Archive for the 'Coronavirus' Category


The Johnson care home comment row – Day 2

Tuesday, July 7th, 2020

This from former Number 10 Strategy Director

Mike Smithson


Passing the buck Boris style

Monday, July 6th, 2020

 The PM is at the centre of a new storm tonight after he was reported to have put part of the blame for care home 20k+ pandemic deaths onto the care home themselves. According to the Guardian report linked to in the Tweet above

Speaking during a visit to Goole in Yorkshire, Johnson said the pandemic had shown the need to “make sure we look after people better who are in social care”. He went on: “We discovered too many care homes didn’t really follow the procedures in the way that they could have but we’re learning lessons the whole time. Most important is to fund them properly … but we will also be looking at ways to make sure the care sector long term is properly organised and supported.”

Johnson’s off-the-cuff approach has caused him problems before but this could be much more serious because of the sheer scale of the tragedy.

Given that widespread view is that the death toll was much higher because of the government’s delay in taking action he has to be very careful saying anything that could appear to be him trying to shift the blame.

Meanwhile Sunak waits in the wings.

Mike Smithson


Why Starmer is not going to let go of the issue of Johnson not acting quickly enough on COVID19

Monday, July 6th, 2020

One of the great sources of analysis during the pandemic has been on Radio 4’s “More of Less” programme which each week subjects big issues in the news to statistical analysis. It has just finished its current series and its last programme was basically a summation of how the pandemic evolved. It is well worth listening to here .

Inevitably the issue of timing of the government’s decision in March is subject to scrutiny and a clear view is developing that the overall death toll could have been reduced if Johnson and his ministers had acted earlier. Even though the next general election might not take place until May 2024 the scale of this crisis and the likely examination of the government’s action by the inevitable inquiry will keep this issue alive.

The latest Opinium poll carries a question that it has asked before on whether voters think that Johnson should have acted earlier and the responses from different segments are in the chart above. The numbers suggest that Johnson has a problem while for Starmer this is an opportunity.

Interestingly the best segment from Johnson’s point of view are those in the sample who rated him as the Best PM over Starmer. Even then only 50% said he had got this right.

Mike Smithson


12 Good Men

Wednesday, June 24th, 2020

On the decision to suspend jury trials

I loved Latin at school. My award for Latin poetry recital is carefully preserved and I remain mildly hopeful that, one day, it might even prove useful. Poetry aside, it was then seen as necessary to become a lawyer. For the first few years of practice those Latin sayings encapsulating legal rules became firmly lodged in my head. Then they were no longer compulsory, plain clear English becoming the rule. Quite right. But one saying seems particularly apt these days: Ex turpi causa non oritur actio – no-one can make a claim based on their own dishonourable conduct. More widely, it expresses the idea – or, perhaps, the hope – that people, governments even, should not be able to take advantage of the damage caused by their failings to do that which they would not otherwise get away with.

There is now a very real danger of this happening with trial by jury, a practice which goes back – in its essence – to Magna Carta. 

Juries have not always been loved. Blair tried to curb jury trials in 2003 and had to back down, Tories opposing him, their then spokesman saying: “Jury trial is an essential safeguard to ensuring respect for the criminal justice system.” Juries are not always loved by the legal establishment either, including some judges, those who think that the law is far too important and complicated an issue for ordinary persons, who are simply not clever enough to understand. It uses the complexity beloved by lawyers to justify keeping the whole process within this charmed, closed circle, a legal elite. It is an argument often heard in relation to fraud trials, conveniently forgetting that sniffing out dishonesty does not need a degree, that it is often some of the apparently cleverest people – formally anyway – who fall for some of the biggest conmen around. Understanding people is not a profession but something that all can do. It is precisely the introduction of the ordinary person’s view, the wisdom of a small crowd, which is the jury’s great strength and its value. To adapt an infamous saying: when it comes to guilt and innocence, you can have too much of experts.

Lawyers and judges can become so inured to what they see and deal with every day that they risk becoming cynical and world weary. As Chesterton put it: “the horrible thing about all legal officials, even the best….all judges, magistrates, barristers, detectives, and policemen is ……simply that they have got used to it”. What is just another case for a lawyer or judge is a potentially frightening and life-changing experience for the individuals involved: defendants, victims and witnesses alike. Juries are one of the best ways, for all their faults, of making sure that ordinary people are truly involved in one of the most critical functions of the state. They provide legitimacy, credibility and finality. And that group of 12 disappears at the end of a case, never to reappear, whereas judges and magistrates are around for a long time and hard to remove, no matter how perverse they may be.

