Tag Archives: Rachel Shabi

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

keep calm and carry on… following orders

A few months ago, as I was out buying some milk from the local convenience store, I was quite stunned to read the headline story in the local paper:

ARMED police forced a busy Sheffield road to close after marksmen swooped on a car while hunting for a suspect.

City Road, between Wulfric Road and Cradock Road, was blocked by police cars holding up trams, buses and motorists.

Eyewitnesses told The Star the officers searched local businesses and police appeared to be focusing on a vehicle on City Road.

Tram passenger Stewart Dalton said his journey was interrupted when an unmarked police car stopped ‘abruptly’ outside a barber’s shop, blocking the tramlines.

He said several other police cars with armed officers arrived ‘within seconds’, and ordered customers out of the shop at gunpoint.1

Another eyewitness, Steve Smith, was also interviewed:

Mr Smith said the police officers arranged themselves in a circle as they surrounded the vehicle.

There were officers with hard hats, big rifles and stun guns. There were a lot of people looking at what was going on.”

Mr Smith added he saw ‘at least three’ marksmen and felt concerned after seeing the incident develop.

I’m quite shocked to see something like this happening,” he said.

Having been shaken a little just reading about such an incident so close to my home, those who actually witnessed the events first-hand must have been shocked in the extreme. Armed police “order[ing] customers out of the shop at gunpoint” to be “frisked and held until the incident was over”. Obviously there was a good reason for this excess show of police force…

A South Yorkshire Police spokeswoman confirmed officers stopped a vehicle on the road yesterday morning ‘in relation to an ongoing policing operation’.

Armed officers assisted as a matter of precaution, the road was temporarily closed for about 30 minutes but was fully re-opened at around 10.40am. No arrests have been made and inquiries continue. Police would like to reassure the public they can safely go about their daily business.”

What? No arrests. And no national news reports. Click here to read the full article in The Star.

I recall this story because I was reminded of it on hearing about the M6 Megabus fiasco on Thursday morning [July 5th]. Here’s the story from BBC news, which begins “Armed police swooped on a coach on the M6 Toll motorway in the West Midlands”2:

[Earlier,] Armed police officers could be seen next to the single-decker coach on the southbound carriageway, as passengers were led off one by one.

Passengers were made to sit on the northbound carriageway, apart from one another, while surrounded by officers.

Sniffer dogs and forensic officers were also brought in to aid the search, as officers in forensic suits and others in military fatigues checked the area.

The Ministry of Defence confirmed military personnel were assisting police, at their request, under routine procedure.

One of the passengers on the bus told the BBC that she had no idea what was going on, that she didn’t see anything supsicious [sic], and wasn’t told why they were pulled over.

She was made to sit cross-legged on the tarmac and still was not told what was happening. She said the whole experience had been very “scary and frightening”.

And the reason this time…?

A police source told BBC Radio WM a passenger was seen pouring a liquid into a box, which then started smoking.

That was enough apparently for calling out police from the West Midlands and Staffordshire forces, not to mention the fire service and ambulance crews. It was enough to close carriageways in both directions on one of our busiest motorways for four hours, to bring in sniffer dogs and forensic teams, and most disturbingly “military personnel [who] were assisting police, at their request, under routine procedure”. Yes, under routine procedure! On this occasion, one of the eyewitnesses, Nick Jones, who was four vehicles behind the coach when police stopped traffic told the BBC:

“I’ve never seen so many ambulances turning up, also armed police, helicopter and dozens of police cars.”

Another eye-witness Barry Jarvis said:

“It was very puzzling as to what was going on at first as there weren’t that many police there.

“It was only after 20 minutes or so when all these unmarked cars [were] coming through that we thought something major was happening.”

Click here to read the full BBC news report.

I think it is fair to conclude that “something major was happening”, but what was the actual reason for such a staggering show of police and military strength. Well, here’s a BBC news article posted just a few hours later:

Staffordshire Police have said they are not linking an incident on the M6 Toll motorway with terrorism.

Superintendent Dave Holdway from Staffordshire police confirmed that no-one was being treated as a suspect and the case was “not being treated as counterterrorism at this time”.3

So no arrests again. But plenty of sound and fury signifying nothing. Then some empty (or should I say ‘robust’) apologies and reassurances that this “multi-agency response” was “swift”, which it was, and “proportionate”, which it blatantly wasn’t.

