The tale of the wayward advisor

In the times of the dread disease known as Covid the SARS too, when fear did stalk the land, the Kingdom Lost at Sea was ruled by the main man Boris the Hearty. It was a terrible time, one of much tragedy when many did die both in their homes and in the places laid out for them, two metres apart. The doctors and carers of that land did struggle to confine the disease and to salve the physic of the people. Its effects were sorely felt and truly terrible, many thousands dying because there was no help that could cure them.

With nothing to be done, Boris showed much wisdom. Knowing that no one would listen to what he said, in those days he did seek to build some credibility with the people by standing amidst wise men and women, surrounding himself with what was true and who was trusted.

He made sure that the people around him did pass on their wisdom to the people who asked of him. To his left stood the Knight Sir Patrick Vallance, who spoke truth about science. To his right stood the Upright Christopher Whitty, the chief medical man, much trusted because of his lifetime in public health. Afore the scribes stood Jenny Harris too, who did also speak truth on medicine matters. Thus Boris the Hearty, as he held court afore the waiting crowds of scribes, did surround himself with truthful and trusted advisers to answer the people in those terrible times.

So, it was in those days the order went out across the Kingdom Completely Adrift that the people should be confined to their homes whilst the great pestilence did sweep over their homes. “Do not venture out, or Covid the SARs too will strike you down.” And so the people were thus confined for forty days and forty nights. Not even a child did venture forth to school, nor a son to visit his mother on her own day, or the people to their place of work. The country all about became silent and not a soul did stir apart from the birds that did sing joyfully in the quietude.

Every last person did as was asked by Boris the Hearty because each one believed what was said to them by his advisors and all knew that they were subject to the same rule and all prey to the same plague.

All bar one. This man was the wayward son who had fallen to earth sometime before. He had been left adrift of any party and did not subscribe to the rules of the court or the beliefs of the Kingdom Sinking Slowly. This man did tempt the forces arraigned against him, taunting them by saying that he was above all, even the main man Boris. Nothing that was true of the remainder of the court of Boris was true of him. Even the disease that stalked that land would not dare to challenge his power which was mathematical and algorithmical in nature.

It was thus in the days whilst all were confined to their homes and the plague stalked the land that he did venture forth, both he and his wife. And his child. For lo, his wife was recently of child and he was a new father and a man responsible who did see what was before them all. (Or was that Boris, I forget.) So he did flee from the confines of the court of Boris most rapidly, where the pestilence did lay waste, bringing even Boris low, to the northern lands, from whence he did first come.

There he drove his kin afore him, testing his sight, proving that he was not subject to those who did seek to confine him, not even Boris. Those that saw him there were told to avert their eyes lest he did speak against them and confine them further. When challenged by the enforcers of the law, he did ignore them, telling them that he was not subject to their jurisdiction but only to his own. He showed in thus so doing that he was above all, even those that believed they spoke the truth in the law.

There was thus much consternation among the people and among the scribes of the Kingdom Waving not Drowning. “Who is this man? What does he say of us?” they didst say. “But surely there is but one law, before which we are all equal?” And some were heard to mutter beneath their breath, “Didst thou not say that we are all in this together?” Thus came the Great Disillusionment.

It was thus in the Rose Garden, the setting for previous Great Betrayal, that he did disabuse them all of the notion of equality and equity. “No,” he thundered, “I did what I did because I am a rule to myself and obey none but my own will.” There was a gasp or two among those who looked on. One did fall down as if dead. Scribes did brandish pencils to challenge such heresy but to no avail.

It was thus that it began to unravel. In the latter days of the Kingdom Completely Waterlogged, people did slowly begin to drift even further apart one from another. The wayward advisor had sown seeds of doubt and mistrust in the Rose Garden. “If not him, why me?” they asked of each other. “Am I not also of that same people which does not need to be so confined and to obey what is inconvenient and asked of me?” “I shall do as he has led.”

And so it was, whereas once the people of the Kingdom Lost at Sea held together following the advice of the advisors of the court of Boris, now following the Great Disillusionment, they did begin to question the truth and wisdom of what had been told to them. Slowly but surely, little by little, pernicious weeds did up spring in fertile soil of disease and unease, turning brother against brother, sister against sister, one against another. It was thus, in one small act of selfishness building upon another, that the Kingdom drifted further from what was known to be wise and true into the outer regions of the Ocean. Many feared the disease would regain its hold over the people and many more would die than had been foretold.

And all because this one man, a mere advisor, followed his own advice and not that which had been given unto all.


There’s a better way out of this . . . Update

Much has happened since I wrote the first post with this title (1). Because the earlier post appears to have interested quite a number of you, I am now posting an update.

For those that have yet to read it, the first post argued that Universal Basic Income (UBI) could help resolve some of the issues governments face in trying to keep their economies afloat at the same time as keeping their citizens safe from this novel coronavirus. By ensuring all people are secure financially, rather than just some, as at present, UBI would help bolster demand, enabling those not at work to purchase what they need to live, while staying safely at home. UBI might not answer every problem, but it would give governments and societies the time to work out better ways to manage the current challenges.

Since I wrote it, the idea of UBI seems to have taken on a life of its own. An opinion poll conducted by an Oxford University research team and published on the 6th May found that 71% of Europeans are now in favour of introducing a Universal Basic Income. This is astonishing. Even in Britain, a bastion of free enterprise and neoliberalism, the figure saying they are in favour is 68% (2).

That the idea of UBI is even gaining traction within the UK parliament is made clear in a great article by John Harris in The Guardian. John reports, “Ten days ago, the left-inclined pressure group Compass organised a letter, signed by more than 100 MPs and peers from seven parties, calling for a ‘recovery basic income’ that would be ‘sufficient to provide economic security’. An accompanying paper sets out the case for these short-term measures being followed by a permanent basic income – set at a starting rate of £60 a week per working-age adult and £40 per child (or £10,400 per year for a family of four), with additional unemployment, housing and disability benefits maintained. Over time, this ‘income floor’ could rise to £100 per adult.” While this is not a princely sum, it would be a great start.

