Chair’s Blog

Peter Burke

18 May 2020

(With data updated to 19 May 2020)

Time To Relax? – Please Think Hard!


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Time to relax? – please think hard!

“Work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t work from home”.
– Prime Ministerial statement

There are people who tell me that the government’s plans to relax lockdown are clear, comprehensible, joined-up and timely. How to respond to this? Where do I even start? Perhaps I should recommend that they think very hard about their choice of daily newspaper . Perhaps I should caution them against magical thinking. Perhaps they should read some of the well argued, or angry and outspoken rebuttals. Or perhaps they are people who think that simply believing something makes it true. They are uncomfortable with the thought that we are being led by donkeys, and therefore resort to phrases like “in times of crisis we should pull together and we need to trust the government”. Sadly, blind trust in a government which is both incompetent and unscrupulous is the road to dictatorship.

Why the fists?

Let’s consider what has happened in the UK over recent months.

According to the Office of National Statistics, the first deaths from coronavirus occurred in the week ending 13 March. In that week Boris Johnson boasted that he shook hands with everybody, including people with coronavirus (and this is the man who appeals to our ‘common sense’?!). On 12 March he “recommended” that people modified their lifestyles. On 23rd March the government finally implemented lockdown. By this time there had been over 200 documented deaths from coronavirus. In the week ending 17 April, for the first time, the excess deaths directly or indirectly attributable to coronavirus exceeded all other deaths put together. In the same week total excess deaths in the UK peaked, and they have since been on a downward trajectory. This is of course evidence that the lockdown is starting to work, rather than that we should abandon it.

Graph showing when ‘excess deaths’ exceeded all other deaths put together. Excess deaths may be due to Covid, or to other causes which were not treated effectively as a result of the pandemic. We are now seeing a significant downward trend. NB ONS provides the most robust evidence. Figures given at daily press briefings need to be treated with caution.

On 5th May the UK moved into the unenviable position of having the highest number of coronavirus deaths to date, per capita, in the world (On the same date all the tabloid press could think about to discuss was Neil Ferguson’s love life). In the week ending May 10th the Scottish and Welsh governments made it clear that they were sticking with the “stay at home” message and made minimal fine adjustments to the lockdown policy. At the same time newspapers in England were apparently briefed to headline a forthcoming significant relaxation of lockdown, and no sooner had they publicised this than the message was put out that this would not happen, that in fact the government would be broadly following what had happened in the devolved nations, although the new slogan would be “stay alert” (whatever that means).

So the public was all agog for the prime minister’s much vaunted announcement on Sunday May 10th. They had been given conflicting messages about what it would contain, and much of it came as news, apparently even to the Heads of Government in the devolved nations, in clear defiance of the consultation which had been promised. There even appeared to be confusion in the prime minister’s mind as to whether his writ ran to the whole of the UK (it does not) or just England.

The Government’s own slide showing the 5 tests

When making his announcement the PM referred to the five tests which had to be met before easing of lockdown. When explaining these he appeared to have incomprehension written all over his face and the repeated use of a clenched fist was no substitute for the confidence and authority which were so obviously lacking. Without giving any evidence that the five tests had been met, he then went on to tell people that they should work from home if they could but go to work if they could not. He forgot to say when, or under what circumstances, or whether he was addressing key workers or all workers. Simultaneously he maintained strict bans on family gatherings, with increased penalties. Schools would possibly be reopened in 3 weeks.

This creates a situation where a teacher, for example, who has a young grandson living in a different household, will be asked to work in close proximity with other people’s children, but is liable to be fined if she has contact, even at 2 metres distance, with her own grandchild. After all, she is limited to one other person and a young child can hardly turn up on his own. And air travellers from other countries are being told they must go into quarantine, just at the point where the UK has the world’s highest per capita Covid death rate.  

On Monday 11th May large numbers of workers crowded public transport (obviously having no alternative option), because they took the Prime Minister at his word. It was not until that morning that the hapless Dominic Raab had to explain that what the PM really meant was that the work-related changes should come into effect on the following Wednesday, and indeed the detailed guidelines explaining the policy did not appear until later on that day.

