Friday, December 31, 2021

Heading into another year of uncertainty

Almost like Groundhog Day, 2022 may bring a repeat of the last two years with further uncertainty and a reintroduction of further mitigations to control the spread of the coronavirus.

Two years ago today an article was published in the South China Morning Post bringing attention to an unusual number of people suffering from a form of pneumonia at a hospital in Wuhan, China. It was the first of several reports that focused the world's attention on Hubei province and a wet market that appeared to be the epicentre of a new virus.

Countries around the globe reacted differently as the details emerged with some, such as Taiwan and South Korea, imposing strict rules within days and imposing mask mandates, while others reacted far slower. Britain, much of Europe, and the US waited until March before acting, by which time the virus was circulating freely and forcing these countries to impose far more stringent rules and lockdowns.

Two years on, many of these same countries have failed to learn from the mistakes made in the early days and weeks of the pandemic.

Vaccination rollouts have certainly helped keep infections at bay in some countries such as Britain, France, Germany and the US. However, poorer unvaccinated countries have essentially become petri-dishes for new variants of the virus.

Variants have primarily emerged from unvaccinated populations were there have been few mitigations to control the spread of the virus; Britain [Alpha], South Africa [Beta], Brazil [Gamma] and India [Delta]. There have been other variants that emerged and faded from Epsilon through to Lambda and Mu. But Omicron which first appear to surface in South Africa and other African countries has woken up the world once again.

Omicron, or B.1.1.529, has been deemed 'milder' by some scientists. However, a significant number of individuals that contract it can still become ill enough to become hospitalised and even die. While the percentages are reportedly less than Delta, the danger lies in the fact that Omicron has been shown to evade vaccines far more readily coupled with the fact that the R0 is significantly higher, estimated at 5.

The situation may well turn out to be less serious as some scientists predict. However, failing to act swiftly could turn out to be disastrous for countries already suffering economically due to the pandemic.

Omicron certainly appears to be the most dominant variant in many countries. And anecdotally even countries that have so-far kept infections and deaths to a minimum thus far have seen a rapid spike in recent weeks.

South Korea has seen a rapid increase in both cases and deaths from COVID-19 since the middle of November despite high vaccination take-up, nearly 91% of over 12s. Nonetheless the total number of deaths stands at less than six thousand in a country of over 51 million.

To mitigate the spread, South Korea has imposed further restrictions such as banning unvaccinated individuals from bars, clubs, saunas, off-base gyms and karaoke bars and strengthening mask mandates and social distancing policies.

Nonetheless, while South Korea has imposed strict measures concerning masks and other social distancing rules, the country has, throughout much of the pandemic, been open for business; and the economy is booming.

In contrast, Britain has removed most mitigations concerning masks and social distancing. And while the wearing of masks are mandated in some situations, enforcement is weak with get-outs for those claiming to 'be exempt'; there is no such exemption in South Korea and other Asian countries. Vaccine passports are only required in a few venues in the UK while across Europe and in many Asian countries they are strictly enforced.

Indeed it very much appears Britain and much of the West are repeating the same mistakes seen at the beginning of the pandemic.

With cases and hospitalisations already rising in the UK, the new year may not be a happy one.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Saturday, August 21, 2021

UK risks making more COVID variants as virus rips

The pandemic is far from over, but government data, such as the R0 number, as well as mixed messaging has made many people complacent. 

A month or so after so-called Freedom Day in England both coronavirus deaths and hospital admission have risen. However, other data appears to suggest a slowing of the spread. 

Question over the R0 rate

This week the R0 number in the UK was said to have risen from 0.9 to 1.2 [Sky News]. However, the data needed to extrapolate this number is reliant on accurate data gathering. 

Data - such as the number of people dying, admitted to hospital or testing positive for the virus over time - is used to estimate how easily the virus is spreading.
However with less people doing tests, these figures will not prove accurate.

In 'normal' times, without attempts to mitigate spread - such as increased sanitation, social distancing and the use of masks - the R rate will remain at its normal level.

The R rate for measles is between 12 and 18, meaning one infected person can infect between 12 and 18 others. That rate only recedes by putting barriers between the infected and those not having contracted the disease.

In an extreme example the R rate could be reduced to zero. But this would require an absolute quarantine of an entire population, which is impractical in most societies.

The same is true with the coronavirus. Initial studies appeared to show that the original strain of COVID-19 had an R rate of at least 2.5.

This figure has increased however with more virulent and contagious variants emerging. Indeed it is estimated by the CDC that the Delta strain [B.1.617.2] has an R0 rate as high as 8 [NPR]. And with no mitigation measures in place the R0 rate will remain at this level.

With Britain, in particular, and other countries reducing coronavirus restrictions, especially concerning masks, the R0 rate will likely have reverted to normal levels.

Dispensing of masks

There is much debate over the efficacy of masks, but the general scientific standpoint is that the work in stemming the spread of airborne viruses. Of course an N95, FFP2 or FFP3 is better than a simple surgical or cloth mask, especially concerning contracting a virus.

But the main purpose of masking up is not so much a matter of preventing contraction but avoiding the spread.

Should everyone wear even just a simple face covering aerosolised particles potentially containing the coronavirus are prevented from filling the air. There might be some escape but most of the exhaled aerosolised particles will essentially be trapped.

However with as many as 30% of people now dispensing with any form of mask, the air - especially in confined spaces - will by definition, be more saturated with water droplets containing the coronavirus.