Click here to read the complete BBC news article and watch video of the police statement.

This latest incident has since caused me to recall a different occasion when the police took exception to a coach load of passengers, although not because “they had received a report from a genuinely concerned member of the public”, but because the passengers in question were heading off for an anti-Iraq War protest outside the RAF Base in Fairford, Gloucestershire. Although the passengers on this occasion [March 2003] represented no threat whatsoever, the coaches were nevertheless held up for two hours by a hundred riot police, whilst the passengers and their possessions were searched under the Terrorism Act. Denied their right to protest they were all then “escorted” back to London.

This incident neatly book-ends Chris Atkins’ excellent film Taking Liberties (released in June 2007 and freely available online). It’s a documentary that should be watched by everyone who is concerned by the on-going erosion of our civil liberties (and that really should be everybody living in Britain right now), and it’s also a film that’s well worth watching a second time, as I discovered a few nights ago:

You can watch the complete documentary here on Ustream (albeit annoyingly interrupted by advert breaks).

Back then, the Terrorism bills were already being used against peaceful dissenters, and this is something I had personally experienced in the days immediately prior to the London bombings.

A mini-G8 summit had come to Sheffield. It was an event that passed off almost unreported but, and in spite of the lack of media exposure, a hundred or so peaceful protesters ventured out into the city centre. Once there, we were confronted by a large number of regular police officers. Police marksmen had also been stationed on many of the rooftops. The regular police formed a line of blue across Fargate, the main shopping street, and for whatever reason (since the site of the actual meeting was unknown to most of us) the protesters assembled in front of them. A little later, three vans filled with riot police pulled up. These promptly disembarked and assembled into another line that looked on menacingly. In the meantime, the main police line allowed protesters and others to cross through but only from one direction. When a friend of mine tried to go back to where he had originally come from, he was told that if he continued he would be arrested. “Under what law?” he’d asked. The Terrorism Act was the answer, of course.

A week or so later, I’d also encountered another high-visibility police presence around the Edinburgh march against the actual G8 summit, with even more marksmen and more officers pointing their cameras towards us. This protest again represented no threat whatsoever to the G8 meeting, which was in any case being held some miles away at Gleneagles. Indeed, it was an almost embarrassingly non-confrontational assembly. What little bite it might have had – and it didn’t have much once the organisers had decided, in their infinite wisdom, to banish politics for the day and focus only on the vacuous demand to “Make Poverty History” – was entirely stolen by Bob Geldof’s simultaneous and self-aggrandising “Live 8” gig. “What the hell was all that about?” I wondered after we’d returned to our hostel – why did any of us even bother to turn out at all? But I am digressing.

Guardian journalist Rachel Shabi wrote a brilliant article previewing the protests at the G8, although one that I came across only later, which perfectly conveyed my feelings at the time. In the same piece, she also detailed the new measures being brought in to stifle “illegitimate” protests (as opposed to the all-too-legitimate protest I’d been a part of), as well as the extraordinary level and cost of security that had been put into place around the Gleneagles summit itself:

We are about to witness how “illegitimate” protest is dealt with at the G8 summit. Already, anti-G8 protesters-to-be say they have been intimidated by police and now fear attending demonstrations. Hundreds of individuals have been filmed going into public meetings held by peaceful protest groups. More have been searched, visited at home, had notes and computers seized, and been offered cash rewards for information on other protesters.

Meanwhile at Gleneagles, rings of steel fencing surround the hotel grounds. More than 10,000 police will be in force, along with a reported 2,000 US marines, an SAS team and specially trained snipers. The area will be riddled with roadblocks and exclusion zones – protesters aren’t allowed to march near the hotel. All this security is estimated to cost around £100m. We can’t tell for sure because there’s a blanket information ban on preparations for the summit.4

As if all of this wasn’t already bad enough, and slap bang in the middle of the G8 summit, we were hit by the London bombings. Blair immediately rushed back to the capital and, before you could say Jack Straw (or on this occasion Charles Clarke), we were being made ready for yet another draft of anti-terrorist legislation: The Terrorism Act 2006. With a few strokes of the pen, still more of our civil liberties had been stolen from us, and all in the name of security.

Comparing these recent incidents to the situation back in 2007, when the horrors of the July 7th bombings of 2005 (which also feature in Atkins’ documentary) were still fresh in our minds, and it’s not difficult to see how the world has changed again. The most staggering example being the security measures at this year’s Olympics. Anti-aircraft missiles on top of London flats and battleships in the Thames. Welcome to Airstrip One!

The Overton Window, that narrow range of ideas that the general public responds to as acceptable, is being stretched again and again, just a little wider each time. A racheting up that started in Britain even before the September 11th attack thanks to Blair’s first Terrorism Act that was passed in 2000. And ever since then, no crisis is wasted, no opportunity missed.

At this point, I’d like to make a comparison. Anyone over the age of about twenty will be uncomfortably familiar with the threat of IRA atrocities. The IRA were a very real and ever-present danger. A group who in October 1984 had bombed the party in government at the Grand Hotel in Brighton and on a second occasion, in February 1991, mortar bombed John Major’s official residence in Downing Street. The ordinary person also had good reason to be concerned, public spaces having been frequently targeted throughout the seventies, eighties and well into the nineties.

Back then our governments had properly advised everyone to keep alert. Keep a look out for unattended luggage; this was the main thing. A few sensible precautions and nothing more. No paranoia descended over our nation. No calls for heavyweight legislation (at least not on the UK mainland). But then, of course, for much of that period we had enough on our minds already with the other very real threat of Cold War annihilation.

So the old bogeyman was the Soviet Union, but that apparently went away – in fact it didn’t, but that’s another story. Meanwhile today’s official bogeyman is al-Qaeda, which is actually quite an improvement when you think about it. After all, al-Qaeda don’t have the second largest nuclear arsenal in the world. They just have a few fanatics with home-made bombs – so just why are we being told to be more afraid than ever?

Since September 11th, right throughout the whole period of this ludicrous “War on Terror”, successive British governments have all been behaving hysterically. Amplifying public fears in order to make wrongful arrest and imprisonment appear justified as necessary evils. This endless war against an altogether nebulous and shape-shifting enemy has also been used to justify and permit such truly Orwellian measures as indefinite detention in places like Guantanamo Bay, where facilities are soon to be upgraded at a cost of $40 million, along with “extraordinary rendition”, which also continues under Obama.

Click here to watch the same interview and read a transcript on the Democracy Now! Website.

When torture becomes permissible on the grounds that it is necessary to defend our freedom then it doesn’t take a genius to understand that we are rapidly approaching the rocky shores of La-La Land. Which brings me back to the events of Thursday morning on the M6. Troops of armed police and military closing a motorway because someone on a coach was looking a bit suspicious, or, as the official story now has it, “smoking a fake cigarette” .

If an emergency response of this kind had happened twenty years ago I feel sure that it would have caused a storm of public outrage. Twenty years ago it would also have been considered absolutely unacceptable for police, let alone military officers, to hold perfectly innocent citizens at gunpoint. These days, however, a lame apology is deemed more than sufficient for the matter to rest. The media are quick to move on, the passengers feel happy just to be alive (or so we are informed), and meanwhile the message has been reinforced that we all just need to “keep calm and carry on… following orders”; the Overton Window having been pushed an inch or two wider again.

Fear, Joseph Goebbals once said, was the approach the Nazis had used to keep control of the German people. A cast-iron way of controlling the masses, it was fear that helped to instill compliance and stifle the voice of all who opposed the tightening bonds of tyranny. Fostering fear was simply the easiest and most effective way to keep the people in their boxes. It still is.

1 From an article entitled “Police marksmen swoop on car”, written by Richard Blackledge, published in The Star on March 8, 2012. http://www.thestar.co.uk/news/local/police-marksmen-in-swoop-on-car-1-4322525

2 From an article entitled “M6 Toll Megabus coach stopped by armed police”, published by BBC News on July 5, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-18719962

3 From an article entitled “M6 Toll Megabus alert: ‘Not terrorist attack’”, published on BBC News on July 5, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-18725577

4 From an article entitled “The war on dissent”, written by Rachel Shabi, published in the Guardian on July 2, 2005. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2005/jul/02/development.g8

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Filed under al-Qaeda & DAESH / ISIS / ISIL, Britain, police state, September 11th, USA