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Saturday 9 May 2020

Transition extension - translation

As Irish Deputy Teasack Coveney's statement was issued to the press, we provide a translation from the gaelic.
Covid-19 has made what is already a very, very difficult timeline to get agreement virtually impossible. Given the added complications of Covid-19 it surely makes sense to seek a bit more time to navigate our way through these very difficult waters in the months ahead so that we can get a good outcome for the UK and EU. I think anybody looking at this from the outside could only conclude it makes sense to look for more time but the British Government has decided that's not what they want and they have made that very clear both publicly and privately. I wouldn't be raising expectations around the British Government agreeing to seeking more time. If we're going to have any chance of persuading them to take more time then we need to be careful about how we do that because demanding it from them ... almost as a concession to the EU, is certainly not the way to do it.
We're buggered. Our demands for their fishing waters, subservience of British law to the ECJ and a ball and chain on their trade options are just unrealistic - they won't accept them. Even our effort to weaponise the Northern Irish border by demanding an office for the EU Gauleiter in Belfast has been rejected. We're not going to get an EU-weighted deal.

Anyone looking from the outside can see we're on the back foot and Germany will force through a trade deal anyway because her industrial sector demands it. And we need the City of London's services now more than ever - whatever Covid recesssion financial deal the ECB and Brussels stitch up, we will depend on London to be able to carry it out.

Begging the British government to give us a one or two year extension really isn't a good look. And they wouldn't even think about it - right now they can hide whatever minor economic ding will be caused by a third-country trade deal in December by the Covid fall-out, which will be ten times worse.

The Teasack needs to get ready to bite the pillow and ask the UK for a bail-out at the end of the year.

Friday 8 May 2020

With all our hearts - VE Day

At 3pm on 8th May 1945 Churchill spoke to the nation to proclaim an end to the war in Europe. Twenty years later I watched live on our small monochrome TV set as his coffin moved up the Thames, the cranes bowed in grief. I can't add to the words and emotions being expressed everywhere in Britain, but this cartoon by Low pretty well sums it up for me.

Today is not the day, but we need to be wary of post-hoc re-interpretation of what VE day meant. In Austria, which has done a very good job post-1945 of re-inventing its own history since 1938, 8th May is commemorated as the victory of the Austrian freedom fighters against the Nazi occupiers. Yes, there were a few, maybe a few score, and undoubtedly they risked much. But it would be nice to see a mention of the British army, which raced to occupy southern Austria on 8th May before the Russians did, and who turned back a Jugoslav land-grab. But that's for another day. So long as you remember that no-one in Austria ever supported Hitler, you'll be fine.

Again, my heartfelt thanks to the generation that made our todays possible. 

Keir Starmer claps himself

Keir Starmer emerged from his house yesterday evening in a pre-arranged publicity event with the press. After posing for the cameras for a few seconds, Starmer is heard to ask "Have you got what you need?" before returning inside.

While Starmer was acting out his publicity stunt the Prime Minister, who perhaps loves the NHS too genuinely, too deeply and too unconditionally for the comfort of many of his party's members, joined the nation without affectation, falsehood or pretence in the weekly clap.

More lefty bashing -  Rod Liddle in the Speccie
"Meanwhile, Owen Jones weighed in with his usual mixture of sanctimony and adolescent hysteria. (Someone needs to look after that boy before he implodes like a primitive nuclear fusion device, the neutrons of confected outrage piling upon one another until criticality is reached and nothing is left of Owen, just a blackened crater and some poisonous isotopes with a half life of 0.0001 nanoseconds.)"

That's all.

Thursday 7 May 2020

The 'National Mask Stockpile' and other NHS farces

The Central NHS procurement farce rolls on. It now turns out that the four boxes of gowns bought by NHS central procurement and flown from Turkey by the RAF, tying-up an aircraft and crew for a week, were condemned as sub-standard and impounded on arrival by other officials, the Telegraph reports. And just when you thought it couldn't get worse -
Last week, the NHS banned trusts from sourcing their own PPE because they were seen to be competing for the same vital gear. But procurement chiefs have complained that they have since been sent Chinese-made masks from the national stockpile that do not effectively repel fluid.
I'm almost beyond words. If you gave these numpties the job of designing the internet they'd pick a single hub and spoke layout - with the hub in Whitehall and every computer in the land connecting through it.