In such circumstances an N95 mask or similar will afford greater protection to the wearer. But it is still not 100%. Indeed nothing short of a full level 4 biohazard suit with proper filtration will stop infection.

But who is going to walk around their local supermarket or sit on the subway dressed like Dustin Hoffman from Outbreak, even if they could afford the extra expense of protection?

Even N95 masks aren't cheap and are beyond the budget of many people. N95 masks are single use and cost around £2 per unit. Given they are only effective for 3-4 hours a week's supply of masks for a single person could well exceed £20-£30.

A cloth mask which can be washed is affordable, and given everyone, and that means everyone, wears one in public, particularly in crowded environments, the R0 rate can be reduced significantly.

Restrictions gone

With testing now significantly down, with mask use also significantly down, and with more people mixing it is clear deaths and hospitalisations will rise.

These deaths and hospitalisations are mostly among the unvaccinated. But there are many immunocompromised individuals who can't get vaccinated who are falling ill.

UK government figures appear to indicate around 30,000 people testing positive daily. But there are many people who won't have taken a test. It is the rising hospitalisations and deaths that are a far clearer indication that the pandemic is far from over. And with the increased spread there will be more mutations some of which will fail to be stopped by the vaccines currently available [Nature / Guardian].

Social irresponsibility

The UK government has spoken of social responsibility and suggested that face masks be a matter of personal choice rather than being mandated in confined or indoor spaces. But it was clear this last week as MPs returned to parliament to discuss the debacle in Afghanistan that common sense and social responsibility had all but disappeared from government benches with only a handful donning masks [Daily Mail]. 

Opposition benches were at least trying to set an example, but, as already explained, in an enclosed space basic cloth coverings and surgical masks will offer only limited protection especially over a long period of time. 

British media has looked at the likes of China, Australia and New Zealand's swift mass testings and snap lockdowns as overkill after the discovery of single cases [WSJBBCBBC]. But surely better to err on the side of caution rather than letting the virus rip.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Pointless Green list, useless COVID passport & hopeless health secretary

From this week the so-called Green list of countries has been extended allowing Brits to travel abroad for a summer holiday. But while the traffic lights - concerning being allowed to travel - may have gone green, there is much red tape still involved, and many of the countries listed are refusing to allow visitors from Britain.

Restrictions remain

Destinations on the 'Green list' are countries and territories that the UK government sees as being safe enough to visit without the need to quarantine on return. However, many of those same said countries require proof of double vaccination or a negative PCR test. And even then some are still requiring British visitors to self isolate.

Today, Wednesday 30th June 2021, Malta announced that it would not accept the NHS app, which generates a QR code providing information of a person's vaccination record, as proof of vaccination. Instead Malta has said that only a certified letter, which can take up to a week to secure, would be required. Furthermore, all persons above the age of 12 years of age would need to show proof of vaccination, scuppering the plans of many families as thus far the 12 to 18 age group is so far not able to get a COVID-19 jab in the UK [Sky News / Daily Mail].

It is not just Malta that has put up barriers for British travellers hoping to get away in the summer.

European restrictions

France, another popular country for travelling Brits. However, the UK is currently rated as amber by France. This means you cannot enter unless you have both proof of vaccination and proof of a negative COVID-19 test. And, you must have both. France will accept the NHS app or NHS letter - or equivalent in Scotland and Wales - as proof of vaccination. And being on the Amber list UK visitors would also need to self-isolate on return and provide UK authorities with two COVID tests.

Italy is also proving a headache for those hoping to see the quarter-finals of the EURO 2020 tournament as the country recently brought in rules requiring 5 day quarantine periods for UK visitors. It is unclear whether Italy recognises the NHS app, but given vaccination status is not taken into account in order to gain entry, the issue is moot [Guardian].

Greece will let British tourists enter in based on vaccination status and does accept the NHS app or letter. However, on return to the UK tests and periods of quarantine will be required as Greece remains on the list of Amber countries.

Iceland and Balearic Islands open but with restrictions

As regards countries on the UK travel Green list, requirements vary. Iceland says it's open to visitors, and that vaccination status may be presented electronically or in paperwork. However, COVID-19 tests might still be required and certain forms also have to be completed before travel [landlaeknir].

There are a few European tourist spots one might head to. The Balearic Islands (which include Ibiza, Menorca, Majorca and Formentera), Malta and Madeira are all listed. Malta is already putting up hurdles. And starting this week, Spain will demand a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of travel or proof of full vaccination from all UK travellers including those visiting the Balearic Islands [iNews]. It is not yet clear whether the NHS app will be accepted in Spain - which remains on the Amber list - or its green listed territories.

Australia and New Zealand closed

Further afield both Australia and New Zealand are essentially off limits despite being on the Green list. The Australian Government has implemented immigration measures which allow only Australian citizens, residents and immediate family members to travel to Australia. The government has also advised that all new arrivals are required to self-isolate for 14 days. And even if one could get in, much of the country is currently in lockdown after a recent surge in cases and concerns over vaccine rollout [BBC]. New Zealand is also very much off limits with a blanket travel ban except for New Zealand citizens and a few select exemptions.

Most of the Green list consists of islands, many of them thousands of kilometres away and some impossible to get to.

Caribbean restrictions 

Anguilla opens to British tourists in July [Telegraph]. Nonetheless, despite being a long way off there are still a significant number of entry requirements including proof of vaccination and tests.

