Wednesday, December 21, 2022

China's COVID surge could spawn new deadly variant

China's COVID wave has spurred fears that a dangerous new variant could emerge which "could be more contagious, more deadly, or evade drugs, vaccines and detection".

The warning comes as a tsunami of COVID-19 infections sweep across China with speculation that the wave could see more than a million die [Time / CNN].

The situation in China is unique because of the path it has followed throughout the pandemic. While almost every other part of the world has battled infections and embraced vaccinations with potent mRNA shots to varying degrees, China largely sidestepped both. The result is a population with low levels of immunity facing a wave of disease caused by the most contagious strain of the virus yet to circulate.

According to official sources, Chinese cities are currently being hit by the highly transmissible Omicron strain, mostly BF.7 which is the main variant spreading in Beijing and is contributing to a wider surge of COVID infections in the country.

BF.7 is a sub-lineage of the Omicron variant BA.5, and has the strongest infection ability since it is highly transmissible, has a shorter incubation period, and a higher capacity to cause reinfection or infect even those who are vaccinated.

The BF.7 strain has been found in several other countries, including the US and UK and European nations such as Belgium, Germany, France and Denmark. Recently it has also recently been detected in India.

However there is rising concern the wave of infections sweeping through China could spawn a new more deadly variant.

"There will certainly be more omicron subvariants developing in China in the coming days, weeks and months, but what the world must anticipate in order to recognize it early and take rapid action is a completely new variant of concern," says Daniel Lucey, a fellow at the Infectious Diseases Society of America and professor at Dartmouth University's Geisel School of Medicine. "It could be more contagious, more deadly, or evade drugs, vaccines and detection from existing diagnostics."

This is concerning enough. But even more concerning is that studies into sequencing changes in the virus has dropped significantly in the last few months. Fewer people are testing, fewer samples are being taken and as a result laboratories around the world are receiving fewer samples to analyse.

The global pullback from sequencing COVID could mean a new, possibly more dangerous variant evades detection until it's spreading widely. The pandemic that much of the West has thought to be largely over could just be beginning.

Even if a new variant fails to emerge, the toll on China's economy could have dramatic repercussions in other ways.

The US is already raising concerns that the chaos brought about by the wave of infections in China could seriously hurt the global economy and further constrain corporate supply chains.

In a world already turned upside down by the pandemic and more recently by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, any significant collapse of China's economy could be devastating.

[Sources: The Wire / CBS / Financial Post / Business Today / Reuters / NCBI /  Daniele Focosi, MD PhD MSc : Twitter ]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Surge of COVID cases spreads across China

COVID cases are rising significantly across China after a sudden end to its strict zero-COVID policies that prompted a series of protests across the country.

Years of strict lockdowns, widespread testing and other restrictions prompted many people to come to the streets to vent their anger. A number of deaths on a block of flats in Xinjiang province was the catalyst to the protests which saw thousands calling for an end to the zero-COVID policy.

In the Xinjiang incident footage appeared to show firefighters unable to get close enough to direct water jets at the base of the fire. Observers suggested that the barriers put up around the compound to prevent people leaving had in turn prevented emergency services from getting close enough to put out the fire. Ten people died in the tragedy [BBC].

While it was clear that the Chinese government needed to relax restrictions in order to prevent widespread social unrest, the swift opening up has created its own problems.

Authorities are reportedly saying that it is now 'impossible' to track the rising number of COVID cases and are no longer including asymptomatic cases in numbers that are made public.

On Tuesday this week, 13th December, there were 2,291 symptomatic cases officially reported across China. However this appears at odds with reports from residents and health services of rampant infections, particularly in the capital Beijing.

Footage and posts on Twitter and on Chinese social media showed medical facilities and hospitals overwhelmed with people showing signs of fever.

Pictures at a fever clinic in Chongzhou City People's Hospital (崇州市人民医院) in Chengdu, Sichuan, showed hundreds of people seeking medical attention.

Meanwhile pictures posted on the 10th December showed people lining up for intravenous drips at a local clinic in Wuhan's Jiang'an District (江岸区). Intravenous therapy is much sought after in China, even for minor ailments. As many as 10.4 billion doses of IV medicine were administered in China in 2009, averaging eight per person, far beyond the international average of 2.5 to 3.3 doses per person [Global Times]. 

