Jesus, where do I start?
When I last sounded off, one of the many topics was students and the utter fiasco which was their A-Level results, so let’s pick up there.
Now, this may come as a shock to many of you, but what you achieve at A-Level pretty much decides what happens next for you. Do badly: start looking for a job.But do well and you can start thinking about what university offer you want to accept, to continue your education.
So before I go any further, congratulations to all who achieved sufficiently impressive grades, despite the interference of Gavin Williamson and his blessed algorithms.
I don’t think this will come as much of a surprise to many, but what happens next is that those who have achieved the required grades travel to live at and attend the university they had been accepted by.
What actually happened next was also no surprise: a spike in those away from home for the first time, now diagnosed with Covid and impelled to self-isolate.
I have a lot of sympathy for the students here; they had been told that they were of an age-group unlikely to be susceptible to virus, and were happily told to pack themselves off to college to enjoy themselves. There has been much talk of “The University Experience” and what that means: you live away from home for the first time, you study but you also meet lots of new people from different parts of the country. You bond, you may go on to party with them, and if you’re very lucky, you might sleep with at least one of them.
There was no need for them to leave home at all: the lectures could have been engaged in at home online, rather than having the students leave home and then be confined to their rooms. So let’s be clear: these students are not attending lectures: because of the ongoing crisis, it’s all being done online, via Teams or Zoom, all of which could have been done from the comfort of their own homes.
Try telling me, in those exact same circumstances, if it were you then you wouldn’t try to meet up with people, and I call bullshit.
This was, of course, not the Goverment’s fault. Nosireebob. Here’s Dido Harding, and just to fill you in on her qualifications: Diana Mary “Dido” Harding, Baroness Harding of Winscombe is a British Conservative Party businesswoman who served as chairwoman of NHS Improvement since 2017, current head of the Test and Trace programme, and acting Chair of the National Institute for Health Protection since 2020.
She is also the former chief executive of the TalkTalk Group where she faced calls for her to resign after a cyber attack revealed the details of 4 million customers. A member of the Conservative Party, she’s married to Conservative Party MP John Penrose, and is a friend of former Prime Minister David Cameron. Dido was appointed as a Member of the House of Lords by Cameron in 2014 and she holds a board position at the Jockey Club, which is responsible for several major horse-racing events including the Cheltenham Festival. (That’s the same Cheltenham Festival which was allowed to take place this year, despite the obvious Covid risks it presented.)
Dido – head of Track and Trace, remember – said “I don’t think anybody was expecting, to see the real sizable increase in demand that we’ve seen over the last few weeks, so none of the modelling was expecting that, and that’s why we all need to think really hard about how we prioritise the use of these tests.”
No, Dido. Nobody could possibly have predicted that students would go to University at the start of term in September. Absolutely unforeseeable.
Think about this too: most of the people who had been helping with testing over the summer worked for universities, and so when they returned to their full-time jobs, said testing positions were left vacant.
You’ll be shocked to learn the Government hadn’t thought of this and, like Roy Hodgson as England Manager (sorry for the comparison, Roy) had no back-up plan, no Plan B. Just surprise: suddenly we have less people to administer the tests at exactly the time where we’re encouraging more people to get tested. This, of course, could not have been predicted.
Which leads us to the situation where people who needed to have a Covid test suddenly found that they were instructed to drive hundreds of miles to the nearest appointment. That’s travelling at Cummings-grade level.
See, the thing one thing everybody agrees on (now) is that keeping the virus in check relies on having a fully working Track and Trace system. The Independent published this handy, cut-out-and-keep chronology of our dabbling with the idea of tracking and tracing:
‘January 2020 – deadly pandemic breaks out.
February 2020 – World Health Organisation issues three word advice: “Test. Test. Test.”
UK’s deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries responds by saying: “There comes a stage in a pandemic where testing is not an appropriate intervention.”
March 2020 – Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, advises people with coronavirus symptoms to self-isolate at home and don’t get tested.
April 2020 – Matt Hancock decides testing is in fact important. Launches drive to “100,000-tests-a-day” target.
May 2020 – Matt Hancock announces his own success in reaching his 100,000-a-day target, which turns out to have been through putting 35,000 tests in the post the previous day.
Dido Harding is put in charge of test and trace programme. Boris Johnson promises it will be “world-beating”.
July 2020 – government starts bribing people to go to pubs and restaurants, and threatening people with redundancy if they don’t go back to the office.
August 2020 – infection rate begins to soar. People going to pubs are blamed.
September 2020 – schools reopen. Infection rates rise to more than 4,000 a day. The “world-beating” test and trace system is running at full capacity. Parents in London with coughing children are advised to drive them to Inverness if they want a test. If they don’t get a test, the child can’t go to school and the parents can’t go to work.
Dido Harding tells a House of Commons select committee: “I don’t think anybody was expecting to see the really sizeable increase in demand that we’ve seen over the course of the last few weeks.”
Harding continued to explain that she had no real idea how many people were trying and failing to get a test. The system capacity is 250,000 a day. The only way to know how oversubscribed it is by measuring “how many people are visiting the website and calling the number”.
She did acknowledge that there would be some “double counting” involved, which indeed there would be, as anyone who has ever tried to use a website or call a phone line that is not capable of coping with the demands placed on it will testify. “Between the years 2011 and 2019, for example (The Independent journalist writes), “I would estimate that I personally represent over a quarter of a million people attempting to buy a ticket for the Glastonbury Festival. One would hope a “world-beating” test and trace system would have rather more robust metrics in place for gauging how many people in the country think they’ve got coronavirus.”
Look, I know I’m a raving Leftie, but I do not dare to claim that things would necessarily have been any better had Labour won the last election, especially when you think about who would have been in charge if “we” had won. But Jesus wept, I’d like to think there would be at least an element of transparency, of learning from mistakes, which is not what we’re seeing now.
For a start, don’t be fooled by Conservative MPs referring to what we do have as “NHS Track and Trace”. The implication in them referring to it as such is that the NHS is at the heart of it, when in actual fact it has knack all to do with the the NHS.
In fact, it is an outsourced service provided to the NHS. The contact tracers are employed by Serco, who were paid £108 million for the first phase of the work, up to late August. The call centre is operated by American specialists Sitel, who were paid £84m for a similar period.
Money well earned.
So why do Conservative MPs continue to refer to it as NHS Track and Trace? Call me a cynic, but I think it’s because they want you to believe, when this is all finally over and done with, that it was the NHS that failed the nation, rather than one or any number of the privately owned firms who are actually culpable, and to whom our most precious asset will doubtless be sold off.
Who, when reading this and seeing the name Serco did not feel their heart sag? Oh that lot, we thought. For Serco have a bit of a reputation: in July 2019, a fine of £19.2m was imposed on them for fraud and false accounting over its electronic tagging service for the Ministry of Justice. This is where they were found to have charged us – the British taxpayer – for tagging a number of prisoners temporarily and legitimately released from prison, whom they hadn’t tagged at all. The company was also ordered to pay the Serious Fraud Office’s investigative costs of £3.7 million.
And what do we do with companies who have failed to adhere to the very basic terms of a contract? Give them another one, that’s what.
Incidentally, Serco have also been accused of an extensive cover-up over sexual abuse of immigrants at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire, and, together with its consortium partners, failing to develop a strategy for managing Higher Active radioactive Waste at the Atomic Weapons Establishment. I think that’s a Full House, isn’t it?
So, Serco are exactly the sort of people one would expect to have been awarded such a lucrative and important contract as the Track and Trace one. I could go on about how these contracts, and many others, which have wasted millions, if not billions, of pounds since Covid kicked in, were awarded without going through the proper tender process and just so happened to be awarded to companies which are owned by, or who have shareholders who are Conservative MPs or their main fund providers, but you’re all smart cookies. You can look it up.
And get this: the government backed Track and Trace app, which you’ve doubtless seen advertised this week, encouraging us to download it and help beat the virus, isn’t actually compatible with Covid tests done by the NHS.
World-beating, my arse.
Let me just say this: there are parallels to be drawn between the money which has been made by Tory benefactors since Covid, and those that a record company makes when a star on their books dies:
At the time of writing, the Goverment has wasted £3,895,556,000 since March. This includes unsafe testing kits; face masks that don’t work; broken tracing systems; useless antibody tests; contracts to sweet manufacturers and dormant companies with no employees, to provide PPE that, well who’d have thunk it, never arrived.
Three words: Magic. Money. Tree.
At the end of July 2020, debt was £2,004 billion, £227.6 billion more than at the same point last year. Just remember that next time Labour is painted as the profligate party.
Yeh, yeh…these are unprecedented times of national crisis…I get that. Extra money had to be spent. Agreed. But that should not be seen as an opportunity to line the pockets of your already stinking-rich mates.
Meanwhile, as various areas – the North East, the North East, South Wales (fuck it, anywhere but London) – saw spikes in those who were diagnosed with Covid, the Government implemented regional restrictions in an attempt to curb the rise. The problem here was that nobody in Government seemed to know exactly what the rules were from one area to the next: when questioned junior minister Gillian Keegan was unable to explain what the rules were in the North East. You can maybe excuse her for not being all over the detail (were she not being interviewed on a local radio programme in one of the areas in question), but surely one could expect the person who had imposed, or at the very least sanctioned, said measures to be all over it like the proverbial tramp on chips, no?
No. For later the same day, our PM when asked got it wrong too, prompting this hastily written (by someone else) Tweet:
Fair play for admitting he got it wrong, but via the medium of Twitter is hardly the way to announce it, is it? He may as well have hidden in another fridge. Get out in front of the press again, man. I brought eggs.
And “Misspoke”…? Miss-speaking is when you accidentally refer to someone as Mrs rather than Miss. This was not him miss-speaking, this was him getting it wrong. Politician-speak, see: where the words “I’m sorry” are followed by the word “if…”; where you have to make it seem like you’ve said what is expected or anticipated, but where you leave yourself enough wriggle-room to amend, backtrack, clarify or denounce as deemed necessary later on.
This is where the whole matter of trust comes into play. Now, more than ever, it is essential that the people of the UK trust and believe in those who rule over us, and yet what we constantly get is the breaking of rules we’re supposed to adhere to, and the flim-flam justification for doing so, followed by errors and cover-ups. I’m not necessarily advocating another nationwide lockdown, but what I am asking for is for consistency. Is that too much to ask?
An example: new rules state that pubs and clubs must now shut at 10:00 pm. Putting aside the implied idiocy of thinking that the Covid virus is only active from 10:01 pm, and the actual idiocy of having all pubs turf people out at exactly the same time, to travel home on public transport where social distancing is simply not possible, what was not widely advertised was that one particular set of bars were exempt from the rule: those located in the House of Commons.
In the meantime, regional spikes – and we should really start calling it what it really is now: the second wave – led to our Government asking us all to work from home where possible, when only a matter of weeks ago they were encouraging us to go back to our offices to work, under the pretence that local sandwich businesses were struggling. Let’s call that what it was too, whilst we’re at it: it’s no coincidence that the people who were losing out on rent for vacant office buildings just so happened to also be major contributors to the Conservative coffers. And we can’t have those billionaires being out of pocket, now can we?
These spikes are, apparently, all our fault: we love freedom “too much” and we “don’t like being told what to do”. I call bullshit once again. There may be small pockets of Covid deniers in the country, or those who consider wearing face masks to protect ourselves and others is either a fallacy or an infringement on our civil liberties, but they are very much in the minority.
The majority of us just want to get through this and will do whatever it takes to do so.
What’s needed here is clear and consistent messaging, and (and I can’t believe I’m about to type these words) strong and stable leadership.
What we’re getting is the absolute opposite.
For once, I agree with Phil and the boys:
In non-Covid related news, it was announced that Brexit – ah, Brexit! Remember those heady days when this was all we had to worry about? – and the additonal paperwork which every vehicle will need to have (and have checked) will cause queues of approximately 7000 lorries per day at channel ports. Give or take, that’s 700 miles of tailbacks. And the solution? More staff, presumably. But no: a new internal border in Kent. Genius. Say what you like about Boris’ “oven-ready” deal: we never expected it to lead to the annexing of Kent.
Oh, and the software needed to control the borders won’t be ready until May 2021, months after it’s needed.
And the same applies for the border with Northern Ireland he assured us wasn’t going to happen.
But it’s okay, Boris has a master-plan: all we have to do is pass new legislation which allows us to renege on the Withdrawal Agreement he signed with the EU less than a year ago – which, for those of you with short memories, was forced through Parliament in record time because, it was argued, there was no need to examine the detail of the agreement. “We would never have agreed to this had we bothered to read it first time around” the likes of Ian Duncan Smith exclaimed. (Still no sign of Mark Francois. Funny, that)
And our Premier agreed – and he claims to have written the fecking thing – hence the Internal Market Bill, which has got through two readings in the House of Commons, and which – amongst other things, such as grabbing power back from our devolved nations, and throwing the Good Friday Agreement out the window, so it’ll be a big 70s welcome back to sectarian violence in Ireland – permits us to renege on the Withdrawal Agreement, all of which is of course, in breach of international law.
Here’s Ed Miliband, standing in for Labour Leader Kier Starmer when he was self-isolating, still sounding like an Aardman Animations character, but giving Johnson a proper what-for at PMQs:
If only he could have managed to eat a bacon sandwich properly.
But, of course, it is the EU who are being painted as the unreasonable ones now. Does anyone actually buy that? How outrageous that they might insist on us sticking to an agreement we agreed to only last year, the manipulative bastards.
What this does, of course, is send out a very clear message to all of those countries with whom we are currently negotiating new trade deals (to replace the perfectly good one we had via the EU): Britain can’t be trusted.
Who haven’t I mentioned yet?
You know it: Home Secretary, Priti Patel.
Obsessed with her desire to send any asylum seekers (she continues to call them illegal immigrants, even though they are not) elsewhere, this week two proposed plans were leaked to the press. The first was that we should send them all to the Ascension Islands (hello Australia! Does this sound familiar?), the second was that we should contain them on boats moored off-shore whilst their applications were considered.
Just to clarify the hard-line Patel allegedly proposed: we remove them from the dangerous craft on which they had paddled their way here and either relocate them to an isolated volcanic island, about 1,600 kilometres from the coast of Africa and 2,250 kilometres from the coast of Brazil, or we put them in a much bigger and safer ship than they had been used to thus far.
Or – and this may seem radical – maybe, since they’ve done nothing wrong, we could treat them like humans and let them in whilst their applications are processed. maybe even let them work a little, pay their taxes and National Insurance contributions, to make up at least some of the money the Government seems determined to – and I quote – “spaff up the walls” on Covid and Brexit.
I heard a government minister – sadly, I didn’t catch his name – being interviewed and asked whether these suggestions were true. His answer was that he ‘wouldn’t comment on leaks’. Which is Politician Speak for “Yes, it’s true, but it’s a bit embarrassing so I’d rather you didn’t press me on this.”
One wonders just how persuasive Patel is for these nonsense ideas to be even considered, let alone leaked. With apologies to you all, not least to The Robster for the tarring of a great record with debase connotations:
And don’t even get me started on the US elections, which given the developments over the last 24 hours, I’m steering clear of. I’d hate to speak ill of the dead (until they’re actually dead, and then it’s fair game. Fingers crossed!).