Other far off Carribean getaway destinations include Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat and Turks and Caicos Islands. Some restrictions concerning these places differ.

Grenada requires that all travellers must pre-book approved accommodation for quarantine on arrival, pre-pay for COVID tests, apply for a Pure Safe Travel Certificate and obtain a negative COVID PCR test result within 3 days of travel. Others are effectively cut off from the world such as the Cayman Islands. Airports in the Cayman Islands are closed to all scheduled inbound and outbound international passenger flights until further notice. In addition there is a ban on cruise ships docking in the Cayman Islands.

Impossible destinations

While there are one or two European destinations that may be open to British visitors most territories on the Green list are either impossible to get in, difficult to get in or simply pointless even listing.

Two cases in point are the listings of the British Antarctic Territory and Pitcairn Island [Independent].

Currently it is -1°C in the British Antarctic Territory, with a wind chill factor making it feel more like -10°C. Furthermore the region is virtually inaccessible during the winter which encompasses the period between March and October.

There's always Pitcairn, home to the descendants of the Bounty Mutineers! However getting there might also prove tricky. Google Maps failed to provide any clues as to how one might facilitate travel. The UK government website helpfully informs readers that there is no access to the island by air and that details of the shipping services to Pitcairn can be found on the Pitcairn Islands Tourism website. Clicking through leads one to a rather disappointing statement that "all cruise ships, tour vessels and yachts will be unable to land passengers at Pitcairn Island and the exchange of provisions (unless urgently required) is not permitted. This restriction will also now remain in place until March 31st 2022."

Staycation, the only option

Given sudden rule changes that have seen tourists having to make the mad rush home from Spain and Portugal in the last year in order to avoid costly quarantine or tests, perhaps it's best just to ride it out and put that foreign summer holiday on hold for yet another year.  Indeed it might well be worth holding back until 2023!

Let's hope the British weather holds up, though if you should decide to head to the south-west you might bump into some "hopeless" guy [Guardian]. Earlier this year it was reported that Matt Hancock told told MPs he had already booked a summer trip to Cornwall [The Sun] !!

tvnewswatch, London UK

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Govt denies claims it intended to let virus rip to build herd immunity

Dominic Cummings has accused the government for failing to control the pandemic and for allowing the virus to run rampant. In a renewed Twitter tirade he repeated claims the government had planned to let coronavirus spread through the country to build "herd immunity", despite ministerial denials [Guardian / Sky News]. He has also claimed that the policy only changed when it was clear it would lead to a "catastrophe" [Sky News].

While it may be that Cummings only has his own self interests in mind, the accusations do stand up when looking at statements made by Boris Johnson and his scientific advisors before the country was forced to lockdown.

In early March 2020 as many as 10,000 people in the UK were said to likely be infected with coronavirus, and many people should expect to lose loved ones, the government said while announcing measures less stringent than those taken by other countries.


During a conversation with Philip Schofield on Good Morning Britain the PM seemed to indicate that strict measures were not required and that letting the virus spread throughout the population might be the best route [FullFactYouTube].

Asked whether he was "essentially trying to spread this out so it doesn't all happen at once and overwhelm the NHS'' Boris Johnson responded saying there had been a "lot of debate."

"One of the theories is, that perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population, without taking as many draconian measures. I think we need to strike a balance, I think it is very important, we've got a fantastic NHS, we will give them all the support that they need, we will make sure that they have all preparations, all the kit that they need for us to get through it. But I think it would be better if we take all the measures that we can now to stop the peak of the disease being as difficult for the NHS as it might be, I think there are things that we may be able to do."

While he didn't clearly state that the virus should be allowed to rip, his actions, or rather the lack of them seemed to point to Cummings's assertion that government policy was to allow the virus to spread.

Delay phase

On 12th March Britain moved from the "contain" phase of the crisis to the "delay" phase whilst the death toll for UK citizens was at 12, two of them having died overseas, and the official number of infected people reached 590 [BBC].

Meanwhile Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, said that worst-case scenario planning projected that 80% of the country would contract the virus, with a 1% mortality rate. This equated to more than 500,000 deaths.

A year later nearly 150,000 had died. Tragic as this was, three successive lockdowns likely reduced the projected death toll [Guardian].

Herd Immunity

Recent government denials concerning Cummings's claim the policy was one of creating herd immunity appears also to contradict reports at the time when Sir Patrick Vallance, England's chief scientific adviser, defended the government's approach to tackling the coronavirus, saying it could have the benefit of creating "herd immunity" across the population.

Britain's chief scientific adviser stoked controversy on Friday 13th March when he said that about 40m people in the UK could need to catch the coronavirus to build up "herd immunity" and prevent the disease coming back in the future.

"Communities will become immune to it and that's going to be an important part of controlling this longer term," Vallance said. "About 60 % is the sort of figure you need to get herd immunity." [Sky News / Guardian / FT]

At the same time as the PM and the government's scientific advisors appeared to be following a plan of "allowing the virus to rip" through the population, ministers were facing growing questions about why the UK wasn't acting in a similar way to other European countries, such as France and Italy, who had taken measures ranging from banning large gatherings to quarantining the entire population.

Indeed at the very same time the Cheltenham festival took place attended by 251,684 people over the four day event, something regarded as having been a superspreader event since. Sir David King, the government's chief scientific adviser from 2000 to 2007, said it was "the best possible way to accelerate the spread of the virus" [Guardian / BBC].

Risk of variants

It might well appear academic and somewhat moot to analyse and criticise the UK government's past mistakes, whether they were made in good faith or because they failed to acknowledge the seriousness of the pandemic and the spread of the virus.

However, it is all too possible that the government may well be repeating many of the same mistakes.

One major mistake that may be unfolding is their apparent failure to see the risk posed by the COVID-19 mutations, often referred to as variants.

It has long been known that viruses mutate, be they DNA or RNA based viruses [CBC].

To survive, unlike plants, animals and other organisms, the only way a virus can reproduce is through a host cell, which it does by attaching its surface proteins to the cell's membrane and injecting its genetic material into the cell. This genetic material, either DNA or RNA, then carries with it the instructions to the cell's machinery to make more viruses. These new viruses then leave the cell and spread to other parts of the host organism.

But host organisms are not passive observers to this process, and over time a human's or other animal's immune system can learn from these encounters and develop strategies to prevent reinfection, in other words create an immunity to the disease. The next time the same virus comes to a host cell, it may find that it is no longer able to attach to the cell's surface membrane. So to survive, viruses must adapt or evolve, changing its surface proteins enough to trick the host cell into allowing it to attach.

However, the biggest factor in all this is population density of host organisms, in the case of COVID-19; humans.

"When you have high density conditions and overcrowding, like you would see in a pig farm, then the mutation occurs much more quickly as it passes from one snout to the next," says Dr. Earl Brown, a professor of microbiology at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine.

A virus that quickly kills its host as it spreads is more likely to thrive in densely populated areas where it can out-compete other viruses, but would die out when the supply of new hosts is in short supply, he says. Conversely, a virus that incubates in the host for weeks and spreads slowly is more likely to thrive.

Indeed by breaking transmission, such as locking down, increasing social distancing and wearing masks, viruses are less likely to mutate since one has essentially created a situation where the virus has no hosts in which to thrive and mutate.

Already there are more than a dozen variants that have sprung from the original COVID-19 virus, also known as SARS-CoV2. And in recent weeks the so-called Indian variant B.1.167.2 has raised concern.

Questions over vaccines

Recent studies seem to suggest that both the Pfizer BioNTech and AstraZeneca vaccines may well prove efficacious in preventing serious illness [BBC].

However, this is not enough in itself to 1. Stop the spread of the Indian variant, or 2. prevent further variants of the virus from developing.

It is clear that vaccination does not prevent infection, only reducing the serious effects, and as such could result in vaccinated people becoming asymptomatic carriers. This appears confirmed by the fact that American comedian Bill Maherwho had received both jabs of the vaccine subsequently tested positive for COVID-19 [NYPost]

Maher and the millions of others who have received the vaccine might well be 'safe'. But the millions of others who have not remain at risk of the virus.  And while it has generally been assumed that younger people are less likely to develop serious disease, their catching it could well result in more variants developing.

In the UK most under 40s have yet to receive their first jab, and in many countries around the globe vaccination take-up has also failed to create what scientists call 'herd immunity'.

Countries such as China, New Zealand, Australia and Taiwan essentially remain cut off from the world in lieu of their entire populations being vaccinated.

The rest of the world appears to be stumbling along, repeating the same mistakes and making up policy as each disaster strikes.

Cummings may well be attempting to rewrite his own history book and paint himself as being righteous. It is somewhat ironic that his criticism comes also exactly a year after he was forced to apologise for his own transgression of lockdown restrictions. But his criticism of government policy does seem to be founded in fact.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

UK govt “lacked plan” for pandemic despite claim it was “well-prepared”

An inquiry into how the UK government handled the coronavirus pandemic, though one has been promised, but it has already been revealed that the Government was under-prepared for the emergence of the pandemic and lacked a 'playbook' for dealing with key events that unfolded including mass school closures.

A new report [PDF] published by the National Audit Office criticised a lack of readiness for the emergence of COVID-19 - also known as SARS-CoV2 - despite frequent warnings in recent years that such a medical crisis could emerge.

"Like many countries, the UK was not as prepared for the pandemic as it could have been, and the government lacked detailed contingency plans to manage the unfolding situation," the report states.

This contradicts the government's own health secretary, Matt Hancock, who in January 2020, just as it was clear that a pandemic was on its way, claimed that Britain was "well-prepared" for such an outbreak.

"The public can be assured that the whole of the UK is always well-prepared for these types of outbreaks and will remain vigilant and keep our response under constant review in the light of emerging scientific evidence," the health secretary told the UK parliament on 23rd of January.

The National Audit Office report is not the first to conclude the UK was not prepared enough for a pandemic.

Last year, it was revealed a secret Whitehall document produced in 2017 had warned the government's plans for dealing with a health pandemic were "not sufficient" [Sky News].

It said contingencies worked up in the case of an outbreak would not be able to cope and concerns were also raised about whether the social care system could provide the level of support needed.

The report comes as the government continued to give out mixed messages concerning the lifting of travel restrictions and the lifting of lockdown rules while concerns grow over the spread of the so-called Indian variant B.1.617. [New Statesman / Sky News / BBC]

With criticism already mounting over the government's slow response to adding India to the red travel list it seems the UK seems likely to repeat all the same mistakes made in the early days of the pandemic.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Chinese rocket “could hit inhabited area” on Earth

The sky is certainly not falling, as Chicken Little might have warned. But there is a risk, albeit a small one, that debris from a Chinese space rocket could impact on an inhabited place on Earth in the coming days.

The object of concern is a 22 metric tonne part of the Chang Zheng 5 rocket that was use to launch the first part of China's new space station into orbit.

The Long March 5B Chinese rocket launched a module of the country's space station on 29th April but the rocket's core is falling out of Earth's orbit and is expected to make an uncontrolled re-entry this week. And many experts fear it could land on an inhabited area.

"It's potentially not good," said Jonathan McDowell, Astrophysicist at the Astrophysics Center at Harvard University. "Last time they launched a Long March 5B rocket they ended up with big long rods of metal flying through the sky and damaging several buildings in the Ivory Coast," he said. "Most of it burned up, but there were these enormous pieces of metal that hit the ground. We are very lucky no one was hurt."

This piece of space junk is of bigger concern however given both its size and weight, and also because it's unlikely to burn up as it falls to Earth.

On Tuesday the core was orbiting Earth around every 90 minutes at about 27,600 km/h at an altitude of more than 300km. The US military has named it 2021-035B and has added it to the list of some 27,000 pieces of space it tracks daily. You can track 2021-35B here:

It is highly likely the remnants of Chang Zheng 5 will simply crash into the sea, given the vast expanse of ocean it passes over. Indeed the chance of being hit by China's space junk is said to be one in a trillion, and obviously zero if living outside its current path of orbit. Nonetheless, the spent rocket does pass over parts of the US, South America, Africa, Spain, the Middle East, India, China and Japan.

There are worst case scenarios, such as landing on a nuclear power station or similar facility. And there are concerns its landing in a highly populated could kill and injure dozens if not hundreds of people.

These possibilities are of course slim. But McDowell says some pieces of the rocket will survive re-entry and that it would be the "equivalent of a small plane crash scattered over 100 miles".

Since 1990 nothing over 10 tonnes has been deliberately left in orbit to re-enter uncontrolled. And it is not the first time a large piece of Chinese space junk has crashed back down to Earth. In 2018 China's defunct space lab, Tiangong-1, came crashing down into the Pacific Ocean [BBC].

"It's really negligent on China's part,"  McDowell said, "Things more than ten tonnes we don't let them fall out of the sky uncontrolled deliberately."

It is expected to crash back to Earth on Saturday 8th May 2021, but while a Department of Defense spokesperson revealed the date of its expected reentry into Earth's atmosphere, its exact entry point can't currently be determined.

Even if Saturday passes off uneventfully there might be further concerns in the future as the launch was just the first of 11 missions needed to complete China's upcoming space station, intended to rival the ISS.

[BBC / CNNGuardian / Daily Mail / Space News]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Friday, March 19, 2021

China exploits pandemic to position itself as No.1

As the global vaccine rollout continues with the hope it may bring an end to the global pandemic, there is one country in particular that is exploiting the vacuum left in its wake.

Whilst the virus may have originated in China [something China disputes], the country swiftly dealt with the spread, using draconian action, and has largely returned to normal.

There have been relatively minor outbreaks over the last year, but on the whole life in China is back to normal for many people. And with that normality the economy has stabilized and even grown.

And as life returns to normal in China so has normalcy returned to China's game politique.

Plans for the future

Over the last fortnight China's leadership congregated for the annual political gathering for the so-called 2 sessions . In the Chinese government, the term refers to the annual plenary sessions of the national or local People's Congress and the national or local committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

But while this year's session was somewhat different given it was being held amid a global pandemic, in many respects it was back to business as usual with China laying out its plan for the next 5 years, militaristically, economically and globally.

Key in Xi Jinping's plan for China is to double the country's economy in 15 years meaning a 4.7% increase every year. Currently China's GDP is around $15.5 trillion and its goal is to double it to more than $30 trillion [CGTN - YouTube].

Building China's military

It all appears to be part of what it perceives is a necessary plan to fund China's military which Xi wants to build to equal or even surpass that of the US.

China increased its 2021 defence budget by 6.8% to 1.35 trillion yuan [$209 billion], up from a 6.6% hike the previous year. The increase in spending, which has grown year on year for at least the last decade, is entirely affordable according to the Global Times which put China's annual defence spending at around 1.3% of GDP, far below an average global level of 2.6%.

China claims the need to build its military is due to an ever growing threat, particularly from the United States which it says was guilty of "repeated military provocations" by using warships and planes for reconnaissance of China's coastal regions as well as conducting military exercises close to China's territorial waters.

China also cites Taiwan as a reason to build its military strength and points to the provocative action displayed by the US in selling the disputed territory advanced weaponry [NYT / SCMP].

Defence or Offence

China claims its military build is all about defence. But while China has yet to display offensive action in conventional terms it has repeatedly been responsible for hacking into foreign computer servers from private companies to government systems.

Most recently China was blamed for hacking into Microsoft's servers [Wikipedia]. According to Microsoft, the attack was initially perpetrated by the Hafnium hacking group, which Microsoft alleged to be "state-sponsored and operating out of China".

It is not the first time China has been blamed for launching cyberattacks and hacking. From Google's claims of cyberattacks in late 2009 and early 2010, said to be part of a wider hacking enterprise known as Operation Aurora, to McAfee's Operation Shady Rat report, there is clear evidence showing China's concerted and sustained cyberattacks on western companies, institutions and governments.

In May 2013, the US DoD for the first time directly accused the Chinese government and military of cyber espionage against US networks.

The DoD's 2013 Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China states, ''In 2012, numerous computer systems around the world, including those owned by the U.S. government, continued to be targeted for intrusions, some of which appear to be attributable directly to the Chinese government and military.'' The report then states, ''China is using its computer network exploitation capability to support intelligence collection against the U.S. diplomatic, economic, and defense industrial base sectors that support U.S. national defense programs.''

However despite harsh words from Obama, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and the incumbent Joe Biden, China has continued with its activities whilst claiming that such accusations are not based in fact and that China itself is often the target of cyberattacks.

Following hacking claims in 2014 China's then foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei repeated the official line blasting the United States' cyber espionage track record and that "China opposes and severely cracks down on all forms of cyber-hacking."

While China has not responded to the latest series of attacks by Hafnium  its position is unlikely to have changed [BBC / Sky News / CNN] .


The strategy behind China's espionage campaign is multifold. In part, it is economic. By acquiring information concerning the manufacture of technology it can position itself as a leading competitor of manufactured goods whilst not having had to invest vast sums of money.

Some too is to gain advantage militaristically speaking, be it the development of stealth or supersonic jets such as the J-20 or advancing its journey into space. It is widely believed that China stole stealth fighter technology, even smuggling parts of an F-117A , downed during the Balkans conflict, back to the mainland [tvnewswatch-China stole stealth fighter technology].

China is also setting its sights further afield with plans for a lunar base. However it is not going it alone. China is joining hands with Russia to develop what it calls a "complex of experimental research facilities created on the surface and/or in the orbit of the moon" [Guardian].

China was late into space, sending its first astronaut into orbit in 2003 [Guardian]. However in less than twenty years China's space program has achieved much from developing space weapons, to launching its own satellites, manned spaceflight and landing unmanned probes on the moon.

Of particular concern is China's ability to destroy satellites in orbit around the Earth. One of the first observed such events was as far back as January 2007 [tvnewswatch-China tests space weapon / Wikipedia]. But since then China's efforts have ramped up with Russia also believed to have developed similar technology [BBC].

Unrestricted warfare

All of these technological developments appear to be gathered together in order to launch what some call an asymmetrical assault on the West.

Such an assertion is nothing new. The threat of concerted cyberattacks are at least a decade old. Evidence, such as laid out in the book Unrestricted Warfare, makes clear that China's dominance, defence or the ability to win any future war, will only be achieved by employing every 'weapon', conventional and unconventional, at its disposal [tvnewswatch-cyber-warfare threat posed by China / tvnewswatch-China increase military to win local wars / tvnewswatch-China's divided loyalties].

Offence or Self-Defence?

Historically speaking China has not been an overtly warring nation, at least in recent history. Like most nation states, China does have a violent history. The country has battled with invaders from the Japanese, see the Nanjing massacre, and fought against colonialists, see the Boxer rebellion.  And China did participate in both the Vietnam and Korean wars.

Most conflicts over the ages have been internal ones, such as the so-called Warring States period c.260BC. Such periods of history could be likened to similar local conflicts seen in Britain and Europe which saw the forming of nations. Having essentially defined its borders China has held off from a colonialist approach much seen in the West. Nor has it sought to invade and take territories, or intervene in other conflicts [China at War].

Vietnam and Korean wars aside, which arguably could be seen as defending its neighbours and its own borders, China has not become embroiled in conflicts further afield.

It is arguable that China has been aggressive in its taking of Tibet and other neighbouring regions, but these conflicts and its moves concerning Taiwan, the Diaoyu Islands and the Arandul Pradesh region near India are different in as much as they are territorial disputes.

So is China's military build one of defence or offence? In some ways it could well be argued that China is merely attempting to strengthen its own country and to become self-sufficient. While on the face of it, China's hacking is indeed aggressive and often destructive, much is an attempt to glean information in order to build its own economy and infrastructure without the costly R&D.

Pots & Kettles

The West has continually accused China of IP theft, which of course some Chinese companies have exploited by selling cheap technology to the West which China of course benefits. But the West too has been guilty of such practices in the past. Throughout its colonialist past the west has exploited other countries of resources and technology. Two wrongs do not make a right, but the West's criticism of China, specifically concerning IP theft, is somewhat disingenuous and amounts to the pot calling the kettle black.

In terms of exploitation of resources China and the West are both equally guilty. But again, while the West throughout the last three centuries often simply stole resources from underdeveloped countries and continents such as India, China and Africa, China has sought in recent years to payback the like of Zambia, where it has mined much copper, by helping build roads and developed other infrastructural projects.

China has exploited every opening door to make profit and build its country further. Its Belt and Road Initiative is something which is almost unparalleled in global economic history and further strengthens China while increasing the world's reliance on China.

Pandemic slowdown

However, the global pandemic has slowed the global economy. And with that slowdown China's footprint has also retracted. With less custom abroad, China is refocusing its efforts on internal markets [CNBC / CGTN].    

China is now rich enough to go it alone and with increased hostility coming from the West there is a distinct possibility that just as China opened up to the West in the 1980s, it could just as easily shut its doors once again.

Effectively, the pandemic has already shut man doors on China. Visas issued before March 2020 have been revoked and visa centres around the globe have been shut for some months making it virtually impossible to visit China. As such China is learning to do without foreign tourism. Equally a slowdown in foreign exports has forced China to refocus on its domestic economy.

Pointing fingers

China is certainly no angel when it comes to its domestic agenda. Politically it has been aggressive when quelling Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement. And its anti-Islamic terror drive has essentially tarred all Uighers with the same brush and become what many outside China describe as a form of genocide.

The West has continually pointed fingers at China over human rights abuses, hacking and IP theft. But China has shrugged off such criticism.  

It has all come to a head this week when a meeting between China and the US descended into bickering with each side sharply criticizing the other over human rights, trade and international alliances [Time].

China is unlikely to care much. It is already building strong alliances with Russia. Its economy is growing and building towards self sufficiency. And in many ways is surpassing much of the world technologically speaking.

Recently commentator and comedian Bill Maher described the US as a "silly people" who can't get anything done while China steams ahead into the future. Maher rightly points out that there are issues when it comes to China, but asks if there might not be a middle way between an authoritarian dictatorship that gets things done, compared to a representative democracy that doesn't get anything done [YouTube].

It might not have the military prowess of the United States but who is going to start a war with China? But in almost every other respect China has surpassed the US and the West.

China has 40,000km of high-speed railway, more than double the total that exists elsewhere globally. And the US has no high-speed rail network at all. In the last two generations China has built more than 500 cities from scratch, rolled out a mobile network where there are virtually no dead spots and has a health service that, while not free at source for all, is fast rivalling many western countries.

Some are concerned that the West will lose out to China. There has not been a war with China, but China has already won. As Sun Tzu [孫子] once said in his strategic book Art of War "the skillful leader subdues the enemy without any fighting". China is the global factory and hold much US debt. As such any criticism thrown at China by the US will only amount to empty rhetoric. Mao Zedong oft used to criticise the US calling them a paper tiger [Zhilaohu - 纸老虎]. When Mao died in 1976, nothing could have been further from the truth. Forty five years on the tables have turned.     

There has been very little fighting but China has virtually beaten its enemy, at least economically speaking.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Spectre of Brexit looms over Britain

In 'normal' times Brexit, and the disaster that is unfolding, might feature front and centre in the British media. However, the chaos and damage to Britain's economy by Britain's having left the EU is hidden by the ongoing pandemic which is leaving its own trail of destruction.

But hidden or not by the mainstream press, Brexit is already threatening to destroy businesses, affecting exports, slowing or disrupting imports and even taking business away from the UK's financial hub.

The government has insisted that much of the disruption only amounts to "teething problems". But those exporting fish, crabs and other seafood are telling an entirely different story.

Exporters who used only to fill out a single delivery note now have to fill in up to 70 pages of forms [BBC] . But it's not just the time it takes to fill in the forms, it's the cost that goes with it. Small firms in particular are not used to so much paperwork and have to farm it out to specialists which adds to the cost. There are also additional VAT charges applied by the UK government. This all results in a more costly product which makes Britain's products less competitive in the European market. Even David Cameron's wife Samantha publicly admitted that her clothing business is suffering because of post-Brexit trading difficulties with European countries [Twitter].

Fishermen, and particularly those selling mussels, oysters and the like to Europe are extremely miffed as to how things have gone. As a third country Britain cannot export live bivalve molluscs taken from class B waters into Europe without having processed them to cleanse them [Twitter]. The British media has labelled it as a shellfish ban, but the so-called ban always existed for third countries. The sticking point for Britain's shellfish exporters is there aren't enough purification plants. And even if there were, it is no guarantee Europe would necessarily take them.

Government adverts attempt to promote the benefits of Brexit, suggesting that the world is Britain's oyster. But for shellfish farmers there is no market outside Europe. Shipping live shellfish beyond the EU would prove impractical and costly. Furthermore such markets are unlikely to be open to new shellfish importers.

Opponents to Brexit have long maintained that opening up new markets would be a long haul and in many cases impossible to open up.

It is all well and good to suggest that Britain might sell its cheese to Japan or anywhere else come to that. But many such markets are already sewn up. Even if such markets had a strong liking for British cheese it is probable they already imported it anyway and Britain's leaving the EU isn't likely to increase their desire to eat more cheese.

Hardline Brexiteers such as John Redwood have suggested British fishermen merely sell their catch in the UK [Twitter]. But there is a catch here too. In terms of shellfish, purification plants are working overtime attempting to deal with cleaning up all those clams, oysters, mussels and scallops both for domestic consumption and export. More importantly Redwood fails to appreciate that most British people don't have the same appetite for the seafood that is exported to Europe.

Yes, of course there are some of use that would be happy to eat moules marinière regularly, tuck into platefuls of oysters, dine on octopus stew or munch through fresh whiting, mackerel, sardines, gurnard and red mullet. But the vast majority of Brits don't go for such fare. And when was the last time you saw such items in a supermarket or fishmonger?

The simple truth is, and was explained by remainers over the last 5 years, the UK exports most of its catch to Europe while importing Britain's favourites; cod and haddock.

Go to most fish counters in Britain and there is very little choice. Salmon, cod, haddock, sea bream, sea bass and prawns is often the extent of products on offer.

It's alright for arch-Brexiteer John Redwood to suggest fishermen sell their catch to Brits, but most would simply not buy it. And as such most retailers are unlikely to take the risk in purchasing such products given they'd be unlikely to move them [Scotsman].