As the situation in some cities grew worse there were reports of some people refusing to leave quarantine camps such as one in Guangzhou's Pazhou (琶洲).

As numbers of people suffering from fever and flu-like symptoms have grown, pictures have emerged of packed hospitals in Nanjing in Jiangsu province and in cities in Sichuan province where hundreds queued for medicine.

With the hospitals packed some people have been seen being treated on the streets. Pictures on social media showed Dazhou (达州) in Sichuan where sick people were sitting in plastic chairs receiving IV drips in the street.

The sudden increase in demand for care has seen shortages in medicine and also of COVID tests.

There has been concern amongst those who are not sick with some calling abroad to friends and relatives for advice on what they should do.

Official state media outlet China Daily reported Beijing had seen a more than six-fold increase in presentations to hospitals in the last week, and 16 times more to fever clinics.

Li Ang, deputy director of Beijing Municipal Health Commission, told media that on 9th December there were 31,000 calls to emergency medical services, six times more than average.

Anecdotally, residents are describing many friends, families, and co-workers falling ill with COVID, with one telling the Guardian it had "ripped through" the city with long lines of people seen outside many hospitals such as the fever clinic of Beijing Friendship Hospital in the Xicheng district of the capital.

Employees at businesses, schools and embassies have described huge numbers of colleagues suddenly calling in sick with the virus, or having to stay at home to care for family members. James Zimmerman, a Beijing-based lawyer, said on Twitter that 90% of people from his Beijing office had COVID.

Many businesses are having difficulty finding enough staff who have not gotten infected. Sanlitun, one of the capital's most popular shopping districts, was deserted despite having its anti-COVID-19 fences taken down in recent days [Al Jazeera]. 

Janis Mackey Frayer, an NBC correspondent based in Beijing, wrote on Twitter that it was "impossible to understate the whiplash" in the city "going from 'zero COVID' to COVID everywhere in about 48 hrs."

There are "lineups at fever clinics, pharmacies & testing booths (though it feels moot)," she adds, "In many ways, the pandemic is now starting in China."

Selina Wang, CNN's correspondent described the opening up as "messy and uneven."

"For the first time since the start of the pandemic, COVID is spreading like wildfire in Beijing," she wrote on Twitter.

"People either have it or are scared to get it" and the "only crowds are outside of hospitals & pharmacies." She also spoke of many struggling to get medicine.

Residents have complained of long lines at pharmacies and cold medication selling out. Agence France-Presse reported a black market had also emerged for rapid tests and some medications being sold at inflated prices by "dealers" whose contacts are being shared on social media groups.

Much of the chaos has come about due to there being little planning in terms of opening up. The problem has been compounded by the fact that many people have only had 2 vaccinations of the Sinovac or Sinopharm vaccines which are seen as being less effective against the far more transmissible Omicron variant.

China has so far been resilient to approving the mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna which have been shown to be more efficacious. However, Pfizer's oral treatment, Paxlovid is available in China, although it is out of reach of many Chinese given it's priced at more than $400 a box.

The real concern, much less talked about, is whether the surge in cases could result in significant deaths.

In the UK, which has also seen an uptick in cases in recent weeks [Daily Mail], the death toll is around 2,000 per month, this in a largely well vaccinated population of 60+M. With China having a population of some 1.4Bn people the death toll could run into tens of thousands each month without a rapid booster campaign especially amongst the elderly who have been reticent to take up the jab.

The other concern is that the wave of cases could act as a breeding ground for a new more deadly variant to emerge. Then the world really would find itself in a dark place once again.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

The revolution is not being televised

In 1970 Gil-Scott Heron recorded the song "The revolution will not be televised", a commentary on the way mainstream media may fail to report or ignore dissent or change in society. Some fifty years later some of those words ring true as media inside countries where dissent is growing is essentially ignored.

While anti-war protests raged in parts of Russia in March this year as PUtin initiated his 'special military operation' and invaded Ukraine, the events were notable by their absence on state media. The few organs that did publish reports that deviated from the party line were meanwhile swiftly shut down.

