Wednesday, September 30, 2020


Yesterday Britain imposed landmark sanctions on Alexander Lukashenko, his son and senior figures in the Belarusian government, taking decisive action to stand up for our values of democracy and human rights.

  • Alexander Lukashenko’s regime is responsible for a string of human rights violations against the people of Belarus and the rigging of their election. Despite numerous calls from the international community, he has refused to engage in dialogue.
  • Through our Global Human Rights sanctions regime, the UK has the power to stop those individuals from the Belarusian regime, including Alexander Lukashenko, from entering this country, using UK banks, or profiting from our economy. These coordinated international sanctions, taken by the UK and Canada, will send a clear message.   
  • It is important that the international community makes an effort to hold those responsible for the kind of thuggery deployed by the regime in Belarus against their own people to account and Britain will take the action needed to stand up for  democracy and human rights. 

Action for better housing

Today the government launched the biggest upgrade of nation’s buildings in a generation – a £3 billion plan to deliver jobs, greener homes and cheaper bills.

  • The Conservatives promised that throughout our economic recovery we would continue to support jobs while protecting our environment. As we build back greener, we want to improve people’s standard of living and reduce their energy bills. 
  • Starting today, the Green Homes Grant scheme, will see two-thirds of the cost of home improvements up to £5,000, funded by the government. These improvements will help reduce people’s energy bills, cut our carbon emissions and support over 100,000 jobs. 
  • As we build back better it is essential that we build back greener - while supporting the thousands of jobs in construction for local plumbers, builders and tradespeople across the UK.

Midweek music spot: Arcangelo Corelli: Concerto in D Major Op. 6 No. 4

Quote of the day 30th September 2020


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Tuesday music spot: J.S. Bach - Cantata BWV 140 "Wake O wake."

Long live the contrarians

It's my proud boast that although I have deleted posts from this blog and my Facebook page which I thought were libellous, offensive or childish insults, I do not remove from debating spaces under my control the comments of those who are making a reasonably polite and constructive attempt to express views I merely happen to very strongly disagree with. Or even things I know to be wrong if, as is nearly always the case, a polite and constructive correction is far more appropriate than pretending that his or her views do not exist.

Someone who had made what I consider, and had written, were some completely wrong statements on Facebook asked this week why I didn't just unfriend and block her. The answer is that nobody has a monopoly of wisdom and I am determined to avoid the social media trap of constructing an artificial bubble around myself in which I engage only with people who completely agree with me or are at least in a comfort zone of carefully limited disagreement.

Sooner or later even the cleverest person who allows that to happen will find that they have insulated themselves from discovering an important but unwelcome truth that they needed to learn.   

I heartily recommend a piece by Ali Miraj on The Article called "Long live the contrarians" which makes the point very well that we all owe a debt to the people who are willing to stand up and express unpopular opinions.  

John Stuart Mill put it very well:

The latest round of Brexit negotiations begin ...

The latest round of Brexit negotiations with the EU began today.

The latest briefing from HQ reads as follows:

"We continue to work hard to bridge the gaps that remain without compromising on our fundamental position of being an independent country. 

  • Following informal discussions last week, the ninth round of formal negotiations with the EU will start today as we work towards reaching an agreement ahead of the EU Council on 15 October, which the Prime Minister set as a deadline for securing a deal.  
  • Since we left on 31 January, we have been seeking a new relationship with the EU based on the kind of agreement the EU has negotiated with other countries like Canada, and although we continue to have useful discussions in all areas, a number of significant gaps continue to remain in key areas including fisheries and subsidies. 
  • We will not compromise on what it means to be an independent and sovereign nation to secure an agreement."

Quote of the day 29th September 2020

“If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

(I believe this quote actually comes from former US president Woodrow Wilson though I have also seen this or very similar statements attributed to Winston Churchill and Mark Twain.

I was reminded of it last night when I spent the whole evening preparing my comments to the DC&R meeting on Friday. It took me an hour to prepare the first draft of what I wanted to say - and four hours to cut it from eight minutes to five.)

The Lifetime Skills Guarantee


  • Today in a major speech the Prime Minister has set out a new plan to transform the provision of skills so that we can help people to retrain and find new, well-paid jobs as part of our agenda to Build Back Better.
  • To better reflect Britain's changing economy and the impact of the pandemic, the government is developing a long-term plan to ensure that, as the nature of work changes, people have the skills to find and create new and better jobs.
  • The new Lifetime Skills Guarantee will provide adults in England without an A-Level or equivalent qualifications from April the opportunity to take up a free, fully funded college course. Alongside this, we are also making higher education loans more flexible, allowing people to space out their study across their lifetimes and take more high-quality vocational courses. 
  • Today the Conservative government is sending out the clear message that it will help people get the skills they need at every stage of their lives, and deliver on the promise to level up opportunity across the country. 

Expanding post-18 education and training to level up and prepare workers for a post-Covid economy:

  • Offering a free and fully-funded college course to adults without an A-level or equivalent qualification – providing them with skills valued by employers, and the opportunity to study at a time and location that suits them. This offer will be available from April in England, and will be paid for through our National Skills Fund – one of our manifesto pledges. A full list of available courses will be set out shortly. 
  • Making higher education loans more flexible – allowing adults and young people to choose the length and type of course that is right for them. This will allow them to take more high quality vocational courses in further education colleges and universities, and to support people to retrain for jobs of the future.  We are committed to making higher education more flexible to facilitate lifelong learning – and will make it easier for people to break up their student into segments, transfer credits between colleges and universities and enable more part-time study. 
  • Investing more in college buildings and facilities, helping to ensure colleges are excellent places for people to learn. This investment includes over £1.5 billion in capital funding, with more details to follow in a further education white paper later this year. 
  • Extending our offer of training in a number of sectors, helping our country to build back better. We are committing £8 million for digital skills boot camps; expanding successful pilots in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands and introducing programmes in four new locations. From next year, boot camps will be extended to sectors like construction and engineering, helping the country build back better. Earlier this year, we also launched our free online Skills Toolkit, helping people train in digital and numeracy skills. This is being expanded today to include 62 additional courses.

