Monthly Archives: May 2020

Is Boris Johnson a murderer?

Murder is generally regarded as just about the most heinous of crimes in just about every society on Earth. As such, it is an accusation not to be bandied around lightly. That is the power of words at times. ‘Killing people’, on the other hand, seems far more acceptable term as both an action and as an accusation. It’s obviously not nice, but its kinda unavoidable at times and therefore forgivable it seems.

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 23.16.08Thus, Tory policies that we know have killed somewhere in the region of 120,000 poor and vulnerable people over the last 10 years or so seem to trouble relatively few people. The direct cause and effect is not blatantly clear or visible enough, and even if it were, austerity was accepted as a necessary evil for the sake of ‘the economy’ i.e. the wealth of the middle classes and above. It could be argued that the Government’s goal was not to kill off those 120,000 people, but that it was simply acceptable collateral damage, as the alternative was deemed unacceptable i.e. that the middle classes and above actually be made to suffer for the economic catastrophe they created through their reckless financial practices. We all know this has happened, but many are happy to accept it and still vote the perpetrators back into Government.Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 23.35.16

So is the Government’s handling of this Covid-19 pandemic any different? Maybe not, until this juncture.

We all know that a Tory government cares more about protecting wealth than about protecting people. That they were openly and casually talking about ‘herd immunity’ initially and not wanting to impose restrictions until the ‘right time’ (i.e. the last possible moment to avert total catastrophe) can be of no real surprise and, indeed, people were quite happy to ‘clap for Boris’ when he fecklessly got himself infected. Once the horse had bolted, and it became clear the extent to which it could run amok, the stable door was shut, or at least pushed to, as bodies piled in the street is not a good look for any Government.

To be fair, this was a ‘novel’ virus that sounded a bit like another form of ‘flu initially. We happily see several thousand people die from influenza every year, so what was the big deal? Well, despite the usual band of truth deniers and conspiracy crackpots, we now have a handle on the nature of the threat and challenge this virus poses. Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 22.15.51Other countries were all over it from the off and have relatively modest death tolls, but they had voted in caring, intelligent, cautious people (especially women) to lead their Governments. We made a very different choice last December. We chose Boris Johnson to ‘get Brexit done’, and nobody could know that this would lumber us with exactly the wrong type of person in the hot seat during the worst health crisis for 100 years. It was just our bad luck. Suck it up Britain!

 

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 21.57.24So, as I write, we have little choice but to accept that, instead of the 5 to 6,000 deaths that may well have been unavoidable (even though some countries experiences suggest as few as 5 to 600 was actually possible), the current toll of 55,000 to 60,000 (to use the widely accepted estimates from people like the ONS, rather than the 34,000 declared by Government to date) represents something in the region of 50,000 deaths (and counting) that we could realistically call ‘involuntary manslaughter’.

‘Involuntary manslaughter’ is when someone accidentally kills someone while pursuing a course of action (or inaction) that had no intention of killing anyone. I actually think I am being very generous to Boris Johnson, and his partner in crime, Dominic Cummings, in accepting that they never intended to kill anyone, despite comments made on record. Intent is always tough to prove.

The actions and core messaging of the Government until this week have, at the very least, given a credible illusion that they have wanted to keep us safe from harm (STAY HOME), and to ensure (despite the legacy of previous Tory governments) that the NHS would not be overwhelmed (PROTECT THE NHS) and thereby avoid some of the 500,000 deaths that doing nothing at all could have led to (SAVE LIVES).

The cynics amongst us would still point to Johnson’s ‘take it on the chin’ nonsense, and Cummings acknowledging that many old people were going to die, and say that their policy stance from the outset had murderous overtones. Knowing the consequences surely has to be as good as intent; and the motive of driving down the pension and welfare bill is surely clear enough in most Tory policy of the past few decades. But I am prepared to accept that it may be hard to make this stick in court.

But where does this leave us now?

Firstly, let’s be clear, we now know a lot more about the nature of this invisible killer amongst us. What we do not know is its prevalence amongst us. Due to the fact that many people carrying it are completely asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, and due to the woefully inadequate testing procedures we have to cope with the scale of the problem that we have allowed to evolve, we are in no position to successfully implement a test/track/trace/isolate policy that is the only way to defeat this virus without a vaccine. The other route is to let it run through the ‘herd’ and for us all to ‘take it on the chin’. This doesn’t defeat the virus; it gives in to the virus and it will then become part of the regular viral threats like influenza, but with very uncertain implications from this.