Last month protests spread across Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini who died in custody following her arrest by the country's morality police. The death fueled outrage against Iran's hijab laws and stoked criticism of the country's clerical leadership. But just as Russia blocked reporting of events in the streets, so too did Iran's state run media ignore the rising dissent and protests across the country. The crackdown on the dissemination of information also moved into the blocking of social media platforms.

The most recent example of state censorship has been in China as hundreds of mainly young people turned out to protest against Xi Jinping's zero-COVID policy and draconian lockdowns that have affected millions across the country. While western media reported the events that were seen in several major cities, China's media made no mention of the demonstrations.

The protests were very small in terms of numbers turning out at a few select locations. But in a country that rarely sees protests, the protests were significant.

Whether it was a turning point, as some media pundits and commentators suggested, is debatable. Some likened the protests to the build up to the Tiananmen 'pro-democracy' protests of 1989 which were brutally crushed by the PLA leaving thousands dead.

There were no doubt some that were calling for regime change and democracy. There were individuals shouting "Xi Jinping step down" [].

It is unlikely that there is a true revolution brewing. While the CCP is not much loved, except amongst a hard core of ultra nationalists, most Chinese people are content when their lives tick on unimpeded and they can enjoy themselves socially and manage to make a living.

There is of course growing discontent amongst the youth and the educated who would desire greater freedom and democracy. Talk to younger people in China and one may find that they will refer to Xi Jinping as a fascist. Some will often say there are no human rights in China and that there is no freedom.

But it is difficult to measure how large a groundswell of opposition there is to the status quo and the CCP. The repression of Muslims in Xinjiang province is often accepted amongst many Han Chinese as a way of stemming terrorism. But often fed only the party line, proper debate and discussion on the matter is distorted and one sided.

In the last three years all Chinese have experienced the strong repression of the state as it imposed strict lockdowns and restrictions to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

China, arguably, got some things right. But it has also got many things wrong. There have of course been missteps in the west from failing to act sooner and impose lockdowns and restrictions. Some lockdowns were perhaps not imposed early enough or strictly enough. There have been mixed messages concerning the use of masks and failures by governments to control borders properly at various points during the pandemic.

Such failures have resulted in high costs economically and high costs in terms of the numbers that have succumbed to the virus. But there have also been successes.

With the development of vaccines most western countries rolled out a successful vaccine initiative and for the most part got upwards of 70-80% of their populations vaccinated.

There of course was some resilience from certain quarters, in particular a very vocal minority of anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists.

China has also had its fair share of successes and failures. On a positive note it reacted relatively quickly to lockdown whole cities and travel. This did however follow initial failures to even recognise there was an outbreak and attempts to cover it up. Those early failures potentially allowed some to leave the country and spread the virus further.

There were also failures in admitting a likely connection with the Wuhan Institute of Virology which had carried out extensive research on coronavirus and in particular bats that are widely believed to be the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

While a lab leak has not been definitively established, strict controls of information concerning the spread and even attempting to blame other countries has not helped.

Swift draconian lockdowns certainly prevented a disaster. An overwhelmed health system in China could have proved disastrous. Closing the borders very early on also prevented an epidemic and the importing of new variants.

China, like other countries, quickly worked on developing a vaccine. Sinovac and Sinopharm were rolling out in China by December 2020 at about the same time as Pfizer was being approved in the west.

However as time has passed its efficacy has waned. This could be partly due to its having been developed to counter the first variant. Meanwhile Pfizer and Moderna have tweaked their vaccines to better protect against newer variants including Delta and Omicron.

China has also seen a slower uptake of its vaccine amongst the elderly who themselves are more vulnerable from the virus. As of August 2022, the full vaccination rate was 85.6% and the booster vaccination coverage was only 67.8% for older adults in China.

Coupled with a vaccine with a lower efficacy, China faces a dilemma. To relax COVID restrictions would undoubtedly result in the virus spreading through the population like a firestorm.

The population would be less resistant to newer strains, particularly Delta and Omicron, and as a result vast swathes of the population could become hospitalised and overwhelm the health system.

