Chair’s Blog

Peter Burke

23 July 2020

Playing Russian Roulette With The Nation’s Future

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‘It has been surprisingly difficult to establish who has responsibility for what. Overall, the issue of defending the UK’s democratic processes and discourse has appeared to be something of a ‘hot potato’, with no one organisation recognising itself as having an overall lead.’

– The Russia Report

Recently Oxford for Europe played host to Dominic Grieve and Michael Dougan. In these strange times, sadly it had to happen via Zoom. Both had much wisdom to impart. On the day the main focus of questioners was of course the Russia report, of which Dominic was the principal author. Though at the time he was unable to disclose the contents of the report, he was very clear in his views about its suppression. The timing of the meeting was fortuitous, as the report was finally published, perhaps against expectations, a matter of days later.

The response to the Russia Report was predictable. Nigel Farage demanded an apology from Remainers for any accusations that his side was in cahoots with the Russians. The Prime Minister once more attempted to pretend he was exonerated, thereby once again gaslighting the public and treating them as stupid children. In reality the report in its way is even more toxic than if it had found clear evidence of Russian interference in the referendum. The fact that such evidence has allegedly not been found (so far) was linked to an almost deliberate strategy of steering security forces away from any inquiries into this issue, and many others where the Russian regime might have been implicated. Government had no hesitation in lending credence to those parts of the report which implied Russian support for Scottish independence or for Corbyn. Yet it tried to denigrate any implication of similar support for the Tory party or the Brexit cause, despite it being on the record that that is where the bulk of Russian money actually went. Many Tory MPs have been forced to admit that their constituency parties accepted money from Russian oligarchs with Kremlin Connexions, including Robert Courts of Witney. Surely we have to ask what was being offered in return?

Bill Browder on bottom left

As Bill Browder, the author of the Magnitsky Act, made clear in a recent broadcast chaired by Carole Cadwalladr, the Russian regime is an equal opportunities actor. It is quite happy to back parties of the extreme left and those of the extreme right, provided it serves its general purpose of creating division and discontent among what it sees as its western adversaries. There is no contradiction whatever in this regime supporting the extreme Brexiteers in the Tory party and the Corbynites within the Labour Party, at the expense of the moderates on both sides, and of course at the expense of the UK as a whole.

What really was a smoking gun in the report was the fact that, in the face of very clear evidence of illegal Russian activity in the City of London, the government did not give the security forces any steer towards investigating it, and they in turn did not feel it was their job to take the initiative. They took the view that their main responsibility was to report back to government, and at the time their principal focus was on the terrorist threat. In contrast, even in Trump’s America, the Mueller investigation was up and running within weeks of allegations of Russian electoral interference. The government’s first responsibility is the safety of its people , and in this respect successive prime ministers from Cameron onwards were grossly and culpably negligent. The fact that Johnson tried to bury the report (something he now denies) is in itself deeply incriminating.

As always with Johnson, we are faced with an almost unique combination of malice and incompetence. The incompetence shines through: it was Johnson himself who delayed the reconstitution of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), which is quoted as the ground for delayed publication. He had the opportunity to appoint 5 of the 9 ISC members, and chose in all cases people he considered to be loyal Brexiteers. He shot himself in the foot by appointing Dr Julian Lewis, somebody who had publicly stated his serious concerns about Russian behaviour in the UK. It should have come as no surprise that Lewis was no Patsy . On the contrary, he allowed himself to be elected chair by the 4 opposition MPs on the ISC and of course that led to the report’s publication. Had Chris Grayling, as the PM wished, been elected to the chair (a post for which he had no qualifications or experience), undoubtedly we would have had to wait for another 30 years before publication. Incidentally , to the many other resounding achievements of Failing Grayling can now be added his success in losing a rigged election.

