The Third Wave: A Timeline Of How We Got Here

The Third Wave: A Timeline Of How We Got Here
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
8 July 2020

“We’re seeing cases rise fairly rapidly – and there could be 50,000 cases detected per day by the 19 [July] and again as we predicted, we’re seeing rising hospital admissions”, Boris Johnson explained at a Downing Street press conference on 5 July. “We must reconcile ourselves sadly to more deaths from Covid.”

Frustratingly, as epidemiologist Dr Deepti Gurdasani told the Morning Star last month, “what is happening now was entirely predictable and predicted”.  And incredibly, despite the rising number of hospital admissions endangering the NHS’s recovery, over one million people living with Long Covid and an increasing risk of a new variant resistant to vaccines, on 5 July the Prime Minister announced plans to fully open on 19 July. In short, UK government policy is let the virus “rip” in the UK.

How did we end up in this mess?

21 January: The minutes from the day’s SAGE meeting warns the “evidence from the continued spread of the South African and UK variants suggests that reactive, geographically targeted travel bans cannot be relied upon to stop importation of new variants once identified.” The minutes also note “No intervention, other than a complete, pre-emptive closure of borders, or the mandatory quarantine of all visitors upon arrival in designated facilities, irrespective of testing history, can get close to fully prevent the importation of cases or new variants.”

25 January: Speaking to a Confederation of British Industry webinar, Dido Harding, the Head of the Test and Trace, says fewer than 60 per cent of people asked to self-isolate actually do so.

24 March: India announces it has detected a new “double mutant variant” of coronavirus.

1 April: According to the Times, ministers are told about the arrival of a variant in the UK that has originated in India (AKA the Delta variant). Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty says the idea that Covid variants can be stopped from entering the country is “not realistic”, reports the Guardian.

12 April: The government proceeds with step 2 of lockdown easing, with non-essential shops, hair salons pubs and restaurants with outdoor seating all re-opened.

15 April: Public Health England announces the Indian variant has been found in the UK. Speaking to the Guardian, Professor Christina Pagel, director of UCL’s clinical operational research unit and member of Independent SAGE, says “It is ridiculous that India is not on the travel red list yet – or many other countries for that matter – when India is seeing 200,000 new cases every day at the moment.”

23 April: The government adds India to the red list, banning travel to the UK from India. The Sunday Times later reports “Analysis of Civil Aviation Authority figures suggest that 20,000 people arrived in the UK from India from April 2 to April 23.” A Whitehall source told the newspaper: “It’s very clear that we should have closed the border to India earlier and that Boris did not do so because he didn’t want to offend [Indian Prime Minister] Modi.”

4 May: Teaching unions the NEU and NASUWT, along with support staff unions Unite, Unison and the GMB, have sent an open letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson, co-signed by around 20 scientists and public health professionals, urging the government to keep face covering in secondary schools until at least 21 June.

7 May: Public Health England identifies the Delta variant as a “variant of concern”.

12 May: The Prime Minister announces the public inquiry into the government’s response to the pandemic will start in spring 2022. Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat MP who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, says delaying the inquiry “means vital lessons will go unlearned,” the Guardian reports.

13 May: The minutes of the day’s SAGE meeting warns “If this [Delta AKA Indian] variant were to have a 40-50% transmission advantage nationally compared to” the so-called Kent variant the modelling “indicate that it is likely that progressing with step 3 alone… would lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations (similar to, or larger than, previous peaks)”.

17 May: The government proceeds with step 3 of the lockdown easing. People are now allowed to socialise indoors in limited numbers and visit pubs and restaurants inside.The government announces pupils are no longer required to wear face coverings in schools and colleges. International travel is allowed again, governed by a new traffic light system.

3 June: Professor Pagel tells the Guardian: “it is clear that schools are a major source of transmission and that outbreaks in primary and secondary schools have been growing a lot week on week.”

8 June: Keep Out NHS Public co-chair Dr John Puntis tells the Morning Star: “To reduce the spread of the virus, we need proper support for those asked to isolate, improved ventilation in indoor environments, face mask for secondary school children, stricter controls on borders and international travel, speedier vaccine rollout and a serious global vaccine initiative.”

11 June: Public Health England reports the Delta variant is 64 percent more transmissible than the Alpha (Kent) variant.

15 June: The Prime Minister delays plans to lift most remaining restrictions (step 4 of the lockdown easing), planned for 21 June, by a month, warning that thousands more people could die if the government opened up as planned, because of the rapid spread of the Delta variant.

16 June: During Prime Ministers Questions, Boris Johnson states the UK “has the toughest border measures anywhere in the world.” The Guardian notes this is “hard to square with the fact that some countries, including Australia and New Zealand, bar almost all overseas arrivals.”

17 June: Speaking to the Morning Star, Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a Senior Lecturer in Machine Learning and epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London, says “I do think the 17 May re-opening was a mistake but I think we would have likely seen a rise in cases even then because we know that cases of the Delta variant were actually doubling even prior to 17 May”.

18 June: Nearly two-thirds of workers in England seeking grants to help them self-isolate are refused help, according to research from the Trades Union Congress.