What is interesting to me is that this letter shows that a large number of MPs now support the idea of UBI. I cannot imagine this being the case before the coronavirus. This change in perspective has come about quietly, almost under the radar. There has been little or no media publicity given to it, no major campaigns, no demonstrations in the street. Normally it takes a massive groundswell to cause such a shift in popular opinion. The enthusiasm of our MPs and the results of the Oxford poll suggests that such a groundswell is already well underway.

John Harris goes on to say in his article, “UBI’s advocates insist the tax system could be remodelled to ease the cost. Besides, this might not be quite the hard sell some would suggest: after the bailing-out of the banks and the government’s munificent response to the current crisis, radical spending plans are surely not the political taboo they once were.” Too true.

From my point of view, even more encouraging for the proponents of UBI is the outcome of a major pilot study conducted in Finland. The study, conducted between 2017 and 2018, has attracted widespread interest around the world. Some 2,000 unemployed people were randomly selected from across Finland. They were each provided with a regular monthly income of €560 (£490), somewhat more generous than the UK proposal. The Guardian article of May 7th reports the results of this experiment of providing citizens with a basic income (3).

Researchers at Helsinki University conclude, “The basic income recipients were more satisfied with their lives and experienced less mental strain than the control group.” Unsurprisingly, “They also had a more positive perception of their economic welfare.”

Professor Helena Blomberg-Kroll, the lead researcher of this study says, “The scheme also gave some participants the possibility to try and live their dreams.” This transformative effect was seen most clearly among those whose ambitions are inherently financially insecure: “Freelancers and artists and entrepreneurs had more positive views on the effects of the basic income, which some felt had created opportunities for them to start businesses.” In other words, UBI could tap into creative energies that currently lie dormant in our society. Just the sort of creativity we will need to deal with the challenges that lie ahead of us in the climate crisis.

The trial’s impact might be even more profound than appears at first sight. The researchers report that UBI also encouraged some participants to become more involved in the society in which they live, undertaking voluntary work, for example. “Some found the guaranteed income increased the possibility for them to do things like providing informal care for their family or their neighbours.” According to researcher, Christian Kroll, “The security of the basic income allowed them to do more meaningful things, as they felt it legitimised this kind of care work. Many of the people who performed such unpaid activities during the two-year period referred to it as work.” It is often work, of course. And usually it goes unpaid, as many carers are all too well aware. Could UBI also be a way of giving recognition to caring, the glue that holds our society together? Could it be one way to promote a better society?

This is certainly the view of Scott Santens. Scott, a long-term advocate of UBI, has been given a platform by the World Economic Forum. (That in itself is a good sign, as the WEF always want to get a good sense of what they think they are likely to be up against next.) Scott, in making his case to the assembly of billionaires who assemble in Davos, argues, “Humans need security to thrive, and basic income is a secure economic base – the new foundation on which to transform the precarious present, and build a more solid future. That’s not to say it’s a silver bullet. It’s that our problems are not impossible to solve. Poverty is not a supernatural foe, nor is extreme inequality or the threat of mass income loss due to automation. They are all just choices.” (4)

They are indeed. But no government is presented with infinite choices. The impact of the pandemic means that every government will need to make tough choices in these extremely precarious times. They already know there is no easy way to recover the economy and there is no cheap way to protect people. This is a key reason why UBI is suddenly centre stage: no longer a wild idea on the fringes of economics, it is quickly becoming mainstream.

It might not be Britain that takes the lead in UBI – it could be Spain . . . or some other country elsewhere in the world. But, what is eminently clear is that this is the moment when this idea makes eminent sense.

UBI is an idea whose time has come.

  • (1)
  • (2)
  • (3)
  • (4)

Celebrating Sadiq Khan’s car-free fest

Diana Francis, a peace activist I hold in great respect, writes, “Many of us are hoping that good things can come from our experience of this pandemic, creating a kinder, gentler, more equitable society. Will this latest threat have brought us to the moment when decisive societal and political rethinking and action lead to the radical restructuring of our personal and collective lives?”

She goes on to say, “I have been encouraged by the many thoughtful articles published since the pandemic’s outbreak, suggesting kinder, more inclusive ways of living: new approaches to economics, new uses of technology, the rejection of consumerism and simpler, gentler lifestyles. The quiet streets and bird song have awoken old memories and a sense that all is not yet lost and that some sort of renewal could be possible.” (1)

Londoners were today given an indication that such renewal really is possible when the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced a major initiative to make much of central London car-free.

The Mayor’s Office stated, “Some streets will be converted to walking and cycling only, with others restricted to all traffic apart from buses, as part of the Mayor’s latest bold Streetspace measures. Streets between London Bridge and Shoreditch, Euston and Waterloo and Old Street and Holborn may be limited to buses, pedestrians and cyclists to help boost safe and sustainable travel as our city starts to gradually emerge from national Covid-19 restrictions. Access for emergency services and disabled people will be maintained, but deliveries on some streets may need to be made outside of congestion charging hours. Waterloo Bridge and London Bridge may be restricted to people walking, cycling and buses only, with pavements widened to enable people to safely travel between busy railway stations and their workplaces. TfL is looking into providing Zero Emission Capable taxis with access to both these bridges, and other areas where traffic is restricted.” (2)

What was Sadiq Khan’s motivation? It appears that he and his office saw what the rest of us saw: the stark contrast between the pollution in London prior to lockdown and the clean air after lockdown. “Following the Government announcement of coronavirus related travel restrictions, traffic levels on TfL roads fell by as much as 60 per cent and harmful nitrogen dioxide was down by around 50 per cent on some of London’s busiest roads.”

