Category Archives: Europe

open letter signed by 40+ rights groups calls for UK government to free Julian Assange

Dozens of press freedom, human rights, and privacy rights organizations across five continents have co-signed an open letter to the U.K. Government calling for the immediate release of imprisoned WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The publisher, who turns 49 years old today in HMP Belmarsh, is facing extradition to the United States where he has been indicted under the Espionage Act for WikiLeaks’ 2010-11 publications of the Iraq War Logs, the Afghan War Diaries, and State Department cables. If convicted, Mr Assange would face up to 175 years in prison, “tantamount to a death sentence.”

Click here to read the full press release published today by Don’t Extradite Assange, the official website supporting his case.

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The letter is reprinted in full below:

Dear Rt Hon Robert Buckland QC MP [Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor],

On 8 June 2020, responding to a question in the House of Lords about the United Kingdom’s stance regarding the protection of journalists and press freedoms, Minister of State Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon said, “Media freedom is vital to open societies. Journalists must be able to investigate and report without undue interference”.

We, the undersigned, agree with this statement and call on the UK government to uphold its commitment to press freedom in its own country. At the time of Lord Ahmad’s remarks, WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange had been imprisoned on remand in the high-security HMP Belmarsh for more than a year as he faces extradition to the United States on charges of publishing. We call on the UK government to release Mr Assange from prison immediately and to block his extradition to the US.

The US government has indicted Mr Assange on 18 counts for obtaining, possessing, conspiring to publish and for publishing classified information. The indictment contains 17 count sunder the Espionage Act of 1917 and one charge of conspiring (with a source) to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which uses Espionage Act language. This is the first ever use of such charges for the publication of truthful information in the public interest, and it represents a gravely dangerous attempt to criminalise journalist-source communications and the publication by journalists of classified information, regardless of the newsworthiness of the information and incomplete disregard of the public’s right to know.

On 24 June 2020, the US Department of Justice issued a second superseding indictment against Mr Assange, adding no new charges but expanding on the charge for conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. This new indictment employs a selective and misleading narrative in an attempt to portray Mr Assange’s actions as nefarious and conspiratorial rather than as contributions to public interest reporting.

The charges against Mr Assange carry a potential maximum sentence of 175 years in prison. Sending Mr Assange to the US, where a conviction is a near certainty, is tantamount to a death sentence.

This is an unprecedented escalation of an already disturbing assault on journalism in the US, where President Donald Trump has referred to the news media as the “enemy of the people”. Whereas previous presidents have prosecuted whistleblowers and other journalistic sources under the Espionage Act for leaking classified information, the Trump Administration has taken the further step of going after the publisher.

Mr Assange himself has been persecuted for publishing for nearly a decade. In 2012, with fears of a US prosecution that later proved prescient, Mr Assange sought and was granted asylum from the government of Ecuador, and he entered the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Because the UK declined to guarantee Mr Assange wouldn’t be extradited to the US, the United Nations’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled that Mr Assange’s detention was indeed arbitrary and called on the UK to “immediately [allow] Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to walk free from the Ecuadorian embassy in London”.

President Obama’s administration prosecuted US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning for disclosing hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks on the US’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as State Department cables and files on inmates at the Guantanamo Bay prison. But the administration, which had empanelled a Grand Jury investigation into WikiLeaks as early as 2010, explicitly decided not to prosecute Mr Assange due to what it termed the “New York Times problem.” As the Washington Post explained in November 2013, “If the Justice Department indicted Assange, it would also have to prosecute the New York Times and other news organizations and writers who published classified material, including The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper”.

When President Trump came to power, then-Attorney General of the US Jeff Sessions announced that prosecuting Assange would be a “priority”, despite the fact that no new evidence or information had come to light in the case. In April 2017, in a startling speech against WikiLeaks’ constitutional right to publish, then-CIA director Mike Pompeo declared WikiLeaks a “non-state hostile intelligence service” and said, “Julian Assange has no First Amendment privileges”.

On 11 April 2019, Ecuador illegally terminated Mr Assange’s diplomatic asylum in violation of the Geneva Refugee Convention and invited the British police into their embassy, where he was immediately arrested at the request of the US. Mr Assange served a staggering 50 weeks in prison for a bail violation, but when that sentence ended in September 2019, he was not released. Mr Assange continues to be detained at HMP Belmarsh, now solely at the behest of the US.

Even before the lockdown initiated by the coronavirus pandemic, Mr Assange has been held in conditions approaching solitary confinement, confined to his cell more than 22 hours a day. Now under containment measures, Mr Assange is even more isolated, and he hasn’t seen his own children in several months. Furthermore, Mr Assange has been allowed extremely limited access to his lawyers and documents, severely hampering his ability to participate in his own legal defence. Following a visit to HMP Belmarsh accompanied by medical doctors in May 2019, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer determined that Mr Assange had endured psychological torture.

Mr Assange’s extradition hearing, which commenced for one week in February 2020 and is scheduled to continue for three more weeks, is set to resume in September. But the coronavirus, which has reportedly already killed at least one fellow inmate at HMP Belmarsh and which continues to spread through prisons at an alarming rate, puts the health and well-being of Mr Assange, who suffers from a chronic lung condition that makes him especially vulnerable to Covid-19, at serious risk.

The continued persecution of Mr Assange is contributing to a deterioration of press freedom in the UK and is serving to tarnish the UK’s international image. Reporters Without Borders cited the disproportionate sentencing of Mr Assange to 50 weeks in prison for breaking bail, the Home Office’s decision to greenlight the US extradition request, and Mr Assange’s continued detention as factors in the UK’s decline in ranking to 35th out of 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

We call on the UK government to release Mr Assange without further delay and block his extradition to the US – a measure that could save Mr Assange’s life and preserve the press freedom that the UK has committed to championing globally.

Signed:

Nathan Fuller, Executive Director, Courage Foundation

Rebecca Vincent, Director of International Campaigns, Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

Adil Soz,  International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech

Anthony Bellanger, General Secretary – International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)

Archie Law, Chair Sydney Peace Foundation

Carles Torner, Executive Director, PEN International

Christine McKenzie, President, PEN Melbourne

Daniel Gorman, Director, English PEN

Kjersti Løken Stavrum, President, PEN Norway

Lasantha De Silva, Freed Media Movement

Marcus Strom, President, MEAA Media, Australia

Mark Isaacs, President of PEN International Sydney

Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary, National Union of Journalists (NUJ)

Mousa Rimawi, Director, MADA- the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms

Naomi Colvin, UK/Ireland Programme Director, Blueprint for Free Speech

Nora Wehofsits, Advocacy Officer, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

Peter Tatchell, Peter Tatchell Foundation

Ralf Nestmeyer, Vice President, German PEN

Rev Tim Costello AO, Director of Ethical Voice

Robert Wood, Chair, PEN Perth

Ruth Smeeth, Chief Executive Officer, Index on Censorship

Sarah Clarke, Head of Europe and Central Asia, ARTICLE 19

Silkie Carlo, Director, Big Brother Watch

William Horsley, Media Freedom Representative, Association of European Journalists Foundation for Press Freedom (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa)

Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)

Bytes for All (B4A)

Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility (CMFR)

The Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding (CEMESP-Liberia)

The Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ)

Free Media Movement Sri Lanka

Freedom Forum Nepal

IFoX / Initiative for Freedom of Expression – Turkey

International Association of Democratic Lawyers

International Press Centre (IPC)

The International Press Institute (IPI)

Media Foundation for West Africa

Mediacentar Sarajevo

National Lawyers Guild International Committee

Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)

World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC)

Open Letter Calling To Free WikiLeaks Publisher Julian Assange

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Additional:

Yesterday, The Grayzone’s ‘Red Lines’ host Anya Parampil spoke with Kevin Gosztola, an editor with Shadowproof Media and co-host of the Unauthorized Disclosure Podcast, about the latest indictment handed down against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. The indictment does not levy any new charges against Assange, so what purpose does it serve?

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The United States government expanded their indictment against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to criminalize the assistance WikiLeaks provided to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden when staff helped him leave Hong Kong.

Sarah Harrison, who was a section editor for WikiLeaks, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a former spokesperson, and Jacob Appelbaum, a digital activist who represented WikiLeaks at conferences, are targeted as “co-conspirators” in the indictment [PDF], though neither have been charged with offenses.

No charges were added, however, it significantly expands the conspiracy to commit computer intrusion charge and accuses Assange of conspiring with “hackers” affiliated with “Anonymous,” “LulzSec,” “AntiSec,” and “Gnosis.”

From an article entitled “US Government Expands Assange Indictment to Criminalize Assistance Provided to Edward Snowden, written by Kevin Gosztola, published in Shadowproof on June 25, 2020. https://shadowproof.com/2020/06/25/assange-indictment-wikileaks-staff-criminalized-help-snowden/

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“Putin’s Gonna Get Me” — Craig Murray deconstructs the BBC’s latest propaganda piece

Shakespeare’s heirs at the BBC produced this deathless and entirely convincing line as the climax of the first episode of “The Salisbury Poisonings”, a three part piece of state propaganda on the Skripal saga, of which I watched Part 1 as it was broadcast last night. The other two parts are to be broadcast today and tomorrow, which unusual scheduling reflects the importance our masters place on this stirring tale of the resilience of the great British nation under attack by devilish foreigners. You can watch all three episodes now on BBC iPlayer, but personally I suffer from overactive antibodies to bullshit and need a break.

The line about Putin was delivered by salty, ex-British military Ross Cassidy, so of course was entirely convincing. It may have been more so had he ever said it in public before this week, but there you are.

To judge by social media, an extraordinary proportion of the public find the official narrative entirely convincing. I find myself unable to pretend that does not fill me with despair at the future of democracy. That anybody could listen to the following dialogue without doubling up in laughter is completely beyond me. I do not quite understand how the actors managed to speak it.

Porton Down Man: “And it’s one of the deadliest synthetic substances on earth. It’s so toxic that a spoonful, with the right delivery mechanism, could kill thousands”.
Heroic Public Health Lady: “But if it’s so toxic, how come the Skripals are still alive?”
Porton Down Man: “The paramedics assumed that they had overdosed on fentanyl so they gave them a shot of Naloxone, which happens to combat nerve agent toxicity. Plus, it was cold, further inhibiting the speed with which the substance took effect.”

Aah yes, it was cold. A factor those pesky Russians had overlooked, because of course it is never cold in Russia. And everybody knows it is minus 40 inside Zizzis and inside the Bishops Mill pub. Once the nerve agent has entered the body, only in the most extreme conditions could exterior temperature have any kind of effect at all. Neither Sergei nor Yulia was anyway outdoors for any significant period after supposedly being poisoned by their door handle.

Many wildly improbable stories have been produced by the security services over the last three years to explain why this ultra deadly nerve agent did not kill the Skripals. Interestingly enough, the BBC drama left out a detail which the Daily Mail alleged came from a security service briefing, that:

“Completely by chance, doctors with specialist chemical weapons training were on duty at the hospital when the victims were admitted. They treated Sergei and Yulia Skripal with an atropine (antidote) and other medicines approved by scientists from Porton Down, the government’s top secret scientific research laboratory”

Which is very believable, I suppose, because it is no more of a coincidence than the Chief Nurse of the British Army being right there when they first collapsed on a bench.

Yet in all the multiple attempts to explain the non-deadly deadly nerve agent, “it was cold” appears to be a new one. It must have official approval, because all purpose security service shill, warmonger and chemical weapons expert, Lt Col Hamish De Bretton Gordon was listed in the credits as “military advisor” to this BBC production.

Let me offer you this tiny smidgeon of wisdom, for nothing: when the state broadcaster starts to make propaganda videos that credit a “military advisor”, you are well on the way to fascism.

Perhaps wisely, Part One at least of the BBC Drama made no attempt at all to portray how the alleged poisoning happened. How the Skripals went out that morning, caught widely on CCTV, to the cemetery according to this version, and then returned home without being caught coming back. How while they were back in their house two Russian agents rocked up and, at midday in broad daylight on a very open estate, applied deadly nerve agent to the Skripals’ door handle, apparently without the benefit of personal protective equipment, and without being seen by anybody. How the Skripals then left again and contrived for both of them to touch the exterior door handle in closing the door. How, with this incredibly toxic nerve agent on them, they were out for three and a half hours, fed the ducks, went to the pub and went to Zizzis, eating heartily, before both collapsing on a park bench. How despite being different ages, sexes, body shapes and metabolisms they both collapsed, after this three hour plus delay, at exactly the same moment, so neither could call for help.

The BBC simply could not make a drama showing the purported actions that morning of the Skripals without it being blindingly obvious that the story is impossible. Luckily for them, we live in such a haze of British Nationalist fervor that much of the population, especially the mainstream media journalists and the Blairite warmongers, will simply overlook that. The omission of the actual “poisoning” from “The Salisbury Poisonings” is apparently just an artistic decision.

All those events happened before the timeline of this BBC Drama started. The BBC version started the moment people came to help the Skripals on the bench. However it omitted that the very first person to see them and come to help was, by an incredible coincidence, the Chief Nurse of the British Army. That the chief military nurse was on hand is such an amazing coincidence you would have thought the BBC would want to include it in their “drama”. Apparently not. Evidently another artistic decision.

The time from touching the door handle to the Skripals being attended by paramedics was about four hours. That Naloxone is effective four hours after contact with an ultra deadly nerve agent is remarkable.

I do not want to under-represent the personal suffering of policeman Nick Bailey nor his family. But he was shown in the drama as rubbing this “deadliest synthetic substance” directly into the soft tissues around his eye, but then not getting seriously ill for at least another 24 hours. Plainly all could not be what it seems.

The actual poisoning event, the specialist team coincidentally at the hospital and the Army Chief Nurse were not the only conspicuous omissions. Also missing was Skripal’s MI6 handler and Salisbury neighbour Pablo Miller, who did not rate so much as a mention. The other strange thing is that the drama constantly cut to newsreel coverage of actual events, but omitted the BBC’s own flagship news items on the Skripal event in those first three days, which were all presented by BBC Diplomatic Editor Mark Urban.

Now Mark Urban happens to have been in the Royal Tank Regiment with Skripal’s MI6 handler, Pablo Miller. Not distantly, but joining the regiment together at the same rank in the same officer intake on the same day. I do love a lot of good coincidences in a plot. Mark Urban had also met frequently with Sergei Skripal in the year before his death, to “research a book”. Yet when Urban fronted the BBC’s Skripal coverage those first few days, he kept both those highly pertinent facts hidden from the public. In fact he kept them hidden for four full months. I wonder why Mark Urban’s lead BBC coverage was not included in the newsreel footage of this BBC re-enactment?

There is much, much more that is wildly improbable about this gross propaganda product and I must save some scorn and some facts for the next two episodes. Do read this quick refresher in the meantime. How many of these ten questions has the BBC Drama addressed convincingly, and how many has it dodged or skated over?

