Thoughts from Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain: 15.6.21

 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’ 

Detailed info on Galicia and Pontevedra city here.  https://thoughtsfromgalicia.com

Covid

See below for the latest UK-oriented Overview from MD of Private Eye – The Preventable Disaster.

The UK: I guess I don’t need to tell you what was announced yesterday. Here’s Richard North today, probably echoing the majority view. Some pundits are suggesting it may be spring before restrictions are finally lifted. This might be more tolerable if there was any sense that we were being given the full picture, and that the people in the driving seat knew what they were doing. But it’s been a long time since – if ever – those conditions were fulfilled. 

The government – which fears the consequences of getting anything else even slightly wrong – has gained control over people and is not going to give this up easily. But a revolting mood is being built up. Especially because, as RN puts it: It might seem to some that the lifting of  nationwide restrictions is being held back, not because of the general prevalence of illness, but because of localised outbreaks, which are not being fully addressed with the powers government has at its disposal. Because, it seems, these are in areas of high density of people from India and this would be ‘racist’. And affect negotiations for a trade deal with India . . . 

Sweden: Down to zero deaths per day.

Cosas de España/Galiza 

It must be summer . . . Ana Obregón has started to feature in the media. La O is one of those Spanish female celebrities who seems to get younger by the year. She must be well into her 60s by now but, in yesterday’s foto, appears to be around 20. Healthy living, I guess.

Well, it certainly is summer. Our traditional forest fires are springing up, along with the usual 5-10 theories on who or what is behind them. And the planes and choppers collecting water from the river below my house.

I pass this sign 2-4 times a day. It suggests you get on the AP9 autopista to drive to the nearby Marineda City. Which is actually 135km away, in La Coruña – a 90 minute trip . . .

The UK

In Orwellian Britain, lockdown is perpetual and sickness is health. See the Times article below

Even Johnson’s biggest media fan, the Telegraph, has pronounced that: Johnson risks being remembered not only as the prime minister who took away our freedoms but who was unwilling to give them back again. To return to RN:  Johnson’s vaccine bounce is beginning to fade and he’s now treading on extremely thin political ice.

As you might expect, the left-of-centre Guardian is pretty sniffy about the right-of-centre new kid on the media block, GB News. Its reviewer predicts its demise within a year.

The EU

The Telegraph view: The EU has shown embarrassing and dangerous ignorance. Macron’s failure to recognise the true status of Northern Ireland reflects a cynical, manipulative organisation. Could well be right . . .

The USA

Former White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, has claimed she never lied while working for the government, because she’s a Christian. In fact, she told lie after lie. Including:-

– The Mueller report was a “complete and total exoneration” of Trump 

– Trump had a “long history of condemning white supremacy and racism” 

– The kids’ cartoon Paw Patrol had been canceled, when it hadn’t been.

– Covid would never come to the USA, even after cases were already here.

Quote of the Day

Dating apps are machines devised by Silicon Valley to annihilate human love (because you won’t need their apps for that) and replace it with sex.

English

In his 18th century novel Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne uses the past participle ‘knit’, not the modern (British) ‘knitted’. This reminded me that the American past participles for spit and fit are, I believe, spit and fit, compared with the British spat and fitted. Presumably usage changed in the UK after the 18th century but not in the USA.

Finally  . . .

I’ve said it a few times  over the years . . . Shopping successes can’t be guaranteed in Spain. But I’ve had a big one in the last week. Firstly, my IT shop confirmed my suspicion it was the charger at fault, not my old Mac itself. Secondly, they said they could get me a much cheaper Chinese version of the Apple charger. Then, it was actually in the shop when I went to check on the promised delivery last night. Finally, it worked! I rather felt I should get drunk to celebrate this rare event.

COVID OVERVIEW

The Preventable Disaster.

It’s official: the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic was “a preventable global disaster”, according to the final report of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPPR). 

Over one year, it has conducted in-depth literature reviews and original research, hearing evidence from hundreds of experts and frontline workers around the world and with an “open door” to inquiry submissions. Its report, Make This the Last Pandemic, found that there were, and still are, “weak links at every point in the chain of preparedness and response. Preparation was inconsistent and underfunded. The alert system was too slow – and too meek. The World Health Organisation was under-powered. The response has exacerbated inequalities. Global political leadership was absent.” 