The NHS has some 4,000 staff engaged in procurement. They used to be called buyers in the old days, just as human resource directors used to be called personnel managers. Both branches have been captured by (H/T Discovered Joys) the clerisy, as HSJ describes -
The new game in town is called the “procurement target operating model”, and is being run by NHS Improvement with the help of Deloitte and a small selection of NHS procurement staff.....
By far the most important take-away from the blueprint is the vision that national teams will lead on creating strategies for each of the categories covered by the model.

This appears to be a similar tack to the recent changes to NHS Supply Chain, where specialist procurement organisations are tasked with buying products on behalf of the NHS across 11 categories.

The document states “integrated category and market management teams” will be the “driving force for procurement activity across the NHS. They will own and develop a single approach to each spend category to leverage economies of scale and drive market innovation”.

It appears the actual procurement will be done by “consolidated operational procurement delivery teams”, which will “implement the central category strategy at the local level, manage operational buying and undertake low-value sourcing initiatives/reactive buying”.
What it actually means is that even more of the spend by NHS trusts will be managed and directed by central NHS procurement actors - not even employed by the NHS, necessarily, but specialist organisations like, erm, Deloitte. They will extend their grasp into areas such as agency staffing, facilities management, patient transport and clinical waste to add to the 'NHS supply change national supply category' which they already own.

So what's the problem? Well, it's this. What big national procurement teams want to do is to let big high value national contracts for which only big global firms can bid, crowding out SMEs, local businesses and domestic suppliers. It really, really doesn't 'create value'. It just appears to do so, when the contracts are first signed.

And as events of the past weeks have shown, these jargon-choked central procurement teams may talk a good game, but when it comes to getting on the phones and buying essential kit at short notice, being agile, effective, and pragmatic and able to act with alacrity - critical procurement skills in a crisis - they're utterly crap. Like those Turkish gowns they bought, they're not fit for purpose.

Wednesday 6 May 2020

Whitehall's lethal incompetence

I have no confidence at all that the tracing app being developed by Whitehall will work. If it's up to the abysmal standards of error, malfunction, delay and inadequacy that have characterised the rest of the actions of the Department of Health, it will collapse half an hour after release, the first week''s central data will be hacked, warning SMS messages will be sent to everyone by mistake and the bluetooth errors will destroy thousands of phones.

It follows close on the heels of the PPE procurement disaster. A disastrous central procurement model that left NHS workers short of PPE whilst firms holding vast stocks of kit that met the standards struggled against official deafness to offer it for sale; they were ignored, officials placed themselves beyond contact and hid behind websites and an RAF transport aircraft spent a week flying in a few boxes of gowns from Turkey.

And let's not even mention the central testing fiasco, or the manifest failures of Public Health England that left us so poorly prepared against the most basic and fundamental of risks. All of it, every disgraceful failure, every shaming bungle, stems from Whitehall's toxic grasp on central power at the cost of effectiveness. The command and control mindset that insists on trying to micromanage the entire nation's health response from Richmond House has been lethal.

The fall yesterday evening of Neil Ferguson can only improve the quality of the government's response. Like the departed Scottish CMO Catherine Calderwood, Ferguson thought the rules were only for little people. I'm sure these incidents aren't isolated; I'll bet that senior civil servants across the country are happily breaching the rules to visit their yachts, second homes, lovers or to receive hookers and rent boys at their lockdown dossholes, smug in their inviolability just so long as the press doesn't find them out. The hypocrisy is nauseating.

The one lesson we must take from both the Brexit fiasco and the Covid farce is that we must clear out this dross from Whitehall. We must localise and decentralise, we must trust regions, counties and lower tiers of government to be competent. We must increase democratic control, local scrutiny and accountability. If this nonsense has taught us anything, it's that we normal people can act responsibly, even if Whitehall can't.

