2007 - 2020

‘Déjà vu’ all over again

We are suffering from ‘déjà vu’, all over again. Jeremy Hunt the ex-Cabinet Minster and Conservative MP, speaking on C4 News (5th May) claimed that “following the science” and “guided by the science” are the same thing. Make of that what you will. He is a Conservative. Anything can now mean anything at all. Make it up as you toddle along. This was immediately after Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific adviser to the British Government said on the same news programme, that the scientists gave advice to Government; usually with a range possibilities, not decisions, as I understand his explanation. The politicians made the decisions. 
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Hunt was clearly not on C4 to represent science, or as an ‘impartial’ spectator, but as an apologist for this now utterly exposed and failed Government in Westminster. Even he can’t deny that testing was not done early enough, that Far East countries and Germany have done better than the UK. He is still prevaricating on just how bad the British performance has been; but he would, wouldn’t he? So his defence is that the Scientific advice from SAGE, that advises Government on science, did not model the ‘test, trace and isolate’ programme; thus, it wasn’t introduced early enough. Surprise, surprise! Blame the scientists; just as was to be expected from a Johnson government and its supporters. 
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Murdo Fraser, Conservative MSP, when interviewed on John Beattie’s BBC Scotland news programme (7th May) clearly realised that bashing scientists was not a good move; so reverted to the proposition that both the British and Scottish Governments are simply following the (same) best, scientific advice, and again that following the best advice meant the same thing as ‘guided by’ the same advice. This sophistry is just the same buck-passing operation, reheated; this time in the service of the Scottish Conservative obsession with Unionism. Unionism means there can only be one solution to leaving the lockdown; the policy chosen by the British Government; simply because it is the British Government. At Scottish Questions in Holyrood, earlier in the week Jackson Carlaw MSP, Scottish Conservative leader, in a desperate attempt to politicise the problem advantageously from a Unionist perspective, struggled to understand that if the evidence alone was all that mattered, and a single policy for coming out of the lockdown across the four nations of the UK was required, then such a policy would be right, but it would have to follow the slowest nation of the four’s actual experience of the timeline of the unfolding pandemic and its effects; and not at the behest of the British Government simply because it represents the largest nation.
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The proposition that the scientists are responsible for the policy decisions of Government has of course, already been exploded by Sir Patrick Vallance (see above). Professor Devi Sridhar, Professor of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, interviewed by the Guardian (23rd April), said this: “As a scientist, I hope I never again hear the phrase ‘based on the best science and evidence’ spoken by a politician …. This phrase has become basically meaningless and used to explain anything and everything”. Which is to say it explains nothing at all. That was never likely to stop Murdo Fraser.
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The problem for Hunt’s argument about testing is that the scientists knew Britain was bereft of a virus testing industry; so they didn’t propose that as an immediate solution, because it didn’t exist. Hunt is still claiming that Hancock’s 100,000 tests per day is a great success; a triumph  in four weeks. The real question is why are we trying to build a testing industry out of nothing – in four weeks? How did we arrive in that predicament? In fact for about the fourth consecutive day, the number of tests was well short of 100,000; at under 70,000 today (probably a shortfall against that static target since April 30th, of around 100,000 tests; and the PM has already replaced it with a new 200,000 per day target). But the real judgement on the  target was given by Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize winner and Director of the prestigious biomedical research centre, the Crick Institute: it was just a “PR stunt”. The strategy is less than the propaganda. Many care homes are still not receiving the required tests of staff or residents. There are doubts that a centralised testing regime, with an unproven, gee-whizz, bespoke App, with complex Bluetooth link is actually the way to do testing in any case. The proven option is de-centralised, locally organised with trained testers on the ground. That takes time to set up and deliver in mass volume as, it is belatedly acknowledged, is now required. This approach is nothing like Boris Johnson’s glib, posturing 200,000 test target; plucked from the air and of doubtful significance. Testing is best done if the infrastructure for the operation already exists. But in Britain it doesn’t. We are making it up ‘on the hoof’. Scotland has not yet committed to the new centralised, high-tech bluetooth linked App proposal. 