This builds on the Plan for Jobs, which commits to supporting young people to find jobs:

  • Creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs for young people through a new £2 billion Kickstart Scheme, to give young people the best possible chance of getting a job. The scheme will directly pay businesses to create new, decent and high-quality jobs for any 16-24 year old at risk of long-term unemployment. Funding for each job will cover 100 per cent of the National Minimum Wage for 25 hours a week, for six months in total, plus an admin fee – for a grant of around £6,500 per placement.
  • Providing significant cash incentives for businesses to support people into work. We will pay businesses £1,000 to take on trainees, with £111 million to triple the scale of traineeships, which consist of work experience placements, training and work preparation for 16-24 year olds. We are also providing £2,000 to employers for each new apprentice they hire under the age of 25, helping more people into the workplace while developing key skills, and £1,500 for any apprentice aged over 25.
  • Tripling the number of places available through Sector-Based Work Academies, supporting those who are out of work with an additional £17 million to provide the new skills they need to re-enter the jobs market.
  • Giving young people who have just left school the skills they need to find work in high-value sectors, such as engineering, construction and social care. We will provide £101 million to help 18 and 19 year olds to take high value courses at Levels 2 and 3 where work opportunities are not available.

Today’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee has been praised by major employers: 

  • Microsoft said there are ‘no better investments in our future than the kinds of accessible, lifelong and flexible programmes that the Prime Minister has announced this morning’. ‘As a country we face multiple challenges, but we believe that learning unlocks opportunity. Today, more than ever, individuals, businesses and government must build the skills we need for tomorrow. Because if we fail to act now, the UK could easily be left behind in the global economy. There are no better investments in our future than the kinds of accessible, lifelong and flexible programmes that the Prime Minister has announced this morning’.
  • BAE Systems said ‘it is more important than ever that Government and industry work together to help young people and adults gain the skills needed to work in sectors which will support our nation’s economic recovery’. They added ‘As a major employer of graduates and apprentices, BAE Systems’ investment in skills provides an essential pipeline of talent that enables us to continue to deliver cutting-edge defence and security capabilities, essential to our national security’.
  • The CEO of Greene King welcomed the Prime Minister’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee. ‘We welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement of increased funding for skills and further education. As a business we are passionate about improving social mobility and developing the skills of the nation’s young people to ensure they are ready for work. That is why we invest heavily in apprenticeships, supporting over 12,500 since 2011’.
  • Citi said it ‘stands ready to play its part in delivering on the UK Government’s ambition to increase employability and transform the country’s training and skills system’. The CEO for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Citi said ‘With digitisation accelerating throughout the economy, the UK needs to continue to develop a highly skilled and innovative workforce. Banks can play a critical role, and Citi looks forward to expanding the reach of its current apprenticeship programmes, including our recently-launched Data Academy and efforts to encourage former employees back into the workforce. Citi stands ready to play its part in delivering on the UK Government’s ambition to increase employability and transform the country’s training and skills system’.

Q: Why wait until April to provide these courses?
The Chancellor set out earlier in the summer that from August to January, any firm that hires a new young apprentice aged 16 to 24 will receive £2,000, while those that hire new apprentices aged 25 and over will be paid £1,500. We’re also committing £8 million for digital skills boot camps.                              

Q: How much will this cost?
Today’s transformation of the provision of skills will be paid for through the National Skills Fund we committed to in our Manifesto – £2.5 billion is being made available to help get people working again after covid, as well as giving those in work the chance to train for higher-skilled, better-paid jobs. It comes alongside continued investment in college buildings and facilities - including over £1.5 billion in capital funding.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Don't forget to get your flu jab

 It is even more important than usual that we all get our flu jabs this year. Free for everyone over 50 (rather than the usual 60) and vulnerable groups. 

Some employers (including mine) have organised free flu jabs for all employees under 50 as well.

GP practices here in North Cumbria have started the annual flu vaccination programme. It is a bigger job than usual as they have to maintain social distancing to keep everyone safe.

But the last thing we can afford this winter is the combination of another wave of the Coronavirus combined with the usual winter flu outbreak. 

Both to protect yourself and your family - not least because people whose system is weakened by flu might well be more vulnerable to COVID-19 - and to protect the NHS so they can protect you, get your flu jab.

Recognising our NHS heroes

The Prime Minister has announced that doctors, nurses, fundraisers and volunteers who have made outstanding contributions to the UK’s coronavirus response will be recognised in the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours list on Saturday 10 October.

  • As we all redouble our efforts to control the virus, protect the NHS and save lives this Winter, the Queen’s Birthday Honours list is an opportunity to recognise those who have given so much to this country already. 
  • The coronavirus pandemic is the greatest health challenge in our lifetime. We all have to play our part, but the dedication, courage and compassion seen from these recipients, be it responding on the frontline or out in their communities providing support to the most vulnerable, is an inspiration to us all. 
  • We owe them a debt of gratitude and the 2020 Queen’s Birthday honours will be the first of many occasions where we can thank them as a nation.


The Health Secretary has announced that large stockpiles of PPE items, such as face masks, visors and gowns, will be in place from November to provide a continuous flow of protective equipment to the frontline, helping to ensure our NHS and social care heroes always have the equipment they need.

  • Ensuring Britain has an uninterrupted supply to meet the challenges in the coming months has been a priority - having already distributed over 3.5 billion items of PPE since the start of the pandemic. 
  • That’s why the government is establishing stockpiles of critical equipment and have struck more than 300 supplier deals, meaning that almost three quarters of the PPE we now have access to, via robust and resilient supply chains, now comes from UK manufacturers – up from 1 per cent before the pandemic. 
  • The government's PPE strategy will include further details of how we are building further resilience in order to be ready for a new wave of infections in the autumn, winter or beyond so that we can protect the NHS and social care heroes who protect us.

Quote of the day 28th September 2020

"All humans are stupid but the smarter ones at least have a handle on their own ignorance."

(John Cleese, quoted in a Sunday times article by Matthew Syed, "When dogma beats data, reason s lost."

