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Back to school… August 6, 2020

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Intriguing that Breda O’Brien is the one IT commentator to offer a half-way robust analysis of the reopening of schools. One that eschews the rather florid and vague language of Fintan O’Toole on the same subject the same weekend in favour of looking at the hard issues around how the ‘plan’ will work.

Her basic thesis is sound:

The only way the virus can be kept out of schools is if community transmission is low. Conditions will be far from ideal in school. If we are going to ask very young people and their teachers to take these risks, everyone else is going to have to wear masks, practise social distancing and be willing to give up unsafe socialising or going abroad unnecessarily.

And she puts her finger on one key aspect:

The worries expressed about reopening are real. Schools are being asked to operate in conditions different from most of society. For example, in my local church, only 72 people are allowed to attend in a space with soaring vaulted ceilings that measures seven times the size of a larger classroom. We will be putting 24 pupils and a teacher into 49sq m in classrooms. Sure, schools are full of healthy young people while churches are mainly full of older people at greater risk. But some of the rules that apply in supermarkets, pubs and restaurants, or even choirs, will not apply in school. School buses are being treated differently to public transport.

Many teachers have underlying health conditions as do a minority of students but only the most high-risk individuals will be allowed to work from home.

My concern is what happens if outbreaks occur in school settings and not merely for students, staff and teachers affected, no doubt some injuriously. What is plan B? O’Brien argues that given other issues, educational, mental health and so forth, ‘reopening remains the least bad option’. That may indeed be correct as it stands at the moment. But what if reopening proves impossible to sustain. We’ve seen numerous instances now where as in Israel it has been necessary to shut down, due in part to transmission in schools (and evidence continues to come in as to the issue of infection within schools and other settings with young people), but also more broadly in the community.

Perhaps inevitably some accounts of how Israel and other places fared are beginning to seep into the consciousness of the media at last. They make for grim reading.

Confident it had beaten the coronavirus and desperate to reboot a devastated economy, the Israeli government invited the entire student body back in late May. Within days, infections were reported at a Jerusalem high school, which quickly mushroomed into the largest outbreak in a single school in Israel, possibly the world.

And the conclusions of those in Israel?

The lesson, experts say, is that even communities that have got the spread of the virus under control need to take strict precautions when reopening schools. Smaller classes, mask wearing, keeping desks two metres apart and providing adequate ventilation, they say, are likely to be crucial until a vaccine is available.

I think it is reasonable to reopen schools on some basis. As the article notes ‘Only one option has been ruled out: closing the schools. “This is a long-term pandemic,” said Dr Nadav Davidovitch, a pandemic policy adviser to the government. “We cannot close schools for a year.”’. That’s fair enough. The question is on what basis are schools reopened. And that looks likely to mean adopting much more stringent measures than those currently advocated.

Note that in this state that two-metres requirement has already been diluted down, potentially to no metres at all in some instances. As to smaller classes the pushback against any sort of remote learning has, at least rhetorically, put paid to that. And yet, as noted earlier during the week, the trope that ‘everywhere’ in Europe had reopened schools – entirely false as it happens since Germany only just reopened theirs with considerable social distancing, is now being superseded by huge concerns raised in states which have attempted reopenings. For example:

Denmark’s state epidemiologist has said he could not recommend proceeding to the next phase of reopening society during the coronavirus outbreak, Danish media Ingenioeren reported.

“It is not something that I can recommend from a healthcare perspective that you go ahead with,” Kare Molbak, director of Statens Serum Institut (the State’s Serum Institute) said according to Ingenioeren.

The government and parliament are due to begin discussing the fourth phase of reopening, including nightclubs, this month.

And tellingly:

The weekly number of people infected with Covid-19 in Denmark has risen in the past couple of weeks.

But there’s more. Only last night the Guardian had this report looking at the cases in Georgia and Israel and offering this sobering conclusion:

Amid a vigorous debate in the UK and elsewhere about the reopening of schools, the Georgia events have highlighted how little is known about the spread of Covid in younger age groups, with much of the focus in recent months on older and more vulnerable populations.

Part of the issue, as the Harvard epidemiologist William Hanage explained last month, is that many countries closed schools early in the pandemic, leaving little opportunity to study if and how the virus spread among children, and studies that had been made of children and transmission were sometimes problematic.

And:

“The other thing about it is that the closure of schools and other interaction, other actions that people have taken as part of social distancing, limit the opportunity of children to make contacts along which the virus could transmit. So, we’re not seeing the types of interactions that we might expect if schools are opened.”