Chaos has followed since, and there has been agreement across public organisations, ranging from the BMA to the teachers’ unions to the Police Federation, bemoaning the absence of joined up thinking. Perhaps more surprising was the excoriating response of dyed-in-the wool Tory Peter Bone. It is odd to think that ministers believe they can give such inconsistent and unevidenced instructions without making themselves objects of derision. Maybe we should not be surprised that Jacob Rees Mogg, leader of the house, wants to restore parliament to its previous format, thereby filling the house with baying MPs who he hopes will distract from the killer blows inflicted at PMQs by the new Labour leader. Alas for BJ, trying to bail him out is a bit like trying to put lipstick on a pig.

Whitty, Johnson and Vallance. Note the absence of the slogans ‘Stay Home’ and ‘Protect the NHS’

At the press briefing on the day after the announcement, Laura Kuenssberg challenged both government advisers, Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty, to say whether they agreed with the move from “stay at home” to “stay alert”, and they avoided answering the question.

The government tells us ad nauseum that it is following “the science”. Yet why is the science different North and South of the border? And why is the Independent Sage committee , led by Sir David King, former Chief Scientist, and a very much more eminent group of scientists than the original – and secretive – Sage, convened by the government, telling us something drastically different?

So have the 5 criteria being met? The first 3, possibly to a degree. There is certainly evidence that new cases and deaths are dropping In London, mainly because they reached such a high peak there. However in other parts of the country, and particularly in care homes, they are still rising. In other words, the much vaunted ‘R’ number, which is used as the basis of so much decision making, is not uniform across the country, and this is something that should guide policy.

The problem is the last two criteria. In regard to PPE, as we know this is consumed at a very high rate. Because of the many procedures required, it is estimated that a patient in intensive care will lead to 20 items per day of PPE being used. Not surprisingly, reserves of PPE are now less than they were at the time of lockdown. It is scant comfort if the NHS has enough beds to cope with demand (only because of the virtual cessation of all other activity), if staff cannot be protected from infecting themselves or from passing infection onto other patients.

Even more serious is the issue of testing. WHO has urged all its members to “test, test, test”. However this does not mean doing tests just for the sake of it, it means implementing a systematic test, trace and isolate policy, which is only really possible once the number of new cases has been brought down to manageable levels. The more cases there are, the larger a team of trained contact tracers you have to have, and the UK has nothing like the numbers required. In early April, Matt Hancock undertook to deliver 100,000 tests by the last day of the month. Given the resources available, informed opinion was that this was impossible, and Hancock proved it to be so. On May 1st he claimed 120,000 tests, and at the same press conference It became apparent that a third of these were simply tests which had been sent out and not actually done. The government advisers claimed that this was normal practise, but we had not been told this before. Indeed it was unclear whether the tests were actually being counted twice (more about this on the BBC’s excellent More or Less). The UK statistics authority severely condemned what had happened. Even worse, it later emerged that an email had allegedly been sent out on Conservative note paper to party members informing them that they were entitled to be tested. This at a time when many NHS workers and others with symptoms were finding it impossible to access tests.

The letter allegedly sent to Tory Party members offering Covid tests

This was a clear dereliction of duty by government. At no time was it apparent that tests were being used as part of the type of test and trace policy recommended by WHO. They were being used solely to save Matt Hancock’s career. Is it worth saving? He may be well-intentioned but he has a unique knack for digging holes for himself: Judge from this clip. By wasting tests in this way the government has created a shortage down the line, which without a shadow of a doubt has cost some people, perhaps many hundreds, their lives.

When confronted over this, the Prime Minister seemed not to recognise that there was a problem, and compounded the error by promising to “ramp up” (horrible phrase) testing to 200,000. Surely achieving this figure will require even greater dishonesty and wastefulness? His action shows profound lack of insight , and since this time he made the promise personally, he will have to stand over it and not once again throw his health secretary under the bus.

On the final criterion, preventing a second peak, it is difficult to know whether this has been met or not until after the event. Following on from the rush back to work in the week after the announcement, there is no doubt that the number of new cases will rise, and deaths will start to rise again two or three weeks down the line. This at a time when patients in hospital have to be treated by staff with little or no protective equipment. What NHS staff need is to be protected, as in the original slogan, not to be clapped on a Thursday night or to be handed medals. When will the government recognise that obvious fact?