Syed added "It is perhaps fitting that one of our greatest living comics has so perfectly summarised our darkly comical age.")

Sunday, September 27, 2020

October meeting of the Cumbria Health Scrutiny Committee

Cumbria Health Scrutiny Committee will meet online a week tomorrow, Monday 5th October 2020. The meeting will be live-streamed.

The main agenda items will be 

  • Urgent and Emergency Care & Elective Care (To consider a report from the North Cumbria Integrated Care Trust) 
  • Winter care plans from both NCIC in the North of the county and from Morecambe Bay health trust in the South (which also covers part of Lancashire.)
Full details of the meeting including the agenda papers and a link to watch the meeting can be found on the CCC website here.

Quote of the day 27th September 2020


For some reason I cannot seem to persuade the blogger server to accept more images. However, I can use the large number I have already uploaded  - and here is one of the wisest.

"There are no solutions, there are only trade-offs" is something that Thomas Sowell said long before any of us had ever heard of COVID-19, but it applies to the horrible choices which the virus imposes on us as it applies to many other things.

Sunday music spot: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (Bach)

I saw a very amusing cartoon this weekend called "Eye test for musicians" which showed a lady in an opticians office staring at a letter test card on which the sequence of letters began with


And she responds, "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Bach."

Took me a moment to work it out but the letters on the card do indeed represent the notes of the first few bars of that Toccata.

I'm having great difficulty at the moment persuading blogger's server to upload new images but here is the Toccata and Fugue.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Saturday music spot: Handel "Let The Bright Seraphim"

West Cumbria Mining application to come back to committee on 2nd October 2020

Cumbria County Council's Development Control and Regulation committee (DC&R) voted unanimously to grant planning permission for the West Cumbria Mining planning application for an underground metallurgical coal mine on 19 March 2019. The decision was reaffirmed on 31 October 2019. A large part of the works involved in the application are in the area I represent.

I repeat that this was a unanimous vote. After being presented with an 188 page report giving details of two years of work looking to all aspects of this application, and hearing hours of presentations and representations, every Conservative councillor present, every Labour councillor, every Lib/Dem and the Independent councillor backed the application.

Since then the government spent some months considering a request from an MP on the other side of the county - who was, I am told by a colleague in that party, strongly rebuked by them for not consulting members of his party in West Cumbria before making it - to "call in" the application. They eventually decided that there were no grounds to do so.

There was then a court action by objectors seeking a judicial review of the decision. This action was dropped when the modifications to the application which are to about to come back to committee were submitted by the applicants. These modifications will be considered by the DC&R committee next Friday (2nd October 2020) at an online meeting. 

The original application described the purpose of the proposal as being to mine "Metallurgical coal" which is also commonly known as ‘coking coal’ and is used in the process for the manufacture of steel. This would predominantly be mined from under the sea off St Bees and then brought to the surface for processing indoors, within a new facility located on the former Marchon site in Whitehaven. Processed coal would then be transferred by underground conveyor to trains using a new loading facility and sidings in the Pow Beck Valley, south of Mirehouse, in my division.

Under the original scheme it was expected that seven-eighths of the coal produced would be coking coal for the steel industry - with what amounts to a by-product of one eighth "middlings coal" for general use.

The main difference in the revised proposal is that West Cumbria Mining, on the basis of the further investigations and drilling they have done on the site, no longer think it will be necessary to produce "middlings" coal and are now proposing to concentrate entirely on coal for making steel.

If this application was for coal to burn to generate electricity I would not be supporting it. But you cannot currently run an advanced economy without steel, and we do not yet have an economic process to make steel without coking coal. Without steel you cannot make many of the things which our society desperately needs - including items like the wind turbines and hydro turbines required for our principal sources of renewable energy. At the moment the UK steel industry mostly uses coal strip-mined in the Appalachians and shipped a substantial fraction of the way round the world, doing far more damage the environment than mining it from under the sea off St Bees head would.

That argument applied to the original application. For those who object to burning coal for fuel to now object to the revisions to the application is utterly perverse. Cumbria County Council has already given planning permission for the mine. 

If I had been an opponent of West Cumbria Mining's proposal, I would still be have supported the amendment on the basis that it removed the most objectionable element of a development which already has planning permission. 

My actual opinion is rather stronger: what this amendment does is remove the one aspect of the proposal in respect of which their previous objections had any basis in reality.  

Details of Friday's meeting including the officer's report and how to log on to watch and listen to it can be found on the County Council website here.

Sergeant Matiu "Matt" Ratana RIP

The police officer who was shot dead in Croydon yesterday has now been named as Sergeant Matiu Ratana (usually known as Matt.)

Metropolitan police commissioner Cressida Dick has released the following statement about him:: 

“Earlier today I said I would give more information about the terrible events of the early hours when I could. It is now my sad duty to confirm that our colleague who was killed was 54-year-old Matt Ratana, a custody sergeant. 

“He joined the Met in 1991 and was captain of his recruit training class. Posted to Charing Cross and worked as a constable on the streets of the West End and Westminster in various roles. Later, he worked with the Territorial Support Group and in Hillingdon. 

 “In 2010 he worked as a sergeant in Hackney in the response team and in neighbourhoods. Five years later, in 2015, he moved to Croydon, where he worked in response, in neighbourhoods and then our detention command. 

“In all, nearly 30 years spent as an uniformed officer serving the public of London. 

 “He was originally from Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, and educated, I believe, at Palmerston North Boys School, where he developed a passion for rugby. 

 “After Otago University, he came to London in 1989 and played for London Irish. He was a leader in his sport, well known as a player in several teams including the Met Police, and as a coach, most recently at East Grinstead. 

 “As a colleague, he was big in stature and big-hearted, a friendly, capable police officer. A lovely man, highly respected by officers and staff, and by the public, including suspects he arrested or dealt with in custody. 

 “He was very well known locally and will be remembered so fondly in Croydon, as well as in the Met and the rugby world. “He leaves a partner and an adult son form a previous relationship. Our thoughts are with them. 

