Archive for the 'Coronavirus' Category


How Trump and his media acolytes got the coronavirus wrong

Wednesday, April 8th, 2020

Might be problematical in election year

The above compilation of clips, mostly from Fox News, shows how leading media supporters of the President and Trump himself were viewing the epidemic only a few weeks ago. Since then the US has become the nation most affected and Trump has changed his tune. His latest is blaming the World Health Organisation.

The initial stance from the White House was reflected in the polling. In mid-March Ipsos found that 63% of Democrats and 49% of Republicans said they considered the coronavirus to be a personal threat. Now the political split is getting much smaller as concern has increased across the board.

All this produces a massive challenge for Trump who turns 74 in a few week. It is hard to see the epidemic not being an issue when the nation votes in the first week of November.

Mike Smithson


Raab trails in fourth place in latest YouGov senior cabinet minsters’ favourability rankings

Tuesday, April 7th, 2020

Mike Smithson


What happened on Betfair’s next PM market after news of Boris’s hospitalisation came out

Monday, April 6th, 2020

There was similar movement on the Johnson exit date market. Raab is Johnson’s designated stand-in.

This makes me uneasy about political betting but inevitably some punters will look to anything to turn a buck.

I’m also not convinced that the market is reading this right. If there is a need a replacement PM then that would surely be a decision for the whole cabinet.

I’m sure everybody on PB wishes Boris a speedy and full recovery.

Mike Smithson


The positive thing for Starmer about LAB’s polling position is that at least there’s scope for improvement

Friday, April 3rd, 2020
Table: David Cowling

Well tomorrow at this time LAB will have its new leader and the suggested negative influence of Corbyn will be no more. The big question is whether the former DPP is able to so present a different proposition to voters that first, the seats lost at GE2019, become prospects again.

In a sense the current voting intention polling likely flatters the Tories given how fighting the virus totally dominates everything. The Johnson team is in charge making extraordinary demands of citizens which is largely being followed. Polling in other countries has shown a similar move to the incumbent government.

My guess is that Starmer’s election will receive a general positive response from the public if only that he is not Corbyn. That should help first get the Tory shares below 50% and then provide a foundation for Labour progress.

Mike Smithson


It won’t be Brexit that defines Boris but the decisions he made at the start of the coronavirus crisis

Friday, April 3rd, 2020

With the UK death toll rising by the day it is perhaps worth reflecting on the two decisions the government made at the start of the crisis. Firstly there was the reluctance to follow other nations to impose lockdowns straight away after the first death and then there was the agreement to allow this year’s Cheltenham Festival to take place as planned.

The argument on the former was the desire to to delay the peak of the outbreak until the spring when it was hoped that the NHS would be in a better position to cope with it. That might or might not have been correct and it’s hard to judge it now.

But one thing that really stands out was in the same week that lockdown was being imposed for the Cheltenham Festival which attracts a quarter of million people over the few days being allowed to go ahead. In the Times this morning under the heading “Cheltenham Festival ‘spread coronavirus across country’ the paper notes:

More than 60,000 fans a day were packed into the stands, bars, toilets and queues for the food vans at the world-famous festival with little protection apart from some hand sanitiser stations dotted around the racetrack. .The roar of the crowd at Cheltenham can send a tingle up the spine but the shouting, cheering and drunken singing by tens of thousands of punters packed cheek by jowl in the terraces and bars is a perfect environment for transmission of infection by airborne droplets from the mouth and nose..More than 250,000 people walked in through the gates across the four days – and hundreds of them have claimed online that they have since developed symptoms.

No doubt this will be an issue that will be argued about for years to come. The interesting thing as we look forward is how Boris will deal with the lifting of restrictions and the timetable that’s followed.

Mike Smithson


Today sees the worst set of front pages for the government since the crisis began

Thursday, April 2nd, 2020

Ministers will get hammered while there’s a shortfall in testing

After a period when the government has been generally getting positive media coverage for its fight against the coronavirus all has changed this morning as can be seen.

The biggest issue is the amount of testing going on even for NHS staff and others on the front-line. This is far short of expectations of what we had been led to expect.

When the Mail and the Mirror are both attacking on the same issue then any government has problems. The country is being asked to take extraordinary steps to curb the spread of the disease and the least voters are looking for is a government appears to be effective.

It is not helped by both PM Johnson and HealthSec Hancock being out of the picture because they have contracted the virus. This is exacerbated by previous statements about the likely level of testing which aren’t being reached.