Of course we must ease lockdown. The only questions are when and how. We deserve a government which can adhere to its own criteria, and which can demonstrate willingness to take the appropriate steps to prepare for a relaxation, rather than devoting 100% of its energies to saving its own already ruined reputation.

A message from our umbrella organisation, the European Movement

So what has all this to do with Oxford for Europe? Now that Brexit has happened, our principal objective is, like those of the national pro-European organisations, the European Movement, Best for Britain, March for Change, and Grassroots for Europe, to mitigate the damage. Our aims include holding the government to account where is it behaved unwisely or dishonestly. Please ask yourself whether you would trust what this government tells you about the future direction of the country. In particular, do you trust it when it tells you that it can negotiate a trade deal with the EU by 1st January, and that if it fails to do so preparations are in place? We all know that even the negligible preparations which were put in place by government and business for a cliff edge exit in March and October last year are no longer possible against the background of coronavirus. The resources needed will long have been used up. Both the UK and the EU are preoccupied with Covid, and devoting time to complex and almost certainly fruitless negotiations is one distraction too many. The last round, according to both sides, was unproductive. Let our slogan be “one crisis at a time”. Right now coronavirus is the biggest crisis do a face the world since the Second World war, and very possibly longer. Seven more months of transition are far too little. And does your heart not, like mine, sink when you hear that 50,000 new trained customs officers will be required in the event of a no deal exit? That is more than the entire civil service of the EU (those “unelected bureaucrats”).

The Labour Leader on LBC dealing with the transition question.

Can we count on the official opposition to defend common sense? We know that with the welcome departure of people like Kate Hoey and Caroline Flint, the parliamentary Labour Party is almost entirely pro European. So is most of the membership, but sadly there is an influential minority, people like Len McCluskey, who take a different view. I had the opportunity to ask Keir Starmer on LBC on 11th May whether he would support an extension, and I was astounded, as I believe was the press, when he responded “we have not asked for an extension”. A careful choice of words : he did not preclude doing so at some time in the future, but he spoke as if he thought time was not of the essence. Some commentators speculated that this was a strategic position, and I hope they are right. It is no consolation for the rest of us if Labour watches the government driving us over a cliff and then says “I told you so”. Good for Labour but bad for the country. The latest pronouncement from Rachel Reeves gives a tiny modicum of hope, but, like Starmer, she spoke as if unaware of the tight timescale. Now is the time for Labour to ally itself with the call from almost all other opposition parties to extend. Wake up and smell the coffee.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessary those of Oxford for Europe.

You can still sign the European Movement petition on extending the transition period by clicking here.

When Boris Johnson tried to mislead the house over care homes, Barrister Starmer, in fairness, was onto him within minutes. The PM now knows he has more than met his match, something he is not used to
Rishi Sunak, possibly the least incompetent frontline member of the cabinet, managed by accident to vote against his party over food standards. He claims he pressed the wrong button. This is the man to whom we are entrusting our economy and our potential £500 billion deficit. If even he is capable of acting so ineptly, what about the others?

Previous Blogs

The Time To Act Is now.

25 April 2020

“The transition period ends on 31 December 2020, as enshrined in UK law. The Prime Minister has made clear he has no intention of changing this. We remain fully committed to negotiations with the EU. We will not be extending the transition period – we will be recovering economic and political independence at the end of the year, which the British people voted for”

– Government response to petition requesting an extension to the transition period.

“We think the best way of providing certainty to all businesses out there is to let them know that we are not going to keep chopping and changing, that the transition period will end at the end of this year. To carry on negotiations with the EU, along with negotiations with other countries in the world, at least then to provide the certainty… No but we won’t be extending, to answer your question.”

– Grant Shapps, at the coronavirus press briefing, 24 April.

How can any government in today’s climate think that such a response is adequate? Sadly, they are acting true to form.

