Saturday 18 April, 2020

Thank God for Marina Hyde

If, like me, you are getting so pissed off by the government’s daily Corona briefings, then Marina Hyde’s wonderful column this morning will be music to your ears. Here’s a sample:

News that Matt Hancock, the health secretary, used Friday morning to announce a “six-point battle plan” stirs memories of yore – Thursday afternoon – when the supply prime minister, Dominic Raab, announced his “five tests”. Indeed, those five tests themselves felt like the twitch of a phantom limb, redolent of the time Hancock announced his “five pillars”. Five pillars – like Islam, or the lost Temple of Cybele in Rome, or a Floridian McMansion where the contractor went bust halfway through completing the portico.

You don’t hear a whole lot about Matt’s five pillars these days, though the announcement of them did the job at the time. On Wednesday, Hancock drew attention away from the desperate shortage of PPE in care homes by re-announcing an NHS-style badge for those who work in care. Alas, in a development best described as ironicidal, the care badge website then swiftly ran into difficulties, leaving visitors greeted with the news that there was now a shortage of care badges. Until production is “ramped up”, it’s hard not to conclude that the chief success of the care badge was to form a psychic shield around the health secretary. It will, however, take more than a badge if he doesn’t hit his 100,000 tests a day target for the end of April, having already missed the 25,000-a-day target for the middle of the month.

Can you recall if the 100,000 tests was ever technically a pillar? It all feels beyond living memory. If you told me he had announced them sometime in the mid-Cretaceous period, staring soulfully into the camera even as a T-Rex pursued him, I’d believe you. In fact, it was a fortnight ago…

The twin problem of the British system: government by amateurs and state (in)capacity

It has taken a while, but this is what the virus has taught us so far. The UK has two big problems:

  1. We are governed by amateurs who until recently thought that responsibility for one’s actions was something that only lesser mortals worried about. In recent times, this is mainly about the Tory party and the people who have led it. After its defeat by Tony Blair in 1997, the party was led by a succession of screwballs and jokers — William Hague, Ian Duncan-Smith and Michael Howard. Then along comes David Cameron, who actually won a couple of elections and swaggered into the 2016 Referendum with Etonian swagger: he would convince the Europeans to give him a few token concessions that would be enough to sideline the swivel-eyed nutters in his own party, and the warnings of Establishment capitalism would frighten the punters to deliver the correct verdict. All delusional. He was then briefly succeeded by Theresa May, the embodiment of the Head Girl of a Grammar School; she did at least understand responsibility but unfortunately couldn’t run a bath. And then comes Boris Johnson, the most egregious bluffer of the lot, with an entitlement obsession bordering on the pathological and a smug confidence that there was nothing he couldn’t get through with a few jokes and some faux-Churchillian bluster. And even when he ran into an immovable obstacle called Covid-19 he didn’t get it for a while — as this fascinating Guardian account makes clear. It’s possible that his near-death experience might transform him into a serious human being, but I wouldn’t bet on it once he’s back firing on all cylinders. But thousands of people are paying with their lives for the complacent failures of Johnson and his Brexit-obsessed crew to mobilise earlier.

  2. We have also belatedly discovered the extent to which the British state suffers from a capacity deficit. This is what we learn every day in these government ‘briefings’. And it’s becoming more embarrassing by the minute as European states like Germany and Italy — yes Italy! — demonstrate their superior capacity to address the challenges of the virus. This state incapacity has clearly been building for a long time: it’s partly a product of ideology and an obsession with the short-term; it may also be partly due to the obsession with terrorism over and above other risks (even though pandemic risk was, in theory, the #1 item on the national risk register, with terrorism as #3). We will need a proper inquiry into this when the panic subsides.

The looming battle over smartphone-based proximity tracking tech

Very useful Techcrunch report on the developing row between those who want to have centralised tracking and those who believe the data should be kept on users’ phones, with a server basically just doing notifications to users. This row presages a nightmare scenario with real divergence between centralisers and de-centralisers. The EU seems to be leading the centralised charge (while of course denying that it is favouring anything of that kind), and seeming to consider leaning on Apple and Google to make sure that their forthcoming APIs allow centralised tracking.

Needless to say, the argument for centralised tracking is that the pandemic overrides namby-pamby reservations about privacy and the danger of constructing the architecture of a surveillance state. Behind this lies the framing of the pandemic as a “war” on the virus, accompanied by the usual soothing bromides that the powers and the tech will be withdrawn once the war is over. But ‘wars’ like this never end (just like the ‘war on terror’ after 9/11), and the architecture of surveillance is therefore never dismantled.

Other uses of a smartphone-tracking app

Robert Shrimsley in today’s Financial Times

Quarantine diary — Day 28


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