Essentially, China is caught between a rock and a hard place. Relaxing the rules could open a Pandora's box. Not only would the virus be unleashed and spread amongst a population of 1.6 billion people who are largely unprotected from the newer strains, but relaxing curbs could result in further more deadly strains developing.

The relaxing of rules in the west was arguably a mistake, especially concerning the use of masks in confined or indoor spaces. But with most people vaccinated, COVID has become more of an inconvenience and a few days off work.

While it is true to say that COVID is still resulting in deaths and illness in the west, the vaccination program has kept the spread under control.

China has to control the spread. But it also has to make difficult and necessary decisions. Authorities must licence the use of mRNA vaccines such as Moderna and Pfizer. This might be a matter of losing face for the CCP. But to carry  on with the current approach will likely only fuel the fires of discontent.

Having made a decision to roll out an efficacious vaccine, it should also be mandatory. While this might be seen as unethical by some, China has no choice unless it wants to pursue a so-called zero-COVID policy in perpetuity.

Closing off an entire nation from the world and holding an essentially unprotected population captive is not sustainable in the long run. Eventually an even more virulent strain could sweep through China rendering all measures redundant.

Whilst there are of course risks with any opening up policy, long-COVID being one in particular, China also faces other problems if it does not bite the bullet to break the cycle of constant repeated lockdowns. Not solving the COVID crisis will result in further social unrest, mental and other health issues and long term economic problems.

Chinese people are generally content if they can afford to live a happy life, eat well and enjoy their technology such as smartphones, which are as ubiquitous as bicycles once were. But if the economy takes a plunge and people can no longer afford to live, no amount of censorship will stop an uprising.

The resulting revolution may not be televised. But even if it were, no-one would be watching it. They'd be on the streets participating in it.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Thursday, October 06, 2022

Double-speak, revisionism and alternative facts dominate Tory conference

There were no jackboots, military style uniformed security or symbols of far right theology hanging at the Conservative Party Conference this week. But fascism was never likely to return in the form seen in 1930s Germany.

The far right in today's world have discarded the obvious symbols of facism. There will be no swastikas, military uniforms and blatant xenophobic language. The creep of facism is far more subtle. But the game plan is nonetheless, much the same; one of seizing and maintaining power whilst criminalising or sidelining enemies. Meanwhile the same tools are also being deployed; divide and rule, revising history and creating scapegoats for the ills of society.

Professor Tim Snyder, in an interview with Channel 4 News in 2019, laid out the way in which facism could return. The Yale University historian points in particular to simple slogans that are repeated over and over again. Cases in point are the meaningless but rallying calls propagated by the Conservative Party in recent years from Brexit Means Brexit to Get Brexit Done and the most recent slogan Getting Britain Moving.

Such slogans have the effect of dividing listeners into us and them. Politics has also become more about friends and enemies rather than reasoned dispute and constructive policy, a basic facist idea proposed by Carl Schmidt.

Authoritarianism relies on the impotence of a population, passively accepting the new normals as present themselves.

One important aspect that cannot be overlooked is "revisionist history" a term referring to conscious, intentional misstatements about things in the past, whether distant or recent. It has often been said that a lie repeated often enough becomes fact. But an unchallenged lie, said only once but repeated in news broadcasts or in print can have the same effect.

During the Trump administration in the US terms like 'Fake News' and 'Alternative Facts' were constantly repeated with reference to statements issued by the media or in terms of the latter, by the government. 'Alternative facts' was a phrase used by US Counsellor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, during a Meet the Press interview on 22nd January 22 2017, in which she defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's false statement about the attendance numbers of Donald Trump's inauguration as President of the United States.

But it is not just Trumpian politics that has seen revisionist history and alternative facts being peppered into speeches and statements. In the UK, the Conservative Party in particular has continually repeated false claims and 'alternative facts' in recent years. As queues built at Dover due to red tape resulting from Brexit the UK government blamed it on the revengeful French. Despite having been in power for some 12 years, blame for the state of the economy or the declining state of the NHS is put at the feet of the Labour party. And of course the war in Ukraine and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are also cited as causes for increases in inflation and rising energy prices while comparable countries, which are riding the storm much better, are conveniently ignored.

This week's Conservative Party Conference saw further examples of revisionist history being promulgated to a gullible audience.  