 “The suspect, a 23-year-old man, was arrested by regular patrolling local officers for possession of ammunition and possession of class B drugs with intent to supply in Pollards Hill, SW16, after a stop and search. He remains in hospital in a critical but stable condition. 

 “Our investigation is led by homicide investigators from the Specialist Crime Command. We are not treating it as a counter-terrorism incident. We are doing all we can to establish a motive for the murder. 

“Having retrieved CCTV and body-worn video, the footage is being reviewed in detail and we are working closely with the Independent Office for Police Conduct. 

 “I understand the great concern about how this happened and we will establish the facts. We owe it to Matt, his loved ones and all other officers. But we need to give investigators space to do their job. Speculation at this time is unhelpful and may even harm our efforts. 

 “Every day, the Metropolitan Police arrest several hundred suspects, many of them violent criminals who pose a risk to the public. 

 “The safety of my officers is a top priority and very close to my heart. We are a large, professional, resilient, and very experienced police service. As we mourn the loss of a much-loved colleague, senselessly killed, be under no illusion that our resolve to protect the public and to tackle violent crime – whoever may be responsible for it – will be undiminished.”

Rest in Peace, a good man, who gave his life serving our country.

Quote of the day 26th September 2020

 "A tad slow" even for second class post but "better late than never."

(Extract from the response of Zoe Fierro who on Tuesday received a letter from her late grandfather Ronald Smith, 22 years after he posted it and 21 years after he died.) 

Friday, September 25, 2020

A good crisis?

I was not at all impressed three days ago when Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green said coronavirus was a ‘good crisis’ to exploit, and she has still not apologised.

CCHQ have suggested this shows that Labour are more interested in playing politics than working in the national interest, and frankly, I think they have a point.

  • When Sir Keir Starmer became Labour leader, he said he would work constructively with us through the coronavirus pandemic, not just opposition for opposition’s sake.
  • But three days on, and his Shadow Education Secretary has still not apologised for her appalling comments saying, ‘I think we should use this opportunity, don’t let a good crisis go to waste’.
  • Sir Keir Starmer should condemn these comments. His continued failure to take action can only be seen as an endorsement of playing party politics with this crisis. 

Tragic news from Croydon

Home Secretary Priti Patel has released a statement saying she is “deeply shocked and saddened” following reports a police officer was shot dead in the early hours of this morning in south London. 

The Metropolitan Police have confirmed that the incident took place at approximately 02:15hrs at Croydon Custody Centre on Windmill Lane. 

The officer was shot by a man being detained at the centre and later died in hospital of gunshot wounds. A 23-year-old man was detained by officers at the scene. He was also taken to hospital with a gunshot wound and remains in a critical condition. 

The Met Police have confirmed that no police firearms were discharged during the incident.

This is terrible news.

Our police officers put their lives on the line for us every day. It is something we must never forget or fail to be grateful for. 

Action to protect out climate must not become another victim of coronavirus

Yesterday at the virtual UN Climate Action Roundtable, the Prime Minister called on nations across the world to commit to taking ambitious action on climate change and chart a path to a greener and more sustainable recovery from coronavirus, and in doing so, secure the planet for the next generation.  

  • As the world continues to deal with coronavirus, we must look ahead to how we will rebuild, and how we can seize the opportunity to build back better. 
  • The UK will lead by example, keeping the environment on the global agenda and serving as a launch pad for a global green industrial revolution. But no one country can turn the tide – that is why on 12 December when we co-host with the UN an event to mark the five year anniversary of the landmark Paris Agreement, we will use the opportunity to ask world leaders to announce new and enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions that reflect the highest possible ambition, net-zero commitments, ambitious adaptation plans and bold new climate finance pledges.
  • We cannot let climate action become another victim of coronavirus. Let us be the leaders who secure the very health of the planet for our children, grandchildren, and generations to come.

The Winter economy plan

As Britain's response to the coronavirus pandemic adapts, the Chancellor has updated the House of Commons on our Winter Economy Plan, the next phase of our economic response as we continue protecting jobs throughout the winter months. 

  • As the government takes the difficult but necessary measures to keep the virus under control, they will will continue to take steps to protect jobs, livelihoods, and businesses across the United Kingdom.
  • Throughout the coronavirus crisis, Britain has put in place one of the largest and most comprehensive response economic response packages in the world, providing over £190 billion of support to protect jobs, incomes, and businesses; and launched our ambitious Plan for Jobs and New Deal to help build Britain back better and secure our economic recovery. 
  • In the face of unprecedented challenges, Britain has repeatedly found creative and innovative ways to support jobs and livelihoods to ensure no one was left behind, and will continue to apply that same creativity in the months ahead.

Quote of the day 25th September 2020

"Dishonest statistics really are toxic, because if we want to use numbers to see the world clearly, we need to be able to evaluate them calmly. We must allow for our emotional reactions, our preconceived ideas and our political leanings.

"At the risk of sounding like Yoda with a calculator, one must resist the fog of anger, denial and wishful thinking if we are to keep the numbers straight in our minds.

"Even when a computer is calling the shots, softer human skills are needed. What has distinguished science from alchemy is not skill or the experimental method but the fact that science has a culture of discussion, scrutiny and the public display of evidence."

(Tim Harford, writing in the Sunday Times) 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

The NHS Covid-19 app

Today the NHS Covid-19 app launched across England and Wales for those aged 16 and over to use to help us control the transmission of the virus, as we continue to use every tool at our disposal to keep this virus under control.

  • Britain is now at the tipping point in our efforts to control the spread of this virus, and with infections rates rising once again, the government aims to make it as easy as possible for everyone in England and Wales to engage in our NHS Test and Trace services. 
  • The government has have worked extensively with tech companies, international partners, and privacy and medical experts to develop an app that is secure and simple to use and will work alongside traditional contact tracing to help reduce the spread of this virus, by allowing people to find out if they are risk of having caught the virus and need to self-isolate, order a test if they have symptoms and access the right guidance and advice – all through their smartphone.
  • This is a significant step forward in our efforts against this invisible killer, and the government urges everyone who can to download and use the app to protect themselves and their loved ones. 

