Retired teacher. Lives in North West London. Grew up in Thurrock in the 1950's and 60's and consequently spent the first 18 years of his life breathing air that was 60% cement. Active member of the National Education Union (formerly NUT) and Labour Party.
One of the features about COVID arguments is the tendency on the Right to throw in remarks that are supposed to be common sense, but which are very revealing when you take a step back and examine them.
In these remarks, numbers are often thrown around with complete disregard for what they actually amount to. A model for this is one Donald Trump’s sentences where he’s talking about big numbers; and he can’t help but expand them in series; like an eight year old does in the playground – millions, billions, gazillions. This works on the difficulty most of us have in envisaging and comparing numbers beyond those we can comfortably grasp from everyday life; so qualitative differences are easily obscured or missed because both numbers translate as “lots”.
One of these frequent flyers is the notion that, as we can’t have a risk free society, it is perfectly alright to let the COVID virus rip – often posed as if this is a test of moral fibre. The example of socially acceptable risk that is habitually trotted out is that of traffic accidents; on the lines that if we are prepared to go out on the roads every day we should equally be prepared to go into a crowded cafe and take a deep breath.
In this argument, the first – and most obvious – point as far as the UK is concerned is that casualties from Coronavirus so far are qualitatively greater than road accidents. Official Government figures for the UK show over 43,000 deaths from COVID19 in 2020. In 2019, there were 1,752 deaths from road accidents. (1) Deaths from COVID in the UK are more than twenty times greater than those from traffic accidents.
There has been no significant variation in this level for the last ten years in the UK – as increased safety measures like 20mph limits have been counterbalanced by an increase in traffic.
The second point is whether we should consider the level of deaths from road accidents to be socially acceptable or take them for granted.
This is particularly the case when you consider that on a global scale, traffic accidents are a far more significant cause of death. The WHO reports that around 3,700 people die every day from road accidents around the world. That is below the current daily death rate for Coronavirus, but in the same ball park. (2)
It is surely entirely coincidental that the people arguing most strongly that road deaths are an acceptable price to pay for living in a modern society also think the same of COVID19 and are so often those in social strata least vulnerable to either. Your perspective on dying on a ventilator or being being flattened by an SUV seems to depend on how far you are at risk of the first, whether you drive an SUV or walk; or whether you live in a part of the world that has robust highway safety measures in place or not. 90% of the worlds traffic accidents happen in middle and low income countries – three times higher than the rate in wealthy countries (and the economic impact of this has been reported as greater than the total amount they receive in aid). (2) How often does a risk become more acceptable the less the person grandstanding is exposed to it? As the old Irish expression has it – “Its easy to sleep on another man’s wound.”
On a global scale then, the carnage on the roads is a threat that requires urgent action to reduce it.
Even in the UK, the scale of deaths on the roads dwarfs those from Industrial accidents. 12 times as many.
So, while COVID is a significantly greater risk than road accidents in the UK, road accidents themselves are in a different league than all the industrial accidents in the country put together. That also requires attention when considering transport policy as well as health and safety. Part 2 follows.
As the pandemic has rebounded and restrictions are necessarily being brought back in – however reluctantly – some discredited old chestnuts from the Spring have been picked up, dusted off and pressed back into service in the hope that – if they are repeated enough with sufficient self confidence – people will take them seriously – and even repeat them under the impression that they are being bravely iconoclastic.
This is easy to check. The World Health Organisation figures for annual global deaths from seasonal flu give a range from 290,000 to 650,000, depending on the virulence of the strain. This is with normal health measures an vaccines deployed. The comparison looks like this.
In the UK, on average seasonal flu kills 17,000 people a year. Official government figures (which are on the conservative side in more ways than one) state that there have been 43,726 deaths so far. The ONS statistic for the number of excess deaths for the COVID period compared to annual averages is over 67,000 – a more accurate indication of its impact. That looks like this.
With no vaccine and with exceptional hygiene and social distancing measures deployed, global deaths from COVID19 are over 1,008,000 so far; and with a daily death toll at a steady 5,000 or so it clearly has a long way to run until either an effective vaccine is found or effective measures are taken to eliminate the virus. It bears repeating that it took China just six weeks to eliminate domestic infections – keeping their total death toll below 5,000; so the aversion in the West to learning from their experince is looking more and more like self harm as time goes on and the casualties mount.
SAGE reported in September that an immediate 2 week circuit breaker lockdown was needed to stop the rapid increase in COVID infections. The government decided instead to cross its fingers and hope that half measures would do the trick. They haven’t. The government is now “guided” by “the science” and is no longer “following” it. They seem to think that “the science” is malleable and the virus will respect their other imperatives. It won’t.