20 June: Hosting The Andrew Marr Show, the BBC’s Nick Robinson quotes Jeffrey Barrett, Director of the COVID-19 Genomics Initiative, Wellcome Sanger Institute: “Looking back it’s clear that a major part of why we are now faced with a growing wave of cases of the Delta variant is because there were hundreds of introductions from abroad during April.”

23 June: The deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, tells BBC Breakfast: “Trusts on the frontline are really coming under huge pressure … they have plans in place to tackle the backlog, but with more Covid cases and demand for emergency care going up, that’s really challenging.”

28 June: Newly appointed Health Secretary Sajid Javid says the country must “learn to live” with Covid-19.

1 July: The European Parliament’s committee on public health describes allowing 60,000 fans into Wembley for the European Championship semi-finals and final as “a recipe for disaster,” the Irish Times reports.

3 July: The British Medical Association urges the government to keep some targeted measures to control the spread of Covid-19 in place after 19 July in England, including face masks in enclosed public spaces and improved ventilation.

5 July: Emphasising “personal responsibility”, the Prime Minister announces the loosening of all restrictions on 19 July. The one-metre social distance rule will and the work from home guidance will end, and mask-wearing will be voluntary. This opening up will make England “the most unrestricted society in Europe,” the Guardian reports. Anthony Costello, Professor of Global Health and Sustainable Development at University College London, describes it is “Libertarian public health”.

6 July: The health secretary says the number of infections could rise above 100,000 a day over the summer.

7 July: Over 100 global experts publish an open letter in the Lancet medical journal arguing the government’s plan to lift nearly all restrictions on 19 July is “dangerous and premature.”

In April, Ian Sinclair and Rupert Read published A Timeline Of The Plague Year: A Comprehensive Record of the UK Government’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis, available as a free PDF and EBook, and as a pay-to-print book at https://covidtheplagueyear.wordpress.com/.

The importance of knowing our own strength: the anti-war movement and UK foreign policy

The importance of knowing our own strength: the anti-war movement and UK foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 June 2021

Though considered an abject failure by many, the enormous anti-war movement against the 2003 Iraq War has had a number of long-lasting impacts on British politics and society. One unfortunate effect is, nearly 20 years later, the movement’s inability to stop the invasion continues to breed cynicism and defeatism when it comes to the general public influencing UK foreign policy.

For example, discussing the large-scale UK protests against the recent Israeli bombardment of Gaza, one Middle East scholar quipped on Twitter “If history has taught me anything, when people in the UK march against immoral actions in the Middle East, their government will almost certainly ignore them.”

This pessimistic take is even shared by anti-war figureheads like Tariq Ali, who spoke at the rally in Hyde Park in London at the end of the biggest march in British history on 15 February 2003. “It was a huge show of anger, but that’s about it. It left no lasting legacy”, Ali commented on the tenth anniversary of the demonstration.

So should we be disheartened? History suggests there is cause for optimism.

Take the Vietnam War and the US anti-war movement that opposed it. Elected in 1968, “President Richard Nixon claimed in public to be completely unmoved by anti-war protests”, academic Simon Hall notes in Rethinking the American Anti-War Movement.

The reality was rather different. Both Nixon and President Lyndon Johnson before him “took an active interest in the movement’s doings”, Tom Wells explains in his 1994 book The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam. Indeed, Nixon “received multiple reports per day on some demonstrations.”

Admiral Thomas Moorer, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Nixon’s presidency, told Wells “The reaction of the noisy radical groups was considered all the time”, with the wider movement having “a major impact… both in the executive and legislative branches of government.”

With the movement playing “a major role in constraining, de-escalating, and ending the war”, it “was perhaps the most successful anti-war movement in history”, Wells concludes.

In short, the US anti-war movement of the late 1960s and 1970s was able to successfully inhibit the most powerful nation and biggest war machine the world had ever seen.

Impressive stuff. But British anti-war activists don’t need to look across the Atlantic for inspiration.

Having trawled the National Archives on post-war UK foreign policy, in his 2004 book Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, Mark Curtis notes “the public is feared” by the UK government. “A perennial truth which emerges from the declassified files is the public’s ability to mount protests and demonstrations that divert the government from its course.”

In the late 1950s British forces were involved in crushing an uprising against the UK-backed Sultan of Oman. Curtis notes the senior British official in the region – the Political Resident in Bahrain – had recommended three villages should be bombed unless they surrendered the ringleaders of the revolt. However, the government initially decided not to bomb since, they argued, “world opinion at that time was very flammable.” The British commander’s report at the end of the war noted “great pains were taken throughout the Command to keep all operational actions of the press”.

By the 1960s, the ongoing US aggression in Vietnam had generated considerable anti-war activity in the UK, including some high profile demonstrations. By 1965 the British Ambassador in Saigon noted “mischievous publicity” about the war from the anti-war movement “is having an effect on the policy of Her Majesty’s Government.”

Curtis disagrees, explaining Britain backed the US war in Vietnam “at virtually every stage of military escalation.” What was happening? Noting there was an “organised campaign” against the war, in 1965 Foreign Official James Cable reported: “All this has not yet affected our basic support for American policy in Vietnam, but it has generated a certain preference for discretion in the outward manifestation of this support.”

So the government continued to follow their preferred policy, just out of the public eye – not much to shout about, it could be argued. However, it’s important to remember the bigger picture. Despite significant pressure from President Johnson, Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to send regular British troops to Vietnam (a small number of British special forces did fight in Vietnam). According to History Extra, the official website for BBC History Magazine, one of the main reasons Wilson gave was it “would be extremely unpopular with his party and the wider public.”

The British establishment’s fear of the public is not confined to distant history. Starting in late 2001, the UK government’s huge propaganda campaign to persuade the public to back the Iraq War underscores just how seriously it was concerned about public opinion. According to the Guardian, days before the onslaught started the Spanish UN ambassador noted in a memo to Spain’s foreign minister that the UK had become “exclusively obsessed” with domestic public opinion.

Reporting on leaked documents, in November 2003 the Guardian also revealed “a [MoD-organised] media offensive aimed to convert the UK public to supporting the outcome of the Iraq War”. According to the papers “the MoD’s main target is the UK public and media while [the main target] of the Basra headquarters for British troops is the Iraqi people.”

Though it is rarely framed as such, parliament’s momentous vote against British military action in Syria in 2013 – the first time a British prime minister had lost a vote on war since 1782 – can be considered a delayed impact of the anti-Iraq War movement. “The spectre of the 2003 Iraq war hung over the Commons”, the Guardian reported at the time, with Labour leader Ed Miliband apparently telling Prime Minister David Cameron “You have to realise that after Iraq nobody trusts any of us.”

This historic defeat sent shock waves through the British political and military establishment.

Speaking at the international affairs thinktank Chatham House in September 2015, Sir Nick Houghton, the UK’s chief of defence staff, argued “we are experiencing ever greater constraints on our freedom to use force”. Some of these related to technological advances of potential enemies, Houghton said, “but the more worrying constraints on the use of force lay in the areas of societal support, parliamentary consent and ever greater legal challenge”.

The year before, former Labour Party Defence Secretary Lord Browne conceded “the British public have made it clear that there is very little support for new expeditionary wars of choice, even where there is a national security dimension.”

Of course, the British military were not simply bystanders to this shift in public opinion. In September 2013 the Guardian carried an extraordinary front-page story which further highlighted the influence of the UK anti-war movement and the general public.

Titled “MoD study sets out how to sell wars to the public”, the report summarised a November 2012 MoD document, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act: “The armed forces should seek to make British involvement in future wars more palatable to the public by reducing the public profile of repatriation ceremonies for casualties”.

“Other suggestions made by the MoD thinktank in a discussion paper examining how to assuage ‘casualty averse’ public opinion include the greater use of mercenaries and unmanned vehicles, as well as the SAS and other special forces, because it says losses sustained by the elite soldiers do not have the same impact on the public and press.”

“The public have become better informed”, the MoD paper noted, recommending the armed forces run “a clear and constant information campaign in order to influence the major areas of the press and public opinion.”

Back to the anti-Vietnam War movement. Wells has a distressing conclusion: despite its huge impact on the government’s war policy “few activists fully appreciated the considerable political power they possessed”, which “spawned defections from the movement… bred lethargy, stagnation, and despair in the movement’s ranks, impeding the organization of protests and the maintenance of anti-war groups.”

All of which will be familiar to peace activists working today.

Of course, we shouldn’t uncritically exaggerate the power of grassroots activism. But a good understanding of the history of UK foreign policy, and how this interacts with social movements and public opinion, provides a valuable grounding for maximising our influence on future government policy.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair. Ian is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press.

“What is happening now was entirely predictable and predicted”: Deepti Gurdasani interview

“What is happening now was entirely predictable and predicted”: Deepti Gurdasani interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
17 June 2021

With a third wave of the pandemic surging in the UK and hospital admissions rising, on Monday the Prime Minister announced a four-week delay to the lifting of all restrictions in England beyond 21 June.

For weeks the media and Westminster has been fixated on whether “Freedom Day” should go ahead as planned. However, speaking to me over the phone last week, Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a Senior Lecturer in Machine Learning and epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London, says “the focus on the 21st is a complete distraction.” As she tweeted just before Boris Johnson’s press conference, “Postponing 21st June isn’t remotely sufficient to deal with the current crisis.”

Furthermore, she tells me “what is happening now was entirely predictable and predicted by SAGE” (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies advising the government).

The risks of further opening up were clear before the step three change to the “roadmap” on 17 May, she explains, pointing me to the 13 May SAGE meeting. “If this [Delta AKA Indian] variant were to have a 40-50% transmission advantage nationally compared to” the so-called Kent variant the modelling indicates “that it is likely that progressing with step 3 alone… would lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations (similar to, or larger than, previous peaks)”, the minutes record. These fears were confirmed on 4 June when SAGE’s Professor Neil Ferguson told the BBC Today programme the best estimate is the Delta variant is 60 per cent more transmissible.

“I do think the 17 May re-opening was a mistake but I think we would have likely seen a rise in cases even then because we know that cases of the Delta variant were actually doubling even prior to 17 May”, Gurdasani notes. The spread of the virus that has happened in schools actually predates the Delta variant, she says, “but the government went ahead and removed masks, which was one of the few mitigations that we have in schools.”

She also highlights SAGE’s 21 January 2021 warning that the “evidence from the continued spread of the South African and UK variants suggests that reactive, geographically targeted travel bans cannot be relied upon to stop importation of new variants once identified.” Similar advice was given by Independent SAGE at the time, she explains. Both were ignored by the government, which re-opened international travel, governed by a new, leaky traffic light system, on 17 May.

Gurdasani, who has made a name for herself as one of the most outspoken experts appearing in the media, doesn’t hold back: “Where we are now is a completely predictable consequence of government repeatedly ignoring advice from its own advisers.” Indeed, it is worth remembering Dominic Cummings testified that Boris Johnson repeatedly cited Jaws, specifically the mayor of the resort town who keeps the beaches open despite evidence of shark attacks, when considering lockdowns.

Though her main focus is the government, Gurdasani doesn’t shy away from criticising her own profession. Interviewed on BBC News on 4 June she noted “The risk of the Delta variant was hugely minimised by our scientific community and our scientific leadership”.

Why? “What I see here is exceptionalism within our scientific community”, she replies. “We repeatedly dismiss evidence coming in from other countries. And we have done right from the beginning of the pandemic, suggesting that what is happening to other countries has something to do with those countries characteristics, rather than something that applies to us.” She points to the example of Italy in early March 2020: “We looked at what was happening in Italy and we still didn’t act, we still didn’t close our borders.”

She is also dismayed at how the UK has generally wanted “to wait for rigorous evidence on everything before we act.” Not only that, “we deal with uncertainty by assuming there isn’t risk.”

“We kept saying masks don’t work because we didn’t have trials on them and we wanted to wait for evidence”, she says. “Whereas there were countries that put them in very, very early on. It is the same with variants. We waited so long to make this [the Delta variant] a variant of concern and start surge testing on it despite the fact there were several scientists who had been screaming for weeks, at least four to six weeks, saying that this was really, really concerning given what was happening in India.”

She continues: “It has huge consequences because it takes weeks and months to accrue evidence. Much better to overreact and act early and then when evidence accumulates showing something isn’t a risk then you can remove things.”

She also believes the pandemic has revealed “very clear racial stereotypes” that have undermined the UK’s response. “We still hear about this: ‘People won’t accept lockdowns because they are freedom loving. They are not like people in China, like people in Southeast Asia, who are far more culturally obedient’… or people won’t wear masks, not like the mask wearing culture in Japan.”

However, as the polling shows, the British public “would have been very happy to adopt earlier lockdowns, and have supported a cautious approach consistently”, she says.

Like the Morning Star, Gurdasani advocates a Zero Covid (elimination) strategy.

It “is not an alternative to a vaccine-based strategy, it is an adjunct”, she explains. “It complements it. And the way it complements it is it really reduces the risk to the population while you roll out vaccinations. It protects people from the risks of transmission, like Long Covid, hospitalisations and deaths”. Secondly, “it prevents new mutations or variants from arising within the country, or being imported into the country, that potentially threatens that vaccine strategy.”

As it happens, just before I spoke to Gurdasani I received an email from my Labour MP about Zero Covid. “I am not aware of any examples of countries where Covid has been eliminated after infections have grown to a significant level and sustained community transmission has taken hold”, my parliamentary representative wrote.

Gurdasani laughs when I quote this to her: “I have a one-word response to that: China.” She is referring to the Chinese city of Wuhan, which went from being the epicentre of the outbreak in early 2020 to life pretty much returning to normal by January 2021, according to news reports.

She argues there is widespread confusion about Zero Covid, even amongst some scientists. “Elimination is not eradication. We’re not saying this is Smallpox and we will get rid of it entirely forever. We are saying that we are going to try and keep it out of the community, out of community transmission.”

To suppress the virus she proposes the test, trace and isolate system be completely overhauled. It should work closely with local authorities and take inspiration from South Korea and Japan where there is effective backward and forward contact tracing: “So there is a focus on finding the people that somebody has infected but also how that person has been infected to identify actual clusters of transmission and break them.”

In addition, she advocates “mandatory quarantine for anyone coming in from any country” should be introduced “because once you reach zero risk of transmission essentially comes from outside.”

Implementing an elimination strategy would mean “we can return to near normal faster”, she argues. “Vaccination takes time but a Zero Covid strategy can be achieved in a matter of four to six weeks, depending on the number of cases you are starting from.” And if successful, travel corridors could be set up with other countries that have successfully implemented a Zero Covid strategy.

While she says there is a much to be optimistic about, the interview is, unsurprisingly, dominated by her worries about the government’s continued disastrous response to the pandemic. As she told Channel 4 News earlier this month, the roadmap “has never focussed on bringing transmission down.”

And while she “wholly supports” the vaccination programme, she argues there is an over-reliance on vaccines. “The scientific community has, I think, adopted hopium – a sort of blind optimism around vaccines.”

“We are still not thinking ahead to ‘What about the next variant?’”, she tells me. “How do you know this virus won’t adapt towards more [vaccine] escape, which is very likely, or that we won’t import another virus?… What happens then? Are we back to square one? If you want to avoid that I think the only sure way to do it is Zero Covid.”

Follow Dr Deepti Gurdasani on Twitter @dgurdasani1.

Book review: How To Start A Revolution by Ruaridh Arrow

Book review: How To Start A Revolution by Ruaridh Arrow
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June-July 2021

Having directed the award-winning 2011 documentary about Gene Sharp, How To Start A Revolution, Ruaridh Arrow has now published an engrossing biography of the man who CNN once called ‘the father of nonviolent struggle’.

Sharp, who died in 2018 aged 90, led an extraordinary life.

He was sent to prison for refusing to be drafted at the time of the Korean War, worked as assistant editor at Peace News in the late 1950s, observed firsthand the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989, and trained activists in Burma in the early 1990s.

Along the way he corresponded with Albert Einstein, argued with Frantz Fanon in Accra and tried to convert Yasser Arafat into adopting a nonviolent strategy.

This was crucial: Sharp saw strategic planning as essential if a nonviolent movement was to succeed. ‘No military commander would ever dream of putting 1,000 soldiers on a battlefield without a strategy for how to use them and so it was of nonviolent action’, Arrow summarises.

Moreover, Sharp’s argument for pursuing nonviolent struggle is not that it is moral but that it’s the most effective method to effect change – something confirmed by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan in their 2011 book, Why Civil Resistance Works.

With his journalistic eye for a story and access to archival material, Arrow runs through a number of fascinating case studies, highlighting the impact Sharp’s thinking had on the first Palestinian intifada in 1987, as well as in Burma, the Baltic states (against the Soviet Union), the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt.

Arguably Sharp’s most spectacular influence was on the Otpor movement that played a central role in the overthrow of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević – described by Arrow as ‘the most advanced nonviolent campaign in history’.

Though he clearly admires Sharp, Arrow provides a rounded, very human portrait, noting how he could often be obstinate – it was Sharp who chose the Albert Einstein Institution as the confusing name of the organisation that he founded in 1983 – and how several close professional relationships eventually broke down.

Anti-imperialist activists will likely baulk at Sharp’s links with the US defence and state departments, as well as with organisations such as the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute.

However, it’s Sharp’s huge, power-threatening body of work – something he argued could be used by anyone – that is most important to peace activists today. And there is much to do.

As Sharp told US activist George Lakey: ‘We are simply at the bow and arrow stage of the development of nonviolent struggle.’

For those hungry for more, Arrow provides good news – Jamila Raqib, Sharp’s colleague at the Albert Einstein Institution in his later years, is currently writing her own book about Sharp.

How To Start A Revolution is published by Big Inky Books, priced £14.99.

Book review. Parents For A Future: How Loving Our Children Can Prevent Climate Collapse by Rupert Read

Book review. Parents For A Future: How Loving Our Children Can Prevent Climate Collapse by Rupert Read
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
3 May 2021

RUPERT Read’s latest book on the climate crisis is underpinned by the realisation pretty much all of us are “in some form or another of climate denial” – about honestly facing up to the level of threat, and the speed and depth of change required to successfully deal with it.

On the former, Carbon Action Tracker estimates the current policies in place around the world will lead to 2.9oC of warming by 2100. Read believes it is “very likely” climate and ecological chaos will lead to civilisation disintegrating “within the lifetimes of some readers”.

For the latter, he argues the desperate situation we now find ourselves in cannot “be adequately addressed from within our current paradigm of politics and economics.” As the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s warned in 2018, limiting warming to 1.5oC will “require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”.

A call to arms for everyone to step up to the challenge, Read’s thesis is, in many ways, very simple: if you care about your children (or other people’s children), then you should also care about their children, and their children’s children – “the whole human future.” And this means you should also care about the future of the planet all these future generations will live on.

He presents three core proposals for embedding this transformational thinking. First, the setting up of citizen’s assemblies that would be empowered to make the long-term proposals and decisions our fatally compromised and short-termist political system is unable to do. Second, the introduction of what he calls Guardians For Future Generations – a permanent “super-jury” that would sit above parliament and consider the interests of future generations in policymaking. And, finally, adherence to the Precautionary Principle – “when you lack full evidence and potential consequences [of a path of action or inaction] are grave, you need to err on the side of taking care.”

The book’s logical, essay-length polemic points to Read’s academic position as an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia. Likewise, the clarity and urgency of his message also highlights the influence of his time as spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion in 2019.

Compelling and deeply challenging, it is often an uncomfortable argument (Read tells readers: “you… need, at a minimum, to devote either your time or the bulk of your financial resources to this cause”). Which, of course, is why it is such an essential read. Time to get busy.

Parents For A Future: How Loving Our Children Can Prevent Climate Collapse is published by UEA Publishing Project, priced £10.99

A Timeline Of The Plague Year

A Timeline Of The Plague Year
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22 April 2021

To mark the one year anniversary of the first national lockdown, last month the Guardian published profiles of Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty.

“The wealthy civil servant’s year of speaking truth to power”, was the title of the fawning article on Vallance. Discussing the early days of the pandemic, the Guardian’s Rupert Neate asserted “Vallance may have been one of the few people in Whitehall who understood what was coming”. Echoing the title, he noted “Vallance’s friends and colleagues say that he is not afraid to speak scientific truth to power.”

The profile on Whitty was similarly obsequious, titled: “The calm voice who steered a nation in crisis”. The co-authors Ian Sample and Heather Stewart wrote “The crisis has demanded dedication and stamina, but Whitty has also needed the trust of those around him”. There is a brief reference to mistakes made in the early days of the crisis, such as Whitty responding to covid as if it was a flu pandemic, but overall the tone is deeply flattering. “Whitty’s calm authority appealed far beyond Westminster”, they note.

All of which makes the 2019 claim made by Guardian Editor Katharine Viner that Guardian journalists “believe in holding the powerful to account” sounds rather hollow. More accurate is journalist Peter Oborne’s recent analysis in the Morning Star: “We have to understand that the British media class is an instrument of power and should be treated as such rather than a fourth estate holding power to account.”

Partly in response to the media’s poor performance at the beginning of the pandemic, since April 2020 Rupert Read and I have been compiling a detailed timeline of the government’s response to coronavirus. Updated and published every week since then and now totalling over 69,000 words, the timeline is made up of thousands of sources, including press reports, television and radio news, medical journals, health experts and organisations, trade unions and polling results.

Working with editor Joanna Booth, we have just published the timeline as a free eBook and pay-to-print book too – titled A Timeline Of The Plague Year: A Comprehensive Record of the UK Government’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis

So how does the Guardian’s stenography on Vallance and Whitty compare to the information found in our timeline?

For starters, the deadly concept of “herd immunity” is not mentioned in either of the two profiles. Herd immunity is when a large majority of the population are infected or vaccinated, and therefore gain immunity and stop the spread of the virus.

In contrast, our timeline records that a senior politician told the Sunday Times he “had conversations with Chris Whitty at the end of January [2020] and they were absolutely focused on herd immunity.”

Vallance was even clearer about the government’s strategy on BBC’s Today programme on 13 March 2020. One of “the key things we need to do” is to “build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission”, he noted.

There are two huge problems with herd immunity – both widely understood in March 2020. First, the estimated mortality rates of the virus at the time – around 1%, according to a Guardian report on 7 March 2020 – would have meant around half a million deaths in the UK to achieve herd immunity. Second, there was ‘no clear evidence people who had suffered the virus would have lasting antibody protection’, as the Sunday Times explained on 24 May 2020.

Vallance and Whitty also made a series of catastrophic calls in the run up to the first lockdown on 23 March 2020. On 9 March 2020 Vallance said holding “mass gatherings and so on — actually don’t make much difference”. Three days later he asserted “the peak may be something like 10 to 14 weeks away – it could be a bit longer”. The peak was actually under four weeks away, with 1,461 deaths recorded on 8 April 2020.

Discussing restrictive measures, such as lockdown, to fight the virus at a Downing Street press conference, on 9 March 2020 Whitty stated “There is a risk if we go too early people will understandably get fatigued and it will be difficult to sustain this over time.”

Stephen Reicher, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of St Andrews and member of SPI-B (the group that provided behavioral science advice to government), later described Whitty’s analysis as “just plain wrong”. Similarly, A BBC Newsnight investigation broadcast in July 2020 concluded there “doesn’t appear to have been much evidence… at the time” for Whitty’s claim that if lockdown is implemented too early people would get “fatigued”. Robert West, Professor of Health Psychology at University College London and member of SPI-B, commented: “this term ‘behavioural fatigue’… certainly didn’t come from SPI-B, and it is not a behavioural science term. If you look in the literature you won’t find it because it doesn’t exist”.

The delay to lockdown was extremely costly. Back-dated modelling by Oxford University estimates there were just 14,000 infected people in the UK on 3 March 2020. By 23 March 2020 the number was likely to have been 1.5 million. “Those 20 days of government delay are the single most important reason why the UK has the second highest number of deaths from the coronavirus in the world”, the Sunday Times noted in May 2020. A December 2020 report by Imperial College estimated that imposing a national lockdown in just one week earlier in March 2020 would have saved 21,000 lives.

Moreover, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact Vallance and Whitty have been at the centre of the government’s response to the crisis, which means they oversaw the decision to stop mass testing on 12 March 2020, the ending of the quarantining of people arriving at UK airports from coronavirus hotspots a day later, the thousands of deaths in care homes and the shambolic test and trace programme.

With over 150,000 people having died from covid in the UK, according to Office for National Statistics figures, the government’s response has been, as Lancet editor-in-chief Richard Horton noted, “a national scandal”.

None of this highly pertinent and damning information appeared in the two Guardian profiles.

In contrast, all of the information above can be found in our timeline, along with other key aspects of the crisis, including the mounting death toll, lockdowns, the Personal Protective Equipment shortage, the (lack of) border closures, the disastrous Eat Out To Help Out scheme, the dangers of Long Covid, and support for a Zero Covid strategy.  