Now that traffic and pollution are starting to rise again does he believe that this is the moment when a different world is within our grasp? Has he reached out to grab it while he can?

His decision could finally reverse the long-term dominance of the car. Since the 1950s, the previously unstoppable rise in automobile ownership has made many of our cities almost unliveable, destroying streetscapes, scarring our built environment, creating uncrossable divides between communities, and drowning us all in pollution and noise. Suddenly, this is now seen to be the mistake that it surely was.

Even better news is that Sadiq Khan is not the only leader to be responding in this way to opportunity thrown up by coronavirus. Worldwide, from Milan to Montreal, from Bogota to Mexico, administrations are seizing the moment to improve the air quality and environment of their cities by encouraging pedestrians and cyclists and discouraging cars. (3)

Could it be that birdsong, clear skies and clean air will continue to be a feature of urban life even after Covid? Only if we stop using our cars and and get on the bus.

  • (1)
  • (2)
  • (3)

Hungry for truth

We live in an age where truth is elusive. Silent, even. Past generations dealt in absolutes and certainties. These were often spurious certainties, mind: the inevitability of social and technological progress, the superiority of one group over another, the rightness of imperial aims, the belief that science could solve all ills, among many.

The genie is out of the bottle

Few people view such claims uncritically today. We’ve all become just that bit more sceptical, accommodating doubt as the lodger in our front room. This change is in part due to the influence and insights of the late twentieth century postmodern philosophers, Jaques Derrida and Michel Foucault (and others) who undermined the very notion of objectivity.

“‘Truth’ is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements. ‘Truth’ is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it. A ‘regime’ of truth.” – Michel Foucault

Though few can claim to have read these great thinkers from cover to cover, their ideas are widely disseminated and taught in courses across the world. Their influence permeates and encompasses the entire spectrum of the social sciences and the arts.

Like pollen, postmodernism is carried on the wind. In our present time, almost every political and social commentator can’t help but see the world, at least in part, through the lens these philosophers left us. And, in consequence, that is the way we all see it – in our art, graphics, architecture, advertising, film, the internet and TV, and, of course, in our speech. Those who profess to be sure, to claim certainty, to possess objectivity are as anachronistic as steam lorries.

Postmodernism did us all a great favour. It unpacked the cultural assumptions that underpinned the heady claims to certainty and objectivity of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, exposing their cultural arrogance, and revealing them as tools for the assertion of power and dominance. This unpacking helped liberate the oppressed and gave expression to the unheard. From race studies to feminism, we are indebted.

There is no such thing as neutrality, however ardently it is proclaimed. “The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.” – Michel Foucault

However, there is a downside, in that doubt has now spread from the front room and has taken over the whole house. Notions of progress and objectivity are seen to be just that and no more. Science is questioned in the same manner that religion once was. We are left sceptical and directionless, searching for answers where there are none.

Why the need for truth still bothers us

In an age of relativism, truth and knowledge are defined by the social, cultural and historical context. The possibility of having to deal with finding the truth in 7.5 billion different contexts is stressful. There is no Highway Code to guide us – and navigating the streets of life without one leaves us floundering, struggling to communicate with each other, to agree, to commit, creating internal dissonance. This problem is both personal and social. Is our truth their truth, and how much of “our truth” do we really share? We are not able to adequately deal with this multidimensional complexity. In consequence, we are constantly searching for simple answers.

In postmodernism, nothing is mere accident, all is artifice. “Everything is arranged so that it be this way, this is what is called culture.” – Jaques Derrida

So, despite the inevitable relativism of our age, we still have a need for truth, even if we don’t know where to find it. Indeed, now that it has gone missing, truth seems more important now than ever before. The fragmentation of social solidarity combined with the influence of the internet and social media has resulted in a maelstrom of lies, fakery and distortions.

All too often, our leaders are seen to no longer care whether they are telling the truth or not. One lie piles upon another, one tweet at a time, adding to the general confusion.

This is made worse by the fact that populism is in some senses an equal and opposite reaction to postmodernism. Many of today’s leaders view the relativism of postmodernism as specifically embodying the very worst of what they hate about liberalism in general. This leads them to actively promote absolutes, however absurd and contradictory. George Orwell would have loved the doublespeak of “going back to the past will make us great again” or “keeping people out will make us all stronger.” At the same time, populist leaders have no better sense than the rest of us what is true and what is not. This is clear from what they say and what they let happen.

We are being bombarded by conspiracy theories from all sides in this age of Covid: it was a plot by the American government, or the Chinese military; the illness is caused by 5G, or the virus was genetically engineered in a laboratory; it’s a strategy for world dominance, or a ploy to win an election. It is Russian disinformation, or British. It is none of these things. Or all of these things. On and on and on . . . And truth is still missing.

We all hunger for a new way of recognising the truth.

Has objectivity passed its sell-by date?

Just at the very moment when science and experts are no more trusted than snake oil salesmen, governments suddenly start appealing to scientific objectivity. “We are being guided by the science,” they tell us.

And the chorus replies, “What science? Who’s guiding you? What do they want of us? And why?” No longer do claims of objectivity ring true, nor do “facts” go unquestioned. Suddenly, the appeal that “I am solely responding to the science” seems weak and disingenuous.

Does this matter? Clearly it does. It matters viscerally. Our bodies and minds automatically simplify things, eliminating what is not immediately pertinent, categorising reality in manageable chunks. Too much information would cause us to overload, so we cut it out, automatically, without thought. (see my post on how we miss things out: It’s as if we are programmed to default to binary principles: right and wrong, good and bad, hot and cold, wet and dry, dangerous and safe.