At a time of the greatest national crisis for centuries, we are saddled with the weakest ever government. It is singularly lacking in experience, common sense and probity. We have only to think of the four key offices of state. We have a Prime Minister whose only Cabinet experience is as the worst Foreign Secretary in living memory (his deputy, Alan Duncan, talks about having to pooper scoop after him wherever he went). In Dominic Raab we have a Foreign Secretary who spent four months in the Cabinet as Brexit secretary and then left in high dudgeon, having achieved nothing. Rishi Sunak is a Chancellor who has never been a Secretary of State for anything – his unique selling point compared to his predecessor was his compliance. In Priti Patel we have a home secretary whose only ministerial experience ended when she was dismissed for not having played by the rules (as of course was Gavin Williamson, now the education secretary). This is mirrored in the entire front bench, all of whom have been selected on the basis of their track record on Brexit, which means of course that they are chosen from among a small segment of an already greatly weakened Conservative Parliamentary party. On the other hand, many of the most experienced former ministers, such as David Liddington, Philip Hammond, Kenneth Clarke, Dominic Grieve and David Gauke, were all purged at the last election and can only watch helplessly from the sidelines.

And then of course there is the proven track record of ministers in obfuscating, contradicting themselves and deliberately misleading the public on matters such as herd immunity, testing, ventilator supply and PPE. They are trying to airbrush away delays and mistakes (Cheltenham?) which have cost many hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. And there is the clear evidence this week that Sir Simon McDonald, permanent undersecretary of the foreign office, was leaned on by ministers to disavow his correct statement that the government failed to participate in the European joint procurement scheme for political reasons. In other words he was forced to lie for his bosses. And now the government has admitted that Dominic Cummings and Ben Warner, who are political appointees and not experts, have been sitting on in and participating in meetings of SAGE, the Scientific Advisory Group For Emergencies. Does this mean that they are the channel by which SAGE’s discussion reach the ear of the PM? It is certainly without precedent and has been condemned by the opposition and by Sir David King, the previous chair.

Dominic Raab struggling to respond to Keir Starmer in a thinned-out House of Commons

The failings of our current government front bench are there for all to see at the lamentable – and evasive – daily ministerial press briefings, and in the contrast at PMQ’s between the forensic approach of Keir Starmer and the flannel of his opposite numbers in Government. It is also striking to see, in contrast, the professionalism and leadership of people such as Macron, Merkel and Ardern. Perhaps we should take some comfort from the fact that we do not have a leader like Trump, who is prepared in all seriousness to invite his public – to the silent horror of his medical advisors – to consider injecting themselves with antiseptic (now, incapable of admitting he was wrong, he puts it down to “sarcasm“). However, frankly, that is scant comfort indeed. Trump manages to make almost any other politician look good.  And when challenged to distance themselves from his lethal foolishness, UK ministers have failed to do so. Another symptom of the reliance upon the USA which Brexit has forced upon us in this country.

Emmanuel Macron speaking to the FT

Are we surprised? This, after all, is the same team that told us Brexit would be easy and would give us “control over our money, our laws and our borders”. Need I say more?

We now find ourselves at the mercy of such third-rate politicians, and we have to swallow hard when we hear people saying that they are the only government we have, so we must trust and support them.

It is against this background of ignorance that the government is proposing to push ahead with ending the Brexit transition period on January 1, 2021. When this date was chosen it allowed for a period of almost two years for negotiation and adjustment. Even then it would have been a tight timescale but the intention was that it would be occupied with intensive negotiations on an adult level on both sides. Instead we find ourselves with an 11 month period of which the first three have already been wasted, and behaviour on the British side which, far from being adult, is petulant and populist. On top of that now comes the coronavirus crisis, which of course has pushed everything else onto the backburner. Not only has it made negotiations about trade deals seem irrelevant and otherworldly, it is also meant that the practicalities of the negotiations have become difficult or impossible. I cannot believe such a complex task can be resolved by Zoom.

Even worse than that, when the possibility of Brexit was first contemplated over a year ago, great show was made of the preparations on the part of government and business for the eventuality of a no-deal Brexit. These preparations were of course grossly inadequate but at least there were some. The capacity to make such preparations has now been completely taken away by the coronavirus crisis. On the other hand the downside of a no deal Brexit is greater than ever. After all, if anything it has reminded us of our reliance upon the European neighbours and the fact that control of borders is a fantasy: who ever thought that the virus would stop its progress at Calais? That did not happen in 1347, 1665 or 1918, so why should it happen now?