Fish is only part of the problem. The bee industry is also reeling which could in turn affect agriculture if there aren't enough of the insects to carry out pollination [BBC / Sky News / Euronews].

Musicians and others in the entertainment sector have also found that Brexit will likely devastate their industry, making European tours cost prohibitive or choked with red tape [Classic FM].

And the City, already seeing business being lost, could further losses. Amsterdam ousted London as the largest financial trading centre in Europe in January as Brexit-related changes to finance rules came into force [BBC]. And a City AM report suggests London, at the heart of the UK's service sector economy, may lose up to £9.5bn in economic output a year from Brexit.

Reality is beginning to set in for many that far from sunny uplands, Britain is finding itself wading through a quagmire of red tape while businesses go to the wall, exports dry up and the economy, already severely damaged by the pandemic, looks set to collapse. The spectre of Brexit will loom over Britain for a long time yet [CNN].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Monday, January 18, 2021

UK travel quarantine rules too little too late

From today all so-called travel corridors to the UK have been closed with everyone now arriving in the UK required to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test as well as self-isolate for 10 days [BBC].

The new rules have been introduced following increased concerns over new strains of the COVID-19 coronavirus considered more contagious. However, such rules were implemented by some countries nearly one year ago as the virus was first identified. Those that acted quickly have kept cases and deaths low and also kept their economies running.

But the failure of Britain, the US and some European countries, to close borders and impose strict quarantine rules has resulted in huge numbers of cases, a high death toll and massive damage to their economies.

First reports

In late December 2019 and early January 2020 reports emerged of a new respiratory virus [SCMP]. Dubbed 2019-nCov, later COVID-19 and SARS-CoV2, by mid-January several countries had reacted swiftly to stop the spread, locking down borders, imposing strict rules on the use of masks and imposing strict quarantine procedures on anyone arriving.

Those countries that acted in January 2020 have been least affected by COVID-19. From small island nations to large continents, swift action has been shown to be effective.

Rising deaths

On Friday 13th January this year the UK recorded another 1,564 COVID-19 deaths bringing the total number of people who have died to 84,767.

Discounting certain countries such as Brazil, Russia and India - where figures are contentious or disputable - Britain's death toll is the highest in the world in percentage terms.

Statistical comparisons

In Japan last weekend authorities were concerned about a rise in coronavirus cases. Tokyo had seen 1,494 new cases of COVID-19, and countrywide the level of cases peaked at 7,790. This prompted further action such as forcing employees to reduce worker levels by 70% at places of work. In itself such cases are concerning. But in a country of 126.5 million Japan has done exceedingly well in controlling the virus with a sum total of 289,000 cases and 3,850 deaths. This equates to 0.003% of its population having died from COVID-19.

On 8th January the UK [population 66.6 million] saw its highest peak of 68,053 cases recorded. The sum total in the UK thus far is 3.07 million cases and over 80,000 deaths. This equates to 0.12% of its population having died from COVID-19.

With a population of 328.2 million and a total of 374,000 deaths in the US, this equates to 0.114% of its population having died from COVID-19, slightly smaller than the death toll in the UK.

But it's when one looks at those who acted quickly at a spreading pandemic that Britain's failure in controlling the virus becomes stark.

On 8th January this year New Zealand [population 4.8 million] saw 0 cases [its highest peak of 89 cases was recorded on the 5th April 2020]. The sum total in New Zealand thus far is 2,222 cases and a total of only 25 deaths. This equates to 0.0005% of its population having died from COVID-19.    

On the same day South Korea [population 51.64 million] saw 641 cases [its highest peak of 1,237 cases was recorded on the 24th December 2020]. The sum total in South Korea thus far is 69,114 cases and a total of 1,140 deaths. This equates to 0.002% of its population having died from COVID-19.      

But it's Taiwan [population 23.78 million] that has perhaps done the best in controlling the spread. On the 8th January it did see a further 3 cases [its highest peak of 27 cases was recorded on the 20th March 2020] bringing the sum total of cases since the beginning of the pandemic to 828 cases. But only 7 deaths have been recorded equating to 0.000029% of its population having died from COVID-19. Much of this has been achieved by testing and strict quarantining of every arrival since January 2020 along with a robust and strictly enforced test and trace system.    

Meanwhile Australia [population 24.99 million] saw 24 cases on the 8th of January [its highest peak of 721 cases was recorded on the 30th July 2020]. The sum total in Australia thus far is 28,614 cases and a total of 909 deaths, equating to 0.004% of its population having died from COVID-19.  

Reportage and messaging

The media in Britain has failed to highlight how badly the UK has done in comparison to others, or hold the Boris Johnson government to account for its abject failure to stop thousands from dying whilst destroying the economy with repeated lockdowns.

On the 23rd January 2020 the health secretary told UK lawmakers that, "The public can be assured that the whole of the UK is always well-prepared for these types of outbreaks and will remain vigilant and keep our response under constant review in the light of emerging scientific evidence."

Instead of closing borders, Matt Hancock merely said advice would be offered to those travelling from China should they fall ill. And during the statement to the UK parliament claimed the risk to the UK population from the virus had been revised by the chief medical officer from "very low to low" []Parliament TV].

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and no doubt the excuses given by the government would be they didn't know the seriousness of the threat. But it is evident from how well other countries have done that Britain's handling of the pandemic is nothing short of being an absolute failure.

tvnewswatch, London, UK