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Lies, damned lies & statistics – understanding graphs

This posting has been prompted by a number of people failing to understand what the graphs the government keeps showing in its daily press briefings actually show and mean. In particular, there is one graph, that they feature updated most days, that seems to be giving a misleading impression of what is going on. I will get into teacher mode and endeavour to explain the issue as clearly as I can, and leave you to decide whether it is a cynical deception or not.

This is the graph in question:Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 20.47.07

This is a screenshot taken directly off the televised briefing to the nation this evening. I have done my best not to distort either axis, so as to leave it exactly as the government presented it. (However, it may be distorted a little in one or other axis by the device you are viewing on, but this is not significant overall).

It has become a familiar feature of the daily briefings and I,  and many others no doubt, take a close look to see how we are doing compared to other countries. But I wonder how many have looked at and then understood the axes labelling and small print.

The small print tells us that Day 0 is NOT when the first death occurred, which is what I have found people assuming (not unreasonably), but, as you can see above the graph, Day 0 is the first day 50 deaths were reported. In the UK’s case, this was on 16th of March, when we saw a rise from 35 on the 15th to 71 on the 16th. It was, in fact, ELEVEN full days after the first death occurred (on 5th March).

The axis up the left hand side of the graph, showing the total deaths, goes up in a rather odd looking way (50/100/200/500/1000/2000 etc) and the spacing between the lines looks pretty random too. For example the gap between 5000 and 10000 (an increase of 5000 deaths) looks pretty much the same as the gap between 1000 and 2000 (an increase of just 1000 deaths). This is what is known as a logarithmic scale and is a common enough device in statistical analysis, especially graphing data that explodes in values, as is surprisingly common in science and nature.

Because they are relatively complicated to design and understand properly, it is not something encountered in school before ‘A’ Levels at the very least (and only then by maths and science students). Most people will have never learned anything about them at all.

When looking at the graph above, intuitively most people will interpret it as suggesting a steady increase for every country, with South Korea clearly having lower deaths than everywhere else, and Spain noticeably the worst. This is only partly correct. Yes, Spain is substantially worse than South Korea, but rising steadily?  Sorry, that is far from the truth. 

If you look closely at the graph, again intuitively, most people notice the line starting to flatten for most countries around about Day 14 or 15. This they assume must be good news. Looks like the start of a downturn, many think. Some are savvy enough to notice that the line for the UK actually steepens a bit around Days 14 and 15 and wonder if this is cause for concern. We are told to not read too much into this as we need to see trends over longer periods. That is fair enough. But the reality of what those slightly less steep lines means in the upper part of a logarithmic graph comes as quite a shock to most once it is shown to them! Prepare for that shock.

So what sort of line graphs have people seen in school and have relatively little trouble understanding? That would be arithmetical graphs. This is a big word for a simple enough idea.

With an arithmetical graph, you would expect to see the axes going up in perfectly equal steps. They don’t always start at zero, that is a somewhat different trick of the trade, but basically each even gap up the side will go up the same amount. So instead of the odd sequence of numbers listed above we might find 1/2/3/4 etc or 10/20/30/40 etc or 50/100/150/200 etc. Any even step up will work.

So how would the above graph for the UK look on an arithmetical graph, one that truly represents the day to day change in the figures? I have produced it here using Excel. This starts at the same point, day 16 when the total burst through the 50 barrier and is up to yesterday, as is the graph above. Shocked? Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 22.09.47

Dramatically different, isn’t it? All the other countries would have a very similar shape. Where the COBRA Government graph above suggests a flattening off, this one, more accurately would show a slightly less steep curve at best, because really big numbers do not get squashed down dramatically on this sort of graph. On this graph the same amount of deaths each day shows the same size step up in the graph each day. On a a logarithmic graph the same size increase each day gets shown as a smaller step up each day. Deceptive! It will, and does, mislead the unwary!

Now, pedants out there will point out that these graphs can be further distorted by playing around with the axes to make it look flatter or steeper. Both of these are accurate and truthful versions of the same sets of data:

Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 22.24.30

Squash the death axis down; stretch the date axis out. Result is a much flatter line.

Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 22.25.13

Stretch out the deaths axis; squash the dates axis. Result is a much steeper line.

To the uneducated eye these would look like they are telling very different stories. See what I mean about lies, damned lies and statistics. You certainly have to be very wary when politicians start bandying statistics about, and even more so with graphs. 

So, for the sake of fairness, I’ve attempted to line up the two graphs next to each other so that the date axis is the same. and the deaths axis takes up the same space on the page. (This may not come out too well, depending on the device you are viewing on, but at least I’ve tried!). Remember, I’m only lining up with the UK line on the COBRA graph. Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 22.40.59

So why has the government chosen to present the data using a logarithmic scale and starting from 50 instead of zero? Well, Spain and Italy would be way off the top of any practical arithmetic graph some time ago, so this method is far more manageable for the data (but only beyond, say, day 20 or so). Below 50 deaths would not really register as much other than a flatline at the bottom. So it is not entirely unreasonable to use this technique as a statistician. But without proper explanation and understanding it can be very deceptive to the general public. 

The lesson I want to leave you with, is that only an arithmetical graph that starts from zero is a totally ‘honest’ representation of the data, that doesn’t manipulate the patterns shown beyond what the average person in the street would understand. Yet they are surprisingly rare. Whenever you see scales that are not evenly spaced and not starting from zero (unless its dates) then ask yourself what is being hidden and why. If you cannot work it out for yourself, ask a friendly scientist or mathematician!

Talking of which, for those that want to explore this topic little further, I highly commend the Minute Physics Youtube channel, and this short 7min video in particular:Screenshot 2020-04-03 at 18.46.54

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

POSTSCRIPT

A few days after publishing this article, on 31st March, perhaps the most damning and incendiary revelation of Tory culpability for the scale of this crisis was revealed by, of all people, the Tory stalwarts and chief propagandists of the Telegraph!Screenshot 2020-03-31 at 10.56.15

It transpires that Exercise Cygnet is the code-name of an exercise undertaken in October 2016, a few months into Theresa May’s tenure as Prime Minister, with Jeremy Hunt as Health Secretary and Boris Johnson tucked away in the Foreign Office, but very much part of the Cabinet , present and involved.