Delays cost lives 

The IPPPR acknowledged how hard people at all levels in all countries worked to tackle the virus, and the speed at which tests, vaccines and drug trials were delivered thanks to open scientific collaboration. But governments did not openly collaborate, nor react with sufficient urgency to the WHO declaration of a public health emergency on 30 January 2020. The “golden months” of February and March, when swift action could have saved many lives, were lost. 

Those countries that succeeded in suppression took early, pre-emptive action. Those that lost control (often repeatedly) adopted a wait-and-see approach. Wealth was no guarantee of competence (indeed, the wealthiest countries were often the most complacent). However, within and across nations, the poorest and most vulnerable people have suffered more, both from Covid and its socio-economic fallout. The report urgently calls for the fair distribution of vaccines. 

Here to stay 

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is here to stay. There is nothing surprising about a new variant (B.1.617.2, first observed in India) spreading more quickly than the current dominant UK variant (B 117, first observed in Kent). That’s what evolution does to viruses: they get fitter and fitter. There is currently a variant of B117 that may be vaccine-resistant in time. Booster jabs may be needed. 

B.1.617.2 has been with us since February, but we imported it in larger numbers in April, allowing it to seed widely around the UK. The good news is that it (currently) appears susceptible to vaccines, so as infections rise they should not translate into hospitalisations, deaths and long Covid for those protected. However, only a third of people in the UK have had both doses of vaccines. Surge vaccinations in the most affected areas will reduce risks, but protection isn’t instant. The government decided not to delay allowing indoor gatherings in homes, pubs and restaurants from 17 May. Time will tell if that was sensible. 

Act on surges 

lf you wait to identify a variant of concern in a pandemic, you’re too late. This was the clear lesson of the winter, when SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) urged the government to lock down amid rising infections, but the government delayed acting until the B 117 variant was officially identified as the cause. 

This led to an exodus from the south-east before Christmas, which spread the variant all over the UK and brought more than double the deaths of the first wave. 

[As I’ve claimed] The government has just repeated the error by waiting until B.1.617.2 was identified as a variant of concern in India before putting it on the travel red list. Infection rates are underreported in poorer nations, but even based on reported rates it was clear in early April that India was at the centre of a rapid outbreak, with higher levels than bordering Pakistan and Bangladesh. This was highly likely to be due to (then unidentified) variants. 

From a pandemic control perspective, it made no sense putting Pakistan and Bangladesh on the red list on 2 April but not India. Up to 20,000 people arrived in the UK from India between then and 23 April, when India was added. They were left to their own devices as to quarantine (which we know isn’t very effective). A further computer glitch in test and trace meant many contacts of people carrying the variant were not traced. A lot is riding on how much protection our partial vaccination offers.

Border confusion 

Pandemics are best managed by swift global cooperation. In January 2020, neither the WHO nor SAGE were recommending border controls or closures on the grounds that they cause economic harm and merely delay spread, unless you keep your borders tightly controlled from all destinations until the whole world is vaccinated. 

The International Health Regulations 2005, which govern emergency pandemic responses, declare the need for a balance between the conflicting aims to “prevent, protect against, control and provide a public health response to the international spread of disease”, and avoidance of “unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade”. Countries that imposed early, unilateral border controls gained better pandemic control with less economic damage. However, had the outbreak proved less serious, they might now be facing legal action for loss of trade and restriction of free movement. 

Give the Brexit context, Boris Johnson was unlikely to advocate for border controls before the virus had arrived. “Wait and see” became the UK’s mindset. 

Now, 15 months on from the start of the pandemic, Europe still has no coherent border control policy. The EU has delayed its announcement for a fortnight, Spain is welcoming anyone from the UK without the need for a PCR test, Germany is blocking UK traffic because of the B.1.617.2 variant, and the UK is permitting travel to both countries but advising you should only go if it’s urgent. 

How SARS started in the UK 

The UK’s “wait and see” policy proved our undoing. Research by the Covid-19 Genomics UK consortium (Cog-UK) published last June showed that at least 1,356 people had brought the virus into the UK in February and March, leading to a massive first wave. Less than 0.1% of those cases came from China. Rather, the UK epidemic was largely initiated by travel from Italy in late February 2020, Spain in early to mid-March, and then France in mid-to late March. Eighty per cent of initial cases arrived in the country between 28 February and 29 March. 

Had we embraced strict border controls early on, or had an effective test, trace isolate system – or preferably both – we might have controlled the outbreak without lockdowns. But the scientific advice to the government at the time was that border controls, test, trace and isolate, face masks and lockdowns either lacked evidence or delayed the inevitable, so herd immunity became the government’s default policy, until it realised how many deaths would result and dithered into a late lockdown. 