We hope our comprehensive account of the plague year will be useful to anyone interested in understanding the UK government’s response to the crisis, historians studying the pandemic in the future and to the public inquiry that must be established.

“They really are scared that the verdict of history is going to condemn them for contributing to the deaths of tens of thousands of British citizens”, Horton commented about the UK government in April 2020. “They are desperately trying to rewrite the timeline of what happened. And we must not let them do that.”

A Timeline Of The Plague Year: A Comprehensive Record of the UK Government’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis by Ian Sinclair and Rupert Read is available as a free PDF download, free ebook and pay-to-print book from https://covidtheplagueyear.wordpress.com/ . Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Book review: Collateral Damage by Steve Howell

Book review: Collateral Damage by Steve Howell
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
15 April 2021

FROM Reagan-loving Republican Tom Clancy, to the Conservative Frederick Forsyth and Jonathan Freedland’s rose-tinted views of Democratic presidents, political thrillers are often underpinned by some unpleasant, power-friendly politics.

Which makes Steve Howell’s Collateral Damage a welcome addition to the genre.

The book’s politics are perhaps unsurprising when you consider the author’s position as Deputy Director of Strategy and Communications in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership team during the 2017 UK general election.

However, more pertinent is Howell’s activism in the late 80s – along with being Secretary of UK Local Authorities Against Apartheid, in 1987 he attended a conference in Tripoli, Libya to mark the first anniversary of the US air strikes on the country.

With the US warplanes taking off from UK bases – the first US combat operation launched from British soil since the Second World War – Howell believes the attacks mark the beginning of the era of regime-change wars.

Accordingly, the novel begins with the death of British peace activist and journalist Tom Carver while attending a conference in Tripoli in 1987. Suspecting foul play, Carver’s partner Ayesha, a Palestinian exile, works with young London School of Economics lecturer Hannah and lawyer Jed to uncover the truth.

Fast-paced and carefully-plotted, it’s a short and punchy read, which I devoured in a couple of sittings. While Clancy and Freedland fantasise about grand presidential politics in Washington D.C., Howell’s canvas is much more modest. The action does shift to Libya at one point, but most of the events occur in and around London. He provides some authentic period detail, including passing mentions of Edward Said’s Orientalism, Spycatcher and the unsolved murder of private investigator Daniel Morgan. Of course, there were no mobile phones in the late 80s, with the characters making copious use of phone boxes on the street.

And while the novel’s central twist is very much of its time, unfortunately it continues to have painful relevance today.

Echoing films from the period like 1986’s Defence of the Realm and Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda from 1990, there is a foreboding sense of the British secret state working to protect the powerful in the name of “national security”.

With former Head of MI6 Sir Richard Dearlove branding Corbyn a “present danger to our country” just before the December 2019 general election, the struggle between the general public and established power continues, it seems.

Collateral Damage is published by Quaero Publishing, priced £8.99 https://www.steve-howell.com/collateral-damage/

Where is the Left on Zero Covid?

Where is the Left on Zero Covid?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
9 April 2021

“There is… no credible route to a zero covid Britain or indeed a zero covid world”, Boris Johnson told the House of Commons on 22 February. “We cannot persist indefinitely with restrictions that debilitate our economy, our physical and mental well-being, and the life chances of our children”.

To confirm, a zero covid strategy aims for the total elimination of covid. Many people may be confused, thinking “Isn’t this exactly what the government has been trying to do since the start of the pandemic?” Unfortunately, the answer is no. The UK has followed what science writer Laura Spinney recently described in the Guardian as “a mitigation and suppression strategy, according to which we will have to live with Covid-19 and therefore we must learn to manage it – aiming for herd immunity by the most painless route possible.”

The Prime Minister’s dismissal of zero covid puts him at odds with a large body of scientific expertise. In early July 2020 Independent SAGE published a report calling on the government to “fundamentally change its approach” and follow a “new overarching strategic objective of achieving a Zero COVIDUK, i.e. the elimination of the virus from the UK”.

Individual members of the group – including ex-Chief Scientific Adviser Sir David King and Professors Anthony Costello, Christina Pagel and Susan Michie from UCL – have continued to push for zero covid since then.

And there is some support amongst the government’s own scientific advisers, including Professor Robert West from University College London and Professor Stephen Reicher from University of St Andrews – both member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B).

In addition, Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet medical journal, Professor Devi Sridhar from the University of Edinburgh and clinical epidemiologist Dr Deepti Gurdasani from Queen Mary have also voiced support.

In parliament, zero covid is backed by the Socialist Campaign Group of more than 30 MPs, and in August 2020 Layla Moran MP, as Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus (consisting of 60 MPs and Peers), wrote to the Prime Minister pushing for a zero covid strategy.

Turning to the national press, the Morning Star was, as far as I can tell, the first UK national newspaper to support zero covid, while the Guardian backed it in a December 2020 editorial.

Speaking on BBC’s Politics Live in February, Pagel summarised the key reasons for pursuing an elimination strategy: “Keeping cases low is by far the best for keeping the economy open, and for saving lives, and for reducing the chances of a new variant, and for preventing Long Covid”.