The Telegraph writers paint the scene in the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBRA) vividly:

“Ministers from across government were seated, ashen faced, in the Cabinet Office Briefing Room. On a large flat screen, epidemiologists from Imperial College London were showing a slide which detailed the scale of the epidemic that was enveloping Britain.”

“The first cases of the virus had been confirmed in south east Asia two months previously. Britain reported its first cases, imported from returning travellers, a month later. Now there was widespread and sustained domestic transmission and the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared a global pandemic.”

“But it was not the pandemic itself that was causing those gathered in Whitehall to grimace but the nation’s woeful preparation. The peak of the epidemic had not yet arrived but local resilience forums, hospitals and mortuaries across the country were already being overwhelmed.” 

“There was not enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for the nation’s doctors and nurses. The NHS was about to “fall over” due to a shortage of ventilators and critical care beds. Morgues were set to overflow, and it had become terrifyingly evident that the government’s emergency messaging was not getting traction with the public.”

Apart from the whole Cabinet, it transpire that the were also representatives of the NHS and local authorities present, presumably gagged by the Official Secrets Act. I have found no evidence that there was any involvement of the devolved administrations of Wales, Scotland and N.Ireland. That would be useful to know for sure.

The modelling was prepared by the same team at Imperial College whose projection I have already highlighted. The whole exercise made patently clear to all present that there were gaping holes in Britain’s Emergency Preparedness, Resilience and Response (EPRR) plan.

OK, the exercise wasn’t for Covid-19 coronavirus, which didn’t exist then, but was based on modelling for the H2N2 influenza virus. However, both spread rapidly and kill by causing acute respiratory illness.

The Telegraph highlights the other key difference:

While the real Covid-19 epidemic is being played out in public, the report detailing the findings of Exercise Cygnus have never seen the light of day. A senior former government source with direct involvement in the exercise said they were deemed “too terrifying” to be revealed. Others involved cited “national security” concerns.”  

“There has been a reluctance to put Cygnus out in the public domain because frankly it would terrify people,” said the former senior government source yesterday. (‘Yesterday’ would have been 27th March).

“It’s right to say that the NHS was stretched beyond breaking point [by Cygnus]. People might say we have blood on our hands but the fact is that it’s always easier to manage the last outbreak than the one coming down the track. Hindsight is a beautiful thing.”

So why has this exercise been buried from view? We can all speculate about that, but we do know a few other damning things that happened consequently. For example, at a meeting of the Public Health England (PHE) advisory board on 26 April 2017 (six months later), Paul Cosford, the quango’s director for health protection, has said that a report “setting out the learning and recommendations” from Cygnus “was in the process of being finalised” but it never saw the light of day.

As for NHS England, the Telegraph has only managed to uncover evidence of cursory consideration of the Cygnus exercise and findings. Apparently, the editor of the Lancet, Richard Horton, has called on the NHS board to “resign in their entirety” once the current crisis is over on discovering this Cygnus cover-up. Whatever, the revelation the government and the NHS leadership knew of the gaps in Britain’s surge capacity ahead of the current outbreak cannot go ignored.

The Telegraph has also uncovered references to Cygnus in the records of a range of local authorities in England. It cites Croydon, Rotherham and Northampton in particular. The Croydon one is within the last few weeks. Croydon Council’s latest Pandemic Response Plan makes mention of Cygnus. A key lesson from the exercise, it notes, is the need for “a better understanding of the likely public reaction” to a pandemic in order to “help the development of a robust communications strategy to assist the response”. The irony of this is not lost on the Telegraph writers, who suggest “the importance of this will not be lost on Number 10 communication chiefs who have faced criticism in recent weeks for their failure to communicate clearly and effectively with the public.

So here we have it laid bare by die-hard Tory supporters. I’ll leave the final word to them, and allow you to formulate your own opinions accordingly:

“Exercise Cygnus starkly revealed what a worst case pandemic scenario would do to Britain but ministers did not respond by building capacity enough to cover it.”

 

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.

Homosexuality. An attempt to educate.

This is a chapter of the book I published back in 2011 (The Asylum of the Universe, pgs 81-91),  that I hope deals with the subject in a way that most people will be able to relate to. I might choose to put a few things in a slightly different way today, but I stand by it as is.

IMG_5475I have been prompted to post this at this juncture as we approach Cardiff Pride this weekend and getting horrendous regular reports of institutionalised homophobia in my father’s land of Poland at the moment. The Chapter below ends with concerns about what was happening in Uganda at the time.  That such concerns are now happening within the EU horrifies me to the core. It’s not just Poland, but throughout Eastern Europe in particular, especially Russia. And we have seen a 150% increase in homophobic attacks in the UK, alongside the rise in racist incidents, since the infernal Brexit vote. 

I hope this essay can help in some small way.

HOMOSEXUALITY

But I don’t care what they say
And I don’t listen to people
Who say that all actors are gay
Not that I don’t think that’s OK
As far as I’m concerned
Although it’s not my bag
If you wanna be a fag
Be a fag y’know?
Who am I to say
Where you come
And where you go (88)

Here is another topic surrounded by bigoted nonsense. Why people can’t just mind their own business and live and let live is beyond me. Living a fairly closeted childhood, I first became aware of homosexuality as an issue in the 1970’s when the Naked Civil Servant (89) was shown on television. My reaction was that of initial curiosity, followed by the conclusion that although it wasn’t for me, what was all the fuss about?

I guess it is a combination of the usual suspicion and fear of anything people struggle to relate to – like black skin, turbans etc. – and the disgust engendered by Leviticus and other religious scripture. It is a vile sin, end of story. But herein lays the essence of the problem. It is a sin because supposedly sacred texts say it is. Why? Because it is, so there! No rationale; just small-minded prejudice.

Religious homophobia has a huge influence on people’s attitudes. It is just one strand of my antithesis to faith schools. Michael Cashman MEP, who played one of television’s first gay characters, Colin in Eastenders, has made the following point:

“Within faith schools we are still getting a message of anaesthetised hatred – ‘we don’t hate these people but they are not equal’. If that is said enough, it softens the brains of young people and that’s so dangerous. And it’s a message echoed by sections of press.” (90)

88 From Mitsubishi Colt by Tim Minchin.
89 Quentin Crisp’s autobiography, the same title, is still worth a read.
90 Reported in a BBC News Magazine article entitled ‘Is Gay Bashing on the Rise?’

p81

 

A recent report by the gay rights group Stonewall (91) found that bullying of gay pupils rose significantly in faith schools. I wonder what queer- bashing kids grow into as adults. Onward Christian soldiers perhaps.