The ISC press conference, with the new chair, Dr Julian Lewis (ex-Tory, centre), and the 2 members carried forward from the previous committee, Stewart Hosie (SNP, left) and Kevan Jones (Labour, right)

In the event the decision to publish was unanimous, with even Grayling voting in favour once publication was going to happen anyway. Perhaps the four surviving Tory MPs on the committee were suddenly seized with a pang of conscience when they had actually had a chance to read the report. Or perhaps they were bowing to the inevitable – being unable now to block publication – and saw a greater risk from reputational damage than from prime ministerial disapproval. All nine members of the committee endorsed a press release condemning the delay in publication, and also endorsed the report’s call for a further investigation into the details of the Russian role in the 2016 referendum. This call should have had all the more force since it came from all 16 former and present members of the ISC, including the Tory Brexiteers, and yet it was rejected by government almost as soon as it was published. Could we possibly ask for a better demonstration of arrogance and lack of principle ?

So, massive Johnsonian cockups can sometimes be in the public interest. The other one which belongs in that category is the decision by Johnson / Cummings (perhaps we should now refer to this abomination as Mr Johnnings?) to remove the whip from Julian Lewis, thereby creating yet another angry ex Tory MP who knows where the bodies are buried, and simultaneously ensuring that the Intelligence and Security Committee has, for the foreseeable future, an non-Tory majority. Perhaps that at least will ensure that it continues to do its job effectively.

With all the focus on the Russia report, perhaps the government felt it was able to sneak through its Trade Bill with less scrutiny than it would otherwise have had. This has now successfully completed all its Commons stages. Its effect is to allow this government and its successors to agree trade deals with other countries without the inconvenience of parliamentary scrutiny (is that what was meant by ‘taking back control’?). Even worse, the contents of such deals do not need to be made public for five years. This may mean we will have to rely on the US Congress to tell British voters what their own government has negotiated on their behalf. All opposition amendments to this bill were soundly defeated, and, to their deep discredit, all four Oxfordshire Tory MPs voted with the government at every opportunity. I very much hope that voters will tell them what they think of this spineless collusion in the act of disenfranchising themselves and thereby their constituents.

For those who say we should not be challenging this government’s actions on the grounds that Brexit is the people’s will and has now happened, let me say 3 things:

Firstly, to the many arguments against the validity of the non-binding referendum of 2016, we must now add the serious doubts amplified by the Russia report as to whether indeed meddling by a foreign power compromised the result. And as for the 2019 election, it was more a vote to stymie Corbyn than a mandate for Johnson/Cummings to do as they wished.

Secondly, even if we accept the belief that the referendum bound the Government to leave the European Union, this has now happened, “what the people voted for” has been delivered, and no further action is required to deliver it (as pointed out by Chris Grey in his superb blog). Even if the UK had chosen to remain in the Single Market and European Customs Union indefinitely, or even to rejoin the EU, this would not be going against the referendum mandate, as that covers only the act of leaving the EU, not remaining outside. In other words, a rational government, having delivered on its promises, would now make a hard headed evaluation of the current position – which is after all in so many ways (not just in relation to Covid) different from that of 2016 – and act in the best interests of the country, whatever that might mean.

Thirdly, there is daily accumulating evidence of the harms of Brexit.  The government has embarked on a massive propaganda campaign (‘The UK’s New Start: Let’s Get Going’) to “prepare” the country for a no deal Brexit. When people choose to look at the details of this, it contains no evidence of any benefits, just more hard work, more bureaucracy, more barriers to business and travel, and a need for 50,000 more Customs officials, few if any of whom will be in post in time (that is substantially more than the total number of officials, the “unelected bureaucrats” employed by the EU). The cost to business of the added bureaucracy alone will greatly exceed any contributions UK ever made to EU coffers. The American Trade Deal, if it happens, will tie our hands in dealing with our EU partners, yet it will benefit the economy hardly at all. Predictions are that a Free Trade Agreement will enhance our GDP by 0.16% – as compared with a 10% drop (ie £200 bn + per annum) as a direct consequence of a no-deal outcome on 1st January.

