LABOUR politician Tony Benn understood the problem. He said that we should ask the powerful people who govern us the following simple questions: ‘What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? How can we get rid of you?’
This week, despite the double vaccination of all the Covid-19 vulnerable people and the presence of Covid antibodies in an estimated 93 per cent of the population, the government still has standby plans to introduce vaccine passports for large leisure venues.
All sorts of contingency plans are mentioned in the ‘Autumn and Winter Plan’ announced on Tuesday. COVID-19 Response: Autumn and Winter Plan 2021 – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) It has also been reported (though denied) that the government is considering further national lockdown measures at the end of October, possibly to include an extension of the school half term break by a week. There have been threats to introduce lockdowns again this coming winter.
According to these reports, which are sourced from a member of Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), the cause of new lockdown measures would be rising hospitalisation numbers. But the numbers of people in hospital with Covid are currently one third of the 2020/21 winter average and less than 20 per cent of the winter peak, at a time when the protection from vaccination was low to non-existent. The NHS coped then. Treatment has improved, which means that hospital stays are likely to shorten.
So how could yet another society and economy destroying lockdown be introduced just like that? Let us look at the answer through Tony Benn’s questions.
First, the power that Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi and Health Secretary Sajid Javid are exercising comes from the health ‘Blob’ in the form of NHS management that wants everything done to protect itself, and the Sage member who is proposing it. Neither has any intention of being publicly accountable or rigorously scrutinised (the Sage scientist is conveniently anonymous) about their proposals.
There is simply no official, and little mainstream media, questioning of the validity of such drastic measures that would have a deleterious effect on the daily lives of most of the population.
That the NHS and Sage have such power comes from politicians handing it to them without the explicit approval of Parliament or the electorate. This allows politicians to ignore collateral damage and duck their wider responsibilities.
MPs, peers, parliamentary committees, as well as other interested and affected institutions, have no say because the system of accountability has been sufficiently weakened to make their opinions irrelevant and their ability to do anything about it almost non-existent.
To Tony Benn’s third question, it has been obvious since the beginning of the pandemic that the interests of the institutions themselves (NHS, Department of Health) are prioritised. The treatment of older people shows it starkly, and the still prevalent effort of the health system to prevent people seeing their GPs, with the consequential absence of early diagnosis and treatment of life-threatening illnesses, is already a national scandal. ‘Protect the NHS’ rather than ‘Protect the Public’ was, and remains, an unvarnished pointer to the priorities.
To the fourth question of accountability, the Sage scientists have the privilege of being extraordinarily powerful yet unaccountable. They hide behind complex numerical models giving false certainty to forecasts and are indulged by politicians to do exactly that to give politicians cover.
When the more honest of the scientific experts declare their objections, as has been the case with the JCVI refusing to recommend vaccinating children as young as 12, the politicians turn to another group of unaccountable health bureaucrats, namely the heads of the public health bodies, and ask them to overturn that decision on spurious grounds. With their jobs and reputations in government at stake, we should have expected their compliance which has now been announced.
Having identified this power, seen how it works and just how unaccountable and egregious its effects are, let’s see how good we are at getting rid of the people exercising it, Benn’s fifth question.
The highest-profile member of Sage is Professor Neil Ferguson. He has been consistently wrong in his forecasts of deaths from Covid-19, has an awful track record in previous forecasts of deaths from other pathogens and blatantly broke the lockdown rules he supported. He is still in place, so we couldn’t get rid of him.
No other member of Sage has been forced to resign despite poor advice and forecasting errors.
No NHS leaders appear to have been forced to leave despite an acknowledged poor management performance across the NHS. The political leader of the non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) on behalf of the NHS, Matt Hancock, resigned as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care only because he was caught on camera in a Covid rule breaking clinch with an adviser.
So in the case of the Covid-19 measures, the UK governance system fails all of Tony Benn’s democratic tests.
Yet this is but one example. Tony Benn applied them to the EU’s political governance before the UK left the EU and found it wanting. But UK politicians, civil servants and influential public bodies have cleverly adopted it to gain and retain the ultimate power in our, only notionally, democratic system.
The use and infiltration of powerful interest groups such as the greens and Extinction Rebellion drives policy in this weakened governance system with shocking results in energy and ‘climate’ policy, in wasteful white elephant projects and in the adoption of unpopular ‘woke’ driven policies and processes.
The Benn tests can be applied to the power and decision-making processes in each of these areas and the results would be the same.
The only hope is to revitalise our decision making, accountability and scrutiny systems, make politicians take responsibility for political decisions, civil servants for implementation, and re-calibrate that decision-making process to take account of the needs of the people, both individually and as a whole, rather than the manic ideologies and pet projects of unaccountable special interest groups.