Just what is the problem with homosexuality? If you don’t like celery, then don’t eat celery. But you cannot label everyone who then eats celery as weird/evil/perverted, can you? (92)

The problem rarely seems to be with someone loving someone else of the same gender – loving in the sense of the emotional bond and mutual dependence between two people who care about each other. It is, after all, unreasonable to knock such positive feelings, isn’t it? So instead we are asked to focus on things that can be seen as stomach turning and threatening by those of a sensitive disposition. Yes, I am referring to cocks in bums.

At this point you may be recoiling in horror, and those of you tainted by religion are probably uttering a quick prayer of contrition for even reading such words. Alternatively, you may be chuckling to yourself. But in either case, why? It is a patent absurdity to be personally threatened by anyone else’s gender orientation. Be threatened by a rapist or a paedophile, not a homosexual.

Personally, I will admit to being somewhat anally retentive. I don’t like anything near my bum hole (other than my right hand and loo paper) in much the same way that I hate people touching the soles of my feet. But I have no problem with other people enjoying their feet, or their rings, being tickled, their toes being sucked and/or their anus being rimmed and probed. Whatever floats your boat.

Another strange thing is that many heterosexual men find the idea of buggering a sexy woman very appealing. I am not totally sure, but I don’t think the Bible has anything to say about this particular sexual permutation. But is there any significant difference between fucking a female arse compared to a male arse? Am I missing something?

Personally, I find it a little odd to want to shove your cock in any shitty hole, but especially when there is a nice pussy just inches away. But hey! Each to their own. And who am I to deny the pleasure patently enjoyed by most willing buggerees? Many men often view women that enjoy it up the bum as some sort of ‘holy grail’. As Ali G pointed out to the Beckhams, football crowds chanting ‘Does Victoria take it up the arse?’ can actually be construed as a compliment. Respect!

91 Reported in The Independent on 13/01/2010.
92 I have to confess to being a celeriphobe – it makes me want to vomit!

p82

 

The bigots get so hung up about these things that they seem to assume that every gay man wants to bugger them. How conceited can you get? Do they think every heterosexual woman fancies them? Do they think every heterosexual male wants to fuck their wife? Some are so small- minded, deluded and arrogant that they possibly do!

This focus on buggery is presumably the reason for the much greater tolerance of female homosexuality. In fact, show me a heterosexual man who says he doesn’t/wouldn’t enjoy watching lesbian sex, and I will show you a liar or religious bigot in denial. It is such a visual feast, that few men can fail to be aroused. Visual stimulus is highly important to men. Maybe this is why godly scripture, while often raging incandescently about male-on-male action, feels no need to condemn the girl-on-girl equivalent.

This allowed our lawmakers, who (historically at least) based their judgements of right and wrong on the Bible, to completely overlook consent laws for lesbians. These same lawmakers had no problem discriminating against gay men though. It is not that long ago that their age of consent was reduced from 21 to 18 yrs old – still two years older than for heterosexual girls. Just look at the mindset of these old fart lawmakers – they have no problem with girl-on-girl action; girls (their daughters) cannot consent to heterosexual sex before 16 yrs old, but boys (their sons) technically can; and boy-on-boy action is a real no-no. What inconsistent nonsense.

There is, of course, a line of argument that sees homosexuality as abnormal and even unnatural. If we were all to become homosexual, then we would, indeed, become extinct within a generation. This is one line of argument the bigots like trotting out. But it has a couple of pretty obvious flaws. Firstly, people do not ‘become’ homosexual and, secondly, homosexuality is perfectly natural.

On the first point, psychiatric and psychological research around the world tends to be pretty much unanimous. Most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation. It exists as part of the whole spectrum of human sexuality from exclusively heterosexual through to exclusively homosexual, via a mid point in the spectrum that would be completely bisexual. As such, sexual orientation is seen to be generally impervious to attempts to change it. (93)

93 www.apa.org/topics/orientation.html Answers to Your Questions About Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality. American Psychological Association.

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This is not to say that there is an even distribution of people along this spectrum – far from it. It is certainly not the bell curve that represents a statistically ‘normal’ distribution. This would infer that bi-sexuality would be the norm. It would, perhaps, be nice if it were so that more people could enjoy ‘the best of both worlds’.

Estimates of the occurrence of exclusive homosexuality vary considerably from one study to the next. It is a notoriously difficult topic to elicit frank, honest responses on. I have found estimates ranging from 0% to 20% of the population. The truth inevitably lies somewhere in between. Surveys over the last 20 years in the UK, however, seem to yield pretty consistent responses around the 6% mark. Figures for the U.S. tend to be around 4%. Remember, this is for people claiming to be exclusively homosexual.

Far more people will have had some degree of bisexual experience. In the UK, a 2008 poll revealed 13% of Britons have had some form of sexual contact with someone of the same sex (kissing or threesomes included) (94) but do not identify themselves as homosexual. Add on people who may have had homosexual urges or feelings, but not acted on them, and you can certainly imagine a figure of 20% being realistic.

The 0% figure is the patently anomalous one. This figure comes from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during a speech at Columbia University in 2007. He insisted that there were no gay people in Iran. He is, of course, wrong! (95) It may not be cock up his arse, but that is probably due to his head being up there already!

Whatever the figures, the reality is that sexual orientation is part of who we are, in a similar way that hair colour or body shape is. There is no rationale for persecuting ginger hair or rotund people, but the ignorant do so nonetheless. The fact that sexual orientation tends not to emerge until puberty and may not be identified until much later gives scope for some people to conclude that there is an element of choice, or even that indoctrination might be involved. Ironically, it is the ‘indoctrinaires’ of the church that most often suggest this.

94 Sex uncovered poll: Homosexuality. Guardian.
95 New York Times article of 30/09/2007 entitled Despite Denials, Gays Insist They Exist, if Quietly, in Iran by Nazila Fathi.

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In the narrow-minded and bigoted world we live in, homosexuality would not be a rational choice. This is why virtually everybody I know to be gay has had periods of torture and denial to cope with before coming to terms with the reality and ‘coming out’ (96).