Public opinion 

In hindsight, with a vaccine less than a year away, the UK might have opted for a “Fortress Australia” approach at the outset, only opening up when all adults had been offered both vaccines. It may not have kept variants out – essential goods have to be traded – but it might have kept the numbers down while allowing more freedom to work, study, spectate and party within our borders. But would people have supported stricter border controls? 

In a recent lpsos-Mori poll of 2,007 adults aged 18-75, 79% supported stopping people entering the country from countries with higher levels of infection; 70% supported quarantining in hotels for those returning from all foreign holidays; 67% supported stopping people entering from any other country; and 58% supported stopping foreign holidays in 2021. 

In contrast, the government advocates a weak and inconsistent traffic light system. After a country is put on the red list, a grace period of 4 to 7 days enables people to rush back 

to the UK, much like jumping the lights on amber-red. Or they can travel via a lower-risk country and a void restrictions. 

Those on the amber list are expected to quarantine at home for 10 days, but notwithstanding government threats of a knock on the door from the “holiday police”, it’s still a much more permissive border policy than, say, Australia and New Zealand. No surprise that it permits viral spread. 

Where did all the money go? 

A report by the National Audit Office on the government’s pandemic response estimates its lifetime cost at £372bn: £62bn on the job retention scheme, £38bn on NHS Test and Trace, £27bn on self-employment income support, £26bn to devolved administrations, £23bn on bounce-back loans, £21bn on business rate measures, £18bn on PPE, £18bn on rail and bus measures, £18bn on business grant funding, £14bn on further health services spend, £10bn on universal credit, £10bn on vaccines, £10bn on VAT measures . . . How much of the colossal spend and death toll could have been avoided if we’d got a grip on the pandemic earlier? Only a public inquiry can say . . . 

Public inquiry delay 

The public inquiry, starting in spring 2022, is unlikely to report before the next election. Any claims made by Boris Johnson’s former brain, Dominic Cummings, can be conveniently referred on[?]. Modelling expert Professor Neil Ferguson told the science and technology committee on I0 June last year that the 40,000 deaths in the first wave would have been 50% lower if lockdown had been introduced a week earlier. Why wasn’t it? We’ll find out in 2027. 

Putting a figure on it 

Nothing the public inquiry eventually unearths is likely to be surprising. Many countries fell into the “wait and see” trap. Germany and France had similar second wave excess deaths to the UK. The challenge will be for the inquiry statisticians to enumerate how many lives were saved by our pandemic management, and at what cost. And how many more lives might have been saved – and harms avoided – with more competent management. 

It should commemorate those lost and celebrate what we did well, particularly scientific collaboration and investment leading to rapid drug trials, vaccine development and roll-out, and the considerable compassion, support and gratitude shown during the pandemic, particularly to key workers (now sadly waning, not least for overworked GPs). 

Global reform 

The IPPPR report, meanwhile, argues that the WHO should be strengthened immediately with an increased budget and remit and “a new global system for surveillance, based on full transparency by all parties, using state-of-the-art digital tools”. Will China, Russia, the US, the EU, and the UK not to mention assorted dictators around the world buy into such a spirit of global cooperation? 

Covid consequences 

– 148m people infected and more than 3m Covid deaths in 223 countries and dependencies (to late April) 

– During the first wave, 228,000 children and 11,000 mothers across South Asia died due to disruptions in health services 

– 17,000 health workers died from Covid in the first year 

– Lost global output of $22tn in 2020-25 

– 90% of children missed school 

– Substantial rise in domestic violence and early marriage 

– 115-l25m people pushed into extreme poverty 

– Levels of mental illness rising sharply 

– Health and care staff with high levels of distress and bum-out 

– In the poorest countries, fewer than 1% of people have had a single dose of vaccine.

THE ARTICLE 

In Orwellian Britain, lockdown is perpetual and sickness is health. Embracing the statist doctrine of a permanent war on Covid will end badly for the Conservatives: Tim Stanley, The Telegraph.

There is a spectre haunting  Britain: permanent lockdown. Assuming that the June 21 date for lifting restrictions is pushed back today, on the grounds that cases and hospitalisations are rising, this narrows the window for reopening in the summer. Why? Because reopening almost inevitably triggers a spike in cases, and the later we delay that moment, the closer we will be to winter – when the NHS is under pressure anyway – and the more dangerous allowing Covid to spread becomes. It is not inconceivable that restrictions could remain in place until spring next year, a decision that will be shaped by two political developments.