Pundits are arguing that Labour’s support for SAGE’s call makes such a circuit break “politically impossible” because the government will now lose face if it calls one – an implicitly therefore that if one doesn’t get called that’s somehow Labour’s fault. So many have said this that it is clearly a line fed to them through the lobby. Just think for a moment about what that says about the priorities of this government. Even putting it about that saving Boris Johnson’s face must take precedence over saving people’s lives is a piece of gaslighting on a whole new level – even for this lot.
Instead we have the “three tier ” system which SAGE has said very clearly won’t be enough, even if all the restrictions in the third tier are followed strictly.
So, what can we do?
The R rate (18/10/20) is currently at 1.2 – 1.5 for the whole of the UK. SAGE has said that closing down the hospitality sector would cut this by 0.2 – getting it down to 1 – 1.3. Closing schools would cut it further by 0.5, getting it down further to 0.5-0.8. The National Education Union is therefore completely right to call for schools to be included – because without schools being shut the circuit won’t be broken, but with their closure the R rate would be below 1 even for the highest estimates.
So, it is clear from this that closing schools is essential to get the R rate down below 1. The question that flows from this is how far down can the R rate be forced and over what period and whether a circuit break – albeit a minimum necessary measure – is adequate to eliminate the virus in the way that China did in just six weeks (and without which no sustainable recovery is possible)?
The other step forward that could be taken is to scrap SERCOs contract for test and trace and reconfigure the whole system so that it is properly run through the Health Service and local authorities. The figures on this are stark.
Sticking with SERCO shows that the government is less interested in getting a grip on the virus than using a health emergency as a pretext for further outsourcing. The jury is not out on this any more, privatisation fails.
Under the terms of the Prevent Programme, teachers all over the country have to teach that the rule of law is a “Fundamental British Value” (with capital letters). In passing the SpyCop (Covert Human Intelligence Sources) Bill last night the Johnson government has made this impossible to do with a straight face.
This Bill was drawn up because abuse – some of it sexual -by under cover Police officers was being found to be illegal – so the previous unwritten code – the nod and the wink from on high – was not enough to give them protection from the courts. This is not an overdue attempt to regulate and limit such actions, but to give them legal cover and impunity.
There are three aspects to this.
It legalises illegal acts without limit. Even the USA says that rape and murder in pursuit of “the national interest” are beyond the pale. The argument that this is covered by adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights would be a bit less shaky if they were prepared to write these restrictions into the law as a prohibition. The actual wording of the Bill is that agents have to “take account of” the provisions of the ECHR. Presumably in the same way that the government is “guided” by the science on COVID. So that should all work out well.
It gives a license to kill (presumably with knife, gun or bare hand among other things) to a wide variety of state actors, with an appropriate sense of proportion of course. Not just the Police, Security Services, but (bizarrely) the Food Standards Agency. As the government briefing on this details “Only (sic) the intelligence agencies, NCA, police, HMRC, HM Forces and ten other public authorities will be able to authorise criminal conduct”. (1) Ten organisations – beyond the usual suspects -can allow their agents to break the law! This is the full list. MI5 and other intelligence bodies, Police forces and the National Crime Agency, Immigration and Border Officers, HM Revenue and Customs, Serious Fraud Office, UK military forces, Ministry of Justice (investigations in prisons), Competition and Markets Authority, Environment Agency, Financial Conduct Authority, Food Standards Agency, Gambling Commission and Medicines and Healthcare Regulation Authority.
The criteria for illegal acts are drawn widely and vaguely. Illegal acts can be carried out to “prevent disorder” and to promote “the interests of economic wellbeing of the UK”. That’s a pretty broad brush. It is using provisions that should be a final resort, strictly limited to preventing violent criminal acts or terror attacks to a far wider range of dissenting views and actions. As written, the interpretation of “economic wellbeing” would cover an industrial dispute for example. And there is no doubt which side the intervention would be on. Trade Unions have been infiltrated in the past. Employers organisations have not. When you consider that we have a government whose interpretation of “order” is that peaceful protest to draw attention to the climate breakdown is a “criminal threat to the UK way of life” (Priti Patel) you can see how – and where – this is targeted.
When you consider consistent practice – that of the huge number of political groups that have been spied on by undercover agents since 1968, only 3 of them have been from the far right – compared with 4 into the Anti-Apartheid Movement, 14 into anti racist groups, 19 into Justice Campaigns (including that for Stephen Lawrence) and 21 into environment organisations – you can see from this who the security forces see as a threat, and – possibly more damning – who they do not. (2) That looks like this.
That the British state and its governing Party feel significantly more threatened by campaigns for racial justice than it does from fascists reveals a lot about it. It comes from the people who gave us the “hostile environment” and who feel that keeping up statues honouring colonialists and slave traders is a part of “our” heritage; not the source of either reflection or shame.
This legislation is the state unmasking itself in as naked a way as President Trump on the White House balcony. This law – in an attempt to retain control of crises that are well beyond their capacity – can’t help but undermine the values that they claim to be fundamental – and reveal them as a facade.