Click here to read the same article posted today on Craig Murray’s blog

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Updates:

Ep 2: The Miracle(s) of Salisbury

It turns out that the BBC really does believe that God is an Englishman. When the simple impossibility of the official story on the Skripals finally overwhelmed the dramatists, they resorted to Divine Intervention for an explanation – as propagandists have done for millennia.

This particular piece of script from Episode 2 of The Salisbury Poisonings deserves an induction in the Propaganda Hall of Fame:

Porton Down Man: I’ve got the reports from the Bailey house
Public Health Woman: Tell me, how many hits?
Porton Down Man: It was found in almost every room of the house. Kitchen, bathroom, living room, bedrooms. It was even on the light switches. We found it in the family car too. But his wife and children haven’t been affected. I like to think of myself as a man of science, but the only word for that is a miracle.

Well, it certainly would be a miracle that the family lived for a week in the house without touching a light switch. But miracle is not really the “only word for that”. Nonsense is a good word. Bullshit is a ruder version. Lie is entirely appropriate in these circumstances.

Because that was not the only miracle on display. We were told specifically that the Skripals had trailed novichok all over Zizzis and the Bishops Mill pub, leaving multiple deadly deposits, dozens of them in total, which miraculously nobody had touched. We were told that Detective Bailey was found to have left multiple deadly deposits of novichok on everything he touched in a busy police station, but over several days before it was closed down nobody had touched any of them, which must be an even bigger miracle than the Baileys’ home.

Perhaps even more amazingly, as the Skripals spread novichok all over the restaurant and the pub, nobody who served them had been harmed, nobody who took their payment. The man who went through Sergei’s wallet to learn his identity from his credit cards was not poisoned. The people giving first aid were not poisoned. The ducks Sergei fed were not poisoned. The little boy he fed the ducks with was not poisoned. So many miracles. If God were not an Englishman, Salisbury would have been in real trouble, evidently.

The conclusion of episode two showed Charlie Rowley fishing out the perfume bottle from the charity bin at least two months in the timeline before this really happened, thus neatly sidestepping one of the most glaring impossibilities in the entire official story. I think we can forgive the BBC that lie – there are only so many instances of divine intervention in the story the public can be expected to buy in one episode.

It is fascinating to see that the construction of this edifice of lies was a joint venture between the BBC and the security services’ house journal, the Guardian. Not only is all round pro-war propagandist “Colonel” Hamish De Bretton Gordon credited as Military Advisor, but Guardian journalists Caroline Bannock and Steven Morris are credited as Script Consultants, which I presume means they fed in the raw lies for the scriptwriters to shape into miracles.

Now here is an interesting ethical point for readers of the Guardian. The Guardian published in the last fortnight two articles by Morris and Bannock that purported to be reporting on the production of the drama and its authenticity, without revealing to the readers that these full time Guardian journalists were in fact a part of the BBC project. That is unethical and unprofessional in a number of quite startling ways. But then it is the Guardian.

[Full disclosure. I shared a flat with Caroline at university. She was an honest person in those days.]

Again, rather than pepper this article with links, I urge you to read this comprehensive article, which contains plenty of links and remains entirely unanswered.

Click here to read the same article entitled “The Miracle of Salisbury” posted by Craig Murray on his official blog on June 16th.

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Ep 3: Cynicism and Warmongering

The BBC plumbed the depths of hypocrisy in dressing up the final episode of the Salisbury Poisonings as a homage to Dawn Sturgess while systematically lying about the facts of her death, yet again to cover up the implausibility of the official narrative.

As I noted yesterday, the BBC drama appeared to show Charlie Rowley fishing the perfume bottle out of the charity bin at least two months ahead of when this really occurred, to make it more plausible that it had been dropped in there after the alleged attack on the Skripals. The question of how it had managed to sit in a charity bin for three months, when that bin was emptied regularly, was thus dodged.

The next alteration of a timeline by the BBC is just as crucial. The BBC had the discovery of the perfume bottle containing novichok happening before Sturgess’s death, whereas in fact the perfume bottle was not “discovered” until 11 July 2018, three days after Dawn’s death. The extraordinary thing about this is that the police had been searching Rowley’s flat intensively for “novichok” for over a week before coming across a perfume bottle sitting on the kitchen counter. As they were specifically looking for a phial of liquid, you would have thought that might have caught the eye somewhat sooner.

The final episode was more open in its attempts to provoke Russophobia than previous episodes, with images of Putin, Russia, and Boshirov and Petrov appearing. It is of course the case that the military, security service and arms manufacturing complex needs Russophobia to justify sucking away so much of our national wealth. So we should not be surprised this kind of propaganda is produced. We should also realise that those in the service of the elites that benefit from the political system will do everything they can to maintain the propaganda. It is possible to understand all of that, and still be very disappointed that so very many ordinary people fall for it. The sad fact is, propaganda works, and always has.

It is worth reminding ourselves that the Skripal incident was a propaganda initiative from day 1. The role of the Integrity Initiative and its Skripal group – in which the BBC was very much included – puts this BBC propaganda piece in its proper perspective.

I do not know what happened in Salisbury. I know that the British government story makes no sense whatsoever, and I know that the Russian government has not told us the truth about the identities of Boshirov and Petrov, otherwise their true identities would have been firmly documented and reported by now. What the Russians were doing remains a mystery, with possibilities ranging from assassination through liaison to extraction. What the British government was doing is equally murky, and whether the Skripals are willingly a part of MI6’s plans is by no means clear. Sergei’s continuing work for MI6 and his relationship with Pablo Miller are evidently key, while I suspect that Sergei’s role in Christopher Steele’s baroque, fabricated dossier on Donald Trump is probably the motive for the action.

The prosecutions of Julian Assange and Alex Salmond, and subsequently of myself, have stood in the way of my declared intention to make a documentary about the Skripal case, while the money you have so kindly contributed to my legal defence fund is almost as much as I needed to raise for the film. Attempting to counter the propaganda of the state while the state employs its legal mechanisms to drain your energy and resources is not easy. That is of course the standard lot of dissidents around the globe. It will not stop us.

Click here to read the same article entitled “Cynicism and Warmongering” posted by Craig Murray on his official blog on June 17th.

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corona marginalia: track-and-trace

Boris Johnson tells Britain that our test-and-tracing system will be “world-beating”. Here’s what I’ve witnessed from the inside.

Writes an anonymous whistleblower [I am calling “Ann”] in a piece published in today’s Guardian. This is what happened shortly after she applied to an online ad for a temporary “customer service adviser”, which read:

You must have your own computer and high-speed internet to download our software and communicate with our customers … Don’t let lockdown stop you getting your dream job.

“The training was very basic”, Ann says, going on to describe in detail the extremely cursory “online training course” each of the candidates had to sit through:

We saw some slides about our role – the public health website we will use, and a script for what we had to say to people. We were told do not go off-script, and if there was anything we could not answer, we should ask our supervisor.

The training was wrapped up early, and we were asked if we felt prepared. There was a chorus of no from many people. Some said yes, but I didn’t see how anyone could be prepared for something they’d only found out about a couple of hours ago, plus we hadn’t even accessed the specific programmes. I checked my schedule and saw that I was due to start the next day at 9am. Panic set in.

The trainer told us there was a further seven and a half hours of self-led training that we had to complete before “going live”. This seemed a little unfair, if not impossible to achieve by the next morning. We were reassured that we could probably get through the training in two to three hours – but we would be paid for all seven and a half.

The trainer declared the training over and was immediately inundated with more questions from those anxious about what to do and when. The chatroom was then closed by the trainer, and were left on our own.

The self-led courses were very basic – with some generic dos and don’ts about customer data, security and so on. I completed it all in less than one and a half hours, with a score of 95%+.

The entirety of Ann’s first day of “work” was then spent waiting for entry into a chatroom. Her online colleagues were similarly left out in the cold. The second day was little different: “The day passed as we waited, re-attempted training, and wrote messages to supervisors and got no response.” This went on for the whole week and by the weekend, she tells us: “I had clocked up 40 hours of key worker pay for doing absolutely nothing.”

Ann continues:

Over the next few days I learned more about my job from watching the news than I did from those who were supposed to supervise me. I still did not feel qualified to do it. Then it was announced by [Matt] Hancock that we were going live the next day. On my chat there was a message from a supervisor asking the more experienced members of our chat to help those who needed help. The blind leading the blind! How were people who started the same day as me, and who had the same short and basic training as I had, supposed to help me do my job?

Ann concludes her account of the whole experience philosophically:

To this day I remain a “key worker”, paid £10 an hour to sit in a chatroom – alone, lost, without support or help. Despite what the government is saying, it seems the relentless problem “with the system” is another pandemic without a cure. Motivated as I am to help out during this difficult time – and after two weeks of doing “pretend” work on the track-and-trace programme – I have decided to quit and try to find a real way to help people.

Click here to read the full story entitled “Why I quit working on Boris Johnson’s ‘word-beating’ test-and tracing system”, published by the Guardian on May 30th.

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Those who have worked anywhere within the service sector are rather too familiar with these sorts of ‘online training courses’. The whole industry is basically a racket and of course every racket is driven by the profit motive. The question that immediately arises therefore is which private company was contracted by the government on this occasion. And it will come as little surprise that the trail soon leads to the outsourcing giant Serco:

Serco is overseeing the crucial track-and-trace system that has been launched today. But people it has recruited to work as contract tracers have already complained about a lack of training and guidance.

Earlier this month, Serco was condemned after it accidentally shared the contact details of 300 contact tracers. The error has led to calls for an urgent investigation into the “alarming” incident.

Rachel Reeves, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, wrote to Michael Gove, her counterpart in government, that it was “particularly troubling that a company that is being trusted with some of the most sensitive work in our national effort against the virus seems to struggle with the most basic aspects of data privacy”.

The contract-tracing data breach was not the first fiasco in Serco’s contributions to the government’s pandemic response. In April the company was in the news over concerns about delays at the drive-in COVID-19 test centres that it was managing. At one test site, key workers were left waiting for two hours in hot weather, unable to leave their vehicle or even open the windows.

From an exposé published by OpenDemocracy on May 28th entitled “Revealed: Serco under fire over fresh £90m COVID-19 contract”

Click here to read an earlier post about Serco’s subcontracting role in the fingerprinting of British schoolchildren.

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Update: on the creeping privatisation of the NHS

On May 4th, the Guardian published an article entitled “UK government ‘using pandemic to transfer NHS duties to the private sector’”

The government is using the coronavirus pandemic to transfer key public health duties from the NHS and other state bodies to the private sector without proper scrutiny, critics have warned.

Doctors, campaign groups, academics and MPs raised the concerns about a “power grab” after it emerged on Monday that Serco was in pole position to win a deal to supply 15,000 call-handlers for the government’s tracking and tracing operation.

They said the health secretary, Matt Hancock, had “accelerated” the dismantling of state healthcare and that the duty to keep the public safe was being “outsourced” to the private sector.

In recent weeks, ministers have used special powers to bypass normal tendering and award a string of contracts to private companies and management consultants without open competition.

Click here to read the full Guardian article written by Juliette Garside and Rupert Neate.

One month later, they published a follow-up piece:

[Serco] have taken the bulk of the work, recruiting 10,000 of the new 25,000 contact tracers after being awarded an initial fee of £45.8m, which could rise to £90m.

In an email forwarded to staff, which was then immediately recalled, a message from [Rupert Soames, Serco’s chief executive] said: “There are a few, a noisy few, who would like to see us fail because we are private companies delivering a public service. I very much doubt that this is going to evolve smoothly, so they will have plenty of opportunity to say I told you so.”

It continued: “If it succeeds … it will go a long way in cementing the position of the private sector companies in the public sector supply chain. Some of the naysayers recognise this, which is why they will take every opportunity to undermine us.”

[Bold emphasis added]

Click here to read the full Guardian article entitled “NHS test-and-trace system ‘not fully operational until September’” written by Sarah Marsh, published on June 4th.

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Sign the WeOwnIt Petition:

Serco is already failing to deliver:

  • The head of Serco has said that the contact tracing system won’t be operational until September and is likely to be “imperfect and clunky”
  • Serco has only tracked 1749 people so far, with many staff sitting idle.
  • Staff say they have no idea what they should be doing, are paid near minimum wage and have had minimum training – a recipe for disaster.

Serco has scammed us before:

  • They were convicted of fraud for the electronic tagging scandal, and fined £23 million
  • Their breast cancer hotline only trained staff for 1 hour before putting them on the phones to talk to distressed patients
  • They falsified NHS data 252 times when they ran a GP out of hours service

They’re not fit to run such an important system to get us out of this pandemic safely. But we’re being asked to trust them with our lives.

Click here to sign the petition.

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a thinking person’s response to Peter Hitchens’ stance over Covid-19

A Library of Useful Links on the Virus Panic, for Thinking People

Here is a small library of useful links to various articles and websites. Their appearance here does not mean I fully endorse every word in them. I leave it to my readers to decide whether such things are useful or not, and to make their own minds up. Several of them express opinions I don’t fully share, but all, including government documents, will help in intelligent sceptical inquiry into the Virus Panic. They are in no particular order:

This is the title and introduction to Peter Hitchen’s latest blog post published by Mail Online and here is my response (an unedited version of which was posted as a comment):

As a thinking person (and one with scientific training) I feel compelled to draw attention to a deep flaw in Hitchen’s position that is illustrated by the very library of links he has just endorsed.

Of these links, only one connects to an actual scientific study determining a reliable estimate for the infection fatality rate (IFR) for Covid-19 – IFR is the most important factor here by far.

The link is this one:

Research on the IFR (Infection Fatality Rate)

https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.05.03.20089854v2

If you read the abstract to this paper you will see that the authors summarise their own findings as follows:

“Results After exclusions, there were 25 estimates of IFR included in the final meta-analysis, from a wide range of countries, published between February and May 2020. The meta-analysis demonstrated a point-estimate of IFR of 0.64% (0.50–0.78%) with high heterogeneity (p<0.001).”

The value quoted above corresponds very closely with other studies including the earliest one based on data from S Korea, another from New York and a more recent one in Spain.

All of these separate studies (and there are many others including those comprising the meta-study in question) have come up with IFRs in the range of 0.5% to 1%. This is well above seasonal flu rates of 0.1%.

If you do the simple maths and multiple their actual point-estimate of 0.64% (i.e., most likely value) by the herd immunity requirement (at minimum) of 60% infection spread across the UK population (66 million) you find the answer comes to 250,000 deaths. Try it – just multiple the 3 numbers together.

This number is precisely the one forecast by the UK govt scientific experts back in March when they were advocating herd immunity.

In short, I fail to see how the comparatively high figure of 0.64% (which I believe is likely to be a reliable estimate too) substantiates Peter Hitchen’s repeated claims that Covid-19 is low in severity. According to a study he actually links to, left to spread uncontrollably we should expect a quarter of a million extra deaths.

