Tag Archives: UK

Resolving the COVID-19 crisis in the UK

The UK has the ninth worst death rate (per head of population) from COVID-19 in the world at 120 per 100,000, and this is the third worst of the 20 most affected countries (Johns Hopkins, 9 January 2021; just behind Italy and Czechia); the total number of deaths (within 28 days of a positive test) now being more than 80,000 BBC, 9 January 2021). More worryingly the number of new cases remains around 60,000 despite the recent partial lockdown, and deaths per day are currently over 1000 (UK Government, 9 January 2021). Furthermore, the number of deaths is likely to rise rapidly perhaps to around 2000 a day in a fortnight as the effects of the recent surge in infections work their way through over-stretched hospitals.

None of this need have happened if:

  • the UK government had acted with leadership, foresight and wisdom over the last year; instead it has always acted too little and too late, often with calamitous mis-judgement (see critique of the government’s failures written in April 2020); and
  • more people had responded to the crisis responsibly and wisely, caring for others as much as they did for themselves, and not trying to push the boundaries of what limited restrictions the government had put in place.

What little we know, but what we should have acted on

It is remarkable how much we still don’t know about COVID-19, despite all of the valuable research that has been done such as the creation of new vaccines and the discovery of treatments that can reduce death rates of the most seriously ill. However, we do clearly know enough for the UK government to have acted very differently over the last year. Among the most important things we do know are that:

  • Countries that rapidly put in place comprehensive lockdown measures and keep them in place until the number of remaining cases is very low, have not only had lower overall mortality rates, but their economies are also recovering more quickly. The UK government has consistently gone into lockdown (or restrictions) too late, eased lockdown too early, and has never therefore got on top of the coronavirus. Particularly stupidly, the lockdown in November-December 2020 was nowhere near strict enough, and was foolishly eased in the anticipation that people could see their families over Christmas.
  • Many countries with a history of using masks (such as China, including Hong Kng and Macau) or that have made them mandatory (such as Malaysia and Vietnam; but also many African countries) have been able effectively to limit or reduce infection rates. Much of the debate around mask use has been because of unwarranted confusion about whether masks reduce the chance of the wearer catching COVID-19, or of this actually protecting others (see my post in March on Face Masks and COVID-19). Selfish, individualist societies, where people care much more about themselves than about others and therefore don’t wear masks have generally suffered badly from COVID-19.
  • The fetishisation of the R-number has caused unfortunate misunderstandings and led to many more deaths than would have otherwise been the case. The UK government has seemed to place inordinate emphasis on the reproduction number (R = the average number of secondary infections produced by a single infected person), rather than on the actual numbers of people dying. R is obviously important, but there is a huge difference in impact between a higher R number when total infections are low, and a lower R number when infections are high. Many more people in the short term are going to catch the infection (and die) when thousands are already infected even with a R-number well below 1, than will catch it if only a few people are infected and the R number is 2 or 3. This is crucial, because the government should have done much more to reduce new infections in the summer to virtually zero, and should have acted much more quickly in October when numbers started to rise again (lessons should have been learnt from the experiences of Australia and New Zealand).
  • Too much reliance was placed on digital technologies. It is remarkable how the much-lauded NHS app (in its various incarnations) is now never mentioned by the government. Moreover, it was very expensive: in September 2020, it was estimated to have cost more than £35 million. The entire UK test and trace service has been a catalogue of disasters, but the expenditure on an app that was meant to be a silver bullet was truly misplaced, and the only people to have benefitted were the companies involved in developing it! As many people warned, digital technologies are invariably a solution in search of a problem, and the failure of previous digital initiatives should have been a clear warning to the government.
  • Islands have a clear potential advantage in protecting their inhabitants from COVID-19. The UK has very clear borders that are relatively easy to “protect”, unlike so many other countries in Europe, and yet it has been very tardy in introducing restrictions for those croissing its borders (either way). Island states, especially New Zealand (only 25 deaths) and Iceland (only 29 deaths) with wise governmetns have been able to ensure that infections and deaths have been kept to a minimum by imposing very strict controls. Thus New Zealand specifies unequiovocally that “All people entering New Zealand must go immediately into managed isolation or quarantine facilities. They will remain there for at least 14 days and must test negative for COVID-19 before they can go into the community”.
  • People respond to clear and simple messages, when they are delivered by trusted leaders. Unfortunately, the UK’s blustering leadership has prevaricated and vastly over-complicated the messages to those living in the UK during the pandemic. Things were made far worse, and trust evaporated, when Dominic Cummings did not resign following his breach of COVID restrictions in May 2020, which made many people in the country think that there was one rule for those in power, and another for everyone else. With confused (and weak) messages, alongside a growing belief that it was alright to tweek the rules a bit, it was scarcely surprising that so many people failed to act responsibly in the latter part of 2020 when COVID-19 ran out of control.
  • It is not the new variants that have caused the recent dramatic rise in infections; it is people’s behaviour. Put simply, if everyone focused on protecting others from catching COVID-19, then regardless of the variant the number of infections would be minimised. Yet the government and news media persist in “blaming” the new variant for the recent dramatic increase in infections, which gives completely the wrong message to people. It is high time that we were open and honest about the fact that these recent very high infection rates have been caused primarily by people’s behaviour in December; if people were not giving the infection to others, then there would be no way that these others would catch COVID-19 – regardless of how infectious the variant is. We need to realise that perhaps one-third of infections are asymptomatic, and therefore that many people who feel perfectly well are probably giving COVID-19 to others.

What we should have done; but it’s never too late to take action

Based on the above, it seems fairly clear what the government should have done, but didn’t. This is not that dissimilar to what wise voices were saying back at the start of the pandemic (see my list in April of questions tbe government still needs to answer over its failures). Neil Ferguson and his team’s modelling back in March, although decried by some not only at the time but also subsequently, does indeed seem to have been quite an accurate prediction of what was going to happen, particularly as far as a second wave was concerned and especially given the lack of knowledge at the time about the precise dyamics of COVID-19. Anyone who read that March paper should have been left in no doubt that we were going to see at least 80,000 deaths from COVID-19. Those who argued vociferously and publicly otherwise should acknowledge their mistake and share some of the responsibility for the subsequent national vaccilation about the direction in which the pandemic was heading. We are already past this level, and many, many more are sadly going to die. Each one is a tragedy for their families and those cloe to them. There are absolutely no excuses for ayone saying that they were not aware of how serious the scale of the pandemic was going to be in November 2020-March 2021.

The creation of vaccines to counter the effects of COVID-19, as well as better treatment protocols identified over the past year, provide some hope for the future. However, drawing on the above evidence, the government still needs to take further steps immediately if the UK population and economy are going to be able to reduce the scale of suffering and damage that it has already caused. The following would seem to be wise actions (in approximate order of priority):

  1. Lead rather than react; be ahead of the pandemic. The Government must take control of the situation, and show real and decisive leadership in tackling it. All too often the Prime Minister and his cabinet have dithered, and as a result failed to protect the British people. If tighter restrictions had been in place in December, there wouldm have been many fewer than the 417,570 people tested positive in the last seven days. They should have known and planned for the scale of what has happened. They are culpable for their failure.
  2. Much tighter restrictions should be placed on personal mobility immediately, and they should be kept in place until the number of new infections is in hundreds rather than tens of thousands. This is likely to be a minimum of six weeks and possibly much longer, regardless of the hopefully positive effects of the vaccinations. The long term economic impact of COVID-19 would be far less severe with a shorter sharper lockdown than it will be if the government continues to try to pursue its on-off policy while maintaining relatively high levels of infection.
  3. Face masks should be made compulsory for all people both outdoors and indoors at all times (other than in a person’s own home). This should apply to those jogging, running or cycling, as well as to those just walking. Sanitation points should be made freely available in all workplaces, shops, bars/restaurants and entertainment areas.
  4. All people arriving in the UK should be required to show evidence of an appropriate negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of arrival. As an island, the UK has the advantage of being able to manage its borders, and it needs to do so effectively so that additional infections are not brought into the country, especially of the inevitable new variants of COVID-19 that will emerge. It would also be a great gesture of our national care for others if we insisted on everyone leaving the UK also being tested.
  5. The vaccination programme must be delivered effectively and efficiently. In general, the priority system seems broadly appropriate, but insufficient priority has been paid to those aged over 90, staff working for companies that provide care at home for the elderly, as well as GPs and other medical staff (all of these should be in the highest priority category) and indeed teacher. With 46,000 healthcare staff off work, an already over-stretched NHS has become even less able to manage the impending crisis. This is unacceptable carelessness on behalf of the government. Moreover, the vaccination policy and practice needs to be very much more transparent than it currently is.
  6. A really efficient and effective test, trace and control system must be put in place once the number of new infections has reached less than 1000 a day. It is impossible for testing and tracing to work effectively with the level of infections that we now have. However, for longer term viability and success, once numbers have reduced to a manageable level (as they were for much of the summer of 2020) it is critically important that we have in place an appropriate and high quality epidemic montoring system that can prevent COVID-19 and its successor pademics from catching hold.
  7. We should put in place now mechanisms to ensure that effective control against COVID-19 is in place for the latter part of 2021. This must ensure that sufficient vaccines are in place (preferably of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine) for GP surgeries to deliver them effectively as they have done for may years with the annual influenza vaccine over the next year, and indeed in future years as well.

Each of these seven action points could have easily been put in place by the government during the summer and early autumn of 2020. It failed to do so and is therefore culpable for the excessive numbers of deaths that we are now seeing. It seems that Johnson, his advisers and senior ministers all seemed to prioritise a focus on getting an easy deal done over post-Brexit trade and relations with countries in the European Union, and therefore took its collective eye off the COVD-19 ball.

It is, though, not just the goverment’s fault. Everyone who has given COVID-19 to someone else is also partly responsible. We should not have needed the government to order us what to do. Surely, knowing what we do about COVID-19, we should all have acted reponsibly and wisely by limiting our personal contacts as much as possible. It is self-evident that we have failed to do this. We can, though, all make a difference now. Wherever we can over the next two months as many as possible of us should choose to stay at home. It only needs one contact to start a new chain of infection. Sadly, trying to circumvent the regulations that have been put in place seems to have become a national pastime; perhaps this is Dominic Cummings’ lasting legacy. Any excuse for not adhering to them seems to be acceptable to the person making it. In part this is again the government’s fault. Why on earth, for example, was “local area” not defined when the government permitted outdoor exercise within it? For one person it is somewhere within a 30 minute drive; for another it might just be within walking distance of home. However painful it is, we all need to act even more responsibly than we did in March-April. I hope Chris Whitty (the UK’s Chief Medical Officer) is right when he said on BBC Radio 4 this morning that we are at the peak of the outbreak, but I fear he is not. Given the very large number of new infections that we are still having, death rates are bound to increase further for at least two more weeks. At least Matt Hancock said yesterday that “every time you try to flex the rules that could be fatal“; such a shame that this message has not been clearer from the government before. We, the people, need to act where the government has failed. We can make a difference, but we need to care for each other more than we do for ourselves – as the brilliant staff in our NHS strive to do every moment of every day.