The confusion that results from having to work hard to discern the truth in even simple matters is exhausting and can cause us enormous stress – a factor that makes life seem really difficult for many at present. Each one of us is slowly becoming an armchair epidemiologist, political philosopher, scientist, and analyst. We have to decide for on a moment by moment basis what is true and how to act on this truth. Do I wear a mask or not? Do I keep a distance of one metre or three? Is the risk greater from children or for children? How long does the virus live in the air, or on metal, or on my clothes? Is it killed by ultraviolet light, or humidity, or heat, or none of these things? Do I visit the needy, or keep distance? Do I say hello, or avoid eye contact?

None of us want this. We want and need an answer we can trust.

Read one way, this might be a definition of relativism: “Search for what is good and strong and beautiful in your society and elaborate from there. Push outward. Always create from what you already have. Then you will know what to do.” – Michel Foucault

A call for integrity

With truth lost in the undergrowth of culture, integrity means much in today’s world. The person who exhibits congruence in both what they say and what they do is a lighthouse in troubled seas – they make our complex world navigable. The thousand questions we need to ask to unravel what is what and why, and who and how, are reduced significantly; we trust people with integrity to have already have done the questioning for us. This is why we look to our leaders to show just such integrity – we want to know that we can trust them. If we can, this way lies simplicity. Leadership as stress relief.

When they don’t show integrity, however, when our leaders lie and deceive, this is more than merely disillusioning. We recoil physically. Our animal self knows instinctively that this threatens our very safety.

Many of us find ourselves left struggling with some very big questions:

  • What is being done to prevent the climate crisis from overwhelming us?
  • How dangerous is this pandemic and what will its impact be on society?
  • Can I trust the government to tell us the truth?
  • What should I do?

So, without integrity, we are caught in a trap somewhat of our own making. On the one hand we know, intellectually, that we must constantly question. On the other, we tend to favour the default binary option. We are too easily lazy as well as under-confident in our ability to ask the right questions. So we don’t. The result is confusion and bewilderment.

The only way out is down the path of integrity.


Is coronavirus a harbinger of peace?

Many commentators and political leaders have been using the language of war to describe “the battle against the coronavirus”, even drawing on analogies with World War 2 (1)(2). Others have pointed out how inappropriate this is, since there is no battlefront and no arms to protect us (3).

This debate hides another maybe more surprising reality. The pandemic is making warfare and war-mongering much more difficult to organise. While anti-war campaigners have long struggled to have much influence on limiting the activities of the military, the novel coronavirus now sweeping our world has been remarkably successful in bringing a halt to some of our giant war machines. As Robert Burns said, the best laid schemes of mice and men . . .

Covid-19 has alarmed the world’s armies and navies. Over the past two months it has shown that it loves nothing more than the cramped conditions of naval vessels and army barracks to wreak havoc. It thrives in these confined quarters, spreading from person to person at an incredible rate. It has demonstrated that it can immobilise entire units in days.

The virus’s first notable impact was when it ended the activity of the US aircraft carrier, Theodore Roosevelt, forcing it back into harbour on 27th March. An outbreak of Covid-19 had earlier swept through the ship, infecting over 1,100 of its crew and making continued manoeuvres impossible (4). Fortunately, despite the scale of this outbreak, just one sailor died. Just two weeks later, the French aircraft carrier, Charles-de-Gaulle, was also forced back to port with more than a third of the sailors on board with confirmed Covid-19 (5). Since then, a dozen more ships from five navies have reported coronavirus cases on board (6). Clearly, it doesn’t matter which flag is on the mast, coronavirus is proving a menace to armed forces the world over.

It is not just the navy where the virus is putting a stop to military activities. Both the US and the British armies have had to suspend basic training for “the duration”. That’s good news for the youngsters from deprived backgrounds who make up the bulk of young recruits.

Covid’s restraint on the urge to war goes even further. During the third week of March, the Russian military ended its war games near to its western borders as it ramped up preventative measures to slow the spread of coronavirus. “It’s obvious that all of this is connected with preventive measures,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Monday. “It’s linked to the situation around the general fight against coronavirus” (7).

According to the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian drills had themselves been ordered in response to NATO plans for a military exercise billed as “the biggest deployment of U.S. based troops in Europe since the Cold War”. The NATO plans were also shelved due to coronavirus fears. So no NATO-Russian macho showoff. Coronavirus 2: Military 0.

Covid-19 is also having an impact in the Middle East. When it comes to infections in bulk, the Saudi royal family appears to have suffered immensely; reports suggest that at least 150 of its members have been infected (8).

This might well have been one cause of the current ceasefire in the Saudi’s five-year campaign in Yemen. On April 8th, Saudi officials and their allies announced a unilateral ceasefire, saying that they were seeking to jump-start peace talks to be brokered by the United Nations (9). The Saudis are said to have been motivated by fears of the coronavirus spreading in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, where the healthcare system has been ravaged by years of blockade and conflict (10).

Following the ceasefire, at the end of April, Yemen recorded its first Covid-19 death. Since then, fighting on the Yemeni island of Socotra has come to a halt following an agreement reached on May 2nd between the Saudi-backed government forces and UAE-backed southern separatists. 

There have been plenty of false starts to peace in Yemen; is it too much to hope that peace could finally be breaking out in Yemen? The UN Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths, said that, “Yemen cannot face two fronts at the same time: a war and a pandemic. And the new battle that Yemen faces in confronting the virus will be all-consuming. We can do no less than stop this war and turn all our attention to this new threat.”(11) Finally, someone is using the language of war in relation to Covid-19 in a manner that almost makes sense.

Covid-19 is so terrifying that it seems to have started to put matters into perspective, not just in the evolving conflict between NATO and Russia but in Yemen too. With soldiers around the world being used to assist medics and provide logistics support in the face of this pandemic, could we finally be on the verge of discovering ways to put our energies to better use – tackling the issues that really matter, rather than playing power games?

  • (1)
  • (2)
  • (3)
  • (4 )
  • (5)
  • (6)
  • (7)
  • (8)
  • (9)
  • (10)
  • (11)

Hive innovation – self-sufficiency with a new twist?