We've had it with entitled and privileged technocrats

Tuesday 5 May 2020

AI's first target - driverless trains

The dockers created their own downfall. From the late 1960s several factors came together that allowed Britain to correct the imbalance of an over-powerful unionised workforce that extracted a punishing toll from the country's commerce. Heavy duty motor transport - the artic - and a motorway network in construction meant that ports needed no longer be sited in the heart of cities; ships were getting bigger and deeper draughts meant deeper water berths were needed at ports, and the world was starting to standardise on a re-usable shipping container. It not only protected goods in transit from accidental damage from handling, but from theft by tribes of rapacious dockworkers.

The final showdown came in the summer of 1970. Another national dock strike had brought the nation to a standstill, and the effects were so serious that the government proclaimed a national State of Emergency, using legislation from 1920. The army were ready to move into the docks. Reggie Maudling was the Home Secretary, at war with the TGWU's Jack Jones. As meat prices soared in the shops, a generation in whose minds wartime rationing was still fresh had no sympathy with the cushioned stevedores. Few mourned the closure of the docks at the time.

Train and tube drivers are following the same path of industrial self-destruction as did the dockers. Londoners have noticed that driverless DLR formations are not reduced due to drivers seeking ever greater rents from the travelling public. HM Treasury is keen to make lasting large-scale capital investments in the national infrastructure, AI is advanced to a high degree and advances in autonomous vehicle technology are already putting driverless road vehicles on the streets. You'd think that if ever there was a time for train and tube drivers to keep quiet and buckle down, this would be it. But it seems this sector of the workforce has all the instincts of a family of lemmings.

AI is far better at driving trains and controlling track possession than humans. Driverless trains can run faster and much closer together, meaning cheaper and better quality transport services for the public. And this post-Covid truculence and blackmail is just the thing to precipitate change.

No, the dockworkers didn't really think that greenfield ports such as Felixstowe and Tilbury could ever eclipse the ports of London and Liverpool either. But they were wrong.

Dockers voting in 1970 for their own destruction

Update - Excess deaths
Looks like excess deaths all causes this week figs are E&W 11,539, Scotland 743 and NI 186 - 12,468 total. The pattern so far looks like 6 - 17 - 13 - 12. 

Monday 4 May 2020

Sword beach to Bremen - journey's end

For the past eleven months I've been following my late father's slow walk through NW Europe, from Sword beach at dawn on 6th June 1944 to Germany's final capitulation, which saw the battalion resting outside Bremen after a final action taking the bridge at Kattenturm on 24th/25th April. He bore shrapnel wounds from taking an SS-defended orchard at Cambes but was otherwise intact.

As a kid I used to model the Tamiya 1/35th series, becoming an expert with a 3/0 brush and Humbrol paints. After modelling a Wehrmacht Heer mortar crew I showed the result to my dad and remarked something like "They were really smart in those uniforms, weren't they?" to which he replied laconically "Not the ones I saw". He had seen the German army not in its peacock pride but crumpled, dirty, lousy and abject in defeat. Or dead.

By that stage of the war a British infantry brigade in Germany worked like a proverbial well-oiled machine, in close co-operation with gunners, sappers and armour, in a continuous series of textbook small actions, company actions, taking villages, bridges, strongpoints. The battalion's final action is a good illustration -
"A" Company took some 40 prisoners, and besides this, killed and wounded an appreciable number. Booty included the 88 mm gun, three lighter flak guns, and a host of small arms. As against this, their own casualties were one officer and 24 wounded, and most of these were fortunately not serious. "A" Company has much cause to be proud of this achievement.

Meanwhile "C" Company's bridgehead was now the scene of furious activity. Vehicles, anti-tank guns, and men poured out of the Buffaloes and were directed onwards by Capt. Gray who, as Battalion Landing Officer, had come in with "C" Company to search out a landing ground and routes forward for vehicles.

"D" Company had pressed on, simultaneously with "A" Company, but the German defences were without depth, and apart from a few snipers which were cleared without much trouble, "D" Company's advance was unopposed.

Tactical Battalion Headquarters moved up close behind "D" Company and established itself at the Eastern end of the village for the duration of the attack.

"B" Company had landed without incident, and as soon as "D" Company reported their objectives gained, "B" Company was slipped through towards the greatest prize of all, the Kattenturm bridge.

