How Arrogance and Utter Indolence Killed and Is Still Killing Thousands of Britons

This is reposted from a daily newspaper I subscribe to. I am doing this because it contains vital information which ideally would not be behind a paywall. However, because of the crash in advertising revenue, made worse by advertisers algorithms preventing any ads appearing near bad news, newspapers are under threat of disappearing. I urge everyone to subscribe to one or two daily papers. We need them more than ever, as this article shows.

That said, we need to remember all this detail and make sure that, come the day, we do what we can to hold these people accountable. (I can only hope I don’t get sued for this ..)

On the third Friday of January a silent and stealthy killer was creeping across the world. Passing from person to person and borne on ships and planes, the coronavirus was already leaving a trail of bodies.

The virus had spread from China to six countries and was almost certainly in many others. Sensing the coming danger, the British government briefly went into wartime mode that day, holding a meeting of Cobra, its national crisis committee.

But it took just an hour that January 24 lunchtime to brush aside the coronavirus threat. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, bounced out of Whitehall after chairing the meeting and breezily told reporters the risk to the UK public was “low”.

This was despite the publication that day of an alarming study by Chinese doctors in the medical journal The Lancet. It assessed the lethal potential of the virus, for the first time suggesting it was comparable to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed up to 50 million people.

Unusually, Boris Johnson had been absent from Cobra. The committee — which includes ministers, intelligence chiefs and military generals — gathers at moments of great peril such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters and other threats to the nation and is normally chaired by the prime minister.

Johnson had found time that day, however, to join in a lunar-new-year dragon eyes ritual as part of Downing Street’s reception for the Chinese community, led by the country’s ambassador.

It was a big day for Johnson and there was a triumphal mood in Downing Street because the withdrawal treaty from the European Union was being signed in the late afternoon. It could have been the defining moment of his premiership — but that was before the world changed.

That afternoon his spokesman played down the looming threat from the east and reassured the nation that we were “well prepared for any new diseases”. The confident, almost nonchalant, attitude displayed that day in January would continue for more than a month.

Johnson went on to miss four further Cobra meetings on the virus. As Britain was hit by unprecedented flooding, he completed the EU withdrawal, reshuffled his cabinet and then went away to the grace-and-favour country retreat at Chevening where he spent most of the two weeks over half-term with his pregnant fiancée, Carrie Symonds.

Johnson with Symonds in a selfie posted on social media in February

It would not be until March 2 — five weeks later — that Johnson would attend a Cobra meeting about the coronavirus. But by then it was almost certainly too late. The virus had sneaked into our airports, our trains, our workplaces and our homes. Britain was on course for one of the worst infections of the most insidious virus to have hit the world in a century.

Last week a senior adviser to Downing Street broke ranks and blamed the weeks of complacency on a failure of leadership in cabinet. The prime minister was singled out.

“There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there,” the adviser said. “And what you learn about Boris was he didn’t chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends. It was like working for an old-fashioned chief executive in a local authority 20 years ago. There was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be.”

Inquiry ‘inevitable’

One day there will be an inquiry into the lack of preparations during those “lost” five weeks from January 24. There will be questions about when politicians understood the severity of the threat, what the scientists told them and why so little was done to equip the National Health Service for the coming crisis. It will be the politicians who will face the most intense scrutiny.

Among the key points likely to be explored are why it took so long to recognise an urgent need for a massive boost in supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers; ventilators to treat acute respiratory symptoms; and tests to detect the infection.

Any inquiry may also ask whether the government’s failure to get to grips with the scale of the crisis in those early days had the knock-on effect of the national lockdown being introduced days or even weeks too late, causing many thousands more unnecessary deaths.

We have talked to scientists, academics, doctors, emergency planners, public officials and politicians about the root of the crisis and whether the government should have known sooner and acted more swiftly to kick-start the Whitehall machine and put the NHS onto a war footing.

They told us that, contrary to the official line, Britain was in a poor state of readiness for a pandemic. Emergency stockpiles of PPE had severely dwindled and gone out of date after becoming a low priority in the years of austerity cuts. The training to prepare key workers for a pandemic had been put on hold for two years while contingency planning was diverted to deal with a possible no-deal Brexit.

This made it doubly important that the government hit the ground running in late January and early February. Scientists said the threat from the coming storm was clear. Indeed, one of the government’s key advisory committees was given a dire warning a month earlier than has previously been admitted about the prospect of having to deal with mass casualties.

It was a message repeated throughout February, but the warnings appear to have fallen on deaf ears. The need, for example, to boost emergency supplies of protective masks and gowns for health workers was pressing, but little progress was made in obtaining the items from manufacturers, mainly in China.

Instead, the government sent supplies the other way — shipping 279,000 items of its depleted stockpile of protective equipment to China during this period in response to a request for help from the authorities there.Impending danger

The prime minister had been sunning himself with his girlfriend in the millionaires’ Caribbean resort of Mustique when China alerted the World Health Organisation (WHO) on December 31 that several cases of an unusual pneumonia had been recorded in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in Hubei province.

In the days that followed, China at first claimed the virus could not be transmitted from human to human, which should have been reassuring. But this did not ring true to Britain’s public health academics and epidemiologists, who were texting one another, eager for more information, in early January.

Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at Edinburgh University, had predicted in a talk two years earlier that a virus might jump species from an animal in China and spread quickly to become a human pandemic. So the news from Wuhan set her on high alert.

“In early January a lot of my global health colleagues and I were kind of discussing ‘What’s going on?’” she recalled. “China still hadn’t confirmed the virus was human to human. A lot of us were suspecting it was because it was a respiratory pathogen and you wouldn’t see the numbers of cases that we were seeing out of China if it was not human to human. So that was disturbing.”

By as early as January 16 the professor was on Twitter calling for swift action to prepare for the virus. “Been asked by journalists how serious #WuhanPneumonia outbreak is,” she wrote. “My answer: take it seriously because of cross-border spread (planes means bugs travel far & fast), likely human-to-human transmission and previous outbreaks have taught overresponding is better than delaying action.”

Events were now moving fast. Four hundred miles away in London, on its campus next to the Royal Albert Hall, a team at Imperial College’s School of Public Health led by Professor Neil Ferguson produced its first modelling assessment of the impact of the virus. On Friday January 17 its report noted the “worrying” news that three cases of the virus had been discovered outside China — two in Thailand and one in Japan. While acknowledging many unknowns, researchers calculated that there could already be as many as 4,000 cases. The report warned: “The magnitude of these numbers suggests substantial human-to-human transmission cannot be ruled out. Heightened surveillance, prompt information-sharing and enhanced preparedness are recommended.”

By now the mystery bug had been identified as a type of coronavirus — a large family of viruses that can cause infections ranging from the common cold to severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars). There had been two reported deaths from the virus and 41 patients had been taken ill.

The following Wednesday, January 22, the government convened the first meeting of its scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage) to discuss the virus. Its membership is secret but it is usually chaired by the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, and chief medical adviser, Professor Chris Whitty. Downing Street advisers are also present.

There were new findings that day, with Chinese scientists warning that the virus had an unusually high infectivity rate of up to 3.0, which meant each person with the virus would typically infect up to three more people.

One of those present was Imperial’s Ferguson, who was already working on his own estimate — putting infectivity at 2.6 and possibly as high as 3.5 — which he sent to ministers and officials in a report on the day of the Cobra meeting on January 24. The Spanish flu had an estimated infectivity rate of between 2.0 and 3.0, whereas for most flu outbreaks it is about 1.3, so Ferguson’s finding was shocking.

The professor’s other bombshell in the report was that there needed to be a 60% cut in the transmission rate — which meant stopping contact between people. In layman’s terms it meant a lockdown, a move that would paralyse an economy already facing a battering from Brexit. At the time such a suggestion was unthinkable in the government and belonged to the world of post-apocalypse movies.

The growing alarm among scientists appears not to have been heard or heeded by policy-makers. After the January 25 Cobra meeting, the chorus of reassurance was not just from Hancock and the prime minister’s spokesman: Whitty was confident too.

In early February Hancock proudly told the Commons the UK was one of the first countries to develop a new test for the virus
This man Hancock is a lazy idiot. This is what we get from a Cabinet stuffed with Brexiteer yes-men.

In early February Hancock proudly told the Commons the UK was one of the first countries to develop a new test for the virus.

“Cobra met today to discuss the situation in Wuhan, China,” said Whitty. “We have global experts monitoring the situation around the clock and have a strong track record of managing new forms of infectious disease . . . there are no confirmed cases in the UK to date.”

However, by then there had been 1,000 cases worldwide and 41 deaths, mostly in Wuhan. A Lancet report that day presented a study of 41 coronavirus patients admitted to hospital in Wuhan, which found that more than half had severe breathing problems, a third required intensive care and six had died.

And there was now little doubt that the UK would be hit by the virus. A study by Southampton University has shown that 190,000 people flew into the UK from Wuhan and other high-risk Chinese cities between January and March. The researchers estimated that up to 1,900 of these passengers would have been infected with the coronavirus — almost guaranteeing the UK would become a centre of the subsequent pandemic.

Sure enough, five days later, on Wednesday January 29, the first coronavirus cases on British soil were found when two Chinese nationals from the same family fell ill at a hotel in York. The next day the government raised the threat level from low to moderate.

The pandemic plan

On January 31 — or Brexit day, as it had become known — there was a rousing 11pm speech by the prime minister promising that withdrawal from the European Union would be the dawn of a new era, unleashing the British people, who would “grow in confidence” month by month.

By this time there was good reason for the government’s top scientific advisers to feel creeping unease about the virus. The WHO had declared the coronavirus a global emergency just the previous day, and scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine had confirmed to Whitty in a private meeting of the Nervtag advisory committee on respiratory illness that the virus’s infectivity could be as bad as Ferguson’s worst estimate several days earlier.

The official scientific advisers were willing to concede in public that there might be several cases of the coronavirus in the UK. But they had faith that the country’s plans for a pandemic would prove robust.

This was probably a big mistake. An adviser to Downing Street — speaking off the record — said their confidence in “the plan” was misplaced. While a possible pandemic had been listed as the No 1 threat to the nation for many years, the source said that in reality it had long since stopped being treated as such.

Several emergency planners and scientists said that the plans to protect the UK in a pandemic had once been a priority and had been well funded for the decade following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. But then austerity cuts struck. “We were the envy of the world,” the source said, “but pandemic planning became a casualty of the austerity years, when there were more pressing needs.”

The last rehearsal for a pandemic was a 2016 exercise codenamed Cygnus, which predicted the health service would collapse and highlighted a long list of shortcomings — including, presciently, a lack of PPE and intensive care ventilators.

An equally lengthy list of recommendations to address the deficiencies was never implemented. The source said preparations for a no-deal Brexit “sucked all the blood out of pandemic planning” in the following years.

In the year leading up to the coronavirus outbreak key government committee meetings on pandemic planning were repeatedly “bumped” off the diary to make way for discussions about more pressing issues such as the beds crisis in the NHS. Training for NHS staff with protective equipment and respirators was also neglected, the source alleges.

Members of the government advisory group on pandemics are said to have felt powerless. “They would joke between themselves, ‘Ha-ha, let’s hope we don’t get a pandemic’, because there wasn’t a single area of practice that was being nurtured in order for us to meet basic requirements for a pandemic, never mind do it well,” said the source.

“If you were with senior NHS managers at all during the last two years, you were aware that their biggest fear, their sweatiest nightmare, was a pandemic, because they weren’t prepared for it.”

It meant that the government had much catching-up to do as it became clear that this “nightmare” was turning into a distinct possibility in February. But the source said there was still little urgency. “Almost every plan we had was not activated in February. Almost every government department has failed to properly implement their own pandemic plans,” the source said.

One deviation from the plan, for example, was a failure to give an early warning to firms that there might be a lockdown so they could start contingency planning. “There was a duty to get them to start thinking about their cashflow and their business continuity arrangements,” the source said.

Superspreader

A central part of any pandemic plan is to identify anyone who becomes ill, vigorously pursue all their recent contacts and put them into quarantine. That involves testing, and the UK seemed to be ahead of the game. In early February Hancock proudly told the Commons the UK was one of the first countries to develop a new test for the coronavirus. “Testing worldwide is being done on equipment designed in Oxford,” he said.

So when Steve Walsh, a 53-year-old businessman from Hove, East Sussex, was identified as the source of the second UK outbreak on February 6, all his contacts were followed up with tests. Walsh’s case was a warning of the rampant infectivity of the virus: he is believed to have passed it to five people in the UK after returning from a conference in Singapore, as well as six overseas.

But Public Health England failed to take advantage of our early breakthroughs with tests and lost early opportunities to step up production to the levels that would later be needed.

This was in part because the government was planning for the virus using its blueprint for fighting the flu. Once a flu pandemic has found its way into the population and there is no vaccine, the virus is allowed to take its course until “herd immunity” is acquired. Such a plan does not require mass testing.

A senior politician told this newspaper: “I had conversations with Chris Whitty at the end of January, and they were absolutely focused on herd immunity. The reason is that with flu, herd immunity is the right response if you haven’t got a vaccine.

“All of our planning was for pandemic flu. There has basically been a divide between scientists in Asia, who saw this as a horrible, deadly disease on the lines of Sars, which requires immediate lockdown, and those in the West, particularly in the US and UK, who saw this as flu.”

The prime minister’s top adviser, Dominic Cummings, is said to have had initial enthusiasm for the herd immunity concept, which may have played a part in the government’s early approach to managing the virus. The Department of Health firmly denies that “herd immunity” was ever its aim and rejects suggestions that Whitty supported it. Cummings also denies backing the concept.

The failure to obtain large amounts of testing equipment was another big error of judgment, according to the Downing Street source. It would later be one of the big scandals of the coronavirus crisis that the considerable capacity of Britain’s private laboratories to mass-produce tests was not harnessed during those crucial weeks of February.

“We should have communicated with every commercial testing laboratory that might volunteer to become part of the government’s testing regime, but that didn’t happen,” said the source.

The lack of action was confirmed by Doris-Ann Williams, chief executive of the British In Vitro Diagnostics Association, which represents 110 companies that make up most of the UK’s testing sector. Amazingly, she said her organisation did not receive a meaningful approach from the government asking for help until April 1 — the night before Hancock bowed to pressure and announced a belated and ambitious target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of this month.

There was also a failure to replenish supplies of gowns and masks for health and care workers in the early weeks of February — despite NHS England declaring the virus its first “level 4 critical incident” at the end of January.

It was a key part of the pandemic plan — the NHS’s Operating Framework for Managing the Response to Pandemic Influenza, dated December 2017 — that the NHS would be able to draw on “just in case” stockpiles of PPE.

But many of the “just in case” stockpiles had dwindled, and equipment was out of date. As not enough money was being spent on replenishing stockpiles, this shortfall was supposed to be filled by activating “just in time” contracts, which had been arranged with equipment suppliers in recent years to deal with an emergency. The first order for equipment under the “just in time” protocol was made on January 30.

However, the source said that attempts to call in these “just in time” contracts immediately ran into difficulties in February because they were mostly with Chinese manufacturers, which were facing unprecedented demand from the country’s own health service and elsewhere.

This was another nail in the coffin for the pandemic plan. “It was a massive spider’s web of failing; every domino has fallen,” said the source.

The NHS could have contacted UK-based suppliers. The British Healthcare Trades Association (BHTA) was ready to help supply PPE in February — and throughout March — but it was only on April 1 that its offer of help was accepted. Dr Simon Festing, the organisation’s chief executive, said: “Orders undoubtedly went overseas instead of to the NHS because of the missed opportunities in the procurement process.”

Downing Street admitted on February 24 — just five days before NHS chiefs warned a lack of PPE left the health service facing a “nightmare” — that the UK government had supplied 1,800 pairs of goggles and 43,000 disposable gloves, 194,000 sanitising wipes, 37,500 medical gowns and 2,500 face masks to China.

A senior Department of Health insider described the sense of drift witnessed during those crucial weeks in February: “We missed the boat on testing and PPE . . . I remember being called into some of the meetings about this in February and thinking, ‘Well, it’s a good thing this isn’t the big one.’

“I had watched Wuhan but I assumed we must have not been worried because we did nothing. We just watched. A pandemic was always at the top of our national risk register — always — but when it came we just slowly watched. We could have been Germany, but instead we were doomed by our incompetence, our hubris and our austerity.”

In the Far East the threat was being treated more seriously in the early weeks of February. Martin Hibberd, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, was in a unique position to compare the UK’s response with Singapore, where he had advised in the past.

“Singapore realised, as soon as Wuhan reported it, that cases were going to turn up in Singapore. And so they prepared for that. I looked at the UK and I can see a different strategy and approach.

“The interesting thing for me is, I’ve worked with Singapore in 2003 and 2009 and basically they copied the UK pandemic preparedness plan. But the difference is they actually implemented it.”Working holiday

Towards the end of the second week of February, the prime minister was demob happy. After sacking five cabinet ministers and saying everyone “should be confident and calm” about Britain’s response to the virus, Johnson vacated Downing Street after the half-term recess began on February 13.

He headed to the country for a “working” holiday at Chevening with Symonds and would be out of the public eye for 12 days. His aides were thankful for the rest, as they had been working flat-out since the summer as the Brexit power struggle had played out.

The Sunday newspapers that weekend would not have made comfortable reading. The Sunday Times reported on a briefing from a risk specialist that said Public Health England would be overrun during a pandemic as it could test only 1,000 people a day.

Johnson may well have been distracted by matters in his personal life during his stay in the countryside. Aides were told to keep their briefing papers short and cut the number of memos in his red box if they wanted them to be read.

His family needed to be prepared for the announcement that Symonds, who turned 32 in March, was pregnant and that they had been secretly engaged for some time. Relations with his children had been fraught since his separation from his estranged wife Marina Wheeler and the rift had deepened when she received a cancer diagnosis last year.

