, I finally had one which actually was funny enough to have me laughing out loud.

Following secretary of state Robert Jenrick's speech about the co-ordinating centres which included a reference to Gold commanders, someone put up  a comment on Sunday's post which referred to the inconsistent policy on sales of coffee,

Looks like an early intervention for the Gold Blend Commander."

 As there really was a quick change in the policy - I had to go back there for medicine the following day and found the coffee limit had been lifted - it was as if there really had been an early intervention.

Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives

Bringing British citizens back from abroad

The government has reached a landmark agreement with airlines to fly back more stranded British travellers from abroad, ensuring airlines can continue to operate and bring people back home safely. 
  • We know that British tourists are finding it difficult to return to the UK because of the unprecedented international travel restrictions that are being introduced – often with little or no notice.
  • That is why the government has agreed a partnership worth up to £75 million with airlines to ensure they keep as many commercial routes open as they can, whilst also chartering flights for countries with no commercial routes, allowing stranded British travellers to return back to the UK safely.
  • This will help get the tens of thousands British nationals abroad back home – protecting them from Coronavirus and making sure the most vulnerable are not left stranded.

Replacing free school meals

Today the government is launching a national voucher scheme for children eligible for free school meals, ensuring that no child goes hungry as a result of our measures to tackle the Coronavirus.
  • As part of our action to slow the spread of the Coronavirus and save lives, we have instructed all schools to close except for vulnerable children and those of vital workers – but we want to make sure that other children are not adversely affected because of this.
  • That is why the Government is supporting the 1.3 million children who would normally receive benefits-related free schools meals. Schools can continue to provide meals for collection or delivery, or if they are unable to do so they will be able to provide families with vouchers worth £15. They can be redeemed online via a code, or sent to families directly as a gift card and used at supermarkets across the country.
  • This will ensure that every child can continue to access healthy and nutritious food during this difficult time