Quote of the day 24th September 2020

"Boris Johnson’s politics and personality do not appeal to everyone. There will be many who have cogent criticisms to make of his inability to acknowledge past mistakes that cost lives and his failure to explain present reversals of advice. Some loathe his face, his voice and his character so deeply that they will have barely taken in a word he said." 

"Yet for many more people, the person delivering these grim tidings is neither here nor there. Boris was elected less than a year ago and he is simply doing his job. What they do care about is whether he knows what he is doing. The prospect of a return to lockdown terrifies them and they will be relieved that this danger has been averted, at least for the moment.

"When Johnson claims that “this broad approach is shared across the whole UK”, most would not dissent. Indeed, it is striking that neither the other parties nor the devolved administrations, all of whom are led by enemies of the PM, have publicly denounced his policy." 

"Boris Johnson has had to take tougher decisions than any of his recent predecessors in office. The economy has been damaged, the NHS has struggled to cope, children’s education has suffered, the weaknesses of British society have been laid bare, but so far we have avoided chaos and kept our nerve.

"The moderate course that is now being steered — neither laissez-faire nor authoritarian — commands general, if grudging, support. 

"Boris Johnson knows he is no Churchill, but he was right to deploy Churchillian prose in his broadcast. Just as the success of Britain’s wartime leadership depended on solidarity in sacrifice to defeat Nazi Germany, so today he is gambling on our readiness to put aside our personal interests for the sake of the common good. Churchill could appeal to a nation that had been through hell only a generation before, but he repeatedly reminded people of very recent dark times, such as the fall of France and Dunkirk.

"Boris likewise invokes our memories of March, when “we pulled together in a spirit of national sacrifice and community”. 

"The idea of togetherness, of a people that is far more than the sum of its parts, is immensely powerful. It is no more a Conservative idea than it is a Labour or Liberal one. It is no more English than Scottish, Welsh or Irish. It is, in the best sense, the idea of the nation. If Boris Johnson can summon up the courage and skill to lead us out of the wilderness of this pandemic, he will not only deserve the nation’s gratitude, but to be remembered as a genuinely national leader."

Extracts from a piece by Daniel Johnson on "The Article" which you can read in full here.


The Spectator, the Co-Op and cancel culture.

Fascinating article by Fraser Nelson in the Spectator about how an obnoxious anti-free speech outfit with the innocent-sounding name of "Stop funding hate" tricked the Co-op into what could have been a nasty misunderstanding - fortunately now resolved - with the Spectator.

A welcome instance where the argument for free speech was successful.

The Co-op actually has the following excellent policy which some junior employees apparently didn't know about or understand.

'We will not seek to affect the editorial independence of publications or channels. We will not undermine the commercial value of our society for our members. We will ensure our values and principles are clear and undiminished regardless of surrounding content.'

Fraser Nelson learns the following three lessons from "This wee drama:-

1. Cancel culture is now rebounding on corporates who engage with it. The joke – go woke, go broke – contains some truth. Companies wisely stay out of party political battles, so why enter the culture wars and disparage a chunk of your customers? Virgin Rail found this out when they were fooled by Stop Funding Hate into dumping the Daily Mail from its carriages: Richard Branson ended up overruling his marketing department and publishing a personal apology.

2. There is a risk in asking a junior social media person to speak for the whole company. The social media person is asked to respond to complaints on Twitter: was your delivery late? A fly in your soup? Please accept our apologies etc. These statements are issued quickly. It’s a weak link, targeted by Twitter trolls to try to fool the social media team into saying ‘seen an advert against an article you disagree with? Or, sorry, regard as ‘hate speech’? Okay, sorry, we won’t advertise with this publication’. As easily as that, a firm can end up accidentally aligning itself with cancel culture.

3. Publications ought to get together, and stand firm on advertisers who engage in cancel culture. Serving readers ought to be the sole focus of any publication: there’s a longstanding tradition in Britain that advertisers do not seek to influence what is published. This editorial independence from commercial pressures is worth defending – and if that means losing revenue from a small number of social warrior corporates then it’s a price well worth paying. As The Spectator has found. This is not a left vs right battle. One of the trolls’ complaints for us, this time around, was that we ran a piece by Suzanne Moore of the Guardian. A while ago, one of The Spectator’s bigger advertisers had a problem with comments made by Matthew Parris. Let’s just say that they’re not a big advertiser now."

You can read the article here.


Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Between Scylla and Charybdis

In a recent discussion on Facebook about the relative merits in the forthcoming US elections of a vote for Donald Trump versus one for Joe Biden, one of my university contemporaries posted pictures representing Scylla and Charybdis - a reference from Greek mythology to two opposing threats, in this case two legendary sea monsters described by Homer as endangering sailors passing through the straits of Messina between Sicily and Italy, one on each side. Any ancient mariner who plotted their course far enough from one of these mythical monsters to be safe from that threat was said to be in danger from the other.

But such an unenviable choice is not just a challenge for US voters this November. Every country in the world is faced with equally unenviable choices about how much priority to give to protecting citizens from COVID-19 and how much to preserving our economies, hit as a result of the coronavirus and the measures taken to control it with the worst recession for three hundred years.

And there is no right or perfect answer. 

I have lost count of the number of times I have had to resist the temptation to write on this blog or on Facebook words to the effect that if person X isn't criticising the government for doing too much harm to the economy then they're not doing enough to protect against COVID-19, and if person Y isn't slagging off the government for failing to do enough to protect against the Coronavirus they are in danger of doing too much harm to jobs, businesses and people's livelihoods.

You can define the "person X" or health libertarian camp as those who argue that because currently the number of people dying of COVID-19 is relatively small, and far less than the number dying from other conditions like cancer or heart disease, therefore the government's restrictions to control it are doing unnecessary damage to the economy and to people's liberty, wellbeing and health. (Covid-19 dropped from being the leading cause of death in England in April to the 24th in August.) 

