Life and death in a time of plague.

Our UKIP voting neighbours now keep their St George’s cross flag on display at all times; hanging down the front of the house from the upstairs window, waiting for the 6 Nations to recommence. Throughout “lockdown” it has been impossible not to think of the red crosses painted as a warning on the front doors of plague victims in the good old days.

Since the “easing’ of “lockdown” a sign of frantic commercial activity has been the reappearance of the local ice cream van – which now comes round with relentless regularity playing its tinkly alpine tune which is redolent of happy Nazis in lederhosen yodelling at Berchtesgarden. Given the prospect of a second spike, the death march might be more appropriate.

The traffic is coming back. Noisy, smelly, polluting, moving too fast, making everything even more edgy. A lot of drivers wearing masks, staring urgently. Honking horns are just too loud, expressing fear thats bottled up.

There has been a double murder in our local park. A secluded place that feels like the countryside once you’re in it. A place people would escape to for peace and quiet and to help their children feed the horses, watch a heron flap slowly up from a pond, take in the view and breathe. A place full of memories of moments of reprieve – now overlaid by crime tape, a photo of two forensic tents, photos of the two dead women stabbed at midnight, bunches of flowers mourning both them and everyone’s loss of a sense of safety.

R rate increase makes this a crunch week

The Virus is still very much with us. The R rate for London is back up to 0.95 from the 0.4 that was being cited just last week. The lowest rate in the country is back up to 0.89 – very dangerous territory and becoming more so.

If this government – which has presided over one of the worst death rates in the world – continues reopening the economy despite this increase in the R rate, it is declaring that it is putting profits above people; and that their strategy for the second wave is to “let it rip” (as Martin Wolf of the FT puts it). 
Its clear from what they have done during the crisis what the government will do after the crisis (or, more to the point, during its second phase). 

They have used it as an opportunity to divert resources away from the NHS into private provision in a way that has made the services provided incoherent and inefficient; and the result has been lost lives.

Why set up track and trace though outsourcing to SERCO when you can do it through GPs – which would have worked better? Why outsource tests to US labs – which makes turn round times absurdly slow – rather than using resources in the NHS?

They will seek to divert the costs of recovery onto Local Authorities by not funding them to cover the additional costs. These will not be cuts to the bone, but cuts through it.

The “stimulus package” that they have provided during the crisis has been to save companies not jobs. George Osborne is now arguing that – because smaller scale private companies will be unable to survive without it – the state will have to subsidise them – with no strings or social obligations attached; and that the cost of doing so will have to be borne by the rest of us; in the same way that we paid up to keep the bankers in the manner to which they were accustomed after 2008. That will mean a significant transfer of wealth from those least able to afford it to those who already have more than they know what to do with. That is why Stock Markets have been booming during this crisis. They see the outcome as potentially profitable.

There is a clear alternative. No funding for companies that avoid tax, underpay workers, or refuse to meet environmental obligations is a bottom line. But state led direct investment in the green transition has to be the backbone of ant recovery that actually allows us to recover. If we don’t do that, recovery from COVID19 is just giving us a little while longer before civilisation crashes and burns under the impact of global heating. We should all be pushing that alternative. Check out the Build Back Better Campaign being launched on Monday by 80 different organisations from Greenpeace and FOE to the NEU, UKSCN, UNISON, PCS, MEDACT and many more.

Already, companies – like BA – are beginning to offer workers a choice between losing their jobs or being kept on on cut wages. The reduction in government support for the furlough scheme will bring a rush of these. If this becomes widespread it means a) poverty and b) a longer recession – because people with lower incomes buy fewer goods, which leads to lower demand and so on down into a depressionary spiral.

These measures have been much more common in the US up to now – which may be one reason why discontent with their government has exploded more spectacularly than it has with ours so far (though there are obviously other reasons, not least the failings of US private health care, the failure of the state to provide income support during lockdowns and, of course the structural racism that runs through US society and policing).

The government will attempt to divert attention from their failures by blaming a few thousand young people going on Black Lives Matter demos for the rise in the R rate; even though the government is getting millions of people to go back to work. Tube journeys were up by 10% in London within two days of the government easing restrictions.

These spontaneous demonstrations of anger and fear are partly an expression of the grotesque discriminatory effects of the virus in the UK as well as the US, hitting communities that are worse off, live in more overcrowded conditions, often have poorer health and disproportionately work in front line services (even without the scandal that BAME health workers have been disproportionately deployed on COVID wards and found it harder to get PPE).

So standing with BAME communities this week is also urgent.

The government is on thin ice. Johnson’s approval rating is in very sharp decline. The extent to which they can get away with any of the above will depend on the extent to which they run into opposition.

So hitting them hard in the immediate crisis over the increasing R rate is crucial.

Everyone, as an individual or part of every organisation we are in should

1 Call for an immediate pause to lifting lockdown restrictions – as lifting the restrictions lifts the death rate. 

2 Councils should advise schools to delay widening access until the R rate is manageable.

3 Support the Stand Up to Racism take the knee demos at home every Wednesday at 6pm and support the online rally on Sunday. Details here.

The National Education Union has opposed wider school reopening precisely because the R level is too high (and testing, tracking and isolation is not in place). As a result, it has strengthened as an organisation – with an additional 20 000 members joining up and 2 000 of them coming forward as school Reps. more importantly, its campaign – leading the other education unions, has significantly pushed the government’s schedule off course, thereby slowing down the increase in the R rate, which would have been even worse if all schools had done what the government wanted; and thereby saved lives.

The end of the American Century: Why Stephen Kinnock is wrong to line up against China.

The post that follows was written yesterday. Before President Trump threatened to deploy troops to America streets and called for Governors to “dominate” them so they did not “look like jerks” with a thinly veiled call for the sort of right wing militias that have been demonstrating against lockdown to mobilise in defence of “Second Amendment rights”. Before a peaceful demonstration outside the White House was suddenly set upon by a close range volley of tear gas and a baton charge to give Trump a counterpoint image to his photo opp’ standing outside a church holding up a Bible – as though he were testifying. Before one of the men in black smashing windows in Minneapolis was filmed and exposed as an undercover cop. A lot can change in a day. An excellent analysis of why this latest in a long series of racist murders has led to such a widespread rebellion can be read here.