This business of coming to terms with your own sexuality when it is different to what you are surrounded with must be difficult at best, and it is little wonder that it can prove traumatic. I think that one way in which it is even harder than it is for other minority groups (such as ethnic and racial groups) is that most people are brought up in heterosexual environments. The vast majority of parents will be, almost by definition, essentially heterosexual. Add to this the levels of ignorance and hostility towards homosexuality in many communities and it becomes easy to see why the adolescent homosexual finds it difficult to know where to turn for support, understanding and role models.

I guess that there must be several stages to go through in terms of the awakening and coming to terms with ‘being different’ in terms of one’s sexuality. Based on people I know and have spoken to, as well as things I have read, most homosexual people would not have been aware of their sexuality at all before puberty, although some claim to have had an awareness of being different in some way. Puberty is the time for sexual awakening for all of us.

In terms of coming to terms with one’s self, the ease of this must depend on your circumstances. However liberal and open your family and friends are, there must still be difficulties in coming to terms with being different. By your teenage years it must be obvious to everybody that heterosexuality is the norm and that homosexuality attracts bigotry and hostility. This is why, I suspect, many enter a period of self-denial. By the end of puberty – young adulthood – we all generally know who and what we are. So, what next?

The next stage must be sharing the realisation with others. If anyone of any sexual disposition is ever going to experience satisfying relationships in their life, they cannot deny or hide their sexuality forever. So, at some stage there must be a ‘coming out’ to your nearest and dearest. Again, just how easy this is will very much depend on your circumstances.

96 The term ‘coming out’ seems to stem from the use of the term ‘closeted’ for people that choose to keep their homosexuality away from other people. Thus, those that decide to disclose their sexuality to others are thereby ‘coming out of the closet

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How this phase goes will probably determine how quickly and easily going the ‘whole hog’ is and deciding to live openly without feeling the need to shy away from the truth of your sexuality. I would hope that this would not be the hardest step in this day and age.

There are not many circumstances where a person’s sexuality and sexual preferences are of any relevance whatsoever. Modern legal statutes make it increasingly difficult to negatively discriminate on the basis of sexuality. Indeed, many large organisations undertake positive discrimination in favour of all sorts of minorities and demographics to ensure their organisations reflect the national demographics (and tick all the boxes on their Investors In People application – but that is another load of bull I might come back to).

In some ways it is a sad reflection that some people feel uncomfortable about sharing their sexual disposition with the world, but I would fully defend their right to do so. As I said at the beginning of the chapter, it really is nothing to do with anyone else at all. So the practice of ‘outing’ people has to be seen as utterly despicable in most circumstances.

The exception to this would be with people who display homophobic attitudes in public while indulging in homosexual activities in private. Research (97) suggests that around 80% of homophobic men have homosexual tendencies to some degree. It supports long held theories that homophobia is often indicative of repressed, self-loathing homosexual feelings; and that they use their public homophobia as a smokescreen for their own homosexual activities.

In this situation, groups like OutRage! and their supporters, such as Peter Tatchell, feel justified in outing these people. It is justified in the following terms:

  • The gay community is entitled to defend itself against homophobia of any sort.
  • Homophobia from closet gays is particularly indefensible on the grounds of hypocrisy and the additional harm caused by not only under-representing the size of the gay population, but in the duplicity and bigotry exhibited my members of that population.
  • Such behaviour is often most damaging from people in positions of influence who out of (often misguided) self-interest are prepared to pervert their authority to harm other gay people to protect their position.

97 The biggest study appears to have been undertaken by Prof. Adams at the University of Georgia in the 1990s – reported in an article entitled Most Homophobes are Gay at www.ipce.info and in the US Journal of Abnormal Psychology, in 1996.

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I accept these arguments. I hate hypocrisy more than just about anything. Outing in these circumstances is going to make people face up to their hypocrisy and is therefore likely to be in everybody’s long-term interests. The “outing” of ten gay bishops in 1994 forced the Church of England to begin a serious dialogue with the homosexual community for the first time. It has heralded a period of critical self-evaluation by the Church that has significantly changed attitudes to gay clergy and led to a wider review of attitudes to issues like women clergy. The whole establishment has been forced to become more circumspect with regard to overtly homophobic attitudes.

Thus, in exceptional circumstances, outing can very definitely be a catalyst for good. Following the outing of the Bishops, hypocritical, homophobic, closet gays in politics, business, the military, the judiciary and the police will need to tread more carefully. This should not be a threat to closet gays in general – just the hypocrites among them that need to reconcile their homophobic personas with their homosexual dispositions. Enough said.

Moving on to another thorny aspect within the nature versus nurture debate, there are some legitimate questions as to how a genetic propensity for homosexuality can persist. The answer to this can be found in the in journal Evolution and Human Behavior (98). The authors of a 2008 study revealed that there is considerable evidence that human sexual orientation is genetically influenced. What is not known is how homosexuality, which tends to lower reproductive success, is maintained in the population at a relatively high frequency. They hypothesised that genes predisposing to homosexuality could confer some advantage in heterosexuals who carry them.

The research into this hypothesis showed that masculine females and feminine men exhibit two relevant traits. Firstly, they are more likely to be non-heterosexual (gay or bi-sexual). Secondly, when heterosexual, they tend to have significantly more opposite-sex partners. I can certainly relate to effeminate guys I know who seem to have constant strings of female partners.

98 Evolution and Human Behavior vol.29 pg 424-433 entitled Genetic factors predisposing to homosexuality may increase mating success in heterosexuals by Zietsch et al.

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It is possible to imagine all sorts of psychological issues involved in these trends, but most pertinent would appear to be the subliminal inferences that a relatively effeminate male makes a more attractive mate from the point of view of likely contributions to child rearing perhaps. This could also be behind the ever-growing body of evidence that homosexual couples are at least as good as heterosexual couples when it comes to parenting (99).

All this merely confirms that a tendency towards homosexuality is perfectly natural. Indeed, a growing body of research reveals that homosexual and bisexual behaviour are widespread in the animal kingdom (100). Would you believe that homosexual behaviour has been witnessed in close to 1500 species and is well documented in around 500 of them?

Some of the behaviour witnessed would boggle even the most liberal of minds. (That has aroused your curiosity, hasn’t it? Perhaps that is why the book referred to in the footnote is out of stock at Amazon as I write!!) Just to give you a little flavour of the rich diversity out there, how about gay whales fucking their partner’s blowholes! The whale song afterwards translates, I speculate, as ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’!! Perhaps this is also what generated the slogan ‘Nuke Gay Whales for Jesus’ (101).