In short, it would mean less people getting seriously ill, and less people dying.  

However, while there is significant support for zero covid, there is also considerable opposition, often based on a number of evidence-light assertions:

Zero covid is not possible.

New Zealand and Taiwan have both successfully pursued an elimination strategy. New Zealand has had 26 deaths from covid. Taiwan, which has a population of 23.4 million and a population density of 652 people per square kilometre (the UK’s population density is around 275 people per square kilometre), has limited its death toll from covid to just ten people. The UK has recorded over 125,000 deaths from covid.

Speaking to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “I’m puzzled by this, because it’s not just Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan (adopting zero-Covid tactics), which are islands, but it’s also Vietnam, and there are other parts of the world that have been very successful even if they do have challenges, like Uruguay or Rwanda or Finland or Norway… So there are plenty of places that are trying to do this [achieve zero-Covid status].”

Zero covid is not possible at this point in time as the UK has such a high number of cases across the nation.

China is pursuing an elimination strategy, and according to a January CNBC report on Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, “Life has largely returned to normal in the city of 11 million, even as the rest of the world grapples with the spread of the virus’ more contagious variants.”

Similarly, the Australian state of Victoria (population 6.7 million), recorded 723 new cases on one day in July 2020. On the same day the UK recorded 763 new cases. However, on 4 November 2020, Hassan Vally, Associate Professor in Public Health at La Trobe University, noted in the Guardian, “Victoria is recording no new cases, while the UK has 18,950.”

“The goal was not just to slow Covid-19 down. It was to eradicate the virus”, Vox reported in December about Victoria’s success.

However, even if it is not possible to completely eliminate new cases in UK right now, a government committed to zero covid would significantly reduce cases, and therefore significantly reduce deaths. As Michael Baker, Professor of Public Health at the University of Otago, and McKee, noted in the Guardian in January: “Aiming for zero-Covid” produces “more positive results than trying to ‘live with the virus’”.

Zero covid would mean more, perhaps endless, restrictions and lockdowns.

In fact the exact opposite is true. “A zero covid strategy (which means zero tolerance of any level of infection) is the antithesis of lockdown. It is the failure to implement such a strategy – and hence the loss of control over infection – which leads to lockdown”, Reicher tweeted in February.

Thus, sporting events have been held in packed stadiums in New Zealand, and the country’s Prime Minister Jacina Ardern has been posting videos of herself at community BBQs. To date Taiwan has not had any national lockdowns.

Zero covid is redundant now we have the vaccine.

In March the Guardian reported “Experts on the modelling subgroup of SAGE calculate that even under the most optimistic scenario, at least 30,000 more Covid deaths could occur in the UK.” This testimony points to an uncomfortable fact – the vaccination programme, while very important, will not prevent a large number of deaths over the next few months. Moreover, “We have to prevent new variants arising that put our entire vaccination programme at risk, and potentially set us back to the beginning again”, Pagel explained on BBC Newsnight in February. “The more opportunities it [the virus] has to infect people, the more chance it has to mutate. So the lower cases are, the less chance it is going to have.”

Frustratingly much of the left has failed to back a zero covid strategy. Where are the unions – the TUC, Unison, Unite, GMB? Where is the Labour Party? Where is Momentum?

Key left-wing figures have dismissed or questioned zero covid. In September, Tribune Culture Editor Owen Hatherley tweeted “’it’s just like the flu, calm down’ and ‘we must have zero covid’ are both bad takes”. Elsewhere, Richard Seymour recently tweeted he was “still unsure about zero covid”, while Novara Media’s Michael Walker has argued an elimination strategy was the right course of action in summer 2020 but with the introduction of the vaccine he no longer supports it.

There is still lots of work to do to persuade the broad left – and wider society – to back a zero covid strategy. One thing every reader can do is contact their MP and ask them to sign Early Day Motion 1450, which “calls on the UK Government urgently to adopt a zero covid plan that seeks the maximum suppression of the virus as the best way to save lives and allow our communities and the economy to safely reopen.” So far 42 MPs have put their names to the EDM, including SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, Lib Dem Tim Farron and Plaid Cymru MPs.

More broadly, a campaign strategy of pressuring members of the SAGE group advising government to publicly support zero covid could well be the best way to apply pressure on the government itself.

As McKee noted in a letter published in the BMJ in October: “No one pretends that achieving zero covid is easy, but in the long term the alternative is far worse.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair

New book published – ‘A Timeline Of The Plague Year: A Comprehensive Record of the UK Government’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis’

I have a new book out. Co-authored with Rupert Read (and edited by Joanna Booth) ‘A Timeline Of The Plague Year: A Comprehensive Record of the UK Government’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis’ is, we think, the most comprehensive record of the UK government’s response to covid.

Covering key aspects of the crisis, including the huge death toll, lockdowns, herd immunity policy, the Personal Protective Equipment, care homes, long covid, the test and trace system, border closures, Eat Out To Help Out and statements made by official government advisors and independent experts, we believe the timeline is a must read for anyone interested in understanding what happened and stopping it happening again

Free ebook and pay-to-print book available here: https://covidtheplagueyear.wordpress.com/