John Redwood's Diary
Incisive and topical campaigns and commentary on today's issues and tomorrow's problems

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Deaths with and from CV 19

 

The UK government has rightly worried about deaths from CV 19. It  has used these concerns along with worries over hospital capacity to treat seriously ill CV 19 patients to drive its anti pandemic lock down policies. The government has repeatedly said it wishes to  be data driven. This requires consistent and accurate data over time to help inform policy decisions

I first took up issues of data adequacy with the government on April 11 th  2020. I reiterated and enlarged my concerns on this site on  April 26th, May 22nd, November 7th and at other times. I asked how the Uk defined a death caused by Covid 19, how it handled deaths with Covid 19 where  it was not the main cause of death, and what use it made of deaths attributed to or with CV 19 when there had been no test on a patient to establish they had the disease. We know from the public daily reporting that the UK has adopted a standard of notifying CV 19 linked to a death if the patient has had CV 19 during the 28 days prior to death whatever other health problems they also experienced.

Others have now taken this up. People have come forward to complain  that their relatives did not think their family member died of CV 19 yet it appeared on the death certificate. Doctors have explained that in some cases mistakes were made, in some cases the death certificate correctly identified other causes of death but needed to cite the presence of CV 19 at some point during  the last 28 days of life. These figures matter, as people make international comparisons without being able to adjust the figures for the differing criteria adopted to define a CV 19 death. If you are going to be data driven you need to understand what your data means, and understand any weaknesses or possible errors in  its compilation.

Using the global published figures the UK comes out as below the countries with most cases per million people, but at the top of the lists of deaths in  relation to case numbers. Assuming the high level of testing adopted in the UK has come up with a  realistic view of the total  number of cases, this leaves us with the need for an explanation of why alongside Belgium we have the relatively high death rate of 2.9% of all identified cases, compared to the USA at 1.79% and figures closer to 2% for many other advanced countries. It looks as if the UK has ascribed more deaths to CV 19 than comparable places . I do not want to  argue that our treatments have been less effective, given the huge efforts contributed by UK medical science and NHS staff to the task.

I suggest the government sets some data specialists onto the task of auditing these figures and adjusting where necessary. It does not seem fair to the NHS to leave the world with the impression we had a higher death rate from this disease given the many queries of death attribution we are now seeing. As many of the people who were recorded as dying of CV 19 were over 80, they belong to the generation that is likely to have other medical conditions that could have been the cause of death.

Scotland’s government

 

It wasn’t meant to be like this. Gordon¬† Brown and Tony Blair pushed through devolution for Scotland, telling us that would kill off the nascent Scottish independence movement. I wrote at the time:

“Usually , the granting of¬† more and more powers for separate development and separate government within a once unified state leads inexorably to stronger nationalist movements”¬† (The Death of Britain? 1999)

I drew attention to the many ways a canny Scottish government could press for more powers and exploit the compromises of the  settlement. It always looked like a political  journey, not a fixed  constitution.  The SNP could blame the UK government for things that went wrong and demand more powers to fix them.

Some defenders of the Union still think Gordon Brown was right, if only the UK Parliament grants a few more powers. They naively think that there is some amount of power for a devolved Parliament that will satisfy nationalists. Surely we have seen enough to know that whatever powers they have they will want more, because they do want their version of independence.

Today I would ben interested in your thoughts on the state of Scotland’s government and Parliament. I myself have no intention of rushing to judgement or intervening in the tense battles between the present and former First Ministers. This is a debate best conducted between those involved and through the voices of the Scottish parliament, now at the very centre of the row. We have¬† heard Mr Salmond’s serious allegations about the conduct of the senior Ministers and Law Officers, including allegations of misleading the Parliament and obstructing the work of its Committee trying to get to the truth. We now need to hear the government’s defence.

The rise of the pound

In the first two months after our exit from the single market and customs union, the pound has risen against the dollar, the Euro and the yen. It is up by 3.6% against the dollar and Euro , and by 8.6% against the yen. In the referendum campaign I rightly criticised the silly pessimism of Remain forecasters saying there would be large falls in GDP immediately after a Leave vote, a collapse in house prices and a surge in unemployment. On sterling I merely said that the pound would doubtless continue to fluctuate once we had voted to leave as surely as it had varied widely during our period in the EU. I thought relative interest rates, QE rates, dollar money policy and the other usual issues would have more impact on the pound than Brexit. So it has proved.

Yesterday the pound was at the same level against the dollar and the yen as it recorded before the referendum vote, a time when the establishment and market view was that Remain would win. It would not have been easy to forecast that the pound should now be exactly where it was against the dollar and yen after a Leave vote and after exit given the elapse of time and the many other influences and variables involved. It should worry Remain forecasters that their one remaining gloomy forecast of a big fall in sterling has not proved to be right either. The pound is down by 5.5% against the Euro over the same time period, as the Euro has appreciated against the dollar and yen.

The future of the pound is never easy to forecast given the huge volumes of currency transactions and the differing money policies of the USA, Japan, the Euro area and the UK. We seem to be living through a current period of dollar weakness, probably reflecting the very loose money and fiscal policy being pursued in Washington. The rise this year so far in sterling will help limit inflationary tendencies on all those imports and will make exporting a bit more difficult. What is interesting is that in the first two months of exit sterling has risen against all major currencies including the Euro.

Since I wrote this yesterday there has been a sharp rally in the dollar reminding us of how volatile the main global currencies remain.

Freedom

We have lost a lot of freedoms during the battle against CV 19.  Most have accepted the need to take tough measures to protect those at risk of serious illness and death. Now vaccines supply a way out of the public health imperative it is important we do not come to think some of these controls are acceptable or useful for the future. These were extreme measures which should be temporary.

I never thought I would be living in a country where you needed a reason to leave your house, where you were banned from making trips just for pleasure and where every social contact you wished to make had to be done electronically or under a special dispensation allowed by the regulations.

The government has promised us the way out of lockdown will be data driven. The slow indicative timetable to eventual freedom on June 21 is subject to revision. It is highly likely the data for serious cases admitted to hospital and deaths from CV 19 will continue to fall rapidly as the NHS completes vaccination of most people over 50 and anyone with another worrying  medical condition. The government must understand the data is dynamic, and lagged. It needs to respond to the trend and to the vaccination figures, and get on with relaxing the controls.

I do not think it a good idea to make a vaccination certificate an official document that is used to enforce controls on people’s conduct in the UK. Of course if foreign countries want proof of vaccination for people to travel there that is up to them and the potential traveller. We might wish to require vaccination for people coming to the UK, particularly from countries that still have bad attacks of the pandemic or to require quarantine. A more difficult question which the government as employer does need to resolve is should NHS employees have to have the vaccine in order to work in NHS establishments?¬† I am happy with the current policy of advising them to but not enforcing it. It would be quite wrong to make the rest of us have the vaccine in order to go to a shop or theatre if the government isn’t even willing to require vaccination as a condition of employment in exposed state employment.

My contribution to the debate on Coronavirus: Supporting Businesses and Individuals, 23 February

Now is not the time for tax rises. Now is the time to promote a vigorous recovery as soon as it is safe to do so. Yes, the deficit is far too large, but it is affordable as long as it is a one-off.

The deficit is the product of sensible support for individuals and businesses when they were locked out or closed down, and it was sensible support for the economy as a whole at a time when tax revenues had fallen sharply because people were not allowed to go to work and businesses were not allowed to trade. The way out of all that is not tax rises that would sap confidence and undermine business cash flows even more. The way out is a vigorous recovery that will replace lost revenues, and reduce the need for the support that the Government have rightly produced for small businesses and individuals.

What businesses and individuals will need is turnover, orders and work. I ask all Government Departments‚ÄĒled, probably, by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy‚ÄĒto look at how the UK Government can make more work available. The Government have mighty procurement programmes, so when we are building great new railway lines, let us ensure that it is UK steel for the tracks and that it is UK-produced trains with plenty of components and value added, as well as the assembly work taking place in the United Kingdom.

As the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs designs new grants and loans schemes, it should be promoting British food and agriculture at the same time as taking care of environmental concerns. There is a great opportunity to reduce the amount of imported food and to substitute Great British food from our farms and fishing grounds.

BEIS itself leads on energy. Why are we importing so much energy through interconnectors? Can we not have another round of capacity procurement so that we have future electricity generation here in Britain? We have plenty of means of generating power; surely we can harness that.

The Government should want to greatly expand the electricity output of this country because they want to unleash on us a great electric revolution in transport, space heating and powering our factories, so let us make the provision early. Let us invest now for the future so that we have that electric power when it comes to be needed.

A number of businesses have been very badly damaged by lockdown and shut-out, and I am glad that the Government are making some money available to them. I urge them to be generous. It was not those businesses’ fault and we need them to be there when we have recovery.

Small businesses and the self-employed are mightily flexible, but they cannot survive on thin air, and they will need to repay their debts, so give them some turnover and some tax cuts.

The state of the pandemic – show your papers?

It was tragic news from the USA that the country surpassed 500,000 deaths this week from CV 19.  The President and Vice President commemorated the sad landmark in a moving ceremony and with appropriate words. The USA and the UK make daily announcements of the deaths attributed to the virus, with Ministers and Administration representatives making regular statements of sympathy for the relatives of those lost.

The EU passed through the 500,000 deaths before the USA. They have gone over to weekly reporting, and last announced 515,519 deaths. The incidence of the virus and the death rate has been very variable around the EU. Belgium’s death rate has been¬† more than three times that of Greece. Luxembourg has had more cases relative to the size of its population than most, whilst Finland has low figures for cases and deaths. The world figures released daily on the world o meter does not include EU figures so you have ¬†to add up all the relevant national figures. This is surprising given the leadership role the EU has adopted over responses to the pandemic in member states. It would be good to see more analysis of the reasons for the very different rates of cases and deaths amongst neighbouring states.

Asian countries led by Japan have had much lower case rates and lower death rates than the Americas and Europe. I have yet to see a good account of why the spread of the disease and the fatalities have been so much lower in much of Asia. It would be good to know if it was  to do with the nature of the response, or to the treatments, or to greater natural immunity from  past exposures to similar viruses or to diet or other  issues.

The U.K. after Israel has achieved much more in offering vaccines to people vulnerable to the virus and vaccinating most at risk. In both France and Germany misleading negative briefings against the Astra Zeneca vaccine has held up acceptance of  vaccination on top of the slower moves of the EU authorities to approve the jab and to buy enough for fast roll out.

We now learn that the U.K. is considering using vaccination certificates for other purposes. Ministers accept there are practical and moral problems with such an idea. I would be interested in your thoughts on this possible limitation on freedoms.

 

The arguments over the Union.

 

I am in favour of the Union of the UK. I also believe¬† Unions only work well¬† when the main parts of them accept¬† the Union’s authority and feel at home in it. That is why I supported the idea of having a referendum in Scotland to see how strong the feelings for independence were. Had a majority wanted to leave I would have accepted that verdict and been in favour of as¬† fast and smooth a divorce as possible. I was given¬† assurances from the SNP at Westminster that such a vote would be a once in a generation event. As more than half the Scottish people wished to stay in the Union just a few years ago we owe it to them to offer stability around their victory. I understand¬† how the SNP voters feel, as I voted to leave the EEC in 1975 and had to wait until 2016 to get another chance to vote. That was too long, but I never thought we should have a second ballot for the first 25 years after the 1975 referendum. It was the acceptance of the Maastricht Treaty followed by Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon along with the long period of time elapsed which confirmed the need for a new vote.

The Scottish Parliamentary elections will be dominated by arguments about a second referendum if many of the politicians fighting it have their way. This seems to  be a pity.  Now Scotland has a Parliament and government with considerable powers to go their own way on everything from pandemics to agriculture and from spending priorities to law and order the elections might   mainly be about how well the current government has done and who of the competing parties offers the best prospect of governing well and meeting most of the aspirations of voters. There should be a lively debate on what is and is not working in education, health, economic development and the rest.  Instead much of the media accepts the diversion to the arguments over independence in place of scrutiny of how all the new powers and  money are being used. If that is what most Scottish people want to debate then so be it.

Many in  the SNP do not seem to want proper independence anyway. Muddles over what they did want made the 2014 referendum campaign difficult for them. Many seemed to want to stay with sterling. The first thing I would want for my country is its own currency, to have the full range of options for economic policy. Most of them wanted to rejoin the EU, limiting their ability to legislate and administer Scotland in  the way of their choice. The wish to join the EU implied a wish to join the Euro which was in conflict with the wish to keep the pound.  They seemed to want to keep the monarchy, a symbol of the union of England and Scotland which started as a union of crowns before progressing to a union of Parliament and government some hundred years later.

Today we still await a definitive SNP view on what currency they want, how they might rejoin the EU, if they will accept the Euro as part of the price of EU membership, how much of the joint state debt of the UK they would assume on leaving, what if any they would like by way of defence assistance and what a Scottish  budget would look like without the links into Union finances and taxes. If we are to have a debate again on independence instead of a decent election debate on the successes and failures of the SNP government, these are some of the questions the media should be asking them.

 

The contrast between BBC Scotland and England

The BBC has a clear website presentation for BBC Scotland. It tells us about its flagship nightly News programme, the Nine. That takes “a global view on the news whilst maintaining a distinctive Scottish voice”. There are plenty of advertised Scottish news specials¬† and supporting cultural programmes and events. There is no such statement about an English news programme, no news presented with “a distinctive English voice”.¬† ¬†English viewers and listeners¬† seeking BBC England on the website are invited to share their post code to be sent down a regional and local rabbit hole on the site, palmed off with phoney regional loyalties to regions that do not want elected assemblies . We have no need of¬† mock¬† declarations of loyalty and cultural harmony to South easternness or to Rest of the south-eastness or to Thames Valleyness or to South westernness or whatever. England gets the UK news product, complete with¬† plenty of exposure to Nicola Sturgeon, a person we cannot vote for nor remove from office.¬† I have never heard a satisfactory explanation from the BBC of why they treat England so differently from Scotland, and why they always seem to have shared the old EU wish to balkanise England into regions which fail to resonate with voters and have no place in our¬† history to draw from.

 

The BBC is particularly weak about following France, Germany and the EU. It gives little airtime to considering the twists and turns of their politics. It rarely reports the extensive legislative work of the EU Commission government, and views all things EU through its anti Brexit prism, using pro EU UK establishment figures to give their inaccurate minimalist and positive¬† ¬†account of EU ambitions and actions. Where¬† the BBC is rightly ever ready to criticise the UK government, and has just spent four years attacking every feature of the Trump administration the Democrats disapproved of, the BBC has been almost completely silent when it comes to criticisms of the government of the EU or of the leading countries on the continent that are our immediate¬† neighbours. It rarely comments on the small¬† shares of the vote most of the leading parties in continental democracies now command and ignores most of the struggles to lead Germany after Mrs Merkel¬† or to control the Italian government.¬† In the battles over the pandemic the BBC has nearly always sided with the pro lockdown arguments, giving plenty of airtime to SNP and Labour criticisms of the UK/England response when the Scottish and Welsh governments took a slightly tougher approach. Understandably¬† it has proved to¬† be a robust defender of the UK government’s vaccine strategy because it commands cross party support. The BBC looks to some as if is helping Scottish independence, regularly making it a topic on its broadcasts. It ranks¬† Nicola Sturgeon’s news conferences alongside the Prime Ministers and airs them regularly in England though they are nothing to do with policy in England.¬† The BBC scarcely recognises England and when asked about it usually turns to trying to break it up into artificial and unpopular¬† regions or explores local government matters.

As we enter a new phase in the arguments about the Union the BBC needs to revisit what is fair, and see that the different ways it treats different parts of the UK is a live part of the debate itself.

Paying for journalism

Some MPs in the UK have rushed in to side with the Australian government and Parliament in their row with Facebook. The Australian government is proposing a law to make platforms like Facebook pay to use extracts from newspapers and media reports on their sites, so the journalism involved will not go unrewarded. Facebook has countered by  saying they in effect give the papers and media free adverts by posting some of their material with full credits.  The journalists get access to a much bigger audience which in turn boosts their commercial value. Facebook decided that the best way to comply with the prospective law is to ban all journalism extracts from established media outlets from its sites so it need not make any payments. This tiff provides a good opportunity to review the current state of journalism and how we pay for things here in the UK. I do  not propose to weigh into the Australian debate, which their Parliament is best able to conduct for itself.

Let me declare my prejudices. I am a fan of good journalism. A well researched and informative article helps my education. Lively and informed opinion pieces contribute to the national conversation, vital in a democracy. Well written and amusing pieces are entertaining, a welcome diversion for time off.  Many  pay for some of this by buying  papers and electronic subscriptions, by paying the BBC Licence fee, by their employer taking out collective subscriptions for services needed for work, and by accepting adverts alongside journalism to enable them to enjoy some free services. Each of these paying  models has its advantages and disadvantages.

My concern with the current UK media relates to editorial choices and use of journalistic talent. I am particularly critical of the BBC because I have to pay for it whether I want to use it or not. It regularly fails to live up to the ideals of its Charter. As one who used to listen to a lot of Radio 4 news and watch one of the main evening tv¬† news programmes every night, I often find myself turning off, faced with the same diet of highly selective topics and systematic bias of worldview. For much of the last year the two story lines of pandemic and global warming have dominated most news¬† broadcasts. It is often not a case of “news”,¬† but recycling “olds”. It is often not hard news but regurgitated opinion or forecasts, not reported events and government statements but opinion surveys and lobby group reports inspired to prove a viewpoint. In order to be better informed I turn direct to the sources of the news and read the statements, draft laws, budgets and the rest for myself, as it is a rare day that you get much factual content or informed comment on the important decisions and events that unfold.

Armed with the facts and statements of those making the news I often find I am in a very different conversation from the trivia, ideological repetitions¬† or exaggerations of the main broadcasts. The BBC makes use of highly selected experts, many of whom seem to share a clear one sided political viewpoint about the importance of powerful global government as the answer to their view of what the problems are. Some of them do¬† not seem to have read the detailed documents that underpin the issue. On economic matters I find they usually misrepresent the position¬† by drawing on some highly spun interpretations and not using the actual figures. They normally ignore important statistical releases, as with the state debt where they do not usually distinguish between net and gross allowing for Bank of England ownership of debts. They rarely report cash figures for public spending and spending increases .¬† They are not interested in public sector productivity issues. They accepted the Labour “austerity” analysis of the previous decade without revealing that over that decade there was a very large rise in tax revenue, a rise in cash public spending¬† and even a very small increase in real public spending, contrary to the generally stated cuts in spending and a failure to increase taxes enough. They ¬†regularly ignore the preoccupations of voters with issues like illegal migration, politically correct language, restrictions on freedoms , controls on our freedoms and high taxes on enterprise.They usually dislike or ignore England.

 

Dealing with the EU

I am glad to see Lord Frost has been brought in to sort out the remaining difficulties over fish, and the¬† trade issues between GB and Northern Ireland. I hope he will also be a strong voice to deliver the wins from Brexit we have often discussed on this site. Next week’s budget offers another opportunity to lower or remove EU taxes imposed under their VAT rules and to amend their court judgements on business taxes. There is also plenty of leeway to use our new grant and loan regimes at the Environment and Agriculture Department to grow more food at home and serve our local markets better. Our renewed status as an independent coastal state should be used to regulate our fishery properly, with protections against ultra large trawlers and damage to marine environments by foreign vessels

Lord Frost needs to make sure the UK is full control of our own single market so that there is free trade between GB and Northern Ireland as before, with the agreed¬† protections for the EU’s single market in the case of the minority of goods that go on from Northern Ireland to the Republic. All loads going from GB to NI for final delivery in NI can be certified as such by trusted traders and allowed¬† to pass as before.

There is plenty of opportunity to make and grow more of what we need as we use the freedoms of Brexit. We also need a good statement next week with a timetable to end lockdown. The way to get the deficit down is to promote vigorous recovery by every means at our disposal.
Lord Frost needs to show more determination to stand up for the UK and to use our independence. Life should no longer be a series of compromises or negotiations with the EU about how to run our own country.