The motivations for and implications of homosexuality in nature are far from fully understood. But what is clear is that there is much greater sexual diversity in the animal kingdom – homosexuality, bisexuality, masturbation and all manner of non-reproductive sex – than the scientific community has yet studied in any detail and far more than the religious bigots would be prepared to accept.

Having said this, there have been homosexuality-embracing human societies at various points in history and dotted around the world.

99 See Wikipedia article on LGBT parenting. (LGBT = Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender)
100 A particularly impressive review of the subject can be found in Bruce Bagemihl’s enclopaedic book (almost 800 pages) entitled Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity.
101 The phrase was coined to offend as many people as possible in one fell swoop in an irreverent parody of trendy political causes. Makes for a great t-shirt!

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For example:

  • In pre-colonial Africa, women in Lesotho engaged in socially sanctioned lesbian relationships, known as ‘motsoalle’. The Azande warriors of the Congo routinely took young men into their households as home helps and to shag when wanting sex without the risk of a pregnancy. The first recorded homosexual couples in history were depicted in ancient Egypt.
  • The indigenous people of the Americas had a form of same-sex spirituality centred on the concept the Two-Spirit individual. Overtly homosexual and transgender individuals were common and accepted in Latin American civilisations including the Aztecs, Mayans and Quechuas. Indeed, the Spanish conquerors (Catholics) were so horrified by such open practice of sodomy; they crushed it with stiff penalties that included public execution by burning or being torn to pieces by dogs. What else would you expect from good Christians?
  • In eastern Asia, homosexuality has been recorded throughout history. It is an integral part of monastic Buddhist life and the Samurai tradition in Japan. In Thailand, Kathoey (more commonly known as ‘ladyboys’) have been a feature of society for many centuries. Thai kings are known to have taken male as well as female lovers.
  • Attitudes to homosexuality were quite liberal in ancient Greece and ancient Rome. Plato equated the acceptance of homosexuality with democracy and its suppression with despotism in his Symposium. All Roman emperors, bar Claudius, are known to have taken male lovers. Renaissance Italy was renowned for widespread same-sex relationships – although frowned upon by the (Catholic) authorities.
  • In Persia (modern day Iran) public displays of homosexual and homoerotic expression were common in the Middle Ages. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism has pushed it ‘back into the closet’ with Iran, along with Muslim nations Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Mauritania, Sudan and Nigeria, now being among the only 10 countries with the death penalty in place for same-sex intercourse.
  • In many Melanesian societies, especially Papua New Guinea, homosexuality has been celebrated. Until the middle of the last century, the Etoro tribe, for example, regarded homosexuality as a preferable state to heterosexuality. In some tribes, young boys would be paired with older adolescents as mentors who would ‘inseminate’ the young boys to ‘help’ them achieve puberty!

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So, here in western ‘Christian’ societies (Europe and USA) our attitudes to the natural phenomenon that is homosexuality tend to be inconsistent, bigoted and riddled with unnecessary guilt and anxiety. Things may be changing slowly, but it can still be painful to watch. There is even some evidence that gay bashing may be on the rise in parts of Britain. (102)

I was amazed to find that Catholic Poland was one of the first countries to de-criminalise homosexual acts, back in 1932. It took until 1967 for the UK to follow suit, just after the Scandinavian countries.

Prohibiting discrimination has been even slower. Quebec was the first place to legally ban discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, in 1977. Most developed countries caught up in the 1980s and 1990s, but the situation is still grim in many parts of the world. The war against narrow- minded bigotry is still to be won.

There is current uproar about Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, going through its parliament as I write, in early 2010. It is the most draconian attempt at fascist legislation since God knows when (he says with deliberate irony). It has been encouraged by local Christian leaders and funded, according to Peter Tatchell (103), by US evangelical ministries. So, just what are these nice Christian folk proposing?

The bill before the Ugandan parliament proposes the death penalty for “aggravated” and/or “serial” homosexuality. Aggravated homosexuality is defined as gay sex involving under 18s or disabled people, or by anyone with HIV, irrespective of condom use. Serial homosexuality is having same sex relations more than once. Life imprisonment used to be the more lenient punishment for same-sex intercourse, but that is now the fate for anyone caught indulging in any form of homosexual behaviour, such as kissing or holding hands, or even living together in a same-sex (but possibly sexless) marriage. Condoning or promoting homosexuality will get you five to seven years.

102 BBC News Magazine article entitled Is Gay Bashing on the Rise? There was an 18% rise in reported attacks in the East End of London in the summer of 2009. The police claimed that this partly reflected improved relations with the gay community making them more comfortable in coming forward and reporting incidents.

103 See Peter Tatchell’s letter, on behalf of OutRage!, in the Jan/Feb 2010 edition of New Humanist under the heading ‘Witch Hunt’.

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Why, oh why, oh why? They are not far from a ‘final solution’ to eradicating the perceived menace. Sound familiar? Hopefully the international community will get its act together sooner rather than later this time around. But then again, I expect we will see the Christian and Muslim fundamentalists sitting on their hands on this one, much as the Roman Catholic Church, and others, sat on their hands when faced with the Holocaust.

Welcome to the asylum of the universe.

 

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Factfulness – The EU’s racism and anti-refugee agenda.

I’ve just finished reading Hans Rosling’s incredibly important book “Facfulness”. For the most part is a very uplifting and positive take on the state of the world today – and thereby a welcome antidote  to the prevailing negativity and doom and gloom that pervades the news and social media. It is, after all, subtitled “Ten reasons why we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think”

Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 23.19.18However, towards the end, in a chapter entitled The Blame Instinct, he examines the situation, in 2015, of the 4,000 refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as they tried to reach Europe in inflatable boats. I’m sure we all remember the images of children’s bodies washed up on holiday beaches. That were splashed all over the news media and evoked outpourings of horror and compassion. Well, of horror at least. How could it happen? Who is to blame?

Over to Hans Rosling (Factfulness pg212ff):

[W]hy weren’t the refugees traveling to Europe on comfortable planes or ferry boats instead of traveling over land to Libya or Turkey and then entrusting their lives to these rickety rubber rafts? Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 23.23.20.pngAfter all, all EU member states were signed up to the Geneva Convention, and it was clear that refugees from war-torn Syria would be entitled to claim asylum under its terms. I started to ask this question of journalists, friends, and people involved in the reception of the asylum seekers, but even the wisest and kindest among them came up with very strange answers.