In some ways, Stephen Kinnock reminds me of my paternal grandmother. All through my childhood, my Nan would turn up wearing one of those moulded felt hats that were terribly fashionable in her youth in the twenties and thirties. This was completely authentic and acted as a generational marker. Old lady hats. There were a lot of them in the High Street. Kinnock is the same, but with a world view.

His statement on China on May 17th – presented as significant hardening of Labour’s policy stance – along with Keir Starmer’s announcement that Labour would not be pushing for an extension to the EU transition period – is part of a process whereby Labour is being driven to make peace with the Johnson government’s aim to align the UK with the US as a framework for attacks on UK labour and environmental standards. This can’t come without buying into the USAs intensifying new cold war confrontation with China. This will both make resistance to the domestic impact of this far more difficult and is a worrying sign of how far the current Labour leadership is willing to abandon doing so; and is also entirely the wrong global choice.

It is an old script. From Suez to Reagan, the Labour right tended to see the USA as a more modern, dynamic and democratic version of capitalism than that represented by the British old school tie establishment. After the Reagan – Thatcher alignment this view lost ground to Europhilia, but Atlanticism remained a default faith on the right that was always far more fundamental. Tony Blair’s position was to straddle both – to act as a conduit and agent for US interests in the EU; which he always described as being a”bridge”. This was consistent, even as the Blair-Clinton bromance made way for the more openly abusive relationship with George W “Yo Blair!” Bush; in which Blair’s role as willing hewer of wood, drawer of water and purveyor of messages for the State Department became humiliatingly apparent. His instruction to his Washington ambassador to “get up the arse of the White House and stay there” sums up the quality of this relationship; which led us inexorably to Afghanistan and Iraq; and the consequent hollowing out of the “New Labour” project.

An overtly Atlanticist stance – even without the intensifying subordination that would follow a trade deal – remains default UK foreign policy. The branding of the “special relationship” is a self soothing and delusionary cover for the inability of the UK ruling class to defend its global interests on its own. It follows therefore that if Labour is seeking to be a statespersonlike “Party of Power” – that seeks to manage the interests of the people who own the country, rather then challenge them on behalf of the majority of people who live in it – it has to follow suit as part of a “national consensus” that cannot be challenged. This may be grudgingly held in parts of the Party, but even the view that, although the USA is not a very good example – its sheer power makes accommodating to it unavoidable – is as out of date as my Nan’s hats in the period of Donald Trump.

There is an increasing disconnect between the ideas that justify this Atlanticism and the reality of the world around us. First the reality, then the ideas.

Trump’s “America First” policy has replaced raw power mediated through multilateral institutions which massaged the egos of subordinated allies, with raw power nakedly exposed and increasingly an overt threat to others; including traditional allies who might have previously considered themselves sheltered by proximity. This is not a personal quirk of Trump’s – or even an expression of the real estate/fossil fuel nexus that he represents.

We are in the twilight of the American Century. The triumphalist “unipolar moment”thirty years ago, the “End of History” moment after the implosion of the Soviet Union, which brought with it a near universal presumption that the future of the world was to become a gigantic American suburb, is long gone. For the first time in over 100 years, the USA is not the world’s largest economy. This is a big deal. Even at its strongest, the Soviet economy was never larger than one seventh of the USA; and technically less sophisticated almost across the board. Although it remains the world’s largest rich economy and by far the world’s dominant military power – with as much spending on its armed forces as everyone else combined, bases all round the globe and continuous military interventions to keep it well oiled and ready to go, its economy is now smaller than that of China; and every day that passes makes the gap bigger. The impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which China contained and the US is failing to, has dramatically sped this up. The IMF projects that the US economy will barely have grown in the next two years, while China’s will be over 10% bigger. This makes it likely that the US will do more drastic things under greater pressure; which makes it a very dangerous moment in world history.

This presents a contradiction for people on the right of the Labour Party whose notion of “global leadership” is that the United States is the only country that can provide it. Calls for global co-operation fall into the vacu’um created by “America First” and are increasingly unhinged from what’s actually going on. Lisa Nandy says that “no global problem can be solved without input from China” but poses relations with it as a firmly subordinated member of a set of US alliances, even as the US itself trashes them. This is also a dangerous dynamic for Labour.

Even without the impact of the Coronavirus crisis the US faced a strategic choice of either accommodating and seeking collaborative peaceful solutions to the huge challenges facing humanity (what the Chinese call a “win-win” approach) – or to rage against the dying of the light of “full spectrum dominance” and hitting out to stop it. It is the tragedy of our time that the entire US establishment favours the latter. Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State was author of the “tilt to the Pacific” – an attempt to concentrate US power on containing and disrupting China. Joe Biden’s Presidential campaign this year has tried to outdo Trump in Sinophobia. This is a real threat to the world.

If you look at the most fundamental challenges facing humanity now,

  • the inability of neo liberal capitalism to offer a safe and prosperous future,
  • the climate crisis,
  • coronavirus

all of them have dramatically increased the pace at which the United States is ceasing to be “the one indispensable nation” or model for anyone’s future – even its own. The riots currently erupting across the country sparked by racist police brutality means that the “shining city on a hill is burning.” China, by contrast, is still pulling its people out of poverty while investing massively in green technology. China is committed to the Paris Agreement and international co-operation to avert climate breakdown. The US has pulled out and is organising others to sabotage it, threatening the survival of human civilisation. Perhaps Stephen Kinnock could reflect on which of these courses is preferable?

The slow burning chronic conditions of the first two challenges is dramatised now by the third acute crisis.

Put very simply. China, after an initial fumble by local officials, rapidly worked out what the virus is, shared the information with the international community through the WHO, took swift and dramatic action at significant cost to their domestic economy as soon as they realised how dangerous it is and eliminated domestic infections within 6 weeks of the Wuhan lockdown; shutting it in and closing it down.

This has saved up to 11.5 million lives in China and goodness knows how many outside had they fumbled it.  The continuous efforts by right wing politicians and media pundits to divert blame for their own failure to act on the warnings they were given – in January lets not forget – by concentrating obsessively on that initial fumble, is entirely shameless.

The United States, by contrast, has acted like a failed rogue state; and the UK has acted – as it so often does – as its Ruritanian echo.