David Frost, our chief negotiator, has achieved virtually nothing so far, and that appears to be what he was employed to do, given that he is being rewarded with a new job from 1 October. He will then be expected to combine responsibility for security with his negotiating role – a fact which reflects the low priority this government has chosen to accord both roles. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the government’s default aim is a no-deal Brexit.

Sir David Frost

And as it happens that same date, 1 October, has very special significance. It is the date on which the furlough scheme, on which so many people depend for their livelihood, is to end. It is also the date on which Michel Barnier expects negotiations over a trade deal to be completed, as any deal, if there is one,  has to be ratified by all 27 member states and the European Parliament. It may well be at about the same time that we will see a further wave of Covid. It is also about this time that Parliament returns from the recess which has just started. When that happens, we can only ask: what kind of a world will MPs be returning to?

With all the doom and gloom in the air, I’m sometimes asked why we bother to carry on fighting. In a word, we have to. It may be that we have lost some of today’s battles, but if we lose them without a struggle we are bound to embolden our enemies and make it easier for them to win tomorrow’s. I would like to end by quoting our speakers at the Oxford for Europe meeting:  

“The only way things really become unsalvageable is if people like us stop trying to salvage them “

Prof. Michael Dougan.

The tide of history is on our side about this… Those of us who want good for our country’s future and want our children to prosper should not give up. Our forebears have been through similar periods in UK history and we’ve come through it, and I am convinced that we will come through this as well, and we will look back on this in 50 years’ time and think ‘what an extraordinary episode when the UK took leave of its senses’”.

Dominic Grieve

[The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Oxford For Europe]

Quote of the week:

‘Brexit must happen so that the UK parliament can take back control from the EU of something over which it did in fact have control but had foregone the right to exercise, but since it had done so then now it has taken back control that foregone right should continue to be denied parliament because it would have no fewer rights than if Brexit hadn’t happened in the first place.’ That sentence really needs to be read in a ‘Sir Humphrey Appleby’ voice to get its full effect.

Chris Grey

Move on, Nothing to see here

2 June 2020

While people forgive their leaders a great deal – often far too much – there is no forgiveness for that terrible moment when you realise that the anguish you have endured for the greater good was, to those in authority, just a mark of your credulousness and inferiority.

Fintan O’Toole

“Boris Johnson is the prime minister. What did they expect? Send in the clowns, and you wake up in a circus”

Una Mullaly

There will be things that the UK government has got right in managing the covid pandemic, but at this point in the proceedings it is hard to identify what those are.

Dr Fiona Godlee, Editor, British Medical Journal

‘I know that you’ve asked Chris and Patrick, but I’m going to interpose myself if I may, and protect them from what I think would be an unfair and unnecessary attempt to ask a political question. I think it’s very important that our medical officers and scientific advisors do not get dragged into what I think most people would recognise as fundamentally a political argument, if that’s all right Laura’

Boris Johnson to Laura Kuenssberg, silencing his two expert advisers on the Cummings question.

Boris told such dreadful lies
It made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes
His desk, which from it’s earliest youth
Had kept a strict regard for truth
Attempted to believe each scoop
Until they landed in the soup.
The moral, it is indeed,
It might be wrong but it’s a damn fine read.

Written by the press corps during BJ’s days as a journalist in Brussels

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‘It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt’

Boris Johnson is right. He is right that we need to focus on dealing with the pandemic and not be distracted by the issue of Dominic Cummings. The only way this can happen is by the Going of Cummings, which is now long overdue. His original offence may have been trivial, but it was definitely an offence, and his failure to apologise or show any degree of insight has become the real story. It beggars belief that it is at his press conference, in, of all places, the Rose Garden in Downing Street, he admitted, in an obviously legally crafted statement, to most of the accusations which had been levelled against him, but never once apologised. He tried to use an exception clause which was designed for people who are subject to domestic abuse, and was seen to do so without a trace of shame.  He compounded this by admitting to two further offences of which the Mirror and Guardian were previously unaware. Firstly, that of returning to Downing St after visiting his wife, whom he knew to be ill with possible COVID-19. And Secondly driving while visually impaired. David Allen Green has subjected the Cummings statement to forensic examination and it does not come out well.

