Sunday, August 23, 2020

Herd immunity

When they first said "herd immunity", most people, including journalists, unfortunately nodded like Owl in Winnie the Pooh, and said, "Ah yes, herd immutinoony. Of course." There are two ways to that - have the virus endemic in the population already, or have vaccination at a level that there's nobody to pass it onto. There was no vaccine. So the government's initial "let's go for herd immunity" meant "let's have everybody catch it". Some right wing commentators even evoked the idea of chicken pox parties. But at that stage, with a hospitalisation rate of potentially 15%, and an ICU requirement of maybe 20% of that, you're looking at pushing 3% of the population - potentially 2 million people -through intensive care within a few months, each for likely over a week. There are, according to a quick scan of some government stats ( about 6000 critical care beds in England. You save maybe half if you can protect the vulnerable - though no mention was made of that to begin with. But even without C19, occupation of these beds runs at over 80%, and people won't stop having heart attacks etc .... The maths here is so obvious. When I heard about the plan, I didn't need to do a calculation to work out that the NHS would not survive on the basis of what we knew, and quite possibly neither would the infrastructure of the country. That it should have even been contemplated as a way forward was a massive demonstration of the incompetence of the government. That they have been allowed to get away with it is a massive demonstration of the incompetence of the media.

I just discovered this as a draft in my blogger account, having written it in the last week of March, and then it having been overtaken by events, so I didn't publish it.

Interesting, though.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Submission to authorities, part 2

I suspect that not many people were convinced by my blogpost which set out my view that the authorities to which we should be submitting are not any particular political party, but the whole political system under which we find ourselves.
As supporting evidence, I would like to point out some of the people who we Christians tend to think of as heroes of the faith.
William Wilberforce
Martin Luther King Jr
Dietrich Bonhoffer
All of those would be cited approvingly from non-conformist pulpits. There are also non-Christians (or people whose faith is less overt) who we tend to regard positively in the same way, such as:
Nelson Mandela
Mahatma Ghandi
All of them challenged the political system in which they found themselves.
Had we been there, would we have been saying to them, "You need to submit to the authorities - in other words, you can't challenge the ruling parties!" Because that's pretty much what Christian conservatives are telling us today. But with the benefit of hindsight, we look back on what they did and say that they were absolutely right to challenge what they faced.
So, on what basis can you say that they were right and those people challenging the Tories or the Republicans now are wrong to do so? Would we have been wrong to have aligned ourselves with them?

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Submission to authorities

This is a pretty blunt and unambiguous instruction, from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. And yet, I’ve been (and still am) pretty vocally opposed to the Conservative party in power. How do I square my commitment to obedience to the Word of God with respect to being subject to the authorities with my opposition to the Tory government?

The short answer is that I don’t believe the governing party are the authority in this country. The actual authority is the whole constitutional system. What do I mean by that? I mean the mixture of laws and conventions that have been established over the centuries. WITHIN THAT FRAMEWORK, the governing party are elected for a period of time to exercise a specific role. They DON’T have the freedom to restructure the constitution, to rule as they would choose – in other words, the governing party is clearly also “under authority”. They are elected to set the government agenda in accordance with their manifesto. They are able to deliver their manifesto, in accordance with their majority within the House of Commons, with oversight from the House of Lords, and subject to the Crown – which doesn’t mean Queen Elizabeth II: it means, in effect, recognising that they are not “in charge”, but have a temporary role in the system. The courts have a part in this as well. The party of government does not have authority which overrides the courts, because the courts decide what is acceptable WITHIN THE FRAMEWORK, and the governing party abide by that. The media have a responsibility as well – it’s not to “capture the mood” of the population, as government-run bots would have us believe at the moment: it should be to report what is happening in a trustworthy and independent way, so that the electorate (who are also a part of the system) can make informed decisions.

All of this is “the authority”; it’s “the rule of law”; it’s the framework within which our country runs. Or should run. Why is this the case? All these checks and balances have grown up over the years to prevent individuals or groups from taking too much power. The concept of free and fair elections is not fundamentally to get the best people into power – if so, why bother with an opposition? It’s actually to LIMIT power. That is the authority that we have – not the governing party. The opposition aren’t an inconvenience: they are part of the system, and the more effective they are at limiting the ability of the governing party, the less permission the governing party has from the system to make changes. That’s deliberate, to limit power, and prevent its abuse. The courts aren’t an inconvenience: they are the system protecting itself from being destroyed or abused within frameworks that have grown up over decades. Press accountability is not an inconvenience: it’s the Fourth Estate preventing the abuse of power.

So what does it mean for me to submit to the governing authorities? It means that I participate in the socio-political process in accordance with what is established. Am I allowed to vote against the government, or do I have to “submit” to them once elected? I can vote. Can I speak out against the government? Yes. Can I demonstrate? Yes. Can I stand as a candidate against the governing party? Yes. Can I write letters, write blogs, try and persuade people of alternative points of view? Yes. All of those things are permitted (at the moment) within the framework – all are legitimate ways of behaving under the governing authority (which is the constitution, not the discretion of the Conservative Party, or whoever else has a majority in the Commons). Should I pray for the governing party - or, for that matter, anybody else with authority? Of course! But that doesn't mean it is wrong for me as a Christian to critique its behaviour - was John wrong to call out Herod's behaviour? Was Jesus wrong to challenge the Pharisees? Was Paul wrong to apply his understanding of Roman law to his situation on multiple occasions?

Can I break the law in protest? Not according to that verse – breaking the law is no longer submitting to the governing authorities. What about if the law demands from me more than my Christian conscience permits? At the moment, that’s not the case in this country – but the Bible and church history argues both as doctrine and from example that where Christians end up in breach of the law, they can expect the authorities to punish them.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Avoid, trap, mitigate

Human factors training gives people strategies to deal with threats to safety and operational errors that may reduce safety margins. The framework is summarised in the title of this post ...

  • Avoid - design procedures to protect against possible threats and prevent errors being made which might reduce safety margins.
  • Trap - on the basis that there will be times when threats and errors nonetheless arise, design procedures so that they are identified quickly and dealt with before they have an impact on safety.
  • Mitigate - on the basis that some threats and errors will not be trapped, design procedures so that people are able to intervene swiftly to correct them and reduce their impact.
Let me give an example. When flying in the UK, ten thousand feet used to be referred to as "Flight level one zero zero", and eleven thousand feet as "Flight level one one zero." A difference of one word - but if an aeroplane was asked to descend to "flight level one one zero" but incorrectly heard "one zero zero" or read that back, then it could be descending to the level of another aeroplane.

I can't go into all the protections that are in place to reduce this threat. However, let me give an example of each of the three stages.
  • Avoid - the international standard changed the wording for ten thousand feet to "Flight level one hundred" - now it is very distinct from "flight level one one zero".
  • Trap - in multi crew aircraft, both pilots should hear an altitude clearance, it should be read back to air traffic control, who should check the correct altitude was read back. The handling pilot should set the altitude and get confirmation from the monitoring pilot to verify that it is in accordance with the clearance.
  • Mitigate - pilots are taught the fastest way to stop the aircraft from changing altitude (in an Airbus, for example, this consists of one button press on the autopilot control).
The same sort of processes apply in a healthcare context as well, as anybody who has experience of hospitals can tell. Processes are in place to avoid the possibility of giving drugs to the wrong person, making sure that the correct dose is given, and so on. This is all how safety management works.

Now, let's talk about how the government has failed to deal with the Covid-19 crisis.
  • Avoiding the threat of an international pandemic would have been making sure that investment in the NHS was maintained at a level that it didn't end up starved of resources every winter, that there was no staff shortage, making sure that there were good supply chains in place. It would have meant, following Exercise Cygnus, learning and applying lessons. For ten years, the Conservative government has failed to implement processes that would AVOID the threat of this sort of pandemic becoming a problem.
  • Trapping the threat could have taken place over the last ten weeks. We saw what was coming - what had happened in China, what started to unfold in Italy. We could have used that time to buy more PPE and check supplies of it, put in place international collaboration and information sharing at the very least. The government was too busy focusing on Brexit, and telling us how well prepared we were. No meaningful attempt to trap the threat was made.
  • Mitigating the threat when it arrived would have meant rapid intervention, to safeguard as many people as possible. That's what New Zealand did; it's what has limited the death toll in countries like Germany and South Korea. The impact of this could have been huge. In this article, Dominic Minghella points out that two thirds of the extra deaths were probably caused by this failure to mitigate the threat in those ten days.
It's quite possible that safety professionals - for example, the pilots in an air accident, staff in an operation - may be hailed as heroes for their efforts - for example to fly a damaged aircraft away from a school, deal with a cardiac arrest, or whatever. But regardless of how an accident unfolds, it is their job as safety professionals to apply their training to try and avoid, trap and mitigate threats to their situation.

The very least that should be expected of the government is that it should be trying to safeguard the lives of the electorate. The same human factors framework - avoid, trap, mitigate threats - can be applied to government. Rather than being held to account for this, the government continues to do all sorts of things - say "there was no way we could have foreseen this" (US intelligence were aware of it last November, and the general process of avoiding the threat should have been in place anyway), distract us with Johnson (he has not taken one for the team: he got ill because he didn't observe the government's own guidelines), and keep making promises of future performance (they are "ramping up" - when will they deliver on a single target they have given?!). The media are complicit in this; too few in the media are persistently challenging the government on its performance.

In a crisis, the population has to get behind the government - where else can it go? But this government, and for that matter the US federal government, has failed its population to a greater extent than almost any other government around the world - and it is going to continue to become more apparent for some time. The fact that so many people in the UK and US don't realise just how bad will have the awful consequence of many more thousands of avoidable deaths.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Clap for ...

You know who.
Firstly, I wish nobody ill from this virus. It's horrible, and dying fighting to breathe with nobody you know around you is an idea too horrendous to imagine. That includes our prime minister; I hope he recovers soon.
Secondly, his name is not "Boris". He is a prime minister, not your mate down the pub.
Thirdly, don't say that *I'm* politicising something. "Clap for Boris" was a blatantly political act in the first place - where do you think it came from?! It was a way of trying to co-opt the good feeling associated with the NHS and direct it towards the prime minister and the government. If you don't understand *how* that is political, you are one of the people that this government is shamelessly manipulating.
Johnson and his government have a grown-up job to do, which at the moment should at the very least be fighting for the lives of people in this country - that has to be a minimum requirement for a government, right?! That needs to still be happening even if one - or all! - of them isn't well. The political party running the country have made this much harder for themselves - which means that, yes, ultimately, they are causing people's deaths. How?
- by running down the NHS financially for the last 10 years;
- specifically by creating and stoking an environment hostile to ex-pat workers, draining medical staff from the NHS in the last five years;
- by wasting the 10 weeks effective notice we had failing to get the PPE and ventilators we required;
- by getting distracted for the last 10 days before the storm hit with poorly thought-out ideas about herd immunity;
- by undermining the civil service and reducing the availability and weight of expert advice;
- by prioritising a nationalistic, Brexit agenda over a co-operative one (refusing to take part in EU schemes which could have supported us, refusing to acknowledge other examples of international cooperation - did you know that other EU countries have helped to repatriate UK citizens? That China has sent emergency equipment and workers to this country?);
- by making loyalty to Brexit and willingness to take direction the requirement of being part of the government, rather than competence - and in fact, by creating an environment in which all the competent people left the conservative party;
- by refusing to draw on expertise in other political parties;
- by prioritising the interests of financial backers rather than the country;
- by not taking obvious steps, even when they were pointed out to them (there are still queues of people at the border at Heathrow);
- through "austerity" - which didn't extend to the super-rich - but which has left more people more financially vulnerable and more dependent.
The directors of communication in government don't want you to think about this. So instead, they quietly push the idea of "clap for Boris".

Friday, January 03, 2020

Christians and political involvement

It is true that as Christians it's our job to pray for those in authority. As Schaeffer might say, that's true truth, but it's not exhaustive truth - it's not the whole story.
For a start, who is "in authority" in our country? Is it the ruling party? What became apparent over the last few months is that hitherto, it has actually been the whole political system. The government, which doesn't just consist of the Conservatives, but also the civil service, exists (or existed) under the authority of parliament, the judiciary and the crown. When the governing party doesn't have a majority, that's not some mistaken fault in the system, that IS the system - it is how the system limits the power of a party that does not have a mandate from the electorate. Rather than pursuing policies that are divisive and don't have universal support, a party in that situation should be constrained to policies which command cross-party support. This system of government is what is in authority over us, and what we should be praying for - not just Johnson, not just the Conservatives, but for the whole structure that has been put in place by God for our good, of which this incarnation of the Conservative and Unionist Party is no more than a passing note.
One of my concerns about the Johnson regime is the way in which this structure was treated by him and his regime. Rees-Mogg lied to the queen - despised the crown - regarding the prorogation of parliament, the party sought to curtail parliamentary oversight, Johnson said the supreme court ruling was wrong. On multiple occasions, the Conservative party used executive authority to override the mechanisms of the state, specifically to prevent damage to itself (by suppressing reports which government mechanisms had produced). In other words, the Conservative party has sought to overturn every major component of our system of government, to guarantee their own authority. This was also included in their manifesto, and is what they are setting about now, in "reforming" the civil service, and with their plans to make high court judges political appointees. This is not democracy, this is not the authority of the system: it's the opposite, the usurping of that authority.
So what should we do? Who or what should we be praying for? I genuinely believe that in supporting the Conservative party as the ruling party, we are actually supporting a party which is seeking to overturn our government. The argument that we should not oppose those in authority, but pray for them, to my mind misunderstands the nature of authority and the rule of law in this country. It is not political parties that rule over us, it's the political and democratic system which has been established over centuries. The Conservatives are bent on scrapping this.
In a democracy, we have the right - in fact, as members of the electorate, the responsibility - to do something about this. We can oppose those who usurp power and corruption with our votes, with our legitimate protests, with commentary, in addition to praying for those in authority. We do not (yet) live in the regime of absolute power that Christians in the Roman empire did. In addition to volunteering for foodbanks (as Justin Welby suggests) it is legitimate to call out government policies which are resulting in poverty. In addition to supporting the homeless, we can point to what can be done to reduce homelessness. As Christians, we should not simply be socially and politically concerned, but we should not be less than socially and politically concerned.