Air bridges to nowhere… August 6, 2020

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There’s been quite some pushback against the idea that pubs might have to remain closed for schools to open. That this has been mentioned in the UK this last few days in a way only adds to a broader dynamic of bring the posited approach to the fore. And that pushback?

Infectious diseases expert Prof Jack Lambert has said it is not “the right message” to be saying that “if we open up the pubs then the schools won’t be able to open in September”.

The UCD associate professor also said he did not believe the State’s restrictive travel policy is the answer to dealing with Covid-19.

He said there were fewer cases of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland than in the Republic even though the South has a more restrictive travel policy.

His alternatives?

“regional targeted openings” of pubs “maybe . . . would make sense instead of total openings. Or maybe we should go ahead with the openings. We’re kind of saying if we open up the pubs then the schools won’t be able to open in September.”

Regional targeted openings. On a small island. That’s going to work.

Then again Prof Lambert has some thoughts on this small island. Earlier last month he was musing about the travel restrictions (again) and offered this argument:

I would have been happy to travel to Greece, with all appropriate hand-washing, social distancing and use of face masks, both while in transit and while there. And I would feel it safe to return to Ireland without risk to those I cherish. So it is reasonable to have certain “air bridges”, including Greece, where it is safe for Irish people to travel and return, as long as they follow all appropriate prevention behaviours.. Instead I will probably go to visit sick relatives in Scotland, and I would place Scotland currently as higher risk. I would turn my trip there into my summer holiday, and try to make the most of it. I need time away and a holiday myself (it’s been tough for us all) and I would do everything at all stages of my Scottish holiday to conduct “Covid prevention” safely. People are travelling, and we should be ensuring safe travel, not chastising those who wish to travel and deciding what is okay and what is not. It is the personal responsibility of every Irish citizen who chooses to travel to make sure they do so safely.

Problem is, as is evident with the situation in Spain, the air-bridges idea has fallen apart due to a basic reality of the virus. It moves awful fast. Awful fast.

For example, George Lee made a good point on RTÉ this last week, he noted that rates of infection by Covid-19 change very quickly. He said that when the Green List was published on the 17th July Malta was one the safest, 0.8 cases in 100,000, they now have 6.9 cases. Cyprus has gone from 3.7 to 5.1. Finland was 0.9 and remains low. But the Netherlands has gone from 5.4 to 12. Spain is as he said ‘the big one’ with a jump from 17.7 to 49.2 all in the space of twelve days. If nothing else this suggests that ‘green lists’ and such like are cosmetic at best, that the complaints of the airlines are very short-sighted and that extreme caution is necessary – and one useful rejoinder from some comments BTL in various places is why on earth we would want to go to somewhere with a lower rate of infection potentially important infection with us. That’s not something one hears every day but it is a very very valid point.

The Guardian noted that the reimposition on controls between the UK and Spain was ‘as much about politics as hard data’. And yet for once perhaps the UK deserved a bit of credit because as the piece noted:

Yet it was also down to lessons learned the hard way about slow v speedy decision-making over the course of the pandemic – the decision-making was as much about politics and messaging as hard data.

Advisers studying the figures at the end of last week say they were deeply concerned about the rate of the rise in Spain, and the potential for thousands of cases to be imported by tourists. Though low in number, the coronavirus cases detected in holidaymakers returning from Spain are believed to be the first from a country which had been previously deemed to be safe to visit.

And the piece actually undercuts the idea this was equally about politics. That may have been a consideration, no doubt was. But those numbers in Spain are concerning in the extreme.

In a way this also points up the pointlessness, at this stage (and that is necessary to emphasise), of airbridges. Simply put the situation is too fluid to allow for them given the mobility of the virus and its ability to spread so rapidly.
And of course that’s quite apart from potential issues such as this.

Ryanair has clashed with Italy’s air travel regulators, who have threatened to ground the airline’s flights for breaches of Covid-19 safeguards.

Enac, Italy’s civil aviation authority, confirmed on Wednesday that it wrote to Ryanair for violations of its anti-Covid health regulations on board the Irish carrier’s craft.

Some of the alleged violations reported on various media are quite remarkable (apologies in advance for this link).

But consider the point quoted above about trust in ‘personal responsibility’ – presumably something along the lines of the personal responsibility of UK and other European tourists in Spain in resorts which had to shut down bars and night clubs due to lack of social distancing. It’s actually bizarre given we have evidence in front of our eyes as to how hard won gains can be frittered away in days by reopening too swiftly that there’s any weight afforded to such arguments.

