Monthly Archives: March 2020

BORIS & the VIRUS – Lies, damned lies & statistics

Numbers carry weight. They, in themselves, are unambiguous and precise (within the rounding applied to them). They do, however, in the hands of most of us, often masquerade as facts when they are actually anything but this. Numbers as parts of recommendations or predictions cannot be factual, and are therefore always going to be open to interpretation and dispute. This all explains why they are so beloved by politicians and propagandists, as famously encapsulated in this quote that I usually attribute to Mark Twain (I love Mark Twain).

Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 14.09.32(Source: okl.blogspot.com)

Research suggests it actually originates with ‘anonymous’, was popularised by Twain, who mistakenly attributed to Disraeli, for whom there is no evidence of him ever using the phrase at all!

I use this to illustrate my point that we have to understand that numbers used in recommendations and predictions especially, but all numbers dressed up as facts, need to be properly contextualised and the methodology used in producing them understood before we can have full confidence in them.

So let me turn to the numbers being bandied around every day in the media at the moment with regards to the Coronavirus epidemic. There are three sets of numbers in particular that I’m going to look at:

  1. Social distancing guidelines
  2. Death/mortality rates from the virus
  3. Projected deaths from the virus.

 

The first two are relatively straightforward, but the latter is a real can of worms!

 

SOCIAL DISTANCING GUIDELINES

All the guidelines I’ve seen in the UK have stated keep two metres away from everybody other than those you live with. That has seemed entirely reasonable to me as the principle is get out of reach of the spray of small droplets emitted from mouth and nose when people cough or sneeze.

As someone renowned for the power/volume in my sneezes, 2 metres strikes me as the very reasonable minimum distance. Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 14.19.19As such, people’s failure to adhere to this guidance, primarily because they seem to have no notion of what 2 metres looks like, prompted me to make this up in my workshop. I am 6’3” and most people equate two metres with six feet and think I’m over 2m tall. I am in fact 1.93m and 2 metres is in fact 6’6” to the nearest inch. So with USA and many in this country thinking 6ft is fine, does that extra 6 inches make any real difference? That does, of course, depend on whether you ask the actress or the bishop, but the short answer is not really.

What is the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidance on this? What do you think? Higher or lower?

To be honest, I was expecting to find it recommending 2m/6ft in line with the above. It came as something of a shock to find this on their website and on YouTube (click image):Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 14.25.05

So, they reckon one metre is adequate with someone showing symptoms, let alone anyone else!! Intuitively, this feels totally inadequate to me, but does help reduce my level of paranoia in supermarkets especially, where aisles are never 2 metres wide and therefore passing people at all infringes that 2m/6ft zone.

Why are we being bombarded with the message of keeping 2m/6ft away? A couple of things occur to me. Firstly, perhaps it is a sensible precautionary measure that acknowledges the ignorance levels in the country as to what 2 meters/6ft actually looks like on the ground, and thereby in stating 2m we might actually achieve the 1 metre guideline. Or else, perhaps, it is part of a deliberate policy to crank up paranoia. Surely not.

Overall, I am all in favour of the precautionary principle, so I will continue to respect and expect the 2 metre distance around me as much as possible, but with a now greater understanding that it is far from a critical thing in itself. Indeed, I know of places where they are encouraging up to 4 metre social distancing – but that is in places where there is plenty of space available to make that practicable, and better safe than sorry is a perfectly reasonable stance to take. More of which later!

 

DEATH/MORTALITY RATES FROM THE VIRUS

These are pointless and impossible to calculate with any degree of accuracy worthy of the name. This is a matter of simply understanding the statistics. As a geographer by training, demographic statistics were a stock tool of my trade. In a generic form, mortality rates can be seen as calculated using:

(d/p)10n

where d represents the deaths from whatever cause of interest is specified that occur within a given time period, p represents the size of the population in which the deaths occur (however this population is defined or limited), and 10n is the conversion factor from the resulting fraction to another unit (e.g. most commonly multiplying by 103 to get a mortality rate per 1,000 individuals, or 102  to give a percentage, which is per 100, and is being used in most reports of the pandemic.

In simple terms, to calculate the death rate percentage from covid-19, we need:

  • The number of deaths from covid-19
  • The total number of people who have contracted the disease.

The number of deaths is very straightforward. You simply count the corpses. It is hard to hide this figure and we can rely on it being very accurate in most parts of the world, and certainly in the UK. Although it has to said that China is not ‘most parts of the world’ and has quite a track record of ‘disappearing’ people and corpses.

But as for determining the total number of people who have the disease, that is an entirely different matter and totally beyond any country to produce accurate figures at this stage.

It is entirely dependent on testing the entire population to see who has had it. It has to be the entire population tested as many are asymptomatic; in fact everybody is for a number of days before the symptoms emerge. The symptoms are also relatively common ones, which in their milder forms can very easily be confused with other conditions, especially the seasonal influenza variants that are also out there.

Thus these figures will be utterly meaningless to us until calculated after the epidemic is passed and every single person is given the antibody test to establish whether they had it or not (not forgetting to add on the subset of the population that have died from it along the course of the pandemic)

There has been some spurious talk about the fact that a lot of the dead had underlying conditions and/or were very old and therefore some would have died anyway during the course of the pandemic. While this is undoubtedly true, this has no relevance as to whether or not the coronavirus was ultimately the final straw.