And because “Fatima’s next job might be in Cyber”, here are some background thoughts on the Security Services, their record and current online interventions.
The Secret Intelligence Service HQ, built by the river where the Prince Regent’s beloved Vauxhall pleasure gardens used to be, is known to those in the trade as “Ceausescu Towers”; a grim and forbidding sort of place.
Until 1994, SIS HQ was a naff looking tower block, built on top of a petrol station near Lambeth North tube station. It was meant to be completely secret and, of course, everyone who needed to knew where it was. Mentioning it in the press would lead to a charge under the Official Secrets Act, but every cabby knew where to go to get to the place that was not supposed to exist. This was a bit like the opening sequence of “Carry on Spying” (1964) in which a secret base is effortlessly penetrated by a whistling milkman casually walking through doors marked “top secret”. Replacing this monument to muddle with a large, publicly proclaimed, specially built Byzantine ziggurat on a prominent river bank site is to replace a joke with a threatening form of disavowal. The “secret” service is right there in front of you; so watch the wall my darling…
It is a peculiarly ugly building: like a cathedral to a religion with no soul, a mock art- deco power station sucking the life out of its surroundings: half 1930’s cinema, half mausoleum; a monument to the grandiose hollowness of the 1980s in yellow stone.
It exudes sterility. It can’t be missed; but there is a disinclination to look. No people can be seen inside. No one seems to come in or out. Its windows, made with three layers of toughened glass, are opaque. Its rear end, on Albert Embankment, is an edifice that Albert Speer would have appreciated, with no character, barricaded off from the roads around by a high wall topped with green spikes and restless cameras following anyone who passes by. The urge to cross the road or walk more briskly to get away from its force field is overwhelming.
There is – so far – no tradition in this country of people disappearing into the Intelligence service’s HQ and not coming out again – as in “The Minister of the Interior collects jokes made against him… and he also collects the people who make them” – because, as with manufacturing industry, the UK tends to outsource and offshore its dirtiest work; though brutal methods of interrogation, torture and extrajudicial killings had made it as close to home as the North of Ireland in the 1970s. However, it looks as though it was built in anticipation of a time in which the state would feel sufficiently under threat to bring these methods home to roost. So, the effect on the surrounding streets is a deadening one. People hurry by with eyes averted.
Large parts of the building are underground and there is rumoured to be a tunnel connecting it to Whitehall. It is now slightly closer to the new US embassy than it is to the Palace of Westminster, possibly in more ways than one.
The function of SIS from when it was initially set up in 1909 was to be able to carry out operations in the interests of the state which the government of the day could deny any knowledge of; carried out by an organisation which it was illegal to admit actually existed. The way this was done relied rather heavily on having “the right kind of chap” who could be trusted to do the right kind of thing, without explicit instruction from anyone whose political career might be put in jeopardy if found out. These would usually be current or former military personnel; though there was a continuous and fierce turf war with the military intelligence departments of the armed forces. Agents were also often moneyed individuals doing espionage on an amateur basis to provide themselves with an adventurous existence, while providing service for the society that had made them moneyed individuals and kept them in the manner to which they were accustomed. Patriotism and class interest merging here in an organic unity that Oakshott* would have been proud of. This kept recruitment within a very restricted class of people and came with a set of values and beliefs rooted in defence of Empire internationally – and not exactly neutral when it came to domestic politics either. Enemies without – movements for colonial freedom – were linked to “enemies within” – anyone who supported the movements for colonial freedom or favoured significant redistribution of wealth away from moneyed individuals who could afford to be amateur spies. Labour was inherently suspect – let alone anything to its left. The Cold War co-operation with and subordination to the United States that followed World War 2, and then the collapse of independent British imperial pretensions at Suez in 1956, copper bottomed this.
The report in the Daily Telegraph on August 1st 2019 that the UK armed forces would be carrying out cyber warfare on a permanent basis begs a number of questions both about how far the Intelligence Services have been doing this as a matter of course hitherto and – as this kind of warfare is partly about the manipulation of narrative on social media – the extent to which the world view they are defending is a politically partisan one.
Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader meant that the largest opposition party – and therefore prospective government – was in the process of breaking with a prior consensus about international alliances and the inviolability of private sector economic dominance that the SIS exists to defend.
Indeed, the instant response to Corbyn’s election from an anonymous serving general that the army would “mutiny” in the event of him becoming Prime Minster, and similarly disturbing reports of the Parachute Regiment in Afghanistan using the face of the Leader of the Opposition for target practice in a firing range are reminiscent of the febrile and shaky political crisis in the 1970s.