There are other benefits too: the ability to tell the authorities when they are being oppressive (Ponting) – a real life version of the small boy telling the Emperor he has no clothes – and, of particular value these days, the involvement of minority groups often ignored by other parts of the justice system. The 2017 Lammy Review found that, by contrast with practically every other part of the justice and prison system, juries were the one part where there was no evidence of unfair or discriminatory treatment by BAME juries or to BAME defendants. The way juries had to operate (see page 34) – debate, persuasion, a collective decision rather than by one person – was one of the key reasons for this.

The current problems are long-standing and lie elsewhere: a 25% cut in real terms funding since 2010 for the Ministry of Justice; other cuts to legal aid and police funding; restricting sitting days to save money so that between 25 – 40% of Crown courts are unused; 260 court buildings sold in recent years, for instance. This has led to a backlog of 37,400 Crown Court cases in December 2019 (rising to 40,500 by end May), with trials happening well over a year, in some cases, as much as three, after charges are brought. Justice is being delayed mightily. It is not quite as bad as in 2014 when the backlog was ca.50,000 cases. But still disgraceful. The situation is even worse for cases heard by magistrates: in March the backlog was 395,600 rising to 483,700 by mid-May. Justice – imprisonment: these are key functions of the state. For the state to preside over their degrading is for it to fail at one of its most fundamental duties. It is demolition by deliberate neglect. 

None of this backlog and the consequent harm to defendants, victims and witnesses has been caused by Covid-19. The latter has not helped, of course, but only trials longer than 3 days have been postponed during the lockdown. No – the vast backlog and delays are a direct consequence of years of under-funding by the government. So if the government wanted to resolve such problems, it knows what to do: increase funding, reopen closed courts, have them sitting 5 days a week, build Nightingale courts etc.

Why the concern then? When Nicola Sturgeon suggested in April that jury trials in Scotland be suspended for up to 18 months, there was a furious reaction and not just from the usual legal suspects. A former Lord Chancellor and famously no lover of experts, Michael Gove, described it as “deeply concerning” and asked “is it wise to take this position on jury trials.” A very good question indeed. The Scottish government retreated. On 4 May, the Justice Minister, Chris Philps, told the Justice Select Committee: “There is categorically no question at all, under any circumstances, of the right to jury trial being removed. It is a fundamental right. It goes back centuries in our history, and it will never be removed at all.

That was then. Now we find the English Lord Chancellor suggesting just this. In order to create capacity, he is proposing either reducing juries to 7 or taking away the right to a jury trial for offences with a possible prison sentence of 2 years or more, replacing this with trial by a judge and 2 magistrates – the very same magistrates unable to deal with their current workload. (Apparently, hugely increasing their workload will increase capacity, which is why he favours this option.) Legislation is to be passed by 21 July and implemented by September.

  • He says these are the only choices. This is a false choice. 
  • He says such a change will be temporary only. Of course it will, like all those other “temporary” changes which become permanent when the immediate emergency has passed. When trial by jury is salami-sliced in this way, the pressure will be to continue further, not reverse the changes. 
  • He claims that this is necessary to increase “capacity” without taking the obvious steps to do so and without explaining how an already overburdened magistracy can help.
  • He provides no explanation of whether defendants will have an automatic right to appeal against convictions nor what the other effects of this change will be.

This is an old practice done by those who know the price of everything but the value of nothing: starve public services of what they need to operate effectively, then wield the axe by claiming they are no longer effective. It is being done dishonestly by pretending that the trauma of Covid-19 necessitates this. It is being done quickly and with little time for consultation, scrutiny or proper consideration of the implications.

Easy to think of this as special pleading by lawyers. It isn’t. Juries are one of the best, one of the oldest ways of involving ordinary people in one of the most important decisions there is: 12 life experiences, perspectives, opinions, voices able to assess the honesty, motives and actions of another, as we do every single day. Justice by the citizen is justice for the citizen. Trial by our peers is far too important for us all to be so casually dismissed out of expediency and to cover up the gross failings of the government itself.

It was Lenin who reportedly said: “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.” (Or, possibly, Macchiavelli.) A cynic or a revolutionary seem to be the guiding lights of this government. Is there anyone to ask: “Is this wise?

Those who view justice with the eyes of a bean counter are using Covid to destroy one of the institutions that works, that really does value the opinions of real people rather than simply uses “the People” as a prop for politicians’ egos. We are seeing its slow demolition, first by neglect, then by malice. Dishonourable indeed.


PS: “Men” in the title means women too, for any pedants here.


The lockdown is being eased from July 4th but the virus has not gone away

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2020

Is this going to change the political trends?

As expected the man who desperately needs a haircut, PM Johnson, has announced a range of measures that will ease the lockdown from a week on Saturday which will be exactly three months to the day since Keir Starmer became opposition leader.

In that time the Tories lead has been slashed from 26% in two polls in April to the blue team being just four or five points ahead. Johnson’s personal ratings have slumped from net positives of 40%+ to minus four or five.

