Sunday, August 07, 2022

There are no Brexit benefits

Despite what some might say there are no tangible Brexit benefits. For all the talk both before and since the referendum, all the promises by Vote Leave have come to nought, or merely did not exist in the first place.

Hard line Brexit supporters have often latched themselves to slogans such as 'Sovereignty', 'Freedom' and of 'Taking Back Control'. However these are essentially meaningless. Sovereignty can mean many different things, but essentially refers to one body ruling over a territory or territories. As a part of the EU Britain had the power to make its own laws, and was only constrained in terms of human rights and issues with trade.

There are many things that are illegal in the UK which are not the case elsewhere. In the Netherlands marijuana is decriminalised while the UK still adopts strict laws concerning its use. The age when one might consume alcohol is different in some EU states. In essence, each EU state, or country is already sovereign.

The slogan 'Taking Back Control' and 'Freedom' are similarly erroneous. It might be arguably true to say that as a country outside the EU, Britain could pursue its own trade deals. However none signed thus far have amounted to anything more than rollower deals that already existed with the EU, and in some cases have diminished Britain's position. Deals struck with both New Zealand and Australia for example are in fact likely to disadvantage UK farmers [NFU / Guardian / MeatManagement / Politico / NFU / Guardian].

Lost Freedoms

Ironically since Brexit the UK has not so much gained freedoms than lost them. While Brexiters hoped to 'Take Back Control' of its borders by restricting the numbers of those migrating to Britain, it has at the same time restricted the movement of its own citizens.

With the loss of Freedom of Movement, Britons can no longer easily move to any one of the EU member states to live and work. In addition, even holidaying in Europe is much more fraught. British Passport holders may now only visit the EU for a maximum of 90 days in any 180 days and must also have at least six months remaining on their passport.

This has also brought with it further problems since UK passports must now be stamped upon arriving and leaving the EU. It might seem like a small bureaucratic formality. However just a few seconds extra per traveller passing through border control can add up to considerable queues and delays.

This was apparent as major queues formed at Dover and Folkestone at the beginning of the summer holidays in what was the first major test of post Brexit rules. The pandemic had significantly reduced travel abroad in 2020 and 2021 so there had not been any clear impact Brexit might have. But with all COVID restrictions essentially removed, travel to Europe was once more on the cards.

Much of the right wing press and Brexit backing politicians blamed the lack of French border guards. But even a shortfall in staff numbers does not account for the delays of many hours experienced by many. At Dover there is only a finite amount of space and a limited number of booths. With each car having to stop and every passport checked and stamped, delays were bound to occur even with a full staff complement. Previously, even while not being in the Schengen area, British passport holders were simply waved through by the French. Indeed while the French border officials would just wave you through, British border officials would always stop you and check passports.

So much for taking back control.

And the holiday tailbacks are only the half of it. Since the transition period ended lorry queues towards Dover and Folkestone have been a daily occurrence, though little reported since they first began in January this year.

Red tape

Last year's lorry queues were blamed on COVID, since anyone travelling to mainland Europe needed to provide negative COVID test results. But since restrictions were dropped the queues are entirely down to Brexit with exporters required to provide, sometimes extensive as well as costly, customs paperwork.

The mountain of paperwork, as well as the cost, has put many small businesses off from selling into Europe. For some it is simply not cost effective. For others it has made their business uncompetitive with European rivals.

This has affected everything from the fishing industry through agriculture and beyond. And while Brexiters had claimed that life outside the EU would open up markets further afield, for many industries this would not be practical nor profital.

Live shellfish cannot, for example, be shipped great distances. And due to Britain now being out of the single market and customs union, companies that once easily sold their produce to the likes of France may no longer do so under EU rules which ban the import of live shellfish from non-EU countries.

It could be thought of by some as the EU being spiteful. But the rules were there before Brexit and applied to other third countries. Deciding to become a third country meant many EU regulations would result in losing control concerning many things.

While new rules concerning free roaming within the EU only came into effect in 2017 it had been much talked about even before the referendum. And many Brits abroad took advantage in the three years before the pandemic. But now many mobile providers have dropped free roaming throughout the EU. Some like O2 are maintaining a service for new customers, but those on other networks risk losing the benefit should they change contracts.

The blame game

Brexit supporters are quick to blame everything but Brexit. Dover queues; the fault of the French. Supply chain breakdowns resulting in empty supermarket shelves; 'EU red tape'. The October 2021 fuel shortages; panic buying. A slowing economy; COVID pandemic and the ongoing Ukraine war.

But while there is a small amount of truth in these excuses, a significant part of these problems have been down to Brexit. Dover queues were in part down to a shortage of French customs officials, but much was to do with extra bureaucracy now required.  

So-called 'EU red tape' applies to all third countries. Thus slow supply lines and breakdown of delivery have been in part to extra paperwork, customs declarations and checks.

Supply chain issues have also been hit by a shortage of HGV drivers. Many European lorry drivers returned home after Brexit and the numbers increased during the pandemic. But with increased regulations post-Brexit few have returned. This has resulted in shortgages on the shelves but also affected fuel distribution.

Certainly some of these issues have eased as more lorry drivers get trained or get redeployed, but the situation is far from stable and could break again at any time.

COVID has undoubtedly had a massive impact on the economy. But to entirely blame the pandemic for Britain's ailing economy is ignoring several things. The pandemic was not confined only to the UK. COVID-19 swept around the globe and affected small and large economies alike. But some have fared better than others.

Those that controlled the spread, such as Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea, have economies that remain buoyant. Those that failed to mitigate the spread so well have fared less well economically.

The US has been hit economically due to COVID. So too has Europe. But the UK has made recovery all the more difficult having essentially imposed sanctions upon itself by cutting itself off from its biggest trading block, that being the EU.

The Ukraine war is of course a factor in recent months, and is undoubtedly hitting the European economies too. But the UK's economy is being hit far harder.

The only major difference is that the UK has pulled out of a major trading block. It is even more difficult to trade with the rest of the world both in terms of cost, with fuel now at a premium, but also ecologically.

'Global Britain'

It might be fanciful to speak of 'Global Britain', but globalism essentially uses more fuel to move things around. Where is the sense of shipping lamb or butter from New Zealand when most lamb up til now was English or Welsh, and most butter consumed in the UK is home produced or is imported from Ireland, France and Denmark.

COP26 seems almost a distant memory and perhaps achieved little other than supposedly focusing minds on the need to cut emissions. Yet moving from a local market - the EU - and replacing it or at least increasing a global market, is only going to increase Britain's carbon footprint.

Indeed it is hard to square 'Global Britain' with the claim that Britain wants to reduce its carbon footprint.

Cost to the economy

There has been a deafening silence over Brexit's economic fallout. Back in 2016 many warned that Brexit might well lead to a recession, something that was dismissed as project fear.

It did not happen immediately since, of course, Brexit did not happen overnight. A withdrawal agreement had to be drawn up and agreed upon. This process itself took over three years before Boris Johnson's 'Oven Ready Deal' was finally signed. But even then there was a transition period meaning that Brexit did not actually happen until 1st January 2021. However, the pandemic hid many effects of Brexit such as the free movement of goods and people wanting to holiday abroad.

The pandemic also slowed the economy in that under lockdowns and restrictions people spent less, lifestyles changed and jobs with it.

But beneath the mask of COVID, Brexit was still bubbling away.

'End of the pandemic'

While it is debatable that the pandemic is far from over, restrictions were lifted in much of the western world in the early part of 2022.

As a result, life for many has returned to 'normal'. As such many problems connected with having left the EU have begun to surface.

As already discussed, problems at the border and issues concerning imports and exports have already shown themselves.

But there have also been economic repercussions. Many of these issues have to do with having left the single market.

In June Boris Johnson warned his MPs not to get into "some hellish, Groundhog Day debate about the merits of belonging to the single market". Brexit, he claimed, was settled.

But Brexit still hung like a cloud over Britain's fragile economy.

'Make Brexit Work'

Johnson may not have wanted his party relitigating Brexit but neither did Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour party, who is now running with the slogan of "make Brexit work". Perpetual motion machine, Brexit will never work.

Like a Newton's cradle may give the illusion that it will continue in perpetuity, Brexit will need constant interaction to kick it back into action.

Both main parties ignore the elephant in the room, refusing to acknowledge that it is Britain's leaving the EU, or more specifically the single market and customs union, that is devastating the economy.

Even Andrew Bailey, the governor of the Bank of England who replaced Mark Carney and who repeatedly warned of the risk to the economy due to Brexit, as well as Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor, would rather talk about something else. Brexit has become the great British taboo.

Six years after the referendum and a little over a year since the transition period ended economists are beginning to quantify the damage caused by the erection of trade barriers with Britain's biggest market, separating the "Brexit effect" from the damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Damage far from over

Many conclude that the damage is real and it is not over yet.

The UK is lagging behind the rest of the G7 in terms of trade recovery after the pandemic. Business investment, seen by Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak as the panacea to a poor growth rate, trails other industrialised countries, in spite of lavish Treasury tax breaks to try to drive it up.

Next year, according to the OECD think-tank, the UK will have the lowest growth in the G20, apart from sanctioned Russia.

The Office for Budget Responsibility, the official British forecaster, has seen no reason to change its prediction, first made in March 2020, that Brexit would ultimately reduce productivity and UK gross domestic product by 4% compared with a world where the country remained inside the EU. Moreover the OBR says that a little over half of that damage has yet to occur.

Such a level of decline, worth about £100bn a year in lost output, would result in lost revenues for the Treasury of roughly £40bn a year. That is £40bn that might have been available to the beleaguered Johnson administration for the radical tax cuts demanded by the Tory right — the equivalent of 6p off the 20p in the pound basic rate of income tax.

Despite the evidence of Brexit-induced economic self-harm piling up few are talking about reversing Brexit altogether. Neither is anyone talking about softening the edges, such as rejoining the single market.

Dogmatism over pragmatism

It need not have been like this. While ardent Remainers loathed the very idea of leaving the EU at all and would have happily ignored the referendum result, Britain could have left the EU and yet still have remained within the single market and customs union. Indeed there were many options Britain could have followed such as remaining a part of EFTA or the EEA or even negotiating a position such as Andorra which is outside the EU but maintains a customs union with the EU. But the Conservative party, firstly under Theresa May, and subsequently Boris Johnson, followed a path resulting in the hardest Brexit short of reverting to WTO rules.

Of course the government at the time could have ignored the referendum altogether, citing the fact that it wasn't legally binding and that to follow through with such a narrow majority of 52% was not in the country's economic interests. But Brexit was in the interest of the Tory party, satisfying the Euroskeptics in the party as well as allowing the Conservatives to take greater control of the population particularly by locking the doors and preventing easy emigration for millions.

Heading for recession

Downing Street insisted in late June that it was "too early to pass judgement" on whether Brexit was having a negative impact on the economy, which could be heading into a recession. "The opportunities Brexit provides will be a boon to the UK economy in the long run," Johnson's spokesman said.

However in the first week of August the Bank of England's Andrew Bailey raised interest rates by 0.5% to 1.75%, the biggest rise in some 25 years. Bailey also forecast that the UK will fall into recession this year, with the longest downturn since 2008 predicted.

This is hardly one of the "benefits of Brexit" hailed by the Johnson administration.

Claimed Brexit benefits

Indeed many so-called Brexit benefits could have been done without having left the EU. Such as Johnson's patriotic promise to put a "crown stamp" on pint glasses in pubs and to allow traders to sell their wares in pounds and ounces. Johnson's persistent claim that the UK's early approval and rollout of a COVID vaccine could not be done outside the EU is also misleading and essentially untrue. Firstly the UK was still in a transition phase and so had not formally left. Furthermore each state within the EU can independently approve and rollout such treatments. Hungary for instance approved Sputnik V, the Russian COVID vaccine. 

Until the Brexit transition period ended on 31st December 2020, vaccines in the UK were supposed to be authorised via the European Medicines Agency (EMA). However, since 2012, the UK's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) had been free, under the regulation 174, to give temporary approval to an unlicensed medicinal product in the case of certain types of public health threat, such as a pandemic [Full Fact / Ch4News].

Even Britain's new blue passport could have been blue prior to leaving the EU. In fact there is no stipulation within European law or international convention concerning the colour of a passport, though most tend to be dark colours and most are either burgundy, blue, green or black.

The colour change has instead only come to represent the loss of power the British passport now possesses. In 2010 the British passport was ranked as the most powerful in the world, and according to some reports had plummeted to 13th place [Telegraph]. According to the Henley Global ranking it had only slid to 6th place [City AM]. The actual position is somewhat moot. The crux of the matter is the strength of the UK passport has diminished since Brexit.

Britons also face more red-tape next year as the EU introduces ETIAS [European Travel Information and Authorization System]. The Visa scheme requires all visitors from non-EU countries to pre-register and submit photos and four fingerprints in the form of biometric data. There will all also be a charge of around €7 for the three-year permit.

While the scheme will potentially speed up entry to the EU, since stamps will no longer be required, some Brexiters labelled it 'sinister' as the EU collects such data on individuals, though many countries already collect such data such as South Korea, China et al. Without stamps it may also create issues for some travellers as there will be no obvious record concerning how many days one has used up of the allowed 90 days in each 180.  

Brexit policy

Critics of the government's Brexit policy are routinely derided. Suella Braverman, attorney-general, accused the ITV presenter Robert Peston of "Remainiac make-believe" after he challenged her over the government's unilateral plan to rip up the Brexit treaty relating to Northern Ireland. Braverman claimed the so-called Northern Ireland protocol had left the region "lagging behind the rest of the UK". In fact, Northern Ireland - the only area of the UK to remain in the EU's single market for goods in order to keep intact the Good Friday Agreement - is the best performing part of the country, apart from London.

When Bailey appeared before the House of Commons treasury committee in mid-May, the BoE governor acknowledged that his predecessor Mark Carney had made himself "unpopular" for saying Brexit would have a negative effect on trade, but that the bank held to that view.

But now the chickens are coming home to roost. While some gloomy predictions failed to materialise, such as former chancellor George Osborne's 2016 warning of a recession immediately after a Leave vote, there is growing evidence that Brexit is causing more lasting damage to UK economic prospects. And this last week Bailey predicted that recession was indeed around the corner.

Ailing economy

The first and most obvious economic blow delivered by Brexit came when sterling fell almost 10% after the referendum in June 2016, against currencies that match the UK's pattern of imports. It did not, and still has not recovered. This sharp depreciation was not followed by a boom in exports as UK goods and services became cheaper on global markets, but it did raise the price of imports and pushed up inflation.

By June 2018, a team of academic economists at the Centre for Economic Policy Research calculated that there had been a Brexit inflation effect, raising consumer prices by 2.9%, with no corresponding increase in wages.

While the UK was still in the EU and during the Brexit "transition phase", there were no significant effects on trade flows. But this has changed since stricter border controls were introduced at the start of 2021, imposing no tariffs, but significant checks and controls at the formerly frictionless border.

Food prices have risen as a result of Brexit. Comparing the prices of imported food such as pork, tomatoes and jam, which predominantly came from the EU, with those that came from further afield such as tuna and pineapples, there has been a substantial Brexit effect. "Brexit increased average food prices by about 6 per cent over 2020 and 2021," according to a team of academic economists at the Centre for Economic Policy Research.

Summing up the effects on trade in which imports from the EU have fallen while exports have not risen, Adam Posen, head of the Peterson Institute of International Economics, says "everybody else sees a recovery in trade following COVID and the UK sits flat".

Another visible effect of Brexit on the UK economy has been in discouraging business investment. In the first quarter of 2022, real business investment was 9.4% lower than in the second quarter of 2016. That fall was mostly due to COVID, but it had flatlined since the referendum, ending a period of growth since 2010 and falling well short of the performance of other G7 countries.

Before departing the BoE in 2020, Carney told a House of Lords Committee that Brexit uncertainty was holding back business investment. Worse, he said, business planning for various Brexit scenarios was taking up a lot of management effort. "Time spent on contingency planning is time not spent on strategic initiatives," he said.

Unhappiness about high immigration was one of the most contentious issues of the referendum, with a central promise of the Brexit campaign being tougher controls over the number of people entering the country. While net immigration from EU countries has stopped, with effectively no change apparent in the two years to the end of June 2021, net immigration from non-EU countries has remained high, with 250,000 in the latest year.

There is, as yet, little appetite among Britain's political leaders for a return to the EU — even if the other 27 member states were prepared to open the door. Even the pro-EU Liberal Democrats admit reversing course is a long-term aspiration, rather than an immediate goal. And this has left many Remainers, or Rejoiners, somewhat politically disenfranchised.

While there isn't an exodus, there are many pro-Europeans looking for a way out. Those with enough financial resources, language skills and willing to jump through the bureaucratic hoops are seeking to relocate in Europe. Portugal in particular offers hope to some in that the D7 visa sets a low bar for those wanting to live in the country with the option to later acquire citizenship. Introduced in 2007 by the Portuguese government, the D7 visa allows non-EU/EEA/Swiss citizens to apply for temporary residency in Portugal. It is used to obtain a permanent residency permit and eventually citizenship.

Collateral damage

 Far from Brexit benefits there has only been collateral damage. As part of his attempt to avert a coup, Johnson wrote to MPs in June to say that he had "created a new and friendly relationship with the EU". The opposite is true. Brussels in fact had restarted legal action against the UK over the Northern Ireland protocol and EU relations are at rock bottom.

The EU has warned that British scientists will be excluded from the €95bn Horizon research programme as "collateral damage" in the row about Northern Ireland. The prospect of any kind of rapprochement seems remote even as Johnson leaves office to likely be replaced by Liz Truss.

There has been some commentary from the right that perhaps Brexit isn't going swimmingly. The pro-Leave Times columnist Iain Martin recently wrote, "To deny the downsides of Brexit on trade with the EU is to deny reality."

Meanwhile, Tobias Ellwood, a former Tory defence minister, suggested Britain should rejoin the EU single market to soften the cost of living crisis, said there was "an appetite" for a rethink and claimed polling indicated "this is not the Brexit most people imagined". And Daniel Hannan, a leading Tory Brexiter, repeated his longstanding view that Britain should have stayed in the single market under a Norway-style relationship with the EU, but adding that to rejoin it now "would be madness".

Such commentary is of course ignored or criticised by the mostly right-wing press.

On the left things aren't much better. Anna McMorrin, Labour's shadow minister, was recorded telling activists, "I hope eventually that we will get back into the single market and customs union." However, she was forced to apologise by Starmer

Labour's "make Brexit work" mantra does not bode well for pro-Europeans.

In the months following the Brexit vote Adam Posen made a long dissection of what leaving would mean. But is summary he said,  

There were "no economic upsides" to Brexit, "only considerable downsides" pointing particularly at the law of gravity in terms of economics and trade

So there are no Brexit benefits, only disadvantages.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Travelling in a pandemic

Travel restrictions may have been reduced significantly over the past few months. For those coming to the UK there are no longer forms or tests. But for many places outside of the UK, vaccination records, PCR tests and other documents are still required. And for Britons and other Europeans, now used to abandoning masks and other COVID rules, there are some countries that might prove to be a shock.

Journeying to South Korea recently was fraught, at least logistically. There were online forms required, not only by Korean authorities, but also the airline. For that one needed vaccination records and a negative PCR test certificate carried out within 48 hours of departure.

There was of course advice on the UK government and Korean authority websites, though much was either opaque, confusing or contradictory.

With all the documents checked, uploaded and printed off it was time to set off.

The Republic of Korea might still implement rigid COVID policies, but in the UK all rules and advice have all but been abandoned.

First stop was the local bus stop and catch a bus to the local Underground station.

With rules abandoned I was surrounded by mostly maskless passengers.

There was some comfort in my wearing an FFP2 mask. Nonetheless it was still disconcerting as one elderly woman coughed almost continuously throughout the 20 minute bus ride.

Paddington Bear stares from behind my mask seemed not to register with this maskless passenger who may have just had a common cold with an irritating cough or worse a debilitating condition or even cancer. But it could just as well have been COVID, a disease which she seemed oblivious she might be spreading to her fellow passengers.

She wasn't the only one. Half way along the journey another elderly passenger boarded who also coughed during his time on board while sitting with his mouth gaping.

The Tube was fairly empty for some of the journey though there was not a single mask in sight. By the time one arrived at Heathrow the percentage of passengers wearing masks had increased, but only marginally. Here too coughing could be heard, though those responsible were sitting at least some distance from myself.

Of course there are those who are of the opinion that we must all 'learn to live with the virus ' or believe the pandemic is over.

As regards the latter, this is simply not the case given the number of variants still being passed around. And as regards living with the virus, this is a potential recipe for disaster.

It is true to say that fully vaccinated individuals may only experience cold-like symptoms. But the danger of abandoning all mitigations - such as testing, mask wearing and isolation - is that new more dangerous, vaccine resilient variants could come about and essentially kick-start a whole new pandemic.

Part of the travel experience is the booking into a hotel. In London masks were almost non-existent, both amongst staff and customers at a Radisson near to the airport.

The same was true at the Bucharest Intercontinental a few weeks earlier, a country that has also ditched most COVID restrictions.

South Korea is a different ball-park altogether.

Masks remain mandatory for all inside spaces. There are no lanyards here. No ifs, no buts. "No mask, no entry" signs are abundant. And while there is no clear threat of a fine, no-one challenges or tests the rules.

A few people may be seen failing to wear their mask properly, often foreign tourists from the West, but they will often be asked to wear it properly. Most obliged without debate.

Some countries in the far East are still virtually impossible to enter due to COVID restrictions, such as China. However others are gradually opening up their doors albeit with strict requirements.

Before even boarding the plane to Korea, proof of vaccination and PCR test, completed within 48 hours of departure, had to be uploaded to the airline's website. One also needed to fill out a detailed online form on a Korean government website, again uploading vaccination certificates and PCR test results, as well as passport details, valid phone numbers and address where one would be residing during one's stay in Korea. Upon completion a document containing a QR code was generated which had to be presented before being allowed through immigration. After electronic fingerprint recording and the taking of a photo it was then necessary to get a PCR test which we had booked ahead of time. With that taken we were then free to go to our hotel, though should the test prove positive there would no doubt have been an ambulance dispatched with medical staff dressed in hazmat suits tasked with taking us away to quarantine. 

Despite the loops one had to jump through, it was all relatively efficient. Walking from the plane we were directed by staff wearing hazmat suits and masks to desks where our passport and QR code was checked. Immigration, which was fully manned, was controlled to maintain social distancing and it took just minutes to get through. Even the PCR test was carried out quickly and efficiently, though it was a little disconcerting to be swabbed by a medical worker sitting behind a hermetically sealed screen with gloved hands poked through the wall as though handling nuclear isotopes at a radiological facility. Even the result was swift, completed in a little under two hours. 

The strict measures are all about keeping infections and deaths down. The country of 52 million people has managed to limit its total case load to 18 million with 24,006 deaths [as of 24th May], through aggressive tracing and testing as well as widespread vaccination.

For much of the pandemic South Korea, a country with a population of around 52 million, barely saw the daily number of cases entering triple figures. However in July 2021 daily cases exceeded one thousand. And as Omicron gradually became the dominant variant, cases surged from around 5,000 cases at the beginning of December 2021 to a peak of 400,000 daily cases by mid-March. Since then daily cases have fallen significantly to around 25,000 per day. Deaths overall have been kept down by strict mask-mandates across the country. South Korea loosened rules at the beginning of May requiring masks to be worn outdoors as COVID-19 cases dropped. However many still prefer to wear masks outside.

Lee Geun-young, 34, who was wearing a mask, said he would stick to wearing one until COVID-19 became less concerning. "I miss the pre-pandemic days when we lived without a mask," Lee said from Hyochang Park. "It is inconvenient, but it's better to stay careful not only for myself but not to cause harm to others."

It is this social responsibility that is almost non-existent in the West. Many westerners, even those seen in Korea, only wear a mask when obliged or told. Fear of contracting the virus, or of passing it on seems not to be a concern.

It is only strict enforcement by air stewards that maintains 100% mask wearing on planes. And it is Westerners in the main that ignore or buck the rules.

On a recent Ryanair flight which still had a mask wearing policy in place, enforcement was non-existent.

Outbound to Romania saw only about 10% of passengers donning a mask whilst others wore them as neck ornaments or chin-warmers!

On return to Stansted airport, air stewards did make better efforts to enforce the rules, but only when the matter was raised with them as passengers boarded brazenly failing to adhere to the rules.

Lufthansa certainly took a more robust approach en-route to Korea. Stewards would periodically walk along the aisle and ask passengers to properly wear their masks.

There is clearly self-entitlement amongst some. Challenged by one passenger to wear her mask properly, the young German woman retorted "Who are you, the COVID police?" before muttering disparaging remarks in German.

Her mother calmed her, else one of our party might have further embarrassed her as he understood everything being said.

There was vindication however as at that moment an air stewardess passed and told her to wear her mask properly.

Strict enforcement had clearly been dropped on the return flight a week later as nose-joggers and chin-warmers were not challenged at all.

And mask-wearing all but melted away the nearer one approached Europe. 

At Frankfurt mask-wearing dropped to less than 30% within the airport. Even security staff were maskless. 

On board the final hop from Frankfurt to London's Heathrow airport most passengers adhered to the rules but upon leaving the aircraft and snaking through immigration barely one person was wearing any form of face covering.

Sitting on the subway train as it rattled through the capital, mask-wearing was clearing less than 1% with people clearly trying to put any reminder of the pandemic behind them.

 The final leg of the journey put icing on the cake as the maskless taxi driver aired his concern as to whether he would be able to go on a cruise. "I'm not vaccinated," he proclaimed. "Don't get me wrong, I'm not an anti-vaxxer," he added whilst going on to mutter false claims concerning the vaccine, its efficacy and questioning why one would need to take boosters.

Having been up for nearly 27 hours I was far too tired to explain the importance of mitigations and vaccines. Indeed there seemed to be no point in attempting to explain epidemiology to someone who was clearly an idiot.

With the pandemic clear not over. UK deaths are still hovering at around 1,200 per week while Korean deaths are around 300 per week, kept down by mask mandates as well as high vaccination rates [about 88%]. In comparison some 74% are fully vaccinated in the UK. 

There are clearly inconsistencies in the way different countries are handling the pandemic. In Korea the masks,, social distancing, and heat sensors make clear there is still a perceived threat. In Britain one might have thought there had never been a pandemic as people go about their daily lives. 

As cases of Monkeypox rise, a disease that can be spread through water droplets, surface contamination and close contact, it might be too early to drop the advice of 'Hand, Face, Space." [CDC]

If, as some already fear, Monkeypox becomes the next pandemic, travel may become even more fraught in the coming months.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Romania prepares for influx as war intensifies

More than 4.7 million refugees have fled the warzone in Ukraine. And a significant proportion have ended up in Romania, a country of some 20 million.

Romania accepts Ukrainian refugees without unnecessary formalities under a simplified procedure. Six refugee centers have been set up in the country, located in Timisoara, Maramures, Suceava, Giurgiu, Tulcea and Bucharest. Furthermore the Romanian government accommodates mothers with children from Ukraine free of charge.

More than 650,000 refugees have crossed the border into Romania with a significant number arriving at the Gare du Nord in Bucharest.

It is here that 'Dodo', a paramedic, has helped set up facilities to make their arrival more comfortable, much without government help.

Dodo, his real name Teodor, has almost single handedly taken over several rooms in the station and set up food kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms and facilities for desperate refugees, many of which are women with young children.

Dodo proudly showed us around the store rooms packed with donations ranging from nappies to food and water.

And of course there was the army of volunteers, some of them refugees themselves such as Lena from Odessa.

It is Odessa that many have come from in recent weeks as Russia pushes it's way along the coast of the Black Sea.

One crossing poin is Isaccea in southern Romania that borders with Ukraine, split by the River Danube.

On Tuesday this week, around two months after the war began, hundreds of civilians were still crossing by ferry, greeted by volunteers, firefighters, paramedics and police officers.

Mostly women and children, some with their pets, and clutching what few possessions they could carry, entered Romania, happy to have escaped but equally sad to have fled their homeland.

Unfortunately, with Russia pushing further east and bombardments beginning in Lviv for the first time earlier this week, the numbers fleeing into Romania are likely to increase.

Being eyewitness to this influx of humanity is desperately sad, and something that both pictures and television reports cannot fully convey.

tvnewswatch, Bucharest, Romania

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Refugees give up on UK & return to warzone

Refugees are reportedly giving up on the UK's  Homes for Ukraine visa scheme and returning to the war zone in Ukraine after running out of money and patience as they wait for their visa applications to be approved [BBC/Telegraph/iNews/Sky News].

Of the few that have managed to fight through the minefield of red tape, some are finding themselves homeless due to relationship breakdowns with their sponsors and problems accessing accommodation. A total of 144 Ukrainian households have approached 57 councils after becoming homeless after arriving in the UK under both schemes, the Local Government Association (LGA) has revealed [Metro].

Britain has arguably provided strong military support to Ukraine and has stood alongside President Volodymyr Zelenskyy with resolute support in his battle against Russian aggression. While Boris Johnson's recent visit to Kyiv might be dismissed as a publicity stunt, it was well received in Ukraine itself.

But Britain has failed abysmally in processing and welcoming refugees. More than 4.7 million mostly women and children have left the country since hostilities began. And while only a few thousand have sought to get to Britain, red tape and bureaucracy has thwarted their efforts.

Sir Edward Leigh, the Conservative MP for Gainsborough, has himself faced a backlash after having told the Commons "we have done our bit" on immigration from Eastern Europe. 

He said migration from the region had already led to "extreme pressure in terms of housing and jobs". 

His own constituents were not impressed however. "As a Lincolnshire resident, he absolutely does not speak for me. No-one has 'done their bit' until each of the most basic of human needs - food, warmth and shelter are met for everyone, regardless of race or nationality," one Lincolnshire resident told the BBC.

Unfortunately, few Britain's have been able to 'do their bit' as refugees have faced an uphill struggle to get into the country.

tvnewswatch, London, UK.

Monday, April 04, 2022

Lives torn apart by a senseless war

Dmitry Shevchenko lives in Sumy, in North East Ukraine, or at least he did. You are unlikely to have heard of Dmitry. But Shurap had some 945,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel where he would display his blacksmith skills, forging beautiful knives from discarded scraps of metal, ball bearings and even empty armour piercing rounds.

But Shurap has not posted a video in little over a month, specifically 19th February - just five days before Russian tanks rolled into the country.

Hopefully Dmitry is fine and providing useful support to the Ukrainian military with his metallurgical skills.

But it does not look good for those living in Sumy which has been all but levelled by Russian bombardment [Channel 4 News].

Dmitry Shevchenko's plight is just one of many. People lost in the fog of war. Detached by failed telecommunications services and Internet connectivity.

In South East Ukraine is another sad story, that of Lyudmila Semernya, the head of a primary school in Mariupol. She became a victim of this senseless war, killed by shrapnel on the 4th March.

Anyone who has young children will know how they bond with their teachers. Many of the children from school No.5 on the outskirts of Mariupol will hopefully have fled the devastated city. But imagine how they will feel to learn about the death of one of their favourite teachers. They may already have learned that Lyudmila has died, not from a sudden illness or tragic accident, but as a direct result of Putin's bloody war. Children, already reeling from having to flee their homes, and fathers left to fight Russia's invading army, will have to suffer a further psychological blow [Twitter / Channel 4 News].

These are just two individuals living hundreds of kilometres apart affected by this war.

But there are countless others, the names of which may never be known.

Such as those in Bucha, a town to the north west of Kyiv where hundreds of civilians were found dead on the streets as Ukrainian troops moved in over the weekend.

Mayor Anatoly Fedoruk told the AFP news agency that following Ukrainian forces retaking the commuter town, the streets were found littered with bodies.

"In Bucha, we have already buried 280 people in mass graves," Fedoruk said, "All these people were shot, killed, in the back of the head."

He said the victims were men and women, and that he had also seen a 14-year-old boy among the dead.

Graphic video and photos of the victims circulated online. One showed a man's body with his hands tied behind his back, an open Ukrainian passport lay on the ground beside him. Another had a gaping head wound. Some reports say that some had also been beheaded or shown signs of torture prior to being sumarily executed [CBS / Al Jazeera / France24 / NYPost / BBC / Daily Mail

On the face of it war crimes clearly took place in Bucha, though evidence will have to be gathered for any subsequent trial.

And as for the names, many will sadly be forgotten. Indeed without the mass graves being excavated and each victim identified it will be virtually impossible to know either the numbers or names of those killed in Bucha.

Two that perhaps won't be forgotten are Ksjena and Maksim Iowenko, shot by Russian forces as they tried to flee the war zone. Maksim was killed as he stood with his hands raised in surrender. His wife was killed in the car. Also in the car were their six-year-old son and the elderly mother of one of Maksim's friends. Both of them survived and were eventually released by the Russian soldiers.

These are just a few of the heart-rending stories of this war, a conflict that in only 40 days has killed thousands, displaced millions and torn untold lives apart [BBC].

This is just one of many reports of Russian deliberately targeting civilians. On Thursday 3rd of March while attempting to deliver food to an animal sanctuary Anastasiia Yalanskaya, 26, was shot and killed, along with two colleagues, by Russians near the town of Bucha [Daily Mail]. 

For many people in Ukraine, life before the war was far from affluent. But most people had hopes and dreams. Hopes amongst the young that they might pursue a career as a doctor or scientist. Hopes amongst their parents of watching them grow up and get married.

Now many of the young, along with their mothers, have been scattered far and wide across Europe and beyond. Their futures are far from certain. Their hopes and dreams have been all but shattered. Most have reached a place of relative safety - should they have managed to avoid people traffickers or worse. But all will be torn, ripped apart from a once familiar life, torn from their fathers, their friends and their country.  

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Thursday, March 31, 2022

The Madman, the Geriatric and the Clown

The world stands on a precipice. It stands on a precipice of global climate change and it stands on the precipice of a world war, which could conceivably end all life on planet Earth.

Yet three major world leaders that are pivotal in turning the ship around vary between being mentally unhinged or incapable of making proper decisions.

Putting aside the existential threat of global warming, the more imminent and pressing threat is that of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, undertaken by Vladimir Putin.

The warning signs had been there for some time from the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the 2014 downing of flight MH-17, the annexing of Crimea and of the Donbass region of Ukraine, the military intervention in the Syrian civil war, and the Novichok poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in 2018. But following every incident the West's response has been weak and ineffective.

Putin has, for the most part, been allowed to conduct his murderous exercises while the West continued to do business with Russia with few if any repercussions.

However everything changed as Putin began to line up tanks on the border of Ukraine in February 2022. Whilst Putin claimed he was only carrying out exercises, there was a broad consensus in Western democracies that the military build-up was a prelude to an invasion of Ukraine. In response NATO began to deploy troops to Poland and other nearby NATO countries in order to deter Putin. Hindsight might have suggested that an invited force to Ukraine itself could have deterred Putin's eventual invasion on the 24th February. However, one will never know, and what one encountered since is nothing short of a catastrophe.

More than 4 million, mostly women and children, have left Ukraine since Russia's invasion whilst Russia's military has bombed major cities leaving many in rubble.

Meanwhile, the West and NATO has sat by, watching the destruction whilst appeasing itself in that it has supplied weapons to the Ukrainian army.

And as the war continues on the ground the war of words has continued.

Upon the start of the invasion, Vladimir Putin warned of chilling consequences should anyone interfere in his "special military operation".

"Whoever tries to impede us, let alone create threats for our country and its people, must know that the Russian response will be immediate and lead to consequences you have never seen in history," the Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a televised address.

This was taken by many in the West as inferring he might use nuclear weapons, resulting in lurid headlines in many tabloid newspapers.

But whilst 'Mad Vlad' - as some tabloids referred to him - seemed to be off his trolley, some leaders in the West were not being exactly cautious in what they were saying publicly.

NATO and its allies were clear that it would not move into Ukraine to take on Russia.  "The idea that we're gonna send in offensive equipment and have planes and tanks and trains going in with American pilots and American crews... that's called World War Three, OK?" US President Joe Biden told members of the Press on the 11th March.

Whether or not Biden, NATO or the West, were willing to take the fight to Putin, it was clearly not a good move to let the Russian leader know what one's red lines were.

Biden has often been labelled as a 'gaffe machine'. But in a time of crisis, and especially as the world edges towards a possible global conflict, words must be handled carefully.

Yet only days later, whilst speaking to the 82nd Airborne in Poland about Ukraine, Biden said, "You're going to see when you're there, and some of you have been there, you're gonna see — you're gonna see women, young people standing in the middle — in front of a damned tank just saying, 'I'm not leaving, I'm holding my ground."

It seemed to indicate that there was a plan to send US troops into Ukraine, something which the White House was forced to clarify saying, "the president has been clear we are not sending US troops to Ukraine and there is no change in that position."

But Biden's mispeaking continued. "For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power," he was filmed saying, which he was forced to clarify. Denying that he was seeking regime change, Biden said, "I just was expressing my outrage. He shouldn't remain in power, just like, you know, bad people shouldn't continue to do bad things."

"But it doesn't mean we have a fundamental policy to do anything to take Putin down in any way." [CNN]

Barack Obama is often quoted as saying, "Don't underestimate Joe's ability to fuck things up." Which is perhaps fine in 'normal circumstances' but perhaps having someone who appears to fumble through his speeches, confuses Iran with Ukraine and isn't clear on what America's policy concerning the current conflict, isn't the best person to be in charge.

Meanwhile on this side of the Atlantic the UK prime minister was claiming to be doing the right thing by opening up Britain's doors to Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war zone.

However whilst the EU was allowing Ukrainians to cross into Europe visa free, Britain - on the grounds of 'security issues' - had put in place a visa requirement for any refugee wanting to travel to Britain. For many it required long journeys to visa centres and lengthy waits, exceeding two weeks. The paperwork required was also lengthy, running into some 30 pages with requirements of birth certificates, biometric tests and even bank statements.

"I think it's very complicated," said Katerina Ilasova, who fled her home city of Poltava after the invasion started. "I've heard lots of positive things about Britain. But for me it is too complex. So people are signing up to go to other countries that are easier to get to."

"I think it's very complex," Alyona Vinohradova, who is travelling with her 11 year old daughter, told the Guardian. "I think the UK is ensuring that all the Ukrainians don't come." [Guardian]

 It is a story much repeated and has resulted in few numbers actually managing to come to Britain [CNN].

Some two weeks after the visa scheme began it was revealed that only 2,700 visas had  been granted under the UK's Homes for Ukraine scheme while some 22,800 visas had been issued to Ukrainian refugees with family members in the UK [Guardian]. 

With more than 4 million refugees having fled Ukraine according to the UNHCR it makes Michael Gove's claim that Britain was helping the humanitarian crisis somewhat disingenuous. In what amounted to a hissy fit, Gove slammed the dispatch box and retorted to the criticism, "I have just had it up to here with people trying to suggest that this country is not generous." [Huffington Post]

During a Select Committee only yesterday [30th March] the PM was unable to give a number of those who had actually managed to get to Britain. Meanwhile, asked why a pregnant woman in Warsaw had been asked to wait until she had given birth before applying for a visa for herself and her newborn baby, Johnson could only say he would look into the matter.

It is perhaps no wonder why Johnson is looked upon as a joke and sidelined as he attends summits. During a NATO meeting in Brussels the PM looked lost and ignored as those around him chatted and shook hands.

Macron only a few short months ago referred to Boris Johnson as a clown while a former Finnish PM, Alexander Stubb, ridiculed the idea that Boris Johnson was one of Vladimir Putin's fiercest opponents. Only in "Brexit la la land" was the British PM seen as having "taken a lead globally" Stubb is quoted as saying [City AM]. 

Recently Boris Johnson was asked for his reaction to reports that he had become the Kremlin's public enemy number one [Washington Times]. "I am not remotely anti-Russian" Johnson responded before adding that he was the first UK prime minister with the name Boris [Bloomberg - Twitter] .

The true statesman in all of this is Volodymir Zelenskyy, ironically a former comedian turned president of Ukraine. He has worked tirelessly throughout the conflict to bring his people together whilst standing by them, refusing to flee the country despite being Moscow's no. 1 target. Indeed Zelenskyy reportedly said, "The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride," when the US offered to get him out of the country as the war began.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Monday, March 14, 2022

Anti-War protester interruption of Russian TV a watershed moment

On the 14th March 2022 Marina Ovsyannikova (Russian: Марина Овсянникова), a Russian TV producer, burst on the screens of the main evening news on the Russia-1 TV channel. Holding a placard she stood behind the news anchor, Ekaterina Andreeva, before the broadcast was stopped and Ovsyannikova was arrested.

It is perhaps the most high profile anti-war protest that would have been seen by millions across Russia. The placard carried a simple message, part English and part Russian. 

"NO WAR", the placard proclaimed, while the Russian read ОСТАНОВИТЬ ВОИНУ  - Stop the War - НЕ ВЕРЬТЕ ПРОПАГАНДЕ - Don't Believe the Propaganda - ЭДЕСЬ ВАМ ВРУТ - You are being lied to. It ended with an English sentence "Russians Against War."

Earlier Ovsyannikova posted a video condemning the war which has been widely shared on social media [Twitter].

Some eighteen days into Russia's incursion into Ukraine there have been thousands of arrests as ordinary, mostly young, Russians protest against Russia's illegal war [BBC / Al Jazeera / Al Jazeera]. However, bar those who have directly witnessed such protests, few in Russia with be unaware of the disent on the streets. 

Moreover many Russian are reportedly still believing the government line that Putin is carrying out a 'special operation' to 'de-nazify' Ukraine [Reuters]. 

Few are seeing the the destruction wrought on Ukraine by the Russian military, have little knowledge of the hundreds, possibly thousands of civilians killed, nor even the casualties amongst their own fighting troops. Neither is there much awareness of the plight of more than 2.7 million refugees that have fled the country thus far. There is also little awareness either of the protests around the globe. Nor will many be aware of Putin's veiled threat of the use of nuclear weapons [Daily MailGuardian] and the UN Secretary General's concern as he expressed the view that nuclear conflict was "within the realm of possibility. [Reuters]"

Of course few can have failed to notice the effects of widespread sanctions imposed by the West following Russia's invasion on the 24th February. The Ruble has collapsed and is worth less than half its value in the last two weeks. Western broadcasters have pulled out of the country and McDonalds, Coca Cola and hundreds of other western brands have shut shop [NPR]. 

With a blackout of information and even harsh sentences for possessing material critical of Putin's war,  Marina Ovsyannikova's TV news protest is significant and could be a watershed moment in the propaganda war.

This is the full statement posted by Marina Ovsyannikova prior to her brief live protest on Russian TV news: 

"What's happening in Ukraine is a crime, and Russia is the aggressor. The responsibility for this aggression lies with one man: Vladimir Putin. My father is Ukrainian, my mother is Russian, and they were never enemies. This necklace [shows] Russia must stop this fratricidal war."

"Unfortunately, for the last few years I've been working for Channel One. I've been doing Kremlin propaganda and I'm very ashamed of it – that I let people lie from TV screens and allowed the Russian people to be zombified."

"We didn't say anything in 2014 when it only just began. We didn't protest when the Kremlin poisoned Navalny. We just silently watched this inhuman regime. Now the whole world has turned away from us, and ten generations of our descendants won't wash off this fratricidal war."

tvnewswatch, London, UK