An interesting take in The Guardian on the impact of a decade of reform on the response to Coronavirus. England’s ravaged public health system just can’t cope with the coronavirus:

The impoverishment of the NHS and the public health system in England is not the only depletion that has occurred in civil society that makes us ill-equipped to respond effectively to the greatest global health crisis in a century.

One of the first acts of the coalition government when it came to power in 2010 was to dismantle the regional structures that had provided a coherent mechanism for integrating and carrying out government policy within the English regions…the coalition also stripped the NHS of its regional management tier following the wide-ranging “reforms” of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act.

The result is the absence of any integrational, coordinating or management function at a regional level in England that could operate between Whitehall departments and the various bodies, often very local, that are charged with implementing government policy. The fact that some national bodies have adopted internal organisational boundaries that cover completely different geographical territories has also complicated the situation. This is notably and unfortunately true with respect to the key health bodies, NHS England and Public Health England.

I had been pondering what impact the introduced since 2010 have had. Things like the move of public health from the NHS to local government can make it more responsive to local needs but also more at the mercy of local financing whims and at the cost of losing central control.

I am, by instinct, a localist but there is a lot to the argument that stripping out the middle tier and fragmenting other provision across the public, private and third sector has harmed our initial ability to mobilise against the pandemic.

I’m not unusual in becoming COVID-19 obsessed. It’s affecting my professional life (I work in the health sector, although not a part directly affected), I’ve been thinking about it a lot as a school governor (not just the potential impact but also about how the messages are shared with anxious children) and my attempt to be pretend I’m an academic just happened to hit a stage of studying global health as a live case study was unfolding on a daily basis.

What has been somewhat disconcerting is that we have to deal with a pandemic at exactly the time we have a government almost uniquely incapable of dealing with it. The example of Nadine Dorries, a health minister, continuing with her schedule despite being symptomatic, causes me some concern about the quality of political decision-making. And while on 5 March the Chief Medical Officer was telling MPs we were mainly in the delay phase Boris Johnson thought we were still in the contain phase four days later. Then a few days later we have other government advisors who appear to have misunderstood how herd immunity works and suggested a plan that appears to amount to everyone just getting COVID-19. Which brings us to being presented today with an over-70s quarantine plan that isn’t fully formed (details will come later) and I can’t help feeling the government is just trying to style this one out.

At a time we need calm, authoritative, advice—and sometimes decisive action—that helps slow the spread and protect the most vulnerable in our society we are stuck with a government for whom the best thing you can say is that at least they aren’t Trump.1


  1. Having pretty much left social media, and felt so much better for it, I still needed the teeniest vent for this. The first duty of a government is to protect its people and I (along with hundreds of scientists) just have no confidence in this government in this situation. I hope I’m wrong. 

A few hundred people listening to the first-timers’ briefing Clapham Common parkrun this morning. There a touch over 1,100 runners and walkers in total, the biggest one ever (until next week, which is likely to be even bigger).

I’d always, intellectually, understood the benefits of parkrun but it wasn’t until I got involved with Clapham Common that I realised how powerful it is, not just because of the physical activity, but also because of the sense of community and volunteering it entails. However you might want to be involved I can not recommend it highly enough.

Had to queue to vote today. First time I’ve ever seen that.

But for all the progressive optimism in my queue I worry that there were lots of (what I would think) the wrong type of queue in lots of the wrong places.

Many years ago when I was dabbling in student politics RON was a candidate at the bottom of every ballot paper. If you didn’t like the candidates a vote for RON, or re-open nominations, was there to express that opinion. And if RON won, it was back to square one for the election as if it hadn’t happened. I managed to get RONned once, losing my first bid to become college president (in a fit of stupidity I stood again, this time winning but having learned a valuable lesson about hubris).

The general election has left me thinking about the RON option a lot, wondering if it might be the winner in an election where it’s so hard to feel positively towards either of the two main parties. Despite my past (which I increasingly try to keep secret) as an elected Conservative I just cannot see why anyone would vote for a Conservative Party that seems to be led by people whose only vision is that governing is their birthright and have absolutely no capacity for empathy. But it’s equally hard to come up with positive reasons to vote for a Labour Party that clearly has a problem with anti-Semitism and, more generally, with tolerating  anyone who is not an adherent to the particular Corbyn brand of Labour. How lovely it must have been to live in a period of political consensus when people in politics were mature grown-ups who could tolerate difference.

And how lovely it must be to live in a constituency where you are not forced into voting for a least worst option with the moral ambiguity that entails.

I have spent a long time thinking about how to choose that least worse option. Can you net off Labour anti-Semitism by the fact that the Tories appear to be anti-everyone? Is Johnson worse for having no principles than Corbyn is for having strong principles with which you disagree? And how do you decide between a shadow Cabinet with some lamentably weak members and an actual Cabinet in which any form of intellectual ability seems to be a disqualification from office?

Of course, this is to make it more of a dilemma than it actually is: Brexit looms large over the election and, as such, the only option I have is to vote tactically. Personally, I could never vote for a Conservative Party that has moved so far to the extremes. It is delightful that Boris Johnson has been able to satisfy his personal ambition and so many Tory members get to indulge their fetishistic prejudice that it’s the foreigner that ills this country, I just don’t think making the country poorer and weaker and depriving the next generations of opportunity is a price worth paying for that.

There are lots of reasons to be pessimistic about tomorrow’s election but if you have any sense that Britain should be a proud, progression nation voting tactically will keep the hope alive.

I often tell people that (removing the obvious things like being a husband and father) being a school governor has been the most rewarding experience of my life. This is not hyperbole: I’ve been a governor at Shaftesbury Park for a long time now and feel a little prouder every day.