Cummings’ press conference ended, and not many people have noticed this, with him walking away smirking . This is what is known among those who study psychopaths as the “duper’s delight”, the look of satisfaction that follows a job well done. Like Prince Andrew, he really believed had had done enough. And sadly, he may yet be proven right. After all, ministers have been queuing, not only to defend the indefensible, but to pretend that he is completely blameless when they themselves know better, and so does the public. By doing this they risk forfeiting the right to our respect or to be believed again.

Some people, in the face of the evidence, have alleged that Cummings is subject to a witchhunt. Yes, it is true that he is unpopular across the political spectrum, even among people like Steve Baker who have worked closely with him and should know what he is made of. However, it is not just that, he has exhausted all the goodwill which he might otherwise have claimed, by a career of self seeking and dishonest behaviour. It would be wrong to forget that this is the man who is still in contempt of Parliament for failure to appear before a select committee, treating our democratic institutions with distain. He is the man personally responsible for most of the lies of the Vote Leave campaign, which he himself admitted would have failed without them.

There really is not much reason to forgive Cummings for what he has done during lockdown, especially as by his behaviour he has brought the whole Government lockdown strategy into disrepute. Think alone of the phenomenal waste of police time as people who are challenged use the Cummings “instinct” defence: no wonder all the chief constables who have spoken out are united in condemning him. But far more important than this is the phenomenon which we have been witnessing over the past week of people ignoring the lockdown rules, which will undoubtedly set the scene for a re-run of the whole miserable scenario, shutdown of the economy and all. NHS staff – who are burnt out and deeply traumatised by the events of the last 3 months – are already being told to prepare for a surge in workload in July and August. Will people obey lockdown rules as carefully as they did first time around? After all that has happened? Dream on.

The expert advisors who appear beside Johnson like Tweedledee and Tweedledum must feel extremely uncomfortable. They have colluded with him by not showing international comparisons since May 9, the day that the UK overtook all other European countries in numbers of deaths to date. They remained silent when he stopped them speaking out about Cummings, on the grounds that this was a “political matter“. It most certainly goes beyond politics, it is costing people’s lives and they are remiss not to say so. This has been spelled out in this week’s BMJ.

Perhaps it is the fear that his experts will start to speak their minds has led to the latest development, the abandonment of the daily press conferences.

You might well ask what led to the sudden change of mind about the speed of relaxing lockdown. Was it just some red meat to throw to the Tory right and to the tabloids (who have not been kind to Cummings) to distract from this affair? Or is it about a lack of leverage in dealing with the extremists in the party who did not ever believe in social distancing, and who would not mind a few hundred extra deaths anyway?

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A distraction that worked. Were the tabloid press in on the game?

The final insult was when, on a Saturday night, it was announced without consultation, that shielding could, in effect, end. Even NHS England’s national medical director of primary care Nikita Kanani, was not expecting it. It has caused huge anger among interested parties, carers, charities, and my colleagues. There is no evidence that the UK is ready for this. The figures show how different we are from the other countries who have relaxed lockdown on valid grounds.

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Deaths from Coronavirus on 29 May across Europe. And instead of trying to reduce the figures, our government is going to let them rise

Two things seem certain. One is the government has parted company from scientific advice, as independent experts and even several members of the official sage group, handpicked by government, have made clear. The second is that the pace of change would not have been as it is without the Cummings affair. Dominic Moore Raab tried to tell Andrew Marr at the weekend that we were “transitioning from level four to phase three” and with every word he said his nose grew visibly. The decisions which are being made are political, not public health led, and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous.

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Look at this table. We have 8000 new cases ans a jumbo jet full of deaths per day. Do you think we are at level 4 or 5? The PM has told us the time to release lockdown is at level 3. Raab tells us, with no evidence, that we are ‘transitioning from level 4 to level 3’. So what are they playing at?