The "person Y" camp by contrast are those who take the hardest line in favour of the strongest possible measures against the coronavirus. You can bet your life that if the "second wave" sends the COVID-19 death rate back up to anything remotely like the thousand deaths per day the disease was causing earlier this year, that camp will vociferously blame every one of those deaths on government incompetence, in the sort of words which Piers Morgan used earlier this year when he accused the UK government of being responsible for sixty thousand deaths (at a time when the highest remotely reputable estimates of excess deaths in Britain were some way short of that figure.)  

The reason I have resisted the temptation to write anything along the lines that the fact that the government is getting flak from both these groups means they must be getting it about right, is that we have a Scylla versus Charybdis choice. There is no course of action against which one or both of these groups will not be making some valid points. I do not agree with everything that either group says, but unfortunately neither is wholly wrong.

I don't agree with the "person X" camp in that I think they are seriously underestimating the harm that COVID-19 will do if as the PM put it, we allow it to "let rip."  He was also right to warn that if some people take risks it will affect not just themselves but others who may be more vulnerable: in Boris's words, "The tragic reality of having COVID is that your mild cough can be someone else's death knell."

Unfortunately however team "X" are absolutely right to warn that the measures being taken against the Coronavirus are having an enormous cost not just in money terms but in terms of lost livelihoods, mental and physical wellbeing, and indeed deaths (from the impacts of depression  lack of exercise and suicide among other things.)

The "Person Y" camp makes a lot of very good point, but I think the best answer to their propensity to go over the top comes, by an enormous irony, from someone with whose views on certain other issues quite a few of them would agree - the former Lib/Dem Leader Vince Cable. He wrote this week that

"Equally baffling are opposition spokespeople who act as if policy should be based on the premise that there must never be a single Covid-19 death. That is a recipe for lockdown forever and everywhere. As a “vulnerable” person in my mid-70s I think I would take my chances in Stockholm."

As the first two words of that quote should alert you, it's his answer to one side of an argument taken out of context and I don't think that in context his last sentence means what you would be entitled to think he meant if he'd said those words on their own. Click on the title of his article below to follow a link to the whole article to see the full context.

Although I disagree with many of the points in Vince Cable's article, 

"When it comes to handling coronavirus, were the political ‘bad guys’ right all along?" 

it was a very interesting article and particularly refreshing in that this was an example, sadly quite rare in these times, of someone who was willing to seriously consider and examine the possibility that people who he utterly and wholeheartedly opposes on many issues might be right on another subject. 

For what it's worth, although the two polar opposites of the "X" and "Y" camps are shouting loudest the majority of the public do not seem to have opted for either of these positions. A YouGov poll found support for the measures announced yesterday as follows:

Strongly support: 44%

Somewhat support: 34%

Somewhat oppose: 9%

Strongly oppose: 8%

Don't know: 6%.

The same poll found a large minorities for each of the positions that the UK government should have gone further, or had got it about right, while a smaller but still significant minority thought that the measures went too far. 

The one thing I am certain of in the debate on how to deal with COVID-19 is that no group, position of faction has a monopoly of wisdom and we will all be wise to continue to listen to one another - however dangerous we may think the ideas other people are putting forward may be.

Boris Johnson's address to the nation 22nd September 2020

For anyone who missed it and has not had a chance to see it since, this is the broadcast which the Prime Minister made last night about the action being taken to prevent a second wave of the Coronavirus.

Protecting British troops from vexatious claims

Those who serve our country in Britain's Armed Forces should not be - and are not - above the law but neither should they be the subject of vexatious and false claims.

So I welcome the Second Reading today in parliament of the landmark Overseas Operation Bill which will deliver on the Conservative manifesto commitment to tackle vexatious claims against our troops serving overseas.

  • Our Armed Forces put themselves in harm’s way day in, day out, to keep our country safe – so it’s only right that we protect them from unfounded and vexatious claims. 
  • The Overseas Operations Bill will prevent the continued legal pursuit of our troops where there is no new evidence by making the first amendments in law to the HRA. A new five-year limit on the time in which troops can be subject to legal claims, apart from in exceptional circumstances, will help stop unfounded allegations. 
  • By ending the cycle of reinvestigations and vexatious claims that can plague our veterans, while ensuring victims always have access to justice, we can repay the extraordinary commitment and courage shown by the men and women who defend our nation.
  • This does not put the heroes serving in our armed forces above the law but it does put in place a measure equivalent to the "Statute of limitations" which is a familiar concept in the law of the USA and other countries to protect them from being the victims of repeated investigations on the same false charges. 

Coronavirus update 23rd September 2020

 Update from the government received today:

"Last night, the Prime Minister addressed the nation outlining that although there are difficult months to come if we follow these simple rules together – the new restrictions outlined yesterday, the rule of six and remember Hands, Face and Space – we will get through this winter together.

  • At every stage of this pandemic we have struck a delicate balance between saving lives by protecting our NHS and minimising the wider impact of our restrictions.
  • It is because of the common sense and fortitude of the British people that earlier this year we were able to avert an even worse catastrophe. But we always knew that while we might have driven the virus into retreat, the prospect of a second wave was real. As in Spain and France and many other countries, we have reached a perilous turning point.
  • On Monday, the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser warned that the doubling rate for new cases could be between seven and 20 days and in the last fortnight, daily hospital admissions in England have more than doubled. The UK’s Covid alert level was raised from 3 to 4 yesterday meaning that transmission is high or rising exponentially.   
  • So, this is the moment when we must act. If we can curb the number of daily infections, and reduce the R number to 1, then we can save lives, protect the NHS, and the most vulnerable, and shelter the economy from the far sterner and more costly measures that would inevitably become necessary later.   
  • So now it falls to each and every one of us to remember the basics – wash our hands, cover our faces, observe social distancing – and follow the rules. 
  • Then we can fight back against this virus, shelter our economy from even greater damage, protect the most vulnerable in care homes and hospitals, safeguard our NHS and save many more lives.