The US was the epicentre of the Coronavirus pandemic for over a month, with between a quarter and a third of global deaths every day; only in the last week being eclipsed by Trump’s Brazilian acolyte helping push Latin America into the charnel house.

There have now been more deaths in the USA than there were cases in China; and with the current chaotic re-openings in so many states this has a long way to run. The death toll can only rise.

The Trump administration has been chaotic, brash, swaggering, ignorant. Trump denied the significance of the virus, thought it could be containable by stopping Chinese people from visiting, opined that it would all just “go away” like “a miracle”, made a big thing about not wearing a mask and provided covering fire by Tweet for Alt Right militias who demonstrated against State lockdowns carrying automatic weapons. Meanwhile, the drumbeat of Wall Street Journal editorials calling for the economy to come first was echoed over here by Dominic Cummings’s remark that UK government strategy was “herd immunity to protect the economy and if some pensioners die too bad.”

The failure of the US Health Care system to cope is clear. As Chief Medical Officer Anthony Fauci said to the Senate “We’re not set up for this.”

The failure to provide PPE and the allocation of ventilators by bidding on the open market rather than on a needs first basis has become a scandal. “Why can’t a country that can equip its police so they look like soldiers, equip its doctors so they look like doctors?”

-Underlying this, the number of inpatient beds in US hospitals declined by 39% between 1981 and 1999, to achieve a profit maximising occupancy ratio of 90%: which has meant that hospitals are unable to cope with epidemics and medical emergencies. The 2009 and 2018 flu seasons overwhelmed hospitals, showing how “just in time” practices are vulnerable to anything even slightly beyond normal.

– Local and State Health Departments have 25% fewer staff than before the 2008 crash and the CDCs budget has been cut by 10%.

– Trump deepened this by cutting the White House Pandemic Office and the pandemic PREDICT project – which had identified 1 000 potentially dangerous viruses – at the end of last year.

– The private sector does not do this work. Of the 18 largest Pharmaceutical companies, only three are researching antivirals and new antibiotics – because Heart medication, addictive tranquilizers and male impotence treatments are infinitely more profitable. (1)

45% of the US workforce is not eligible for statutory sick pay and one off grant of $1 200 meant to cover them was described by investment banker and Secretary to the Treasury Steve Mnuchin as sufficient to last for “about ten weeks”. $120 a week. Just $17 a day. Mnuchin, who has a “net worth” of $3-400 million, is paid $210,700 a year; $677 a day.

-The Coronavirus relief package meanwhile provides relief primarily to those that don’t need it. 95% of the people who benefit from an $82 billion tax relief earn over $200 000 a year. Meanwhile, over 40 million workers now have no job and therefore have lost the health insurance that goes with them. As one dying man in New York put it just before he was put on a ventilator, “Who is going to pay for this?”

The failure to eliminate the virus domestically that follows from this mixture of privatised, profit driven provision and chaotic political leadership, is a threat to every other country with which the USA does business – particularly those in the developing world with a weak health infrastructure.

Even worse, internationally, they have pulled funding from the WHO and tried to discredit it, hampering global co-ordination. They have maintained and intensified medical sanctions on countries they disapprove of like Iran; aiming to use a medical disaster for geo political advantage. They have gazumped and diverted PPE supplies destined for other countries.

And their President has suggested that we might like to mainline Dettol or use inappropriate lupus medication (in which he holds shares) while we wait for a vaccine which, for him, should be patented for America First and which – if developed by a private company – should not allow generic copies so the company is rewarded for its investment to the cost of those who can’t afford to buy it.

On the other hand, China is now aiding 150 other countries (thats more than three quarters of every country in the world)- and some US States directly, bypassing the Federal government; and the Cubans – of course – are sending Doctors everywhere they can. Again, Stephen Kinnock might like to reflect on who has handled this better and why and what this means about what global leadership looks like.

Kinnock, in order to disguise this obvious contrast and its far reaching implications, reframes the reality inside a set of cliches which disguise more than they illuminate.

Kinnock argues that, because the UK has a trade deficit with China, China must be “taking us for a ride.” On this logic, so are all the countries in the EU, which also sell more to the UK than they buy from it, while countries like Switzerland, Australia and Brazil, which buy more from the UK than they sell to it, must be being “taken for a ride” by the UK. This way of posing the swings and roundabouts of international trade as zero sum us vs them rhetoric is an intentional echo of Trump’s trade war rhetoric and measures and Boris Johnson’s fantasies of manufacturing “self sufficiency” as a requirement of “national security” – as though there is sufficient capital that could be profitable invested in reconstructing, say cement plants. It makes no sense but it helps to pose things in a hostile framework.

China is “authoritarian”. The US and UK are “democracies”. There is at least a negative tension in this, because whatever people’s view of China, there is less and less traction in the view that the US is any kind of democratic model worth following or allying with, and the current upsurge of protest at yet another killing of a black citizen by the police is as good a definition of “authoritarian’ as any. This wave of police brutality and riots has not attracted the same sort of cross Party condemnation in Westminster and calls to reset our economic and diplomatic relationship with the USA; nor any reflection on what these events reflect of the essence of the USA as a state, as the conflict in Hong Kong has vis a vis China. No suggestion from Jacob Rees Mogg to set up a USA Research Group.

When it comes to supporting authoritarian regimes, or staging coups to install them, the USA is in a league of its own, but its stock in trade internationally is to claim that movements it supports, often trains and finances, are the representatives of “human rights” against regimes of which it disapproves. This is accompanied by wildly exaggerated narratives. The most extreme of these in relation to China, also cited by Kinnock, is Xinjiang. The claims that “up to” 2 million Uighurs are kept in concentration camps gets wide circulation in the developed world and is taken as good coin in the media here; though sensitive souls in the Guardian slip in weasel words like “alleged”. The US narrative is not believed at all in the developing world and denied by every significant Muslim country, Iran, Pakistan, even close US ally Saudi Arabia; and for good reason. Such a vast penitentiary system would be visible from satellites and plenty of photos would be available. Such that exist are of relatively small complexes completely compatible with the Chinese explanation that they have 14 000 people in re-education centres as part of a strategy to suppress a Jihadist separatist movement which has carried out hundreds of terrorist attacks up to three years ago and that these centres are run with more attention to human rights than US internment camps like Guantanamo Bay. (2) Considering how creative the US State Department was with satellite photos of trucks purporting to be mobile WMD launchers to justify the Iraq war, the relative absence of even doctored images is telling.