In the 1970s, the last time the constitutional and economic order in the UK was being shaken by a strategic reorientation; during the edgy readjustment between the collapse of Empire and trying to settle into the EEC, we had, among other things…
elements of SIS – who may have been “rogue” or may simply have been operating with a nod and a wink on a long leash -were actively working against the elected Labour government of Harold Wilson (see Peter Wright Spycatcher for an inside account by one of the agents doing it)
at the same time former army officers like David Stirling – a founding member of the SAS – were trying to set up a shadow alternative government in case of an “undemocratic event”. Stirling “created an organisation called Great Britain 75 and recruited members from the aristocratic clubs in Mayfair; mainly ex-military men (often former SAS members). The plan was simple. Should civil unrest result in the breakdown of normal Government operations, they would take over its running.” See Wikipedia. He also “created a secret organisation designed to undermine trade unionism from within. He recruited like-minded individuals from within the trade union movement, with the express intention that they should cause as much trouble during conferences as permissible. Funding for this “operation” came primarily from his friend Sir James Goldsmith.” Wikipedia. Small world.
It is worth considering the extent to which such forces would go in conditions in which there was no hegemonic consensus on the future of the country. The 1975 EEC referendum had a sufficiently decisive result to give the country an apparent way forward for the forseeable future and took us back to a more routine time of
surveillance and infiltration of unions and the left in which pious evocations of British democracy were combined with blacklisting activists on behalf of employers,
undercover policemen infiltrating completely harmless environmental organisations as agents provocateurs and going so far as to form relationships on false pretences with women in the movement, father children with them, then disappear on them when the job demanded it,
lying about overseas threats to justify military interventions that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people (in the name of human rights) as with the Iraqi dodgy dossier in 2003.
So far, so routine. But today we are back in a time like the early seventies – with a break from the EU towards an undetermined future alignment with the USA at a time that the US has ceased to be the world’s largest economy for the first time since 1870. Political debate is therefore becoming delirious and sometimes surreal.
Reports in December 2018 that a government funded agency – the Integrity Initiative – run by exactly the nexus of good old boys who have always run SIS – had funded online attacks on Labour in general and Corbyn in particular (1) reveal that the line between the security of citizens and politically partisan intervention is being more blurred than usual. It is important not to be cynical about this – they would do that wouldn’t they – because they are not supposed to and should be held to account for it.
The revelation that someone somewhere had set up at least ten fake twitter profiles of supposed Corbyn supporters which were spewing out antisemitic bile until unmasked (2) begs the question of who would be likely to do that and what their interest is in creating this impression and association. Reports on troll farms indicate that one agent can operate up to ten separate identities at any one time. Some of these people might be politically motivated freelancers, others will be employees of think tanks, some will work for intelligence agencies (at home or abroad).
These are likely to be the tip of the iceburg. Reports in Al Jazeera on the mechanisation of trolling adds another dimension to how this works (3).
Analysis by outfits like Cambridge Analytica, to enable personally targeted posts during campaigns , make the whole field wide open to surreal manipulation. The most effective post for the leave campaign during the EU referendum was apparently one about animal rights and the cruelties of bull fighting – which might be fair comment if so many of the people behind it weren’t so keen on fox hunting.
The bottom line therefore, is never to assume in an online discussion that the “people” who are posting are actually people. When a thought out post is countered by a short negation from someone you don’t know, especially when it has no other content, and is immediately backed up by several likes and one word affirmations – you are probably being trolled by a bot. Whether coming from a human or a bot, if the comment is designed to generate more heat than light, the key thing is to try to cool it down, get to the facts and don’t get riled up. Part of the aim of all this is to drive us all a bit mad and make discourse more and more vituperative and unity based on truth impossible to achieve.
Original version of this part of the blog from August 2019.
The Bank robber Willie Sutton reputedly replied to a reporter’s inquiry as to why he robbed banks by saying “because that’s where the money is.” Sutton denied ever having said it, but the popularity of the citation indicates a certain truth.
Wealth – and the power it confers – is in relatively few private hands. Organised through companies and states, it gives a tiny minority enormous leverage over everyone else’s lives.
This underlines a point that should be obvious but is mystified in the conventional wisdom. “The economy”- sometimes operating under its other alias “the markets” – is not a neutral machine that operates under mathematical rules unbeholden to human choice. It is a social construction in which the choices of the wealthiest are central, and the production of profits for their benefit the point. This is why – in a city like London – there are whole socially dead areas full of empty luxury developments – bought by the uber wealthy as investments. Not homes. Not neighbourhoods. Just vertically stacked physical portfolios. At the same time, a study by Shelter in 2015 found just 43 houses on the market at an affordable price for the average family. 43; in a city of 8.5 million people! Hard to imagine that there are any now. (1)
The priority is neither need, nor “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” – as `Jeremy Bentham described the purpose of political economy – but stacking up wealth and power where it already is. If you are in London, you can visualise this as a piece of psycho-geography when you stand on Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath and look South. The entire city looks warped around the skyscrapers in the City of London, Canary Wharf and the Shard, in orbit around the massive gravity of black holes of finance capital thrown up into blasphemous towers.