We are introducing new restrictions and strengthening the rules – making them easier for people to understand, for the police to enforce and to ensure the minimum damage is done to lives and livelihoods: 

  • We are once again asking those who can work from home to do so – with particular emphasis on office workers. In all professions where homeworking is not possible, such as construction or retail and for all those key public services, people should continue to attend their workplaces. 
  • From tomorrow all pubs, bar and restaurants must operate table-service only, except for take-aways – with all hospitality venues required close at 10pm daily. In order to help enforce this the Prime Minister made it clear this is not the calling of last orders but closing at 10pm. The same rules will apply for takeaways – although deliveries can occur thereafter.
  • We are extending and strengthening the requirement to wear face coverings. These new requirements will include the wearing of facemasks by staff in retail, all users of taxis and private hire vehicles, and most importantly both staff and customers in all indoor hospitality – except when seated at a table to eat or drink. 
  • We are making our Covid-secure guidelines a legal requirement. In retail, leisure and other sectors these guidelines will become a legal requirement – meaning businesses can be both fined, up to £10,000, and closed if they breach these rules. 
  • From Monday, we will tighten the rule of six. The rule of six will be extended to all adult indoor team sports. A maximum of 15 people will be able to attend wedding ceremonies and receptions. However, up to 30 people can still attend funerals as they can do currently. 
  • Business conferences, exhibitions and large sporting events will be unable to reopen as planned from 1 October. We recognise the implications this will have for our sports clubs – the decision was not taken lightly. We are urgently considering how we can support these clubs, many of which are central to our communities. 
  • This is not a return to the full lockdown in March. We are not issuing a general instruction to stay at home. We will ensure that schools, colleges and universities stay open - because nothing is more important than the education, health and well-being of our young people. We will ensure that businesses can stay open in a Covid-compliant way."

Midweek music spot: 'Phantom of The Opera' Sarah Brightman & Antonio Banderas

Quote of the day 23rd September 2020

 "The tragic reality of having COVID is that your mild cough can be someone else's death knell."

(PM Boris Johnson, in his address to the nation last night)

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Quote of the day: PM Boris Johnson's statement to Parliament today on COVID-19 rules


Here is the full text of the PM's speech

"Mr Speaker, with your permission, I will make a statement on our response to the rising number of Coronavirus cases and how we must act now to avoid still graver consequences later on. 

At every stage in this pandemic we have struck a delicate balance between saving lives by protecting our NHS and minimising the wider impact of our restrictions. And it is because of the common sense and fortitude of the British people that earlier this year we were able to avert an even worse catastrophe, forming a human shield around our NHS, and then by getting our country moving again by reopening key sectors of our economy and returning children to school. 

But we always knew that while we might have driven the virus into retreat, the prospect of a second wave was real. And I am sorry to say that - as in Spain and France and many other countries - we have reached a perilous turning point. 

A month ago, on average around a thousand people across the UK were testing positive for Coronavirus every day. The latest figure has almost quadrupled to 3,929. 

Yesterday the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser warned that the doubling rate for new cases could be between seven and 20 days with the possibility of tens of thousands of new infections next month. 

I wish I could reassure the House that the growing number of cases is merely a function of more testing, but a rising proportion of the tests themselves are yielding a positive result. I also wish I could say that more of our people now have the antibodies to keep the virus off, but the latest data suggest that fewer than 8 per cent of us are in this position. 

It is true that the number of new cases is growing fastest amongst those aged 20-29, but the evidence shows that the virus is spreading to other more vulnerable age groups, as we have seen in France and Spain where this has led to increased hospital admissions and, sadly, more deaths. 

In the last fortnight, daily hospital admissions in England have more than doubled. Tens of thousands of daily infections in October would, as night follows day, lead to hundreds of daily deaths in November and those numbers would continue to grow unless we act. And as with all respiratory viruses, Covid is likely to spread faster as autumn becomes winter. 

Yesterday, on the advice of the four Chief Medical Officers, the UK’s Covid alert level was raised from 3 to 4, the second most serious stage, meaning that transmission is high or rising exponentially. 

So this is the moment when we must act. 

If we can curb the number of daily infections, and reduce the Reproduction rate to 1, then we can save lives, protect the NHS, and the most vulnerable, and shelter the economy from the far sterner and more costly measures that would inevitably become necessary later. 

So we are acting on the principle that a stitch in time saves nine. The Government will introduce new restrictions in England, carefully judged to achieve the maximum reduction in the R number with the minimum damage to lives and livelihoods. 

I want to stress that this is by no means a return to the full lockdown of March. We are not issuing a general instruction to stay at home. 

We will ensure that schools, colleges and universities stay open - because nothing is more important than the education, health and well-being of our young people. We will ensure that businesses can stay open in a Covid-compliant way. 

However, we must take action to suppress the disease. 

First, we are once again asking office workers who can work from home to do so

In key public services – and in all professions where homeworking is not possible, such as construction or retail – people should continue to attend their workplaces. And like Government, this House will be free to take forward its business in a Covid-secure way which you, Mr Speaker, have pioneered. 

Second, from Thursday all pubs, bars and restaurants must operate table-service only, Mr Speaker, except for takeaways. Together with all hospitality venues, they must close at 10pm

To help the police to enforce this rule, I am afraid that means alas closing, and not just calling for last orders. 

Simplicity is paramount. The same will apply to takeaways - though deliveries can continue thereafter. 

I am sorry this will hurt many businesses just getting back on their feet, but we must act to stop the virus from being transmitted in bars and restaurants. 

Third, we will extend the requirement to wear face coverings to include staff in retail, all users of taxis and private hire vehicles, and staff and customers in indoor hospitality, except when seated at a table to eat or drink. 

Fourth, in retail, leisure, tourism and other sectors, our Covid-secure guidelines will become legal obligations. Businesses will be fined and could be closed if they breach these rules. 

Fifth, now is the time to tighten up the rule of six. I’m afraid that from Monday, a maximum of 15 people will be able to attend wedding ceremonies and receptions. Though, up to 30 can still attend a funeral as now. 

We will also have to extend the rule of six to all adult indoor team sports. 

Finally, we have to acknowledge that the spread of the virus is now affecting our ability to reopen business conferences, exhibitions and large sporting events so we will not be able to do this from 1 October. And I recognise the implications for our sports clubs, which are the life and soul of our communities, and my RH Friends the Chancellor and Culture Secretary are working urgently on what we can do now to support them. 

Mr Speaker, these rules measures will only work if people comply. There is nothing more frustrating for the vast majority, the law-abiding majority that do comply than the sight of a few brazenly defying the rules. So these rules will be enforced by tighter penalties. 

We have already introduced a fine of up to £10,000 for those who fail to self-isolate and such fines will now be applied to businesses breaking Covid rules. The penalty for failing to wear a mask or breaking the rule of six will now double to £200 for a first offence. 

We will provide the police and local authorities with the extra funding they need, a greater police presence on our streets, and the option to draw on military support where required to free up the police. 

The measures I have announced all apply in England and the Devolved Administrations are taking similar steps. I spoke yesterday with each of the First Ministers and again today and I thank them for their collaboration: the health of everyone in these islands depends on our common success. 

Already about 13 million people across England are living under various local restrictions, over and above national measures. We will continue to act against local flare-ups, working alongside councils and strengthening measures where necessary. 

And I want to speak directly to those who were shielding early in the pandemic and may be anxious about being at greater risk. Following advice from our senior clinicians, our guidance continues to be that you do not need to shield – except in local lockdown areas – and we will keep this under constant review. 

I must emphasise that if all our actions fail to bring the R below 1, then we reserve the right to deploy greater firepower, with significantly greater restrictions. I fervently want to avoid taking this step, as do the Devolved Administrations, but we will only be able to avoid it if our new measures work and our behaviour changes. 

Mr Speaker, we will spare no effort in developing vaccines, treatments and new forms of mass-testing but unless we palpably make progress, we should assume that the restrictions I have announced will remain in place for perhaps six months. 

For the time being, this virus is a fact of our lives and I must tell the House and the country that our fight against it will continue. 

We will not listen to those who say let the virus rip; nor to those who urge a permanent lockdown; we are taking decisive and appropriate steps to balance saving lives with protecting jobs and livelihoods. 

I know all of this will have profound consequences for our constituents, so the government will give the House every opportunity to scrutinise our decisions. 

In addition to regular statements and debates, Hon Members will be able to question the government’s scientific advisers more regularly, gain access to data about their constituencies, your constituencies and join daily calls with my RH Friend the Paymaster General. 

After six months of restrictions, it would be tempting to hope that the threat has faded, and seek comfort in the belief that if you have avoided the virus so far then you are somehow immune. 

I have to say that it is that kind of complacency that could be our undoing. 

If we fail to act together now we will not only place others at risk but jeopardise our own futures with the more drastic action that we would inevitably be forced to take. 

Mr Speaker, no British government would wish to stifle our freedoms in the ways that we have found necessary this year. Yet even now we can draw some comfort from the fact that schools and universities and places of worship are staying open, shops can serve their customers, construction workers can go to building sites, and the vast majority of the UK economy can continue moving forwards. 

We are also, Mr Speaker, better prepared for a second wave, with the ventilators, the PPE, the dexamethasone, the Nightingale Hospitals, and a hundred times as much testing. 

So now it falls to each of us and every one of us to remember the basics – wash our hands, cover our faces, observe social distancing – and follow the rules. 

Then we can fight back against this virus, shelter our economy from even greater damage, protect the most vulnerable in care homes and hospitals, safeguard our NHS and save many more lives. And I commend this statement to the House."

Tuesday music spot: the "Holding Out For A Hero" action sequence from Shrek II

The scene from Shrek II where the evil Fairy Godmother, voiced by Jennifer Saunders, is singing "I need a hero" while the real hero and his friends are breaking into the castle is one of the most perfectly constructed and brilliantly funny animated sequences of all time. 

I still find myself spotting clever details that I'd previously missed when I watch it - this time how the captain of the guard shouts "Incoming!" to warn his catapult crew to get clear of a approaching giant gumdrop button!
The only slight catch is that the hero looks and sounds exactly like one of the strongest contenders for the title of worst Prime Minister this country has ever had, a designation for which there has been a lot of competition. 

Perhaps the message of the film's ending is that the heroine, Fiona, prefers Shrek when he looks like an Ogre rather than like that PM ...

Flu Jabs

This year the government and NHS are offering a record number of people the flu vaccine – to pull out all the stops for what is likely to be a particularly challenging winter. 

  • New Public Health England research suggests that people infected with both flu and coronavirus were more than twice as likely to die, compared to those with coronavirus alone. These people are also more at risk of severe illness.
  • This year, the government is offering 30 million people the free flu vaccine, the highest number ever. Some people, including myself, will be offered it for the first time ever, as eligibility criteria have been widened. The unprecedented vaccine drive will be supported by a scaled-up marketing campaign across TV, radio and digital advertising – the ‘Just’ The Flu campaign. Eligible people will also receive direct reminders prompting them to book their appointment, helping to drive uptake among their registered eligible patients.
  • With the simultaneous risk of flu and coronavirus, make sure you get your flu jab if you’re eligible, don’t gather in groups larger than 6 and remember ‘Hands Face Space’ so we can look after each other
  • A number of employers, including mine, are working with organisations like Boots to offer a free flu jab to those employees who don't qualify for a free flu jab under the expanded government scheme. So all BT and Openreach employees have been offered a free flu jab. I hope other employers will consider making similar arrangements. 

COVID-19 Alert Level Raised

Today the PM will address Parliament and broadcast to the nation where he will set out the further measures we will take to tackle coronavirus.

  • The coronavirus alert level has moved from Level 3 to Level 4 after the data showed the number of cases was rising rapidly. As the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser said, we are at a critical point in the pandemic. 
  • To tackle the spread of coronavirus, the Prime Minister has announced that all pubs, bars, restaurants and other hospitality in England will be required to close by 10pm from this Thursday. The hospitality sector will also be restricted by law to table service only. 
  • Cabinet will meet this morning ahead of the Prime Minister setting out the changes in a statement to Parliament. He will also bring together the COBR committee with Cabinet Ministers and First Ministers to discuss the surge in cases. 
  • No-one underestimates the challenges the new measures will pose to many individuals and businesses. We know this won’t be easy, but we must take further action to control the resurgence in cases of the virus and protect the NHS.