When you are cherry picking your facts, it is wise to cherry pick them carefully. Hitchens here is hoisted by his own petard.

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Please note: As many previous posts attest, I actually share Peter Hitchens’ outlook on a variety of separate issues and I greatly admire his courage and conviction in the defence of whistleblowers and in holding authority to account. His stance on this single issue does not diminish my respect for Hitchens in other regards.

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corona marginalia: timeline of failures

Despite previous claims by the government that it was well-prepared for the coronavirus, Britain is now expected to have one of the highest death tolls in the world. In a video released by Novara Media on April 10th, Aaron Bastani examined precisely what happened in recent months, and how public authorities – broadly unchallenged by the media – let a tragedy unfold:

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Here’s a timeline that refutes Michael Gove and the government’s attempts to shift blame on to Beijing:

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I have added a complementary timeline constructed around notable press reports, TV news and social media items that also focuses on the UK government response throughout the same period and brings the story up to date with today’s revelations in the Sunday Times.

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January 24th

On the third Friday of January a silent and stealthy killer was creeping across the world. Passing from person to person and borne on ships and planes, the coronavirus was already leaving a trail of bodies.

The virus had spread from China to six countries and was almost certainly in many others. Sensing the coming danger, the British government briefly went into wartime mode that day, holding a meeting of Cobra, its national crisis committee.

But it took just an hour that January 24 lunchtime to brush aside the coronavirus threat. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, bounced out of Whitehall after chairing the meeting and breezily told reporters the risk to the UK public was “low”.

This was despite the publication that day of an alarming study by Chinese doctors in the medical journal, The Lancet. It assessed the lethal potential of the virus, for the first time suggesting it was comparable to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed up to 50 million people.

From today’s Sunday Times article entitled “Coronavirus: 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster” written by Jonathan Calvert, George Arbuthnott and Jonathan Leake.

The same piece continues:

Unusually, Boris Johnson had been absent from Cobra. The committee — which includes ministers, intelligence chiefs and military generals — gathers at moments of great peril such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters and other threats to the nation and is normally chaired by the prime minister. […]

That afternoon his spokesman played down the looming threat from the east and reassured the nation that we were “well prepared for any new diseases”. The confident, almost nonchalant, attitude displayed that day in January would continue for more than a month.

Johnson went on to miss four further Cobra meetings on the virus.

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February 3rd

Boris Johnson speaking in Greenwich:

We are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.

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February 25th 

Bruce Aylward – the epidemiologist who led the recent WHO mission to China – returned from Wuhan, where the crisis began, and gave a warning to the world. China, Aylward explained, had done something extraordinary. It had managed to wrest control of an exponentially expanding epidemic. “When you spend 20, 30 years in this business,” Aylward said, holding up a graph that showed the improbable slowdown in cases across China, “it’s, like, ‘Seriously, you’re going to try and change that [curve] with those tactics?’”

From an article entitled “Government documents show no planning for ventilators in the event of a pandemic” written by Harry Lambert, published in the New Statesman on March 16th.

Here’s Dr Bruce Aylward advising the world to follow China’s example:

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March 3rd

Boris Johnson: “I can tell you that I’m shaking hands continually. I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were actually a few coronavirus patients, and I shook hand with everybody you’ll be please to know, and I continue to shake hands. And I think that it’s very important that – people obviously can make up their own minds” continuing, “… but I think the scientific evidence is… well, I’ll hand over to the experts.”

[Quickly turning and directing attention to Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance who was standing to his left.]

Patrick Vallance: “Wash your hands”

BJ: “Our judgement is washing your hands is the crucial thing.”

The same footage is also available here.

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March 10th

Editor of The Lancet, Richard Horton tweeted:

The UK government – Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson – claim they are following the science. But that is not true. The evidence is clear. We need urgent implementation of social distancing and closure policies. The government is playing roulette with the public. This is a major error.

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March 11th 

[T]he day before Boris Johnson told the nation that the coronavirus sweeping the UK could no longer be contained and that testing for Covid-19 would stop except for the seriously ill in hospital, the head of No 10’s “nudge unit” gave a brief interview to the BBC.

At the time it was barely noticed – it was budget day, after all. With hindsight, it seems astonishing.

“There’s going to be a point, assuming the epidemic flows and grows as it will do, where you want to cocoon, to protect those at-risk groups so they don’t catch the disease,” said Dr David Halpern. “By the time they come out of their cocooning, herd immunity has been achieved in the rest of the population.”

From an article entitled “‘Absolutely wrong’: how UK’s coronavirus test strategy unravelled” written by Sarah Boseley, published in the Guardian on April 1st.

The same article continues:

It was a window into the thinking of the political strategists directing the UK response to Covid-19, who claimed to base what they were doing on scientific evidence. We would let the disease spread among the healthy. So no need to test.

If there was a moment when the UK turned its back on the traditional public health approach to fighting an epidemic, this was it.

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March 12th

[S]peaking after Thursday’s emergency Cobra meeting, the government’s chief scientific officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, said the true total [of cases of coronavirus] was likely to be between 5,000 and 10,000. He said 20 people were being treated for Covid-19 in intensive care units and that the UK was on a trajectory about four weeks behind that of Italy, which has had more than 1,000 deaths.

Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, said that worst-case scenario planning projected that 80% of the country would contract the virus, with a 1% mortality rate. This equates to more than 500,000 deaths.

The prime minister, Boris Johnson, said: “We have all got to be clear, this is the worst public health crisis for a generation. Some people compare it to seasonal flu. Alas, that is not right. Due to the lack of immunity this disease is more dangerous.

“It is going to spread further and I must level with you, I must level with the British public: many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”

From a report entitled “Johnson: many more people will love loved ones to coronavirus” written by Heather Stewart, Kate Proctor and Haroon Siddique, published in the Guardian.

The same article continues:

Johnson said schools would not close and neither did he join Scotland in banning gatherings of more than 500 people, though he warned that major events may be cancelled in future because of the burden they placed on public services during the outbreak.

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March 13th

The World Health Organization has stepped up its calls for intensified action to fight the coronavirus pandemic, imploring countries “not to let this fire burn”, as Spain said it would declare a 15-day state of emergency from Saturday.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director general, said Europe – where the virus is present in all 27 EU states and has infected 25,000 people – had become the centre of the epidemic, with more reported cases and deaths than the rest of the world combined apart from China. […]

Tedros stressed that countries should take a comprehensive approach. “Not testing alone,” he said. “Not contact tracing alone. Not quarantine alone. Not social distancing alone. Do it all. Find, isolate, test and treat every case, to break the chains of transmission … do not just let this fire burn.”

As reported by the Guardian in an article entitled “‘Do not let this fire burn’: WHO warns Europe over Covid-19” written by Jon Henley and Sam Jones.

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March 17th

Sam Coates [from 17:40 mins]: Some people came away from yesterday’s briefing more confused for instance about guidance for the elderly. Do you accept that the buck stops absolutely with you in this crisis? And do you take responsibility for the actions of your father? [after Boris Johnson’s father Stanley had publicly vowed to ignore official government advice]

Johnson: Right, umm, I think I’ve got a bit of a… Patrick [Vallance] why don’t you go first?

Having had plenty of time to think, he then replies at 21:55 mins:

“Of course the buck stops with me and I take full responsibility for all the actions that this government is taking. Decisions we’re taking, difficult though many of them are. And all the advice we’re giving to everybody. What I’d say to people who are thinking about… [inaudible] the more we follow the advice of our scientific and medical advisors, and the more closely we do what they tell us to do, the better our chances collectively of slowing the disease, of protecting the NHS, and of saving life. And also, of course, the better we can protect our NHS, umm, the less economic damage there will ultimately be. And of course people care about pubs, and have a right to care about pubs, and restaurants, but that is why we’re announcing the package, the extraordinary package, that Rishi [Sunak] has just unveiled today. That is the way we should be working to look after our economy.”

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March 21st

Nurses forced to wear binbags at Northwick Park Hospital in London:

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March 22nd

Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s senior aide, became convinced that Britain would be better able to resist a lethal second wave of the disease next winter if Whitty’s prediction that 60% to 80% of the population became infected was right and the UK developed “herd immunity”.

At a private engagement at the end of February, Cummings outlined the government’s strategy. Those present say it was “herd immunity, protect the economy and if it means some pensioners die, too bad”.

At the Sage meeting on March 12, a moment now dubbed the “Domoscene conversion”, Cummings changed his mind. In this “penny-drop moment”, he realised he had helped to set a course for catastrophe. Until this point, the rise in British infections had been below the European average. Now they were above it and on course to emulate Italy, where the picture was bleak. A minister said: “Seeing what was happening in Italy was the galvanising force across government.” 1

Click here to read the full article published by The Sunday Times on March 22nd.

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March 22nd

Channel 4 News spoke with Prof. Helen Ward, Clinical Professor of Public Health at Imperial College, University of London. She began by talking about the latest advice coming from the government:

“Well, there’s a lot of public health specialist senior leaders who’ve been discussing this over the weekend, and I think most of them, like me, will be very disappointed. It seems to me that there are mixed messages. I know that the Prime Minister said that people should reduce their social contacts outside of the home, but has not done anything yet to enforce that.

“Going back to the science, which he says is guiding everything they do, the work that came out of Imperial College said that those social contacts outside the home have to reduce by 75 percent, if this is going to work. Now it’s clear from what’s being shown today that is not happening yet, and therefore closures – of some of the shops that are not necessary, some of the parks, etc – are going to have to be enforced. But more importantly, I think making some restrictions on travel and unnecessary travel.

“At the moment it’s all voluntary and unfortunately people are not sure that they want to do that.” [from 5:10 mins]

Asked whether she was “surprised he didn’t take a tougher stance”, Ward continued:

“I was surprised, because I think that the evidence from elsewhere in the world is that you have to take a really tough stance, and you have to take it early. The places that have actually got this under control and got numbers of cases starting to go down – of new cases – like South Korea; they have had a major investment in testing: very, very widespread testing, contact tracing, and reduction in social contacts.

“If you think you’re going to put these measures in place in four days time, if it doesn’t work now; four days is a lot of extra cases. So I think last week when we had the pubs and clubs and ‘don’t go to them’ not enforced, we lost four days, and then they enforced it. I think we are urging the Prime Minister and the government to take the bold steps that are necessary now, and not wait another four days.” [from 6:40 mins]

In response to the question why Johnson is so slow in enforcing these restrictions, she says:

Well, he actually poses it in terms of a Draconian clampdown, as opposed to people enjoying themselves, and I think that’s the wrong message to be giving to people. That it’s one or the other.

“I think you have to say ‘this is an emergency, we have to get people to comply with this, and we have to do that at a local level’. And I think local authorities are quite right to be taking these measures, and they need to have the backing of the government to enforce them. But it’s not just that.

A lot of communities, and shops, and other things, are actually doing the right thing. They are closing down and shifting towards supporting the most vulnerable. We’ve got hotels saying they’re going to be available, [providing] extra capacity, whether it’s for the NHS, or some have suggested for refuges for people suffering domestic violence as a result of the isolation. There’s many things that could be done, but the Prime Minister does seem to want to be one step behind.” [from 8:15 mins]

With regard to whether Johnson really is, as he repeats, ‘being led by the science’, or in fact driven more by political ideology and his antipathy towards ‘the nanny state’, Ward says:

“I think that the science that is informing this has been good. I do think there’s a lack of experience in public health leadership in helping the government to make those decisions. We do have the CMO and the Scientific Advisor, but there is a huge network of public health expertise around the country that I don’t think is being drawn on enough. People that were communicable disease control experts, who have been planning for epidemics and pandemics for years. I don’t hear their voices enough influencing government.” [from 9:20 mins]

Finally, asked if it is already too late to avoid the crisis now faced by Italy, she says:

“If we want to stop this, if we’re two weeks behind, then we have two weeks to stop that in a sense and we have to start today, because it’s the infections that are occurring today that are spreading in Columbia [Road] Flower Market for example. Those are the infections that in two weeks’ time will be causing deaths and intensive care use, and that’s what we have to try and stop now.

“I think there has to be clearer messaging. It is different in different parts of the world. It’s not just about limiting contact between individuals and [stopping] the spread that way: it’s also between hot spots like London and other parts of the country, and I think we need to look carefully about limiting travel between areas…

“But it takes time, so we need to start that now. Not say we’re going to think about it and maybe do it next week. Next week is another several tens of thousands of cases and more pressure on the NHS and more deaths.” [from 10:05 mins]

 

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March 24th

Johnson and the UK government finally issued stricter instructions that initially called on everyone with the single exception of “key workers” to stay at home:

However, within hours their advice substantially altered following a second tweet which lowered restrictions advising “to go to work (but work from home if possible)”:

 

In additional to this softening of restrictions which left both employers and employees at a loss to understand the new guidelines, the government then issued further instruction to workers on construction sites, who were advised to continue working but practice social distancing – the completely impractical advice that they must keep two metres apart.

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March 31st

BuzzFeed News has spoken to health experts in the UK and across Europe to find out why. The answer, they said, stemmed from Britain’s controversial initial strategy of mitigation of the virus (rather than suppression), rendering testing a secondary concern — an approach which has also contributed to a lack of preparedness and the capacity to carry out tests at scale.

The UK’s mitigation approach was devised by England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty, and chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance. According to a person who has spoken to Whitty and Vallance, they took the view that the UK should not attempt to suppress the outbreak entirely, but rather prioritise protecting the elderly and vulnerable and ensuring the NHS did not become overwhelmed, while allowing the rest of population to build up “herd immunity”.

This strategy meant that widespread testing of every coronavirus case was not a priority for the UK, the person said, since the government’s scientists were assuming that between 60% and 80% of the population would become infected.

Accordingly, no preparations were made to increase manufacturing or imports of testing kits, nor to expand the UK’s laboratory capacity. Imports of testing kits are now extremely difficult as other nations seek more than ever to keep them for their own use. […]

The government has publicly insisted that herd immunity is not the UK’s policy. But the person familiar with Whitty and Vallance’s thinking said they believed it privately remains a long-term objective.

They said they thought the government would continue to prioritise increasing intensive care unit capacity to prevent the NHS from becoming overwhelmed, rather than widespread testing of the population, because they had accepted that a large percentage of the country will become infected in the next 12 to 18 months, before a vaccine is found. 2

Click here to read the full report by Buzzfeed entitled “Even The US Is Doing More Coronavirus Tests Than The UK. Here Are The Reasons Why.”

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April 1st

The failure to obtain large amounts of testing equipment was another big error of judgment, according to the Downing Street source. It would later be one of the big scandals of the coronavirus crisis that the considerable capacity of Britain’s private laboratories to mass produce tests was not harnessed during those crucial weeks of February.

“We should have communicated with every commercial testing laboratory that might volunteer to become part of the government’s testing regime but that didn’t happen,” said the source.

The lack of action was confirmed by Doris-Ann Williams, chief executive of the British In Vitro Diagnostics Association, which represents 110 companies that make up most of the UK’s testing sector. Amazingly, she says her organisation did not receive a meaningful approach from the government asking for help until April 1 — the night before Hancock bowed to pressure and announced a belated and ambitious target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of this month.

The same delay happened with the procurement of PPE.

The NHS could have contacted UK-based suppliers. The British Healthcare Trades Association (BHTA) was ready to help supply PPE in February — and throughout March — but it was only on April 1 that its offer of help was accepted. Dr Simon Festing, the organisation’s chief executive, said: “Orders undoubtedly went overseas instead of to the NHS because of the missed opportunities in the procurement process.”

Also from today’s Sunday Times article: “Coronavirus: 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster

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April 6th

The government has been accused of missing an opportunity after it failed to deploy 5,000 contact tracing experts employed by councils to help limit the spread of coronavirus.

Environmental health workers in local government have wide experience in contact tracing, a process used to prevent infections spreading and routinely carried out in outbreaks such as of norovirus, salmonella or legionnaires’ disease. But a spokesperson for Public Health England (PHE), which leads on significant outbreaks, said the organisation did not call upon environmental health workers to carry out contact tracing for coronavirus, instead using its own local health protection teams.

According to an article entitled “UK missed coronavirus contact tracing opportunity, experts say” written by Rachel Shabi, published in the Guardian.

The same piece continues:

The institute’s Northern Ireland director, Gary McFarlane, said government health bodies “absolutely should be drawing on the skills set of EHOs [environmental health officers] and if they aren’t, it’s a missed opportunity”. He said: “There is significant capacity that is sitting there for this kind of work to be done.”

PHE’s contact tracing response team was boosted to just under 300 staff, deemed adequate for the containment phase of handling the Covid-19 virus up to mid-March. In that time the team, working around the clock, traced 3,500 people and supported the 3% of contacts found to be infected to self-isolate. Tracing was scaled back when the UK moved to the delay phase of tackling coronavirus in mid-March. It is now carried out in limited form, mainly for vulnerable communities.

Rachel Shabi adds:

The government decision to all but abandon contact tracing is not consistent with WHO guidelines, which urge a test-and-trace approach. At a WHO media briefing on Covid-19 in March, director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “Tracing every contact must be the backbone of the response in every country.”

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April 19th

Speaking on Sky News’ Sophy Ridge, Michael Gove initially insisted a Sunday Times article detailing failures during this period had numerous inaccuracies and would be corrected. But in a subsequent interview on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show, Gove conceded that Boris Johnson missed five consecutive emergency COBR meetings in the buildup to the coronavirus crisis, saying this was normal for a PM:

For the record: The composition of a ministerial-level meeting in COBR depends on the nature of the incident but it is usually chaired by the Prime Minister or another senior minister, with other key ministers as appropriate, city mayors and representatives of relevant external organisations such as the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the Local Government Association.

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1 From an article entitled “Coronavirus: ten days that shook Britain – and changed the nation forever” written by Tim Shipman and Caroline Wheeler, published in The Sunday Times on March 22, 2020. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/coronavirus-ten-days-that-shook-britain-and-changed-the-nation-for-ever-spz6sc9vb

2 From an article entitled “Even The US Is Doing More Coronavirus Tests Than The UK. Here Are The Reasons Why”, written by Alex Wickham, Alberto Nardelli, Katie J. M. Baker & Richard Holmes, published in Buzzfeed News on March 31, 2020. https://www.buzzfeed.com/alexwickham/uk-coronavirus-testing-explainer

Extract from Wikipedia entry as of April 19th. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabinet_Office_Briefing_Rooms

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the betrayal of Corbyn and the left by Labour HQ: newly leaked document confirms suspicions

As someone who devoted a great deal of time and effort during the 2017 General Election, delivering leaflets, canvassing on doorsteps, and generally working hard in the hope of a Corbyn-led Labour victory, it comes as no surprise whatsoever to learn that a faction within our party were actively working to stop Corbyn.

I have written many previous articles discussing the manufactured smear campaigns and how these were upheld and further amplified by the so-called liberal media which managed to portray a man who has spent his entire life fighting against racism as a racist.

And amongst so many rumours, we also knew with certainty about one of the plots being hatched behind the scenes: the secret weekend gatherings of twelve MPs at a luxury retreat in Sussex, whose number included Liz Kendall, John Woodcock, Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie, and Gavin Shuker. It was always evident therefore that a sizeable faction within the PLP would have preferred to spilt the party (as three of the above attempted to do shortly afterwards) than accept the twice elected leader.

However, fresh evidence which is encyclopaedic in scope, comes to our attention thanks to a leaked release of a 860-page internal report innocuously entitled “The work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to antisemitism, 2014 – 2019” that was published back in March and intended for submission to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It shows a level of treachery by Labour headquarters (HQ) including the governance and legal unit (GLU) when Iain McNicol served as general secretary that is frankly sickening.

To sift through all of the revelations will take considerable time, and we must anticipate new findings coming to light as the document is more carefully scrutinised. Reprinted below is just a single extract drawn from just one summary section that runs from pages 29– 32: be aware that LOTO refers to ‘the office of the Leader of the Opposition’ (i.e. Jeremy Corbyn and his advisors). But you could drop your finger anywhere randomly and find sections equally or still more inflammatory.

If the Labour Party is to move forward, then it must hold a full and transparent inquiry into the evidence presented in this suppressed report.

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Labour Party staff, who are employed by the Party rather than as political advisers to politicians, are expected to act impartially and serve the Party, regardless of the current Leader, much as the civil service is expected to serve the Government under whichever political party is in power. However, this section shows that much of the Labour Party machinery from 2015-18 was openly opposed to Jeremy Corbyn, and worked to directly undermine the elected leadership of the party. The priority of staff in this period appears to have been furthering the aims of a narrow faction aligned to Labour’s right rather than fulfilling the organisation’s objectives, from winning elections to building a functioning complaints and disciplinary process.

Labour Party staff based at Labour HQ were not obeying secret directives from LOTO. On the contrary, all of the available evidence points to the opposite conclusion – that Labour Party staff based at Labour HQ, including GLU, worked to achieve opposing political ends to the leadership of the Party. This included work to remove supporters of the incumbent leader during the 2016 leadership election, and work to hinder the leader’s campaign in the 2017 General Election. The attitude in HQ towards LOTO could be summed up in one comment from a senior staff member, who said “death by fire is too kind for LOTO”.

Labour officials, including senior staff, expressed hostility towards Jeremy Corbyn and his staff, towards Labour MPs including Andy Burnham, Ed Miliband, Sadiq Khan, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott and Dawn Butler. Staff described “most of the PLP” as “Trots” or called them “totally useless” in 2015 for not having yet launched a coup against Corbyn. As one staff member commented, “everyone here considers anyone left of [Gordon] Brown to be a trot.”

Staff repeatedly used abusive and inappropriate language about the leader, MPs, Labour members and about other staff. For example, staff discussed “hanging and burning” Jeremy Corbyn, calling Corbyn a “lying little toerag”; said that any Labour MP “who nominates Corbyn ‘to widen the debate’ deserves to be taken out and shot”; and stated that a staff member who “whooped” during Corbyn’s speech “should be shot”. Senior staff also said they hoped that one Labour member on the left of the party “dies in a fire”. Senior Labour staff used language that was considerably more abusive and inappropriate than that cited as justification for suspending many Labour members who supported Jeremy Corbyn in 2016.

In August 2015 senior staff explored delaying or cancelling the ongoing leadership election when it looked like Jeremy Corbyn was going to win. When Corbyn was elected staff discussed plans for a coup; one staffer said “we need a POLL – that says we’re like 20 points behind”; another suggested a silver lining for Remain losing the 2016 European referendum would be that Corbyn could be held responsible; and another hoped that poor performance in the May 2016 local elections would be the catalyst for a coup.

Staff described “working to rule” when Corbyn was elected and “coming into the office & doing nothing for a few months.” During the 2017 general election, staff joked about “hardly working”, and created a chat so they could pretend to work while actually speaking to each other – “tap tap tapping away will make us look v busy”. Senior staff coordinated refusing to share basic information to LOTO during the election, such as candidates’ contact details. Labour HQ operated “a secret key seats team” based in Labour’s London region office in Ergon House, from where a parallel general election campaign was run to support MPs associated with the right-wing of the party. The description of the workload and budget involved in this “secret” operation contrasts with the go slow approach described by other staff regarding work on the official general election campaign which the leadership was running to return a Labour government.

One senior staff member implied that he would support the Conservatives over Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, saying “who votes for JC? If it’s a choice btwn him & TMay how do WE vote for him?”. Staff sent messages expressing their wish that Labour would perform badly in the 2017 general election, saying “with a bit of luck this speech will show a clear polling decline” and “I CANNOT WAIT to see Andrew Neil rip [Jeremy Corbyn] to pieces over it tonight”. Senior staff commented that the huge rallies for Corbyn late in the election made them “feel ill”, and they reacted to the polls narrowing with dismay, rather than optimism.

On election night on 8 June 2017, when the exit poll predicted a hung parliament, General Secretary Iain McNicol, Executive Director for Governance, Membership and Party Services Emilie Oldknow (who was responsible for overseeing GLU) and other senior staff discussed hiding their reactions, saying “everyone needs to smile” and “we have to be upbeat. And not show it”. Oldknow also described Yvette Cooper and other Labour MPs’ support for Corbyn after the election as “grovelling and embarrassing”.

In January 2017, Iain McNicol, Emilie Oldknow and other senior staff discussed preparing for a leadership election if Labour lost the Copeland and Stoke-on-trent by-elections, and setting up a “discrete [working group]” to determine the rules and timetable. Iain McNicol discussed this with Tom Watson and told him “to prepare for being interim leader”. During the 2017 general election the Director of GLU John Stolliday then drew up these plans, including a rule change to replace the one member one vote system with an Electoral College system to help ensure that a MP from the party’s left could not win.

GLU staff talked openly with each other about using the party’s resources to further the aims of their faction. The Director of the Unit John Stolliday described his work in GLU as “political fixing”, and described overhauling selections of parliamentary candidates and overturning CLP AGM results to help the right of the Party. Emilie Oldknow and GLU staff discussed keeping Angela Eagle MP’s CLP suspended, at Eagle’s request, in order to give her team more time to organise against left-wing members before the AGM. Staff also discussed organising NEC Youth Representative elections on a different election cycle to other NEC elections, to ensure a left-wing candidate would not win, and noted that this was signed off by GLU’s Director.

Staff applied the same factional approach to disciplinary processes. One staff member referred to Emilie Oldknow expecting staff to “fabricate a case” against people “she doesn’t like/her friends don’t like” because of their political views. During the 2015 leadership election GLU and other Labour staff described their work as “hunting out 1000s of trots” and a “Trot hunt”, which included excluding people for having “liked” the Greens on Facebook. One prominent GLU staffer, Head of Disputes Katherine Buckingham, admitted that “real work is piling up” while she and other staff were engaged in inappropriate factional work.

Factional loyalty also determined key recruitment decisions, including in GLU, where people were appointed to senior roles with few apparent relevant qualifications. This had a severe impact on the Party’s ability to build a functioning disciplinary process over the following years.

This section demonstrates that the party machine was controlled by one faction which worked against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and to advance the interests of their faction, and that LOTO did not have authority or influence over GLU or the party machinery more broadly. Factional work appears to have come at the expense of work the staff were being paid to do, including – as will become apparent in Sections 3–6 – building and maintaining a functioning complaints process.

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A helpful summary of some details contained in the report can be found at LabourList.org. Reprinted below are summaries of the actions taken with regard to some of the more prominent Labour activists who were wrongly suspended and dispelled during the witch hunt:

Jackie Walker

 

There is also a section on Walker, a party member who was first accused of antisemitism in 2016.

  • The report says it was decided in May 2016 that Walker had not breached party rules when expressing a belief that there was a “Jewish particularism” about antisemitism. It was recommended that her suspension should be lifted.
  • Walker then attended party conference as a member and made comments about Holocaust Memorial Day that attracted press attention.
  • The report asserts that Walker’s case was “deliberately delayed by GLU staff until Jennie Formby became general secretary, and then again by the NCC”.

Walker was ultimately expelled from the party in March 2019.

Moshe Machover

The report confirms that in the case of Moshe Machover, a Jewish academic who was auto-expelled rather than suspended by the party, LOTO actively raised concerns – as opposed to other cases where LOTO was approached by HQ.

It says that LOTO raised concerns with HQ about the auto-exclusion, which was later reversed. It concludes that the case was mishandled because, among other reasons, expertise was sought but not used.

The report says the Community Security Trust was consulted for the cases of both Walker and Machover, but this advice was not shared with LOTO, the NEC or the party staffer who made the decision to lift Walker’s suspension initially.

It says the “GLU could have subsequently brought disciplinary proceedings on the basis of antisemitism allegations [against Moche Machover] but chose not to.”

Chris Williamson

 

On the case of Chris Williamson, who had been a Labour MP, the report specifies that Corbyn-aligned general secretary Jennie Formby said in 2019 that he had brought the party into disrepute.

Formby told staffers that she had personally warned Williamson that it was “completely inappropriate for him as an elected MP to campaign with Labour Against the WitchHunt”.

Williamson was suspended and removed as a parliamentary candidate at the 2019 general election.

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Important update:

The original statement released by campaign group Labour Against the Witchhunt (which is maintained below) has since been replaced with a “Joint statement by Labour Against the Witchhunt and the Left Labour Alliance”.

The new statement reads:

We demand a full investigation into the witch-hunt and the election campaigns!

Now all disciplinary cases of the last five years must be reviewed!

As experienced activists in the Labour Party, we knew that the right in the party was plotting against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters from day one. We knew, because we were the victims of their wrongful suspensions, their expulsions and their public smears and lies, all based on the flimsiest of evidence.

The report ‘The work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to antisemitism, 2014 – 2019’,  produced in response to the investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, now gives us irrefutable proof of the plotting and outright sabotage committed against Corbyn and the hundreds of thousands who joined the party to fight for socialist and democratic change.

It is a crying shame that this report was produced only in the last days of Corbyn’s leadership. It is based upon primary evidence showing serious wrong-doing by senior party officials. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the left to radically transform the Labour Party and effect progressive change was ruined by the right in the party.

At the same time, supporters of Corbyn were vilified and slandered, their voices silenced and their votes nullified. Unfortunately, it appears that this was sometimes done with the knowledge and occasionally even with the participation of the Corbyn leadership, as in the expulsions of Jackie Walker and Chris Williamson.