Perhaps they could not afford to fly? But we knew that the refugees were paying 1,000 euros for each place on a rubber dinghy. I went online and checked and there were plenty of tickets from Turkey to Sweden or from Libya to London for under 50 euros. 

Maybe they couldn’t reach the airport? Not true. Many of them were already in Turkey or Lebanon and could easily get to the airport. And they can afford a ticket, and the planes are not overbooked. But at the check-in counter, they are stopped by the airline staff from getting onto the plane. Why? Because of a European Council Directive from 2001 that tells member states how to combat illegal immigration. This directive says that every airline or ferry company that brings a person without proper documents into Europe must pay all the costs of returning that person to their country of origin. Of course the directive also says that it doesn’t apply to refugees who want to come to Europe based on their rights to asylum under the Geneva Convention, only to illegal immigrants. But that claim is meaningless. Because how should someone at the check-in desk at an airline be able to work out in 45 seconds whether someone is a refugee or is not a refugee according to the Geneva Convention? Something that would take the embassy at least eight months? It is impossible. So the practical effect of the reasonable-sounding directive is that commercial airlines will not let anyone board without a visa. And getting a visa is nearly impossible because the European embassies in Turkey and Libya do not have the resources to process the applications. Refugees from Syria, with the theoretical right to enter Europe under the Geneva Convention, are therefore in practice completely unable to travel by air and so must come over the sea.Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 23.21.21

Why, then, must they come in such terrible boats? Actually, EU policy is behind that as well, because it is EU policy to confiscate the boats when they arrive. So boats can be used for one trip only. The smugglers could not afford to send the refugees in safe boats, like the fishing boats that brought 7,220 Jewish refugees from Denmark to Sweden over a few days in 1943, even if they wanted to.

Our European governments claim to be honouring the Geneva Convention that entitles a refugee from a severely war-torn country to apply for and receive asylum. But their immigration policies make a mockery of this claim in practice and directly create the transport market in which the smugglers operate. There is nothing secret about this; infant it takes some pretty blurry or blocked thinking not to see it.

We have an instinct to find someone to blame, but we rarely look in the mirror. I think smart and kind people often fail to reach the terrible, guilt-inducing conclusion that our own immigration policies [those of the EU] are responsible for the drownings of refugees. 

Thank you, Hans.

So there you have it. I wish I had had this to hand a couple of years ago when the toxic Brexit debate was at its height. Yes, of course, there were, and are racists heavily involved in the Leave camp. But to try to label the everybody on the Leave side of the argument as small-minded, xenophobic racists, was always despicable in itself and even more so when you accept the fact that the the racists on the Remain side are even more in denial, hide in the shadows and successfully enact racist, anti-refugee policies in blatant contravention of the Geneva Convention.

I am not saying that this, in itself, is grounds for supporting either side of the Brexit campaign. What I am saying is that it kind of invalidates the whole topic from the debate. There is little to choose between the two sides in the final analysis (this story could be about UKIP with just a few words changed), other than one side is a bit more brazen and honest about its stance than the other. All the bollocks talked about freedom of movement boils down to simply shifting the barriers around.

Talking of barriers, perhaps the EU could sell the design for this one to Donald Trump: Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 23.02.09

P.S. I fully expect a torrent of abuse from rabid ‘Remainers’, indignant at the mere suggestion that their wonderful EU could compared to overtly racist UKIP. I’d invite them to take a good look at the facts first, then in the mirror second. By all means stand by your ‘Remain’ convictions, but take some responsibility for cleaning up the focus and level of the debate.

Fracking Banned in Wales? Almost, but not quite.

As someone who has been campaigning against fracking for just over 7 years now, and who been involved with Frack Free Wales since its inception in 2013, today is a momentous day.

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 21.54.21

Today saw the publication of a written statement by Lesley Griffith, Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs, of the Welsh Government’s new Petroleum Extraction Policy. In this context, we can safely assume that references to petroleum cover the full range of petroleum products, namely oil and gas hydrocarbons (effectively all fossil fuel sources except coal.

The full policy statement can be found here.

The key section, as far as I am concerned, is this:

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 21.57.29“Having considered the evidence, the risks, and the responses we have received to the consultation, I confirm today hydraulic fracturing “fracking” of petroleum will not be supported in Wales.
To help deliver on my commitment in 2016 to reduce the use of fossil fuels I also confirm we will not undertake any new petroleum licensing in Wales.”

Hip, hip, hmmm….

Hang on a minute. What is it with wording it “fracking of petroleum will not be supported in Wales”? Clumsy at best!

Bleddyn Lake of Friends of the Earth Cymru seems happy to interpret this thus, on their web page today:
“This ban is great news for Wales, great news for the communities who are campaigning tirelessly against fracking, and great news for our planet.”

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 22.00.04.pngYou will note a statement from Donal Whelan on behalf of Frack Free Wales on the same page, as we have worked closely with FotEC on this campaign. I helped Donal put this statement together. FotEC didn’t like this in our first draft:
“We regret the Welsh Gov’s choice of words in ‘not supporting fracking’, we would have preferred more emphatic language including the word ‘ban’”. They wanted it to ‘sound a bit more positive and celebratory’, which I guess is fair enough.

Or is it?

What’s nagging at me and Donal, and the rest of our FFW colleagues, is this question:
Why is Lesley Griffith so reluctant to simply say that fracking is now banned in Wales?

Not supporting something is patently NOT the same as banning something. I can say that I will not support Manchester United, but in no sense is this even suggesting that I want them banned.

So what is going on here?

Inevitably, until we get clarification from Lesley Griffith, this is a matter of conjecture on my part, but I think there are enough clues to give substance to what I am suggesting here.

I believe the problem lies in the Wales Act 2107 that has devolved certain matters to Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 22.04.32Welsh Government, and led to this opportunity to reframe Petroleum Extraction Policy.

When the Wales Bill was being published, Professor Richard Wyn Jones, director of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre, was excoriating in his verdict on the Bill. In October 2016, he described it thus:

“The Wales Bill suffers from two fatal flaws: it’s a piece of legislation that has been both poorly conceived and badly drafted.They combine to fatal effect to outline a system of devolution that would not only be as cumbersome as its predecessors, but in some important ways would be even more restrictive and frustrating.”