In his keynote speech, the chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng made reference to Joseph Chamberlain who he cited as being "an extraordinary civic leader who led Birmingham and the world through the industrial revolution."

However the industrial revolution took place between 1760 to about 1820–1840. Chamberlain was born in 1836 making him about 4 years old as the period of the industrial revolution came to an end.

But why cite Joseph Chamberlain at all? Chamberlain started out as a radical Liberal, then, after opposing home rule for Ireland, became a Liberal Unionist, and eventually served as a leading imperialist in coalition with the Conservatives and split both major British parties in the course of his career.

Chamberlain, who some historians have described as arrogant, ruthless and much hated, was an opponent of the Elementary Education Act 1870 which set the framework for schooling of all children between the ages of 5 and 12 in England and Wales. Chamberlain was notable for his attacks on the Conservative leader Lord Salisbury.

Later, when the Liberal Unionists were in coalition with the Conservative Party, he served as Secretary of State for the Colonies, promoting a variety of schemes to build up the Empire in Asia, Africa, and the West Indies. He had major responsibility for causing the Second Boer War (1899–1902) in South Africa.

However, Kwarteng referred to Chamberlain as an "extraordinary civic leader" and likened the current Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, to this British statesman, who some historians have described as "arrogant and ruthless and much hated".

Meanwhile in her keynote speech, the Deputy PM and Health secretary Therese Coffey claimed Henry Willink as being instrumental to the founding of the NHS.

Whilst the Conservative MP Willink was involved in a White Paper proposing a national health service it was not implemented. When Labour came into office in 1945, it presented its own plan in preference to Willink's, which it had supported. The principal difference was that Willink's plan talked of a "publicly organised" rather than a "publicly provided" service, and Labour's plan brought hospitals into full national ownership. But let's not let actual facts get in the way. Mentioning Willink will in the minds of many people establish a false narrative that it was the Conservative Party that established the National Health Service.

Therese Coffey went on to list the problems in the NHS such as waiting lists and a shortage of medical staff - without acknowledging that many of the failures had occurred during the Conservative Party's watch over the last 12 years. She then said she would open the door to more foreign nurses to plug the NHS staff shortage, mostly caused - but not mentioned - by the exodus of European health service workers since Brexit.

Later came Suella Braverman, the new home secretary, who in an earlier fringe meeting spoke of her 'dream' to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda to be processed.

During her speech she stated her backing of Brexit was in order to 'regain control' of Britain's borders.

However Brexit, rather than helping protect Britain's borders, has made an already bad situation worse.

Before Brexit, the UK was part of an EU returns deal known as the Dublin agreement which had allowed several hundred people to be returned in previous years. No such deal now exists and so Britain has to deal with every asylum seeker or 'illegal immigrant'  arriving in the UK. Often these cases can last many years and it can be difficult to send the individuals back to their country of origin even if their asylum claim is rejected.

Braverman's speech became almost Trumpian at one point as she cited cases of asylum seekers being rapists and paedophiles who took advantage of Britain's asylum system. Remember Donald Trump's assertions concerning Mexican immigrants?

"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people." [Donald Trump, 16th June 2015]

Jump forward 7 years and we have the current UK home secretary also conflating criminality with those seeking asylum and fleeing war, famine or poverty.

Braverman said convicted paedophiles and rapists had also tried to "game the system" by using claims of modern slavery to block deportations, including a man who went on to commit a further rape.

"The truth is that many of them are not modern slaves and their claims of being trafficked are lies," Braverman told delegates, "And it's not just illegal migrants. Since entering the Home Office I have seen egregious examples of convicted paedophiles and rapists trying to game the system."

Braverman does not cite how many "egregious examples" of rapists or paedophiles there have been since she entered the Home Office. But in the mindset of those listening the numbers do not matter. Just as Mexican migrants might be rapists so too might asylum seekers of boat people arriving on Britain's beaches. Facts no longer matter. It's all a matter of belief.

Finally came the prime minister's speech in which she spoke of Getting Britain Moving, the conference slogan, which in itself was a perhaps inadvertent admission that Britain had in fact stopped!

Britain was "open for business," Truss asserted, though in fact there are few signs that foreign investment is increasing at all. The shop may be open but few customers are buying anything.

