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Sensemaker: One country, one system

Friday 13 November 2020

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Biden won Arizona, and China congratulated him on winning the US presidency.
  • Cummings said he’d leave Downing Street by the end of the year (more below).
  • Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy claimed victory in elections in Myanmar, but the army refused to accept the result.
  • Amnesty International said scores of civilians have been killed by separatist forces in Tigray in northern Ethiopia.

One country, one system. The self-inflicted implosion of Hong Kong’s democratic opposition has been under-reported in a week of big news elsewhere. Four members of the legislature were expelled on Tuesday by Carrie Lam, the pro-Beijing chief executive, for being insufficiently patriotic. Fifteen more resigned the next day. In their absence Lam’s rubber-stamp administration plans to

  • extend voting rights to Hong Kongers living on the Chinese mainland, where they are expected overwhelmingly to toe the Communist Party line;
  • renounce the separation of powers that used to shore up the independence of Hong Kong’s courts;
  • scrap the liberal studies curriculum taught in Hong Kong schools that Beijing loyalists blame for last year’s youth-led pro-democracy protests.

There’s honour in the mass resignation, but little left of the democracy the outgoing lawmakers stand for. Local elections next year may be its last gasp. Democracy in Hong Kong is probably doomed anyway, but it’s worth remembering that Britain sailed away in 1997 hoping it would grow rather than wither, as it was growing at the other end of the Eurasian continent. Things have – emphatically, ominously, sadly – not turned out that way.

Four countries, no system. As widely forecast, Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s Rasputin, will follow Lee Cain out of Number Ten at the end of the year. He denies it’s a resignation and denies it has anything to do with Brexit, but his departure will unquestionably change the tone and priorities of Johnson’s dysfunctional government. Specifically…

  • On the British union, Johnson wants to make a positive case for it rather than simply telling Scotland it can’t have another referendum, The Times reports (£).
  • On Covid, he will need to rebuild public trust in his government’s capacity to test, trace and now vaccinate safely and equitably, after Cummings’ lockdown-defying and brazenly hypocritical trip to Barnard Castle last March. In particular he’ll want to ensure that arguments about Northern Ireland’s bespoke lockdown arrangements don’t sabotage the province’s fragile executive.
  • On Brexit, he needs a deal with the EU not least because Biden has personally made clear that he’ll need one to get one with the US. That means quick compromises on fishing and state aid rules rather than the down-to-the-wire brinkmanship that Cummings and Cain favoured.

Brexit deadlines are already being stretched to breaking point and Sky’s Sam Coates has been tweeting about rumours of Remainers ganging up in Number Ten to lobby for another year’s delay to the whole project. If that sounds perfectly sensible, it won’t happen. Right?

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Disney plus plus plus
The theme parks have been empty but, blimey, the sofas have been full. Disney’s relatively new streaming service has signed up nearly 74 million members ($) in 11 months, which is more than it says it was expecting in five years. Even allowing for carefully managed expectations and a 19 million-subscriber leg up in the form of existing customers in India and Indonesia who were moved over to Disney Plus automatically, this is what they used to call boffo box office. It’s fewer than half Netflix’s subscriber base but still a huge number. Investors are happy – Disney’s stock rose last night even though the pandemic wiped more than $3 billion off its profits in the third quarter alone – but what about cinemas? Will we ever go back?

New things technology, science, engineering

Stone henge tunnel
They’re going to build one at last. Insofar as anything is certain in Johnsonian England, a tunnel will be built to hide traffic as it passes Stonehenge along the A303. This is a big call by Grant Shapps, the transport secretary. The tunnel will cost at least £1.7 billion and it defies his own planning inspectorate, which says it will cause “permanent, irreversible harm” to the site. The worry is that all the vibrations modern tunneling entails will disturb the ancient monoliths. It’s worth noting, too, that some of the best views of Stonehenge are to be had from the road. There’s no doubt the road goes too close, but those views will vanish. If the tunnel pleased the druids who gather at Stonehenge for solstices that might have clinched the argument, but one calls it a violation. I’d be interested to know what Tortoise members think.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Save the Popa langur
A new species of primate has been found in the jungles of Myanmar, and it’s already close to extinction. There are only an estimated 260 Popa langurs left. This elegant, silvery monkey was not completely undiscovered, in that London’s Natural History Museum already had a 100 year-old specimen – but it was not identified as a distinct species until a team from Fauna & Flora International and the German Primate Center did so on Wednesday in the journal Zoological Research. Can it be saved? That’s an ask for ASSK as she returns to power in Myanmar (see above) and – perhaps – looks for new channels for her energies besides oppressing the Rohingya Muslims.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public policy