“…it has insisted upon a system of ‘ministerial consents’ of such mind numbing complexity as to cause bafflement even amongst seasoned constitutional experts. Its effect, though, is clear enough. It will require Welsh Ministers to go cap in hand to Whitehall in order to act even in areas that might otherwise be regarded as devolved.”

In simple terms, Westminster retained the ability to thwart, or even veto or over-rule issues supposedly under Welsh Government control, if they felt strongly enough about it. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t just Prof. Wyn Jones who was unimpressed, but attempts to resolve these reservations do not appear to have succeeded.

I’m no legal expert, and I’ve no intention of picking apart the whole Act, but page 1 has this to say:

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 20.57.43

So, Westminster “will not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters”. But it can’t guarantee it won’t.

So this creates the context for the similarly wishy washy statement in today’s Policy Statement.

Welsh Government “will not support fracking”. But it can’t guarantee a ban.
Because Westminster reserves the ability to over-ride any ban.

This is all hugely frustrating semantics. I am sure that Lesley Griffith, Mark Drakeford et al share our frustration. We know that Lesley Griffith’s predecessor, Carl Sergeant, certainly shared similar frustrations over the convoluted measures that were needed to try and ensure fracking related planning applications were rejected (the mythical ‘fracking moratorium’ in Wales)

I have no real doubt that Lesley Griffith would have preferred to use the word ban, but I strongly susp[ect that legal advice steered her and Welsh Government away from using such an emphatic and unambiguous word. All the time we have fracking Tories in Westminster, I can kinda see where they are coming from.

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 22.07.37Thankfully, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have both been unequivocal, despite some union opposition, in stating the next Labour government in Westminster will BAN fracking. Rebecca Long Bailey MP, Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary, commenting recently on the Government’s announcement to try and make planning applications easier for fracking projects, said:

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 22.11.50

Rebecca Long Bailey (centre) at Preston New Road, Blackpool

“Fracking should be banned, not promoted….. Labour will ban fracking and boost renewable energy projects. We will fix our broken energy system by creating publicly owned, locally accountable companies and co-operatives.”

This is true music to my ears.

So, yes, Welsh Government has ‘effectively banned’ fracking today. It could and should have been more emphatic about it in its choice of words. The potential legal loophole could and should have been faced down. They should know by now that we would not let it happen, no matter what. They surely should have more confidence in Labour sweeping into power at the next general election.

I guess we have come to expect, under Carwyn Jones, for the Welsh Labour Government in Cardiff Bay to take the lame approach whenever a bold one is called for.

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 22.15.41.png

You’ve got the job now, so let’s hear it loud, clear & unambiguously!

So, I await the public declaration that the last seven years have been all about; the clear, unambiguous, public declaration that fracking is now banned, be it in Wales, or even better, across the whole UK.

Maybe Mark Drakeford will make my day tomorrow, but for now, the champagne stays on ice.

Understanding the UK’s abject poverty

A close friend of mine works as a Jobcentre manager and has worked for the DWP most of her adult life. She has been heavily involved in the roll out of Universal Credit. As you can probably imagine, this has led to us having some interesting, indeed heartfelt discussions at times.

Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 13.40.04One such discussion has come about recently with the publication of the UN’s special envoy on extreme poverty’s hard-hitting report on poverty in the UK.

She always seems to find herself conflicted when such news hits the headlines, especially when it references Universal Credit, her area of work expertise. She gets frustrated by what she sees as unfair criticisms of it, and she had these observations regarding Philip Alston’s comments on it in his UN Report:

“The recommendations at the end in direct relation to UC are….1. soften the approcach of work coaches. This is already being extensively addressed and he found evidence of that. 2. Make payments to each member of a couple. This is already available and can be found in guidance published on gov.uk. 3. Make payments weekly or fortnightly. Ditto – already available and in public guidance. 4. Abolish 5 weeks waiting time – his only valid suggestion….but it didnt exist on other benefits and poverty rates were no lower so I would want to see more analysis”

Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 13.45.01This is typical of the frustration she, and other Jobcentre staff that I know, feel at lack of recognition for the good work that they do and also their frustration that people so often don’t even seem to ask for the help that exists and is available to them. Indeed, the conversation above ended with her making two pleas to me:

“I ask two things of you in the spirit of working towards our common aim to help the most vulnerable in society…
1. Help promote the postive efforts being made by the jobcentre. Raise complaints through the official channels where you see examples of poor work. Praise where you see good. 2. Send me pen pictures of the people you know who are having to rely on foodbanks etc. What has happened and how has the benefit system failed them. I really do want to understand.”

This blog piece is my attempt to do just that.

Most of the case studies that I know about come through my involvement with Unite Community. Britain’s largest trade union, Unite, launched community membership Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 13.42.01scheme a few years ago now. This new type of union membership scheme allows ‘grey economy’ precarious workers, the unemployed, disabled and community based activists to join a union although they may be out of work. Anyone is able to join, unless they are signing up as an alternative to a Unite industrial branch at their workplace.

For £2 per month, members are offered services and benefits  that are extremely useful in Britain’s difficult economic environment. A phone number provides members with free legal advice, benefits advice, gas and electricity price comparisons, the Unite jobs board and even a benevolent fund for those that qualify.

I am one of the community based activists that work directly through Unite Community, and under their banner, in going out into communities to help people navigate the system, apply for the benefits they are entitled to and help with appeals. I was particularly active a few years ago in the campaign against the Bedroom Tax, Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 13.41.10but I have good friends within Unite Community who continue to give up huge amounts of their time, voluntarily and unpaid, to continue helping people in need. They are finding much of their time taken up these days by issues with the roll out of Universal Credit.

The big strength of what Unite activists do, in contrast to the Jobcentres and Citizen Advice Bureau for example, is that we go out actively looking for the people in need of help. We go into the hardest hit communities and intercept people leaving Jobcentres bewildered. Jobcentres and CAB do great work for people that show up and engage, but they struggle to do much for those that, for all manner of reasons, do not or cannot.
This is what my good friend is struggling to understand and so here are a few case studies to try and shed some light on how the system fails people and they end up having to rely on charity such as food banks.

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These stories are based on real people that I have encountered over the last 10 years, in my capacity as an adult literacy and numeracy tutor (dealing with functionally illiterate an innumerate adults referred from Jobcentres) and as a Unite Community community activist. I haven’t sought people’s permission to publish their stories, so names have been changed to protect their identities.