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The time is long past when Conservative politicians should stop attempting to pass the buck from the politicians to the scientists. Any failure in science will require to be reviewed over time, and can only be done, slowly and carefully, ex-post the event. It is not a blame apportionment debate. It is all part of science itself learning about a virus that is, after all, new to science. 
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It is politicians whose words and decisions require to be scrupulously analysed – now. For example, Boris Johnson, yesterday at PMQ’s objected to the use of international comparisons, after total deaths from COVID-!9 in the UK became the highest in Europe (and at an earlier stage in the pandemic cycle than Italy); leading to criticism of the British government’s handling of the crisis. The problem for the Government, with its reactive, attempted dismissal of comparisons, as Keir Starmer pointed out, was that it was the UK Government itself that chose to present international comparison graphs of trends in death rates as part of their public information service. It invited that measure of performance to be used. They clearly thought it would favour Britain. The Government simply doesn’t like the result, now we can see the trend; which simply proves – the Government never even saw the problem coming. The Johnson Government has been hoist by its own petard. The real problem is that the politicians are always looking for an opportunity to “spin” any and all facts in their favour; or bury them deep, beyond the reach of the public – as suits their political purpose. The British Government is so alarmed at its Cabinet ministers actually being confronted by real questions that they do not make them available; and often send second-string politicians who are ‘deniable’ to spin an implausible or weak story; like Fraser or Hunt.
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The British Government is governing virtually exclusively through the media. The PM is going to make his big announcement on Sunday about the future of the lockdown, deliberately choosing the timing for exclusively (spurious) media, public communication reasons. Even the Speaker of the House of Commons has protested the announcement should be made to Parliament on Monday. This is our constitutional system that is being left to blow in the wind, manipulation being hidden under the mask of the fallout from lockdown. It is all quite deliberate. For weeks C4 News, Newsnight, even GMS have informed us, day after day, time after time that a Conservative Minister is not available to speak when a major issue flares up. The Government only allows Zoom-style, choreographed interviews: staged media events to communicate with the public. They use their favoured press outlets to leak information, to set hares running or test opinion. It is wholly rigged to favour Government propaganda. It is a gross distortion and the Government requires the distortion because their management of the pandemic has been catastrophic.
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The deeper problem that lies behind this is a political problem that has neo-liberal Conservatism at its heart. Ten years of austerity that spent scarce resources in the wrong place and without an economic return (slow or flat growth and declining living standards) was matched by a ruthless, misapplied and incompetent austerity programme that led to critical infrastructure vital to our public services, especially the NHS and Care Services in Britain being hollowed out by Conservative Governments over the last decade; and by over forty years of neo-liberal ideology for that matter. It is this ‘hollowing-out’ more than short term mistakes in Government executive action that has left Westminster without the direct levers to pull in a pandemic crisis. Levers that would normally be connected to an established, understood, functioning, decentralised operation on the ground, that is the only way to tackle this kind of emergency. This deep fissure in our defences cannot now be repaired overnight, or through propaganda announcements, or glib generalisations. We know this because Exercise Cygnus, a dry-run in 2016 into British preparedness for a pandemic provided an illumination of the problem, the scale of the shortfall, the extent of the risks we were running and what was required for a clearly predicted pandemic; especially investment. It didn’t happen. Austerity triumphed, the huge hole in British defences against a pandemic attack was not repaired. We learned nothing. This is what has failed us so badly: ten years of incompetence; not the last weeks eight weeks of Johnson’s mismanagement.
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Now this Government is already running out of time, excuses and places to hide. Conservative Government, as always is just ‘Déjà vu’ all over again. We cannot afford it any longer; it is too costly.