Attempting to assert her non-elitist credentials, Truss told the conference that she is "the first prime minister of our country to have gone to a comprehensive school." However, both Gordon Brown and Theresa May went to comprehensive schools. Moreover, Truss completed her education at one of the bastions of elite further education; Oxford University.

There were of course lots of slogans. As well as the claim to Getting Britain Moving, Truss said her economic vision was one to "grow the pie" so that everyone could have a bigger slice.

Tell that to the increasing numbers of people turning up at food banks which are themselves struggling in providing a service for the poorest in society.

But Truss was taking no prisoners. She declared war on whole swathes of people who she umbrellaed under the slogan of the Anti-Growth Coalition.

She accused her opponents as being obsessed with "more taxes, more regulation and more meddling," calling them "enemies of enterprise" and saying they were, "Wrong, wrong, wrong."

But who were these enemies of enterprise making up a coalition opposed to growth? According to Liz Truss the list of enemies was substantive and included, "Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP, the militant unions, the vested interests dressed up as think tanks, the talking heads, the Brexit deniers, and Extinction Rebellion."

But the list did not stop there as she went on to refer to two Greenpeace protesters who had earlier disrupted proceedings as they attempted to highlight the Conservative Party's apparent policy on fracking.

"The fact is they prefer protesting to doing," Truss maintained, "They prefer talking on Twitter to taking tough decisions. They taxi from North London townhouses to the BBC studio to dismiss anyone challenging the status quo. From broadcast to podcast, they peddle the same old answers."

Essentially, anyone not on the right of politics and who held a view contrary to the Conservative Party was, it appeared, an enemy of enterprise, a member of the anti-growth coalition and wrong!

Two of the enemies - the aforementioned Greenpeace protesters - were of course escorted from the hall after disrupting the conference, their lanyards ripped from them by a burly man who appeared to be a senior security official.

But they weren't the only people ejected. Overzealous security, accompanied by the same senior security official were filmed only minutes before dragging an accredited EPA photographer from the venue in what they later described as "a misunderstanding" [TwitterDaily Mail / Twitter]. 

It could all well be a misunderstanding. The historical mistakes could have been schoolboy errors by inexperienced speechwriters. The three word slogans might not be anything more sinister than accepting of what a marketing group has told the party bosses will sell the message. And maybe the denial of facts surrounding Brexit or other failures is er … No, surely they can't be as dumb as to believe the French really caused the queues at Dover out of spite? Or that Britain is open to the world as exports to the EU tank?

Even after a disastrous mini-budget wiped the value of the pound to the lowest it had ever been, blame was apportioned to everything other than themselves. Indeed recovery only occurred after a U-turn in policy was announced. But even then Kwarteng referred to the market turmoil as only having "caused a little turbulence."

"I get it. We are listening and have listened," the Chancellor added, words that Truss repeated in her speech later in the week.

But the markets too are listening and watching. And while the double-speak might continue it remains to be seen whether this administration will double down on their financial policies and maintain their grip on power, whilst the country flounders in a cost of living and energy crisis.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Monday, September 05, 2022

Dizzy Lizzy takes over from Bodger Johnson

"Don't believe a word, No, don't believe a word
Don't believe me, don't believe me, Not a single word. Yeah, I just might say anything..."

The immortal words of Thin Lizzy.

But instead of hard rock Britain is between a rock and a hard place as Dim Lizzy takes up the reins after Bodger's departure from Number 10.

Trussonomics is the new order on the menu with promises to cut tax along with a pledge to Save Brexit.

But as Dizzy Lizzy steps into office she'll have a number of crises to deal with, not least a cost of living crisis, soaring energy prices and a hard Brexit that threatens to tear Britain apart.

Even before Truss steps into office the pound was sliding against both the US dollar and the Euro. Against the backdrop of Brexit a weakened pound does not bode well for Britain's export trade. Meanwhile the fantasy of levelling up is rather one of levelling Britain's economy.

Johnson leaves with a long list of faux pas, mistakes and some might even be described as 'crimes'.

His legacy is one that has torn British politics apart as well as leaving the country in a disastrous economic state.