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Our “winter of discontent”…

Back in July, and indeed long before then, many of us were warning that we had to spend the summer working incredibly hard to ensure that the UK would be able to be resilient in the face of the likely rise in COVID-19 infections. It seems instead that the government took its eye of the ball, hoped that COVID-19 would somehow go away, and instead concentrated on trying to impose its will on the European Union over the Brexit trade negotiations.

In September (the 18th), when I was feeling particularly disgruntled with the incompetence and stupidity of our government, I therefore posted on Facebook a list of some of the things that I feared might happen over the next year under the heading “Now is the winter of our discontent… (Shakespeare, Richard III). I wonder how many of these will coincide in the UK over the next few months”. Having been for a long autumnal walk today (the picture above), the day after our Prime Minister announced a new 4-week lockdown from 5th November, I just thought that I would also post them here as a record of what happens over the next few months. I so hope that I am wrong, but I will update the content periodically to see what happens: green means that fortunately my fears were ill-founded; red indicates that sadly I was correct; and pink indicates that there is some evidence that we are heading this way! I should stress that these are not predictions, but instead imaginations of what a “perfect-storm” would look like. Already, our government has indebted future generations for years to come. There is no doubt that things will get very much worse before there is even a glimmer of hope that they will improve.

  • Dramatic increase in serious COVID-19 cases leading to overwhelming pressure on hospitals;
  • Crisis over Brexit negotiations resulting in serious trade disruptions and collapse in value of the pound (not least on 20th December, in large part because of coincidence of rapid surge in new COVID-19 strain with stalled Brexit negotiations, Port of Dover announces ferry terminal closed to traffic leaving UK; massive lorry queues at Dover as borders closed; however agreement on a Brexit deal on 24th December slowly improved matters; but subsequently border queues and bureaucratic changes led to further problems in January 2021 as evidenced with BBC report on M&S, shirt exports in The Times, and Michael Gove the Cabinet Office Minister stating on 8 January 2021 that there will be significant disruption at borders)
  • Influenza pandemic (partly because of insufficient vaccines available) coinciding with COVID-19 pandemic causing additional crisis for NHS;
  • Food shortages (resulting from trade disruptions) leading to rising thefts from supermarkets and shops; (BBC News: trade disruptions at Felixstowe, 14th November 2020; BBC News: Brexit increasing food supply chain costs)
  • Serious flooding in much of lowland England as a result of heavy rains in October and November (BBC reports heavy rainfall and risk of flooding, 3rd October; BBC also reports homes evacuated in South West after downpours and flooding on 19th December; and serious flooding in Bedfordshire and elsewhere reported on Christmas Day – BBC)
  • Increasing power outages resulting from gas shortages, lack of sunshine for solar power, and storm damage;
  • Standstill caused by heavy early snowfalls in late December (Glad that this did not happen)
  • Mass graves dug in major cities because crematoria and mortuaries are overcome by demand (not yet, but overflow mortuaries were being created in early 2021 – BBC News: emergency mortuary in a Surrey woodland, 11th January 2021)
  • Very significant riots as more and more people realise that Brexit was a huge mistake;
  • Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II dies of COVID-19 complications, and mass demonstrations against Prince Charles lead to his resignation and the declaration of a Republic;
  • Northern Ireland joins a united Eire;
  • Scotland and Wales declare unilateral independence from the UK, and form a wide-ranging mutual interest pact…

Who will be the sun of York to turn this winter into glorious summer?

Latest update 14th January 2021

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Questions the UK government must answer over Covid-19

Downing Street

Downing Street, London

With the UK now accounting for about 10% of global deaths from Covid-10, many of my friends from overseas keep asking me why the UK seems to have suffered so badly from the new coronavirus.  As of 23rd April, we had the fourth highest number of deaths as a ratio of total population of any country in the world (at 28 per 100,000), behind Spain (at 47 per 100,000), Italy (at 42 per 100,000), and France (at 33 per 100,000).  My previous posts on Data and the scandal of the UK’s Covid-19 survival rate (11th April) and Face masks and Covid-19: communal not individual relevance (29th March) go part of the way to explain why this is, but they do not fully take into account the increasing amount of evidence that the government has not sufficiently explained, and I thought it might be helpful (at least for me) to try to pull this together into a straightforward list of the key issues (in broadly chronological order):

  • Why did the government not take action following Exercise Cygnus in 2016, and why has it not made the information about this publicly available?  As I have commented before, this exercise  “was undertaken to simulate the impact of a major flu pandemic in the UK. The full conclusions have never been published, but sufficient evidence is in the public domain to suggest that it showed that the NHS was woefully unprepreard, with there being significant predicted shortages of intensive care beds, necessary equipment, and mortuary space”.  The government has also refused to respond to a freedom of information request about this as recently reported in The Guardian (26th April)
  • Why did the government fail to act on warnings in 2019 that we were unprepared for a pandemic? The Guardian (24th April) has also reported that in a leaked document “Ministers were warned last year the UK must have a robust plan to deal with a pandemic virus and its potentially catastrophic social and economic consequences in a confidential Cabinet Office briefing leaked to the Guardian.  The detailed document warned that even a mild pandemic could cost tens of thousands of lives, and set out the must-have ‘capability requirements’ to mitigate the risks to the country, as well as the potential damage of not doing so”.  A recent investigation by the BBC’s Panorama also shows clearly that the government had not stockpiled sufficient protective equipment despite being warned that it needed to do so.  Apparently “There were no gowns, visors, swabs or body bags in the government’s pandemic stockpile when Covid-19 reached the UK”.
  • Why did the government not heed early warnings in January and February of the need for urgent action?  I am neither an epidemiologist nor a medical doctor, but I was already writing in late January about the outbreak of a new coronavirus in China and its potential to have a severe global impact.  If even I was aware, the government has absolutely no excuse for inaction.
  • To what extent did the government’s focus on Brexit mean that they were distracted from the potential havoc of Covid-19?  The Prime Minister’s overarching attention on Brexit and his determination that Britain’s departure from the EU on 31st January was appropriately celebrated, must have taken up a considerable amount of time, and it seems likely that the government simply did not have the systems in place to be able to consider the potential of a new coronavirus that had emerged in a distant land (see also links to racism below).
  • Why did the UK take so long to implement lockdown measures?   The BBC on 7th April provided graphic illustrations of the dates when different countries across the world began to introduce local and national recommendations and lockdowns, and it is very striking that the UK’s lockdown only announced on 23rd March was among the last in Europe.
  • Why has the government’s rhetoric persistently focused more on protecting the NHS than it has on saving lives? My comments here may be controversial, but I have been very struck by the fact that one of the government’s dominant slogans over the last few weeks has been “Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives“, often shortened to “protect the NHS and save lives”.  The order is always the same, with protecting the NHS coming before saving lives.  This was overwhelmingly emphasised once again in the Prime Minister’s briefing on 30th April where he reiterated that protecting the NHS had been at the centre of the government’s policies, and he paid scant attention to deaths.  It seems to me that this priority largely reflects the government’s desperate wish to protect itself from criticisms of its previous failures to ensure that the NHS was in a fit place to deal with a pandemic.  The slogan could easily have been “Save lives: stay at home and protect the NHS”.  I just get this persistent feeling that many in government really don’t care much about preventing the most vulnerable from dying (see also next item below).
  • Why does so much reliance appear to be being placed on a few (flawed) Prime Ministerial advisors? Again, this question is controversial, but it does seem that there was a dominant view at senior government levels in the UK at the end of February that protecting the economy was more important than saving the lives of some elderly people who were likely to die soon anyway.  This has been traced back by the Sunday Times (22nd March) to a private engagement at the end of February, when Dominic Cummings (Senior Advisor to the Prime Minister) is claimed to have said words to the effect that “herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”.  No. 10 immediately issued a very strong rebuttal, claiming that the Sunday Times article was “highly defamatory”.  Nevertheless, detailed examination of the  government’s actions at that time, and before the  change in policy on 16th March would indeed appear to suggest that in general the government was willing to sacrifice the lives of many elderly people, despite claiming that they were caring for the most vulnerable.  The role of Cummings in attending meetings of SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) has also been controversial, with The Guardian (26th April) for example reporting that attendees at these meetings were worried about his participation.  Furthermore, Cummings’ personal connections with one of the data-mining companies (Faculty) working with the UK government on Covid-19 (and mining patient data) has also caused concern and controversy (see for example Byline Times 22nd April, The Guardian 24th April and The Times 1st May).  There is enough murkiness about Cummings’ role, for there to be a transparent enquiry into his influence in shaping the government’s flawed Covid-19 response.
  • Why has the government persisted in saying that most UK citizens should not wear masks?  The government has so far persisted in saying that people in the UK should not wear masks (of any kind), despite the very considerable evidence that these can indeed help prevent the spread of Covid-19.  I have written at length about this before, but it seems fairly clear that the reason why the govenrment has done this is because it is afraid that the NHS will not have enough supplies if people try to buy medical face masks for themselves.  Again, this comes back to the issue that Ministers do not want to be shown up for their failure to prepare for the pandemic sufficiently rigorously.  While it seems likely that the government may well soon recommend the use of scarves or homemade cloth coverings as part of its package of actions following the lockdown (The Financial Times, 23rd April), this only further exacerbates their failure to have done so before!
  • Why has the government been so slow to support vulnerable people being supported at home and in care homes? The lack of provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other support for staff in care homes, and helping to support elderly people in their own homes has been shocking.    This seems primarily to have been driven by two agendas: the focus on preserving the NHS at all costs for the government’s own political protection; and a willingness to let the vunerable elderly die.   The net outcome has been that very many people have died, both directly and indirectly from Covid-29 in care homes.  In the week ending 10th April there were more deaths (from all causes) in care homes (4,927) and at home (4,117) combined than there were in hospitals (8,578); 1,156 of these deaths in care homes and at home were Covid-19 related (The Health Foundation, 22 April).  More recent figures on 27th April indicated that the number of Covid-19-related deaths  in care homes in the previous week had doubled to more than 2000, meaning that around 3000 Covid-19-related deaths in total have occurred so far in care homes (BBC, 28th April).  The government in its regular briefings, though, only reports deaths from Covid-19 in hospitals, which in the short-term significantly reduces the perceived overall level of deaths from this new coronavirus (for a wider discussion of Covid-19 data, see my Data and the scandal of the UK’s Covid-19 survival rate).  Furthermore, recent evidence from the Chief Scientific Officer indicates clearly that “The risk of the coronavirus spreading in care homes was ‘flagged up very early on’ to the government” (The Times, 28th April).
  • Why have vulnerable people not been directed to hospital sooner: NHS 111 and the need for oxygen? There is much anecdotal evidence that many hospital trusts, at least in the early days of Covid-19 were turning elderly vulnerable people away from hospital, and that NHS 111 (the online and phone service) only told people to go to hospital after being ill with symptoms for more than a week and if they were having severe difficulties breathing.  At the same time, there is good evidence emerging that by the time most people have been taken into hospital in the UK it is probably too late for perhaps half of them to survive. The Independent (9th April) thus reported that over 67% of coronavirus patients put on ventilators go on to die.  It now seems that other forms of treatment may be more effective.  There is a growing  body of evidence that patients are often seriously ill before they begin to have breathing difficulties, and that early oxygenation is key to their survival (New York Times, 20th April 2020).  Hence, if NHS 111 and the government more widely had been willing for Covid-19 patients to go into hospital earlier to increase their oxygen levels before they started having breathing difficulties, many more of them would have been likely to have survived (it is interesting to note also that official NHS guidance on 9th April instructed medical staff to lower oxygen prescribing targets, seemingly to help manage the supplies of oxygen that they had available).  It is shameful that so many beds in the rapidly constructed Nightingale hospitals still remain empty, when they could be used to give patients much needed oxygen.  Indeed, the government announced on 4th May that the London Nightingale hospital would be placed on standby because it was no longer needed (BBC News; see also The Financial Times, reporting on 4th May that the NHS employed 60 KPMG consultants to build these temporary hospitals).
  • Has the government really been acting on the scientific evidence?  Another of the oft-quoted phrases to come out from the government’s media spinners is that they have always been acting on the scientific evidence.  Prime Minister Johnson frequently uses the term, as in “that is why we’re following the scientific evidence in the way that we are” (Bloomberg, 9th March); “Matt Hancock likewise uses the term, as in “The scientific evidence is absolutely critical in underpinning our response” (Financial Times, 15th March).  This is complete and utter nonsense.   There has never been complete uniformity among scientists on anything – and there shouldn’t be; debate and discussion is the lifeblood of healthy science!  Moreover, many academics (see for example Helen Ward in The Guardian, 15th April) have also made it clear that the government has not even acted on the advice given, perhaps in part because of the Cummings’ spin noted above.  Neil Ferguson, leading the team of epidemiologists at Imperial College modelling Covid-19 has recently made two pertinent observations (quoted in The Sunday Times, 26th April): “What I worry about more is people who have a particular political agenda or point of view, distorting the science to support that point of view”; and We have given insight into how different causes of action would lead to certain consequences but we have not made politicians decisions for them. Politicians have made the decisions”.  This is absolutely right.  It is up to governments to make the difficult political decisions, and they cannot hide behind claims that there is something called science which provides all of the definitive answers!
  • Why has the government adopted such an arrogant and racist stance?  In the early stages of the pandemic, far too many people in government, and indeed the British public more generally, conveyed the impression that the new coronavirus was a “Chinese” problem, and that the difficulties faced by the Italians were basically because they were less competent than people in the northern European countries who would easily be able to deal with it.  To be sure this was less blatant than US President Trump’s very clear and explicit racism (The Washington Post, 20th March), but it seems to come from the same stable.  In part this is linked to the ongoing global geopolitical “tensions” between China and “The West” (for my more detailed comments on this see Digital-political-economy in a post-Covid-19 world: implications for the most marginalised),  but it also reflects unwarranted arrogance that the UK’s scientists and systems are better than those in China, other east Asian countries and our southern European neighbours (see, for example, The Sunday Times, 26th April, and The Sunday Times, 26th April).  Perhaps too, this is linked to our government’s mistaken determination to leave the EU with its Mediterranean members, and be “Great” again alone (see The Great Britain Campaign).
  • How and why were the companies selected to work on the data analytics and people tracing technologies associated with Covid-19?  This issue was touched on above with respect to the involvement of Dominic Cummings in the development of digital technology solutions for tracing people with Covid-19 in the UK during and after the lockdown.  I have already discussed the wider and long-term implications of this for the future of privacy and surveillance (see Digital-political-economy in a post-Covid-19 world: implications for the most marginalised), but there are also many questions to be asked about the process which led to companies with at best dubious track records in the field of big data analytics such as Palantir and Faculty (see The Guardian, 12th April, and Byline Times, 27th April) being involved in this development.  The lack of transparency and openness around this by people at the heart of our government is deeply concerning.