There are many important reasons why the Cummings affair cannot and will not be brushed under the carpet. There is still an ongoing media storm and many MPs, including Tories who are unhappy . Public opinion is strongly against Cummings, and one thing we can say about the public is that they do not like being told by the Prime Minister what they are thinking or whether or not they are ready to move on . Most importantly, although it is now almost two weeks before the Cummings story broke, there has not yet been an opportunity for it to be scrutinised in parliament. An essential function of the House of Commons is to hold the government to account. This is perhaps one of the key reasons why Jacob Rees Mogg has successfully brought forward to remove the right of MPs to participate from home.

This legislation is wrong on so very many levels.

Firstly it’s a bad example . After all BJ’s mantra was “work from home if you can, go to work if you have to”. Secondly it is illegal. MPs with disabilities , those who are shielding or who are looking after vulnerable relatives, will not be able to attend in person. This seems to fly in the face of the Equality Act. Thirdly it is unconstitutional. A decision is being made from which the MPs most affected are being excluded . It will be argued that the vote has been passed by only 424 MPs, so the outcome would have been different had it been carried out fairly. Furthermore, it is a vote which anticipates its own outcome. If we suppose for one moment that the vote is indeed valid, the system which it introduces does not come into force until after the vote had been held, and therefore was not be operative at the time of the vote itself. Therefore the basis on which the vote was carried out is null and void. I can see no earthly reason why it will not be challenged in the courts. The Lords, after all, manage well enough with remote participation.

Watching the proceedings live on BBC parliament, open voting may in itself be a refreshing change, but it masks yet another assault on democracy.

How voting will look in future?? Henley MP, John Howell, voting with the government, in the foreground

One of the stories that arose in the popular press last week was that Cummings had agreed to leave government in six months. This may just have been kiteflying, but it is a significant period to choose. It would take him to the point where essentially all the groundwork for a no deal Brexit would have been completed, ready for a Cliff edge departure on January 1st. This highlights what his mean role in government is . Not only to act as the “brains” behind Johnson, but to hold his feet to the fire and ensure that he does not stray away from the path set for him by the Matthew Elliotts of this world. There is to be no shirking, the job must be done completely and without mercy. The last thing Cummings and his like want is any prolongation of the transition.. All the more reason, from our point of view, for insisting on it. Negotiations with the EU 27 over trade goods are still going on, just about, but there is precious little negotiation time left and hardly anything has been agreed as yet.

Please do not be tempted by the traditional brexiteer argument that in the EU everything is agreed at the 11th hour. Both sides have other things to think about at the moment and it is not only likely but almost certain that something will go wrong in such planning. Michel Barnier’s pronouncement on Sunday highlights just how big a gap there is to fill. And, as even the Daily Express has just discovered for the first time, goods constitute only 20% of the UK’s trade with Europe. 80% is services, and this is something about which negotiations have not even yet been scheduled. If there is no extension, the best we can expect is a hasty fudge on goods and a complete collapse on services. The impact on supply chains is going to be catastrophic, with the motor and aerospace industries being unviable overnight (if coronaviruses has not already seen to that) and the collapse of agriculture and the much vaunted fisheries trade, but most importantly the City of London being unable to continue dealing with its largest market. It will of course leave us with no allies but Trump’s America, and of course Trump will give us the ‘best deal in history’ the trouble is, it is the best deal for him. This must not be allowed to happen. It is Cummings’ dream and the UK’s nightmare.

Witch hunt? You must be joking   

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Barnard Castle. In Durham slang, ‘Barnard Castle’ is an expression for a weak excuse.
Of course, you too would go there to test your eyesight. Wouldn’t you?

Previous Blogs

Time to relax? – please think hard!

18 May 2020

“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?

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.

Click here for the European Movement petition to extend the transition period.

Click here for March For Change Petition


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