In Britain, the once common idea of self-sufficiency vanished from public view several decades ago. The notion that ‘where things are made doesn’t matter’ has been wedded to ‘it doesn’t matter who owns the manufacturing’. All that matters is price, or so we were told. Primark, Tesco and Amazon rule. Where things come from is irrelevant. Supply fulfils demand. Always.

And then came the 2020’s Covid-19 pandemic. In these unprecedented circumstances, the inherent virtues of self-sufficiency have become all too clear once more. We have all learnt the hard way that supply chains are only as good as their weakest link. Currently, with many of those links broken, the government, the NHS and every family and individual are scrabbling around to match demand with supply. The demand for personal protective equipment (PPE), from ventilators through to face masks, as well as food and household products, such as yeast and baking flour, has outstripped supply.

What fascinates me is that the solutions we are coming up with are at one and the same time both global and local. The difference to what we’ve done over the past several decades is the emphasis on the local. Whereas Britain has always been keen to join in with international research programmes (in vaccines and antivirals), which I am glad it’s still doing, local initiatives have always (until now) received short shrift. The reason for this is financial. The City has hunted out the highest returns, wherever they might be in the world; venture capital has always encouraged the sale of startups to the highest bidder on flotation, wherever that owner is based. Suddenly this model appears under question. Locality matters once more.

As we’ve become aware that British invention does not equal British access, nor does German invention equal German access. Local research projects suddenly seem more important – and who owns what is now known to be critical. There are even reports of bidding for control of PPE supply taking place on the runways of China’s airports (1). Invention is not enough in itself. Who will have access to the Covid-19 vaccine if and when it’s produced is the big question. How much profit its sale makes once it is produced, is less important. At least, for now.

Getting hold of ventilators in that critical moment before Boris Johnson ended up hospitalised with the disease, required scouring the globe for every and any source of supply, writing begging emails to suppliers, making phone calls to heads of state, and pleading. It worked. We got sufficient supply… by the skin of our teeth.

This wasn’t going to be good enough in the longer term, and the government knew it. They put in place a call for UK manufacturers to supply ventilators – backtracking on the notion that all our needs could be met by outsourced manufacture. Suddenly we needed manufacturing capability on UK soil. This required innovation of the famous British “make do and mend” variety. Within days they received 13 separate proposals (2) and a new business model was born, one of collaboration between companies, where no one company owns the final product. All do. As a result, instead of individual corporate self-sufficiency and off-shoring, we now have hive innovation, a form collective self-sufficiency that we are all benefiting from.

Fast tracked ventilators

Two of the 13 ventures stand out in this regard: Project Pitlane, and The Ventilator Challenge UK (VCUK) consortium. Both are highly unusual in the degree of cooperation entailed; both have proved highly successful.

Project Pitlane is a consortium of seven Formula One teams, including Aston Martin, Mercedes-AMG, Renault and Red Bull. Normally rivals, they have come together to working jointly to help the NHS. Their project has produced the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device. The CPAP device provides a much gentler approach than a ventilator to help Covid-19 patients with lung infections to breathe more easily.

Project Pitlane has developed the device in cooperation with University College London (UCL) and clinicians at UCL Hospital. By reverse engineering an already existing device, they have been able to ensure rapid approval by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). This has enabled the manufactured product to be placed in hospitals within two weeks of the prototype being developed (3). An order for up to 10,000 devices has now been placed by the NHS, with 1,000 a day being built at the Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains technology centre in Brixworth.

The Ventilator Challenge UK consortium has resulted in the unlikely collaboration of companies from a range of diverse industries. As with Project Pitlane, several of the companies in the VCUK consortium are usually major competitors, including Airbus, Rolls-Royce, GKN and BAE Systems, as well as Ford and McLaren. Others in the consortium include Meggitt, Renishaw, Thales, Siemens and Ultra Electronics. Including suppliers, nearly 60 companies are involved in this cooperative venture.

While re-purposing production capacity is something that has long been talked of, this is a practical demonstration of how quickly it can be achieved once people put their minds to doing so. As well as providing factory floor production space and logistical know-how, the companies have worked together to redeploy some of their most skilled engineers on the ventilator effort.

VCUK now has two machines under production. Their first product is the Smiths’ machine, which started production on March 29th. This machine, the result of Project Penguin, involved scaling up production of a model already made in small numbers by the medical equipment firm Smiths Medical at its factory in Luton. The consortium has since received approval from the MHRA for a second design, the Penlon Prima ESO2 ventilator. This is product of Project Oyster, and involved making tweaks to a second existing design produced by the small Oxfordshire firm Penlon.

The VCUK production lines are in Broughton, Dagenham and Woking. Production of the Penlon ventilator will be in Oxfordshire. The government has ordered a total of 15,000 of the two machines and the consortium targets to raise production to 1,500 units a week (4).

The consortium has been facilitated by Catapult, the innovation centre set up by the government quango, Innovate, UK (5). Catapult’s expertise is in taking academic research in manufacturing and applying this to developing and scaling up production of new technologies and processes.

A model for the future of our planet?

This hive innovation approach, sometimes called a product development partnership, has been used successfully in several other areas, including the development of new malaria medicines, bringing academic research, industry and donors to work together under the same umbrella (6). The huge advantage of hive innovation is that the synergy it produces marries fresh perspectives with production capabilities. This same hive approach has now proved effective in tackling some of the problems thrown up by this pandemic, enabling businesses, academia and government to work together in innovative and creative ways.

The results demonstrate that when we are really serious about something that is going to affect our lives, we can find ways to achieve results quickly – remarkably so. Given that the usual development times (time to market) for medical devices is three to seven years (7), it is nothing short of a miracle that ways have been found to design, license, source, and manufacture new models of medical equipment in a matter of just a few weeks.

Covid-19 has shown us that achieving significant innovation is as much about shaping new relationships and collective responses to the challenges we face as it is about sharpening our focus and garnering resources.

Just imagine what we could achieve if we took the same approach and applied it to the challenges of the climate crisis. Yes, the climate challenges are even greater than Covid-19 – but that, surely, is the point – we need to treat the fate of our planet with an even greater sense of urgency than we give to the threat of SARS-CoV-2.

Our experience of this disease continues to be a very painful one. Hopefully, one of its benefits can be to give us new clarity, not only about what is really important in life, but also about the important role hive innovation and collective self-sufficiency can play in tackling the challenges facing the future of our planet.

  • (1)
  • (2)
  • (3)
  • (4)
  • (5)
  • (6) One of the earliest product development partnerships is MMV:
  • (7)


Advantage Federal?

There has been a lot of speculation in the press about why Germany (and to some extent Switzerland) have seen proportionately fewer deaths than other countries during the first wave of the Covid-19 virus (1). While there are undoubtedly many reasons for why this is the case, and we will not understand the full picture until this pandemic is over, many have concluded that it is the sheer extent of the testing in these countries that has been effective in constraining the scale of the outbreak there (2).

One aspect that has gone largely unnoticed, however, is the positive impact of the federal system on shaping both countries’ capabilities.

It is inherent in the nature of federal systems that healthcare facilities are decentralised. Whereas the UK has created major regional centres of specialisation – such as the Liverpool Heart & Chest Hospital, serving everywhere from the Isle of Man and Anglesey in Wales to Liverpool and the northwest of England – in Germany and Switzerland every state (or canton) is expected to be largely self-sufficient. This means that, in contrast to Britain, which started out with just a single, centralised testing unit, Germany was able to immediately replicate testing in numerous centres throughout the country.

In the view of Christian Drosten, the director of the institute of virology at Berlin’s Charité hospital, whose team of researchers developed the first COVID-19 test used in the public domain, this goes to the heart of the matter. He told NPR, the German public radio broadcaster, that Germany’s low fatality rate was the result of his country’s ability to test early and often. 

“We have a culture here in Germany that is actually not supporting a centralized diagnostic system,” said Drosten, “so Germany does not have a public health laboratory that would restrict other labs from doing the tests. So we had an open market from the beginning.”(3)

Germany’s 16 federal states make their own decisions on coronavirus testing because each of them is responsible for their own healthcare system. The same is true in Switzerland, another country with a federal system, which has achieved one of the highest testing rates in the world (4).

But it is not just testing, of course. Another aspect that also came in for scrutiny in the UK at the beginning of this crisis is the number of intensive care beds per a million people. Germany had 292 compared to the UK’s 66 (5). Why the difference? The same answer holds true: in Germany, all 16 states needed to replicate ICU facilities, whereas in the Britain they were heavily centralised. Even if Germany wanted to, the states wouldn’t have allowed it to reduce the number of intensive care beds down to the level seen in Britain.

There is another harsh truth that has little to do with decentralisation: the NHS has been underfunded for a considerable time. Years of austerity have ensured that the UK has inadequate facilities in place to deal with the annual winter flu outbreaks, let alone a virulent pandemic such as Covid-19. In an interview with The Financial Times, Severin Schwan, CEO of Roche, a Swiss based pharmaceutical giant, said that the UK government lagged behind other countries in dealing with the coronavirus crisis because it had not invested enough in healthcare and testing. Speaking from lockdown in Switzerland, Mr Schwan said to the FT, “I am not saying [the decision not to invest] is right or wrong, . . . But don’t wonder [when] a crisis like this comes and you don’t have the infrastructure that you are in a more difficult situation.” In other words, don’t be surprised, Mr Johnson, when the austerity chickens all come home to roost.

So, is there something that other countries can learn from the experience of Germany and Switzerland? Probably. And, to give credit to the UK government, it seems that these lessons have already been learnt to some extent. Since the start of the outbreak the British government has acted quickly to correct the inherent problem of over-centralisation and underinvestment, rapidly equipping seven Nightingale Hospitals, one in each region of England. Others have been added in the other countries of the Union.

Similarly, they have addressed the problems due to over-centralisation of testing. Starting with just a single centre, the UK has now increased the number of testing centres to three, supplementing this by university facilities and numerous drive-through centres. Dozens of mobile units are soon to add to this flexibility. Is this the beginning of a new federalised approach? Could decentralisation and increased investment be the legacy of Covid-19? Let us hope so.

If federal systems are so great, what on earth has happened in the USA? There is an obvious answer; there is another factor at play: a Presidential system headed by President Trump. This has had a major influence on the outcomes there. A moment’s thought, however, shows the federal advantage even in America. New York and California have been able to act as they see fit to deal with the crisis. Though Trump has attempted to interfere on occasion, he has not been able to stop the governors of these states acting in the best interests of their citizens. In short, the death toll might have been a whole lot worse without federal independence of action. This is an independence that has been widely recognised and praised in the US (6).

A note of caution: I don’t want to give the impression that federalism is universally seen as better than a centralised system in every single aspect. The Germans and the Swiss both complain on a regular basis about how slow their decision-making is. Because little can be imposed top-down by the central government, often consensus is arrived at through a long, slow and painful process. “It takes too long to make decisions,” is a complaint heard regularly. On occasion, the citizens of both countries even overcome deep prejudices and look over the fence at more centralised systems, such as that of neighbouring France, with something akin to envy.

At present, however, much of the envy faces in the other direction. And this is despite France having what is widely recognised to be one of the best healthcare systems in the world. To the surprise of many of their citizens, the federal systems of Switzerland and Germany have shown just how fleet of foot they can be during an emergency. Advantage Federal.

  • (1)
  • (2)
  • (3)
  • (4)
  • (5)
  • (6)


The Dutch manifesto

With a number of countries already contemplating easing the lockdown (see my post of April 22), The Netherlands is first off the block in considering degrowth when thinking about what our society should look like once the Covid-19 has eased.

Degrowth is a political and environment movement that advocates moving away from our obsession with GDP, downscaling production and consumption to focus on our real needs as a society. This changed focus would reorient our activity as human beings, giving greater importance to relationships and community, our families, art, and general wellbeing. Business and commerce would become just one part of life, not its sole goal. The objective of degrowth is to produce a future that is both environmentally sustainable and generally much more satisfying for people than today’s rat race. Restored World is aligned with this movement.

The proposals of 170 Dutch academics are wide-ranging and address fundamental issues of our collective future, building on some of the green shoots we have seen the early signs of in the UK and elsewhere in Europe – the need for greater self-sufficiency, a basic income for all, sustainable agriculture, less travel, and the cancellation of debt.

Fortunately for me, as I speak not a word of Dutch, Jason Hickel, an inspirational academic in his own right, has provided a summary of their inspiring objectives in translation (1). I quote at length:

“This is remarkable: 170 Dutch academics put together a 5-point manifesto for economic change after the C19 crisis, building on #degrowth principles. It has gone viral in Dutch media. In this thread I’ll summarize the points in English.” (2)

1) Shift from an economy focused on aggregate GDP growth to differentiate among sectors that can grow and need investment (critical public sectors, and clean energy, education, health) and sectors that need to radically degrow (oil, gas, mining, advertising, etc).

2) Build an economic framework focused on redistribution, which establishes a universal basic income (see my post of April 22), a universal social policy system, a strong progressive taxation of income, profits and wealth, reduced working hours and job sharing, and recognizes care work.

3) Transform farming towards regenerative agriculture based on biodiversity conservation, sustainable and mostly local and vegetarian food production, as well as fair agricultural employment conditions and wages.

4) Reduce consumption and travel, with a drastic shift from luxury and wasteful consumption and travel to basic, necessary, sustainable and satisfying consumption and travel.

5) Debt cancellation, especially for workers and small business owners and for countries in the global south (both from richer countries and international financial institutions).

The Dutch aren’t alone in thinking we need a very different way of life if we are to address the Climate Emergency. This necessarily entails a completely different way of thinking about our purpose. I have found the thinking of Tim Jackson useful in this area. His book, Prosperity Without Growth is described by Yanis Varoufakis as “essential reading” (3). He argues that the Problem with Growth, in driving and determining all our actions, is the gorilla in the room (see my post of April 20). We ignore it at our peril.

  • (1) Dr. Jason Hickel is an economic anthropologist, author, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.  He is a Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London.  He serves on the Labour Party task force on international development, the Statistical Advisory Panel for the Human Development Report 2020, the advisory board of the Green New Deal for Europe, and on the Lancet Commission on Reparations and Redistributive Justice. His most recent book, The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions, was published by Penguin Random House in 2017.
  • (2) For those of you who read Dutch (I know there are some who subscribe to this blog):
  • (3) Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth: Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow, second edition, Routledge, 2017.

There’s a better way out of this . . .

Now is the time for governments to take up an idea that has been around for some time – let’s give everyone a Universal Basic Income. Not a small paltry income, but one large enough to cover all their bills and all their needs. Every individual would receive this sum. It would be universal, unconditional and automatic.

But why? Because everyone benefits. It eliminates poverty in a single stroke and this improves health and wellbeing. Studies have shown that increased equality benefits everyone in society (1). And because it is so simple to administer, being a single payment, the elimination of bureaucracy reduces administration costs substantially, which goes part way to paying for it.

Why now? It has to be admitted that no one really knows what the consequences would be of such a scheme. It is undoubtedly expensive, which is the main argument against it. But then so is paying unemployment benefits and the salaries of all those on furlough because of Covid-19.

We need to test it and see

The universal payment would be made for exactly the same reasons as the current payments but would include everyone. Currently, the governments benefits are missing out at least five million single-person limited companies, while the current level of unemployment benefit (“Jobseeker’s Allowance”) of a paltry £72 a week (for a single person over 25) is totally insufficient for anyone to live off.

Some argue that a Universal Basic Income could increase inequality by giving money to those who already have it. It need not. There is a simple answer. Take it back through taxation, or at whatever fraction you so choose, from those who already have a high income or high wealth. This is easy. HMRC does it all the time.

Others worry that it would disincentivize work. It might, but so does very low pay. We won’t know the tradeoff until we try it. Yet others say this wouldn’t suffice for some with special needs, for example, the severely disabled who need carers. Okay – make this an exception and put the resources into meeting such exceptional needs – by paying carers to do the caring. Clever people could surely work out solutions. The key, though, is to keep things simple.

There are plenty of theories about the advantages of Universal Basic Income – but not enough experience. A few places have trialled it, in countries such as Finland and Canada. This is why the present moment is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the biggest possible trial. Let’s see whether the theorists are right or not.

There’s no safe way to ease the lockdown

This is the right time for many reasons. One that makes it most essential is the question of how we are going to keep the economy functioning during the pandemic. Currently, governments appear to be betting on getting everyone back to work sooner rather than later. This bet rides on the back of developing a vaccine in 12 to 18 months. There are huge costs to this strategy.

To make this happen, governments are going to let the infection rate rise again, albeit temporarily, before once more locking down when the mortality rate rises. This approach appears to be based on “flattening the curve” repeatedly, on a longer term basis – that is, keeping the number of deaths at any one time within “manageable limits”. This will need to be done time and time again – possibly over many years.The hope is that over time this will lead eventually to some level of herd immunity (this is how diseases eventually “burn themselves out” anyway, and is not just the woolly thinking of the British government). Governments intend to reach the point by ensuring our hospitals can cope with the numbers of those infected and seriously ill. Note that this doesn’t a) eliminate the disease any time soon, nor b) stop people dying in large numbers. It merely spreads the number of deaths due to Covid-19 over a much longer period.

