Tuesday, 9 June 2020

COVID19 Reveals A Naked British Government

Cartoon by Peter Brookes
You only learn when things go wrong, as my first boss used to say, and COVID19 is giving the British a masterclass. The pandemic has revealed not only that their government failed them in very practical ways through incompetence, but that it has also unwittingly abandoned many of its core capabilities. A government with an 80 seat majority in Parliament is actually powerless. The British Prime Minister has no clothes.

This is not about small or big government, centralised planning versus devolved powers or libertarianism versus socialism. All models of government must deliver at the basic level that a pandemic requires. Yet since 2015, three Tory governments have failed to ensure that Britain maintained stockpiles of necessary equipment and adequate hospital capacity or was capable of delivering food and necessary equipment to where it's needed. It's not as if the "Opposition" were any more capable of stepping into the breach. Military planners had to be called upon to co-ordinate the response, and their troops to deliver it while ministers remained unable to communicate about the impact and response in a way that built trust in the government's ability to handle this crisis - or the next...  Brexit transition will end without a deal in December, amid far lower investment than in other 'G7' nations; foodbanks abound while crops rot in the fields, and both unemployment and borrowing are beginning to rocket.

Who's managing Britain's state of readiness?

Maintaining a state of readiness for a pandemic or epidemic is obviously critical to fighting it. But that's a process that has to be managed. Stockpiles of food and equipment pass their use-by dates and must be replaced and replenished. Contracts for services and personnel must be renewed to support logistics and distribution. Households need their own stockpiles and workers must be ready to work from home or remotely at short notice. Emergency cash subsidies have to reach bank accounts promptly.

Repeated assurances by the British government that the UK health and social care system was "well-equipped" and "well-prepared" for a pandemic were clearly wrong, just as they have been concerning preparations for Brexit and for recent floodsChannel 4 News uncovered evidence of systemic failure to monitor and maintain stockpiles of PPE and respirators. Almost 80% of respirators in the national pandemic stockpile were out of date when coronavirus hit the UK, and 45% of PPE boxes held out of date equipment. There were no protective gowns, despite recommendations to buy them last year.  Emergency funding has been slow to arrive, and largely involves loans through banks for which government guarantees had to be extended to 100% as they are unlikely to be repaid, suggesting little planning for such an event.

But who, if not the government, manages the process of remaining ready for a pandemic, even if the actual work is outsourced to the private sector?

Responsiblity for the pandemic stockpile and distribution process may have been delegated to Public Health England and a public sector management company, Supply Chain Coordination Limited, but accountability lies with the British government, just as the banks have insisted on its financial backing over the distribution of funding.

Managing the Response

The British government actually wound down its dedicated pandemic response management capabilities over the past four years. In its defence, it might say that it had merely 'streamlined' its ability to deal with all types of catastrophe, and that reflects a trend:
"Without that overbearing [nuclear] threat, much of the planning and preparedness that was set up by 20th Century governments has either fallen away or been subsumed into other crisis management plans. Schemes for how to deal with severe flooding, terrorist attacks or other events that may displace large numbers of people have likely drawn on the old Cold War planning..." How Prepared Are We For A Nuclear War? BBC Future 22. 07.2017
Terrorist attacks have luckily been very localised, enabling prompt containment. Yet, time and again the British government has responded poorly to larger scale floods. Similarly, the supply and distribution of intensive care machines, PPE and testing/tracing capability are large scale challenges this government has failed to meet, even declining involvement in international procurement exercises and offers from local producers, only to later 'beg' for ventilators and protective equipment. Panorama revealed hidden mistakes in actually delivering PPE to health and social care workers, not to mention delays in testing.

As a result, what should be reliable delivery forecasts have become merely arbitrary, aspirational 'challenges' with no certainty as to whether they can be met, let alone sustained.

Increasingly, Johnson's government has fallen back on the British Army's command and control structure to directly manage situations that the government itself should be managing. He has had to rely on the British Army to deliver PPE and testing logistics (as well as construction of makeshift hospitals to cope with anticipated demand for intensive care beds). This reliance, together with the vast number of excess deaths, illuminates the gaps between assurances and reality.

It cannot be acceptable for any government to have lost effective oversight of the process for delivering essential items in a crisis.

Trusted Communications?

There is a huge amount of literature on the importance of trustworthy leadership in a crisis. After all, it is only human to look for guidance on what's happening, what to do and what to expect amidst a major disaster. Without it, humans simply do as they please, with disastrous effects - as the 1918 influenza pandemic showed, even in small rural communities.

Trust is a function of credibilty, which itself is built on honesty and transparency.

Boris Johnson has never been on even terms with the truth and he and his various substitutes at the daily British government press briefings have continually demonstrated a lack of honesty and transparency over every element of COVID19 preparedness and response.

This has provoked both anger at the false assurances, and many media investigations into the true position, including those mentioned earlier. Yet Johnson's government continues its boycott of certain media outlets and ministers have even resorted to muting journalists who ask probing questions during the controlled coronavirus media briefings.

Johnson's latest target for tests was dismissed out of hand, and his confused messaging over whether lockdown measures might be eased produced directly conflicting headlines from two national newspapers in the same stable within a day of each other. There have been U-turns over so-called "plans" to re-open schools as well as car-sharing and likely the belated insistence that those arriving in the UK must self-isolate for 14 days. A major financial stimulus package has been deferred to the autumn. The abominal failure to discipline, let alone sack, Johnson's political adviser over his lockdown adventures is now the stuff of legend.

In these circumstances it is no surprise that Johnson and his health minister score low on trust over COVID19, and the majority of people tend to rely on others for the facts:
Fewer than two in five (36%) said they trusted what the prime minister, Boris Johnson, said on the subject, while just 37% trusted the information given by the health secretary, Matt Hancock.
However, 59% said they placed their faith in the chief medical adviser to the UK government, Chris Whitty, and 55% said they would trust the director general of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
It remains to be seen how generalised this lack of trust might become, but Johnson's own approval rating has plummeted.

This is encouraging. Any society must consider both the systemic errors and their concealment to be unacceptable if it wishes to protect itself against disaster as well as it can. Whether Starmer is any more likely to get a grip on the situation remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Johnson's Brexidiot government must put some clothes on, even if only to spare us the sight of them...

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Little England Learns Its Place In The World

As the deadline looms for any extension to Britain's transition to lonely outcast in 2021, it is only fitting that Boris "Brexidiot" Johnson should seal that fate by following through on his promise to renege on the UK's Withdrawal Agreement which he only just won an election by promising to sign. No doubt Johnson is fully aware that the Little English have long been infamous in Europe for such acts of duplicity, which was the hallmark of his own stint there as an unreliable journalist. Indeed, the Lyin' King has shown the same duplicity in the course of trade talks with the US. He really is Little England personified.

Duplicitous England has never really been accepted as part of Europe, other than by accident of equally duplicitous geography: a mere 34 kilometres has prevented the frequency of invasions suffered by contintental nations, as has its meagre size and supply of natural resources. After the ignominy of losing the parts of France from which the Normans had successfully invaded, Little England has only thrived as part of a pirate state, from Queen Elizabeth to Queen Elizabeth, enriched only by what it could steal or leech from others by boat and financial alchemy. Even the decision to join the EEC was motivated by greed and envy, rather than any great desire to lead:
Britain joined what was then the European Economic Community in 1973 as the sick man of Europe. By the late 1960s, France, West Germany and Italy — the three founder members closest in size to the UK — produced more per person than it did and the gap grew larger every year. Between 1958, when the EEC was set up, and Britain’s entry in 1973, gross domestic product per head rose 95 per cent in these three countries compared with only 50 per cent in Britain.
After becoming an EEC member, Britain slowly began to catch up. Gross domestic product per person has grown faster than Italy, Germany and France in the more than 40 years since. By 2013, Britain became more prosperous than the average of the three other large European economies for the first time since 1965.
But that status, too, slipped from Little England's grasp, even before the impact of Johnson's appalling mismanagement of the response to the COVID19 pandemic. Since the chart below was compiled, estimates are that Britain will be saddled with more debt than after World War II (which it only finally repaid on 31 December 2006), its citizens no longer able to live, work and trade freely in the world's largest trade bloc amid soaring unemployment.

Source: Institute for Fiscal Studies

There have been endless warnings of Little England's impending, impoverished isolation. Like the Brexit warnings dismissed as "Project Fear", all have gone unheeded, and an Empire on which the sun never set has dwindled to a fractious gang of dependent 'Home Nations' squabbling over their share of the shrinking public purse. 

It's taken ten years for the "Tory faithful" to make the nostalgic fantasy-lined coffin in which their Little England will be lowered to its final resting place.

The end of Brexit transition is the lid.

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