The irony of this is that the USA itself holds over 2 million people in its prisons. A quarter of the entire world’s prison population is held in the USA. As neo liberal economic policies took hold there was an exponential increase in numbers incarcerated, from 200 000 in 1972 to 2.1 million today. Truly “the Land of the Free” is a “world leader in incarceration.” (3)

Your chances of being shot dead in the streets by the police is also far greater in the USA than in China. From 2017 to the end of 2019, 2 987 people were killed in US streets by the police. The figure for China was 3. I was going to do a graph, but it would look silly.

The USA is undoubtedly the best democracy that money can buy. Despite the tensions now running through the Democrat Party, with the Bernie Sanders campaigns reflecting the growing popular support for socialist solutions like Medicare for all, the USA is not so much a one party state as a state with two parties that are so similar on fundamentals that the election of either makes no fundamental difference to the wealth and power of the 1% who own the country.

The current President was elected on a minority of the popular vote, as was George W Bush in 2000; thanks to the peculiarities of the Electoral College, The Senate gives greater weight to small rural states than large urban ones. As US comedian Bill Maher put it, “why do we need two Dakotas?” Presidential, Congressional and State level elections are bought wholesale by corporate PACS set up by billionaires, so there is no risk that anyone elected might challenge their interests. Election Districts at local level are gerrymandered because the State governments in power get to redraw them every ten years.

China has a different system. The Chinese Communist Party is not a secret cabal. It has 90 million members, 1 person in every 15 in the entire population and more people than live in Germany. This is a mass Party organising and embedded at every level in Chinese society and communication is not just top down. It has an enormous standing and support among the population at large and this is not the transactional thin veneer hoped for by hostile western commentators. This has been dramatically reinforced since it has so successfully eliminated domestic infections of COVID19. Anyone who knows anyone in China is reporting that people there are looking at the complete shit show in the West in horror. (4) There is a huge and lively debate on social media and a definite left, which overwhelmingly supports the CCP even if its not in it. The widespread criticism on social media of the initial failings in Wuhan and the rapid response to it support neither the narrative of a cowed population not that of a sclerotic leadership. Quite the opposite.

By “authoritarian” Kinnock is also having a jab at something he – and the rest of the labour movement – should be aspiring to. The private sector, although it exists and is a significant force, is not in charge in China. The Party and the state are. The state uses its authority to keep capital at heel. That is why China has continued to grow, providing a trade boost to many other countries, continued to improve the living standards of its population and to invest in renewable energy on a scale that gives the rest of the world some hope we can deal with climate change without a total economic collapse. Whatever critique can be made of this or that aspect of Chinese policy or practice, that central fact should be salient for everyone on the left. It is very much up front for people on the right, who want to overturn it. They were prepared to go along with increased trade and other relations with China, so long as that carried with it the prospect of increasing alignment with “western norms.” In other words, that China should adopt the same sort of policies on investment and economic orthodoxy that has led the “West’ to stagnation, austerity for most, and the mind boggling concentration of wealth in the hands of a few individuals and corporations.

An argument has to be had across the Labour movement, to oppose this drift to line up behind the USA in its cold war offensive. The issues are concrete. Economic recovery requires massive state investment. Global recovery requires an end to destabilising US interventions. Dealing with climate change requires doubling down on the Paris process and deepening it. Labour should be on the correct side of all these issues.

1. Figures from Mike Davis. The Monster Enters. New Left Review 122. March- April 2020




The Sick Man of Europe.

The UK government is like a mountaineer who decides that because he has “passed the peak” its safe to jump down the other side of the mountain.

As it tries to bounce parents to send their kids back to school and the newspapers try to generate a euphoric debate about how soon this or that sector of the economy can get going, it is as well to remember just how badly the UK is still doing and just how perilous this makes the coming weeks.

The graph below shows the daily COVID19 deaths across Europe on May 24th – the day that Boris Johnson announced a significant easing of the already very limited UK lockdown; including the partial reopening of schools on June 1st. It shows that the UK deaths reported that day were almost three times higher than the next highest country.

chart (23)

Although this is a daily snapshot, this pattern of very high deaths in the UK compared to other European countries is consistent. If you check out the graph in the source (1) and check back – there is only one day in the whole of May in which any other country had a worse daily death toll than the UK.

This graph shows the new infections for Friday May 29 (2). Again, the UK stands out as by far the worse case.

chart (24)

Its as well to reflect also that this total of juts over 2 000 are the daily infections that have been tested for. In the same press briefing as Boris Johnson claimed this a sign of how low they were getting, Sir Patrick Vallance pointed out that the actual level is probably more like 8 000 and the Kings College App projection is 9 000. That means that there is a known unknown of 6 – 7 000 cases that are on no one’s radar. Dido Harding, who is in charge of getting the Test Track and Isolate system up and running, admits that this won’t be working properly until the end of June.

In THIS situation, the government wants children, 5, 6 and 10 year olds, to go back to school, where they will be in “bubbles” of 15 other children, a teacher and a TA. They can then go home and their families can meet up to 6 people socially. Meanwhile, their parents can have been at work and meeting any number of other people in workplaces that are supposed to be socially distanced “where possible”; because it is completely unreasonable to require the normal functioning of business to be impeded by concerns about the health of workers.

This is why every school that stays shut, every parent who keeps their child at home, every teacher or TA who stand together to refuse to go back to an unsafe workplace (see preceding post: A Safety Net thats largely loopholes) will be saving lives. And that is why the National Education Union and the other education unions are in the front line of defending not only their members and the school communities they serve, but also the whole of society.





A safety net that’s largely loopholes. DFE guidelines on reopening schools.

Lets start with the really young children. Here’s what the DFE says about childcare settings for children younger than 4. Emphasis added.

In childcare settings, providers will be asked to welcome back all children below statutory school age from the week commencing 1 June. Demand for childcare is likely to be lower than usual at first, and existing space requirements and staff to child ratios for these age groups should allow for small group working. Where the physical layout of a setting does not allow small groups of children to be kept at a safe distance apart, we expect practitioners to exercise judgement in ensuring the highest standards of safety are maintained. In some cases, it may be necessary for providers to introduce a temporary cap on numbers to ensure that safety is prioritised. From 1 June, childminders can look after children of all ages, in line with usual limits on the number of children they can care for.

Well. How’s that for conditional? I have emphasised the slippery language. This translates as.

  • We want as many children as possible being looked after – so their parents can go back to work.
  • We know lots of parents don’t trust us enough to send their kids back, so that will mean there’s enough space to fit in those that do without us having to do anything special or lay down any unusual limits.
  • If there isn’t, its up to you how you sort that out, because the buck stops with you, not us.

Overall Guidelines for schools

Bearing in mind that their “ambition is to bring all primary year groups back to school before the summer holidays, for a month if feasible”, hence the rush to get Reception and Years 1 and 6 in as early as June 1st, this is the overall framework for doing this in “the safest way possible and limit the risk of the virus spreading in education and childcare settings.” These phrases contain uncertainty and concede before we start that there are going to be problems. The risk is there, but has to be limited – not eliminated. The procedures may be as safe as possible, but there is not guarantee that they will be as safe as they need to be.  Emphasis added.

  • minimising contact with individuals who are unwell by ensuring that those who have coronavirus symptoms, or who have someone in their household who does, do not attend childcare settings, schools or colleges. 
  • cleaning hands more often than usual – wash hands thoroughly for 20 seconds with running water and soap and dry them thoroughly or use alcohol hand rub or sanitiser ensuring that all parts of the hands are covered
  • ensuring good respiratory hygiene by promoting the ‘catch it, bin it, kill it’ approach
  • cleaning frequently touched surfaces often using standard products, such as detergents and bleach
  • minimising contact and mixing by altering, as much as possible, the environment (such as classroom layout) and timetables (such as staggered break times).

This translates as….We are really hoping that no one asympotmatic comes in to work, but otherwise we are back to phase 1. Wash your hands while singing Happy Birthday, bin your tissues, clean your surfaces and stay in somewhat smaller groups than usual and…er, that’s it.

Of PPE, masks and bubbles

Government guidelines on wearing masks is that they should be worn in enclosed spaces, including public transport and shops where social distancing is not possible. DFE guidance says This does not apply to schools or other education settings – even though classrooms are enclosed spaces in which social distancing is not always possible (or desirable for educational purposes) and has been specifically ruled out as viable for younger year groups.

As the transmission of coronavirus is most intense in families, where people spend long periods of time together in small groups, DFE guidance for schools somewhat bizarrely aims to replicate this as much as possible; except that the small groups – or “bubbles” – are not so small. A maximum of 15 students and 2 adults who will spend all day together and away from all the other bubbles. In Denmark this was a group of 10. The larger number here being perhaps the educational embodiment of our far higher death rate and an indication of why we have had one.

The presumption is that these “bubbles” can be kept safe by making sure no one with any symptoms gets into them; and if any do, the separation of one bubble from another will contain the spread: on the same principle that the watertight compartments in the Titanic stopped the whole ship flooding and sinking, as we all recall. Moreover, as we know that Coronavirus can be transmitted for five days before any symptoms show up, the flaw in this argument is obvious.

Now to Clinical Vulnerability

A distinction is made between “extreme clinical vulnerability” and plain old “clinical vulnerability.” Put bluntly, if you are almost certain to die from contracting the virus “we strongly advise” that you stay at home; but if you just might die from it, the guidance says this.

If clinically vulnerable (but not clinically extremely vulnerable) individuals cannot work from home, they should be offered the safest available on-site roles, staying 2 metres away from others wherever possible, although the individual may choose to take on a role that does not allow for this distance if they prefer to do so. If they have to spend time within 2 metres of other people, settings must carefully assess and discuss with them whether this involves an acceptable level of risk.

In other words, you should be offered work in the “safest available” roles that allow you to stay 2 metres away from others “wherever possible”, but if those roles do not exist (I can’t think of any in a school outside of admin or senior management) and getting too close to other people is a necessary part of those that do, you “may choose” to be persuaded to accept that that level of risk is acceptable on the basis of a tokenistic risk assessment; and this will be your choice, because no manager want to have to carry the can for the pressure they put you under, or have it on their conscience if you get ill or die.

Here’s what they say about the risk of taking the virus home to someone who just might die from it.

If a child, young person or a member of staff lives with someone who is clinically vulnerable (but not clinically extremely vulnerable), including those who are pregnant, they can attend their education or childcare setting.

Lets not forget that their definition of “clinically vulnerable” is – “Clinically vulnerable … people are those considered to be at a higher risk of severe illness from coronavirus.” As they say “not all risk can be eliminated” (unless you actually have a policy and plan to eliminate the virus of course – perish the thought that we should expect a British government to be as determined or effective as the Chinese or New Zealanders) but this is setting people up to court a possibly fatal risk to their loved ones. This is probably how a journalist writing attack pieces from the safety of their home office for the Daily Mail or Express defines “heroic.”

They even suggest that a child who lives with someone in the extremely vulnerable category could be allowed to come to school if they were able to socially distance. This is the kind of guidance that makes the NEU’s description of the government’s approach as ‘reckless” seem mild.

Social distancing

Here are two sentences that contradict each other.

“…early years and primary age children cannot be expected to remain 2 metres apart from each other and staff. In deciding to bring more children back to early years and schools, we are taking this into account.”

So there will be no social distancing in Reception and Year 1. It might be thought that this would make these year groups the last ones that could be brought back safely. There is absolutely nothing in this guidance that addresses the particular needs or anxieties of children in this age group. Nothing. Just doing the handwash, surface clean, keep your distance (in a way that they have just conceded they can”t) routine is supposed to make sure “the risk of transmission will be lowered.” Note, not eliminated. If all this is done, all the time, and it all works, the risk will be “lowered.” Not exactly a ringing statement of confidence there. Of course, we are reasonable people and it would be quite unreasonable to expect that we could send our five year olds into school and expect them to be completely safe. Perhaps we should look at it as character building.

Contact tracing?

“The government is developing a new national test and trace programme. This will bring together an app, expanded web and phone-based contact tracing, and swab testing for those with potential coronavirus symptoms. This programme will play an important role in helping to minimise the spread of coronavirus in the future. It will also include more traditional methods of contact tracing if a child, young person or parent tests positive. This could include, for example, direct discussion with parents and schools or colleges on recent contacts. The government is recruiting 18,000 contact tracers to support contact tracing and will recruit more if needed. They will play an important part in tracing the contacts of those with coronavirus, including children.”

All very speculative. Not a sign of a worked out programme or policy. Nothing about how this would work, what the procedures would be, let alone when it might be in place. Given that running that this programme has been outsourced to SERCO – instead of run through GPs for example – there is no certainty here that such a system would even be in place, let alone rehearsed or tried and tested by June 1st. This is a bottom line they are trying to fudge.

If a child gets ill with any COVID symptoms

They should be sent home and…

“If a child is awaiting collection, they should be moved, if possible, to a room where they can be isolated behind a closed door, depending on the age of the child and with appropriate adult supervision if required. Ideally, a window should be opened for ventilation. If it is not possible to isolate them, move them to an area which is at least 2 metres away from other people.”


“If a member of staff has helped someone with symptoms, they do not need to go home unless they develop symptoms themselves (and in which case, a test is available) or the child subsequently tests positive. They should wash their hands thoroughly for 20 seconds after any contact with someone who is unwell. Cleaning the affected area with normal household disinfectant after someone with symptoms has left will reduce the risk of passing the infection on to other people.”

Given that it takes five days to develop symptoms this is completely rash. If the child does test positive, the member of staff may have been infected and be in contact with others for the rest of the day in their tight little bubble, possibly infecting several of them too before being tested themselves. They – and everyone else they have infected would then go home – some of them to people who are “clinically vulnerable.” Still, washing our hands and crossing our fingers – but not touching wood unless its been washed down “more often than usual” – should do the trick.

This phrase is another extraordinary one.

“All staff and students who are attending an education or childcare setting will have access to a test if they display symptoms of coronavirus, and are encouraged to get tested in this scenario.”

It might engender more confidence were they to say; any staff or students displaying symptoms will be tested.

In the case of a confirmed infection in a given site the presumption is that this will only have affected the bubble. The rest of the school will continue to function until more cases start cropping up. This is the opposite of the precautionary principle that we need to deal with and suppress this virus. The desire to keep settings open is being prioritised above the health risk.

Temperature monitoring

Even though other countries are doing this routinely as one way to screen out potential infections, the DFE says “Parents, carers and settings do not need to take children’s temperatures every morning.”


Its available but its up to you to book it. Not exactly comprehensive or failsafe.

It should be stressed that the NAHT (Primary Heads union) described these guidelines as “not practical” and many school leaders will have a view of these guidelines that is at least as critical as most teachers, TAs and parents. We all need to work together to make sure that when schools reopen the systems and procedures are in place for them not to be vectors of disease AND to be places where sensitive, nurturing learning can take place. These guidelines, and the June1st target date, do not allow either.

The digested read

Suck it and see, but wash your hands first.









Unlike almost every other country in the world, Boris Johnson’s government wants to partially reopen schools in England on June 1st. The devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and the North of Ireland will not follow suit because, like the education unions and the BMA, they do not think it would be safe to do so. Local authorities across England from Liverpool to Lambeth are also coming out against this move. The National Education Union has described this proposal as “reckless.”
The government cites the example of Denmark; which partially reopened schools on 15th April, without acknowledging that
  • the impact of coronavirus on Denmark has been much lower. 93 deaths per million to date, compared to the UK’s 511. (1) That looks like this.chart (19)
  • There were a relatively manageable 170 new infections and 10 deaths in Denmark on the date schools began to reopen (2) partly because they had closed down earlier in the cycle, whereas in the UK the infection and death rates are still running very high – with 3560 new infections on 15 May and 384 deaths (3). On a per capita basis that works out at 28 new infections per million in Denmark and 54 per million in the UK; 1.66 deaths per million in Denmark and 5.86 per million in the UK. chart (20)
  • The assumption that this will reduce automatically to manageable levels in two weeks time does not take account the impact of the easing of the lockdown which has taken place in the last week.
  • In fact, the infection rate (R) in Denmark initially went up from 0.6 to 0.9 in the two weeks following the reopening of schools, which could be taken as a warning. The other measures in place have since enabled that to reduce; so these would also have to be in place here to get a comparable result.
  • In Denmark there was also complete openness about the science, precautionary projections of potential infection rates – assuming that children spread the virus at the same rate as adults, rather than resting reopening on a hope that they don’t – and an engagement with teachers unions. All of these are what the education unions are asking for in the UK too.
  • The easing of the relatively weak lockdown in force in the UK – which reduced deaths by about half as compared with the continental normal of 60-70% -until last Sunday’s announcement from Boris Johnson that workers “should be encouraged” to return to work has already led to an increase in the infection rate from a range of 0.5 to 0.9 to a range of 0.7 to 1. (4) In a week! When the infection rate gets to 1 and beyond it begins to run out of control again, so the government is playing with fire. Reckless is the word. They say that if it does, they will retighten. Given their tendency to just cross their fingers and whistle and hope, we can’t leave it up to them. The unions and the BMA are right to resist.

V.E. Day – The Bear that somehow isn’t in the room; or “who won the bloody war anyway?”

Red Army soldier making a point on the roof of the Reichstag. Berlin May 1945

The story that is told of World War 2 in the UK is done through local optics and has a distinct moral arc. From early hesitancy, Chamberlain and Phoney War, to survival and stand alone defiance in the face of disaster, Dunkirk, Churchill, the Battle of Britain, the Blitz and the Battle of the Atlantic, through to the turn of the tide at El Alamein, Atlanticism affirmed by the USA arriving (late but welcome) like the cavalry in a Western, D-Day, a Bridge too far, late atrocities from Doodlebugs to Belsen until the final victory with Hitler dead in his bunker commemorated by today’s Bank Holiday.*

This was a titanic struggle and left almost half a million UK dead between 1939 and 1945. Thats about 1 in every 100 people. Most families lost someone. Mine lost 2. None of that should be downplayed. Unfortunately the way of viewing this war through domestic lenses means that an overall objective perspective is usually lost and distorted. Its a bit like viewing the world through a virtual reality helmet that makes everything away from the foreground almost invisible.