I’m especially proud of the school’s mission. The school has gone through a lot of changes in recent years and, as part of that, drew up a vision in consultation with staff, parents and pupils that represented what the school was. In a wordy way. It got everything in but looking back it’s clear that in doing so it left the essence of the school diluted in the statement.

Five years on it was time for a refresh. But this time the vision just appeared:

At Shaftesbury Park we develop children who think about their world, enlarge their world and change their world.

And it nails what the school does.

It uses the International Primary Curriculum to not to impart facts but to encourage children to think widely around themes and develop their own views. It uses the French bilingual stream not just as a language but as a cultural gateway. And it uses the Enterprise stream to teach the skills like planning, teamwork and leadership so they thrive in whatever world they find themselves in.

Technically the vision is a circular because the elements reinforce and compound. (An idea shamelessly stolen from Battersea Arts Centre.) And I like it so much I sprung for some stickers.

Thanks to Simon Wilson for the inspiration and Diginate for the vinyl. I’m hoping I’ll see them in the school stuck on laptops, diaries, notebooks and ID lanyards to act as a reminder that education is a process although I know that the school’s staff don’t really need a reminder.

The Goveian obsession may be exams, test results and pricey Bibles but developing pupils who have curiosity, confidence and capability is at the heart of what education really offers children and the country. Good academic results will flow from that and because they can be measured they will be measured. The real benefits will be less tangible but I know that every pupil going through that school will feel them for the rest of their lives.

RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor’s blog summarises research that shows a significant minority of people actually want chaos.

The authors [identify] those ‘in need of chaos’ who gain satisfaction from anything which may contribute to ‘tearing down the system’ … this research finds a much higher level of enthusiasm for destruction than might have been expected. They put forward three statements that propose this kind of radical action and find that 40% of people support two of them and 20% the third.

As the authors write, “A substantial minority of individuals are so discontent that they are willing to mobilize against the current political order to see if what emerges from the resulting chaos has something better in stock for them.”

In relation to hostile online material, the enthusiasts for chaos have no interest in whether it is true, nor even whether it supports their own ideological position. They will share hostile fake material both for and against their ‘side’, not simply for the devilment but because they see it as making collapse and chaos more likely.

It was getting close to a received wisdom that votes like those for Trump or Brexit were more votes against an establishment that had failed those voters. This seems an order of magnitude beyond that: as much as 40% of people (enough to win a general election in this climate) are probably happy for the current constitutional chaos. Maybe the Cummings/Johnson strategy is 4-dimensional chess after all.

Reading the various accounts of Boris Johnson’s shockingly poor approach to his day-jobs reminded me of the few times that I’ve met him. Most of those times have been fairly incidental, when he came to formally open the London Overground at Clapham Junction, for example, or ground-breaking some bland, identikit development at Nine Elms. The one time I had anything approaching a policy discussion was during his first London Mayoral campaign.

The Johnson campaign were having discussions with people from the London boroughs and, being Wandsworth’s turn, a group of us made the short trip to County Hall where the campaign had its offices. One of the first topics of discussion was the idea of having 24-hour Police Safer Neighbourhood Teams (or SNTs).

At the time, SNTs and neighbourhood policing were very much in vogue but a common complaint, mainly from people like councillors rather than actual residents, was that the SNTs weren’t always immediately available. It seems to have been particularly upsetting when they were off duty for a few days (perish the thought they have the equivalent of a weekend). This was largely down to a misunderstanding of what SNTs were meant to do. Neighbourhood Policing should be longer-term, building relationships and problem solving and not responding immediately to issues which is the function of, funnily enough, response policing.

Johnson was enthused by the idea of 24-hour Safer Neighbourhood Teams. They had been trialled by Hammersmith and Fulham Council (at that stage in its brief period of Conservative control) who were funding round-the-clock teams in two areas. I’d actually visited them and found the scheme under-whelming. It was expensive and without any robust evaluation of effectiveness but had strong political support which was evidenced, perhaps, by the lack of any exit strategy. An exit strategy wouldn’t be needed, I was told, because they would be successful. I was unconvinced.

Johnson, however, had no doubt they would be a fantastic success. I presented the alternative view that it would be an expensive white elephant. For around the clock coverage you’d increase the SNT wage bill by three or four times to satisfy a need that simply wasn’t there. London, outside the centre, is not really a 24-hour city and people, including criminals, tended to sleep at night. Realistically no-one needing the police at 5am would dream of looking up their SNT number rather than dialling 999. And if there were a few places that a middle-of-the-night problem was suited to SNT intervention SNTs would change shift patterns to match.

I did not persuade him. Johnson suggested that SNTs could be grouped to cover off-peak policing more cost-effectively. That this was in essence just replicating the sectors in which response policing was already organised was an irrelevant operational detail. His new area-based SNT-response team would, in some nuanced way, be different to the existing area-based non-SNT-response teams. Johnson voiced his opinion that 24-hour SNT policing would be hugely popular and the discussion moved into some other policy area.

Ultimately the idea did not make Johnson’s election manifesto. I don’t think that discussion had anything to do with that. While possible it prompted him to give the idea the few moment’s thought it would take to realise it was unworkable I think it more likely some advisor managed to quietly sideline the idea. Throughout his time at City Hall there was the fiction that it was a mark of his leadership qualities that he appointed high-quality staff to do the work. It seems more and more people are interpreting that less as a leadership quality as more as a reflection of his laziness and lack of ability.

The fact he’s anywhere near becoming Prime Minister should be terrifying. Especially when his likely Cabinet would surely be one of the lowest calibre the country has ever seen. That he’s somehow the favourite among the small, unrepresentative, Conservative party membership is just more evidence that our political system is broken and utterly unsuitable for the 21st century.