Sometimes there is a slip that reveals this, but it goes unnoticed because the narrative of “the economy” being a neutral good is so well established that it blinds us to the truth even as it is being revealed. Evan Davies, talking about the French 35 hour week on the PM programme around the time of Nikolas Sarkosy’s run for President as “really good for the people, but really bad for the economy” is a classic. Ponder that for a bit.
A recent report from UBS (2) shows how few billionaires there are in the world. A slight rise from 2158 in 2017 to 2189 now.
This is such a tiny proportion of the global population that you can barely see it on a pie graph. In fact, you could fit them all into the Royal Festival Hall and still have 500 vacant seats – or you could just about fit them into the old State cinema in Grays Essex with 11 seats left over. Perhaps we should invite them to a concert or film show and lock them all in.
It is reminiscent of the joke told by Jimmy Reid – who led the Upper Clyde Shipyard sit in in 1971. “If you put the ruling class on one side, and the working class on the other, and the working class spat – we’d drown the bastards.”
Their wealth however, and therefore their power, is much greater. As this wealth is so far beyond their needs, the way it can be deployed is far weightier than its raw quantity. It is also increasing rapidly – and crisis boosts this, with an increase of 70% (!) since 2017 – not a calm period marked by political harmony and blithe optimism for the future.
If you broaden out the definition of the world’s wealthiest to all the millionaires in the world, the rule of spit still applies.
The imbalance of wealth and power is even clearer, as 0.6% of the population controls 44% of the wealth.
It goes without saying that the conspicuous luxury consumption indulged in by these people would be completely unsustainable for the Earth’s resources if everyone were to have the wealth to join in. These people have carbon footprints the size of an Argentinosaurus. Oxfam carried out a study in 2015 that showed that each person among the wealthiest 10% of the world had a carbon footprint 60 times greater than that of people in the poorest 90%. (3) This is a significantly larger slice of global population than the millionaires and billionaires; so the scale of their personal carbon footprints can only be imagined.
The notion that emulating these people – wanting to live like they do – to “keep up with the Kardashians” escape from the common lot and shared problems and “spend, spend, spend” our way to an alienated nirvana of empty consumerism is “aspirational” is therefore a poisonous cul de sac for human culture. It is also impossible. There is no room at the top. Trying to get there will kill us all.
The desirability or otherwise of this narrow class of people to control so much of the world’s wealth – created for them by the labour of others – is underlined by just how mean spirited they are. The UBS report notes that just 209 out of 2189 of them have “given something back” in this pandemic.
The quantities given are also vanishingly small – with Jeff Bezos giving just 0.1% of his net worth and Bill and Melinda Gates 0.2%. With the sole and honourable exception of Jerry Dorsey (CEO of Twitter) who gave 25% of his wealth to COVID related causes this year – the spirit of Andrew Carnegie has well and truly left the building. (4). Philanthropy is clearly not a viable alternative to taxation if you want to even things out. Assuming – as these people do – that they can make a better use of the resources they control than states – is clearly effrontery on a grand scale.
The final point is that of all the billionaires in the world who did make some financial amends by donating to disaster relief, the meanest were those based in Britain. World beating.
Politically these people like to control the governments of the countries they are based in. The advanced capitalist countries are the best democracies that money can buy. Donald Trump – before he tried his hand at running the show himself, put it like this, when talking about donating to the Clintons. “When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me.” (5) Quid Pro Quo. he is not alone in this. It is what they do. They also like to control the opposition. A sign that an opposition Party based on the Labour Movement which might prove difficult – in that the voice of millions or organised workers is expressed through it – can partly be neutralised by shifting the source of its funding directly to High Net Worth Individuals.
The establishment of a mainstream consensus that no party that aspires to office can actually achieve it while challenging the grip these people have on “the economy” is a key objective to make politics safe for them. It is also why, when the IMF and OECD recommend economic recoveries based on direct state investment – and state investment in Green transition – it doesn’t happen. The dominant orthodoxy is that recovery is based on a recovery in profits, which means the state subsidises capital – and therefore provides a direct transfusion to money to those who own it (and the more they own the more they get) – underwritten and paid for by the rest of us as Finance Ministries pursue their “sacred duty to balance budgets”. The presumption that the wealth generated at the top will trickle down from their empty penthouses is not true but challenged by any Party that knows its place in the old world order.
Challenges to this are not easy – as we have just learned in the UK – but nonetheless necessary – and will continue to be made.
If you look for Mahler’s First Symphony on YouTube, the top hit is a performance by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra from 2009 conducted by Claudio Abbado. Deservedly so.