Having helped push Brexit and tipped the scales for a vote leave win, Johnson went on to win the 2019 election with the promise of getting Brexit done.

But his Oven Ready Deal was far from ready and was being torn up within months of having been signed with complaints that the Northern Ireland Protocol wasn't working. And as Brexit unravelled Johnson turned to conspiracy theories claiming that the 'deep state' would plot to rejoin the EU.

"Some people will say as I leave office that this is the end of Brexit, oh yes, and the leader of the opposition and the deep state will prevail in its plot to haul us back into alignment with the EU as a prelude to our eventual return, and we on this side of the House will prove them wrong, won't we?" Johnson claimed in the House of Commons [Huffington Post / iNews / Times].

Aside from the disaster of Brexit, Boris Johnson's tenure during the worst pandemic in a century was lacking to the point of criminality.

He failed to attend five COBRA meetings at the beginning of the pandemic while apocalyptic pictures were being broadcast depicting the disaster that was sweeping across Europe.

He locked down later than many scientists advised. He left Matt Hancock in post as Health Secretary despite a litany of failings. Meanwhile there was a failure to properly organise the purchase of PPE while dodgy contracts were handed to Tory donors and companies with little or no experience.

Some £37 billion was meanwhile spent on a failed Test & Trace program under Dido Harding's tenure.

As people in his own administration broke lockdown he made excuses for them, in particular the infamous Dominic Cummings Barnard Castle incident and the subsequent apologies in the Rose Garden.  

His failure to take the pandemic seriously as well as his apparent lack of caring was reflected by Johnson reportedly saying he would prefer to "Let the bodies pile high" rather than contemplate another lockdown.

Meanwhile there were countless parties being held in Downing Street eventually resulting in hundreds of fixed penalty notices being handed out by the Metropolitan Police after a belated investigation that only came about after much political pressure from the opposition as well as some voices in his own party.

As regards his party and cabinet in particular, Johnson has appointed a series of ministers who have clearly not been up to the job.

The cabinet in fact has been mostly made up of sycophants whilst dissenters have been culled. And those that have helped bolster his position have been rewarded with peerages.

Peter Cruddas, a businessperson and philanthropist, was appointed to the House of Lords following a £500,000 donation to the party. Meanwhile other appointments to the House of Lords include Zack Goldsmith, Daniel Hannan, Dainiel Moylan, Claire Fox,  and of course David Frost, who was charged with negotiating his failed Brexit deal.

Towards the end of his premiership Johnson tried to save Owen Paterson after he breached parliamentary standards. Soon after he attempted to deflect criticism over his having appointed Chris Pincher as his deputy chief whip despite knowing his reputation for allegations of sexual assault. Renewed allegations eventually forced more letters to the 1922 committee resulting in a leadership challenge.

His list of failures is almost endless. There are no new hospitals despite a promise to build 40 and the NHS is in near collapse. The economy is in its worst state since 1979 and the worst amongst the G7. Brexit is making the economy worse with businesses that once exported to the EU going to the wall.

On top of this a growing cost of living crisis and rising energy prices are sending more companies under and stressing millions of families as winter approaches.

He has critised the waste of public money being used to investigate historical child abuse saying it was like "spaffing money up the wall" and made slurs on Keir Starmer concerning Jimmy Savile. Meanwhile he spaffed thousands in refurbishing his Downing Street flat in what became known as 'Wallpapergate".

Throughout his three years he has continually lied or told half-truths or simply evaded the questions concerning his mistakes. He lied to the Queen whilst unlawfully proroguing parliament.

And as his tenure finally ends we learn that not only did he put the son of a KGB spy in the House of Lords but also attended a party attended by members of Vladimir Putin's inner circle.

So will the Truss bot be any better? Or will it be more of the same?

Even before her standing as a Tory leadership candidate, she was making missteps. In February 2022 she was mocked for failing to know the difference between the Baltic and Black seas, which are more than 1000 km apart [Yahoo]. It's perhaps no wonder that she is referred to as Liz 'Thick as Mince' Truss or Jelly Fish Brain by some of her harshest critics.   

She has made 'deals' with New Zealand which are more beneficial to Kiwi farmers than the Welsh sheep farmers who may see their businesses flounder as a result.

And who can forget the new PM's failure to find the way out of a room with only one door, a door she'd entered a short while before [Indy].

Of course, it's unlikely she will have lockdown parties as the pandemic recedes. But the gaffe machine, who has a habit of making U-turns even during her recent candidacy bid, may have taken on more than she bargained for as Britain careers down the hill as it goes to hell in a hand cart.

The show certainly isn't over yet and the farce is already continuing as twelve Conservative MPs are reportedly preparing to put in letters of no confidence before Truss has even picked up the keys to No.10.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Brexit Britain’s sewage filled seas

The European Directive 2006/7/EC concerning the management of the quality of bathing water requires the Member States of the European Union to monitor and classify the quality of bathing water, to manage the quality of this water and to inform the public.

However, since having left the EU, Britain has failed to apply strict controls concerning the monitoring or keeping in check the amount of raw sewage being pumped into the sea or rivers.

Even Stanley Johnson, father of the UK's prime Minister Boris, has blamed his own son's government, and Brexit as being part of the problem which saw dozens of UK beaches being closed in August after they were deemed unsafe for bathing.

Interviewed on LBC radio, Stanley Johnson said that without the "EU push" the UK government has not "pushed this thing as it should have."

In 2012, the European Commission took the UK to the European Court of Justice for breaching waste water regulations. The court gave the UK five years to rectify the situation.

Since voting to leave the EU in 2016, the UK has brought in the Environment Act, which was approved in November 2021, but not before an amendment to make reducing sewage discharges a legal requirement, and require water companies to take "all reasonable steps" to avoid using the overflows, was voted down by the government.

In 2020, just 17.2% of UK beaches were rated as "excellent quality" -- the lowest in Europe [Guardian]. All Cyprus' beaches made the grade, as did 97.1% of Greece's. France similarly scored highly with few beaches registering as being of poor quality.

Raw sewage discharge "should be exceptionally rare" but in the UK it is becoming an "increasing problem" according to a recent report by Sir Chris Whitty. 

Some locations are seeing "up to 200 discharges a year" the report states, which is "obviously unacceptable on public health grounds."

It's not only affecting beaches. Only 14% of UK rivers meet "good ecological standards," according to a 2021 report.

"No one expects river water to be of drinking standard, but where people swim or children play they should not expect significant doses of human [faeces]," reads Whitty's report.

Often, people don't realise what they're swimming in until, like some unfortunate swimmers, they become ill or take in a mouthful of excrement [Daily Star / Argus]. 

While the UK government has glossed over the issue or merely ignored it, the situation has clearly been exacerbated by Brexit. Lorry driver shortages brought about by many EU drivers leaving the UK has resulted in a shortage of chemicals needed to treat sewage [Guardian].

In addition a sell off of Britain's water utilities,  a failure to regulate them properly and a lack of investment has compounded the issue.

Water companies in the UK were privatised in 1989. There are now nine companies operating in England, seven of which were responsible for "an increase in serious incidents" last year. In EA ratings for 2021, four companies were given just two stars out of four, denoting the need for "significant improvement."

Old infrastructure and a lack of investment has also created problems. "We have quite an old sewage system that dates back to Victorian times, and waste water from homes and businesses is transported in the same pipes that collect rainwater," says Rachel Wyatt, policy and advocacy manager for the UK's Marine Conservation Society.

When there is significant rainfall, especially following a long dry spell, the water companies simply cannot cope and the result is increased discharges of sewage into the sea and rivers.

The effects are not only disastrous for marine life and the fishing industry, already hit hard by Brexit with increased red tape and tariffs in order to export their catch into the EU, but also the tourist industry.

Tourists, already put off by long queues at Britain's airports and ferry ports like Calais, may well think twice of heading to Britain [Independent]. After all, who wants to swim in sewage-filled seas?

Even if the situation improves in the short to medium term, the damage to Britain's reputation as a holiday destination may already be done. Certainly not one of the Brexit benefits lauded by Brexiteers.

Meanwhile Britain is now finding itself criticised not only by the Remain camp but also a number of French politicians who have written to the European Commission, accusing the UK of risking marine life by neglecting their environmental commitments [BBC/CNN].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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