Almost at once they came under fire from the road and a large house to the left. The leading section, under Cpl. Holt, rushed the position and eliminated it, whilst another section dealt swiftly with the house, and soon the advance was resumed.

Lt McCrainor, the leading platoon commander, had been given orders by Major Cummins to push on as fast as he could towards the bridge and to bypass any opposition which was not sufficiently serious to detain him.

At the cross-roads near the bridge they encountered opposition, and were able to do this; and by slipping round the enemy, they seized the bridge before it could be blown, quickly establishing themselves on both sides of it.

Subsequently the enemy on the cross-roads and along the bund, where it went towards the bridge, were liquidated at leisure.

Altogether 4 Officers and 20 or 30 other ranks and one camp follower were discovered in the Company locality; so that had the position been assaulted frontally, serious opposition might have been met. As it was the Sapper reconnaissance party, following close up behind the leading platoon, quickly rendered innocuous the two bombs which were found sunk into the side of the road as a demolition charge; and soon a bulldozer arrived to assist in the clearance of a formidable road block which the retreating Germans had left behind on the bridge.
They temporarily occupied a sector including Delmenhorst, Mettingen near Osnabrück (familiar to generations of BAOR) and at Gelsenkirchen, but while his comrades enjoyed a spell on occupation duties in Austria, the old man, as a professional soldier, was given little rest. He was posted to Palestine and subsequently to Korea before enjoying a furlough walking and climbing, then on to help mould the new cold-war army of the 1960s.

Apologies for this deeply personal post, but this 75th anniversary of the achievements of those who attained that epochal victory may be the last we will officially remember. To my father, and to the countless others who made that victory, my heartfelt thanks.

Sunday 3 May 2020

Will the Shengen area ever return?

The establishment of the border-free Shengen area was one of the proudest accomplishments of the EU. It was also genuinely popular - perhaps the only benefit of EU membership that enjoyed wide traction across Europe. Combined with Europe's generally low rail fares (with the exception of the non-Shengen UK) it has formed the free-movement mindset of a whole generation of young Europeans who until recent years had never known anything else. Every resident of the Shengen area owned keenly their right to borderless travel within the zone. 

All that ended long before the Wuhan virus. By the end of 2016 Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France Germany and Sweden had already reintroduced border checks because of the migrant crisis. By April 2020 the borders were more closed than they had been in the 1960s. And closed borders have seen the re-emergence of tensions that have not been visible for decades, as Politico EU reports -
In the tiny western region of Saarland, which borders France and Luxembourg, local media have in recent days reported clashes dating back to late March, including cars with French license plates being scratched or pelted with eggs, and Germans yelling: "Fucking Frenchmen, go back to your fucking corona country!"
It's all a long way from a hauntingly evocative exhibition of photographs I saw at Amsterdam's Stedelijk in about '91 - of Europe's deserted border posts, with broken or boarded windows, graffiti on the walls and blowsy weeds growing everywhere through the cracks.

The restoration of the free travel area must be high on the EU's agenda, but can it ever go back to its heady millennial heyday? The problem of course is though it serves well the good and just burgers of the Shengen area nations, it serves equally well both illegal migrants and smugglers of contraband. I suspect EU governments would be willing to bear a small amount of leakage for the overwhelming economic benefits it brings, but Germany's open-armed extension to the world's migrants in 2015 blew it. The good burgers of the EU made clear at the ballot box that they were willing to add friction to their free travel if it halted the flood of Iraqis, Afghans, north Africans and migrants from the 'stans turning up with outstretched hands.

And post-Covid air travel looks likely to be so unbearably onerous that it will be shunned by all but the poor benighted commercial gents who will be forced by circumstances to endure a 4-hour check -in for a 90 minute flight, gagged with a face mask the whole time and no trolleys at all. For these stoics, a half-hour queue on arrival to clear immigration will add little pain; like having to walk home in the rain after falling in the river. Two weeks' quarantine for a two hour sales meeting may even kill commercial air travel completely.

Like so many things, the Wuhan virus may end free movement altogether. Yes, I enjoyed it and yes I'll miss mainland Europe without it. It was one of mankind's occasional optimistic forays into practical idealism, those little bubbles of hope that seem inevitably doomed to fail.