I need to qualify the ‘utterly meaningless’ comment before I get taken to task for it. Wrestling with these inaccurate figures is the area of expertise of epidemiologists. They manipulate the raw data on the basis of assumptions derived from past experiences and other data analysis of risk factors and the like. It is an imprecise science at the best of times, yet can, and does, play an important part in public health policy and practice. It is used (and occasionally abused) as a tool to rationalise resource allocation decisions for health services. It will have been used, I expect, in the decision, in 2017, not to stock PPE for NHS staff up to pandemic levels!  

Until we have definitive data that we can make sense of, these on-the-hoof, knowingly inaccurate statistics should be kept out of public discourse, or at the very least ignored.

 

 PROJECTED DEATHS FROM THE VIRUS

This is one, simple-looking statistic that epidemiologists can be asked to conjure up. This they do with varying degrees of rigour and based on differing sets of assumptions. It makes for an interesting academic exercise that can outline the range of likely outcomes and be an aid for planning, but in the hands of the media and politicians it can take on an insidious propaganda role.

Throughout most of this crisis, the projections bandied about the most have been these from the reputable source of Imperial College, London University, Epidemiology Department:Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 14.40.16

This successfully built the pressure to implement, and public acceptance of, measures such as school closures, social distancing and the isolating of the vulnerable; more of which shortly.

Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 14.42.48In mid-February, Imperial epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson went public with a comment that 400,000 deaths in the UK was ‘not absurd’, but inferred that he expected the government response to succeed in bringing this figure down drastically.

4 weeks later, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Vallance, was saying that 20,000 deaths would be a ‘good outcome’ in the circumstances, but admitted that “If you put all the modelling information together, that’s a reasonable ballpark way of looking at it. It’s not more accurate than that.”

However, on 28th March, we see the publication of another paper from Professor Tom Pike, also of Imperial College, that reckons the death toll could be kept to a relatively modest 5,700 if Britain succeeds in maintaining social distancing, as in China. However, I do have a number of issues about this paper. Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 14.45.19First and foremost, Tom Pike is not an epidemiologist. In fact it is difficult to see how he is significantly better qualified than I am, given that his area of academic expertise, while at a significantly higher level, is in the less relevant discipline of electrical and electronic engineering, with, on a closer look, a specialisation in micro-engineering for space exploration vehicles.

In addition, from what I can gather, he has simply looked at the progress of the disease in China, using their reported figures, and then extrapolated that to the UK from the point of lockdown here. There are fewer holes in a colander than in this research design! Nonetheless, his report is being bandied around without any such qualification as if it is of equal merit to Neil Ferguson’s work and as some sort evidence that the UK strategy is having the desired impact. To use appropriate academic language, that is bollocks.

To be fair, Pike pretty much admits as much. Answering questions about the new paper on Twitter, Professor Pike says the estimates are purely data driven and ‘there is no epidemiological modelling, or in fact any modelling, in our analysis.’ In other words, it’s tantamount to rough calculations on a bit of scrap paper, done over a tea break.

This is where we run into problems with experts. It’s not that they try to deceive anyone at all. They only ever seek to enlighten us. But there are experts and then there are ‘experts’. A bricklayer may be regarded as an expert in their field, but you wouldn’t want them extracting a tooth for you. Neil Ferguson is a respected expert in a relevant discipline. Tom Pike is a respected expert in a completely irrelevant field. He should have known better than to get involved, to be quite frank, and I would expect Ferguson to be pretty livid about it. And I suspect the government are not too impressed either, even though it might seem to be endorsement of their strategy. Are we to lay every death over 5,700 at their door? Hold that thought.

 

THE USE & ABUSE OF ‘EXPERTS’ FOR PROPAGANDA PURPOSES

In terms of the use of these projections, be they be by experts or otherwise, their main use to government is in managing expectations among the general public. There is nothing unusual in this. It is standard marketing strategy. Talk up the size of the problem and your solution will seem all the more efficacious.

So, scary, apocalyptic predictions based on worst case scenarios, whereby nothing is done, are a great starting point. Look what will happen if our Government does absolutely nothing! 400,000 to 500,000 deaths according to this trustworthy expert! (I have seen figures of up to 650,000 dead in the UK from less trustworthy non-experts).

This appeared to be exactly the Johnson/Cummings masterplan up until a mere two weeks ago. (Click on image)Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 14.54.19

This is Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser trying to justify the target of allowing at least 60% of the population to contract the virus in order to produce “herd immunity”. This is on the 13th March. Note the ticker tape comment about PM deciding to keep schools open. Johnson repeated the herd immunity policy on breakfast TV, including his now-notorious ‘take it on the chin’ quip! 

This was clearly a huge miscalculation in terms of the PR, and the uproar, as people began to see 500,000 deaths as a real prospect, forced a change of approach within 48 hours, as reported in Tory rag, the Express:Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 14.57.28

Up until 15th March, official government advice consisted of wash your hands for 20 seconds regularly and self-isolate if you have either of the two main symptoms of a fever and/or a persistent cough. That was it.

Despite no such pressure from the government, the FA Premier League and EFL decided enough was enough and suspended their programmes with immediate effect on 13th.  They were being pressured by all sorts of bodies and the example of leagues all over Europe (shut down by their governments mostly) to cancel fixtures.

This may well have been in part due to this damning indictment by Professor John Ashton (a passionate and well-known Liverpool FC supporter) on Question Time on 12th March.

Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 15.03.56

Is John Ashton worth listening to? The fact that he is a member of the Labour Party may arouse suspicion in some, he is an outstanding and well-respected expert in the field of public health.

John Ashton was far from being alone in being critical of Johnson’s approach. Even the Tory-faithful Telegraph readers were queueing up to take a pop at him on 13th March

Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 15.07.40

The Tory-inclined Business Insider ran with this, also on 13th March:Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 15.08.50

So, by Monday 16th March, the government was in total disarray and had to try and get a grip somehow. When you have the Right’s pierced organ that is Piers Morgan laying into you over breakfast, describing your response as ‘completely unacceptable’, you really are in a bit of trouble.

This saw the instigation of the PM’s daily coronavirus updates to the nation, flanked by (I said “flanked”) the less than dynamic duo of Prof Chris Whitty (UK’s Chief Medical Adviser- CMA) and Prof Patrick “herd immunity” Vallance (UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser- CSA).

Let us examine the progress of these press conferences to the nation and other key events from this wake up point.

Monday 16th March

  • Whole families should self-isolate for 14 days if anyone has symptoms. No news on any support for businesses or families, financial or otherwise, in doing this.
  • Don’t go to pubs, clubs or other mass gatherings. We’re not actually closing any down or banning any events though, so it really is up to you. That would cost my buddies in the insurance sector way too much!
  • Over 70s please stay away from everybody for at least 12 weeks (no matter how fit and well you are, as a one-size-fits-all approach is much simpler, and we like simple)
  • Blueprints of designs for ventilators are being sent out to UK manufacturers (of anything, because we haven’t much manufacturing left these days) with a view to ordering 20,000. Maybe. If needed. Wakey, wakey Jim Dyson (this one is for you, buddy).

 

Tuesday 17th March

  • Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveils the new tag line to replace “Get Brexit Done”. It is the equally naff “Whatever It Takes”. Sounds no more convincing after saying it 6 times in three minutes than it did on first hearing.
  • He does announce an impressive sounding, but totally inadequate £330bn in LENDING (“at favourable rates”, despite the base rate being as good as zero!), for large and medium businesses. (Will obviously help if you’re a Tory donor!)
  • £20bn to be made available (not sure how yet) to small businesses in the form of grants of between £25-30,000. (Only need £10k? Grovel to your bank?)
  • UK-EU trade talks called off indefinitely, but don’t fret Brexiteers, No.10 assures you that the transition won’t be extended, virtually guaranteeing you the Holy Grail of that No Deal Brexit we have dreamed of for so long. Our victory is complete! (Shhh…. Keep this one quiet, as we are hoping nobody notices.)

 

Wednesday 18th March

  • Schools, colleges and nurseries in England to close on Friday. The time was patently NOT right for this a mere two days ago. Despite pressure from just about everyone, except my trusted CMA and CSA, we stood firm supported by the (carefully selected) science. But now that same science says now is that right time. It’s nothing to do with those bastards in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland daring to use their devolved control over education to step out of line and announce it this morning (with immediate effect in Northern Ireland, where neighbouring Eire have had schools closed since 12th March). We do do the right things at the right time, honestly, because our scientists really are the best. So when this proves not to be the case, I will be blaming these suckers.
  • London is at crisis point, so if they don’t behave and go home to starve without two quid to rub together, then the pubs may have to be shut down after all. Or something like that. (Maybe Wetherspoons could be exempt?)
  • Evictions to be banned for three months as renters probably won’t be able to pay rent. Kick them out later when they can’t clear the arrears.

 

Thursday 19th March

  • “We can turn the tide in 12 weeks” if everyone does as they are told, without actually being made to comply (cue “Land of Hope and Glory”); and the PM is “absolutely confident we can send Coronavirus packing in this country” (cue “Rule Britannia”). Winston would be proud!
  • UK Vaccine trials may start within a month (but don’t hold your breath)
  • No new measures at all. “We’re guided by the science” (when we find some we like) and “nothing is ruled out” (when our arms are twisted hard enough). Btw, I’m getting bored with this charade so may not bother soon.

 

Friday 20th March

  • Sorry Tim Martin et al, but the pressure has finally tolled and all nightclubs, pubs, restaurants, gyms and other social venues really must close now. Well, tomorrow will do; it is Friday night after all!
  • Chancellor agrees to pay 80% of wages up to £2500 to employees in the companies of (mostly Tory supporting) large and medium businesses. The Institute of Fiscal Studies suggest this will cover a mere 10% of the workforce and on that basis cost £10bn over first three months). Self-employed? Don’t be silly, that’s a bit too complicated (and not enough of you vote correctly). Make do on Universal Credit if you can jump through enough hoops.
  • Talking of which, in recognition that no-one can survive on the current UC of a pitiable, nay derisory £73.34 a week (single childless adult), that will go up for a whole year (boundless generosity being the trademark of this peri-socialist chancellor!) to a just woeful £92.57 per week (and you can’t even blow it in Wetherspoons – sorry again, Tim)

 

Saturday 21st March

  • Please stop panic buying.
  • Don’t see mum on Mother’s Day (tomorrow).

 

Sunday 22nd March

  • Social hubs will be set up to provide supplies for those asked to stay indoors for 12 weeks. (This is in memory of Dai Cameron’s famous ‘Big Society’ notion of getting you to rely on each other because you can’t rely on Tory governments to look after you).
  • Today also saw French President Macron steam in to attack Johnson’s inadequate response. He basically declared that the UK’s border with France and the entire EU would be closed if Johnson didn’t get his shit together and impose a proper shutdown. Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 15.35.40

 

Monday 23rd March 

  • You bastards are not listening so I’m being forced (by a threatened cabinet revolt,as well as Macron) to do even more stuff I don’t want to do.
  • Stay the fuck at home (unless you fall into a wide range of loosely termed exceptions) because if the Police don’t like the look of you (we all know who that means) they will harass you more than usual and fine you money you probably haven’t got.
  • We’re trying to buy millions of test kits but its really hard because so many other countries snapped them up weeks ago. Sorry.Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 15.38.51

 

Tuesday 24th March

  • Army to build a 4,000 bed makeshift hospital in the Excel Centre in the east end of London (cue Theme from M.A.S.H.).
  • 35,000 former NHS workers lured out of retirement etc. because they, more than most, know just how effectively we have trimmed it to the bone and driven them out in the first place. (It could have been more, but those that chose better pay and conditions, shelf-filling and the like, are now equally key workers in their new less stressful careers.)
  • That still won’t be anywhere near enough staff so would you all mind bailing out the NHS by volunteering. (You’ll be fast-tracked into the frontline before you know it!). We need at least 250,000 of you or we’re fucked it would appear.

 

Wednesday 25th March

  • So many of you know how dire the state of the NHS is these days, and/or have nothing better to do now you’ve been laid off, that a genuinely impressive 405,000 people have volunteered to help out in 24 hrs. It will probably take 6 months to wade through all those applicants, of course, by which time 10,000 of you will be dead, but thanks anyway.
  • Still sorry we cannot seem to buy many test kits. We really should have thought about it a bit more in January when this thing first kicked off, but the wi-fi in Mustique was a bit ropey and Carrie (aka ‘Apples’) was ripe for the plucking and taking my mind off of everything (well almost everything 😉 )
  • We might have to think about legislation to prevent unscrupulous wideboys profiteering during this national crisis. This is infringing on the territory of the big boys who fund our Party, so unlike most other things, it really does have to stop immediately!

 

Thursday 26th March

  • We have finally thought about the feckless sole trader and self-employed tradesman and if you complete a ream of paperwork to prove your average monthly trading profit over the past three years, you might get 80% of that (up to £2500 max) in June if your lucky. Not been in business that long? You’re still fucked. Set up as a limited company employee? You’re still fucked too. Hopefully all the laid off airline and hotel staff can be conned into doing the admin work to give you half a chance of seeing something in June.
  • Oh, btw, we’ll claw it back by raising national insurance for the self-employed when it’s over. (Shh!!!!)
  • If you’re not covered by everything now, forget it. Its UC or nothing. Nothing would be our preference.

 

Friday 27th March 

  • Whoops. Boris Johnson (PM) has tested positive. Perhaps brazenly ignoring the ‘no handshakes’ protocol wasn’t so clever after all. And before anyone gets too excited, Dominic Raab will step into PM’s shoes if necessary (define necessary, please!).
  • Oh dear. Matt Hancock (Health Secretary) has tested positive.
  • What a shame. Chris Whitty (CMA) has started to display symptoms, but he’s not special enough, like NHS staff in general aren’t either, to be given a test. It’s establishment members only at the moment (PM, heir to the throne, selected celebrities).

    Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 15.48.11

    CMA Whitty, PM Johnson, HI Vallance. HS Hancock has used these lecterns numerous times

 

So, that is it to date.

“We will do the right things at the right times”

“Whatever it takes”

Is anyone really buying this anymore?

Or is it just cynical old me giving Johnson et al a hard time because I loathe the Tories on principle?

I really do not think so. If the above doesn’t convince you that Johnson has done the least he could, as late as he could, with untold consequences for the eventual death toll, then perhaps a closer look at the timeline, from the very beginning will help.

TIMELINE

The disease was first identified on 1st December 2019 in Wuhan. It was still confined to Wuhan and Hubei province at the end of December. In early January it started to break out into the rest of China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, South Korea and Thailand.

At this point the WHO and UN started to sit up and take notice and on 9th January the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDPC) issued its first risk assessment and guidance. The ECDPC consists of the EU members plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. The UK left it on 1st of January!

This is roughly the point at which the whole world was put on notice that it was on its way and the wise started to make plans. The word ‘pandemic’ wasn’t even muttered at this stage, but started to gain traction by the end of January as the first cases outside of Asia were beginning to get reported, in Australia, Canada, Japan, Sri Lanka, Germany, Austria, Romania, Ecuador, Poland, France, Brazil, Armenia, USA, Italy (first case 30th January) and UK (first case 31st January).

By the end of January, China was effectively locked down and despite soaring infection rates and death rates, was beginning to see a degree of control established.On 30th of January, 120 Britons were evacuated from Wuhan, flown to Brize Norton and then driven, somewhat bizarrely, to a campus on the Wirral for 2 weeks quarantine.

Screenshot 2020-03-28 at 22.09.01

Evacuees wearing face masks. Medic in full HazMat suit. Driver? Wearing a seatbelt for a change if nothing else.

During the course of February, it started to become clearer and clearer to most that this was no ordinary flu bug and that this was going to have far-reaching consequences across the globe. But the numbers, while increasingly widespread, were still pretty modest outside of China. Only the wise and proactive were seeing the writing on the wall. Guess who that wasn’t. 

By 14th of February, most European countries were making detailed plans and preparations. Simple basic stuff, like getting orders for PPE and ventilators processed, checking over and servicing existing equipment, training staff. Should the UK be taking such steps? Two Labour MPs Lilian Greenwood and Alex Sobel,  that had been in contact with a confirmed case, certainly thought so as they took themselves off into self-quarantine. But in the UK advice to procure PPE for NHS staff in case of a pandemic was rejected back in 2017, on the basis that NHS finances were too tight to cover what-ifs!!

By 23rd February, Italy was imposing a lockdown on the large area at the centre of their rampant outbreak. Iran was being isolated by its neighbours closing its borders and airspace, as it too was spiking alarmingly.

The daily WHO Coronavirus Bulletin reached edition 40 on 29th February. It was now evident that Italy was the new hotspot rising to third behind China and South Korea, with Spain also beginning to take off, and the UK clocking up its 23rd case (one in Wales). Pressure was mounting for a more proactive response from the Government. This was fairly typical:Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 15.59.38

That first COBRA meeting duly took place after the weekend, on Monday 2nd of March and produced nothing but soundbites. It amounted to agreeing a plan to devise a plan, with the first draft of “the right steps, at the right time” being glimpsed as he spoke to the media afterwards. But this does at least mark the start of the government taking a modicum of serious notice. I’m far from alone in thinking that at least 6 weeks were wasted.

Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 16.02.40Nothing much was seen or heard over the next few days, other than assurances that all the right plans and preparations were being looked after. Its anyone’s guess what that actually meant in practice as it sure wasn’t getting PPE in place for front line staff, or ensuring adequate ventilators would be available.

VENTILATOR SCAM?

Ventilators were already scarce, as the rest of Europe shared them out. Not that they were being mean or selfish about it. The EU invited the UK to collaborate in a joint program to boost the supply of ventilators, but the PM’s spokesman is on record as saying the UK would not be taking part because “We are no longer members of the EU”. Instead Johnson said he would seek the thousands of ventilators needed from British manufacturers.

But even this relatively noble, if misguided sounding aspiration is now mired in controversy. Instead of getting established existing manufacturers to upscale, such as MEC Medical, they  shunned these. turning instead to high profile engineering companies with no direct experience to design and produce new equipment, such as the Tories very own ‘Technology Tsar,’ James Dyson. 

So 10,000 ordered, and 15,000 pledged of these deluxe beauties, Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 16.09.31despite them not yet seeing the light of day, let alone being tested and approved for use. And the cost? Well, that’s a secret!

Upscaling existing production could have seen deliveries starting within a few days. MEC reckon they could have had 500 ready to deliver at very short notice, but that ship has apparently now sailed. Whereas this from-scratch approach will take many weeks. MEC know this as they have been contacted to make parts and accessories! The turn-around time for these alone, will be measured in weeks. Quite frankly, this stinks and is patently not in anyone’s but Dyson and Tory Party interests.

And now we hear, from an admittedly utterly unreliable source, that Johnson is begging  Trump (yes, Trump is the source) for any spare ventilators lying around the USA. As if!!

 

IN CONCLUSION

No matter what your political disposition, I struggle to see how anyone can seriously defend Boris Johnson’s handling of this admittedly unprecedented crisis. I also struggle to imagine any other PM in my lifetime being as bad and acting against the whole nations well-being so damnedly, and there are plenty of contenders. Yes, I really do think May, Cameron and Blair would have been marginally preferable.

The great irony is that Johnson has been backed into a corner whereby he and his chancellor have had to enact and enable a whole raft of essentially socialist policies in order to allow their precious neoliberal market-are-king capitalism to survive at all. Although, in reality there is nothing really socialist about it at all, of course. It’s part of the disaster capitalism we saw with the 2008 banking crash. Most of the money dished out will end up in the hands of the mega rich while the plebs will be back grovelling for minimum wages again, grateful to have a job at all.

When Torygraph columnists are clamouring for this, you should know it is not all it seems: Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 16.18.42

Does this mean that we would have been better of with Jeremy Corbyn at the helm? In principle, most certainly. He would have enacted most of these socialist policies and more much quicker and with a lot more conviction and attention to detail. But I simply cannot see the masses, that have been so successfully poisoned against JC, being any more respectful of pleas to respect social distancing rules, and I really struggle to imagine the Tory media supporting and lauding Corbyn implementing socialist measures, as they would be in place for good, rather than as a short-term crisis strategy to save their world for the return of normal capitalist service as soon as possible. But hey, I never thought I’d see many of the things I’ve witnessed in the last few weeks, so who knows. We will never know, sadly.

What we can be certain of is that Boris is and will continue to be responsible for an indeterminably large number of deaths that could have been avoided. It will probably end up being many tens of thousands. It may yet prove to be the cataclysmic total of several hundreds of thousands. The Financial Times suggests that  the UK strategy is likely to cause 35,000-70,000 excess deaths. I’m not going to dispute this.  He has probably pretty much achieved his herd immunity strategy through the back door through his persistent tardiness in doing anything.

For this he ought to be held properly accountable, like any mass killer, but instead he will probably end up being knighted for services to the establishment and capital. At the very least, he can be seen to be continuing in the long-established tradition of culling the poor and the vulnerable. Add the 70,000 mentioned above to the 130,000 excess deaths attributed to Tory austerity over the last few years, and you have 200,000 thousand largely unproductive people that the state no longer needs to support. That represents a ‘result’ to many sick Tory minds.

In the end, the actual numbers barely matter to how we should judge Boris Johnson and his handling of this crisis. Remember where we started from in talking about statistics. The undeniable state of affairs is that whatever the death toll from this virus in the UK, it could have and should have been less. It is also undeniable that that it would be more but for the interventions of others too force Johnson’s bloodied hand. Thank you, devolved administrations, for forcing through the school closures. Thank you, President Macron, for forcing through the semblance of a proper lockdown. Thank you, Tory cabinet ministers, for standing up and threatening a revolt to get him to act. Although you should take him down anyway.

So we find ourselves with another PM, like Blair, with blood on his hands and innumerable lives cut short by his thoughts and deeds.

I’ll have to leave this here, as I’m choking up with a mixture of anger, frustration, resentment and desperate sadness.  Aneurin Bevan was right enough about Tories, but he never really met a Tory quite like Johnson.

Screenshot 2020-03-30 at 00.17.49

My Little Red Book of Companies to Boycott – Coronavirus updates

The unfolding Coronavirus pandemic has started to unveil the barbarism of capitalism Screenshot 2020-03-26 at 19.39.57before our very eyes. Perhaps for the first time, the truth in Rosa Luxemburg’s assertion that ultimately we are faced with a choice between socialism or barbarism id there for all to see.

We have Boris Johnson’s peri-fascism having to swallow it’s false pride and instigate a whole raft of socialist policies in order to prevent calamity upon calamity piling up at his door. Even the Telegraph has made a plea for short term socialismScreenshot 2020-03-26 at 19.37.12 in order the secure the future of the free market!

Meanwhile we have prominent companies, many of which are Tory supporters and/or donors, making the crassest and most insensitive decisions revealing their devotion to their shareholders and profits ahead of the workers on whose labour their wealth is built.

This led to me to make a comment about adding some of the worst offenders to My Little Red Book of Companies to Boycott, which doesn’t exist outside of my head to be honest. I was asked to name the companies in it by someone on Facebook, so thought I’d better make a list!

So let me start with the companies that have shown their true colours in this current crisis. They all have previous, of course, but I’m hoping the public will be less forgiving this time around.

  1. WETHERSPOONS

The chain’s founder, mega-arsehole Tim Martin has incurred the wrath of many for declaring he won’t pay his staff while the Pubs are closed down during the Coronavirus crisis, suggesting they basically fuck off and get jobs in Tesco (who are recruiting short-term extra staff) while the pandemic shuts his pubs. Screenshot 2020-03-26 at 20.02.38A number of pubs were appropriately graffitied with “PAY YOUR STAFF” and the like. This is not long after it was revealed that the Tories December election victory saw his personal stake in the company increase by £44m overnight, up well over half a billion pounds.

Not long ago, he angered many by his overt and over-zealous support for Brexit. He was one of very few business leaders to overtly and vocally back Brexit and the Brexit Party. He is known to spent £95,000 on pro-Brexit beer mats and regularly used the pub group’s magazine for customers to promote Brexit. Many of you will know my own relative ambivalence over Brexit, so its not his position on this that is objectionable per se (although some of reasoning is predictably offensive), but to use and abuse his business, his premises and his staff to such blatant political ends that conflict with many customers and staff, is beyond crass and totally inappropriate.

Not that he gives a toss about his staff. He uses and abuses zero hours contracts routinely, mostly on minimum wages and unsocial hours. They employ all manner of sharp practices, like clocking people at closing time, even though expecting staff to continue clearing up. They are also renowned for not providing references, perhaps because it would be a full-time job given their atrocious staff churn.

All-in-all, having once upon a time used them quite a lot, I now avoid them like …. well the Coronavirus itself. Stay well clear and support local independent premises instead.

2. SPORTS DIRECT

Another company with a renowned arsehole at the helm. Mike Ashley has endeavoured to defy the admittedly half-baked lockdown, initially wanting to remain open to the public, but once leant on insisting employees still turn up, even though closed to the public, if they want any pay at all.

Appalling treatment of staff has long been the Ashley way. In 2016 it was compared to a Victorian workhouse in parliament , and was subject to an inquiry that produced a hugely damning 37-page report that included finding that the company regularly fired people when off ill more than a few days; ritual humiliation of staff nor meeting tough targets; expecting workers to finish off work after clocking off; use and abuse of zero hours contracts; and an appalling health and safety record. Things have only improved slightly since by most accounts.

Their customer service is little better with poor and misleading returns policies that do not heed the Consumer Rights Acts and other legislation. Screenshot 2020-03-26 at 21.06.01Add to this his dreadful handling of Newcastle United, which he uses as little more than an advertising platform for Sports Direct, and he generally seems to piss off everybody he has any dealings with at all. Save yourself the trouble and don’t touch from now on.

3. EASYJET

EasyJet made the perverse decision to appeal for taxpayer support last week despite handing shareholders £174 million in dividends. Labour MP David Lammy described the move as “greedy super capitalism at its worst” as the UK government drew up plans to buy into airlines to save the industry.

These cheeky bastards give Ryanair a real run for the money even before this stunt. They have quite a repertoire. Overbooking, which results in passengers who have already checked in getting dumped off a flight at the airport. Flights cancelled just hours before take-off, leaving passengers stranded abroad. Promised compensation and other expense claims first ignored, and then fought at every stage – in the hope you’ll give up and go away. in 2015, AirHelp, which provides online legal help for those claiming compensation for delays, said its data showed EasyJet had the worst record of any airline for paying out what is legally due.

4. VIRGIN ATLANTIC

I have used Virgin Atlantic just the once and it was not an enjoyable experience at all, primarily from dreadfully uncomfortable seats. It was actually difficult to find an alternative carrier for the journey I was undertaking, but I will try harder next time after its most recent disgrace.

Virgin Atlantic has been heavily criticised after telling staff to take eight weeks of unpaid leave due to a sharp drop in demand caused by the outbreak of the virus. Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said: “It is a disgrace for a company owned by a billionaire to ask its employees to live without wages for two months in the middle of a crisis. Richard Branson can put his hand in his own pocket if needs be.”

Is that unreasonable? I don’t think so when you do some basic maths. Virgin Atlantic have 8,500 employees. At say, £500 per week, over that 8 weeks, that would amount to £34 million. Screenshot 2020-03-26 at 21.59.51Ok, that’s a lot of money to most of us, but Branson is worth an obscene £4 billion or thereabouts. He’d have £3,966,000,000-ish to scrape by on after this magnanimous gesture, and has long been established within the top 10 richest people in the UK.

Virgin Atlantic is, of course, only a small part of his empire. Most have had their share of controversy, right from the earliest of days. His astute school headmaster famously predicted he would either go to prison or become a millionaire. ‘Both’ should still be an option.

Virgin Records, in the early 70s, was initially a mail-order business that boomed until it was uncovered that he was undercutting the competition by selling stock earmarked for export only and thereby evading purchase tax. Tax evasion (although, with Tory complicity in the rule making,  he can claim it is legal avoidance) has become a speciality.

His other speciality has been carpetbagging. Virgin Money picks up Northen Rock at a heavily discounted price that effectively cost the tax payer £400million, giving him a nice little mortgage lender that has had all its rubbish subprime ‘assets’ removed courtesy of the Treasury. And don’t get me started on Virgin Rail’s hundreds of millions of subsidies.

Virgin Radio and Virgin Mobile? Both granted government licences to operate in a heavily restricted market. Virgin Airlines? The beneficiary of regulators’ decision to strip British Airways of landing slots between London and New York and Boston and award them to the number two player for opaque reasons at best. Again, a closed market where Branson has tried to keep the door shut tight against further competition. Hence my lack of options.

As a naive teenager who fell in love with Tubular Bells (Virgin Records big breakthrough release) I once saw Branson as a heroic figure. I now see him for the self-indulgent  capitalist parasite he truly is.

5. BRITANNIA HOTELS

At least CEO Alex Langsam has not become a celebrity while accruing a small fortune (a mere quarter billionaire) from his shabby hotel empire of 61 hotels. He has hit the headlines now for his obscenely insensitive response to the Coronavirus crisis.

Aviemore Coylumbridge Hotel ruthlessly kicked staff out of live-in accommodation, telling them their services are “no longer required“. The hotel has since reversed the decision, blaming an ‘administrative error’ for sacking staff during the pandemic. Clearly it had nothing to do with the massive public backlash following the decision. But it has been similarly crass elsewhere this week too, notably in Blackpool.

The Metropole and The Savoy hotels, both part of the Britannia Hotel Group, who were shocked to receive letters on Thursday terminating their employment. The letter confirms staff at The Savoy have had their jobs axed from March 19 because “your services are no longer required.” Staff have been “thanked” for their service while being wished “every success” in finding another job.Screenshot 2020-03-26 at 22.26.56

Admittedly, Britannia operates at the budget end of the market, and includes the shite Pontins Holiday Park portfolio, but in recent years, Britannia Hotels has been a subject of widespread criticism over the hygiene and maintenance of its locations, with the consumer group Which? consistently declaring the hotel chain to be the worst in the United Kingdom since October 2013.

The very last places you want to go near right now, but best avoided forevermore!

6. NEXT

An easy boycott for me as they do bugger all in my size, but their quality has always appalled me anyway. But now these Tory Party sponsors can go to hell and back.

Leaked emails from Next HQ show staff are being told to take unpaid leave or use holiday days if they’re worried about coronavirus. Workers are being docked pay if they turn up late due to transport disruption. Staff in warehouses say the company is “putting lives at risk” as social distancing rules aren’t being followed, with 50 people stood together brushing shoulders according to one employee.

Nothing new, yet again. In October 2014, the company was one of several retailers criticised by Janice Turner in The Times for failing to pay a living wage. UK taxpayers pay £28 billion to low-paid workers and Turner says retail companies – which have the highest proportion of low paid workers – are exploiting austerity and effectively adding staff wages to the UK welfare bill. When asked why, despite record profits their lowest paid workers were so poorly paid, Next replied that they had thirty applicants for every job advertised. As if that is an excuse for anyone but a free market capitalist.

7. CINEWORLD / PICTUREHOUSE

Cineworld and Picturehouse made mass redundancies last week and cut pay for all retained staff by 60 per cent. The devastating decision left many employees wondering how they will afford essentials such as housing, electricity, gas and food in the coming weeks and months.

They have previous in the Uk in terms of refusing to pay the living wage. This is all totally inexcusable from the biggest cinema chain in the UK, and second biggest in the world. I was part of a successful campaign to get Odeon to review its pricing policies locally, backed by boycotts. Let us see how responsive this mob are.

 

So this bunch have (further) sullied their reputations badly in response to the current crisis and will join the long list companies I do my best to avoid.

THE REST OF MY RED BOOK:

There follows a brief summary of other companies I have long taken issues with and endeavoured to boycott:

  • Screenshot 2020-03-26 at 22.42.40AMAZON – primarily for outrageous tax avoidance and appalling treatment of employees. Its tricky in that I do find myself using small businesses that use Amazon’s website as an Ebay-like platform, but I do avoid purchasing directly from Amazon. Check their listings carefully to see who you are really dealing with.
  • AUTOTRADER – Tory sponsors who support scrapping of workers rights to enable staff to be sacked at will.
  • BEN & JERRY’S – primarily for Israeli deals and poor environmental record in supply chain
  • BP – Appalling environmental and safety record.
  • CADBURY –  disgraceful tax avoidance
  • COCA COLA – Primarily for shocking human rights record including paying to have union leaders killed and/or intimidated in Colombia, Turkey and Guatemala.
  • EDF Energy – among the worst environmental records in a industry full them. Their involvement with the Hinkley Point nuclear plans is a prominent concern locally, here in South Wales.
  • FED-EX – Have a shocking human rights record. On top of links with the NRA gun lobby, they continue to sponsor the Washington Redskins – who bear a racially offensive name. The term “redskins” is derived from a horrific former practice of removing the skin of Native people for the purpose of collecting bounties.
  • GINSTERS – Tory sponsors
  • HEWLETT-PACKARD – One of the top arms-producing companies in the world and has an extensive number of contracts with the Israeli state. It owns the company which developed the BASEL system, in use at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank, which controls Palestinian movement through a system of ID cards and biometric information. 
  • JCB – Big Tory donors.
  • Screenshot 2020-03-26 at 23.44.03NESTLE – Appalling attitudes to human rights in particular. Nestlé has been the subject of boycott calls around the world since the 1970s for its irresponsible marketing of baby milk formula. It is accused of “contributing to the unnecessary death and suffering of infants” through its aggressive marketing practices, which promote baby milk formula as a superior option to breastfeeding despite evidence to the contrary. In recent years they have also seen controversy over CEO, the vile Peter Brabeck, claiming water was not a human right, but just another commodity.
  • PUMA – This is a tricky one right now as they are the current kit suppliers to my beloved Crystal Palace FC. However, I have contacted the club and hope they will review this link and, at worst, not renew the contract. Puma have made the huge tactical error of sponsoring the Israeli Football Association, after Adidas decided enough was enough and responded to the BDS campaign.
  • SAINSBURY’S – Big Tory donors
  • SHELL – Human rights issues (especially in Ogoniland, West Africa) compound their part in the climate emergency and other environmental l issues.
  • STARBUCKS – Poor treatment of suppliers, support for GMO, trampling of indigenous peoples rights (e.g.Lakota), links with Nestle (see above), and massive tax avoidance.
  • WARBURTONS – donations to the Tory Party and allowing their premises to be used in Tory publicity campaigns.

 

There are, of course, tons of others deserving to be boycotted for all manner of reasons, but these are ones I feel I need to keep reminding myself about as they are the ones I’m most likely to encounter and get seduced by. It is very much a work in progress and needs regular reviewing.