Abbado was in his mid seventies at the time, but looking much older, dying of cancer – the poor man looked like Ramses the second after he’d been mummified – but with an economy of gesture and a face expressing the intense excitement of a man living in and directing a transcendent moment – and knowing it was one of the last times he could – he drew out a depth of performance from himself and the orchestra that was as tender, exuberant, grandiose, satirical and magnificent as Mahler has to be.
Mahler said, “My symphonies represent the contents of my entire life.” Abbado was conducting his life through the music. The opening shot shows Simon Rattle in the audience, making mental notes.
Taking the time to listen and watch – not just having it as background doing the washing up – means that you can see how much work the orchestra is doing. The Double bass players leaning hard across their instruments, bowing the thick strings like they were sawing logs. The violin and viola sections swooping and soaring like cornfields in a storm. Abbado often holding them back with a look and a tight but gentle hand gesture- a little quieter, a little slower – now everything you’ve got – so contrasts in tone and colour could be heard and felt more clearly. Unexpected instruments too. I hadn’t realised there was a harp in there, nor how menacing a harp could sound.
Visual comedy too. Some terrible noughties European haircuts. Some looking like hats. The blissful expression on the face of the lead trumpet, oblivious to the murderous look on the face of the second trumpet sitting through his solo; biding his time for when his day might dawn. Very definite and distinct faces montaged onto the uniform black suits. Cartoonable dramas and instruments which no one since Gerard Hoffnung has made much of.
All the players playing like they were making love with their instruments. All looking for the fullest expression they could. Essential, intelligent and deeply felt individual contributions to a collective whole. A wonderful piece of exemplary human co-operation. The best of us, what we can do when we put our hearts, minds and souls into it. And gloriously analogue. A skilled human being and an instrument working with others, live and alive.
What we are missing.
The whole thing is so exuberant that it is impossible not to sob. At the end, as the crowd stand and cheer two women throw handfuls of rose petals down on the orchestra. As well they might.
Take an hour to listen and watch. And give it your full attention. Its here.
With the sudden sharp and shocking increase in Coronavirus infections there are fewer people out and about, and they seem to be moving slower, more carefully, more wary and considerate, aware of the fragility of life and taking the time to live its most mundane moments more fully.
The traffic is sparser and has lost the feverish quality of the return to normal that everyone knew wasn’t a return to normal, a sense of living on thinner ice than we’d thought, with too many cars moving too fast, hurrying through, cutting each other up, drivers with frightened eyes, vehicular Social Darwinism; now back to the calm between storms.
Outside Tesco, it is peaceful and tidy. A few weeks ago there were flocks of discarded plastic bags doing dances in the air on the vortexes of wind that were whipping and wheeling, floating up and drifting down, like some elegant, new, ugly life form.
In the meadowed part of the park, the wildflowers planted by the council to save the bees are having a late surge; now head high in places, an impressionists palette of magenta, buttery yellow and cornflower blue waving in the wind and pale autumn light. Magnificent.
Passing the local High School – on the “concern” list for the Local Authority after cases of COVID – and a year group “bubble” is out in the lower school playground. A couple of hundred students scattered in the usual tight clumps, giving no impression that anything unusual is going on.
Though the Moot of eight old chaps that used to sit in a circle smack in the middle and take it in turns to hold forth and put the world to wrongs has dispersed, the socially distanced Yoga class on the far side of the park carries on as normal with all thirty of its participants doing the downward dog in a wide circle, rule of six or no rule of six. Were they to be arrested, the charge sheet would be surreal. A few elderly people without masks puff and wheeze on the outdoor gym.
Picking up some light reading from the library and both the latest Le Carre (1) and Mick Herron (2) efforts involve increasing tension between UK and German Intelligence in the context of Brexit; with double agent plots in both. Herron’s barely disguised satire on Boris Johnson gets full marks from a battery of reviewers in the Telegraph, Mail and Express; indicating more self awareness from those titles in their culture section than they would ever admit to in News and Comment. Surprising they didn’t called it treasonous.
In my local Tesco they have moved the toilet rolls into the same row as the Newspapers. Looking at the headlines this morning, I can see their point.
Amid the chaos of a government strategy that is trying to press on the brakes while putting its foot on the accelerator at the same time, a study led by Professor Russell Viner of University College London and Great Ormond Street argues that schools should be the last places to be shut, that children are less susceptible to catching the virus than adults, and that too many children are being tested.
Lets look at these one at a time.
Children are less susceptible to catching the virus than adults?
Prof Viner’s own study is more ambiguous about this than the argument he rests on it. As it says… “This study provides no information on the infectivity of children.” My emphasis. (1)In other words, once children have the virus, there is no evidence that they don’t pass it on on the same scale as adults do. This is underlined by the following observation “There is weak evidence that children and adolescents play a lesser role than adults in transmission of SARS-CoV-2 at a population level.”(1) In other words, not enough to make a definitive case. Prof Viner’s comment to the press that “susceptibility tells us a little about transmission. You have to be able to catch the virus to transmit it” (2) instead rests his whole case on susceptibility.
So, lets look at that.
The summary of the study lumps all age groups under 20 into the same category in order to make the point that – as an aggregate – they are less susceptible than adults; just over half as likely to catch the virus. There is, however, a statistical sleight of hand in this that is so obvious its embarrassing to have to point it out. There is a huge range between the youngest and oldest age groups covered in the study; which concluded that an adult level of susceptibility starts at 17 or 18, that there is less susceptibility among younger children and that there is too little data on adolescents to draw a firm conclusion.
Taking this to be the case, it means that sixth forms, FE and Universities are all institutions in which adult levels of susceptibility – and on Prof Viner’s logic therefore transmission – can be assumed. The current rapid increase in infections at Universities seems to bear this out.
If there is too little data on Secondary age students, but given that there is a clear distinction between students older than them with those younger, its reasonable to assume a rising curve of susceptibility by age (other things being equal – which – of course – they might not be). Empirical evidence since the start of term in September seems to bear this out, with a rising trend of infections among students in this age group. (3) Social distancing measures and small bubbles at Secondary level should be a no brainer given that this is the case. A “bubble” comprising an entire Secondary Year Group – which can be anything from 120 to 300 students – is wildly risky when you consider that the same students outside school can be penalised for meeting in a group larger than six. The National Education Union has proposed a series of measures to try to keep schools safe, which have been ignored by the government, but will need to be taken on board if schools are not to be shut on a wide scale. (4)
This is underlined by Office for National Statistics figures on infections which show a slight decline in infections among early years and Junior age children, but that “The current infection rates have been highest among teenagers and young adults.” (5)
Whether junior age children are less susceptible, or simply follow the well established tendency for the virus to hit the oldest age groups hardest, is a moot point. Given that Prof Viner’s report is a meta study of many different studies from around the world without a common modus operandi, it could well be that because younger children for the most part get a milder, sometimes asymptomatic illness, the scale of infection has been missed simply because they haven’t been tested. To go back to the initial point – this has no bearing on how infective they might be. So the risk factor in Primary schools – apart from the small minority of children in this age group who do get it badly – is to the educators and families that asymptomatic and untested children might pass it on to; especially where they, for cultural or economic reasons, live in multi generational households. Its a lot easier not to “go home and kill grandma” – in Matt Hancock’s delightful phrase – when Grandma lives in her own place somewhere else, not jammed into an overcrowded flat with the rest of the family.
A study from Massachusetts General Hospital (6) rings some alarm bells in this respect. They found that ” The infected children were shown to have a significantly higher level of virus in their airways than hospitalized adults in ICUs for COVID-19 treatment...Transmissibility or risk of contagion is greater with a high viral load...Alessio Fasano, MD, director of the Mucosal Immunology and Biology Research Center at MGH and senior author of the study commented. “During this COVID-19 pandemic, we have mainly screened symptomatic subjects, so we have reached the erroneous conclusion that the vast majority of people infected are adults. However, our results show that kids are not protected against this virus. We should not discount children as potential spreaders for this virus.” They further underline the vulnerability of the most deprived communities. “The researchers note that although children with COVID-19 are not as likely to become as seriously ill as adults, as asymptomatic carriers or carriers with few symptoms attending school, they can spread infection and bring the virus into their homes. This is a particular concern for families in certain socio-economic groups, which have been harder hit in the pandemic, and multi-generational families with vulnerable older adults in the same household. In the MGHfC study, 51 percent of children with acute SARS-CoV-2 infection came from low-income communities compared to 2 percent from high-income communities.“
So, its clear that concern that children can both catch the virus and infect others is very far from being “unscientific” or “misplaced” as Prof Viner claims. (2)
Too many children are being tested?
The Massachusetts study therefore concludes that “routine and continued screening of all students for SARS-CoV-2 infection with timely reporting of the results an imperative part of a safe return-to-school policy.” This is the opposite of the bizarre suggestion from Prof Viner that too many children are being tested.
His argument rests on the essentially reactive and sketchy character of the ramshackle testing regime in the UK. “There is clearly limited capacity in testing at the moment.” (2) Tests are not routine and continual, they follow symptoms and anxiety about them. Prof Viner’s argument is that too many tests are being administered to children who are exhibiting symptoms of the normal Autumn snuffles. However, since these symptoms often overlap with Covid – cough, high temperature etc – how is a school (or parent) supposed to know which is which? Is it not better to err on the side of caution and insist on the testing regime becoming adequate to the needs, rather than just crossing our fingers and hoping for the best? Just accepting that testing is inadequate is hardly a good approach. There is also a complication here in that a study by Kings College reported on the BBC Inside Science programme indicates that children’s symptoms are often not the same as those of adults – particularly including fever, headache, fatigue, and loss of appetite resulting in skipping meals. (7) In a small echo of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People (or the Mayor in Jaws) in one London borough a union Health and Safety Rep has had his school email account closed down for circulating this programme to his members, presumably on the principle that what you don’t know can’t hurt you. The Kings study is not a lightweight piece of work and a serious government would take it on board and adapt its guidance.
There is a further paradox, which is that the paucity of testing and the long wait for results to come back, means that more teachers and students with symptoms go home to self isolate than might need to do so – because – without a test result – they have no way of knowing whether their symptoms are Covid or not. This means that schools in areas with high infections are being seriously hit by staff absence and, as infections increase, more schools will have to close.
So, far from ramping down testing in schools to match its current inadequacy as a national system, we should be ratcheting it up so that it is systematic, rapid and comprehensive enough to get a grip on the virus and eliminate this risk.
Schools should be the last places to be shut
The question isn’t whether anyone wants to see schools shut down. No one does. Its a matter of what conditions are required to keep them open. The problem with the government’s approach is still that its failure to set up a comprehensive test, track and isolate system, its tendency to lean on the most optimistic possible interpretation of “the Science”, and its failure to adopt any of the measures proposed by the teachers’ union means that – as this collides with the real world and infections grow – schools will be stretched increasingly thin – as more staff go off with symptoms – and/or shut down if there are serious outbreaks. It must be borne in mind that schools were closed in March not because the government was keen to do so, but because the impact of the virus was beginning to close them in a chaotic way: as students, teachers and TAs went off to self isolate with symptoms and concerned parents started keeping their children at home as a precautionary measure.
A strategic weakness of Prof Viner’s argument has nothing to do with the science of his study. He argues that “As part of learning to live with this virus, we need to be keeping schools open.” (2) He presumes that we have to “live with this virus”. This fits with the government approach of trying to manage it with half measures – 10pm closing time for pubs and cafes – and local lockdowns – during which infections have continued to rise on the affected areas. We can no more live with the virus than we can live with climate breakdown. We have to eliminate it with a Zero Covid strategy. (8) It took the Chinese just six weeks to do this for domestic infections following this strategy. We are now six months into the sort of hokey cokey lockdown strategy favoured by this government, with another six penciled in. See Blog on this site: A Zero Covid strategy is needed both for public health and economic recovery.
Contrary to this graffiti, Trump’s COVID infection does not imply divine favour.
I expect that the writer sees the two as compatible figures to rally behind; which sets a conundrum. Imagine Jesus as Trump. Imagine Trump as Jesus.
Not strictly compatible figures. Its as hard to imagine Trump throwing the money lenders out of the Temple or saying any of the following –
“Blessed are the meek”
“Turn the other cheek”
“It is easier for a camel to thread the eye of a needle than a rich man enter the kingdom of heaven,”
“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” (i.e. pay your taxes)
…as it is to imagine Jesus Christ slapping on the fake tan.
Trump does not sacrifice himself for the good of others, instead throwing anyone available under a bus to save himself. Different M/O as they say in detective fiction.
I wonder if a sign of becoming middle class is writing your shopping list in the margins of a copy of the London Review of Books.
At all hours of day and night, the current Autumn gales – more and more intense as the climate breaks down – keep setting off the alarms on the row of motor bikes parked opposite. A set of small alarms for a big crisis.
In the window of the Sim Sim Bakery. “Money can’t buy you love. But it can get you Vegan Falafel”. Obviously the next best thing.
Contrary to received opinion in the UK there is no “trade off” or “balance” to be made between a health first, eliminate the virus strategy on the one hand and an economic recovery on the other.
Half hearted lockdowns and premature attempts to “save the economy” in the UK and USA have led to a far higher level of deaths than in China. China carried out a massive social mobilisation and strict lockdown, which eliminated domestic infections within six weeks. Subsequent infections have come from people coming in from outside; and these too have been dealt with very quickly. The UK and USA, by contrast, have so far had 27 weeks, have failed to eliminate the virus and are now looking at another 27 at least- just to get through the winter and the additional difficulties caused by the overlap of COVID with annual Flu – with no guarantee that a vaccine will bring an end to restrictions.
This has also not allowed a revival of economic activity. Quite the contrary as we can see. Again, the contrast with China is instructive.
Attempts to reopen the economy while infections are running high has simply led to a rebound in infections, leading to students and teachers being sent home from school, University students in quarantine, local lockdowns and a series of bewildering half measures from government that it can’t keep track of itself; all of which prevents any economic recovery capable of firing on all cylinders. The attempt to “live with” the virus while hoping for a vaccine means an economy gummed into permanent quagmire.
So, the shortest route to an economic revival is via the most determined measures to eliminate the virus, as we can see here.