This comes on the day that voting in Labour’s interminable leadership contest comes to an end and we are now just a couple of sleeps away from Starmer becoming the Opposition Leader.

Mike Smithson


Taking liberties

Wednesday, April 1st, 2020

One of the most enjoyable aspects of investigations is listening to miscreants’ excuses for their bad behaviour. The same ones came up regularly, so much so that interviews would have been much quicker if we’d had a poster on the wall of the excuses so they could just have pointed and said: “6” with a bit of “9”. The two most common, usually presented with the passive-aggressive mulishness of schoolboys, were: “Where does it say I can’t do that?” and “Show me where it says that I have to do that.” 

It would be disappointing if the police do not have a similar list of reasons for why people are not complying with the rules restricting movement. When it comes to regulation of human behaviour, it is impossible for any law or procedure to list all the possible permutations of actions to be permitted or prohibited. No wonder people try to find ingenious ways to justify what they want to do. Hence the need for judgment, common-sense and reasonableness. Or – if these are too hard for people or officials to understand – they could all be crudely summarised in the injunction: “Don’t take the p*ss.” Or, more politely: “Don’t take liberties.”

Ah yes. Liberties. It may seem to some like unnecessary frivolity to be talking about these at such a time. But it isn’t. We are a state governed by laws, virus or no, just as we were a state governed by laws during wartime. We are not a state where simply because one man – the PM – says or advises something it thereby becomes the law. Advice is not the same as law. This is not a distinction without a difference. Public officials are not there to do the bidding of any individual, however mighty. They are there to enforce the laws on behalf of all of us. A virus is not an excuse or reason for any official to act unlawfully.  The government has the inestimable advantage of being able to pass laws very quickly to deal with this emergency. It has given public officials considerable powers to restrict what people can do. Its officials should not abuse that advantage by claiming powers they do not have.

A free Government interferes with nothing except what it must.” Those words were written in 1873. The government has interfered with our freedoms for the best of intentions: to minimise to the extent possible the amount of social contact between people and, thereby, the virus’s transmission so as to give everyone, particularly the most vulnerable, the best chance of surviving it. 

Those who ignore the rules – whether because they are inconvenient or because they think they are not at risk or because they don’t care or don’t understand or because they simply cannot bear to be inside any longer or for any other reason at all – are not simply being selfish or careless or unthinking. They are risking not just their own health (a risk they can take) but the health of others (not their decision to take). The purpose of these rules – the need to keep people apart – matters. Ignoring that – and the generally sensible advice and guidance about how to do so (such as the steps taken by supermarkets and others) – may not be unlawful but it is stupid. If too many people behave stupidly or selfishly, there is every likelihood of even more restrictive measures being imposed.

So much for the obligations on citizens. What of government? Its communications strategy has been woeful – particularly in relation to its advice. Where that has differed from the law it has led to confusion, not just in the public but amongst officials. It is too reactive to individual media stories or seems to change according to individual Ministers’ views. Health officials should set out the health advice. Ministers should set out what the rules say. Clear communication about their purpose and what is sensible is necessary. But so too is clear communication to public officials about what is lawful, what is not and the importance of using the powers they have lawfully and with intelligent discretion. If clarification is needed that should be agreed and communicated to all relevant departments so that all are speaking with one voice. What it says should be accurate and consistent.

And what of officials, the police above all? The rules are clear and can be found here.  Section 6 deals with restrictions on movement.  Four things are worth noting:

1. There is no reference to movement outside the home needing to be “essential”. Indeed the word “essential” features not at all. There must be a “reasonable excuse”. What is “reasonable” is dependent on circumstances.

2. The list of reasonable excuses is not exhaustive. There may be other reasons which would make it reasonable for someone to leave their home.

3. How one exercises, where one goes to exercise or how often one can do so are not set out. Similarly, with shopping or with visiting a vulnerable person or doing charitable work or any of the other activities listed.

4. The rules make no reference to government guidance at all.

It makes sense for people to take account of government guidance – especially health advice, and understand their purpose. Officials can point to it. But the police should not be misleading people into thinking that the rules and government guidance are one and the same. They are not. The government could have made them the same. It did not. And yet the official police guidance is misleading when it says that people may only leave home for the reasons listed in government guidance or when it talks about people committing an offence if they do not have a “valid” reason for being outside.  

Pedantic?  Possibly – but we are talking about people’s freedoms here. The police are stating that a  breach may lead to fines and criminal convictions but misleading people about what the offence is. That is alarming. The language in the rules is clear. There is no reason for the police to use different language or to put their own spin on it. It is not for the police to decide that the restrictions should be something other than what Parliament has decided. Civilians may not know the precise language in the rules. They will defer to authority, trust them even to know what they are doing, or be scared of officials in uniforms. The police should not abuse that trust or fear or their powers. Why?  Well, apart from the obvious reason, it is likely to prove counter-productive. If people feel that the police are going too far then they will likely be less willing to do what is necessary. That increases rather than reduces the health risk.

And there is another longer-term reason: the police’s standing with the public is not high. A recent report by HMICFRS stated that the public has lost faith, having “rumbled” that the police are unable to investigate most crimes. While the emergency lasts, there will be public support for those working hard to protect it. But that support risks being lost if public officials behave like omnipotent officious busybodies, claiming powers they do not have, especially if the restrictions have to last a long time, as seems likely. 

Trust in government is a precious commodity, especially at a time when so many are fearful. The government has limited our freedoms because, for this emergency, it must. It will not achieve what it is trying to do if people ignore its advice and think only of themselves nor if those acting in its name overreach and lose the public’s trust. We really all are in this together.



Guest slot from Stocky: Why it should be made clear that lockdown will not extend past 12 weeks

Wednesday, April 1st, 2020

An extreme utilitarianism stalks the land

My daughter has started learning about philosophy. She is particularly enamoured with a thought experiment known as The Trolley Problem.

The Trolley Problem invites us to either let things be with dire consequences or take action by pulling a lever and producing less dire consequences. Most people see this as a no-brainer: take action, pull the lever.   

This choice supposedly outs most people as utilitarians; the right thing to do is to maximise utility, meaning maximising aggregate happiness/minimising suffering. I wrote “supposedly” because philosophers go on to tinker with the thought experiment, the end result being that, for many, utilitarianism is exposed as being a thin veneer, an understandable knee-jerk reaction to an awful problem with no good solution. 

Virtue-ethics portrays a more realistic picture of human nature – the right thing to do is a question of motivation not of consequences. Deciding not to pull the lever does not necessarily mean that our morality is at fault.

Now imagine these two choices: 

Choice One: Many, many dying (let things be) 

Choice Two: Many (though fewer) dying plus economic catastrophe plus an extreme loss of freedom for everyone (take action, pull the lever)  

Which would you choose?

Yes folks, we are living a true-life iteration of The Trolley Problem and, sure enough, the choice that our country has chosen is Choice Two.  

But wait, let`s tinker – what if the negative effects of economic catastrophe and loss of freedom haven’t been sufficiently understood or accounted for? I argue that they have not. Some (maybe secretly) already recognise this (I see it in a few posts and “feel” it in some others when left unsaid). 

Let`s fast-forward to the point when lockdown has been in force for 12 weeks.  The daily death toll is well off its peak but is still substantial. The weather is warmer. People are restless and do not want to be dog-kennelled for a day longer, the novelty having worn off weeks ago. They want to go to the pub, eat out, visit parents. They want to go on holiday (at least an inexpensive one). Children need to go back to school. Adults need to go back to work. Some companies have gone to the wall, others will not be in a position to operate with as many employees as before. The stock market is still on its knees. Perhaps suicide among otherwise healthy people is running at an all-time high. 

In short, the astonishing harm that lockdown is doing to the country will have revealed itself more fully than now. Support for its continuance will dwindle, or at least be limited to the lockdown of vulnerable people only. The dynamics of our true-life trolley problem will have changed, the scales re-loaded. Removing lockdown and getting back our lives, our freedoms, our hopes and mitigating further economic degradation will be more fully in the equation.

I`ve argued against the lockdown policy from the start. I`m not saying that this is just the flu – on the contrary Covid-19 is an extremely serious global pandemic – but I am saying that it is has been parlayed into economic and loss of liberty disasters that are truly catastrophic in so many ways. 

We didn`t harden our hearts when we needed to. We failed to accept the near inevitability that almost all of us will become infected with Covid-19 at some point and that 0.5-1% of those that do will die. We ducked that one and in doing so we pulled the lever and made health and the NHS the-only-thing-that-matters.  

Why not anticipate the re-loading of the trolley problem scales? Let`s agree not to pull the lever a second time. The government should make it clear that lockdown will not extend past 12 weeks. At least then we will know when we will get our lives back and we can hope again.

My daughter disagrees with me. But she`ll come round.