And there is a strong case to be made that every effort should be made to ensure schools are safer to go into come the Autumn. Keeping levels of community transmission as close to zero as part of that are key. It is possible, very possible, that keeping pubs and other such outlets shut for a period longer will be part of that too. I’ve been following the progress of the disease in Victoria. It makes for genuinely disturbing reading to see how tenaciously the virus took hold and has exploded there. I find it strange in the extreme how little that experience appears to be filtering in to how we deal with this here.

John Hume August 6, 2020

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An obituary from Eamonn McCann on Rebel. Thanks to BH for sending the link.

Podcast Episode on The Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist) August 5, 2020

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This episode covers The Internationalists, Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist) and their affiliated groups.
You’ll find links to all the previous episodes and providers here

Northern Troubles in Irish History: Moving beyond War of Independence propaganda with Dr Niall Meehan… A Virtual Féile Event August 5, 2020

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At Féile this weekend:

Over nearly thirty years’ historians depicted the killing of Kate Carroll in April 1921 by the Monaghan IRA as sectarian.Dr Niall Meehan will discuss errors of fact and of interpretation, and how treatment of Carroll’s death represents a symptomatic failure by revisionist historians. He will contrast historians’ interest in alleged sectarian attacks on Protestants with relative disinterest in anti-Catholic pogroms, whose 100th anniversary falls in 2020. The real reason for the execution of Kate Carroll will be revealed.

Niall Meehan is the author of The Embers of Revisionism (https://www.academia.edu/34075119). A fully sourced essay, on academia.edu, will accompany the talk .

Here is the introduction by Jack Lane accompanying the essay:

During the 1990s Irish historiography, in its ‘revisionist’ variant, made a startling discovery: the IRA systematically persecuted Protestants during the 1919-22 Irish War of Independence. Because not previously a feature of historical writing, the ‘persecuted-Protestant’ field was portrayed as something not merely new but previously hidden by ‘Catholic-nationalists’. The very fact of its emergence, into the light of academic consideration, demonstrated to polite society that, as TCD’s Anne Dolan put it, ‘fester[ing] under the quite sanitised surface of Irish nationalism’ were what ‘may have been little more than a sequence of dirty deeds’.

Ireland had been seen as a country subject to British sectarian, colonial and imperialist aggression, a rulership that included war, dispossession, and famine. Then, in 1919-22, the victims were victorious. Mainly Roman Catholic Irish nationalists and republicans, despite espousing anti-sectarian sentiments, allegedly turned the tables on their now defenceless erstwhile Protestant overlords. The latter, in the guise of innocent Protestant civilians, were subjected in their homes, farmsteads and businesses to, as the late Peter Hart put it in 1996, ‘what might be termed “ethnic cleansing”’. This effort was concentrated, he said, in south Leinster and Munster, most particularly in Cork.

Hart’s multi-sourced and nuanced analysis was praised, almost universally. Roy Foster and Baron [formerly merely Paul] Bew of Donigore heralded Hart as the foremost historian of the ‘Irish Revolution’. Journalists Kevin Myers and Eoghan Harris were newspaper champions.

Historians from outside the academic bubble picked some holes. Why did Hart omit from his analysis clear evidence that some Protestants, said by Hart to be innocent IRA victims, were loyalist participants in the conflict? How did he manage to interview an anonymous elderly participant in the November 1920 Kilmichael ambush six days after the last participant died in November 1989? Some historians inside the bubble began questioning too. His figures on southern Protestant population decline were not merely wrong; he made them up. The boy genius’s reputation became somewhat tarnished, despite valiant attempts to resuscitate it and to undermine his critics as cranks.

Young historians were meanwhile encouraged to search out examples of sectarianism in what was to become in 1922 the 26-County Irish Free State. Looking within the confines of the new Six-County Northern Irish territory, made up of six of Ulster’s nine counties, was discouraged. Its birth pangs were bathed in the blood of 455 people, after thousands of Catholics (and ‘rotten prods’, socialists and trade unionists, who supported them) were expelled from their jobs, homes and businesses in 1920-22. Most of the victims were Catholics whose fate would, if included, upset new research parameters.

Instead, historians mined an apparently rich seam of sectarianism in Monaghan: an Ulster county left out of Northern Ireland because, like Donegal and Cavan, it contained too many Catholics for unionists to successfully subdue. The sectarianism historians were interested in, though, was of the republican variety.