These questions raise huge doubts about the judgement and performance of all of the leading figures in our goverment (many of whom have spoken at the daily briefings), as well (sadly) as those senior government advisors who have all too readily towed the goverment’s line in public on these issues, such as Sir Patrick Vallance (Chief Scientific Adviser), Prof. Chris Whitty (Chief Medical Officer) and their deputies.  Whilst it would seem that these advisers have sometimes struggled with following the No. 10 mantra, I do wish that they had been more willing to stand up and be counted for the sake of truth and of UK citizens’ lives.  We must indeed be united as we seek to overcome the challenges posed by Covid-19, but when there is a reckoning afterwards I very much hope that praise is given out where it is due, and failure is also dealt with appropriately.

[This post will be regularly updated as further evidence comes to light]

[Update 29th April: The Guardian today published quite a useful account entitled “Revealed: the inside story of the UK’s Covid-19 crisis” which covers some of the above issues in  more detail]

[Updated 4th May: see The Financial Times report on how the large consultancy firms such as KPMG and Deloitte were contracted by the government without the usual competitive tendering processes to work on projects such as the Nightingale Hospitals]

[Latest update 16.26 4th May 2020]

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Data and the scandal of the UK’s Covid-19 survival rate

Govt CovidI have held off writing much that is overtly critical of the UK government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, but can do so no longer. We have known for a long time that data published by governments across the world about infections is highly unreliable, although figures on deaths are somewhat more representative of reality.  The UK governments’s lack of transparency, though, about its Covid-19 data is deeply worrying, and suggests deliberate deceipt.  The following observations may be noted about the figures that are currently being published, and the ways in which official (and social) media use them.

  • Official infection rates are very unreliable and largely reflect the number of tests being done.  These figures are so meaningless that they should be ignored in public announcements and media coverage because they give the public completely the wrong impression.  Countries such as Germany are believed to be able to produce up to 500,000 tests a week (although their aim is to do 200,000 tests a day), whereas by 7th April there had only been 218,500 tests in total in the UK since the start of January. The UK government aims to achieve 100,000 tests a day by the end of April, but seems highly unlikely to meet this target; a figure of more than 10,000 tests per day in the UK was only first achieved on 1st April.  The official reported number of infected cases in Germany at 119,624 on 10th April is  likely to be somewhat nearer reality than the paltry 73,758 reported cases in the UK (Source: thebaselab, 10th April).  In practice, it seems that most of the UK figures actually refer to those who are tested in hospital as suspected cases, since there is negligible testing of the public in general to get an idea of how extensive the spread really is.  By keeping this figure apparently low, the UK government seems to be deceiving the population into believing that Covid-19 might be less extensive than in reality it is.
  • Figures for the number of deaths should be more reliable, but are also opaque.  Even with figures for deaths there is increasing cause for doubt, not least because of differences between countries reporting whether someone has died “from” or “with” Covid-19.  In practice, it is even more complex than this, since some countries (such as the UK), are publishing immediate data only on those who die in hospital.  Those who die in the community are only added into the total official figures at a later date.  By manipulating when these figures are officially added, governments can again deceive their citizens that the deaths may in the short-term be lower than they are in reality.  A good analysis of the situation in the UK has recently (8th April) been produced by Jason Oke and Carl Heneghan for The Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM), which highlights the considerable discrepancies between data made available by the National Health Service (NHS) and Public Health England (PHE).  Not only does this make it difficult in the short-term for modellers and policy makers to know what is really happening, but it also gives a distorted picture to the public.  As this report also concludes “The media should be wary of reporting daily deaths without understanding the limitations and variations in different sources”.
  • Hugely unreliable mortality rates.  Combining published figures for infections and deaths gives rise to figures for mortality rates.  These figures are also therefore very unreliable.  Because of the low levels of testing, and yet the high number of deaths in the UK (8,958; Source: thebaselab, 10th April), the UK mortality rate is reportedly the second highest in the world at 12.15%.  This can be compared with Germany’s 2.18% (undoubtedly a much more accurate figure), Italy’s 12.77% (the highest in the world), and a global average of 6.06%.  As I have argued previously, though, these figures are largely meaningless, and the figures that really matter are the total number of deaths divided by the total population of a country.  Accordingly, to date, China has had only 0.23 deaths per 100,000 people, whereas Spain has had 33.88, Italy 30.23, France 18.80 and the UK currently 11.75 deaths per 100,000 (Source: derived from thebaselab, 10th April).  Put another way, the UK figure is 51 times more than the Chinese figure.  Such figures are far more meaningful than official mortality rates, and should always be used by the media (preferably using choropleth maps rather than proportional circles for total deaths).
  • Extraordinarily depressing recovery rates.  The UK’s current “recovery rate” is by any standards appalling.  As of 9th April reported figures for the number of people who have recovered from Covid-19 in the UK were between 135 (by the baselab, and worldometers) and 351 (by Johns Hopkins University).   This suggests a “recovery rate” of possibly only 0.18% in the UK (Source:  thebaselab, 10th April), in contrast with China’s 94.56%, Spain’s 35.45% and a global average of 22.2%.  In part this is again a result of data problems.  We simply don’t know how many people have been infected mildly, and how many have survived without even knowing they have had it.  It also reflects the fact that it takes time to recover, and many people are still in hospital who may yet recover.  However, the UK’s figures is the worst in the world for countries where there have been more than 50 cases of Covid-19.

Such figures raise huge questions for the British government and people:

  • Why are UK reported survival rates so low? Surely the government should want to do all it can to show the success of the NHS in treating patients and it should therefore publish the real figures?  That is unless, of course, these figures are truly bad.
  • What is the balance of numbers between those dying in hospital from Covid-19 and those leaving having recovered?  The rare euphoria that greets those who leave hospital having recovered (as with 101-year-old Keith Watson who was recently discharged from a hospital in Worcestershire) suggests that very few people have actually left hospital alive having been admitted with Covid-19.  Is the government trying to hide this?  Is the grim truth that you are likely to die if you go into hospital with Covid-19?  Does this mean that people are being admitted to hospital far too late because of the advice given by the NHS and its 111 service?  Should the NHS simply stop trying to treat patients with Covid-19? (An update noted below suggests that more than half of the people going into intensive care in UK hospitals with Covid-19 die).
  • Why did the government not act sooner?  Some of us had argued back in January of the threat posed by the then un-named new coronavirus (I first raised concerns on 20th January, and first posted about its extent in China on social media on 27th January).  It was very clear then (and not only with hindsight) that this posed a global threat.  Undoubtedly the WHO failed in its warnings, and did not act quickly enough to declare a pandemic, but many governments did act to get in supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), testing equipment, and ventilators.  The UK government has failed its people.  One quarter of my close family have probably already had Covid-19; many of my friends have also had it – some very seriously.  I guess therefore that between a quarter and a third of those living in the UK may already been ill with the pandemic (Update 13th April: this must be an exaggeration, as news media over Easter suggest that experts think the current figure of infections is only 10%; Update 26th April, the MRC-IDE at Imperial College modelling back from actual deaths, suggest that only some 4.36% of the UK population is infected).  They are individual human beings, and not just statistics.

These questions are hugely important now, and not just when a future review is done, because it is still not too late to act together wisely to try to limit the impact of Covid-19 in the UK.  The fact that the government has not yet been transparent and open about these issues is deeply worrying.  In trying to explain them the following scenarios seem likely.  I very much hope they are not true, and that the government can provide clear evidence that I am wrong:

1. Throughout, the government knew that the NHS would be overwhelmed by Covid-19, and has been doing all it can to cover up its own failings and to protect the NHS.  In 2016, a review called Exercise Cygnus was undertaken to simulate the impact of a major flu pandemic in the UK. The full conclusions have never been published, but sufficient evidence is in the public domain to suggest that it showed that the NHS was woefully unprepreard, with there being significant predicted shortages of intensive care beds, necessary equipment, and mortuary space.  In December 2016 the then excellent Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies, conceded that “a lot of things need improving”.  It is now apparent that the government (largely including people who are still leading it) did nothing to rectify the situation, and must therefore be held in part responsible for the very high death rate in the UK.  Its failure to fund the NHS appropriately in recent years is but a wider symptom of this lack of care and attention to the needs of our health system.  I therefore find it very depressing that this government is now so adamant in asking us to protect the NHS; as shown on the cover of the document sent to all households in the UK (illustrated above), it seems to be more concerned with protecting the NHS (listed second) above saving lives (listed third).

2. The government has consigned those least likely to survive Covid-19 to death in their homes.  Despite claims that the government is caring for the most vulnerable, it seems probable that its advice to the elderly and those most at risk to stay at home was not intended primarily for their own good, but was rather to prevent the NHS from being flooded with people who were likely to die.  This is callous, calculating and contemptable.  On March 22nd, The Sunday Times published an article that stated that “At a private engagement at the end of February, Cummings [the Prime Minister’s Chief Advisor] outlined the government’s strategy. Those present say it was “herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”. Downing Street swiftly denounced this report, but it remains widely accepted that even if these were not the exact words Cummings used, this was indeed the view of some of those at the top of the UK government at that time.  Subsequent evidence would support this.  Some, perhaps many, hospital trusts, for example, have clearly told their staff not to accept people who are very old and fall into the most vulnerable category.  Likewise, Care Homes have been told to care for Covid-19 patients themselves, since they may not be accepted in hospital. The British Geriatrics Society thus notes (30th March) that:

  • “Care homes should work with General Practitioners, community healthcare staff and community geriatricians to review Advance Care Plans as a matter of urgency with care home residents. This should include discussions about how COVID-19 may cause residents to become critically unwell, and a clear decision about whether hospital admission would be considered in this circumstance”
  • “Care homes should be aware that escalation decisions to hospital will be taken in discussion with paramedics, general practitioners and other healthcare support staff. They should be aware that transfer to hospital may not be offered if it is not likely to benefit the resident and if palliative or conservative care within the home is deemed more appropriate. Care Homes should work with healthcare providers to support families and residents through this”

This  policy incidentally (and also helpfully for the government) lowers the daily reporting death rate because such people are not counted as “dying in hospital”.

3. The use of digital technologies may be used to identify those unlikely to be given hospital treatment.  The government quite swiftly introduced online methods by which people who think that they fall into the extremely vulnerable category could register themselves, so that they might receive help and such things as food deliveries.  Whilst aspects of this can indeed be seen as positive, it also seems likely that this register could be used to deny people access to hospital services, since they are most likely to die even with hospital treatment.  If true (and I hope it is not), this would be a very deeply worrying use of digital technologies.  Nevertheless, care homes are being forced to hold difficult discussions with those they are meant to be caring for about end-of-life wishes, and all doctors and medical professionals are increasingly having to make complex ethical decisions about who to treat (see Tim Cook’s useful 23rd March article in The Guardian).

4. The government has tried to pass the blame onto the scientists. Early on in the crisis I was appalled to see and hear government spokespeople (including the Chief Medical Officer – so beloving of systematic reviews) saying that they were acting on scientific advice.  As some of us pointed out at the time, there is no such things as unanimity in science, and so it was ridiculous for them to claim this.  However, they seem to have been doing so, and in such a co-ordinated manner, because they were seeking to shift the blame in case their policies went wrong.  Leading a country is a very tough job, and those who aspire to do so have to make tough decisions and stand by them.  Fortunately, this position by the government is no longer tenable, especially now that academics are competing visciously in trying to prove that they are right, so that they can take the credit. Nevertheless, there remains good science and bad science, and it is frightening how many academics seem to be pandering to what governments and the public might want to hear.  Tom Pike (from Imperial College), for example, predicted (against most of the prevailing evidence) in a pre-print paper with Vikas Saini on 25th March that if the UK followed China (which it clearly wasn’t doing) the total number of deaths in the UK would be around 5,700, with there being a peak of between 210 and 330 people, possibly on 3th April.  Although he retracted this a few days later when it was blatantly obvious that his model was deeply flawed, news media who wanted a good news story had been very eager to publish his suggestion that the pandemic would not be as bad as others had predicted (he certainly got lots of pictures published of himself in his lab coat).  Likewise, at the other end of the scale, the IHME in the USA predicted that the UK would have 66,314 deaths in total by 4th August, rising to a peak of 2,932 deaths a day on 17th April.  This  might have been wishful thinking, because on 7th April, UK reported deaths were only 786, which was substantially below their model prediction of around 1250.  By then, though, their research had already hit the news headlines with lots of publicity.  Subsequently (as at 11th April), they revised their predictions to a peak of “only” 1,674 deaths a day (estimated range 651-4,143) with a cumulated total of 37,494 deaths.  These differences are very substantial, and emphasise that scientists often get it wrong.  Put simply, the UK government cannot hide behind science.  They can try to take the credit, but government leaders must also admit it openly when they have been wrong with the policies that they make based on the evidence.

In conclusion, by sharing these thoughts I have sought to:

  • Ask the UK government to be more open and transparent in the information that it provides about Covid-19;
  • Plead with media of all sorts to use data responsibly, and to be critical of claims by governments and scientists who all have their own interests in saying what they do; and
  • Encourage everyone to work together for the common good, openly and honestly in trying to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Above all, I write with huge respect for the many people in our NHS who have been working in the most difficult of circumstances to try to stem the tide of Covid-19.  Too many of them have already died; too many of them have become sick.

[Update 12th April: A report in The Times notes that “The death rate of Covid-19 patients admitted to intensive care now stands at more than 51 per cent, according to a study on a sample of coronavirus patients”.  The original report is by ICNARC, which showed that “Of the 3883 patients, 871 patients have died, 818 patients have been discharged alive from critical care and 2194 patients were last reported as still receiving critical care”. I should add that this is despite the very valiant efforts of our NHS staff]

[Update 14th April: Great to see that the BBC is at last reporting more responsibly about government reported deaths (based on those in hospital) being a serious underestimate of total deaths, and comparing trends of deaths with previous years – two useful graphs included and copied herewith below

deaths well above normal range - line chart      daily death updates are an underestimate since they exclude deaths outside hospital and are subject to reporting delays

Thanks BBC]

Updated 14th April

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Filed under Covid-19, digital technologies, UK, Uncategorized

Flip-flop views over Brexit

As we move through ever more critical days towards the end of October, I just thought it would be worth sharing this great poster from Best for Britain (@BestForBritain) in case people have not yet seen it.  It shows what key proponents of Brexit said back in 2016 or 2017, and what they have said more recently in 2018 or 2019.  If our politicians can change their minds, then surely they should respect that many citizens of the UK (although sadly not all) have also changed their minds.  They should put the people’s views to the test and have another referendum on the various options.  This is the only sensible democratic option!  I fear that our current leadership, who only have personal gain and party politics in mind, are too scared to do this because they fear they would lose.

BIGONE

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Why we should remain in the EU: changing the mentality of Brexit

B13A comprehensive history of the Brexit campaign remains to be written, but there is little doubt that the Leave campaign was hugely successful in its design and implementation in 2016.  It left the Remain campaign wrong-footed and appearing to be boring and inept.  In large part this was because the Leave campaign focused on an appeal to emotions, whereas the Remain campaign sought to attract voters through logical argument.

Tim 2Over the last two years, both sides have largely continued to adopt these two very different styles of persuasion. This was very much in evidence during the march through London in support of a People’s Vote on 20th October 2018.  Most of the marchers I spoke with said that they simply could not understand why anyone should still want to leave the EU, given the substantial amount of evidence that has been adduced to show the damage that this will do to the country. The many banners on display likewise tended to focus on logical argument rather than emotion.

Yet, quite remarkably, as the graph below from the BBC shows, there was little substantial change of overall opinion between June 2016 and September 2018 as to whether the UK should leave or not.

Stay leave

Although a slight majority in the autumn of 2018 wanted to remain in the EU, about the same number of voters appeared to have wanted a second referendum as those who didn’t want one (c.40% each), with around 20% being unsure.  The dreadful performance of the Prime Minister and the Government over the ensuing three months changed things dramatically, but she is persisting (as at 23rd December 2018) to refuse to hold another referendum.  A YouGov survey reported in The Guardian on 20th December 2018 thus revealed that:

  • “in a referendum between staying in the EU and leaving on the terms that the government has negotiated, staying (now) enjoys an 18-point lead: 59-41%”
  • In September, “43% of leave voters thought Brexit would make the economy stronger. Just 12% feared it would make the economy weaker. Today (December 2018), only 24% of leave voters say “stronger”, while slightly more, 26%, say “weaker”. That’s a huge, 33-point drop for “stronger” in the net difference between the two views since the beginning of September.”

Despite this evidence, and the fact that most Labour Party members now (December 2018) appear to want to stay in the EU, Jeremy Corbyn is still refusing to argue in support of a new referendum, preferring an election and attempted renegotiation with Brussels.  He is therefore as culpable as the Prime Minister for the mess in which the UK has fallen into.

There is now very little time left before the runaway Brexit train crashes through the future of the UK.  The chaos surrounding the draft agreement with the EU recently announced by UK Prime Minister Theresa May on 13th November, and the subsequent disagreements between those preferring a no-deal Brexit to what they see as a bad-deal Brexit continue to be front page news, and it seems likely that MPs will vote to reject the deal on 11th December.  Hilary Benn‘s recent tabled amendment on 29th November 2018 to the government’s motion on the EU withdrawal agreement, for example, “opposes the deal, rejects a no deal Brexit and would enable the House to express its view about what should happen next if the PM’s deal is defeated”.

Those of us who wish to remain must conjure up a very clear set of arguments, and learn how to persuade enough of those who still wish to leave to change their minds.  To do this, we must use emotional appeals, which do not come easily to those of us who generally prefer to use logic.  Although many suggest that argumenum ad passiones is a logical fallacy, using emotions to win in the absence of clear objective “facts” or “truths”, it is a mode of argument that has to be used to counter the emotional arguments of the Brexiteers.  This was forcibly brought home to me when returning home with my placard from the march, and a group of inebriated men on the train aggressively and threateningly chanted “Brexit is Brexit”, “Brexit means Brexit” in my face.

Emotional appeals to remain

There are many types of appeal to emotion, both negative and positive.  Among the negative appeals are those to fear, guilt, anger, disgust and sadness; among the positive are pride, relief and hope.  All of these were used in various ways by the Leave campaign, and need to be turned around to advantage by those wishing to Remain.

Negative emotions

Let’s begin with some negative emotions:

Fear – of leaving

Some of the most powerful arguments used in the Brexit campaign were around fear, as exemplified especially by the fear of people in the UK being further overwhelmed by immigrants, or immigrants being responsible for an increase in certain types of crime, or the EU leading to great tax rises, or it’s safer to be in the UK because the EU is in crisis.

To counter this, we need to appeal to the fear of what leaving the EU will mean:

  • The UK will be isolated and alone – if we have a crisis, European countries may not come to our aid (remember how Germany and France united with the UK, for example, over the poisoning of the Skripals in 2018; will they do so when we are no longer part of the EU?).
  • Don’t get ill if you travel to Europe!  It looks as though UK citizens may no longer benefit from the EHIC card system, by which EU citizens have reciprocal health care throughout the EU.
  • Basic food prices will increase – you will no longer be able to afford those little luxuries.  The UK’s inability to gain beneficial trade deals outside the EU, combined with a substantial fall in the value of the Pound will lead to significant price increases for food and many other commodities.

Guilt – at having voted to leave

Guilt is one of the emotions that Brexiteers have been most eager to leverage following the referendum.  The refrains of “Brexit means Brexit”, and Theresa May’s stuck record of “There will be no second referendum” and “it would be a gross betrayal of our democracy” are just a few examples of the ways through which this emotion is being used.  It is quite extraordinary how persistent they are given the overwhelming evidence that these suggestions are fundamentally flawed.  True democracy would involve holding a second referendum when we know the terms of any departure!

Emotional suggestions to counter this include:

  • Brexit may mean “Brexit”, but what does “Brexit” actually mean?  What is Brexit?  Try to get Brexiteers to say what Brexit is.  Even Jeremy Corbyn has failed dismally to articulate a future for our relationships with the EU.
  • Don’t you feel ashamed voting for Brexit when you had no idea what it was going to look like?
  • Do you want your children to think of you as someone who betrayed their future because you voted for Brexit without knowing what it meant?
  • Only just over a quarter of the total British population actually voted to leave the EU. How can you call this democracy, especially when the majority of the British people now wish for a second vote?  Only 27% of the total British population actually voted in favour of Brexit.  For most of 2018 polls suggest that a slight majority now wish to remain (see chart above).

Anger – at having left

B27Anger featured widely in the Brexit campaign, as with anger about the amount of bureaucratic waste in the EU.

We need to appeal to the anger within those who want Brexit:

  • Imagine the long border queues going on holiday with your kids to Europe – don’t get angry with them! It is uncertain whether visa free travel and crossing borders in the EU citizens queues will remain in place.
  • Won’t you be angry when you and your family cannot get medical treatment? Immigrants working in the NHS are already leaving, creating a substantial staff shortage, which will lead to long queues for treatment (5.6% of all NHS staff are from other EU countries)
  • Don’t be angry with your local council when services decline! Many council jobs, such as street cleaning (wages £14,000-£17,000) or refuse collection (£15,000-£25,000 a year) are low-paid, with immigrants often being the only ones willing to take them.

Disgust – with those advocating Brexit

There is plenty for Brexiteers to be disgusted about:

  • If Brexit is such a good idea, why are so many leading Brexiteers investing in the EU and advising others to do likewise? (Jacob Rees-Mogg, John Redwood, Arron Banks, Peter Cruddas, Lord Ashcroft)
  • B34We were lied to and those advocating Brexit knew it! Remember the many half-truths that were told: “We are giving £2 billion to Macedonia, Serbia, Albania, Montenegro and Turkey … to join the EU”, “EU tax bombshell will cost each household over £2,600”, we can build a new NHS hospital every week with the £350 million we send to Brussels each week, and Brexit will be easy.  Even in July 2017, Liam Fix (then International Trade Secretary) said that “The free trade agreement that we will have to do with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history”.  How very wrong he was!
  • Corrupt practices were used by those advocating Brexit! The Leave campaign has been fined £61,000 after having been found guilty of breaking electoral law during the Brexit campaign, and police are currently probing Arran Banks referendum spending.  His Eldon Insurance firm currently faces £135,000 in fines for e-mails that breached data laws.
  • Even Arron Banks who bankrolled the Brexit campaign now says he would prefer to remain in the EU? (BBC Andrew Marr show, 4th November 2018; reported widely).
  • Almost unbelievably, Nigel Farage, the former UKIP leader, suggested in January 2018 that there should be a second Brexit vote
  • Hilary Benn, the Chair of the Brexit Select Committee, has recently said on the BBC’s Politics Live programme that “Brexiteers’ arguments have now been shown, after 2.5 years, to be fantasies. And the more they shout the more they cry in realisation they have not got a plan”

Sadness

Many who voted to leave were sad about how life in Britain has changed since joining the EU in 1973.  They looked back to what they saw was a mythical and glorious British past.

There will be much to be sad about if we leave the EU:

  • The reality of Britain’s insignificant place as a small island (243,610 sq kms, ranked 81st in world), with a tiny population (<1% of global population) and little importance in the world will become all too clear!  Even its economic significance is rapidly declining from being the 5th largest economy in the world in 2017.
  • Food will rot in our fields because there is no-one willing to pick it. (2016: 7% of workers in agriculture, forestry and fishing are done by EU8 citizens)
  • Factory production declines because there are insufficient UK people willing to work in the conditions and for the wages offered in the sector.
  • There is a construction slump because of a lack of labour (2016: 9% of construction workers are from EU2, EU8 and EU14)

Positive emotions

And now let’s turn to some positive emotions that can be used to challenge Brexiteers.

Pride – in influencing global change

One of the many myths of Brexit was a belief that Britain could be great again alone!  There are actually many doubts as to whether Britain was ever “great”! Can an empire built in part on slavery and involving the immiseration and exploitation of millions of people in our colonies and former empire ever be seen as being truly great?  If anything, British greatness lies in our legal system, in our diversity, and in our support for social reform.  In a world of large powerful states, we need to work in coalitions and together with others, not alone.

  • As part of the EU we will have a voice that others will listen to; alone no-one will care what we say.  It seems highly probable that we will soon no longer have a seat as a Permanent Representative of the UN Security Council.  Many other countries have a stronger claim to this.
  • Being inside the EU we can take pride in influencing its decisions; outside the EU we will have no influence over what it does!  The EU, our nearest large bloc of countries, will have an enormous influence on our future.  Outside the EU, we will have no say in key decisions that will have great impact on our lives.

Relief – if we remain

There is almost nothing positive about leaving the EU.  There will be enormous relief among the many people and organisations who understand this and wish to remain.  However, too many companies have already relocated substantial numbers of staff and offices, and it seems unlikely that the UK will regain these if we were to remain.  The loss of the European Banking Authority to France, and the European medicines agency to the Netherlands are but two examples of the damage caused by Brexit

  • It only costs 39p net a day each for us to get all the benefits of EU membership (figures for 2016).  This is definitely well worth spending!
  • Marginal parts of the UK will only continue to receive substantial regional funding from Europe if we remain.  Some parts of the UK which received the greatest subsidies from the EU, such as Wales (52.5% in the 2016 referendum wanting to leave), voted  in favour of Brexit, and people living there will only continue to benefit if we remain (see map below).  The wise Scots in the 2016 referendum voted 62% in favour of remaining; they know the of remaining.

EU funding map

Hope – if we remain in the EU

  • Our children can grow up safe and secure in thy knowledge that we are part of the EU which has helped guarantee peace in Europe since the Treaty of Rome in 1957.

 

The logical arguments

Many of the above appeals to emotion are underlain by logical arguments.  As an academic trained for a lifetime in logic, I find it extremely difficult to argue otherwise!  However, those of us wishing to remain in Europe must use emotional appeals if we are to challenge those who want to remain, despite all of the damage they have already caused over the last couple of years.  If we can find a chink in the naive optimistic armour of Brexiteers, then we can support these emotional arguments with evidence and logic.  The following seem to be some of the most convincing evidence of the enormous damage that is already being, and will be further, caused by Brexit.

Economic evidence

Many of the arguments in favour of remain are indeed based on economic grounds.  A fundamental challenge here is that economists are not actually that good at predicting the future, especially in abnormal contexts such as Brexit!  However, the evidence of what has already happened since the referendum in 2016 does provide many grounds for concern:

Labour

  • Immigration
    • Migrants, especially from the EU, contribute significantly to employment in the UK.  Should they no longer be able readily to work in the UK certain sectors are likely to suffer.  Evidence from 2010 suggested that the main jobs done by immigrants from the EU were: Elementary process plant occupations (factory jobs) – 18%; Process operatives (factory jobs) – 13%; Elementary agricultural (seasonal harvesting, farm work) – 8%;Assemblers and routine operatives – 8%, and Elementary cleaning (cleaners) – 8%.  Whilst some of these may well be automated in the not-too-distant future, the short- to medium-term labour shortage will have an impact on economic productivity.
    • The net fiscal impact of migrants to the UK is extremely hard to calculate, but overall it is generally seen as being slightly positive.  Full Fact suggest that it is just less than 1% of GDP; there is no conclusive evidence that migrants are a drain on our economy.
    • There is no clear relationship between immigration and unemployment in the UK (Tejvan Pettinger); it thus does not seem to be the case that immigration causes unemploment in the UK.
    • The threat of Brexit has already led to a downturn in the number of suitable applicants for jobs, with firms seeking staff  being hit by labour shortages due to a “reversal” in the number of migrants in UK workplaces. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has thus reported that the shortage of both EU and non-EU migrants reflects a falling interest in the UK as a destination for migrant workers (Source: BBC).

Trade

  • Our trade with the EU
    • 49% of the UK’s total exports and imports in 2017 were with other EU countries (Source: BBC).  During the 2016 referendum, the figure 0f 44% of our exports of goods and services in 2015 was widely cited, and this had fallen from about 54% in 2006.  In 2015, though, our imports from Germany alone were £60,859 million, compared with a relatively paltry £35,290 million from the USA (for trade statistics see HM Revenue and Customs).  Any damage to our trade with the EU is likely therefore to be hugely damaging to our economy.
  • Reaching new trade agreements
    • During the 2016 referendum, it was often said that reaching beneficial trade agreements with other countries would be easy after Brexit because so many wanted to trade with us.  If the UK leaves the EU without any withdrawal agreement, it automatically fall under the WTO rules. Many WTO tariffs (10% for cars and their parts; 35% for dairy produce) are actually very much higher than EU ones (about 2.6% for non-agricultural products), and so it is likely that prices in the UK would rise for many imports as a result.
    • Some 20 countries, including the USA and China are currently trying to block the UK from agreeing a swift deal with the WTO (Source: The Independent), and earlier in 2018 it was widely reported that countries that also included Brazil, New Zealand, Australia and Argentine were strongly resisting the proposed tariff plans (Source: The Guardian).  At the very least, reaching trade agreements is likely to be very much longer and more difficult than Brexiteers had suggested.  It is difficult to see Britain being better off in terms of trade deals outside the EU than within it.
    • For non-EU countries, it is very much easier to deal with a bloc of 27 countries than it is with individual countries.  This is one of the many advantages of being within the EU.  Outside the EU, the UK will be alone in its negotiations and is very unlikely to be able to reach better trade deals than it had within it.  In any case, countries wishing to make trade deals are much more likely to prioritise their deals with the large bloc of the EU than the (currently) single country of the UK.
    • The real challenge is whether the UK wants to be a rule taker with full market access, such as Norway, or a more usual free-trade agreement with the EU as does Canada (for a thoughtful overview see Owen, J., Stojanovic, A. and Rutter, J. (2017) Trade after Brexit: options for the UK’s relationship with the EU, London: Institute for Government)

Investment

  • Business leaders’ opinions
    • There have been many diverse views from business leaders about the future pattern of likely investment, and they were well represented on either side of the referendum vote.  However, since then there has been a growing body of opinion that Brexit is bad for the UK economy.  In early November, for example, 70 business leaders signed a letter to the Sunday Times calling for a People’s Vote, noting that the government’s present plans and a no-deal Brexit would both leave the country worse off, and they pointed out that the uncertainty over the last two years has already led to a slump in investment. (Source: Financial Times)

Business relocation and employment losses

  • Numerous announcement of factory closures, and thus employment losses, continue to be made on the grounds of Brexit.  Whilst it is highly probable that some of these may well have happened regardless of Brexit, there is no doubt that Brexit has had an impact, as the following diverse examples indicate:
    • Michelin has confirmed that their Dundee tyre plant will close by mid-2020 with the loss of all 845 jobs.
    • Schaeffler plants in Llanelli and Plymouth are earmarked for closure, with the firm proposing to relocate production to plants outside the UK because of uncertainty over Brexit, with a possible loss of 550 jobs.
    • Jaguar Land Rover had spent some £10 m on Brexit contingency plans by July 2018, and indicated in September 2018 that it will close its Mini plant for one month in 2019 as a no-deal Brexit precaution.
    • The Norwegian-based fish company Skretting is closing its factories in Easter Ross and elsewhere as it pulls out of the UK, apparently largely because of Brexit.
  • Financial relocation
    • The lobby group Frankfurt Main Finance releases figures in late-November 2018 indicating that 30 bacnks and finance firms had chosen the city as the site of their new European Headquarters.  So much for those Brexiteers who suggested that there would be no impact on the UK financial market.  It is estimated that London will lose up to €800bn in assets to Frankfurt by March 2019 as banks start to transfer their business to the German financial centre.

Exchange rates

  • Since the 2016 referendum, the pound has collapsed against most currencies.  On 18th July 2015 it was worth €1.43720, on the 22nd June 2016 (the day before the referendum) it was at € 1.30373, and in 2018 it has fluctuated usually under €1.15, most recently being at € 1.12358 at close of trading on 18th November 2018.  This is shown very graphically in xe-com‘s visualisation below:

xe.com

  • While the significance of currency fluctuations can be interpreted in many different ways, the overall impact of this collapse in the pound is generally seen as having been negative.  There has been little substantial increase in exports, which might have been expected to grow because they would be cheaper in foreign markets, whilst imports have continued to become more expensive.  The Office for National Statistics, for example, has commented that “Falling exports of cares and rising imports of unspecified good were the main causes of a widening of the trade deficit in the three months to May 2018”.
  • For tourists, as well as those travelling on business , costs of living and working overseas have risen dramatically.

Food costs

Regional impact

Paradoxically, many of the regions in the UK that have benefited most from the EU actually had a high percentage of votes in support of Leave during the first referendum.  Clearly, unlike many parts of Europe where large posters informed the public that funding was provided by the EU, those responsible for marketing such funding in the UK failed miserably.  Government announcements in February 2018 highlighted the following interesting regional impact figures of Brexit:

  • North East England will suffer a 16% hit to GDP in the event of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, although voters there overwhelmingly backed Brexit
  • Northern Ireland could face a GDP slump of 12% if Britain leaves the EU without a deal
  • Overall, the UK is predicted to suffer a 1.5% drop in GDP while remaining in the EU’s single market via the European Economic Area (EEA), a 5% drop if it agrees a free trade deal, and an 8% drop if Britain leaves the EU without a deal and reverts to trading on World Trade Organisation terms.

Social evidence

  • Rise in Racism.  In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum, there appeared to be a considerable rise in racism, directed not only at people who had been born elsewhere in Europe, but also towards second and third generation immigrants whose families had originally come from South Asia, African and Caribbean heritage.  The UN special rapporteur on racism following a visit to the UK in May 2018 was thus reported as saying that racism and religious intolerance had become more acceptable in Britain following the Brexit referendum.  Whether this has actually been caused by Brexit, or whether rising racism itself found an outlet in the demands to leave the EU is a moot point.  Nevertheless, racial tensions surrounding Brexit may well increase further should the Brexiteers get their way (see also Civitas, Hate Crime: the facts behind the headlines, October 2016).
  • Social innovation.  As with any challenges, Brexit also provides opportunities for change.   Given the social divisions that have been created by the original leave campaign, the referendum itself, and the subsequent vehement arguments over Brexit, it will be essential for people of good will to try to rebuild our society into one that is more united and caring, whatever the actual outcome of Brexit.  This is increasingly being recognised, with organisations such as Collaborate for Social Change already advocating for action (see, for example, Kippin, H., Knight, A. and Bergen, J., The Social Brexit? How fractious times could be a catalyst for collaborative social change in the UK, London: Collaborate CIC, 2018).

Political evidence

  • Brexiteers claim that Britain can be much more influential (“great”) again if the country leaves the EU.  It is extremely hard to justify this assertion.  Although it may be very hard for some of those living in the UK to accept, Britain is a small and increasingly unimportant island off the north-west coast of Europe.  The EU stands as a powerful counter-balance to China and the USA at a time when the world is becoming more and more divided into large power blocs.  Outside the EU, we cannot continue to be part of this bloc, and have the political influence of the EU.
  • Whatever happens in the future, Britain will remain heavily influenced by Europe as it has throughout its history.  Outside the EU we will have no power to influence the political future of the EU, and will thus become increasingly dominated by an entity over which we have little influence.
  • PortugalMany other European countries, and particularly the smaller ones, want us to remain in the EU as a counter-balance to the Franco-German axis that has dominated it so strongly since its foundation.  Marching with people from our oldest ally, Portugal, during the October March, I was forcibly struck by the arguments that they were making about how disappointed many European countries were.
  • In terms of the UK’s internal politics, debates over Brexit have revealed the way that very many, if not most, of the UK’s politicians are concerned more about themselves and their parties than they are about the British people.  A fear that Westminster-based politicians had little idea of the needs and interests of people living beyond the south-east of England was indeed one reason that so many people voted for Brexit.  However, recent comments by Ministers and MPs, and the ways in which various politicians are now positioning themselves for the aftermath of Theresa May’s debacle highlight that self comes before service.  This applies as much to those in the Labour party, where Jeremy Corbyn has so far refused to back “Remain” or indeed unequivocally to support a call for a second referendum, as it does to those fighting among themselves in the Tory party.  One possible positive outcome of the Brexit debate could therefore be a reorientation of British politics, either through a government of national unity, or the growth of a political coalition or party that would be in the centre-ground of British politics.

Cultural evidence

  • It is difficult to measure the likely cultural impact of Brexit.  However, it seems very likely that a wide range of cultural exchanges between Britain and other European countries, such as school trips and student exchanges, will become more complex and costly, and will thus reduce in frequency.
  • Historically, Britain has played a very important part in European culture (see Tim Unwin, ed. A European Geography, Harlow: Pearson, 1998), and although the idea of “Europe” is much bigger and older than just the “EU”, it seems highly probable that our cultural linkages with other European countries will reduce in the years to come, especially since one of the main aspirations of Brexiteers was indeed to make an independent Britain great again by itself.

 

TimIn conclusion, it seems possible that MPs will vote against the deal that Prime Minister May and her government have negotiated with the EU on 11th December.  This deal suits neither the ardent Brexiteers who would be happy with the no-deal option, nor those who thought they could negotiate a soft-Brexit deal that would actually benefit the UK to the detriment of Europe.  There remains, therefore, a sliver of hope that the people of Britain will be given a chance to reconsider their choice, now that they have more of an idea of what Brexit would really mean.  I hope that the arguments summarised here will go some way to helping more people realise the disaster that Brexit would be.

[last updated, 23rd December 2018]

 

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The half-truths and mis-representations that won Brexit

The Electoral Commission has clearly stated (17 July 2018) that the Vote Leave campaign broke electoral law, and it has been referred to the police.  To the chagrin of “remainers”, such illegal activities during the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016 do not seem to be sufficient by themselves to annul the referendum, and justify a new one.

One of the main vehicles through which the leave campaign built support was through an impressive and effective social media campaign.  Much of this was built on half-truths and emotive mis-representations.  Rather than its illegality, the much more remarkable observation is that so many people were influenced by this campaign and apparently believed the claims being made.  In part, this was because it resonated with their own concerns, but exaggerated them, making people much more fearful of remaining in the EU than they need actually have been.  It is also undoubtedly the case that those supporting Remain ran a desperately poor and unimaginative campaign.

In seeking to unravel and understand why so many people accepted these half-truths and mis-representations, I have categorized some of the images used in the Vote Leave Twitter campaign (https://twitter.com/vote_leave) into the following themes, many of which undoubtedly intersect, thus reinforcing each other.   I hope this encourages debate and discussion over the reasons why the UK has embarked on this desperately uninformed and misguided foray into apparent “independence” as its citizens sleepwalk into a Brexit catastrophe.

Immigration

A fear of continued mass immigration was one of the most powerful projections of the campaign, especially from countries such as Turkey which the campaigners implied was imminently about to join the EU.  Such immigration was primarily seen as being damaging to employment and the NHS.

 

Economic factors, including employment and tax

The UK economy was portrayed as being much stronger outside the EU, and the voices of apparently “trusted” senior figures in industry and government who supported Brexit (largely for their own interests) were used to support such arguments.

 

The NHS

The financial savings from Brexit were portrayed as bringing a much needed fillip to the beleaguered National Health Service.  One of the most believed assertions in the campaign was that Brexit would enable the UK to spend an additional £350 million a week, or £50 million a day, on the NHS.

 

Control of our own future

A powerful emotion conjured up by the Brexit campaign was that once the UK leaves the EU its citizens would have much greater control over their own future.

 

Support of the military

The Leave campaign also sought out the opinions of leading military figures who advocated that the UK would have greater political independence, and control over its own future, once it had left.  This was widely supported by the Veterans for Britain campaign as highlighted below.

B5

 

The wastage of EU bureaucracy

This was a favourite theme represented in many images, supporting the suggestion that we would be able to use all of the money that we had previously sent to the EU for our own direct benefit.

 

The Labour factor and Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn was widely cited as being critical of the EU in the hope of bringing out Labour supporters in favour of Brexit.  Corbyn’s continue reticence to be critical of Brexit remains one of the largest factors likely to prevent the success of those demanding a second referendum on the terms of Brexit, and the aspirations of “remainers” that the first referendum will be overthrown.

 

Trustworthy personalities

The use of images of, and statements from, politicians who were considered to be trustworthy, such as Gove, Johnson, and indeed Corbyn above, was also a powerful element of the Leave campaign.

 

Get out and vote!

Finally, the Leave campaign was also active and successful in persuading its followers to get out and vote.

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Response from President Juncker on UK’s EU referendum

I was, and still very much remain, deeply opposed to the referendum on whether or not the UK should remain within the EU, and on the outcome which was decided by a small minority of those who voted and which is moving towards the UK leaving the EU (see my views on why we should remain in the EU here).  The referendum should never have been called, since in a representative democracy, decisions are delegated to elected representatives.  The campaign itself was full of half-truths and deceit, especially promulgated by those in favour of leaving the EU.  The UK government is spineless in taking the tough decision not to accept the referendum outcome in the interests of the country as a whole.

I have therefore been taking whatever action I can to promote the case for remaining, even despite the referendum outcome.  As part of this process, I sent the following e-mail to the President of the European Commission on 28th June.

Dear President Juncker
 
You and colleagues at the European Commission must be feeling very frustrated with the people of the UK.  I am so sorry for this.  I believe that the majority of people in the UK do indeed value their European heritage, and indeed want to remain as the integral part of Europe that we are.  I would therefore urge you to explore ways through which the very unfortunate decision by a relatively small number of people in the UK might actually be rejected, and not to press too swiftly on accepting the outcome of the referendum. As you are well aware, there are discussions in Scotland and Gibraltar, as well as a petition to the UK government with almost 4 million signatures on it, about how we might explore ways of remaining an integral part of the Union.  A welcoming voice from you to those of us in the UK who value Europe would be very much appreciated.
 
Let me take this opportunity to remind you that only 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU, representing but 37% of the electorate (for clarity, I note that the turnout was 72.2%, so 27.8% failed to vote).  However, the total population of the UK is around 65 million people, and includes the young people below the age to vote who will be most affected by this decision in the long term.  Therefore, only 26.7% of the people of the UK actually voted in favour.  How can we accept such a decision?  Almost three-quarters of the UK population did not vote to leave Europe.
 
It is critically important at this juncture, when extremist people who did not tell truths to the UK population have gained the ascendency, that our friends in Europe do understand that there are very many people in Britain who value our historic and contemporary links with our European brothers and sisters, and do not want these to be yet further tarnished by the behavior of selfish and arrogant people in our country.  You will have seen the behavior of Mr. Farage today in the European Parliament where he was described by MEPs as a liar who used Nazi propaganda.  We cannot let people such as him come to power.  Yes, in a democratic society all voices must be heard, but we must do all that we can to prevent those who can cause such damage from coming to power.  Most people in Britain are not racists or fascists.
 
I do hope that you can have the statesmanship and leadership to be able to act wisely in this difficult situation, and recognize that it is in Europe’s interest to hold on to the UK, and not to let a relatively small group of people do irreparable damage.
 
With best wishes
Tim

I had not expected a reply, but thought that if enough people wrote then at least he would know that wise people in the UK were dismayed by the outcome of the referendum.  I was therefore very pleasantly surprised to receive the following e-mail yesterday:

Thank you for sharing your views with me following the result of the United Kingdom’s Referendum.
 
I am sad about the choice of the British people. The European Commission worked hard to keep the United Kingdom in the European Union.
 
European leaders offered the United Kingdom a fair deal that reflected their hope that the United Kingdom remained part of the European Union.
 
This is an unprecedented situation but the European Union will stand strong and uphold its core values of promoting peace and the well-being of its peoples.
 
I truly hope that the United Kingdom will be a close partner of the European Union in the future.
 
I wish you well.

Jeab-Claude Juncker
 European Commission
200, rue de la Loi,
1049 Bruxelles

To be sure, this is probably a standard e-mail, written by an official (which is why I feel that I can make it public), but I just wanted to share it here because it seems to strike such a generous and thoughtful chord, typical of our brothers and sisters in other European countries, who care deeply about the UK.

This can be contrasted, for example, with the response I received on 6th July from Philip Hammond to a similar letter that I sent him:

Thank you for your recent correspondence about the result of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.
 
The British people have voted to leave the EU and their decision will be respected. The Government will now prepare for a negotiation with the European Union, working alongside the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland governments, to ensure that the interests of all parts of our UK are taken properly into account in that process.
 
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has announced that he will step down in the coming months, stating that new leadership is required for this important next step in the UK’s path. The Prime Minister has also announced that he will leave it to his successor to decide when to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and begin the formal two-year process of exit negotiations.
 
Article 50 is invoked only when the Prime Minister writes to the European Council.  Parliamentary approval is not required.
 
The Treasury, the Bank of England and the Financial Conduct Authority have spent the last few months putting in place robust contingency plans for the immediate financial aftermath in the event of this result, and the Bank has announced that it stands ready to provide £250 billion to continue to support banks and the smooth functioning of markets.
 
I can also reassure British nationals living in European countries and European citizens living here in the UK that there will be no immediate changes in their circumstances.
 
There will be no immediate change in the way Britons can travel, in the way our goods can move or the way our services can be sold.  The UK will remain in the European Union with all the rights and obligations of full membership, while we negotiate our exit with our European neighbours.
 
Speaking personally, I am disappointed by the result because, as I said during the campaign, I believe that Britain is stronger, more influential and better off inside the European Union.  By voting to leave, we have set ourselves a huge economic challenge and, in the short-term, we can expect a negative impact on living standards.  The Government’s job now is to do everything in our power to negotiate the best possible deal with the European Union to minimise the negative economic effects in the medium- to long-term.  In parallel, we will need to start to re-shape the UK economy for life outside the EU.
 
The British people have spoken and our job is to implement their decision.  I will do so to the best of my ability in whatever capacity is asked of me.  The challenges ahead will require steady hands, good judgement and solid pragmatism.  The zealous rhetoric of the campaign needs to be put behind us.  In my judgement, the person best able to deliver these qualities is the Home Secretary, Theresa May – and, for that reason, I will be backing her in the leadership contest.
 
On the specific concerns you raise about the validity of the referendum result, I do not believe it would be appropriate to have a second referendum on our EU Membership and the Prime Minister has been clear that this is “not remotely on the cards”. The British people voted, through a free and fair referendum on 23rd June, for the UK to leave the European Union. Whatever one’s view of this decision, it must be accepted, and the process of implementing the decision in the best possible way must now begin.
 
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.
 
Regards,
 
Philip Hammond

I do not think that the referendum was necessarily fair.  The British public was beguiled by lies, half-truths and deceit promulgated by deeply unpleasant, arrogant and selfish people such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Nigel Farage, who had no realistic plan for the future.  It is to be regretted that Boris Johnson has been made Foreign Secretary in the new Tory government, much to the dismay and bafflement of senior officials across the world. It is, though, at least some good news that Messrs Gove and Farage are currently in the wilderness.

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On Britain and Europe: why we must stay “in”

I have held off writing about the referendum being held on 23rd June on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU), in part because it is such a complex issue and difficult to write about succinctly.  However, recent conversations with taxi drivers here in the south-east of England have convinced me that I should indeed respond to my friends across the world who keep asking me what my own thoughts are.  I very much fear that the referendum may indeed result in a majority vote to leave the EU, and this frightens me.

I have many concerns over the way in which the European Union ‘functions’, about the costs of this additional tier of European wide government, about the excesses of its bureaucracy and the lifestyles of its bureaucrats, and the attempts by some politicians to make it a truly federal centralised state.  However, I have absolutely no doubt that we have to remain within the EU and I have great difficulty in understanding the overly simplistic statements, many of which are erroneous, that are being promulgated by those advocating that we should leave the EU.  Quite simply, the UK is part of Europe, and whatever happens in the EU will affect all aspects of our lives whether we remain in or leave.  We must therefore remain ‘on the inside’ where we are able to influence the EU’s decision-making processes.  Britain has much to contribute to the EU, and much to gain from it.  Yes, I voted against our membership of the European Community in 1975, but the conditions were very different then, and more than 40 years of membership have so changed the context that I feel very strongly that we must remain in.

My taxi conversations shocked me because they revealed that many people are going to vote about a single issue that they think is true, and yet that in my view is quite simply wrong.  One taxi driver complained, for example, that we are paying £55 million a day to the EU, and that we could better use this money to support our health services and other government expenditure.  Whilst it is very difficult to measure the precise financial inputs and benefits of EU membership, it is worth noting that in 2015 the UK would have been liable for £18 billion in contributions if it did not have rebate of almost £5 billion.  In practice, the UK therefore paid about £13 billion to the EU last year, but it must be remembered that the EU also provided support for the UK of some £4.5 billion, mainly through payments to farmers and poorer regions in the UK.  Britain’s net contribution was therefore in the region of only £8.5 billion, or  just over £23 million a day, for which we also get many other intangible benefits that it is difficult to measure in precise financial terms.  Moreover, there is no guarantee that any savings  would actually be spent on relevant public services or social welfare, even if the UK were to make a net financial saving by leaving the EU.

Another taxi driver claimed that migrants were mainly living in ghettos and that large numbers were simply here to sponge off the generous British benefits system.  The impact of migrants on the British economy and society is indeed a highly charged subject, with much contrasting evidence being adduced to support particular ideological positions.  My own view is unquestionably that Britain has benefited hugely over many centuries from immigration.  From the arrival of Celtic people, through the Roman occupation (1st century BC – 5th century AD), and then the Anglo-Saxon (5th-7th centuries AD) and Norse (8th-11th centuries) invasions, Britain was born through immigration.  More recently in the 20th century, immigration from South Asia, the Caribbean and Africa has vastly enhanced our cultural diversity, economic vitality, and social distinctiveness.  Immigration from other European countries is but a new dimension of an old tradition.  To be sure, the UK (263 people/sq. km.), and particularly England (410 people/sq. km.), is more densely populated than many other European countries such as Germany (229 people/sq. km.) and France (121 people/sq. km.) (Figures from 2012), and there is undoubtedly pressure on housing as well as urban encroachment in rural areas in the UK.  However, recent migrants from the EU, about whom there has tended to be most criticism, appear to contribute £1.34 to the British economy for every £1 that they have taken out.  While those who migrated before 2000 contributed less, at £1.05, this is still a net financial benefit to the UK.  The bottom line, even if only financial figures are considered and all of their social and cultural contributions are ignored, is that EU migrants contribute more to Britain than they take out.  I very much prefer living in a country to which people want to come than in one from which people want to leave.

These were the conversations that precipitated my desire to write, but I also want to comment briefly on some of the other things that are being said about many of the political, social, economic and cultural dimensions of EU membership.

Political

  • I am amazed that so many people are saying that by leaving the EU we will regain our sovereignty.  Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, has made numerous statements about this, claiming that Britain will inevitably be led into a superstate if we remain in the EU and would lose its sovereignty yet further as a result.  Much depends on precisely how sovereignty is defined, but few states actually have absolute sovereignty because the world is already so inter-connected.  Not least, countries that sign UN treaties have to abide by them, and numerous trade and other international agreements limit the real freedom of national governments to take truly independent, sovereign decisions.  Moreover, whilst in the past some European politicians have indeed had a vision to create a politically united centralised European state, and I have no doubt that the creation of the Euro was one means of trying to do this through the back door, my judgement is that there is now much less appetite for a centralised vision of Europe than was once the case. Indeed, the voice of Britain in Europe has been one of the factors that has tended to limit some of the wilder tendencies of the centralists.
  • Others argue that Britain can be ‘great’ again only if we leave Europe.  This is complete and utter nonsense!  Whether Britain ever was ‘great’ can be debated (much of our ‘greatness’ was gained at the expense of others, thus belying our claim to greatness), but we are now a post-imperial, small and largely insignificant country on the edge of Europe!  It is amazing that we still retain some respect in the world.  In terms of population we are ranked the 21st largest country in the world, and in terms of size we are the 79th largest country.  We are dwarfed by China and India, which themselves dwarf the USA!  The future lies with countries such as these, and we need to learn to play by the rules that they will determine if we wish to play at the table.  Being part of Europe enables us to have a greater voice than we would otherwise have.  We should also not believe that by leaving Europe we will somehow be able to rekindle other special relationships.  Those who think that it might bring us closer to the USA miss the point that the USA is itself a failing state, and will soon have to grapple with just the same post-imperial trauma that Britain has come to grips with since the middle of the 20th century.

Economic

  • The most important point to note here is that European countries, and especially those in the EU, are Britain’s biggest trading partner as a bloc.  Again, it is possible to choose various trade figures to make different arguments, but I am persuaded by the argument that the EU is the “UK’s major trading-partner, accounting for 45% of exports and 53% of imports of goods and services in 2014”.  Were Britain to leave the EU, there is no guarantee that we would continue to retain a special relationship economically with the EU bloc.  Indeed, I would imagine that governments of other European countries would be so infuriated that they would probably seek to isolate Britain as much as possible in terms of any beneficial trade agreements!
  • I know that bankers are not the most popular people in Britain, and rightly so given their past misdemeanors!  However, the past battles between London and Frankfurt over which city should play the central role in Europe’s banking system testify to what will happen if Britain were to leave the EU.  Frankfurt would undoubtedly become the financial captial of the EU, and would therefore become much stronger in its competitiveness with London.  This is not to say that London’s financial roles would overnight become defunct, but it is to say that it will become very much tougher for London to maintain its strong position in the global financial markets, which would be to the detriment of Britain as a whole.
  • The UK attracts substantial inward investment because foreign investors have traditionally seen us as a strong and stable economy within Europe, and therefor a safe means of accessing wider European markets.  If we were to leave Europe, this incentive for foreign investment would vanish overnight, and we would have difficulty in attracting the further investment that has recently played such an important part in fueling our economy.
  • Further evidence of the likely economic impact of leaving the EU is the effect that the uncertainty has had on the Sterling-Euro exchange rate, which was around € 1.38 to the pound in early December 2015 and had fallen to just over € 1.26 by the end of February 2016.  Although it is very difficult to predict financial markets, most analysts suggest that the pound would fall considerably in value were the referendum to result in a vote to leave the EU.  Goldman Sachs, for example, suggests that “if the UK voted to leave the EU, the UK’s current account deficit would still be a source of vulnerability despite some recent improvement. An abrupt and total interruption to incoming capital flows in response to a ‘Brexit’ could see the pound decline by as much as 15-20%.”

Social

  • The social impact on the UK of  leaving the EU would also be very considerable, not least in terms of social diversity.  Whilst some people undoubtedly see an increase in diversity as being negative, I suggest that the greater social mobility and inter-mixing between European people that has resulted from the existence of the EU over the last half century has unquestionably been positive.  Understanding different societies better through meeting and socialising with different people is of great importance for reducing tensions and misunderstandings between countries, and this still remain of very great importance even though, hopefully, the devastating 19th and 20th century wars across the continent are now a thing of the past.
  • The European Union has also done much to try to ensure a fairer society across Europe, and acts as an important factor in seeking to promote a more communal and less individualistic society than, for example, exists in the USA.  I fundamentally disagree with the European human rights agenda as well as some aspects of European social legislation, but I have no doubt that the tempering social effect of the EU has been beneficial in reducing some of the excesses of rampant capitalism.
  • Another important aspect of social impact has been reflected in comments that I have received from friends across Europe, who simply cannot believe that people in the UK would be selfish enough, and foolish enough, to leave the EU.  This has two particular manifestations: first, the overwhelming reaction of my friends is along the lines of “if people in the UK choose to leave Europe, then we will have little sympathy for them in the future when life gets difficult”; but second, there is a genuine belief that the UK also has much to contribute to Europe, and it will be to Europe’s disadvantage as well if the vote is indeed to leave.  The British would be very much missed from Europe, but our truculence in having a referendum has already seriously dented our reputation.

Cultural

  • Finally, there are clear cultural implications of any decision to leave the EU.  While cultural exchange, and the ebb and flow of ideas, will undoubtedly continue if the UK was outside the EU, the amount of such exchange at many different levels would decline without the support and encouragement provided by the EU.  Not least, the implications for tourist visits are very substantial.  According to the Office for National Statistics, UK residents made 43.8 million visit to the EU in 2014, and EU citizens made just over 23 million visits to the UK in the same year.  For those who like visiting Europe, the thought of possible new visa requirements, and additional border checks, especially if European governments did not take kindly to the UK’s departure, is hardly a pleasant one!

These are just some of the more important reasons I believe without a shadow of doubt that despite problems with the European Union, we should unquestionably vote to stay in, and continue to play a very active role in reformulating the Union so that it better serves all of the people of Europe.  Yes, there are problems with the European bureaucracy, its legal system, and its many excesses, but the people of the UK would be far worse off outside it than remaining within it.  The UK is a small, relatively insignificant island off the north-west coast of Europe.  In a world increasingly dominated by large powerful states who do not necessarily share our values and interests, we need to continue to work together with people and governments from similar minded countries in Europe if we wish our cultural values, our social system, our economic vitality and our political structure to continue to represent the interests of the people of the UK and Europe more widely.

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Trust, privacy and digital security

The pace with which the UK government is forcing through legislation to permit its security agencies legally to gather information about the use of digital technologies by people living in the UK raises ethical issues of the utmost importance. In the past, I have very much emphasised the significant concerns that citizens should have about the use of their ‘digital lives’ by both global corporations and governments. In so doing, I have sought to emphasise the interesting conjuncture of ideas surrounding the three concepts of trust, privacy and the law that lie at the heart of such discussions (for some early thoughts, see my 2010 paper on ICTs, citizens and states).

One of the most remarkable things about digital technologies, and particularly the extremely rapid expansion of social media, has been the ways that people have been willing to make so much information available for public view that was previously considered to be ‘private’. Why, for example, if people are providing so much of their information on-line for free should they have any concerns about whether or not governments make use of this? Social media companies have benefited hugely from the willingness of people to give for free without thinking too much about the consequences, and so too have those providing search engines and location based digital services.  So why should governments not likewise use this information?

In trying to unravel some of the complexities of these issues, it is useful to contrast two very different perspectives on what privacy actual is:

  • The dominant view would seem to follow Etzioni (2005) in accepting that privacy is in effect a good that can be weighed up against other goods. From this perspective, people are willing to give up some of their ‘privacy’ in return for various perceived benefits. Hence, people seem to be willing to let companies use information about their e-mail or search engine usage, in return for having a ‘free’ e-mail account or the ability to search the Internet for ‘free’ for some information that they want to find. Similarly, it can readily be argued that governments can, and indeed should, be permitted to pry into the lives of individuals in order to protect all citizens, especially if a justification, such as preventing potential ‘terrorist’ action can be provided.
  • An alternative type of definition of privacy, though, is offered by Friedman (2005) who instead sees privacy as a means through which we have power over our own lives. He emphasises the asymmetric power relationships between states and citizen. Few citizens, for example, possess their own tanks or fighter aircraft, and few have the digital analysis technologies that large corporations and governments possess. As he suggests, in referring to the state, ‘limiting its ability to protect us from bad things done to us by ourselves or by other people, may not be such a bad deal’.

In the past, I have very much supported Friedman’s arguments, and on balance still do. However, this is where notions of ‘trust’ become so important. From conversations in many different countries, I have come to the clear view that where people do not trust their governments, then they are much more willing for their digital lives to be known by companies, but where they do trust their governments then the reverse is the case. Governments have the power to do very bad things to their people, and digital technologies have the potential to offer them very large amounts of knowledge indeed in support of such actions.

The interesting observation to be made here is that it is actually the companies, be they ‘phone operators or social media corporations, that actually already collect this information on a regular basis, and indeed use it to generate their profits. Whilst there is much angst against governments for wanting to access some of this information, I am surprised at how little concern there actually is about the uses that companies already make of such information. Again, in part, this comes down to trust, but I think this is only in part. Companies seem to me to be much more circumspect in telling people actually what data they collect and how they use it. They leave the governments to take the flack in wanting to access such information!

The arguments currently being debated as the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill moves through the UK Parliament are ultimately derived from social contract theory. In essence, building on the ideas of Hobbes and Locke in the 17th century, the idea that citizens are willing to give up some of their rights to governments in return for protection of their remaining rights has become central to much of the way in which our governance systems work. Following Etzioni’s line of thought, citizens might therefore consider giving up some of their privacy in return for greater protection from other citizens (or ‘terrorists’) who for whatever reason wish to do them harm. It becomes incumbent for governments therefore to show that there is indeed a very considerable increase in the potential threat to citizens from ‘terrorism’, or indeed any other harmful effects, if they want to pry further into citizens’ privacy.

This is, in effect, what the UK government is seeking to do, without perhaps illustrating the full extent of the threat. As I learn more about these matters, and speaking with many people who I have come to trust over the last couple of years, I am becoming increasingly aware of just what the level of threat is, and I am much more persuaded by the arguments that some greater surveillance might indeed be necessary. However, the challenge for a government is that it is difficult for it to indicate just what these threats are because of the obvious security implications, and so citizens have to place a lot of emphasis on trusting their governments.

How can this be achieved? The most important thing in building trust on such matters is to have as full, open and transparent a debate as possible amongst relevant stakeholders. Rushing legislation through Parliament is therefore unwise, unless the level of threat is very severe indeed. I cannot judge this, but unfortunately recent failures of trust over such things as the UK’s support for the USA in the invasion of Iraq over ‘weapons of mass destruction’, make it very difficult for people to believe a UK government of any political colour on such matters.

MPs would therefore be wise if they are to pass this Bill to insist that immediately in its aftermath a wide-ranging and fully transparent consultation should take place, so that the issues are debated openly and constructively. This will take a considerable amount of time, but will ultimately be worth it, not only in rebuilding trust, but also in reaching a wise decision on how to balance privacy and security.

This does not, though,  resolve the concerns raised by Friedman, with whom my own allegiance really lies. The balance of power between states and their citizens is indeed unequal, and there must be mechanisms whereby governments and their servants can be held to account for their actions and misdemeanours. It is here where I believe the law is so important, and it seems to me that judges have a particularly crucial role to play in determining the appropriate balance. The separation of the judiciary from the executive is another important heritage of the British political system, and one that is shared to a greater or lesser extent in many Commonwealth countries. Whatever outcomes are agreed on in the consultation that I encourage, they must be enshrined in a very carefully constructed legal framework that can indeed insist on the severest of penalties for misuse of the powers that are being discussed in Parliament as I write.

 

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Filed under Commonwealth, Development, Ethics, ICT4D, Politics, UK