Surely this news is going to make people feel a bit happier and the question for political watchers is what this is going to do to Johnson’s ratings and the voting intention polls. Can we expect a boost?

There is a tendency for the public to get behind their leaders at a time or crisis which might explain some of the exceptionally good blue numbers in April. My guess is that there might be a small uplift but not by very much and it might not last.

We should get the first indication in the next few days.

Mike Smithson


Johnson’s big gamble – setting a time table for the lockdown regulations to be eased

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2020

Lockdown bandit Cummings and his team have certainly been hard at work briefing the media on the changes in the lockdown regulations that are due to be announced by the Prime Minister in House of Commons today

The papers, as can be seen above, are pretty positive and are giving the changes the big treatment because, clearly, any easing of the strict controls that people have been living under since March is massive news.

This, of course, represents a big gamble by ministers firstly that the easing won’t lead to a big upturn in coronavirus infections and deaths in the weeks to come. The second gamble is whether the public are ready to respond because over the last months they have invested an enormous amount by complying to these huge controls on their lives. The reason there has been such a high degree of compliance is because many are very worried about the virus itself.

As yet, of course, there is no vaccine or treatment and the possibility of an early upturn is very real. Just look at what is happening in Portugal at the moment which until now had seen relatively few infections and deaths.

Johnson, of course, came under strong criticism for not locking down earlier enough and you can argue that many more thousands of British people died as a result. What if he has got the timing of the easing wrong?

How realistic, as well, is it going to be for pub-goers to provide names and addresses to be admitted so that they can be identified in future if a fellow pub-goers at the same time contracts the virus? Popping in for a pint is going to be quite a routine.

Of course there is a huge pressure on the economy and the massive cost to the public purse of the measures that have been introduced.

So we are about to enter a new phase.

Mike Smithson


The reality is that life won’t get back to normal until a vaccine or palliative is widely available

Sunday, June 21st, 2020

During the day I had a call from an old friend who told me she had recently come out of hospital after getting COVID19. Her story was, no doubt, very similar to what many of the hundreds of thousands who have been struck down with the disease have experienced.

The sheer awfulness of gasping for breath and then the incredible joy after arriving in hospital and getting oxygen. The totality of the pain, the physical discomfort when our organs aren’t functioning properly and the worry that you might not make it – that these could be your last hours made worse without loved ones being present.

In the end the big C did not take her which she put down to her working out every and maintaining a high level of fitness.

A reason for her call apart from giving me her news was to get over the message that however hard I am finding lockdown and shielding myself it was far far better than taking the risk of contracting the disease. Hard to disagree.

What struck me was however much ministers want to reopen the economy many people will, like me, be too damn scared to get back to normal until we know we are not vulnerable.

This is why a vaccine or palliative is so important. A recent New York Times survey found more 100 than separate efforts worldwide to develop an effective vaccine and other work is going on a palliative. When those will start to be available we don’t know but it is the only hope.

UPDATE This post has been amended to include a successful palliative being developed for those with COVID19.

Mike Smithson


Perhaps pollsters should start weighting for those who have had Covid-19 or know someone who has had from Covid-19

Sunday, June 21st, 2020

This morning The Sunday Times have done some excellent analysis based on figures from the gold standard Office of National Statistics that shows

While the virus threat is receding in London and other urban centres, our research shows many of the 44 parliamentary seats in the north and the Midlands that switched from Labour to Conservative last year are suffering an above-average mortality rate. The red wall has become a blue dilemma for a prime minister determined to make last year’s breakthrough permanent.

In England and Wales the overall death rate to the end of last month was 78.9 per 100,000 people. The 44 constituencies that helped propel Johnson into Downing Street, however, had a rate of 87.7, with 14 of them recording more than 100 deaths per 100,000 people.

I’ve been wondering for a while whether the pollsters need to weight for people who have had Covid-19 or know someone infected with this disease. Simple intuition tells me that people who have been impacted by Covid-19 are likely to be more unfavourable towards Boris Johnson and the government whilst the opposite is more likely for those not impacted by Covid-19,

This has been driven by some polling from America I saw a few months ago which showed Donald Trump’s ratings doing much worse with amongst people who knew somebody infected with Covid-19, independent/swing voters seemed to have the biggest swing.

There is the possibility that I maybe over analysing things. With, inter alia, the lower paid and BAME communities being disproportionately hit by this accursed disease, groups who are unlikely to vote Conservative, then perhaps the Conservatives and Boris Johnson are doing better than the polling indicates.

With over 300,000 people testing positive in the UK so far and the experts thinking the true number is ten times that then if they know around ten different people we’re looking at 3 million people impacted, for comparison the Conservative lead in the popular vote in December’s election was just under 3.7 million that’s a fairly substantial constituency.