Comments (12)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    I agree with the arguments made here.

    However, it is clear that Labour and the LibDems at Westminster are adhering to the ‘whole UK’ concept. Although Labour has probed yesterday at PM Questions on some of these issues, it is unlikely to make any progress because Parliament is not able to vote properly on issues and, in any case, the Tory majority will prevail.

    Channel 4 News tonight did a piece on the shambles of contingency planning despite a pandemic having been set as the top risk priority. But, the BBC is not doing much with any conviction. The FT has been asking some questions. The Times has done revelations. The Guardian points to the inadequacy of the Government daily, but the general media tenor is still one of “Bozza! Bozza! Bozza! Oi! Oi! Oi!” accompanied by distractions like VE Day (and the conflating of the historic Churchill with our current leader (??) and the resignation of a member of SAGE. Apart from the SG and to an extent, the Welsh Government, there is no real leadership and neither of these governments has control of the effective legislation, particularly the funding. Some pro-independence blogs, most reprehensively, Source, have been indulging in willie-waving and producing opinion pieces and skimps of ‘reporting’ that could easily find a place in the Herald or Scotsman (whom they usually quote each day).

    Let us see what Sunday’s ‘announcement’ brings. If the FM believes the SG cannot comply then we might be moving into interesting times.

    1. Graham Ennis says:

      We have the Nicola problem. She will get very uncomfortable if she strays to far from the London edicts. As we know, the “Ruling Cadre” as they used to call it in the old Soviet Union, is not there these days for ordinary Scots. it is too wrapped up in scandles and squabbles and trying to frame Salmond in the courts. Also totally cancelling the party Spring Conference as they know there was going to be a revolt of the members over land reform, and much else. They would have had enough and would have been howling for state financed guillotines for the Lairds. Nicola has gone “Twee”. there might be some token stuff, like border checks for the dreaded virus, but not much else. making noises of complaint and threatening to “Do things” is as far as it goes these days. What I am saying is that the present plague is twisted up in all the other things that have ground to a halt. The great engine of the national party no longer moves. All of this means a new party becomes urgent. On the list, and as rabidly left wing as it can be made. Preferably led by Alex. We await, with awe, and glee, his great tome.

        1. Me Bungo Pony says:

          Unfortunately not I fear.

  2. James Mills says:

    Jeremy Hunt has changed his tune recently . A few weeks ago he was ashen-faced on Newsnight criticising the Johnson approach to the impending epidemic in the UK ( having just witnessed the devastation it was wreaking in Italy ) and agreeing with the presenter that we had not done enough in preparation for this crisis .

    Foremost in his thinking would have been the knowledge that for the past number of years HE had been the Health Minister responsible for running down the English NHS to the point that he was unsure if it was able to cope with the impending crisis and that HE would be held chiefly responsible for the coming disaster .

    Since then he has recovered his composure somewhat and is now happy to be a front man for the Johnson strategy of shifting responsibility to scientists , who , after all , are the ones directing the Government’s actions , n’est pas ?
    A consummate political manoeuver !

  3. John S Warren says:

    Adam Tomkins, Conservative MSP was interviewed on GMS this morning (8th May). I have no idea what he was supposed to be doing. He made clear that the shambles of the Conservative Government’s mixed messages on the lockdown was nothing to do with him. There at least is proof that he is a Conservative. The motto of Conservatism is ‘Not me Guv, its nuthin’ to do with me’. He is a Conservative, it seems only because he is there to hold the Scottish government to account. He is holding ‘a light’ to the Scottish government handling of the lockdown. He isn’t suggesting the current lockdown should be relaxed (in which case, who is holding a light to the actions of the British government, who seem unable to make up their collective mind?), but in spite of all that, what we really need to know is that there is a cost to the lockdown; not just to the economy but in the fall in people presenting to the NHS for other serious illnesses. This is true, but is he uniquely ‘enlightening’ anyone of this fact? Is he saying that the Scottish Government does not know about this, or is not concerned about it? Is not working on it? Does he think only Scottish Conservatives have noticed the problem? Is he even proposing a solution to the problem he states? That at least would be a real, fresh contribution, because I am sure a lot of people are thinking about it in Government and Holyrood; but if he did offer the solution, I missed it.

    Tomkins sounded nervous as he made his wheedling case. He should; for I have no idea of the point of the exercise he undertook this morning, save perhaps to demonstrate, after Carlaw’s bumbling in Holyrood earlier in the week over the lockdown, and the very, very unsurprising communications shambles at the heart of Government in Westminster; that the Scottish Conservatives ‘care’. Well, like most things Scottish Conservatives attempt over COVID-19, it was fumbled.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      Mr Tomkins in the course of life pré-Parliament has been in several parties across the spectrum. I think he is a carpetbagger seeking your make personal gain, without any scruple. He saw Labour in decline and had parted from friends like the late Alasdair Gray, and in the sparsely talented field from which the Scottish Tories draw their candidates, he was intellectually well ahead. I suspect he thought that after 2014, the SNP dominance would crumble and he would get a Westminster seat for the Tories. There was the brief glimmer in 2017, when the Tories gained 10, almost all in rural areas where, historically, they had strength, and, probably gained some LibDem tactical votes, as LibDems also had a history in these areas. However, in 2019, the Tories lost seats and lost vote share in almost all, bar one, in the 6 they retained.

      Despite my antipathy to the Conservative Party and its politics, there are many Tory voters whom I have known over the course of my life who are eminently decent people and have their own long held reasons for voting as they do. I think many of them see people like Mr Tomkins for what he is, and find him unappealing.

      1. John S Warren says:

        I am sure there are “eminently decent people” in all the parties.

  4. John S Warren says:

    Jason Groves, who wrote the headline in the Daily Mail “”Hurrah! Lockdown Freedom Beckons” that suggested that the lockdown would be terminated by Boris Johnson has now been interviewed on BBC Drivetime; this is a classic example of ‘making smoke’ and blustering to cover an abject retreat. Groves thinks that a modest change by Boris Johnson for sitting in a park bench for a few minutes; the substance of the change; which is what is being peddled as the big change on Monday, is ‘freedom from lockdown’. That is it? It is ludicrous, and only needs to be described to be seen for what it is; an ignominious defeat. Grovese is rewriting history () this is the Daily Mail after all), to cover a Government blunder yesterday in which the lemmings of the press followed the Government obediently over the cliff edge; but also, by simple deduction, acknowledging the British Government is in full, haphazard retreat, two days before the Johnson announcement on sunday. This what passes for ‘news’ in Britain today. It is pathetic.

    Do you feel well informed?

    1. Bill Ramsay says:

      Folks s should remember how many Tory leaders are deposed by their own party. Being expendable to the party is a feature of being a Tory leader. In my view Johnstone will be thrown under a London bus well before the next UK General election.

      1. Me Bungo Pony says:

        That would “seem” logical, but be replaced by whom. There have been so many “nights of the long knives” in recent Tory history it is hard to see who is left to replace him. Colonel Ruth returning from her wilderness years? Maybe, but hardly inspiring. Johnson’s tenure may be longer than “normality” would usually allow with a decimated, gun-shy Tory hierarchy not keen to put their heads above the parapet.

        1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

          I agree with this. For Johnson to become Leader his shadowy backers organised a coup within the Tory Party which effectively purged it of competent individuals within Parliament and within the part organisation. In the end, his ‘corona(sa)tion’ was due to around 180 000 old white men from pretty affluent backgrounds. The Cabinet is made up of cyphers, as we saw during Johnson’s unfortunate serious illness, when a stream of them have demonstrated their mediocrity, mendacity and inhumanity at the daily briefings. Their performances have been so dire that Johnson, probably, had to return to work before he was fully convalesced. Unlike Cameron and Blair, he did NOT take paternity leave. Without the baying mob behind him, it was very easy for Kier Starmer in the single PMQs there has been, to show him up for the inadequate he is.

          Only Gove and Sunak have demonstrated that they can actually read their civil service prepared speeches with a degree of fluency and an impression of understanding what they are saying. However, I do not think either has sufficient trust (for different reasons) within the shadowy clique behind the government.

          However, they will find someone and with a compliant media might well blunder through,with,probably 100 000 and more dying.

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