Keir Starmer must ensure the immediate publication of the report and a full enquiry into the facts:

*** The report describes how “the pro-Corbyn left decisively won” at Brighton CLP’s annual general meeting (AGM) in July 2016. Afterwards, two high-ranking Labour officials discussed how to overturn the result: “I say act now and worry about [rules and legal issues] later, so long as we don’t do something that’ll end up f[***]ing everything else up.” Party officials then overturned the AGM’s decisions, the old executive was restored and the local party split into three separate CLPs. (p113)

*** Labour officials discussed how to continue the unlawful suspension of Wallasey CLP, where the left “are properly organised” – in order to save the local right-wing MP, Angela Eagle, from being challenged. (p114)

*** We read that, “in many cases party members at all levels request the suspension of another party member as a way of escalating or indeed resolving a dispute. There is a wrongly-held view that political opponents can be ‘taken out’ of a contest or stopped from attending meetings by making a complaint with the intention of achieving a suspension of that member.” (p533) Clearly, this is exactly what has been taking place, even as recently as during the March 2020 NEC by-election. Half a dozen of the candidates were suspended in the middle of the contest, before any investigation was launched.

*** Sam Matthews, then head of Disputes, was able to single-handedly suspend Glyn Secker (secretary of Jewish Voice for Labour) as recently as 2018 – the case was so weak that he had to be reinstated almost immediately: Following on from a report produced by the disgraced right-wing Corbyn critic David Collier into the Facebook group ‘Palestine Live’ (of which Corbyn was a member), “documentary evidence shows that it was only because James Schneider, Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesperson, urged [Sam] Matthews to take action, that the report was examined at all. Of all the examples of extreme antisemitism in the report, GLU picked Glyn Secker, even though the report did not contain allegations of antisemitic comments by Secker and the report stated ‘Glyn Secker has had minimal interaction on the site’.” (p428)

*** The ‘Disputes’ unit desperately looked for reasons to expel the prominent Israeli Jew Moshé  Machover. Because of his background, they found it difficult to charge him with racism: “The anti-Semitism stuff just clouds it in my view”. (p373) Instead, they decided to auto-expel him over his alleged membership of the “Communist Party of Great Britain Marxism-Leninism” (they got the wrong CPGB, incidentally) – but he was able to quickly disprove this claim. As party officials “found themselves inundated with emails about the case, including from Jewish socialist groups”, there was pressure to drop the case and rescind his expulsion. Many other, less prominent members, found it much more difficult to challenge their auto-expulsions.

*** We learn that despite some reforms under Jennie Formby, there are huge, ongoing problems with the way the party handles disciplinary cases. For example, the Governance and Legal unit uses a list of “investigatory search terms” to “vet” members, which includes words like ‘Atzmon’ and “a list of 57 (later 68) Labour MPs and their Twitter handles”. In other words, staff “initiate cases themselves by proactively investigating social media comments by Party members” (p17) to create a body of evidence where no basis for a case exists. The report also makes various positive references to Dave Rich from the Community Security Trust (CST), whose views are still being routinely sought as “expert opinion”. But the CST is not a neutral body – it is a pro-Israel charity, which the Tory government started funding in 2015 and has given at least 65 million pounds since.

*** Jackie Walker’s case was deliberately delayed by McNicol and his staff. They were determined to get rid of Tony Greenstein and Marc Wadsworth first in order to build a campaign to justify Jackie’s expulsion. However, the report also states that, “LOTO [Leader of the Opposition’s Office] wanted Walker to be suspended and had briefed the media to that effect”. (p366) In April 2018, “Jeremy Corbyn and Jennie Formby met with the Board of Deputies, Jewish Leadership Council and the Community and Security Trust” and agreed to their demand that “the Party should expedite Ken Livingstone and Jackie Walker’s cases. LOTO and Jennie Formby agreed”. The report quotes questionable evidence by Dave Rich, which implies that Jackie’s views are similar to those of Louis Farrakhan, but omits evidence given by black Jewish Professor Lewis Gordon, a world-leading academic on Jewish/black relations, which contradicts every claim by Dave Rich and supports Jackie’s case.

*** In the case of Chris Williamson, it appears that Jennie Formby was the one driving his expulsion. The report approvingly quotes her long chart sheet against him: “Several of these [complaints], if taken as an isolated incident, may have resulted in no action. However, taken together they add up to a pattern of behaviour that is not only reckless, it has brought the party into disrepute. I would also add that I personally spoke with Chris only two weeks ago and asked him to stop aligning himself with Labour Against the Witchhunt and speaking about antisemitism in the way that he is, because as an MP he does not have the privilege of behaving in the same way as an ordinary lay member does.” (p826)

These examples show just how futile it was of Corbyn and his allies to try and appease the right by going along with some of these injustices – when they should have taken them on in a decisive manner. There can be no compromise, no unity with those who would rather sabotage our party than see a radical Labour movement.

We demand that:

  • Keir Starmer must officially publish this report and condemn the campaign to undermine and sabotage Jeremy Corbyn and the left.
  • All disciplinary cases processed during the last five years have to be overturned, pending unbiased re-examination.
  • We urgently need a radical overhaul of the party’s disciplinary system. Disciplinary procedures should be carried out in accordance with the principles of natural justice, and be time-limited: charges not resolved within three months should be automatically dropped. An accused member should be given all the evidence submitted against them and be regarded as innocent until proven guilty. Those aspects of the Chakrabati report must finally be implemented.
  • All those mentioned in the document who took part in this sabotage and who are still in their post must be immediately investigated for gross misconduct. That must include Emilie Oldknow (Executive Director for Governance, Membership and Party Services), who is being touted as Keir Starmer’s preferred choice as new general secretary and who is shown to have actively taken part in the witch-hunt against Corbyn and his supporters.
  • All those involved who have jumped ship and now enjoy well-paid positions in different companies must be named and shamed. They include:
    • Iain McNicol, formerly General Secretary, now a member of the House of Lords
    • Sam Matthews, formerly head of Disputes
    • John Stolliday, formerly Director of the Governance and Legal Unit

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Here is the initial statement released by campaign group Labour Against the Witchhunt:

The 860-page report concluded factional hostility towards Jeremy Corbyn amongst former senior officials contributed to “a litany of mistakes” that hindered the effective handling of the issue.

The investigation, which was completed in the last month of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, claims to have found “no evidence” of antisemitism complaints being treated differently to other forms of complaint, or of current or former staff being “motivated by antisemitic intent”.

The examples from chat archives published in the document include:

– Conversations in 2017 which appear to show senior staff preparing for Tom Watson to become interim leader in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn losing the election
– Conversations which it is claimed show senior staff hid information from the leader’s office about digital spending and contact details for MPs and candidates during the election
– Conversations on election night in which the members of the group talk about the need to hide their disappointment that Mr. Corbyn had done better than expected and would be unlikely to resign
– A discussion about whether the grassroots activist network Momentum could be ‘proscribed’ for being a ‘party within a party’
– A discussion about ‘unsuspending’ a former Labour MP who was critical of Jeremy Corbyn so they could stand as a candidate in the 2017 election
– A discussion about how to prevent corbyn-ally Rebecca Long-Bailey gaining a seat on the party’s governing body in 2017
– Regular references to corbyn-supporting party staff as “trots”
– Conversations between senior staff in Lord McNicol’s office in which they refer to former director of communications Seamus Milnes as “dracula”, and saying he was “spiteful and evil and we should make sure he is never allowed in our Party if it’s last thing we do”
– Conversations in which the same group refers to Mr. Corbyn’s former chief of staff Karie Murphy as “medusa”, a “crazy woman” and a “bitch face cow” that would “make a good dartboard”
– A discussion in which one of the group members expresses their “hope” that a young pro-Corbyn Labour activist, who they acknowledge had mental health problems, “dies in a fire”

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Update:

With the honourable exception of Sky News which reported on this story from the beginning, most other media outlets have shown incredible reluctance to even acknowledge the leak of this very serious document. When the BBC did quietly publish an article the following day [Monday 13th], it appeared on the ‘politics’ page of their website and tucked away as a secondary item.

But there is more to consider about the BBC piece, which I would say is even titled in deliberately confusing way as: “Opposition to Corbyn ‘hindered’ anti-Semitism action”. Reading this the first time, one wonders, who is ‘hindered’? And why the quotation marks?

It gets much worse, however, before we reach the unashamedly politicised ending. Having failed to reference a single iota of the main content regarding the machinations against Corbyn by Labour HQ, or to offer much insight into the kind of chicanery which ranged from the misallocation of funds to instances of actual bullying, the piece abruptly concludes as follows:

Ongoing row

Labour has been plagued with allegations since 2016.

Mr Corbyn held an internal investigation early on in his tenure, but it was widely criticised by Jewish members of the party, with a number – including MPs – leaving over his handling of the row.

The party’s new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has apologised to the Jewish community for the ongoing issue.

He has been praised by leaders for “achieving more in four days” than Mr Corbyn did “in four years” on tackling anti-Semitism.

Any excuse, of course, to raise the spectre of Labour as an incurably anti-Semitic party, but in this context the same allegation is repurposed in order to sideline the report itself, presenting it merely as a ploy that in turn is intended to divert attention from the more fundamental issue of Labour’s deep-seated racism. In short, this article is actually a textbook example of the kind of devious meta-reporting which the BBC now unfortunately excels in.

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Novara Media seems to be providing the most detailed scrutiny of the report I have come across so far, and Monday’s Tyskie Sour show includes an interview with founder of Momentum Jon Lansman.

However, I have paused the video to begin at an earlier point where we learn that members of Labour HQ actively conspired with C4 News reporter Michael Crick in attempts to bully Diane Abbott. This incident apparently happened after Abbott had broken down in tears in the aftermath of receiving really disgusting racist abuse:

I would also recommend reading Aaron Bastini’s own initial response to the leak, which is entitled “‘It’s going to be a long night’ – How members of Labour’s senior Management Team Campaigned to Lose”. It includes the following revelation:

“It’s going to be a long night” was the reaction of the party’s general secretary [Iain McNicol], after Labour had deprived the Tories of a governing majority and seen their highest share of the popular vote in twenty years. While an outrageous comment, given McNicol’s elevated status within the party, it is perhaps outdone by Julie Lawrence – former director of the general secretary’s office – who appears to have actively feared Labour entering government. Meanwhile, Emily Oldknow, now assistant General Secretary at UNISON, apparently saw a silver lining, saying: “at least we have loads of money now”.

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Filed under analysis & opinion, Britain

lions led by donkeys: heroes and villains in our war against Covid-19

Heroes

Heroic is a word that tends to be thrown around rather casually these days, with the unfortunate and inevitable consequence that it has become somewhat cheapened and degraded. There are times, however, when ‘heroic’, overworked as it is, becomes appropriate again. When searching for ways to describe acts of wholehearted self-sacrifice, it remains perhaps the only word that conveys this meaning with sufficient gravity.

The staff on the frontline in our hospitals, especially those working in intensive care, daily tending to the essential needs of critically ill patients, under extreme pressure because the wards they serve are already understaffed, are worthy of such a title even during ordinary times but it is during exceptional times of crisis when they truly earn the respect (if not the wage) that they fully deserve. Today’s sympathetic applause in countries and regions all throughout Europe is a spontaneous outpouring of gratitude and deep public support; even here in Britain, where a weekly ritual has been somewhat stage-managed, the applause is no less heartfelt.

Because even the everyday heroic commitment of our hospital workers, seldom remembered by most of us in ordinary times, is now exceeded each and every day, as those same doctors and nurses who continue to tend to the sick patients, do so at serious risk to their own lives.

The consequence of a long-term lack of investment and mismanagement of the NHS has become very apparent resulting in inadequate supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that leaves staff highly vulnerable to infection. In response nurses and doctors are posting photographs of the sorts of makeshift alternatives they have been forced to rely on. In response to this, some have even received official gagging notices for reporting such vital information:

For example, A&E staff at Southend hospital in Essex have been warned that they could face disciplinary action if they raise the issue of PPE publicly.

In a memo on 26th March they were told: “The posting of inappropriate social media commentary or the posting of photographs of staff in uniform who are not complying with IPC [infection prevention and control] standards and social distancing requirements is unacceptable. Such behaviour will be considered under the disciplinary policy.

“Now, perhaps more than ever, NHS staff are in the public eye and we have a responsibility to convey a professional image and to role model positive messages about social distancing. It would be very sad for moments of inappropriate or unprofessional behaviour to undermine the respect that we and our colleagues have from the public.”

Others who speak out are being bullied with threatening emails or more formally threatened with disciplinary action:

  • An intensive care doctor who voiced unease about facemasks was told by their hospital that “if we hear of these concerns going outside these four walls your career and your position here will be untenable”.
  • Another intensive care specialist was called into a meeting with their bosses and disciplined after raising concerns.
  • A GP working at Chase Farm hospital in London was sent home for voicing unease.
  • A consultant paediatrician in Yorkshire was told in an email from their hospital that their social media output was being monitored and they should be careful.
  • A GP who appealed to her community on social media for more supplies of PPE was then barred by her local NHS clinical commissioning group from speaking out. “I was being warned I wasn’t toeing the party line,” she said. 1

Consecutive governments abandoned them, failing to supply essential equipment, or to even run systematic screening today, but in spite of this they have not abandoned us, carrying out their duties irrespective of the additional risks, and this again is why we pay tribute to their heroism.

On April 8th, RT’s ‘Going Underground’ featured an extended interview with journalist and film-maker John Pilger, who began by reminding us of the suppressed finding of Exercise Cygnus, a pandemic simulation run by the British government as recently as October 2016, which revealed the country’s health system to collapse from a lack of resources including “inadequate ventilation”. Pilger also speaks to the damage done to the NHS caused by underfunding and stealth privatisation of services and the shifting of blame for current government failures on to the Chinese:

Healthcare workers in America have also been left exposed to the risk of infection due to lack of essential equipment. Last Thursday [April 2nd], nurses and doctors at Montefiore medical center in the Bronx protested over the lack of PPE. “Every day when I go to work, I feel like a sheep going to slaughter,” said Dr Laura Ucik, a third-year resident at the centre:

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In homage, I could now embed a whole sequence of video clips featuring medical professionals working on the frontline in Italy, Spain, America, and Britain’s NHS. They would all tell you how desperate the situation has already become; how unprepared their own health service is; and how fearful they are for the wellbeing of the patients and themselves. But there is little point in doing this, since the stories they tell are widely available across most media platforms. So I shall include just a single example: Dr David Hepburn, a Critical Care Consultant, who had been infected with Covid-19, but soon after recovering from the illness at home, returned to work – as countless other healthcare professionals have selflessly done.