One is the parliamentary inquiry into events last year. Matt Hancock will keep his job, but Dominic Cummings has succeeded in embedding the narrative that Britain locked down too gently, too late, which helps explain why we are now being so cautious. The second reason is a debate within Government and the public health establishment over the best way forward: do we control Covid but learn to live with it, like we do flu, or do we try to eradicate it entirely? We got a hint of what the zero-Covid argument means when Professor Susan Michie, a member of Sage and a member of the Communist Party (yes, really) said that wearing masks and other measures might stay in place “forever” because “this isn’t going to be the last pandemic”.

Technically, she is correct, and I predict that many people will be voluntarily wearing masks for years to come out of a mix of fear and altruism: it’s not a bad thing to do when you have a cold. But if a state apparatus follows this logic to its natural conclusion – if you think that controlling pandemic deaths is more important than the economy, personal freedom or (this is where it starts to get mad) addressing non-Covid illnesses, including mental health – then one can easily argue not just for pushing back June 21, not just for leaving lockdown in place over summer, but even reversing some of the liberalisation of the past few months. Why not? If Britain cannot unlock with the vulnerable vaccinated, and when an estimated 8 in 10 of us have antibodies, then when will it do so? 

One answer is “never”. Not in the sense of perpetually locking us up indoors, but by remaining eternally vigilant, tracking and tracing us, ready to shut up shop at a moment’s notice.

George Orwell’s doctrine of perpetual war, in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, was justified by the need to keep us poor and divided. War is peace because it guarantees elite control. Our situation is obviously very different but, as in the totalitarian state of Oceania, it is the product of a bureaucracy running on autopilot. We locked down because we could. Given that we can, it is hard to argue that we should not. The alternative is the political class saying “some of you will die but we all have to live with risk otherwise we are not really free” – but you would have to be a very brave politician to do that, and in the absence of a true disruptor, a Trump-like maverick, the merciful logic of the welfare state triumphs. If previous generations had had the technology and money to control their populations like this, they would have done it too. We have both at our disposal, so the machine switches on and runs itself. Sickness is health, because it automates perpetual care.

Opposition to the new order is as tricky as opposing a war, and almost inconceivable. It is practically absent from the broadcast media (on ITV news, a journalist described delay as a “no brainer”). I guess the comeback question is: “Do you want to let people die?” Obviously not, which is why opposition to any lockdown has been tiny. But as with a war – even the most moral and necessary venture – it falls upon some lonely reporter or MP to point out the cost. This social experiment will change us: war always does. Britain was still living with rationing after the Second World War till 1954, conscription till 1960. I remember as a child being told by those who lived through it that the country was never the same again.

I now wonder if I lived in a brief golden age of wealth and freedom, roughly 1989 to 2020, when I could get a good job at a newspaper without any contacts by blogging and turning up day after day looking for work. (Or fly to America, camp out on a mattress on a stranger’s floor and reinvent myself as a foreign correspondent.) Kids trying to make it now have no such physical mobility and diminishing social mobility, too, because rent is high and ownership is impossible, while the culture wars are squeezing the parameters of what one can do or say. The initial, liberating boom of the internet is over; whatever you said then can now be used against you.

The lockdown is the predictable next step, the tangible manifestation of a societythat is terrified and of individuals who have given up or given in. Yes, I will wear the mask; yes, I will obey these rules. Not just to save the NHS, which I am keen to do, but because I also have no say in the matter and can see no point pretending otherwise. Like Winston Smith, I shall drink my Victory Gin and submit.

Is this what life under the Conservatives looks like? Some Tories are starting to ask if Labour would have handled this crisis differently. If one assumes they would have been even more stringent and happy to spend, and if one accepts this philosophy that the state must do all that is possible to prevent Covid deaths, then why not vote for a Left that will do the job with greater enthusiasm? This is the risk that Tory governments run when they embrace the state, be it on health, the environment or “tackling inequality”: they validate Left-wing methods to achieve laudable goals. In the short run, warn Conservative critics, you can win votes by triangulating around a hapless opposition. In the long run, voters might come to the view that there is no difference between Labour and the Conservatives so they may as well vote Labour and maybe get a council house. 

The Tory edge over Labour has hitherto been the liberty card. One wonders when they will finally play it. I am sure the PM is itching to, that if he were writing this column from the hilltops of the back benches he would conclude, with a flourish, that the individual should ultimately be free – not of their social obligations, which take priority always, but free to be their own master, free to chart their own course. Free of Big Brother.