We also have learned a lot more about who is most vulnerable to it; the make up of the 3.4% of those known too be infected (through testing) that will die from it. Although it can kill indiscriminately, there are certain demographics that we now know are particularly vulnerable, even if we don’t fully understand why just yet. From the outset, it was clear that the there are a wide range of underlying conditions that make people particularly vulnerable. In fact anybody that is not in robust health is evidently going to struggle to fight it off. This brings the older generations, especially those beyond 70 years into the vulnerable category, as even those in rude health will invariably have less than optimum immune systems and less power of recovery. We then see that, not surprisingly, the so-called ‘key workers’ that work in public facing roles such health care, retail and public transport (especially buses) are falling victim in disproportionately high numbers because they have effectively been forced into greater contact with the virus. That people in black and ethnic minority categories are a disproportionately large part of the workforces in the ‘key worker’ sectors probably goes a long way to explaining the higher death rate in these communities (but more research is needed here urgently).

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 22.49.55

Cummings and Johnson behind bars, where they belong.

It will not have escaped Johnson and Cummings attention that these groups of people, and their wider families and communities in which they live, comprise the the poorest segments of our society. Those in work often struggle to make ends meet and have to rely on benefits of one sort or another, be it working tax credits or the ever-diminishing range of other benefits. The elderly, the sick and the disabled are also huge drains on public finance too. All of this will be very clear in the minds of Tory ministers and MPs that went over it with a fine tooth comb in oder to prune and lop off big chunks during the austerity years (that have never really ended, despite May’s claims otherwise, not actually that long ago). Having pruned it down to, and indeed into the bones already, how else can the frightful costs be reduced? Do we have the sense of a motive forming here?

We also have learned very recently that even countries that got on top of the problem quickly, through test/track/trace/isolate from the outset, release their lockdown strategy too quickly at their peril. Witness Germany. They are, however, in a good position to get back on top of it again. What their experience shows is that releasing lockdown when R0 is at 0.7, or thereabouts, is not really sensible, even if it is theoretically doable. And yet we are pressing ahead with lockdown release when we are being given vague estimates of R0 being somewhere between 0.5 and 0.9.

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 22.33.11

Covid-19 pandemic in New Zealand

 

Given the vastly greater numbers of cases, the inadequacy of our testing capacity to cope with these numbers and a similar inability to scale up contact tracing to the necessary level, it is impossible to believe that Boris is not fully aware that he is triggering a significant second wave of infections and deaths. Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 22.35.11Countries like New Zealand and Greece and a few others got all over the virus with testing/track/trace/isolate at the outset so that things never got unmanageable and the virus could effectively be squeezed out of existence in those countries. This ship sailed months ago from the UK. From where we now find ourselves, it is completely impractical to pursue such a policy to a point of eliminating the virus. The resources needed, in terms of testing capacity and the labour needed to investigate and successfully track and trace all contacts of the infected is immense. The agenda behind the implementation of this strategy is still what is was in March; trying to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed by the wave; not minimising the death toll. There is no suggestion of disbanding the ’Nightingale Hospitals’, despite them not really being needed at all to date, because their time is likely to still come!

The only way to minimise the death toll from here is to lockdown hard until a vaccination is available. That could be a long wait. So Boris has clearly decided that the initial ‘herd immunity’ approach is the way to go, irrespective of the final death toll. That will require around 70% of the population to contract the virus (that is about 50m people in the UK). With global data suggesting a true death rate of about 0.5 to 1.0%, even at the lower end of the range, this means the likely death toll from Boris’s deliberate decisions could end up at around 250,000, with the 500,000 that Prof Neil Ferguson warned of in March still a possibility. This is why there is no suggestion of disbanding the ’Nightingale Hospitals’, despite them not really being needed at all to date, because their time is likely to still come!

The government’s changed messaging gives further evidence of their thinking as they try to bring us out of lockdown. At first glance, the new core messaging of STAY ALERT, CONTROL THE VIRUS, SAVE LIVES struck me a piss poor and amateurish. But this Government is usually very astute with its messaging and propaganda, so what are they trying to achieve here?Screenshot 2020-05-10 at 16.50.04The first thing to note is that the red flashing around the messaging has been changed to green. This is very basic messaging; red = stop/danger, green = go/safe. Then we have the bizarre sounding STAY ALERT. To most people this means be on your toes, wake up and be ready to react. How’s this relevant to an invisible assailant that takes a couple of weeks to let its presence in your body be known? When asked, ministers trotted out the prepared line that ’stay alert’ in this context means stay at home unless you can’t work from home, keep washing your hands and maintain safe distancing (I hate that phrase “social distancing”). This is patently NOT about staying alert; it is about staying safe. But they don’t say STAY SAFE because they’ve had enough of that now. They want you energised and back to work now, hence the energising phrase STAY ALERT.

Then we have CONTROL THE VIRUS; an instruction to us all. But how do we do that? We don’t even know where it is. The key word here is ‘control’. They are trying to suggest that there is some control over the virus; that the Government is in control. But in putting it into this instruction they are putting the onus on us to control the virus. When it goes wrong (‘if’ is too optimistic), then it will be because we, the public, lost control. Yep, it’ll be our fault when the NHS is swamped by a second wave and this Nightingale Hospitals come into play. I hope they are bracing themselves!

As for SAVE LIVES, that would be far too brazen to ditch, given that opinion polls still consistently showing the public would prefer to save lives ahead of saving the economy. They’ll keep saying it even though they didn’t really mean initially and certainly don’t mean it now.

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 22.37.15Now is the time to remind ourselves of the definition of murder as used in the UK judicial system. I am using the Crown Prosecution Service website for this section.

The crime of murder is committed, where a person:

  • Of sound mind and discretion (i.e. sane);
  • unlawfully kills (i.e. not self-defence or other justified killing);
  • any human being;
  • in being (born alive and breathing through its own lungs – Rance v Mid-Downs Health Authority (1991) 1 All ER 801 and AG Ref No 3 of 1994 (1997) 3 All ER 936;
  • under the Queen’s Peace (not in war-time);
  • with intent to kill or cause grievous bodily harm (GBH).

The intent for murder is an intention to kill or cause grievous bodily harm (GBH). Foresight is no more than evidence from which the jury may draw the inference of intent, c.f. R v Woollin [1999] 1 Cr App R 8 (HOL). The necessary intention exists if the defendant feels sure that death, or serious bodily harm, is a virtual certainty as a result of the defendant’s actions and that the defendant appreciated that this was the case – R v Matthews (Darren John) [2003] EWCA Crim 192.

The last sentence surely nails it. Releasing the lockdown at this point, with the current state of knowledge, makes it an absolute certainty that additional deaths will be caused. He knows it full well, just like everybody else knows it full well. Plenty of people have told him as much.

Scientists at University College London (UCL) have estimated that there could be anything between 37,000 and 73,000 more within the space of a year depending on how restrictions are lifted.

“On our current path we seem destined for a disastrous ending. Lifting lockdown without the public health infrastructure in place to contain the virus will allow Covid-19 to spread through the population unchecked. The result could be a Darwinian culling of the elderly and vulnerable, and an individual gamble for those exposed to the virus. This should be avoided at all costs.” Devi Sridhar is chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh

The First Ministers of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are having none of it. They are clearly not convinced by Johnson’s position and disinclined to murder their old and vulnerable citizens. Not before time, they are distancing themselves from this narcissistic sociopath.

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 22.45.37

From Elvis Costello’s “Let Him Dangle” (click). The irony is that it is murderous Tories that love the death penalty.

Given his track record, the evidence and the legal definition of murder in this country, I seriously believe that such a prosecution of Boris Johnson is entirely merited. Derek Bentley was not only convicted, but allowed to dangle on a jury’s interpretation of the the words “Let him have it”. There is nowhere near as much ambiguity in Johnson’s words and actions. Surely he ought to go before a judge and jury, as a matter of urgent public interest, before countless thousands of additional needless deaths are added to his charge sheet.

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 22.47.44

V.E. Day, 8th May 1945 – 18 yrs old and a long way from home

As the UK embarks on a slightly surreal ‘coronavirus’ bank holiday weekend to mark the 75th Anniversary of the formal declaration of the end of the war in Europe, I find myself in a bit of a swirl of mixed emotions. Yes, of course, the end of a horrendous war needs celebrating and, yes, we need to keep remembering what it was all about, for fear of it happening again. But this is where we start to lose the plot a bit, in my opinion.

Screenshot 2020-05-08 at 13.28.06The sight of red, white and blue bunting and union jacks going up, and talk of abandoned street parties (due to covid-19), smack of misplaced British triumphalism and exceptionalism that deny the fact that the only indisputable reason we were the only European country to completely resist invasion by the Nazis (if you give up the Channel Islands), was not because of any exceptional military might, or brilliant generals, or plucky British spirit, but because of the simple geographical accident of being an island. Without being bailed out by our American ‘cousins’ even that would probably not have been enough.

Thus, our perspective on what VE Day means is somewhat different, I’d say warped, compared to that of most of the rest of Europe. For this reason, I want to mark this anniversary in a very personal way and share the story of how an 18 year lad from a small town in Poland found himself, more than a thousand miles from home, in the safe haven of the city of Glasgow on V.E. Day.

Screenshot 2020-05-08 at 09.33.00

Jerzy is the small boy nearest the dog, Siva. His father is standing to the right of Siva. c.1933.

Jerzy Severyn Chyba was born on 29th November 1926 in Krotoszyn, a small agricultural town of about 25,000 people, about 100 miles from the German border. He was the middle child of seven, having 4 brothers and 2 sisters.

Jerzy was still shy of his 13th birthday on 1st September 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. The German Army swept to the outskirts of Krotoszyn County on day one of the invasion. On 2nd September, a train carrying over three hundred fleeing citizens of the town was bombed and all were killed. The Chyba family were sitting tight, and there was little resistance as the Nazis swept in to take full control of the town on 4th September.

Screenshot 2020-05-08 at 13.31.11

Krotoszyn as it is today.

The eldest brother fled town to join the military resistance, at the cost of his life at some point, but the rest of the family settled to some sort of routine under German occupation. Jerzy’s father, Severyn, was a ‘key worker’, becoming a manager of the water supply and sewerage system in the town, with the family wheelwright business in the hands of younger men.

At some point in the spring of 1941, the Nazis swept through the town rounding up young men for forced labour. Somehow, at the age of just 14, Jerzy was included in this group and was among the youngest, if not the youngest of the group. He wasn’t even particularly big or strong for his age, but was, by all accounts, energetic and full of mischief. This clearly did him no favours. He was not to see Krotoszyn again for about 25 years.

He had never been far outside of Krotoszyn in his life up until this point, so his hazy awareness of where they were taken is understandable. They were carted off in the back of trucks for an uncomfortable drive, for a few hours, to work initially on railway lines. Screenshot 2020-05-08 at 13.35.12Given the timing and the geographical range, this was almost certainly work on the train lines into Auschwitz.

The network of ‘death’ trains from the whole of north-west Europe (northern Germany, Benelux countries, Scandinavia via ships to Rostok) and the whole of France, all fed down to Breslau (now known as Wrocław). A single route then went from Breslau to Auschwitz (as the Germans renamed the Polish town of Oświęcim). This section certainly needed considerable upgrading and links building. Wrocław is about 50 miles south of Krotoszyn, and Wrocław to Oświęcim is about 140 miles. This work was completed in order to facilitate the first mass transit of Jews to Auschwitz in January 1942.

Jerzy’s story from here gets increasingly sketchy as what, initially, may have seemed quite an adventure, rapidly turned into a living nightmare that took its toll on him physically and mentally. With work on the railways completed by the end of 1941, the forced labour gangs were hauled off to various other activities that appear to have taken Jerzy ever more westwards towards Bavaria. The work included digging ditches in woodlands, which could only really have been for mass graves, and various quarrying and building tasks.

Jerzy consistently found himself as the youngest member of whatever gang he was assigned to, and this probably saved his life, as the older guys took him under their wings a bit and even the guards seemed to take pity on him. Thus, when he finally broke down into something of a gibbering wreck, he wasn’t despatched into a ditch like most that were literally worked into the ground, but somehow found himself in an asylum.

Screenshot 2020-05-08 at 13.41.47

Irsee Abbey, Bavaria

His memories of this were that the nurses included german-speaking nuns and that there was something ecclesiastical about the ‘hospital’, with very peaceful grounds. Putting these snippets together, my best guess is that he was at Irsee Abbey in Bavaria. A former imperial monastery, after 1849, the buildings served as an asylum and hospital for the mentally ill. Between 1939 and 1945 more than 2,000 patients, both adults and children, were transported by the then regime from Irsee to death camps. Jerzy recovered sufficiently after a few weeks/months here, to be discharged back to a working party. It was the summer of 1944.

Back with a working party, he was, at age 17, still the youngest of the group. This particular party seemed to spend as much time marching country lanes as working sporadically on assorted minor projects. Their accommodation was more often than not locked up into barns for the night. Security wasn’t the tightest and as autumn set in and the weather started to deteriorate, the men plotted to break out and run for it overnight.

This they duly did. Initially there was a small group of them together, 3 or 4 perhaps, but as their escape was noticed and a commotion and gunfire followed, they splintered and never saw each other again.

Screenshot 2020-05-08 at 14.16.01

Envelope opener made from the knife Jerzy took from the dead German soldier by one of his brothers.

Jerzy just ran and ran until he collapsed, muddied, cut and bruised from stumbling through woods in the dark. He awoke after dawn to find himself near the edge of woodland bordered by grazing land, but with otherwise no idea where he was or which way he should go. He was aware enough to deduce from the sun roughly where west was and decided that was the way to head. This was a life-saving decision.

Several days later he had not seen a soul, giving the occasional farm or hamlet he spotted a wide berth, but was getting increasingly starving. Such was his hunger that at one point he stumbled across a recently deceased sheep and managed to rip out its liver, still slightly warm, to eat raw (which explains his aversion to offal throughout my lifetime). A while after this, he ventured into a bombed out farm to see what he could scavenge. What he found was a dead German soldier. This took a bit of processing, but it clearly suggested some resistance forces, and perhaps some form of sanctuary not too far away. He ’stole’ the soldiers knife and pressed on after resting up awhile.

Near complete exhaustion, and semi-consciously hiding in a ditch somewhere, he was eventually picked up by allied soldiers. Given what is known of the allied advances at this time, I’m guessing this must have been around November time and near the German/French border, not far north of Switzerland. Screenshot 2020-05-08 at 13.47.56He was severely malnourished and pretty much delirious, probably as much from relief as anything else. He found himself passed back through the lines and eventually on a boat. By the time he was fully aware again, he found he was in a convalescent hospital in Glasgow, probably the Glasgow Convalescent Home, used as a military hospital and soldier convalescent home during and immediately after the war, later to become Woodlilee Hospital. He was uncertain as to whether he was there for his birthday, but was there for Christmas in 1944, having just turned 18 years old. The aerial shot shows that it was a majestic complex of buildings, surrounded by fields, just outside the city as it was then. The second shows that there are few building left, with the hospital now gone and the site part of the sprawling suburbs of Glasgow today.

This is where Jerzy still was on V.E. Day itself. The celebrations were enjoyed by one and all, with Jerzy getting used to being called George by the nurses he was now up to flirting with, and a little more. He was to track down and renew his friendship with a couple of these nurses almost 60 years later. It is not inconceivable that he is in this photo, below, somewhere. Screenshot 2020-05-08 at 14.22.43

 

As a postscript, after being discharged from the convalescent home, he joined the Polish Resettlement Corp (PRC) when it was set up in May 1946.

Screenshot 2020-05-08 at 09.31.44

Jerzy, now George, c. 1946, c.20 yrs old.

The PRC was an organisation formed by the British Government in 1946 as a holding unit for members of the Polish Armed Forces who  did not wish to return to a communist Poland after the end of the War. It was designed to ease their transition from military into civilian life and to keep them under military control until they were fully adjusted to British life. It taught George to drive (pretty badly), for example. This is a picture of him in his PRC uniform.

George was torn as to whether he wanted to return to his family back in Poland. On the one hand he was desperate to see them all again after all he been through, but on the other hand he was being encouraged to stay put in his mother’s letters, as life under Soviet control was still proving very harsh back in Krotoszyn. George had sampled the taste of freedom and some frivolity here in the UK and was happy enough to bide his time.

The Polish Resettlement Corps was being wound down by the end of 1948 and there would have been some pressure on George to make his mind up. Despite the urgings of his mother he secured a ticket for a repatriation ship sailing from Sheerness in Kent, of all places. I can find no record of any such official passages, and I suspect it was a dodgy operation, given that when he missed the boat due to public transport still being a shambles, he found himself stranded in Kent, with no alternative but to look for work and lodgings.

Thus, he ended up working in the Bowaters Paper Mill near Sheerness. Some time later he was transferred to their mill in Gravesend, where he became the room tenant of Mr and Mrs Whiffin and their young son Derek. He spent the rest of his life in Gravesend and Mrs Whiffin became Mrs Chyba in 1959.

I share this with you all as I want to put it down before I start forgetting it, but also feel that it is a story worth reflecting on, on this day in particular. The sense of relief at the end of the war must have been that much greater across the mainland of Europe than it could be have been here. We should not lose sight of that, and this is why I am flying the Polish flag instead of the Union flag (aka ‘butchers apron’) today. The British certainly cannot take the moral high ground when it comes to blood-stained conflict.

Anyway, na zdrowie Jerzy/George Chyba!

Screenshot 2020-05-08 at 14.15.38