Last week, Hepburn had told C4 News about how the intensive care wards at the Royal Gwent Hospital in Newport where he works had run out of space, so patients were moved into operating theatres. And, on April 3rd, Channel 4 News interviewed him again at length:

Asked to paint a picture of the current situation inside the critical care unit, Hepburn told us:

“It’s controlled chaos at the moment… the difference at the moment is that everybody is desperately unwell, everybody is on a ventilator, so the acuity or the severity of illness is very high”

Whilst regarding the demographics of the patient population, he says:

“There are a lot of people who are in work, there are a lot of people who are younger, the pattern of illness that we’ve seen in Gwent, and I can’t speak for anywhere else, is much younger patients that we were expecting; you know when the reports were coming out of Wuhan we were led to believe that this was something that was particularly dangerous for the more elderly patients, but I would say that all of the patients we have got on intensive care are in their 50s or younger at the moment.”

Hepburn’s account is now the repeated one. Please keep his testimony in mind as we come to the villains of the story in the next part, and not because it is extraordinary or exceptional, but because it is so very ordinary and fact-based. He has no reason to distort the truth and nor do any of the other healthcare professionals courageously struggling behind the scenes to save people like us.

On April 7th, John Campbell provided a summary of 4th April audit by Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre 9 (ICNARC) based on data collected from 210 ITUs in the U. The report shows that the median age for admission for critically ill patients is just 61 years old, and that the first quartile is 52 years old (coincidentally my own age), which means a quarter of those admitted are younger than I am. Three-quarters were men and 62.9 percent of all patients required mechanical ventilation in the first 24 hours:

Meanwhile, if the heroes of this pandemic are easy to see, they are also easy to support.

Founded by Cardiology Registrar, Dr Dominic Pimenta, you can offer support at HelpThemHelpUs, which is a independent forum for volunteering.

Novara Media welcomed Dominic Pimenta on to their March 31st broadcast to talk about the government’s plan and to outline the ideas behind his own HelpThemHelpUs initiative:

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Villains

Whereas the heroes are few, the villains abound. Let’s begin with the idiots because these are the lesser villains, even though the media often likes to portray them as a more tremendous threat to our lives.

We have the daft ones who are hoarding all the toilet rolls (fighting off competitors in a raw Darwinian struggle for survival as they grab their stash), presumably in order to pile them high as a monument to their own craven stupidity. The still more selfish are those who bought so much perishable food that they have already discarded most of it in rubbish bins. If we want a law against stupidity then I would begin by charging these people first of all.

A special dishonourable mention must also go to those hiding behind online aliases and spreading a different kind of rubbish whether on social media platforms or within comment sections. Incendiary drivel to the effect that ‘China’s day of reckoning must come’; as if they committed a crime or an act of war, when we still don’t know for certain the origins of this virus – despite the repeated though wholly unsubstantiated claims that its origins must have been that Wuhan wet market. The underlying message is an old one: beware the yellow peril!

And I wonder how much of this dog-whistle warmongering might actually be the product of our own military or intelligence units; the output of Brigade 77 for instance, or other more clandestine psychological operations such as GCHQ’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG) with its remit that includes “posting negative information on internet forums” all paid for with British taxpayer money. (Obviously, if these were foreign agents we would call them ‘troll farms’ but those are all spewing out bad Russian disinformation, not the good dishonest British stuff!)

From this array of lesser fools, however, we must turn upwards to consider those above. And according to the original government strategy, based solidly on ‘the science’ (lots more on that as we continue), the nation required around 60% infection of the population, in accordance with Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty’s assessment, to ensure ‘herd immunity’. Herd immunity, which meant letting the spread of the virus continue unchecked, was now the answer to tackling Covid-19. Taking his hands off the wheel entirely being Johnson’s first big plan!

If this approach still sounds like it might have been scientifically informed (as it was obviously meant to), then unfortunately you are mistaken. Herd immunity certainly helps to protect a population from the spread of infectious disease, however, ordinarily, this is acquired through programmes of vaccination, which are presumed to be safe. By encouraging ‘herd immunity’ to tackle the spread of a novel pathogen on the other hand, requires the infection of millions with a disease of unknown severity – what are the lasting health effects; what is the lethality? Such a policy is clearly reckless in the extreme. In fact, we still do not even know for sure that immunity to Covid-19 will be lasting, so there is a chance that herd immunity cannot be achieved at all.

But we are slowly learning how the lights had been blinking red for months and Boris Johnson’s inability to lead a coordinated response was unravelling before it had even started:

In the medical and scientific world, there was growing concern about the threat of the virus to the UK. A report from Exeter University, published on February 12th, warned a UK outbreak could peak within four months and, without mitigation, infect 45 million people.

That worried Rahuldeb Sarkar, a consultant physician in respiratory medicine and critical care in the county of Kent, who foresaw that intensive care beds could be swamped. Even if disease transmission was reduced by half, he wrote in a report aimed at clinicians and actuaries in mid-February, a coronavirus outbreak in the UK would “have a chance of overwhelming the system.”

With Whitty stating in a BBC interview on February 13th that a UK outbreak was still an “if, not a when,” Richard Horton, a medical doctor and editor of the Lancet, said the government and public health service wasted an opportunity that month to prepare quarantine restriction measures and a programme of mass tests, and procure resources like ventilators and personal protective equipment for expanded intensive care.

Calling the lost chance a “national scandal” in a later editorial, he would testify to parliament about a mismatch between “the urgent warning that was coming from the frontline in China” and the “somewhat pedestrian evaluation” of the threat from the scientific advice to the government.

This same ‘special report’ from Reuters published on April 7th, also discloses why there was so little preparedness:

According to emails and more than a dozen scientists interviewed by Reuters, the government issued no requests to labs for assistance with staff or testing equipment until the middle of March, when many abruptly received requests to hand over nucleic acid extraction instruments, used in testing. An executive at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine at the University of Oxford said he could have carried out up to 1,000 tests per day from February. But the call never came.

“You would have thought that they would be bashing down the door,” said the executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. By April 5th, Britain had carried out 195,524 tests, in contrast to at least 918,000 completed a week earlier in Germany.

Nor was there an effective effort to expand the supply of ventilators. The Department of Health told Reuters in a statement that the government started talking to manufacturers of ventilators about procuring extra supplies in February. But it was not until March 16th, after it was clear supplies could run out, that Johnson launched an appeal to industry to help ramp up production.

Charles Bellm, managing director of Intersurgical, a global supplier of medical ventilation products based outside London, said he has been contacted by more than a dozen governments around the world, including France, New Zealand and Indonesia. But there had been no contact from the British government. “I find it somewhat surprising, I have spoken to a lot of other governments,” he said. 2

Click here to read the full article published by Reuters, which is apologetically entitled “Johnson listened to his scientists about coronavirus – but they were slow to sound the alarm”. (Pushing the blame from the government onto its scientific advisors won’t wash, however the report contains some valuable insights nonetheless.)

Notable by its absence from this Reuters’ account of events is the advice and guidance of the World Health Organisation (WHO). This is important because for a while Britain had stood entirely alone, having taken its decision to act in brazen defiance to the directives of WHO, whose chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus issued his starkest warning on March 13th: “do not just let this fire burn”.

One day earlier Prime Minister Johnson was still solemnly reminding us “many more families are going to lose loved ones” – my own father saying to me afterwards, I suddenly realised “that means me”. But then, at the eleventh hour, Johnson and his government embarked on an astonishing U-turn. And hallelujah for that!

The reason was the maths: 60% of 66 million is very nearly 40 million, and, assuming a case-fatality rate of 0.7% (the best estimate we had – based on S Korean figures), that makes 280,000 deaths. No need for sophisticated epidemiological modelling or a supercomputer, the back of any old envelope will do.

As the sheer scale of the predicted death toll began to dawn on Johnson and his advisors, out of the blue came a highly convenient “leak”. Seemingly it fell upon Dominic Cummings to assume the role of scapegoat as fresh justifications were sought for a swift and sudden change of policy, purportedly based on the findings of ‘new modelling’ – reading between the lines, someone had to take the bullet and quite frankly Cummings was already the most detested of the principle actors.

Here’s how that “leak” was reported by The Sunday Times:

Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s senior aide, became convinced that Britain would be better able to resist a lethal second wave of the disease next winter if Whitty’s prediction that 60% to 80% of the population became infected was right and the UK developed “herd immunity”.

At a private engagement at the end of February, Cummings outlined the government’s strategy. Those present say it was “herd immunity, protect the economy and if it means some pensioners die, too bad”.

At the Sage meeting on March 12th, a moment now dubbed the “Domoscene conversion”, Cummings changed his mind. In this “penny-drop moment”, he realised he had helped to set a course for catastrophe. Until this point, the rise in British infections had been below the European average. Now they were above it and on course to emulate Italy, where the picture was bleak. A minister said: “Seeing what was happening in Italy was the galvanising force across government.” 3

Click here to read the full article published by The Sunday Times on March 22nd.

(Or perhaps he really did have that “Domoscene conversion”! In which case, we must conclude that government policy was actually concocted more on the basis of Cummings’ whims, which is not exactly “following the science” either, is it?)

Incidentally, anyone who continues to deny the government’s rapid and complete U-turn (including Julia Hartley-Brewer, who I’ll come back to later), I direct to an article featured on Buzzfeed News from March 31st, which reads:

BuzzFeed News has spoken to health experts in the UK and across Europe to find out why [Britain has done comparatively little testing for coronavirus]. The answer, they said, stemmed from Britain’s controversial initial strategy of mitigation of the virus (rather than suppression), rendering testing a secondary concern — an approach which has also contributed to a lack of preparedness and the capacity to carry out tests at scale.

The UK’s mitigation approach was devised by England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty, and chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance. According to a person who has spoken to Whitty and [Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick] Vallance, they took the view that the UK should not attempt to suppress the outbreak entirely but rather prioritise protecting the elderly and vulnerable, and ensuring the NHS did not become overwhelmed, while allowing the rest of population to build up “herd immunity”.

This strategy meant that widespread testing of every coronavirus case was not a priority for the UK, the person said, since the government’s scientists were assuming that between 60% and 80% of the population would become infected.

Accordingly, no preparations were made to increase manufacturing or imports of testing kits, nor to expand the UK’s laboratory capacity. Imports of testing kits are now extremely difficult as other nations seek more than ever to keep them for their own use. 4

[Bold emphasis added]

Click here to read the full article entitled “Even The US Is Doing More Coronavirus Tests Than The UK. Here Are The Reasons Why.”

However, the government and its advisors, although nominally in charge of matters, and accordingly as reprehensible as they are, should not be too isolated once it comes to attributing responsibility. The media must take a considerable share of any blame too.

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From the outset, the whole story surrounding coronavirus was completely politicised. For months it was all about Chinese mismanagement and repression, following which, after China slowly regained control of the situation in Wuhan, press attention and opprobrium switched to Iran.

Oh, how we all chortled when the Iranian Deputy Health Minister, Iraj Harirchi, was seen sweating out a fever as he tried to deliver a speech – in what sort of a tinpot regime does a Health Minister end up contracting the infection he is supposed to be fighting, hey? But shoe, other foot, media reframing… you get the picture:

Indeed, when Johnson himself was admitted to hospital and shortly afterwards moved to intensive care, a newspaper-led campaign encouraged people to gather outside again for a standing ovation to keep his spirits up. Of course, along with thousands of unfortunate victims still struggling for breath beside him, we wish him a full and speedy recovery, but this isn’t North Korea, and so, besides a handful of the party faithful, most of the country respectfully declined this nationwide call to lavish praise on the glorious leader.

On Good Friday, when another 980 deaths in hospitals alone were recorded – surpassing Spain and Italy’s worst recorded daily totals (figures for care homes are harder to establish), this was the headline in The Sun:

Only when Covid-19 gained a foothold in Europe was the tone adjusted, so that rather than peddling rumours about incompetence, due sensitivity was given instead to the suffering of the people – in this case, the Italian people.

Prior to the first European cases, there was also a lack of key information, and so it wasn’t until March that we first began to learn the full facts about the disease itself: how extremely virulent it is and not like flu at all, but SARS; how it doesn’t only attack the old and the vulnerable; how it is easily transmitted by asymptomatic spreaders and has a comparatively long incubation period; how between 5–10 percent of the victims require oxygen or mechanical ventilation, and many are left with irreparable lung damage. Suddenly China’s urgent need to construct new hospital facilities overnight became totally understandable.

Why were we left in the dark so long? Up until March Covid-19 still remained a blunt tool to beat the old enemies with, so presumably delving into cause of the crisis distracted too much from this propagandistic exercise. Yet this failure to fact-find – a routine matter for proper journalism – soon came back to haunt us.

Finally, a lack of widely available information accounts, at least in part, for why, three months on, Britain is desperately converting conference centres into thousand-bed hospitals: an impressive feat but one that also speaks to prior failures and a total lack of preparedness. China was our warning but the media was too sidetracked to stress this.

On April 5th, Sky News Australia released a “SPECIAL REPORT: China’s deadly coronavirus cover-up”, except that it isn’t and scarcely presents any evidence at all from China. Instead, it offers a montage of coverage from around the world, political talking heads, that are interspersed with images from a wet market (somewhere, presumably in South East Asia), overlaid with a breathless commentary and an ominous soundtrack. Today this passes for journalism apparently:

If the press instead had focussed more on the virulence of the disease, rather than always seeking a political angle, the public and governments of the West might have had greater cause to introduce tighter measures from the beginning, recognising the urgency of taking appropriate action to avoid suffering the same fate as the inhabitants of Wuhan. We could have closed our borders in time (yet they remain open even today) and made preparations for testing and contact tracing as they did in South Korea. But why take such drastic precautions if the problem is mostly one with the Chinese politburo and Iranian mullahs?

Indeed, as Rachel Shabi astutely reminds us in a more recent Guardian article, Britain is already blessed with teams of environmental health officers employed by local government who “have wide experience in contact tracing, a process used to prevent infections spreading and routinely carried out in outbreaks such as of norovirus, salmonella or legionnaires’ disease.”

As one of the environmental health workers she spoke to said, he was “struggling to figure out” why they hadn’t been given the go-ahead from the start. Another told her: “We are pretty good at infection control and contact tracing, it’s part of the job. We thought we’d be asked and were shelving other work.” In response, a spokesperson for Public Health England (PHE), said “the organisation did not call upon environmental health workers to carry out contact tracing for coronavirus, instead using its own local health protection teams.” 5

Hats off to Rachel Shabi for doing the legwork to expose this vital ‘missed opportunity’ by PHE and the government – examining the reasons behind this decision is now on the table for a public inquiry.

Unfortunately, much that passes for journalism today relies on scant research and little to no investigation at all. Instead it is informed by a diet of press conferences, press releases and press packs – all more or less pre-digested, all PR, and all oven-ready (as Johnson would say). Many reporters are the embedded and approved members of a press corps who grant their sources ‘quote approval’. Compounding this there is the groupthink and the self-censorship that has always existed.

In a well-known BBC interview with Noam Chomsky in 1996, Andrew Marr – who afterwards went on to become the BBC’s Political Editor – famously rebutted Chomsky’s accusation of a ubiquitous lack of media impartiality and journalistic integrity, demanding:

“How can you know that I’m self-censoring? How can you know that journalists are…”

Chomsky’s reply clearly rocks him: “I don’t say you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is, if you believed something different you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.” 6

It is understandable therefore (although not excusable) that those in the press and media have fallen into the easier habit of propagating and sanctioning accepted narratives, advocating official policy and being apologists for government mistakes and state crimes – after all, if you hold your nose, much of the job is done for you – readymade copy to cut and paste. And a climate of crisis furthers these temptations, cultivating this already indifferent attitude towards truth, and fostering journalistic practice that is non-confrontational on grounds of “national interest”.

By contrast, true journalism shares a lot in common with real science, which is similarly fact-based and objective. But to be fact-based and objective requires research and investigation, and this is tiresome and time consuming, so it’s easier not to bother.

Today, we see another consequence of this as the government shields itself behind ‘the science’, and the media once again provides it with cover. For instance, here is Sky News‘ Thomas Moore informing his audience as recently as March 27th that: “one of the government’s key advisors hazarded a guess this week that between half and two-thirds of those dying would probably have done so soon anyway.” [from 0:45 mins]:

How very Malthusian of him, you may think. How very: “herd immunity, protect the economy and if it means some pensioners die, too bad.”

It would be nice to stop right there. This kind of pseudoscientific validation for ideologically-informed policy is hardly worthy of closer examination. In this instance it is simply insulting, not only to the vulnerable and elderly whose existence Moore is quite literally attempting to delete but to anyone with an ear for propaganda. (And so for this secondary reason, let us parse his words just a little.)

Key advisor…? CMO for England, Chris Whitty; or former President of R&D of pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) recently appointed government CSA, Sir Patrick Vallance; or Chief Executive of NHS England and former senior executive of UnitedHealth Group, Sir Simon Stevens, or some otherwise anonymous, faceless, quite possibly, non-existent advisor: who knows? Perhaps it was Matt Hancock…? Or was this again, Dominic Cummings?

Hazarded a guess… Really, can you get any vaguer than this? On what distant planet could Moore’s statement be considered remotely journalistic?

Not to be outdone on April 2nd, the BBC issued a Twitter stream along very similar lines:

 

 

Such Malthusian talking points are also echoed throughout a wide range of publications but found most especially on the shelves reserved for opinions of the libertarian right. As an outstanding example of this, I refer readers to a column written by Dr John Lee that was published in The Spectator as recently as March 28th: the day after the Sky News broadcast above, and just a fortnight ago.

Dr Lee is one of those pundits who love to cherry pick statistics; a talent so honed that upon first reading anyone could be forgiven for thinking that not only have we all been dreadfully deceived by our lying eyes but also by all the hysterical staff working in our NHS hospitals who incessantly talk nonsense about a crisis.

“The moral debate is not lives vs money,” Lee decides on the basis of the numbers, adding emphatically, “It is lives vs lives.” In fact, boiling Dr Lee’s argument down more literally, he is balancing risk to the economy against number of deaths, although doubtless it sounds more reasonable and more dramatic too, when you say “lives vs lives”. Not that the economy doesn’t matter, but that evidently from Lee’s viewpoint it sits high above mere lives and behind a huge ‘greater than or equal to’ sign. That said, his main proposal is a fittingly modest one:

Unless we tighten criteria for recording death due only to the virus (as opposed to it being present in those who died from other conditions), the official figures may show a lot more deaths apparently caused by the virus than is actually the case. What then? How do we measure the health consequences of taking people’s lives, jobs, leisure and purpose away from them to protect them from an anticipated threat? Which causes least harm?

Incidentally, the ultimate question here – “Which causes the least harm?” – sheds interesting light on Dr Lee’s own personal morality, or at least the ideas that underpin and inform it. Those who have studied philosophy will indeed recognise his stance, and place it under the technical heading ‘Consequentialism’: that the ultimate basis for a moral judgment should be founded on whether any action (or inaction) will produce a good or bad outcome, or consequence. Another way of saying this is “the ends justify the means”.

Consequentialism is essentially a rerun and a quite fashionable version of Utilitarianism, where Utilitarianism, in turn, values human behaviour according to some measure of usefulness. Once you understand this, it becomes a lot easier to comprehend why someone with Dr Lee’s outlook might share Cummings’ preference to “protect the economy and if it means some pensioners die, too bad”. The sacrifice of a few “useless eaters” (a phrase rightly or wrongly attributed to Kissinger) for the sake of the greater good. If I am being unkind to Dr Lee, then forgive me, but his words turn my own thoughts to Thomas Malthus again, who so eloquently justified the economic need for poor people to starve.

But I have digressed. The vital point to understand and remember here, as the establishment gatekeepers and government stenographers all insist, is that Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan-Smith and the rest of the Conservative crew have always acted in strict accordance with the best scientific advice available. And that never at any stage were decisions taken with callous indifference even when it came to their original decision to pursue a quasi-scientific policy of ‘herd immunity’ by letting a few of our loved ones die:

Governments everywhere say they are responding to the science. The policies in the UK are not the government’s fault. They are trying to act responsibly based on the scientific advice given. But governments must remember that rushed science is almost always bad science.

That’s also Dr John Lee’s opinion by the way, as he reaches for a conclusion to his piece. The case he makes fails throughout to acknowledge any government accountability whatsoever; not even when it comes to deciding which advice to listen to. A case that he set out as follows:

In announcing the most far-reaching restrictions on personal freedom in the history of our nation, Boris Johnson resolutely followed the scientific advice that he had been given. The advisers to the government seem calm and collected, with a solid consensus among them. In the face of a new viral threat, with numbers of cases surging daily, I’m not sure that any prime minister would have acted very differently. 7

It’s the science, stupid – just so you know.

By the way, I call Dr John Lee, Dr Lee because this is how his article is attributed. And I think he wants you to recognise his expertise because he describes himself as “a recently retired professor of pathology and a former NHS consultant pathologist”. There is nothing wrong, of course, in highlighting your own professional credentials. That said, the entire emphasis of his piece is that the government places trust in expertise as should you too. Thus, signing off in this fashion is a very effective way to pull rank on his readership. (Trust me on this, I’m a doctor too – I just don’t make a point of flaunting my PhD at every opportunity.)

If Dr John Lee wants you to get the message because he knows better, then for those who prefer to be browbeaten rather than condescended to, and as a quite different alternative, I offer the latest outpourings of small-‘c’ conservative rent-a-mouth Julia Hartley-Brewer.

Brewer is in fact the daughter of a GP, although happily she is otherwise as unqualified to proffer expert analysis on any subjects at all basically – unhappily, this doesn’t stop her and thanks to a public platform called Talkradio those unqualified and largely unsought opinions are broadcast across the nation on a weekly basis.

Recently she’s been doing a lot of Tweeting too, fulfilling her other obligation as a leading light amongst the commentariat. Here is one of her more recent efforts:

Yes, that’s right: the only thing that matters is whether Boris Johnson is following scientific advice. And he is – can’t you understand that? Now just shut up. I paraphrase, just a little; hardly at all really.

This brings me to reflect, finally and once again, on the dismal state of so much of today’s journalism and media more broadly, characterised, as it is, by wilful ignorance and woeful submissiveness to authority. Rigidly confined within an ever-tightening Overton Window, it speaks up for almost no-one, whether on the pressing question of how to fight coronavirus, or on most other vital issues of the day.

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1 From a report entitled “NHS staff ‘gagged’ over coronavirus shortages” written by Denis Campbell, published in the Guardian on March 31, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/mar/31/nhs-staff-gagged-over-coronavirus-protective-equipment-shortages

2 From a ‘Special Report’ entitled “Johnson listened to his scientists about coronavirus – but they were slow to sound the alarm” written by Stephen Grey and Andrew MacAskill, published in Reurters on April 7, 2020. https://uk.mobile.reuters.com/article/amp/idUKKBN21P1X8

3 From an article entitled “Coronavirus: ten days that shook Britain – and changed the nation forever” written by Tim Shipman and Caroline Wheeler, published in The Sunday Times on March 22, 2020. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/coronavirus-ten-days-that-shook-britain-and-changed-the-nation-for-ever-spz6sc9vb

4 From an article entitled “Even The US Is Doing More Coronavirus Tests Than The UK. Here Are The Reasons Why”, written by Alex Wickham, Alberto Nardelli, Katie J. M. Baker & Richard Holmes, published in Buzzfeed News on March 31, 2020. https://www.buzzfeed.com/alexwickham/uk-coronavirus-testing-explainer

5 From an article entitled “UK missed coronavirus contact tracing opportunity, experts say” written by Rachel Shabi, published in the Guardian on April 6, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/apr/06/uk-missed-coronavirus-contact-tracing-opportunity-experts-say

6 Interviewed for The Big Idea, BBC2, February 14, 1996. A complete transcript is available here: http://scratchindog.blogspot.com/2015/07/transcript-of-interview-between-noam.html

The broadcast has also been uploaded on Youtube in full and is embedded below:

7 From an article entitled “How deadly is the coronavirus? It’s still far from clear?” written by Dr John Lee, published in The Spectator on March 28, 2020. https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/The-evidence-on-Covid-19-is-not-as-clear-as-we-think

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Filed under analysis & opinion, Britain, China, Iran, John Pilger, Noam Chomsky

corona marginalia: white man’s burden

During a debate on French TV channel LCI, Camille Locht, head of research at Inserm health research group, was talking about a vaccine trial in Europe and Australia.

Jean-Paul Mira, head of intensive care at Cochin hospital in Paris, then said: “If I can be provocative, shouldn’t we be doing this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatments, no resuscitation?

“A bit like it is done elsewhere for some studies on Aids. In prostitutes, we try things because we know that they are highly exposed and that they do not protect themselves.”

Mr Locht nodded in agreement at this suggestion, and said: “You are right. We are in the process of thinking about a study in parallel in Africa.”

Click here to read the full BBC News report from April 6th.

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In the same BBC report we learn that:

The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) has condemned as “racist” the comments by two French doctors who suggested a vaccine for the coronavirus could be tested in Africa.

“Africa can’t and won’t be a testing ground for any vaccine,” said Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. 1

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Meanwhile, in another completely unrelated story:

Former national security adviser John Bolton is joining mounting calls for the director of the World Health Organization to resign, calling him an “accomplice to China’s massive coverup” as the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has faced calls for his resignation from American politicians and others who link the group to China’s lack of transparency regarding the severity of COVID-19.

“The @WHO is an accomplice to China’s massive coverup of Covid19,” Bolton tweeted late Monday. “That’s why I support efforts by @marcorubio & @tedcruz pushing for resignation of WHO director general.”

He added: “He misled the world by blindly trusting a communist regime intent on deception.” 2

This is the same John Bolton who allegedly ‘put the squeeze on’ Jose Bustani, a former head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), warning him “we know where your kids live”:

In early 2002, a year before the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration was putting intense pressure on Bustani to quit as director-general of the OPCW — despite the fact that he had been unanimously re-elected to head the 145-nation body just two years earlier. His transgression? Negotiating with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to allow OPCW weapons inspectors to make unannounced visits to that country — thereby undermining Washington’s rationale for regime change.

In 2001, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell had penned a letter to Bustani, thanking him for his very impressive work. By March 2002, however, Bolton — then serving as under secretary of state for Arms Control and International Security Affairs — arrived in person at the OPCW headquarters in the Hague to issue a warning to the organization’s chief. And, according to Bustani, Bolton didn’t mince words. “Cheney wants you out,” Bustani recalled Bolton saying, referring to the then-vice president of the United States. “We can’t accept your management style.”

Bolton continued, according to Bustani’s recollections: “You have 24 hours to leave the organization, and if you don’t comply with this decision by Washington, we have ways to retaliate against you.”

There was a pause.

“We know where your kids live. You have two sons in New York.” 3

Click here to read the full article entitled “‘We know where your kids live’: how John Bolton once threatened an international official” published by The Intercept.

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1 From a report entitled “Coronavirus: Africa will not be testing ground for vaccine, says WHO” published by BBC News on April 6, 2020. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-52192184

2 From an article entitled “Bolton joins calls for WHO director’s resignation: ‘Accomplice to China’s massive coverup’” written by Brooke Singman & Tyler Olson, published in Fox News on April 7, 2020 https://www.foxnews.com/politics/bolton-joins-calls-for-who-directors-resignation-accomplice-to-chinas-massive-coverup

3 From an article entitled “‘We know where your kids live’: how John Bolton once threatened an international official” written by Mehdi Hasan, published in The Intercept on March 29, 2018. https://theintercept.com/2018/03/29/john-bolton-trump-bush-bustani-kids-opcw/  

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Filed under France, Sub-Saharan Africa

lockdown on laughter: UK govt determined to crackdown on corona clowning

The government issued a statement on Wednesday calling for members of the public to refrain so far as possible from open air laughter and joking. It has also issued new guidelines to police forces to encourage officers to dampen down instances of high spirits and excessive ebullience in order to try to perpetuate a generally more sombre air.

This fresh initiative follows on from previous trials to curb non-essential amusement including the decision by Derbyshire Police to pour black dye into the waters of a pool near Buxton known locally as the Blue Lagoon to deter bathers, and police in other regions of the country who have been cautioning shopkeepers to stop selling non-essential Easter eggs.

There are as yet no plans to introduce on-the-spot fines to discourage public jesting, a government spokesman told us, adding that if at some point in the future such measures are deemed necessary, the likelihood is that a sliding scale will rank offences from minor infractions such as mild punning and casual witticisms, up to more serious charges of careless quipping and grievous wisecracking.

In another move, tech giants Facebook and Twitter have been asked to remove content that may be considered unduly humorous or just excessively light-hearted. We cannot be too careful, the spokesman said, as he unveiled the latest government message, a reworking of the vintage British poster from World War Two.  The new hygiene etiquette warns us bluntly: “Jokes and wheezes spread diseases.”

Click here if you must to read the full story.

‘Wheeze’ is informal British meaning a clever or amusing scheme, idea, or trick. The double entendre is accidental and unfortunate, the spokesman added, but nobody at the Home Office could provide an alternative synonym for ‘jokes’ that rhymes with ‘sneezes’ as in the original “coughs and sneezes spread diseases”.

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Filed under Britain, police state

Covid-19 vs. freedom and democracy: let us not sacrifice one to defeat the other

A primer: ‘The clairvoyant ruling class’

“The ruling class exists, it’s not a conspiracy theory. They operate as a class, too. They share the same values, the same sensibility and in Europe and North America they are white. They act in accordance with their interests, which are very largely identical. The failure to understand this is the single greatest problem and defect in left discourse today.”

— John Steppling, Author, Playwright

“This report is crucial reading for anyone interested in creatively considering the multiple, divergent ways in which our world could evolve.”

— Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation

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Scenario planning for corporate strategy was pioneered by Royal Dutch Shell in the 1970s. [Further reading on scenario planning: The Art of the Long View] The following excerpts are highlights from the May 2010 “Scenarios for the Future of Technology & International Development” report produced by The Rockefeller Foundation & Global Business Network.

Please note: The excerpts below are from the “Lock Step” scenario, but excerpts from all four scenarios are available in the original article published by Wrong Kind of Green.

“In 2012, the pandemic that the world had been anticipating for years finally hit. Unlike 2009’s H1N1, this new influenza strain — originating from wild geese — was extremely virulent and deadly. Even the most pandemic-prepared nations were quickly overwhelmed when the virus streaked around the world, infecting nearly 20 percent of the global population and killing 8 million in just seven months, the majority of them healthy young adults. The pandemic also had a deadly effect on economies: international mobility of both people and goods screeched to a halt, debilitating industries like tourism and breaking global supply chains. Even locally, normally bustling shops and office buildings sat empty for months, devoid of both employees and customers.” […]

“The pandemic blanketed the planet — though disproportionate numbers died in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central America, where the virus spread like wildfire in the absence of official containment protocols. But even in developed countries, containment was a challenge. The United States’s initial policy of “strongly discouraging” citizens from flying proved deadly in its leniency, accelerating the spread of the virus not just within the U.S. but across borders. However, a few countries did fare better — China in particular. The Chinese government’s quick imposition and enforcement of mandatory quarantine for all citizens, as well as its instant and near-hermetic sealing off of all borders, saved millions of lives, stopping the spread of the virus far earlier than in other countries and enabling a swifter postpandemic recovery. [p 18]

“China’s government was not the only one that took extreme measures to protect its citizens from risk and exposure.  During the pandemic, national leaders around the world flexed their authority and imposed airtight rules and restrictions, from the mandatory wearing of face masks to body-temperature checks at the entries to communal spaces like train stations and supermarkets. Even after the pandemic faded, this more authoritarian control and oversight of citizens and their activities stuck and even intensified. In order to protect themselves from the spread of increasingly global problems — from pandemics and transnational terrorism to environmental crises and rising poverty — leaders around the world took a firmer grip on power.” […]

“At first, the notion of a more controlled world gained wide acceptance and approval. Citizens willingly gave up some of their sovereignty — and their privacy — to more paternalistic states in exchange for greater safety and stability. Citizens were more tolerant, and even eager, for top-down direction and oversight, and national leaders had more latitude to impose order in the ways they saw fit. In developed countries, this heightened oversight took many forms: biometric IDs for all citizens, for example, and tighter regulation of key industries whose stability was deemed vital to national interests. In many developed countries, enforced cooperation with a suite of new regulations and agreements slowly but steadily restored both order and, importantly, economic growth.” [p 19]

Click here to read the full article entitled “The Clairvoyant Ruling Class” published by Wrong Kind of Green.

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Fighting the invisible enemy today

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Benjamin Franklin 1

In the fight against Covid-19, the government of South Korea has arguably shown a way for other democracies to follow. First and foremost it established a comprehensive system of testing to confirm positive cases. This was backed up by contact tracing, targeted isolation and quarantine. Imposing sensible restrictions on travel also helped to slow and limit the spread of the outbreak. By acting promptly and enacting the precise measures called for by the scientists at the World Health Organisation, the Koreans managed to swiftly and effectively control the spread of Covid-19 infection and thereby averted a developing crisis.

One criticism of the South Korean approach surrounds its intrusive use of mobile phone technology to track movement and contacts. Though understandable perhaps (given cultural differences), such an infringement of privacy was non-essential, and there is really no need or justification whatsoever for western democracies to follow a similar course. That GCHQ in Britain and the NSA in America are already able to access and record private digital information including personal communications, metadata and location is actually an open secret. Of course, the opportunity now presents itself for such covert practices to be rolled out very publicly and given full legal sanction; moves that ought to be opposed. In other regards, however, the Korean model is surely exemplary.

The graph below is a snapshot of an interactive chart that you can access here.

Snapshot taken on March 28th

In stark contrast to Korean efficiency that halted the spread of infection, government responses across the western world have been comparatively slow to act, muddled, and in some respects negligent. The unfolding situation in Italy tragically illustrates a clear lack of preparedness on the part of the authorities there, where in spite of several weeks advantage over the Koreans, an initially lax approach allowed community-spread of the infection. It was not until a full-blown public health crisis emerged that increasingly draconian and sometimes overnight emergency measures were put in place.

On this Sky News report from March 11th, which was recorded prior to the full lockdown, many Italians were already asking why so little, so late:

Virtually all other European countries have failed to learn the lessons from Italy.

A fortnight later on March 27th, Sky News reported from Spain, where once again action to prevent and slow the spread of the virus came too late:

In France and Britain, where the clampdown has been more gradual and less severe up to now, the implementation of restrictions has been similarly confused and inexplicably overdue. Who knows how many more people became infected in the days and weeks leading up to the eventual (and inevitable) closure of sporting events, entertainment venues, gyms and pubs, let alone during the time lost as schools, offices and building sites continued to operate; the government’s preference for business as usual.

On the other hand, the overreach shown by North Derbyshire police who decided to fly their drones over The Peak District last week in order to shame anyone out walking the dog or just taking a quiet stroll was not just unwarranted, but entirely counterproductive. In a time of national crisis, you have to ask why our news media chose to broadcast this footage and reinforce such a stark police state message:

The situation facing America is set to be worse, with its lack of social safety nets and a system of healthcare provision that makes it a privilege millions simply cannot afford. Compounding these problems, the response so far has been more complacent and shambolic than our own governments in Europe; Trump theatrical as ever, recently telling everyone that it’ll all be over by Easter. Meanwhile, after weeks of non-intervention and exponential rates of infection (a terrible spike in numbers in New York especially) with other states like Florida taking no actions at all to check the spread of disease, one indication of the growing desperation is the panic-buying not just of toilet rolls, but of firearms.

On March 26th, ‘Democracy Now!’ interviewed New York City emergency room doctor Craig Spencer, a survivor of Ebola, which he contracted while fighting its outbreak in Africa. He says: “I think, in a week, we will be Italy. At least here in New York City, we’re already seeing that” [at 15:30 mins]:

Behind the scenes, on the other hand, dramatic moves are now being taken to tackle the pandemic, including ones that will sideline constitutional rights altogether. Indeed, there are clear parallels with actions taken during immediate aftermath of 9/11, its shadow lengthened by the coincidentally mysterious anthrax attacks, which enabled then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to fast-track the Patriot Acts. Likewise, today’s Justice Department is in the process of launching a raft of new legislation that further undermines civil liberties and chips away at fundamental human rights:

Documents reviewed by POLITICO detail the department’s requests to lawmakers on a host of topics, including the statute of limitations, asylum and the way court hearings are conducted. POLITICO also reviewed and previously reported on documents seeking the authority to extend deadlines on merger reviews and prosecutions. […]

In one of the documents, the department proposed that Congress grant the attorney general power to ask the chief judge of any district court to pause court proceedings “whenever the district court is fully or partially closed by virtue of any natural disaster, civil disobedience, or other emergency situation.”

The proposal would also grant those top judges broad authority to pause court proceedings during emergencies. It would apply to “any statutes or rules of procedure otherwise affecting pre-arrest, post-arrest, pre-trial, trial, and post-trial procedures in criminal and juvenile proceedings and all civil process and proceedings,” according to draft legislative language the department shared with Congress. […]

The request raised eyebrows because of its potential implications for habeas corpus — the constitutional right to appear before a judge after arrest and seek release.

“Not only would it be a violation of that, but it says ‘affecting pre-arrest,’” said Norman L. Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “So that means you could be arrested and never brought before a judge until they decide that the emergency or the civil disobedience is over. I find it absolutely terrifying. Especially in a time of emergency, we should be very careful about granting new powers to the government.” 2

Click here to read the full article published by Politico.

In an article published by Mint Press News a few days later, Whitney Webb picked up where Politico left off, highlighting plans for ‘Continuity of Government’ (COG) and the use of a controversial database known simply as ‘Main Core’ that lists American dissidents and “potential troublemakers”:

Though Main Core was reportedly in use after September 11 to target “unfriendly” individuals for increased domestic surveillance, concern that COG plans in the age of coronavirus could take a more drastic turn and involve the detention of Americans included in that database now seems more plausible than ever. On Saturday, Politico reported that the Department of Justice has demanded new “emergency powers” during the current pandemic and these powers include being able to indefinitely detain Americans without trial. Politico also noted that the DOJ’s controversial new requests “span several stages of the legal process, from initial arrest to how cases are processed and investigated.” Per the DOJ’s requests, indefinite detention would emerge through a new ability whereby the Attorney General or a judge could pause court proceedings whenever courts are “fully or partially closed by virtue of any natural disaster, civil disobedience, or other emergency situation.”

What Politico did not include in its report is that current Attorney General William Barr has spent the past several months fine-tuning and implementing a “pre-crime” program. Officially known as the “National Disruption and Early Engagement Program” (DEEP), it aims to “identify, assess and engage” potentially violent individuals “before they strike.” Barr first announced this program last October in an official memorandum and therein stated that the program was to be implemented sometime over the course of 2020 and would involve “an efficient, effective and programmatic strategy to disrupt individuals who are mobilizing towards violence, by all lawful means.”

Whitney Webb continues:

In his memorandum, Barr further notes that the program’s “early engagement tactics” were “born of the posture we adopted with respect to terrorist threats” following the September 11 attacks, essentially stating that this pre-crime program will utilize methods from the “War on Terror” domestically and on a massive scale.

Adding:

Furthermore, with the FBI having recently flagged “conspiracy theorists” (and by extension those who distrust or question government narratives of both past and present) as a “domestic terror threat,” the DOJ could even make the case that failure to blindly trust government narratives presents a threat to the public order. Given that the Main Core database in its current form contains bulk surveillance gathered from social media, phone conversations/messaging apps and even financial information (i.e. purchasing history, etc.) on Americans deemed unfriendly “often for the slightest and most trivial reason,” this unprecedented power grab by the DOJ has an authoritarian and Orwellian potential to target legitimate dissent like never before. 3

Click here to read Whitney Webb’s full article entitled “Coronavirus: What Newsweek Failed to Mention About ‘Continuity of Government’”.

Moreover, under the pretext of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, Washington recently extended FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), and specifically the three Patriot Act provisions:

With the nation’s attention fixed on the rapidly spreading coronavirus, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives on Wednesday passed legislation to extend FBI surveillance powers that were set to expire on March 15.

The bill, formally titled the USA FREEDOM Reauthorization Act, cleared the House by a vote of 278 to 136, with 152 Democrats and 126 Republicans voting yes. View the full roll call here.

The legislation, strongly opposed by civil liberties groups and privacy advocates, is the product of bipartisan negotiations between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio.).

Attorney General William Barr voiced his support for the measure in a statement on Wednesday.

If passed by the Senate, advocacy group Free Press warned, legislation would “reauthorize abusive government surveillance powers.”

“The bill would reauthorize Section 215 powers Congress established under the USA Patriot Act in 2001,” Free Press noted. “Section 215 is the provision national security agencies cited in the past to support their unwarranted collection of phone records of hundreds of millions of people in the United States.” 4

Click here to read the full report published by Common Dreams.

There has been a terrible recent history when it comes to the emergency management of disasters in America. These legislative preparations and the tightening of lockdowns to tackle coronavirus recall not only the power grab after 9/11 but also, and just as alarmingly, the institution of de facto martial law when New Orleans was flooded by Hurricane Katrina.

When Hurricane Katrina forced New Orleans poet Shelton Alexander to evacuate his home, he took his truck and video camera to the Superdome. He escaped the chaotic shelter a few days later with a truckload of people and video documentation of history:

It is rather too easy to take our rights and democratically enshrined freedoms for granted, when in fact these are constantly under attack. And during times of crisis, when an opportunistic executive is able to avoid scrutiny, when lawmakers can retreat into the shadows to begin reshaping long-held constitutional rights, democracy is especially vulnerable. In abandoning its democracy principles, all in the name of protecting its citizens from this new invisible enemy, America seems to be trailing the way as it did after 9/11 (Israel too – see the video below), and the rest of the world would do well to pay attention.

On March 25th, Greg Wilpert, host of ‘The Real News Network’, spoke with Antony Loewenstein, author of ‘Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe’, about how the Israeli government’s state of emergency over the coronavirus pandemic is being used to shut down political debate and the right to protest:

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Update: New coronavirus law ‘bestows unlimited powers’ on Orbán government

On the same day I posted this article [March 30th] Amnesty International issued the following press release:

Following a decision by the Hungarian parliament to pass a new law that will allow the Government to rule by decree – without a clear end date or periodic reviews – under an extended state of emergency, David Vig, Amnesty International’s Hungary Director, said:

“This bill creates an indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency, and gives Viktor Orbán and his Government carte blanche to restrict human rights.

“This is not the way to address the very real crisis that has been caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We need strong safeguards to ensure that any measures to restrict human rights adopted under the state of emergency are strictly necessary and proportional in order to protect public health. This new law bestows unlimited powers to the government to rule by decree beyond the pandemic.

“During his years as Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán has overseen a rollback of human rights in Hungary, stoking up hostility towards marginalised groups and attempting to muzzle Hungary’s critical voices. Allowing his government to rule by decree is likely to speed up this rollback.”

Rule by decree

The new law will allow Hungary’s Government to rule by decree without a sunset clause or any other provision that would guarantee parliament can exercise proper oversight. It also creates two new crimes which would mean that anyone who publicises false or distorted facts that interfere with the “successful protection” of the public, or that “alarm or agitate” the public, could be punished by up to five years in prison. Anyone who interferes with the operation of a quarantine or isolation order could also face a prison sentence of up to five years, a punishment that increases to eight years if anyone dies as a result.

Amnesty is warning that these measures are inconsistent with international human rights law and standards. Plans for the new law were criticised last week by the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, the International Press Institute, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Click here to read the same press release on the Amnesty International website.

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1 Quote originally used by Benjamin Franklin for the Pennsylvania Assembly in its “Reply to the Governor” (November 11, 1755).

2 From an article entitled “DOJ seeks new emergency powers amid coronavirus pandemic” written by Betsy Woodruff Swan, published in Politico on March 21, 2020. https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/21/doj-coronavirus-emergency-powers-140023

3 From an article entitled “Coronavirus: What Newsweek Failed to Mention About ‘Continuity of Government’” written by Whitney Webb, published in Mint Press News on March 23, 2020. https://www.mintpressnews.com/coronavirus-what-newsweek-failed-mention-continuity-government/265954/ 

4 From an article entitled “152 House Democrats Join GOP to Reuathorize ‘Abusive Government Surveillence Powers’” written by Jake Johnson, published by Common Dreams on March 12, 2020. https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/03/12/152-house-democrats-join-gop-reauthorize-abusive-government-surveillance-powers

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