GARY’S STORY
I first met Gary at age 19. He had had a troubled childhood, and was eventually taken into foster care at 15. He had lost count of how many places he had lived and how many different adults he had lived with. He had just split from a girlfriend, who he thought might be pregnant, over some substance abuse issues. He was living in a hostel at the time I met him.
He was very angry and uncooperative at first, but as I got to know him slowly, he calmed down and it became clear that he was, despite appearances, a bright young man trying to sort himself out as best as he knew how. This involved him changing who he mixed with to avoid temptations of serious substance abuse and the all-too-frequent occurrence of getting into sometimes-violent conflict situations. But it left him surviving primarily on a diet of cigarettes and cheap energy drinks.
Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 13.45.48He wasn’t eating properly, and was constantly unwell with something, so when Bridgend’s first foodbank opened, I nagged him to go along and see what they could offer him. His reluctance was in no small part down to the fact he had neither the facilities or the skills to cook anything. I eventually managed to buddy him up with someone who had registered with the foodbank already and he nervously went along.
He was overjoyed, well as close to overjoyed as I ever saw him, the next time I saw him. He had felt welcomed and understood. They had helped sort a few other things for him too, like cooking facilities, some foolproof recipes and getting some laundry done. (He was a bit odorous!)
The biggest problem that Gary had was a complete lack of family support and an inadequate friendship group that led him into a downward spiral. Through his involvement with the foodbank, he realised that there really were people out there prepared to make time for him and show that they understood and cared. This was probably more important to him than the actual food. It is something the Jobcentres are simply not in a position to provide.
With some encouragement and support from this point, he started applying seriously for work, and last I heard had a job in the NHS.

SHARON’S STORY
Sharon was someone we first met outside a Jobcentre in tears. She had been in to try to resolve issues around her change of circumstances. As a 33 yr old single mum (the dad had died suddenly) with a four year old daughter, she had been excited to have a new relationship and someone to share the burdens of life with. When Bob moved in, she never dreamed that it would be the start of a living nightmare.
They both worked; Sharon a few hours a week as a cleaner, and Bob on a zero hours contract in a warehouse. Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 13.51.44When they notified the Council and Jobcentre of their change of circumstances, their benefits were changed (they were being moved onto Universal Credit) and therefore delayed, and left them in dire straits very quickly. Winter was setting in and they were struggling, with Bob’s hours going down unexpectedly, to feed the gas and electric meters and themselves. Something had to give.
It was their housing association that referred them to their local foodbank as a condition of negotiating a rent payment plan, as they acknowledged that the postponement of their benefits could take weeks to resolve.Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 13.51.02

Sharon’s mental health suffered badly. She felt that, through no fault of her own, she had lost control of her life and let her daughter down badly. She had thought getting together with someone ought to have made life better. Love might do that to an extent, but it doesn’t put food on the table.

RHIAN’S STORY
Rhian is a friend of a friend, aged 54. Until recently, despite mental health issues her entire life, she had always managed to work (including 12 years in the Armed forces as a driver) while raising two kids alone. However, a couple of years ago, her doctor advised her to stop work permanently after a major mental breakdown.
She was reluctant to do so, and even more reluctant to claim benefits. It went against her whole life ethos. She went on long term sick leave and survived on sick pay and her savings well enough, but was eventually forced to give up her job. She still deluded herself that she’d get another job despite her doctor’s advice.
After countless failures with job applications and after her life savings had run out, she bit the bullet and went to her Jobcentre who put her on Employment Support Allowance (ESA), but there were interminable delays in her getting any money through. She began to feel her life falling apart all over again. She found the Work Capability Assessment particularly stressful and humiliating. Her problems were mental not physical. This was not helping; in fact it was making her worse and she even started contemplating suicide. (This is not an uncommon scenario, as this report suggests)
She felt further humiliated and worthless when the Jobcentres response to the delays in processing her claim were met with a referral to the local foodbank. This was her final proof that she had transitioned from a proudly independent woman to an officially destitute burden on society. Those years of service seemed pretty pointless now.
She had been someone who had regularly put things in the foodbank collection points at the supermarket, but had never thought she might end up having to go herself. Going that first time was one of the hardest things she had done in her life. However, it did bring her welcome relief, and again it was not just in having some food in the cupboard. She found the volunteers very warm and caring. They had seen her come in looking very agitated and sat her down with a cup of tea and a biscuit and put her at ease before helping put together some groceries that accommodated her dietary requirements.
Rhian is not unusual in hoping to become a volunteer at the foodbank when her health is good enough.

Tories out there (like Rees-Mogg) will see these stories as uplifting proof that David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ does a brilliant job of looking after people, and that this excuses the state from having to do so.

But for every Gary, who turns his life around, there are many that never escape that downward spiral into drug abuse and criminality.

For every Sharon, who always tries to do the right thing, there are many who give up on that idea as a mug’s game and will look to exploit the system before it exploits them.

For every Rhian, there are those whose self-esteem never recovers and whose thoughts of suicide become their only way out.

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Those who are employed by the state to do the state’s bidding are caught between a rock and a hard place. How can you show compassion and generosity when delivering a system designed to be harsh and mean?

I guess you end up trying to square the circle and convincing yourself that those accusations of being harsh and mean are ill-founded; that Gary, Sharon and Rhian made bad choices and had other options available to them.

The fact of the matter is that if Foodbanks can make people feel better, then Jobcentres, or other state provision, ought to be able to do that to. It involves demonstrably caring, giving people time and genuine empathy, and being generous by default. In a service over-stretched, under-resourced, variably staffed and managed and dealing with a clientele with such complex issues, this may seem like a pipe dream. But it really doesn’t have to be the way it is. And the UN Rapporteur agrees!

Credits: all graphs taken from The Trussell Trust website, trusselltrust.org.

 

It’s no laughing matter, of course, but here is some light-hearted perspective with a deadly serious message:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqhEtwgof6k

P.S. The DWP has a new boss as the repugnant Esther McVie (a.k.a. Fester McVile) quit over May’s Brexit deal being too soft for her liking. That means we see the phoenix that is Amber Rudd rising from the ashes of her disgrace in the role of Home Secretary. Within days, the message from her Department is re-enforced by one of her ministers helpfully suggesting that families affected by the benefit cap (that was lambasted by the UN Rapporteur) should ‘move house’ or ‘take in a lodger’.

So Amber Rudd looks set to continue her inglorious track record: