Saturday 11 April, 2020

Quote of the Day

“There can be no return to normal, because normal was the problem in the first place.”

Graffito in Hong Kong

This is the most incompetent British government in living memory, and yet British journalism seems utterly incapable of holding it to account

I’m not the only one who is pissed off at the government’s Daily ‘Briefings’, in which Ministers provide little information of real value, and the journalists present seem unable to ask the important, hard questions or to follow up on unsatisfactory or evasive answers. There’s a strange kind of atmosphere at the events; it’s almost as though the hacks feel that this bunch of amateurs are doing their best, God bless them, and we shouldn’t crucify them. This journalistic failure is exasperating because it must be clear by now that the UK has a spectacularly incompetent government. This is not entirely surprising because — as I’ve said before — the prime criterion for membership of the Cabinet was to have been wrong on the single most important issue to have faced Britain since 1946. But still…

It turns out that Alastair Campbell, who was Tony Blair’s spin-doctor, has also been watching these info-charades with exasperation. Eventually one of the hacks who is in daily attendance asked him what questions he thinks they should be asking.

Here’s Campbell’s list:

  1. “Do you still think it was a good idea to have allowed 250,000 people to amass at the Cheltenham Festival after the WHO had officially declared coronavirus a pandemic?” Follow-up: “How many people have now been infected and/or died as a result?”

  2. “There were three million people daily on the London Underground at the time other countries were in lockdown. Does that partly explain why London has been so badly hit?”

  3. “Everyone will be pleased the Prime Minister is out of intensive care, and wish him well in his recovery. But was he wise to boast about shaking hands with coronavirus patients? Or be so lax at social distancing, not least at these briefings? And was this not all part of a pattern — he and you did not take this virus as seriously as you should have done, which is one of the reasons why more than seven thousand people have died?”

  4. “Would you accept that he did not follow his own government’s advice at all times? And the signals that sent may have led to the loss of life?”

  5. “Can you provide the current figures on all aspects of testing please?” Follow up: (if there is no answer) “You have consistently said this is a top priority. Priority means more important than other things. If it is so important, why can you not give us the figures?” Follow-up: (if there is an answer) “How does that fit with the plan to get to 100,000 tests per day?”

  6. “New Zealand has a population one thirteenth of the UK, yet has carried out a quarter of the number of tests we have, and been in lockdown longer than we have. Do you think these might be factors in their managing to keep the death toll to one? Not one thousand, Mr Raab. But one.”

  7. “Can you tell us how many NHS and social care workers have now died as a result of Covid-19? And what investigations have been carried out into how many of them had adequate PPE?”

  8. “Yesterday three nurses who were recently photographed wearing bin liners as protection were diagnosed as having coronavirus. Do you think there might be a link? Would you apologise to them for being sent to the frontline without proper protection?”

  9. “On March 15, almost a full month ago, the Prime Minister told the Commons that all social care workers would have proper protective equipment “by the end of the week”. Which week did he mean? And by what date will that promise be met?”

  10. “Mr Raab, almost one thousand British people died yesterday. So in one day, around a quarter of the total number of people killed in the entirety of the Troubles in Northern Ireland over thirty years. Do you really believe you are on top of this in the way you should be?”

  11. “Are the figures you give us the real death toll? Do they include all deaths in people’s homes, and those in care homes, where the virus may have been an issue? If so, is there not a danger we are already ahead of Italy?”

  12. “You keep saying you follow the science. Would you please publish the scientific advice on which you are relying?”

  13. “You keep saying you follow the scientific advice. But can you confirm that on all issues such as whether to impose or lift lockdown, how much testing to do, how many ventilators and PPE sets to procure, these are decisions finally taken by ministers?”

  14. “Successive Prime Ministers have written personal letters to the families of military personnel who lose their lives on the frontline. Will you be doing this for public servants who have lost their lives in the fight against the virus?”

  15. “A number of bus drivers have lost their lives. Will there be a proper investigation into whether any or all of these deaths were linked to the lack of protective equipment?”

  16. “We understand why the public transport system has kept running. But, especially in the early days of lockdown, it is clear many non-essential workers continued to use buses. Will you accept some responsibility for the deaths of public transport workers, as a result of the lack of clarity of advice?”

  17. “You have been very critical of Premier League footballers. They have now set out how they intend to make a major contribution to those dealing with the crisis. Will you now call on bankers to donate part of their bonuses, hedge funds to donate some of the massive profits they are making even now, with the Prime Minister’s friend and backer Crispin Odey reportedly making £115 million in the period of the crisis, and indeed those members of the Cabinet who have considerable personal wealth? Or is it one law for working class young men, and another for rich, privileged, middle aged multi-millionaires?”

  18. “Where is Priti Patel?” [The Home Secretary, i.e. Minister of the Interior] And, as a follow up, “Mr Raab, do you accept many of the people you thanked and praised as key workers yesterday — carers, cleaners, porters, supermarket staff and so on — are considered by your immigration plans to be unskilled, non-essential workers? In light of your new-found admiration for them, will Ms Patel, when she is found, be revising the policy?”

  19. “If Parliament could meet weekly in 1940, as a world war was raging, why not now? Why is our democracy reduced to the lowest level of public accountability in modern history?”

  20. “Mr Raab, as these briefings are pretty useless — partly your fault, partly ours — do you not think Parliament should return as a matter of urgency so that you can be properly questioned and held to account?”

Campbell’s main beef “is the tendency to let go of questions which are not properly answered, not simply within briefings, but from one briefing to the next. Testing, ventilators, personal protective equipment — these remain huge issues, but the journalists’ attention span is poor. They have utterly failed to hold the government’s feet to the fire on any of them. Promises come and go, and are not met, yet the media caravan moves to the next promise, leaving behind the failure to deliver on the last one.

“I said days ago”, he continues, that

the media should have created the pressure to provide data on tests, ventilators and PPE each day, along with cases, deaths, and public transport use. There is a reason why the government does not volunteer the information as readily as it does stats for the roads and the trains — because it is not good. Health Secretary Matt Hancock promised we would get to 100,000 tests per day, and no minister should be able to get past a microphone without being probed on where they are with that. It is a total failure of journalism that this is not happening.

All spot-on, IMHO

Zoomed out: two rules for staying sane with online meetings.

As last week for the first ‘real’ week of working at home for many people, I’m beginning to hear that many of them are finding online conferencing very tiring. And I can understand that. The most annoying thing is that many organisations which are dysfunctionally addicted to meetings think that they can do the same now that they have figured out to use Zoom of WebEx. They’re a bit like middle-aged men who’ve just bought their first motorbike. The current obsession with video-conferencing needs to be pared down. So here are two rules.

  1. Cut down on meetings — break the dysfunctional cycle. And only use online for meetings that are really essential.

  2. For most purposes, video is actually not essential: may be worth doing right at the beginning just to give everyone a picture of who’s at the meeting. But then switch off the camera. Zoom has a helpful feature when used in audio-only mode, in that the name of the current speaker is displayed when they are foregrounded.

Follow these rules, or wind up like a zombie at the end of the week.

Following on the item yesterday on what TLS writers and critics were reading during lockdown, A reader wrote to point out something that one of them — Muriel Zagha — wrote:

“Communicating on screens is like receiving news of astronauts in orbit. Atomized, we wave at each other. We have no idea how long the flight will take.”

Think of that every time you wave at a colleague encased in a postage-stamp-sized frame at the top of your screen!

“We have the power to destroy ourselves without the wisdom to ensure that we don’t” A talk by Toby Ord

A sobering talk by the author of The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity. Takes an hour, but worth it.

Quarantine Diary — day 21


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