The divorce also had to be finalised. Midway through the break it was announced in the High Court that the couple had reached a settlement, leaving Wheeler free to apply for divorce.

There were murmurings of frustration from some ministers and their aides at the time that Johnson was not taking more of a lead. But Johnson’s aides are understood to have felt relaxed: he was getting updates and they claim the scientists were saying everything was under control.

400,000 deaths

By the time Johnson departed for the countryside, however, there was mounting unease among scientists about the exceptional nature of the threat. Sir Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease specialist who is a key government adviser, made this clear in a recent BBC interview.

“I think from the early days in February, if not in late January, it was obvious this infection was going to be very serious and it was going to affect more than just the region of Asia,” he said. “I think it was very clear that this was going to be an unprecedented event.”

By February 21 the virus had already infected 76,000 people, had caused 2,300 deaths in China and was taking a foothold in Europe, with Italy recording 51 cases and two deaths the following day. Nonetheless Nervtag, one of the key government advisory committees, decided to keep the threat level at “moderate”.

Its members may well regret that decision with hindsight, and it was certainly not unanimous. John Edmunds, one of the country’s top infectious disease modellers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, was participating in the meeting by video link, but his technology failed him at the crucial moment.

Edmunds wanted the threat level to be increased to high but could not make his view known as the link was glitchy. He sent an email later making his view clear. “JE believes that the risk to the UK population [in the PHE risk assessment] should be high, as there is evidence of ongoing transmission in Korea, Japan and Singapore, as well as in China,” the meeting’s minutes state. But the decision had already been taken.

Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College, was in America at the time of the meeting but would also have recommended increasing the threat to high. Three days earlier he had given an address to a seminar in which he estimated that 60% of the world’s population would probably become infected if no action was taken and 400,000 people would die in the UK.

By February 26 there were 13 known cases in the UK. That day — almost four weeks before a full lockdown would be announced — ministers were warned through another advisory committee that the country was facing a catastrophic loss of life unless drastic action was taken. Having been thwarted from sounding the alarm, Edmunds and his team presented their latest “worst scenario” predictions to the scientific pandemic influenza group on modelling (SPI-M), which directly advises the country’s scientific decision-makers in Sage.

It warned that 27 million people could be infected and 220,000 intensive care beds would be needed if no action were taken to reduce infection rates. The predicted death toll was 380,000. Edmunds’s colleague Nick Davies, who led the research, says the report emphasised the urgent need for a lockdown almost four weeks before it was imposed.

The team modelled the effects of a 12-week lockdown involving school and work closures, shielding the elderly, social distancing and self-isolation. It estimated this would delay the impact of the pandemic but there still might be 280,000 deaths over the year.

Johnson returns

The previous night Johnson had returned to London for the Conservatives’ big fundraising ball, the Winter Party, at which one donor pledged £60,000 for the privilege of playing a game of tennis with him.

By this time the prime minister had missed five Cobra meetings on the preparations to combat the looming pandemic, which he left to be chaired by Hancock. Johnson was an easy target for the opposition when he returned to the Commons the following day: the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, labelled him a “part-time” prime minister for his failure to lead on the virus crisis or visit the areas of the UK badly hit by floods.

By Friday February 28 the virus had taken root in the UK, with reported cases rising to 19, and the stock markets were plunging. It was finally time for Johnson to act. He summoned a TV reporter into Downing Street to say he was on top of the coronavirus crisis.

“The issue of coronavirus is something that is now the government’s top priority,” he said. “I have just had a meeting with the chief medical officer and secretary of state for health talking about the preparations that we need to make.”

It was finally announced that he would be attending a meeting of Cobra — after a weekend at Chequers with Symonds where the couple would publicly release news of the engagement and their baby.

On the Sunday there was a meeting between Sage committee members and officials from the Department of Health and the NHS that was a game-changer, according to a Whitehall source. The meeting was shown fresh modelling based on figures from Italy suggesting that 8% of infected people might need hospital treatment in a worst-case scenario. The previous estimate had been 4%-5%.

“The risk to the NHS had effectively doubled in an instant. It set alarm bells ringing across government,” said the Whitehall source. “I think that meeting focused minds. You realise it’s time to pull the trigger on the starting gun.”

Many NHS workers have been left without proper protection

Many NHS workers have been left without proper protection

At the Cobra meeting the next day, with Johnson in the chair, a full “battle plan” was finally signed off to contain, delay and mitigate the spread of the virus. This was on March 2 — five weeks after the first Cobra meeting on the virus.

The new push would have some positive benefits such as the creation of new Nightingale hospitals, which greatly increased the number of intensive care beds. But there was a further delay that month of nine days in introducing the lockdown as Johnson and his senior advisers debated what measures were required. Later the government would be left rudderless again after Johnson himself contracted the virus.

As the number of infections grew daily, some things were impossible to retrieve. There was a worldwide shortage of PPE, and the prime minister would have to personally ring manufacturers of ventilators and testing kits in a desperate effort to boost supplies.

The result was that the NHS and care home workers would be left without proper protection and insufficient numbers of tests to find out whether they had been infected. To date 50 doctors, nurses and NHS workers have died. More than 100,000 people have been confirmed as infected in Britain and 15,000 have died.

This weekend sources close to Hancock said that from late January he instituted a “prepare for the worst” approach to the virus, held daily meetings and started work on PPE supplies.

A Downing Street spokesman said: “Our response has ensured that the NHS has been given all the support it needs to ensure everyone requiring treatment has received it, as well as providing protection to businesses and reassurance to workers. The prime minister has been at the helm of the response to this, providing leadership during this hugely challenging period for the whole nation.”

Sticking the official statement that everything is fine, everything has been done correctly at the very end of a story has become a newspaper convention, effectively hanging a sign over it saying, ” …and finally, the bullshit.”

It’s Up to You and I? No it’s not!

Nothing like being locked up and spending time listening to the radio and the odd audiobook to prompt a rant about a grammatical bugbear which has been giving me the severe spits for ages. And when I came across it in the otherwise stupendous work ‘Shadowplay’ by Joseph O’Connor, enough was enough. Let me tell you Mr O’Connor, Sir Henry Irving, the great Victorian actor, would never, ever have said (IIRC) ‘that will be a matter for you and I’. Because every educated Victorian knew that the preposition ‘for’ requires the accusative, or objective, case. … a matter for you and me.

How has this grammatical mistake come to be so common? And it is a mistake, not just ‘language evolving’ about which more later. I have watched it happen over my lifetime. When we were kids it was normal and common to say things like, “Jim and me are going to the pictures.” No, our mothers and fathers would say, it’s “Jim and I are going to the pictures”. Now if you were not blessed as I was with a thorough grounding in grammar – not just English grammar but Latin, from which most English grammatical structures are derived – then you might conclude that ‘me’ was vulgar and ‘I’ was proper. Obviously that is how most people took it and the phrase ‘you and me’ became, over time, universally supplanted by ‘you and I’, regardless of where it occurred in a sentence. Even by announcers on the BBC, I am heartbroken to report. And from the pens of otherwise impeccably qualified writers of historical fiction.

The tragedy is that it doesn’t even really call for much of an education to draw the right distinction. In any given sentence simply remove the ‘you and’ or ‘Jim and’ or whatever and say the same thing again. Obviously you would say ‘Jim and I are going’ because you would say ‘I am going’. Equally obviously you would never say ‘That is down to I’ so you should never say ‘That is down to you and I’.

Frankly, it is just ignorance, and the plain desire of people with insufficient education to speak proper. Prepositions – for, with, by, from, to, etc. ad infinitum – take the subjective case. Me/us/them, not I/we/they. And so will they always.

Now. Isn’t this just the evolution of language? No it is not. There are distinctions. We were taught to say ‘cóntroversy’. Now everyone says ‘contróversy’ and it does not matter. That is language evolving. No meaning is lost. No unclarity befalls us from this. But when we start to dismantle grammar and syntax we start to lose that most precious linguistic property, precision. Clarity. Take it far enough and we end up not knowing with certainty what is being said. It is no coincidence that the meticulous formulation of the grammar of European languages took place at the same time as the Enlightenment and the emergence of the laws of science. There is a fair amount of grammatical sloppiness in Shakespeare. For example in his day double positives – This, my most dearest brother – were acceptable as a means of giving emphasis. The rules of grammar, the logical children of the first dictionaries, tidied up that and many similar usages. We learned to teach children to parse the English language in the way that they used to parse Latin and Greek. This was not mere fastidiousness. It was work that served the clarity of thought and expression which made engineering and applied science possible. Such advances required and still require the very precise expression and communication of complex ideas in such a way that they cannot be ambiguous and thus give rise to mistakes.

Is it a lost cause? Obviously. Still, even lost causes are causes. Someone has to make a stand for them. I guess this time it is down to me, and if you wish to join me it will be down to you and me.

Brexiteers take note: we have seen the enemy, and it is us.

Oh dear. It turns out that below I have misidentified someone else as Matt Hancock, who was not even present at the press conference with Yvonne Doyle. My apologies to the rather more able Mr Hancock.

The strongest argument for Brexit, and the only one that appeared to have a shred of respectability, was the need to escape the suffocation of the Brussels bureaucracy. Now the UK’s management of the Covid19 epidemic has stripped that argument to a collapsing skeleton as we see one bureaucratic blunder follow another while the pandemic rages on.

Apart from the horrendous ‘herd immunity’ blunder by a single highly-placed but supposedly scientific nabob (who has recently disappeared from sight), at first it looked as if the Johnson government was going to surprise us all by mounting a coherent, science-led response to the outbreak. Now it is looking more and more incoherent and science-leaden. Everywhere, in every failed, half-hearted bumbling response we see the slow, cautious hand of the bureaucratic jobsworth, exposed nowhere more bleakly than in the tragic handling of testing.

Testing for the virus is actually pretty simple. The Germans had a reliable test up and running within days. You extract a strand of RNA, the cell’s reverse template of its DNA, use it to run a matching DNA strand, multiply that one to detectable levels and bingo you have your result. There are literally hundreds and probably thousands of machines in labs all over the country that can do this. So the bureaucrats at Public Health England put their heads together, kept them together for rather a long time, and decided that only one brand of one type of machine should be considered suitable, sending out requests for that machine and that one only. Oxford’s Dunn School of Pathology had 119 machines. Only one was of the approved type and that one only was requested. All testing was to be under the strict control of PHE, regardless of the fact that the capability to do it is sitting idle in labs all over the UK. Ah, but they might be unreliable … Caution, caution, caution. The old familiar watchwords and modus operandi of the bureaucrat are in firm control. Take no risks that you may have to answer for later. Do not trust anyone in private enterprise. Be wary of academics. (I think we can rely on an Oxford school of pathology to know what they’re doing, don’t you?)

Now we have taken weeks to even double the national testing capability to a woeful 10,000 per day, while even Trump’s supposedly hopeless administration has somehow managed to step theirs up to more than 20 times the number they started with. And where has that pitiful capability been deployed? To vast, empty drive-in facilities where NHS staff are turned away because either they ‘weren’t on the list’ or ‘didn’t have an appointment’.

Now that waste of oxygen Matt Hancock has declared, “I want industry and government to come together to build a UK diagnostic capability.”

That would have been just the ticket – in January, when the Germans did it. Now it is just another example of bureaucratic, monolithic thinking. It is far too late for that – just let those who can do it get on with it. They are out there by the dozen, champing at the bit. Some are already doing it, unsanctioned by PHE but gratefully received by the communities they serve. Systems Biology Laboratory, a philanthropic not-for-profit lab in Oxfordshire is one such example. Ah, but that is the pet project of a multi-millionaire entrepreneur. Can’t have those sorts involved.

I could go on, and on, and on. If you have any doubt at all, listen to Yvonne Doyle, Medical Director of PHE, openly ignoring difficult questions and reeling out formulaic statements of “intention” at the daily 5pm briefings. The most disturbing feature of these sessions lately has been the evident equanimity of the officials in charge. Failing badly, conspicuously, people dying in consequence, they show neither ruffled feather nor beaded brow. Business as usual. “Didn’t do too badly, don’t you think?” “Oh, excellent. First class.”

This is exactly what Brexit was supposed to deliver us from. Well now we know. British bureaucracy is the match of anything Brussels could ever deliver. The last feeble shred of justification for Brexit has fallen victim to the virus.

ICU. They don’t call it ‘intense’ for nothing.

NICE, the committee that sets NHS standards, has published a one-to-ten graduated scale for hospitals to use in deciding which Covid 19 sufferers to prioritise for ventilators, kidney dialysis and all the soon-to-be-rationed machinery of intensive care. Perhaps you have read the list and are thinking, “I’m fit, exercise regularly, have no other health conditions. I’m a One. If I get the virus the NHS will look after me. I’ll be fine.” They probably will but I promise you – you won’t be fine. Early this year I came down with double pneumonia, went into septic shock and almost died; the magnificent people of the NHS saved my life. In my disreputable youth I spent three months in the infamous Bangkok Hilton, Klong Prem Prison; in Jakarta I caught and survived a vicious tropical fever without medical attention. But my three weeks in ICU and the High Dependency unit at Southmead Hospital were still the worst days of my 71 years of life. Believe me – you don’t want to go there.

It happened so quickly. In the early hours of the 2nd of January I woke my partner. I was in bad shape – feverish, coughing, struggling with breathing. We debated whether to head for A&E in the morning or call for help now. Had it not been for our home blood pressure monitor I probably would have chosen to wait and would almost certainly have died. Fortunately, we strapped the cuff around my arm and received a terrible shock: 71/42 – about half what it should have been. I didn’t know it at the time but plummeting blood pressure is the septic shock signature tune. An hour later I was in the resuscitation unit at Southmead hospital, an x-ray showing both my lower lungs as a solid white mass. Double pneumonia had triggered sepsis and now I was in septic shock.

Very rapidly I went all the way to death’s wide open door – multiple organ failure, my body a war zone between impressively sophisticated medical science and aggressive, all-consuming infection exacerbated by the out-of-control guided missile that was my own immune system. Already by the following morning they had called in my partner to tell her to prepare for the worst. I was unconscious, of course. Not because of the disease but because they had knocked me out and pumped me full of muscle relaxants to keep me still. The things they have to do to you to keep you alive offer such brutal insults to your system you couldn’t bear it. You would thrash, groan, gibber, tear out tubes.

For me, those first six days of unconsciousness weren’t good, or bad, or anything. But for my family, my partner, they were hell. I could have died at any moment and the doctors could give no reassurances beyond promising to do their best. After the worst was over they slowly brought me back to some form of consciousness and now my nightmare started in earnest. My first clear memory is of the lovely face of my partner leaning over me. “Hello sweetie. You’re doing really well. Keep it up. You will be alright.”

Doing well at what, I wondered. Why could I not move? (Answer – muscle relaxants.) Why could I not talk? (Because of the tube down my throat, which I could not feel and did not know was there.) This was obviously a hospital. What had happened? Apparently I was told, more than once, but immediately forgot.  I drifted off into the first of what was to be days of vivid, long-lasting hallucinations with complex, mad story-lines, all in other times and places, all extremely unpleasant. I was running some kind of bar in New Mexico or Arizona, desperate to get my hands on a cold, fizzy Coca-Cola or root beer which remained perpetually out of reach because, even in my hallucinations, I could not move.. I was bed-bound in a squalid inn in northern New Zealand sometime in the 19th century, waiting for my brother to arrive with bonds and deeds of title. Eventually he came, in a cocked hat and frock coat, but I could neither rise nor talk to him. I clearly remember six different such scenarios, all equally protracted and miserable. At unpredictable intervals I would be startled by a deafening beep, when the whole world would become a bright green undulating space of geodesic forms. Although they lasted only seconds such moments were almost indescribably terrifying, and they came often.

There were intermittent and fleeting moments of consciousness, usually the occasion of being rolled, shifted or washed, themselves mostly violent and shocking disturbances. Although I am sure they were being as gentle as possible the nurses had a non-stop workload to get through. There was never any time for me to prepare myself; just a brief warning and straight to it. I was aware of masked people flitting about in the half light. My first reaction was fear until I would get a grip on myself and remember that I was in hospital. Apparently it is not uncommon for intensive care patients to be seized by paranoia, to see witches and demons; at least I was spared that. Then there was the pain, misery and indignity of being dragged onto a coarse, compressed cardboard bedpan.

There is more – much more. As the hallucinations faded I became abusive, suspicious and resistant to help, demanding a saintly forbearance of staff and visitors. During the last days of those three weeks I was desperate, desperate to get out of that bed but when I tried I was told off in no gentle terms. Towards the end, when I was hoisted mechanically out of bed and into a special chair it was a triumph, surpassed only by the thrill of sitting on a real toilet. Those hideous, abrasive bedpans, how I hated them. After that I recovered very quickly, much faster than expected. Within a day or two I was walking with the aid of a stick and two days later I was home.

Why did I survive? Why, after predictions of long, slow months or even years of recuperation was I back to perfect fitness a scant six weeks after discharge? Simple. I don’t smoke, and for years now I have been walking a very brisk, demanding five miles on most days. I am very fit. I drove myself hard to get back into shape. Fitness has saved my life. But believe me, fit or not, you do not want a visit to ICU. Your loved ones and friends do not want you to be subject to the brutal mercies of ICU, nor do they want to spend days awaiting the news of your death. The health system certainly does not want you there. Bear in mind that I received the very best care the magnificent NHS had to offer. Now, we will get the best they can manage and it may not be enough.

I will go to any lengths not to catch this virus. I will willingly endure any inconvenience. And if you had been where I have been, so would you.

We said the day would come. Has anyone noticed that it has?

If we don’t stop kicking the planet in the guts, one day it will kick us back. A comment that was already banal five years ago. I’m sure I’m not the only one to have identified Covid19 as the kick in question and what astounds me is how intelligent, how compassionate and gentle it is. Not the biblical plague many of us expected, but as gentle and effective as Mr Spock’s Vulcan nerve pinch.

I will come back to the intricacies of the design, but first I have to declare myself a believer. I don’t attempt to describe what I believe in, or even give it a name, because language is too limited a tool for the job. But part of what I believe, based on what I observe, is that the planet is being protected as a place of human habitation, mainly from humans themselves, just as a mother protects a young child from actions that it is not yet able to recognise as dangerous. Even to the extent, when all else fails, of giving the child a corrective smack. Years ago I recall a friend smacking her two-year-old on the leg because he persisted in running across a busy street. She was resolutely opposed to corporal punishment but had realised that no other effective remedy was available. She couldn’t lock the kid up 24/7 and it had become a game for him. The hard slap on the leg worked.

So now that force, whatever it is, has slapped us.

Why do I think we are being protected from our own worst impulses and actions? Because, looking over the purview of recent history, an era when the powers of states had reached the potential to encompass the globe, I see at least two examples of critical moments that turned the course of history away from the triumph of evil and planetary disaster.

The first happened at Dunkirk. Almost the entire remaining allied forces were backed into a corner on a French beach, defenceless, and the unstoppable forces of the blitzkrieg were racing to finish them off. I will simplify what was a slightly more complex situation – in fact a number of separate pivotal and simultaneous events took place and significantly, every one of them tilted the odds back in favour of the stranded army. Panzer General von Rundstedt, poised to hammer the expeditionary force to pieces, simply stopped 15 km short of Dunkirk. History has given at least three different reasons for this, none of them particularly compelling.

At the same time a British patrol stumbled in the way of a German staff car and killed the driver with a pistol shot (note: an extremely unlikely event). An officer fled the subsequent crash, leaving a briefcase containing the German plans for attacking the remaining active troops further up the coast. Effective countermeasures were immediately taken.

Then the weather moved in to complete the good fortune. For day after day the Channel remained as smooth as glass and a huge rescue flotilla of naval vessels and hundreds of small boats evacuated the 335,000 stranded men. It is rare, very rare, for the Channel to stay that calm for that long.

If the Dunkirk rescue had not happened, Britain would have been wiped out as a free country. Churchill, only days in office, was surrounded by ministers keen to appease Hitler, believing that the English and the Germans were natural allies. With the army gone they would have sidelined Churchill and gone cap in hand to Hitler. It would have been a surrender on the knees – we don’t have to guess who would have ended up fully in charge. With Britain out of the war and the US not yet in it, Hitler would have won in Russia and moved on to a probably successful invasion of the US. The Nazi thousand year Reich would now be 80 years young and going strong.

The number of discrete pieces of good fortune that rescued Britain and the world at Dunkirk are simply too many, and too heavily against the run of play, for me to believe they were blind luck.

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Take a good look at this man – he saved the world. Literally. His name was Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov. He was second-in-command of the submarine B-59, intercepted  on the 27th of October 1962 during the US blockade of Cuba. Showered with depth charges, B-59 was forced to the surface. The Yanks believed it to be conventionally armed; in fact it carried a 15 kiloton nuclear torpedo which the Captain and Political Officer prepared to fire, mainly to prevent the technology falling into US hands but also because, after days in radio isolation, they thought that the expected nuclear war had broken out. Protocol required all three men’s assent. Arkhipov dissented and maintained his opposition during a raging argument, two against one. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr described this as ‘the most dangerous moment in human history’. That nuclear strike would, without a shadow of doubt, have triggered nuclear armageddon.

Once again, we are looking at an extremely unlikely event. Arkhipov may have been the second-in-command on the B-59 but he was also the commander of the entire flotilla. You did not rise to the upper echelons of any Soviet organisation by being a maverick or by having a sensitive conscience. And yet, there he was when the planet needed him.

Of course, those two facts alone are not enough to convince me that we are being protected from our own worst impulses. There’s much more and I’m not actually trying to convince anyone. Just sayin’, as they say.

Now to Covid19. Those of us who have thought that the planet wouldn’t take being trashed sitting down have tended to mutter darkly about plagues and pestilence on a biblical scale, like the bubonic plague, for instance. Vast numbers of human dead. Not merely warned but forced to stop the carnival of devastation. But Covid has done it. Carbon dioxide emissions have plummeted. Many of us have recently taken a moment to reflect that we have probably taken our last quick break to the Greek Islands, or the Canaries, or Marbella. Furthermore, I doubt the residents of Venice, of Barcelona and Dubrovnik, are just going to throw their doors open when this is all over. The planet, Gaia, whatever, has shown us what peace and quiet, the end of the rat race and runaway consumption looks like and by God it is good!

Note how clever the design has been. It has been exclusively rich nations which have been hit hard. Most poor countries lie between the two tropics and the virus does not flourish in temperatures above 25ºC. Some of those nations are quite serious polluters but out of the sheer weight of population, not because their citizens are running round in big SUVs and flying around the world for their holidays. It’s us rich buggers who have been given the hard word.

And all this achieved at a cost, not of 50% of the population, nor even 5%, but at levels well under 1%. If this is design, it is wonderfully elegant design. Compassionate design.

The lady sure knows her business.

Housing Crisis? Simple.

Across the road from my house, in a long terraced Victorian street, stands an imposing house in commodious grounds. Three stories high, a brick structure, Edwardian at a guess, the generous windows commanding a spreading view over eastern Bristol.

Well, would command. But the windows are shuttered and no-one is alive in there to enjoy the view anyway. The former lawn and garden have long since vanished under a horde of invading weeds and (this is the part that first puzzled me) the entire estate is surrounded by a formidable, and ugly, steel fence. An expensive fence, not something you would put around your home. Forbidding signs proclaim a mythical 24 hour vigilance. It is not that someone has just walked away. This place is on ice. Banked, I realised eventually, and gathering value as the growth in property values far outpaces interest rates.

This is simply wrong and where I come from it would not happen because of what you call Land Value Tax, probably a better handle than the vague ‘Council Rates’ we have in New Zealand but the same thing. They are the only tax we pay to maintain our councils and they are substantial.

 

Coming to the UK five years ago I experienced first hand the tyranny of the landlord, enabled and empowered by a chronic, inexplicable housing shortage. Why inexplicable? Because in every quarter of Bristol I constantly come across abandoned structures, some vast, wasting away on valuable land. Sturdy stone shells easily converted into thousands of apartments, often in reasonably attractive and desirable parts of the city. Big houses shuttered and empty, deteriorating office buildings in almost every part of most cities. Waste on a colossal scale.

How could this be? Slowly the penny dropped: they don’t tax land here. It was the only possible explanation and it turned out to be (mostly) true.

We simply don’t see this in NZ. In my home city of Auckland you can walk or drive for miles and never see an abandoned, deteriorating building – someone would own the land, unpaid rates would ruin them, the property would be seized and sold by the council to recover the lost rates and someone else would put it to use. Yes, that buyer would have to put in risk and work, probably the reason the UK’s banked properties stand idle. Development costs money. Landlording can be tricky in a country with well-established tenants’ rights. So much easier to park and forget. But in NZ the burden of council rates makes such development and usage unavoidable.

Why is this, to me, obvious solution to a desperate social problem scarcely on the political landscape? At first I was tempted to mutter darkly to myself about vested interests, but perhaps the simpler answer is that you British don’t see it. Since WWII you have grown up in a landscape littered by ruins. The abandoned house on the hill is a familiar literary trope. You simply don’t register that there is something fundamentally wrong about a Victorian factory, a house inherited by a distant, absent family member, just lying about the place unnoticed and unused. This is the way things just are. Or is it something else? I don’t know – you tell me. But waste on a grand scale it most certainly is, waste I have now seen in half a dozen English cities, and the simple remedy of Land Value Tax is standing in the wings waiting to fix it.

To be fair the government has not simply stood idle. Using the archaic mechanism of stamp duty, long since vanished from the NZ scene, they have moved to tax the purchase of second homes. This will not solve the problem, indeed may make it worse because it means that land bankers have to hang on to their empty properties even longer to wait for the investment to grow to where the profit from the eventual sale is still sufficient to justify the cost. Even worse, it applies only to residential properties. Buy an abandoned factory or office building and you’re fine. Bigger properties, potentially so many more homes.

The only real answer, a permanent and fundamental answer, is to make the holding of idle land and buildings uneconomic by taxing their value year after year.

There are downsides. During the late 20th century redevelopment of inner cities we saw elderly people rated out of their lifelong homes because the land on which they stood had been rezoned Commercial A, sending their rates through the sky. We are also rated on the value of the ‘improvements’, calculated on the rentable value of the buildings as they presently are. It can be argued that this is unjust, as it is the occupants, not the council, who have invested the resources to make those improvements. But the clearance of old housing stock in the wrong place to allow commercial centres to grow was inarguably necessary, and a pure land tax would avoid the injustice of taxing people for work done which has already cost them hard-earned resources.

But I promise you: it works in New Zealand and it will work here.

Just do it.

 

A Silent Witness? Secret History?

I often pass by the Granada Cathedral, a huge pile of stone in the old city centre. I notice things. On the side of the cathedral I pass by I first noticed one thing, looked more closely and saw more.  Slowly I came to understand that I was looking at what I believe to be an undocumented but still visible relic from the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.

First I noticed the iron railing fence protecting every entrance.

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Interesting, I thought. Why does a church need such barricades?

Then I noticed how they were anchored to the building.

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That little alcove would have once contained a holy statue. Gone. In fact large areas of the exterior of the building showed many such alcoves, all similarly empty.

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Scanning further, I discovered that all the windows, stained or plain glass, were screened off with steel mesh.

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Note the smashed pane in the lower part of the window.

By now the penny had dropped: the Civil War. It is a matter of history where the Church stood in that conflict – firmly on the side of Franco and his Nazi supporters and against the socialist Republicans who had been elected to power – the legitimate government, in fact. The Church in Spain had been thoroughly compromised for centuries, comfortably in bed with the aristocracy, bleeding the peasants and working people white with their stranglehold on the hearts and minds of this deeply Catholic country.

The church and its fat, authoritarian clergy were in the sights of the Republicans from the beginning. Attacks on churches were legion, priests who stood by their power and privilege often put to death, either through the sentence of courts or by vigilante action.

I realised I was looking at the scars of this onslaught. The icons pulled down and smashed. The cathedral barricaded.

It gets worse.

The exterior of the building forms a series of bays demarcated by triangular buttresses.

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But the bay next to the gate I was looking at was special – it is cordoned off with ‘decorative’ chains.

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I wondered why. Then I noticed something unusual – at a consistent height between one and two metres from the ground the stones were pockmarked by something I recognised.

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These are bullet marks in the ceremonial gate to St Stephens Green in Dublin – the epicentre of the Easter uprising. They appear to be larger, either because the stone is softer (unlikely) or because they record the impact of the heavier ammunition from the Lewis machine guns the authorities deployed in the upper stories of buildings facing the College of Surgeons where the rebels were holed up.

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All between chest and head height of the average Andalusian man in the 30s (they were smaller then).

This, I am almost certain, was an execution site. Sacred ground, chained off. And unmarked by any overt signs.

They are gradually refurbishing the exterior of the cathedral. This, I expect, will be gone in five years.

There is no point trying to confirm this. To this day, I was warned by an Andalusian friend, a hood of silence hangs over the events of the war. My gitano guitar teacher spoke of it, but only inside our house and when we were alone. Raise the question in a bar, in conversation and someone will quickly and forcibly change the subject.

Repression in the south was swift and extreme. Neighbours dobbed in neighbours, who quickly disappeared. Of course, old scores were settled, and I sense in the often grim expressions of the very old that consciences remain troubled. It is dark territory.

Compare the pictures. This section of the cathedral wall is alone in bearing ambiguous, semi-legible graffiti. Look at the second-to-last picture above. Like the two or three other semi-erased graffiti, they consist of three letters.

Ireneo Antonio Torres, perhaps? Initials of somebody’s name, anyway.

They remember all right. And so they should.