This is not a bet I’d like to make. Governments are making this bet because they see no other way to keep their economies running while managing the consequences of the disease. They rightly do not wish to contemplate complete economic meltdown. However . . .

Improving everyone’s wellbeing could be one way to buy time

I agree with President Macron that we all need to think again. Planning for further deaths is unacceptable.

The alternative is for countries to buy time by staying in lockdown until a solution is found – a solution we haven’t thought of yet. However, people will not stay locked down when their livelihood is at risk. To the government’s credit, it has already understood this – and has introduced the concept of furlough, which guarantee’s 80% of employee’s salaries when they are not at work.

No one has yet thought of this as the long-term solution. To my mind, it might have to be. Universal Basic Income would make this possible, improving wellbeing and giving us time to find a way out of this problem.

As an aside, while it’s more likely that we can develop effective antivirals to help treat patients, these are cures not prevention. Cures will help disease management, but not eliminate the impact of the virus. They will at least make the jobs of our healthcare workers more rewarding, less distressing and more sustainable than at present. It must be truly awful to feel so helpless watching people die when they are trained to save lives.

The truth is that a solution could be a long time coming. Vaccines usually take many years to develop. Even if it proves possible to reduce the development time from the usual 10 years or more, which there is every sign that it might, it will nonetheless be an enormous stretch to condense the testing protocol in the human population sufficiently to meet the current aspirations now being reported in the media, of having a vaccine ready within 12 to 18 months. And even if this aspiration does prove attainable, it is still 12-18 months in the future. Not now.

Until then, easing the lockdown and going back to work, shopping, going to an event, inevitably means further spread of Covid-19 among the 97-98% of us not yet infected.

Let’s not be part of a much more dangerous experiment

Letting people go back to the work and then picking up the pieces after a second wave, and third wave, and a fourth ad infinitum is not a solution. . . It’s not only a callous and immoral leading to many more deaths but is unnecessarily expensive and ineffectual. We cannot allow this to happen – it’s completely unacceptable.

Nor can we let all commerce die – that would be completely unsustainable. This is why Universal Basic Income could prove so important. Yes, it’s untried, but if it will at least give us a way to ensure that the economy keeps ticking over until we find a solution, one which doesn’t lead it to more deaths. People would have security and money to spend, and this would create demand for goods and services.

True, it doesn’t solve every problem. Many businesses dependent on high footfall will not survive. For these services, the future looks bleak, unless some manage to convert to home delivery or find some ways to provide for physical distancing. The hard truth is that the economy is likely to change beyond all recognition, whatever we do. This is the stark reality of where we find ourselves. Hence, the propensity of governments to make wild bets.

Universal Basic Income will enable us to stay locked down for the many, many months it’s going to take to come to terms with the consequences of this virus. It will keep businesses going which otherwise would collapse. From where I stand, it now not only looks a more kindly approach but appears a much more effective one to managing this continued and ongoing catastrophe.

(1) Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, Bloomsbury, 2011.


Signs of new beginnings

This spring is a very different one to the last. Not only can you hear the birds sing, but since they no longer have to stretch their voices above the sound of the planes and the road traffic, they can also hear each other better than before. The birds seem happier. I expect a chick baby boom.

And the skies are blue. The poor air quality and smogs that beset almost every major city have disappeared as a result of the reduction in traffic and business activity. Satellite images of NO2 pollution, comparing the situation before and after lockdown, show that the veil of nitrogen dioxide has largely vanished across Europe (1). Even more dramatic are the changes that have been seen in Asia (2). In China, C02 levels dropped by more than 20% during the six weeks from mid-February. In Delhi the contrast is like the difference between night and day. For the first time in decades, there is day after day of bright blue sky in India’s capital. The same is no doubt true elsewhere.

But it is not just nature that shows renewal. Money trees are sprouting across the world. After years of austerity following the financial crisis of 2007-08, suddenly governments have found the money to embark on almost unlimited spending.

New priorities require drastic action. I have watched with wonder as the British government, in particular, has show great creativity in finding ways to support its citizens and its businesses in these unprecedented times. Many things once deemed unthinkable, or beyond the pale, are now found to be possible. Desperation, pragmatism, realism, all mean that there is most definitely new thinking afoot. This deserves appreciation.

This new thinking intrudes into the world of commerce. Private hospitals have been co-opted into the NHS, railway franchise agreements have been suspended, the Bank of England has extended its credit facility to the Government, providing it with an unlimited overdraft facility. In short, the distance between the Treasury and the Bank has been reduced to zero. In effect, the Bank of England is under Treasury control . . . once again. And none of this has been called Marxism or Corbynism. Amazing!

Things are also changing in unexpected ways. Driven by the desperate nature of the present situation, manufacturing and construction have suddenly unleashed new creativity. Nightingale hospitals are springing up like mushrooms, in record time – rather than the ten years it normally takes just to get to the planning stage. Businesses all around the country have suddenly a new-found entrepreneurial flair and – horror of horrors! – are working in cooperation with each other, with scientists and technologists, and with the government to produce everything from PPE to ventilators. This is new.

The present crisis is showing us that, once the shackles of neoliberal dogmatism are thrown off, there are other, maybe better ways of doing things. Innovation isn’t something that has to take years “to come down the pipeline” but can be conjured almost on demand. This is not to say that it is easy, or cheap, merely that it is possible.

The present situation illustrates that once we take a crisis seriously, it not only focuses the mind but also the resources, organisation and finance to drive innovation. We can do it if we wish to.

And this underlines the point that we have not yet devoted the same focus and attention to the climate crisis and species extinction. We could, if we wished to.

  • (1)
  • (2)
  • (3)