When I read an account of the Battle of El Alamein in The Eagle in the 1960s, as you did, it was headlined as THE turning point of the war. At the end of the article was a single reference to another battle that took place at the same time in Russia called Stalingrad. But that was it. It was referenced as a relatively obscure event. And this sums up how most people here see the Eastern Front. Shrouded in mist. Probably nothing like as significant as the events “we” were involved in.

This graph shows the numbers involved in the two battles. It is quite clear which was the more decisive event.

chart (15)
Armed forces involved in the battles of El Alamein (Oct-Nov 1942) and Stalingrad (August 1942 – February 1943).


The casualties in both battles underlines the complete imbalance between the scale of the struggles. El Alamein was an important defeat for the Axis, but Stalingrad was crushing and decisive.

chart (17)
Total casualties in the battles of El Alamein and Stalingrad.


And this is not an aberration or an isolated example. The German armed forces were predominantly deployed on the Eastern Front. This graph shows the deployment in 1942 when 139 of 181 Divisions were concentrated on the Russians; (2) but this was the characteristic pattern from the initial attempt at an overwhelming Blitz in Operation Barbarossa in 1941, through Stalingrad in 1942, the greatest tank battle in world history at Kursk in 1943, right through the huge Soviet offensive of Operation Bagration in 1944 and on to the final Gotterdammerung of 1945.

chart (18)
Where the German armed forces were deployed in 1942

This is reflected in the the overall casualty figures for each country; which can be quite startling when you first look at them. (3)

chart (13)
The x axis shows total deaths in millions: so the Chinese total is 10 million. Although this article focusses on VE day, I have included the figures for Japan and China simply because most people here are only vaguely aware that China was involved at all; and the scale of China’s losses is second only to those of the Soviet Union.

The scale of the loss of life in the Soviet Union stands out. UK losses were 1 in every 100 people. Soviet losses were 1 in every 7. Think about the scale of that for a moment. We should reflect on what that means about what that war was, where most of it was fought; and adjust our historical memory accordingly. For the Nazis, the war in the West was a war between colonising powers, the war in the East was a war of extermination against Untermensch. A very good way to get a fuller grasp of this and the sheer scale of the Soviet resistance to it, is to read Vasily Grossman’s epic novel Stalingrad (the Twentieth Century’s answer to War and Peace). It was the Red Army who broke the back of the Wehrmacht and therefore of the Nazi regime; and we should give respect where it is due.

*This narrative is bolstered by annual commemorations and a huge output of books, films, TV series, from documentaries to comedies. At one time The Great Escape was shown so often at Xmas that a greetings card was produced showing a motor cyclist in the distance with mountains behind him and the legend “This year Steve McQueen will make it over the wire.” So World War 2 – even as it fades from living memory – remains the dominant touchstone of popular national culture and people are encouraged to identify themselves within the glow of its myths.  And this is very potent. The Washington Post reported last year that surveys of opinion in the UK showed that most people believed that World War 2 was the defining and most crucial moment in British history. The same article pointed out that surveys of opinion everywhere else in the world showed the view that this was the British Empire. The disjunct is revealing and characteristic. In every national crisis the media reach for World War 2 metaphors and play the Vera Lynne records, dust off the Churchill quotes, and we are invited to keep calm and know our place. This enables the ruling class to make any number of screw ups safe in the knowledge that anyone seeking to point out awkward truths can be painted as someone who is trying to “politicise a crisis” or, in extremis, is a “traitor”. As long as we go along with it, this locks us into an interpretation of ourselves which cements us into roles and stances defined by the social relations appropriate to late Empire, and thereby makes facing uncomfortable realities more difficult and moving beyond our limitations impossible. When the Queen ends her pep talk on Coronavirus with the words “We’ll meet again” perhaps the most appropriate response is “We can’t keep meeting like this.” And remembering the Bear in the room is one step in helping us to do that.


  1. Figures from here.
  2. Figures from here.
  3. Figures from here.


Wearing down the front line



See ITV NHS Staff survey below.

If, in a life or death struggle, your front line workers are feeling like this, even though they are putting on the bravest face they can manage, you have a serious problem that you need to address.

Since warfare is the lowest common metaphor for any struggle, it should be noted that it is a commonplace of military strategy that a successful offensive – or defence come to that – is dependent not simply on soldiers being well trained and equipped, with plenty of back up in reserve and a plan flexible enough to innovate under the impact of opposition and the unexpected; it also, crucially and decisively, depends on the state of the soldiers themselves. What is their morale? How far do they trust their leaders? Have they been fed? How long have they been fighting? Have they slept. How exhausted are they? How are they coping with the deaths they have seen. How many have shot their nerves, are shell shocked, have PTSD? How worn out are they?

Its not just where they stand, what their strength is on paper. Its whether they have any strength left. This is particularly crucial if the struggle is projected to go on for a long time.

On Friday, Boris Johnson held up the UK as a positive example to other countries because our Health Service has not been overwhelmed by Coronavirus. This took some Chutzpah because on Friday 9 (and still today) the UK’s daily death rate was second only to the USA; so we are no example to anyone.

More to the point, Johnson was assuming that staff in the front line are in a position to cope for the prolonged period of partial lockdown and ‘living with the virus” that too many factions in the UK government and – worryingly, the opposition too – envisage as the “next stage’ – possibly starting as early as May 18th. A shorter, sharper campaign to eliminate the virus; with the lockdown tightened until new infections were well down and deaths in single figures took China 6 weeks across the whole country and 11 in Wuhan before there were cautious steps taken to ease off. The problem here is that our infections per capita – thanks to the complete failure to prepare and get a grip in February and early March -are massively above the worst peak in China, so even this will take us longer.

Instead, the entire debate is about how much and how fast things can be relaxed. That will mean that there is a danger of the virus rebounding. Germany – which has a much more effective testing and tracing system than anything in the UK relaxed restrictions last Monday when death rates were down to just over 1000 a day. Every day since the number of new infections rose. It had reached just over 1400 by Friday. What happens in Spain and other countries with even higher infection rates, let alone the US States that are determined to “reopen” with no safety net at all will be even more instructive.

The  pressure this will put NHS staff under will be intense. it cannot be taken for granted that the line will hold. A survey of NHS staff carried out by ITV last week came up with some alarming results. Just under 6 out of every 10 workers reported feeling stressed beyond a point they could cope with (57%). 1 in 10 reported having suicidal thoughts (11%). One in 30 reported self harming (3.4%). Half report that there has been insufficient support. (1)

What this means is that NHS workers need more than claps and badges. They need PPE, respect and support from managers (and no gagging orders on telling it like it is to protect official myths); and above all a clear strategy from government to eliminate the virus, not the prospect of continual ongoing “management” of it.


Institutional racism and deaths in the front line.

“Its the National Health Service not the International Health Service.” Matt Hancock.

Charity begins at home, but solidarity, by definition, doesn’t.

The disproportionate fatality rates among BAME front line workers in the Health Service is clear and shocking (1). Matt Hancock’s assertion above, and the Conservative election leaflets promising to “protect the NHS” by limiting immigration are shown up as the mean spirited disgrace they are by the deaths of so many doctors, nurses and health care support workers who have been sent into work without adequate PPE with the same insoucient carelessness with which the Conservatives have dealt with the Grenfell fire – before and after. The figures for Doctors are particularly overwhelming.

chart (7)
Death rates among Doctors and Dentists


chart (8)
BAME proportion of workforce: Doctors and Dentists

The sheer number of Doctors and Dentists from BAME communities should be enough for those benighted sections of “the white working class” unwilling to extend solidarity beyond their own ethnicity to reflect that the “immigrants overwhelming the health service” are largely the people who are working in it and a huge proportion of the people we are clapping and cheering for every Thursday night. The horrifying number who are dying in the front line of this crisis should be something to make them show a bit of respect, if they can tear themselves away from that latest bit of online Sinophobia from Tommy Robinson.

The disproportion is even more stark for BAME Nurses and Midwives, who are 20% of the workforce but 71% of the fatalities.

chart (9)
Death rates among Nurses and Midwives

chart (10)
BAME proportion of workforce: Nurses and Midwives

And Healthcare support workers, who are 17% of the workforce and 56% of the fatalities.

chart (11)
Death rates among Health care support workers

chart (12)
BAME proportion of workforce: Healthcare support workers


Caroline Nokes MP Minister for Government Resilience and Efficiency in 2017, said this in relation to emergency preparation.

‘Resilience does not come easily but the UK has long experience. Call it what you will, but whether through the fabled ‘stiff upper lip’, ‘Blitz spirit’ or just a stubborn determination, our resilience can be seen at the forefront of our handling of emergencies.’

This is essentially an admission that they never bothered to be prepared on the basis that “British pluck” would make up for an absence of PPE stocks, testing equipment, emergency systems set up and ready to go. The savage irony of all this narcissistic nationalist mythology is that the most resilient communities in the country, those that have had to deal with the Windrush scandal and the hostile environment, are those that have also had to “take it on the chin” in the coronavirus crisis too. The old normal – that we are “all in the same boat’ but, as in the Titanic, some are in first class with access to lifeboats looking down their noses at the people in steerage without, and thinking they should be damn grateful to be on the boat at all – has carried its way through this crisis. We cannot allow it to define “the new normal” too.

Remember the dead. Remember their names (2). Fight for the living. PPE for all. No end to the lockdown without WHO conditions being applied in full.

(1) The figures in this blog come from this recent study.

(2) All are listed here.

Who can you trust?

The UK government’s explanation of why it has decided to stop comparing the UK’s Coronavirus infection and death rates with China’s is deeply ironic. They say that Chinese stats can’t be trusted.*

There is a more obvious explanation; that China has been very successful in keeping its death rates down while the UK has not, that this is deeply embarrassing, and becoming more so as time goes on.

This is what that looks like in deaths per million as of April 26 (1).

. chart (5)

This is significantly worse than the previous week. The Chinese figure is unchanged (on 3.3 per million) – because the virus is under control – while the US and UK figures deteriorate (from 101 to 168 per million for the US and from 206 to 305 per million for the UK) (1). This figure means that the Chinese can now start to safely reopen their economy. It is quite clear that the UK and US cannot do so safely at this level. Denial is essential to even contemplate doing so. ** Whitewashing out the discrepancy with China, is a further aspect of playing down or ignoring their experience and any lessons that could be learned from it – could be preparing the ground to do so at an unsafe level.

The trustworthiness of UK official figures is also questionable. While the daily death rate is confined to those who have died in hospital after being tested and serves a purpose in tracking trajectory, it does not include anyone who has died anywhere else; and no one in government is keen to point out that the headline figure is not the total of people who have actually died: which is considerably larger. This may be considered a sin of omission, but it nevertheless serves a purpose in downplaying how bad things actually are; another form of denial.

Financial Times analysis (2) incorporating the Office for National Statistics figures on all deaths concluded that the official UK figure of 17 337 deaths up to Tuesday 21 April is less than half the actual figure. That looks like this.

chart (4)


*This is odd, because the WHO does trust them (as does the Financial Times; whose job it is to provide accurate information for the business class). A logical next step in this trajectory will be to downgrade relations with the WHO – which also serves a purpose in that it stubbornly insists on tighter conditions for easing lockdown’s than the UK government is prepared to contemplate. See previous blog.

**It is clear that the ground is being prepared to do this. Train operating companies are preparing to open up 80% of services by May 18th. Statements by Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford on behalf of the Scottish and Welsh governments on Friday on easing the lockdown to “live with” or “live alongside” the virus indicate that a reopening is being planned that is a response to commercial, not health, pressures. When Keir Starmer says that the UK risks being “left behind” in its consideration of “exit strategy” in the context of other countries beginning to ease restrictions, this applies pressure in precisely the wrong direction. The UK has the second highest daily death rate in the world right now. As of April 25, that looks like this.

chart (6)

The points he – and the rest of the Labour and trade union movement should to be making are:

1. That the only safe exit is one in which the WHO ‘s 6 conditions are met in full and

2. That the current lockdown should be tightened to include ALL non essential work; as the quickest route to an exit is through cutting off all possible routes to infection.

3. We can no more “live with” the virus than we can live with climate breakdown.