In such circumstance of course common sense would dictate that the likely outcome is that no deal will have been struck by the deadline, and therefore an extension has to happen. That common sense has not prevailed is due in part to the pigheadedness and indifference to the common good which is so typical of this government. However there are several other factors. One may well be the Prime Minister’s indisposition, if that indeed is what it is, which will be used as a pretext for missing yet another deadline. Another is the calculation that the damage done by coronavirus can be used to mask that due to a no-deal Brexit, and therefore paradoxically that this crisis makes it easier for the government to get away with such an outcome. If cross-channel trade grinds to a juddering halt in January, perhaps nobody will notice because it is already so compromised anyway. Machiavellian or what?

Johnson’s and Cummings’ Mentor?

There may well be some complacency, even among those of us with pro-European leanings. People are thinking ‘it is only April and we have until December to sort things out’. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are constraints at the tail end of the period, because any trade deal which is agreed has got to be ratified and implemented by January 1. Therefore negotiations have to be completed by November. Furthermore, this government does not have until December to request an extension, it has until the end of June. And in order to make such a request possible it has to legislate: the government bound its own hands by introducing an amendment, Section 15A, to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 last year. This amendment would have to be revoked through an act of Parliament, at a time when Parliament has reassembled virtually but has not yet decided how votes can be taken, if at all.

Furthermore a request has to be made for the Joint Committee (which is required to meet within 30 days of a request by either the U.K. or EU side) to examine the issue of an extension, so in effect action would have to be taken by mid to late May. Thus we have at most a few weeks. It is to be hoped that the civil service, who after all are tasked with making all this happen, will persuade ministers that we live in the real world. And certainly they are trying.

Ministers will only act if they feel public opinion is pressing them. And that might still happen. Even at a time when many of us are suffering huge privations and anxieties about the future, we have to understand the importance of this issue. In normal times we would be having another march in the streets of London to highlight it, in the hope more than the expectation that it would be covered adequately by the BBC and other mainstream media. Just now our options are more limited. We do however have the power to lean on our local MPs, write to the papers, sign petitions (see below) and spread the word via social media that this is a matter of the greatest importance. It is certainly a more pressing issue than whether Captain Tom Moore is given a knighthood, something which attracted over 900,000 signatures to a petition. We really should be able to do better.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of Oxford For Europe.

Jacinda Ardern

Quotes of the week:

“When Johnson starts trying to distance himself from the incompetence of his own government, as he surely will, Cabinet ministers will find out just how loyal and honest he is. They could save themselves some time by asking his wives”.

– James O’Brien

‘Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it’

– Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy

Drawing Us Together While Pulling Us Apart

12 April 2020

During the Irish potato famine of 1847, under the Government of Lord Russell, as people starved, Ireland continued to be a net exporter of grain. In the run-up to this coronavirus crisis, the UK was an exporter of ventilators. Why? Simple failure to do what other countries had done, to anticipate a crisis which was staring us in the face.

This has turned out to be the most bizarre Easter weekend any of us have experienced. As I write this, the UK is recording the highest number of daily coronavirus deaths of any European country. This now includes 2 members of staff at the John Radcliffe. Boris Johnson has just been discharged from St Thomas’s Hospital with the infection. Obviously we all wish him well, as we would in the case of any fellow human being suffering from this serious condition. During the PM’s incapacity, Dominic Raab is in charge. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Well, we can only hope….

Meanwhile the election of Keir Starmer as Labour leader will, we can hope, herald a new era in British politics. Perhaps it will mean an end to the domination of the party by the extreme left, and may pave the way for at least a taste of moderation on the other side of the political divide. He has  committed to work collaboratively where this in is in the national interest. This is no time for ya boo politics, and we really need to see such a spirit from our leaders. Perhaps they will follow the example of ordinary citizens who are doing their bit and more for the common good.

And ordinary citizens are doing amazing things.