Sweden’s surge
Sweden has reimposed a ban on visits to nursing homes and is rushing to introduce antigen tests for staff as Covid infection and hospitalisation rates rise exponentially. The country’s seven-day average of new infections has risen eight-fold since early October and the proportion of new cases being admitted to hospital is rising faster than anywhere else in Europe. In absolute terms the numbers are still low – Sweden is currently treating 1,004 Covid patients in hospital – but that number is 60 per cent higher than last week and Sweden’s per capita Covid death rate is ten times higher than in neighbouring Norway, which has deployed its Home Guard to patrol the two countries’ long land border. Sweden’s laissez-faire approach to the virus early in the pandemic won many fans abroad, including in the UK. They’re not talking much about it now.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Obama’s book
The first volume of Barack Obama’s presidential memoir is being trucked to bookstores and he has remarkable things to say about race in US politics. Not general things. Highly specific ones. For instance: he sent Joe Biden, then his vice president, to act as go-between in negotiations between the White House and the Republicans’ Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, because of “my awareness that in McConnell’s mind, negotiations with the vice president didn’t inflame the Republican base in quite the same way that any appearance of cooperation with (Black, Muslim socialist) Obama was bound to do”. No cooperation was forthcoming; McConnell vowed to make Obama a one-term president and obstructed his legislative agenda at every opportunity. Whether he’ll be more cooperative with Biden as president is one of the big questions of this extraordinary moment.

opinion: chris cook

The problem of fatigue

We’re all tired of the pandemic and its lockdowns. But for the public sector, there are very particular consequences

One of the major problems for the UK – now amid a second wave of the pandemic – is that, in one respect, things have never been worse. And that is fatigue.

The past six months have been disturbing and unsettling. Family rhythms have been interrupted. Some have been able to stay at home to work, but the risk of the disease has made a lot of jobs quite frightening. Even for relatively safe occupations, the liturgy of masks and disinfectant has made them a lot less pleasant. There is a lot of tiredness about.

But in those parts of the public sector where demand for services rose, there are particular issues. Exhaustion hangs in the air across hospitals. As the first wave of Covid patients abated, cases that had been delayed in the spring steamed back in. And now they are switching back again as the Covid caseload rises. There has been no relief.

This is, of course, a human problem. Hugh Pym, BBC health editor, has reported on the “Wobble Room” at the Royal Derby Hospital. A nurse described it as “a room where staff could just go and sit and cry if they needed to”. A large swathe of NHS staff are spent after a year of gruelling, unending winter. And it is those same ones who will be asked to do it again.

This has operational consequences. People have less slack to give. Sir Simon Stevens, the NHS chief executive, recently told a press conference that around 30,000 staff were self-isolating. More mistakes will be made. Corners will be cut. As ever, you fear for what is happening in social care. Headcounts will get thinner and new staff harder to find.

This pattern is visible in other places, too. School teachers are filling in for self-isolating colleagues and the reorganised school days are more labour intensive. They will also get little relief: schools across the country are likely to end up having to run new processes for assessment of 16- and 18-year-old students – a fallback in case exams are cancelled or disrupted.

Outside the traditional public sector, university staff have already expended lots of energy to get their teaching online. But there is more pain to come. There is no solution to the problem of running admissions next year when we have impaired or useless exams – and that will mean admissions take more energy, effort and time.

A lack of bandwidth is a problem at a management level, too: a lot of poor decisions have been made by people who have not been able to have much of a break. Some of the chaos in Downing Street may be because, with a few high-profile exceptions, it is a building of people who have not been able to get away.

There are three broad issues to grapple with when managing a fatigued workforce.

The first is that the capacity of state systems may be less than it looks. One of the major constraints on government action is that there is so little left in the tank. People will do as they are asked, but be wary of asking for too much.

The second is that this is a medium-term problem. Good news on vaccines may make the government loath to spend on labour-saving systems to help handle the pandemic or remote working when it thinks we are all in the home straight. But it needs to remember that, even if the vaccine is successful, the crisis will have a long tail in the public sector. The NHS will need to run at full steam for a while to catch up. Schools will need to lay on extra classes.

The third is that this makes the issue of pay more salient. Some of the existing recruitment problems in the public sector suggest that some wage scales were already being pitched in the wrong place. We have to assume this problem will get worse. Two-thirds of teachers have told TeacherTapp, a pollster, that they are burned out – or heading there. They are surely not alone. If there are bigger outflows from the public services, wages are the only lever that may be left.

Letting state employees exhaust themselves might feel like a cheap way through, but it has costs, and the clean-up after the pandemic will take years.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell