Thoughts from Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain: 5.5.21

Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable

– Christopher Howse: ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’ 

NOTE: If you want to know more about Galicia or read my Guide to Pontevedra city, click here.


See below for an article on the key challenge of gene sequencing, which seems to be done well in the UK.

Cosas de España

Politics: So, the ‘nastiest Madrid election in decades’ has turned out as expected – A crushing election victory for a combative conservative leader who kept Madrid open during the pandemic. .  . This has boosted the Spanish right’s chances of regaining national power. Isabel Díaz Ayuso, dismissed as a Trumpista populist by her critics, won more than 44% of the vote last night, more than doubling the seats held by the [right wing] PP in the Madrid regional assembly. The result dealt a severe blow to the Socialist-led coalition central government. All this,despite Madrid having the 2nd highest incidence of Covid cases in the country. But the PP party didn’t get an absolute majority and will now work with the far-right Vox party. The (originally) centrist Ciudadanos party – which achieved early success not so long ago – has now disappeared from the electoral map altogether. Here’s a Guardian article on the developments.

As Imbard -Wilkinson put it yesterday: Ayuso’s cry for “freedom”, the slogan on hoardings across Madrid that depict her wearing a black leather jacket and white T-shirt, has a populist attraction in a city often equated with a hedonistic spirit and whose businesses are grateful for her policy of keeping it open. But it is her inflammatory anti-left-wing rhetoric that has struck a chord among conservatives who regard as anathema the Socialist-led government of Pedro Sánchez.

By the by, and not surprising really: Concerns about the pandemic prompted public health measures at the ballot boxes, such as a recommended time slot for older voters and an hour-long voting slot for those with coronavirus or in quarantine. Polling stations were disinfected and ventilated every three hours. Long waiting times, my daughter told me. All under the banner of Freedom!

Hats off to this lady in next-door Asturias.

Cousas de Galiza

I suspect it’s not all that uncommon: A Pontevedra tapas bar owner has been done for having 25 tables in use. Not only was this in excess of his Covid allowance but way above the 9 tables his licence permitted. And he’d already been prosecuted once. Some people really do chance their arm. In this case, he possibly made more from breaking the law than the fine imposed on him. Simples, social stigma is not being a consideration.

Today my GP neighbour will try to get me enrolled on the Galician Xunta’s vaccine certification scheme. Which might or might not be enough for national and international travel. I will report . . .

The Way of the World 

Personal responsibility is being eroded by militant identity politics. In branding societal problems ‘systemic’, we risk letting guilty individuals off the hook. See second article below.

Quote of the Day: Meghan has written her ‘debut’ book. This is worrying: might there be more?

Finally  . . .

Some advice, however old you are, from an expert, who’s also a sufferer: Neuroscience has advanced to the point that we know Alzheimer’s disease starts in the brain at least 10, possibly 20, years before any cognitive symptoms are noticed. The question is, with earlier detection, can we stop those processes before the damage is done? Can we act to change the course of this disease? I believe the answer is Yes. The lifestyle changes I suggest to my patients – a strategic regime of  exercise – especially aerobic –  a modified Mediterranean diet called the MIND diet, with special emphasis on brain-healthy foods, and everyday activities that keep you socially active and mentally stimulated: daily crossword puzzles, reading 6 to 10 books per month. There now is overwhelming evidence that, during the 10 to 20 years before the onset of cognitive impairment, the simple lifestyle changes cited above can markedly slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. I believe that a cure will eventually be found, but until that happens we need to focus on these early stages, before memory and a fundamental sense of self disappears. There is no time to lose.


1. How Britain leads the world in Covid sequencing. The UK punches above its weight in sequencing and our scientists realised early on that understanding viral mutations would be crucial: By Julia Bradshaw, TheTelegraph

Sequencing the covid pathogen is crucial to stopping the spread of the virus and developing effective vaccines against it.

“I have to cancel our chat, I’m on an urgent call with India,” Prof Sharon Peacock writes in a last-minute email. With the pandemic bringing the subcontinent to its knees, Peacock and her team of genomic sequencing experts at the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium, known as Cog-UK, are offering technical expertise to their Indian counterparts on virus surveillance. Monitoring the virus as it mutates by sequencing its genome is something Peacock and her team have, over the past year, become global experts on.

In March 2020 as the pandemic struck, Peacock, a Cambridge expert on sequencing pathogens and director at Public Health England, immediately realised the UK would need to create a country-wide sequencing network to monitor the virus variants. She had a chat with Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, made a few phone calls, got 20 people into a room and together they wrote a blueprint for what is now Cog-UK. “When I was calling people up, my question to them was: ‘I think we need to stand up a sequencing network in the UK. Does that sound right to you and would you support it?’,” she recalls. “What surprised me wasn’t the enthusiasm among the scientists, but how quickly we did it. We went from 20 people in a room on March 20, to a fully funded consortium on April 1 and that wasn’t easy. We set up the ethical framework, the governance structures, the management structures and working groups, the infrastructure, all from scratch.” Four days later an application landed on Sir Patrick’s desk. “He was a supporter from the very outset and that relationship with Patrick was very important,” she says.

What Peacock and her colleagues did was to bring the entire genomic sequencing expertise of the country under one umbrella. She says they effectively “hoovered up” all the capability, asking every scientist or researcher, mostly at universities, who had a sequencing machine and knew how to run it, to stop their research and help out by being part of Cog-UK. Luckily, everyone wanted to pitch in. Many of the scientists involved in setting up Cog-UK were well-versed in sequencing pathogens and had even been out to west Africa during the Ebola outbreak. “It was quite high-risk,” Peacock says. “Because what Cog-UK was doing had never been done before.”

The Wellcome Sanger Institute, a genomics and genetics research giant, which contributed £5.5m to fund Cog-UK, was also involved, in addition to the four public health agencies. Together with the Government’s £14.5m grant from its Covid Fighting Fund, the organisation had raised the £20m it needed.

The result of this remarkable endeavour is today’s little-known network of gene sequencing labs across the country, into which more than 100 hospitals and testing centres feed samples for genetic analysis.

It’s a challenging logistical operation, something like running a supermarket, Peacock explains. “We have couriers who know where to take the samples. It’s not random, but very orchestrated as to which sequencing lab a sample from a particular hospital will flow into. They have to be transported at a set temperature, they arrive en masse and the positives have to be picked out.”

So far, Cog-UK has sequenced the genomes of more than 452,045 Covid pathogens and, of all the Covid genomes sequenced in the world, half have been done by Cog-UK. The UK punches well above its weight here. All that data is published into a database and monitored and analysed. “Sequencing has become an essential part of managing the pandemic, it’s not optional,” says Peacock.

Understanding viral mutations is crucial for public health authorities, governments and vaccine developers, and key to staying ahead of the curve and stopping the spread. But it’s only recently that other countries have cottoned on to this, says Jason Betley, science director at genome sequencing company Illumina. Not knowing how a virus is mutating is like flying blind, he says. “The reason the B117 Kent variant became important was because it grew from nothing to dominating the whole of the UK in a matter of weeks, and that tells you there is something special about it and as a country you might want to change the way you are approaching this problem,” Betley says.

Around 70% of the Covid genomes sequenced in the world have been done using Illumina technology. The US-based company, which has a major R&D lab in Cambridge, inherited its next-generation sequencing tech after acquiring Cambridge spin-out Solexa in 2007. Genomic sequencing was born in the UK, Betley points out.

Illumina started working with Peacock during the MRSA outbreak 10 years ago, tracking the spread of the pathogen and looking at the mutations. Sanger also happens to be one of Illumina’s most important customers and, when the institute first started sequencing the Covid virus a year ago, there was a great deal of collaboration. Illumina designed a faster way of sequencing the pathogen at Sanger’s request – in just four days. The company then decided to make its own Covid sequencing product that it could commercialise for other customers. It put a big team on that project in April, and in early June it won regulatory approval, a three-month process that would normally take three years. “Because we threw everything, including the kitchen sink at it, and all our best people working seven days a week, we did it,” Betley says.

Illumina, and its British rival Oxford Nanopore, might have expected to be fielding phone calls from health authorities all over the world desperate to get their hands on the technology. Not so. In fact, Illumina’s chief medical officer, Dr Phil Febbo, spent the following summer knocking on doors in the US trying to get organisations interested in genomic surveillance “When we launched it in the summer people didn’t necessarily anticipate the importance of sequencing the entire base of the viral genome, all they were interested in was PCR testing. “It was only when we started to identify these variants of concern that others realised they had to be sequencing or they would have no idea what was under their noses.” Now, he says, it is Illumina’s door that is getting the knocks. And the test it developed last spring is now in the hands of dozens of organisations. Manufacturing has stepped up enormously to meet demand.

Over the past year Illumina’s share price has risen by 68%. Oxford Nanopore’s fortunes have also been transformed by the pandemic. It plans to float in London in what many expect will be one of the largest of the year and could value the company at £7bn. “The field is booming with a lot of inward investment into start-up sequencing companies. The potential for the technology to transform drugs research and diagnostics is only just starting to be realised,” Betley says. “It has been an interesting ride and we are on a wild phase of it now.”

2. Personal responsibility is being eroded by militant identity politics. In branding societal problems ‘systemic’, we risk letting guilty individuals off the hook: Nick Timothy, The Telegraph

You might have never heard of Noel Clarke. Before his Bafta award for his “outstanding contribution to cinema” last month, I had never heard of him either. Since declaring him its “rising star” twelve years ago, Bafta had not seen fit to grant him any other honours. 

Nonetheless, the year after Prince William criticised its lack of diversity, Bafta decided to recognise Clarke – who is black – for his career contribution to the British film industry. 

Thirteen days before the award, Bafta was passed information about Noel Clarke’s allegedly predatory behaviour. Yet it took no action. Why? In a statement, the organisation claims that it was because it had yet to receive a firsthand account. Yet a few days later, following publicity around the decision, it rushed to suspend the award and his membership of the organisation.

While the allegations against Clarke are serious and numerous, none is yet proved, but the case is worthy of study. Under pressure to improve the diversity of its awards, and no doubt afraid of accusations of racism, Bafta chose to honour a man it was told had used his power to predate upon women. Then, under pressure following a media investigation, it acted abruptly and  seemingly without due process.

The Bafta decision-making was poor but not unusual. Across society, holding individuals accountable for their behaviour has become complicated, and in some cases impossible, thanks to militant identity politics. And as previously apolitical arenas have become political – from ice cream companies campaigning for transgender rights to football clubs embracing the Marxist and anti-Semitic Black Lives Matter movement – the inconsistency and hypocrisy is growing.

We are now far from the ideal that we should be judged according to our character and actions. Instead we are judged at least in part by what we are instead of who we are. Old forms of racism, sexism and bigotry continue to exist, but are now compounded by a new prejudice, perpetrated in the name of progress.

Theories of “systemic racism”, which assert without evidence that all society subjugates and punishes minorities, lie behind the assault on our shared institutions, history and culture, and the accusation – so frequently made – that individuals and organisations are racist. This is no abstract argument: like President Biden, Keir Starmer has promised to root out not racism itself, but structural racism, which declares those of us who are not minorities unavoidably guilty.

For many, it is no longer sufficient to not be racist, or to fight racist discrimination. The starting point for any conversation about race must be to confess to having been racist, and to have been a beneficiary of historical racism, without quibble or query. To express doubt about structural racism is to be guilty of “white fragility”, leaving the accused with a choice between confession and further punishment. Minorities who express the same scepticism are written off as “racial gatekeepers”, race traitors who hold their beliefs not in good faith, but to protect the racist majority in return for personal reward.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that institutions of almost every kind – from the police to schools, big corporations to public sector agencies, and universities to Bafta – have surrendered to this cynical game. They declare themselves guilty, engage in positive discrimination, and have their HR departments establish training programmes based on pseudoscience like unconscious bias training. But the departure from judging one another on our individual merits is a dangerous game.

To understand why, think back to Isaiah Berlin’s two concepts of liberty. There is a negative conception of liberty, Berlin argued, and a positive one. The negative asked, “what is the area within which the subject – a person or group of persons – is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?” The positive asked, “what, or who, is the source of control of interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?”

Negative liberty, then, suggests we should be free to do as we wish. But of course there must be limits to that liberty. Without limits, the rich and the strong will enjoy their liberty at the expense of the poor and the weak. We can argue about where the limits to negative liberty lie, but we should all agree that there are core freedoms that must never be disturbed, regardless of apparent justification.

Positive liberty is about our desire not to be free from others, but to be free to live our lives as we choose. For advocates of positive liberty, who determines our liberties is as important as what those liberties are. This notion of liberty has been incredibly powerful in the last hundred years or so of public life, and we have its followers to thank for achievements including universal healthcare and education, welfare and workplace protections.

But just as with negative freedom, the idea of positive freedom can be dangerous when it overreaches. It can be nannying, intrusive and cause economic harm, but its consequences can also be more violent and tragic. For when we are asked to think of ourselves as simply part of a larger entity – whether tribes, races, faiths or totalitarian parties – we are not far from having our individual freedom subordinated to a supposedly superior, higher freedom or greater good.

We therefore need a balance. We need negative freedom to protect a core set of freedoms from despotism, but we need positive freedom to grant us the means by which we can lead fulfilled and happy lives. The problem today is that the woke agenda pursued by social justice warriors – to whom so many parts of society and government have surrendered – is a case study in the overreach of the positive concept of liberty.

Theories of systemic bigotry hold the innocent guilty, and allow the guilty to escape censure. And truth, fairness and justice are swept aside as inconvenient obstacles in the pursuit of apparent progress for a supposedly greater good. The sooner we get back to judging one another on the basis of our beliefs and actions, the better it will be for all of us.