The Coronavirus Act, the most restrictive piece of legislation ever in peacetime, has now been in force for 3 weeks. Ordinary people are being asked to make extraordinary sacrifices. And not just being asked, the verb used by Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock was “instruct”. People reading this will already be all too well aware how our lives have changed. It is now technically illegal for boyfriends and girlfriends even to meet if they live in different houses. Victims of domestic abuse are being required by law to stay at home with the perpetrator. Children are required to stay away from school in what may be cramped and indeed explosive conditions. And parents, many for the first time in their lives, are expected to turn overnight into confident and competent teachers. Places of worship are locked up precisely at a time when many people would wish to be there. And at no time is this more evident than at Easter / Passover.  The traditional rights of movement and assembly have been suspended, initially for weeks but few believe it will end there. There will be huge effects on the nation’s mental health. And the impact on family budgets has been incalculable.  Yet a majority of people have accepted all this as necessary. By the time the lockdown came it was seen by the opposition, by the scientific community and by the public at large, not as a power grab, but as a belated concession to reality.

But a note of caution. If people are to respect such rules going forward – and they may need to be in force for a long time – they must be based on trust.

We have to trust that the government is implementing them in the interests of the public, not as some form of martial law by another name. We need a government which shows competence, honesty and probity. And we need to believe that the new rules are being applied fairly and equitably.

Competence? The time for public enquiries and Royal Commissions may be in the future. However, serious mistakes were committed since the crisis broke, and indeed before, which are now costing people their lives. A pandemic scenario was game-played under Mrs. May’s government in 2016 (Exercise Cygnus), and concluded that better preparation was required – this was ignored and the report never published. Even the Telegraph was highly critical of this blatent failure. In 2017 the Conservative government committed a just-in-time approach to the provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), which has left the country hopelessly unprepared. In January, instead of trying to make good on the shortfall, the government did nothing and hoped it could get by on a wing and a prayer.

Not all PPE is the same

Even now, with the crisis not yet having peaked, key workers are having to beg, steal and borrow equipment because it is not reaching them via normal supply lines. This is no way to treat people who are risking their lives in the frontline. The new Nightingale Hospital (odd choice of name, given the reality of the original Nightingale Wards), in London’s Excel Centre, is filling up with seriously ill Covid positive patients, and too little thought seems to have been given to where the required 16,000 staff are to come from, and even less to where they are to get their PPE. In the care sector the situation is even worse. Why should essential workers have to rely on donated equipment from schools and film sets? Why is it seen as necessary to gag NHS staff, and even dismiss those who speak out? And, just as reprehensibly, when confronted with stark evidence of government incompetence, Matt Hancock tried to say that PPE was being over-used. He was rightly condemned from across the board for such a breath-taking exercise in blame shifting. Honesty? Probity? I wonder..

Nightingale Ward at St Thomas’s Hospital, London

Similarly, there is a massive missed opportunity in the supply of ventilators. Before the crisis peaked, several British manufacturers offered their services to the government and were rebuffed, leading them to export their products. The government missed the opportunity to participate in the European joint procurement scheme, which during the transition period it could easily have done. It made a variety of excuses, not the least of which was the story of the missed email, which have been systematically refuted by the other side. And then there is the question of testing, with promise after promise being made by a government which must really know it is unable to deliver because it never planned ahead.

If for a second you attribute this to bad luck rather than ineptitude, look at the Irish Republic. Movement restrictions were in place a week sooner. Testing is being done on a much greater scale (over 8/1000 so far compared with 4/1000 in the UK), and the government is flying in £180m worth of PPE directly from China. Is the UK doing the same? Why is this Government being so inert? Is it just British exceptionalism, as Fintan O’Toole suggests?: ‘On the altar of this exceptionalism, lives have been sacrificed’. And the figures show that he is right. The reported deaths per 100,000 in the UK (likely an underestimate) are 14.8, compared with 6.4 in Ireland.

And there is the question of the rules being applied fairly. Admittedly the police have been placed in an invidious position. They are already overstretched through government led workforce depletion and absence through illness/isolation, and they are having to do something unprecedented. However, what justification is there for solo walkers being arrested for sitting on a park bench, or for people being warned against letting their children play on their own front lawn? To quote: ‘It’s closer to the Keystone Cops than to 1984’. All this while planeloads of people are being allowed to arrive at Heathrow and get straight onto the tube, having travelled from hotspots such as Italy and Iran. Surely justice must not just be done but seen to be done?

Even the Tory Press is getting fed up

While all this is going on, of course, the major problems which preoccupied us back in December are still there. The multiple complex wars in the Middle East, in Yemen, in Africa for one thing. And then there is Ebola, Trump, Putin and the advances of both Islamic and right-wing extremism, not to mention the refugee crisis.

And then there is still Brexit. That unfolding psychodrama continues unabated. We cannot afford to let politicians, of whatever hue, use the pandemic as an excuse to take their eye and ours off the ball. At the moment we are less than 9 months from the end of the transition period, and there are no substantial negotiations going on towards a trade deal –  this may well be understandable  as there are more important fish to fry. However if there is no deal then we will be saddled in January with what the government is pleased to call the “Australian deal”, i.e. nothing at all. The country could not afford this before and can do so even less as a time of international crisis. That is why Oxford for Europe, together with its many sister organisations around the country, is calling for a two-year extension. This is within the gift of the UK government provided that the appropriate legislation has been passed and the request made by the end of June. There really is no alternative. Surely the time to stand on the principles of a ‘pure Brexit’ is long gone? Surely the argument that we needed Brexit in order to achieve control of our borders is now shown up as fatuous nonsense? Countries within Schengen have closed their borders when they perceived an overwhelming need to do so, and that was not something that the EU could prevent. So where it matters, individual nation states still maintain control. When even an arch-Brexiter such as Isabel Oakeshott sees extension as inevitable, it leaves the cabinet looking very lonely in its intransigence. Various petitions are going on and I would urge you to sign, as well as writing to your MP on the subject (see below). As Rafael Behr writes, the pandemic has made “the whole [Brexit] project look parochial and self-indulgent”. 

Secondly, it is welcome news that there will be at least a temporary amnesty for healthcare workers from the EU. However this is not enough. The government needs to understand that citizens’ rights are a crucial issue and it is within the national interest, now more than ever, to ensure that our fellow Europeans continue to be welcomed in the UK. A very good starting point would be to keep the door open to essential workers, including those in healthcare. It is galling, at this time, to find Priti Patel emerge from her silence solely to press forward her already-discredited points-based immigration system.

Thirdly, while all this is going on negotiations continue below the radar on a trade deal with the US. In the form envisaged by the Tory right, this can only happen if we lower our standards and distance ourselves from those of the European Union. Pandemic or not, this would be massively to the country’s detriment and must be resisted at all costs. The absence of a functioning parliament and the impossibility of collective public protest should not be allowed to provide cover.

I would like to end on a more positive note. At the same time as making individuals walk literally 2 m apart, this crisis has served to bring them together. It has shown the selfless dedication of frontline NHS staff (and I have to declare that I am not one of them – currently I carry out only remote consultations), and of the many hundreds of thousands of people who have volunteered to help out with no prospect of gain and potentially some risk to themselves. All around the country groups of people are working together to help and support those less fortunate than themselves. As George Monbiot puts it: ‘The horror films got it wrong. Instead of turning us into flesh-eating zombies, the pandemic has turned millions of people into good neighbours.’. There is a national resource available for contacting a local group near you. There is also an Oxfordshire resource.

And locally a lot else is going on. In the face of Government inaction, a team based in Oxford has produced a new basic but serviceable ventilator, the Oxvent. Oxford University is at the forefront of Covid-related research, with 113 Principal Investigators and a total of 650 researchers working on vaccine development, testing kits, ventilators and other essential projects.

As for the Prime Minister, we can hope that when he has made his recovery he will not forget the lessons he learned in hospital, about the selflessness, dedication and hard work of the front line hospital staff. He will have learned much about why the NHS has such a special place in people’s hearts. And, if he has any conscience at all, he will have learned about the folly of throwing the healthcare workforce into danger unprepared. Finally he will have learned that this is not a condition to be treated lightly, and that determined, positive and timely action is needed in order to overcome it. The problem will not solve itself.



The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe.


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