A woman called Kate Carroll was fore-grounded, one of three women executed by the IRA between 1919-21, from a currently estimated total of 196. Her end constituted enough of an exception from which historians could generalise. This putative sectarian victim was presented as a poor Protestant poitín distiller. Terence Dooley of NUI Maynooth said (four times) that the IRA targeted her in a ‘callous’ act of sectarian ‘revenge’, as a result of imagined ‘ancient grievances’ and ‘jealousies’. The charge of spying against her was, said Fearghal McGarry of QUB, ‘a convenient rationale for the execution of an obvious and antisocial security risk’. She was a ‘middle aged Protestant spinster’ of ‘no social consequence’. UCD’s Diarmaid Ferriter thought she might have been killed because she ‘had amorous intent towards an [unappreciative] IRA man’, an assertion Anne Dolan originated and Fearghal McGarry repeated. The different, sometimes overlapping and contradictory arguments, are paraphrased on the cover.

This essay by Dr Niall Meehan examines historians’ claims. He demonstrates that their dissection of the sad fate of Kate Carroll is wanting in every respect, not least in the fictitious origin of the sectarianism argument. He presents here for the first time a detailed explanation of why the IRA executed Kate Carroll in April 1921.

Dr Meehan explains how Irish revisionist historiography has produced a fantasy version of Irish history. He contrasts the imaginary sectarianism concocted in the case of Kate Carroll with the comparatively ignored real thing on the streets of Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland.

This essay should be read by all interested in how history is written, as distinct from made.

Irish history students could consider it as their professors explain what transpired when historians happened upon the death of Kate Carroll. It might become a case study of, ‘how not to write history’.

Back to the office? August 5, 2020

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Again, speaking of remote working, apparently not yet back to the office in the UK according to this report from the Guardian which notes that:

Boris Johnson’s plea that people “should be going back to work” in offices across England from Monday appeared to have gone unheeded in central Birmingham.

In the Colmore business district, which normally has 35,000 workers, most office blocks were largely deserted and at the city’s train stations at rush hour only a handful of people sauntered out, mostly heading to work in shops or hospitals rather than to office-based jobs.

What’s curious is that, if these businesses interviewed here are any guide, there’s less appetite for a return than might be expected. Or perhaps that’s not curious given that as one interviewee notes given health risks they do not want their team in the same place at the same time. Their answer, a decentralisation to multiple offices rather than the previous large one and keeping some employees at home.

Meanwhile, let us hope this spells the end of the open plan office.

Remote working/returning to work and claiming credit August 5, 2020

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Anyone see the interview with Marc MacSharry in the IT on foot of his ‘box set’ remarks last week about public servants working from home.

Contacted for his response Mr MacSharry said he was “not getting into individual cases because they are far too numerous to mention”.

But he said “I welcome the fact that two days after my remarks, and the reaction that it procured” a circular was issued last Thursday “that everybody should unless absolutely necessary be back in their normal place of work, which I think is in line with the public health advice and it’ll serve society better”.

The IT suggests that:

Mr MacSharry was referring to a shift in Government policy last week when public sector staff were told they would be required to return to workplaces “when and as necessary, and deemed appropriate by their employer”.

But is the document the vindication of his position he suggests?
You can download it from here.

Flick to pp7 and you’ll read this:

The recovery of society and the economy is a priority for the public service. Public Service employees will be required to return to the employer’s work premises when and as necessary and deemed appropriate by their employer.

Which sort of states the obvious.

But then:

The Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business provides for home working to continue where possible. Home working will continue as and when deemed appropriate by the employer. Any continuation of home working must be balanced with the requirement to continue to provide the most effective and efficient services to the public.

And it goes on to say:

To continue to facilitate social distancing and public health requirements, where feasible, employers may consider the continuation of temporary alternative arrangements, or new temporary arrangements e.g. continuing to work from home or remotely on an agreed temporary basis, flexible shifts, staggered hours, longer opening hours, blended working patterns, weekend working etc. There should be engagement between management and unions/associations, in line with appropriate arrangements, for any such continued or new arrangements.

As well as:

Employers must ensure that all work premises have implemented robust return to workplace procedures, where not already in place, and that all procedures comply with the Roadmap and Return to Work Safely Protocol. These procedures should be clearly communicated to employees. The Protocol sets out the steps employers need to take in order to ensure the employer’s work premises is safe during COVID-19.
Employers should ensure that they have properly implemented the advice in the protocol and ensure that it is tailored, where necessary, to meet the unique set of circumstances pertaining to each sector and workplace location.

So, not quite the full-throated call for a return to workplaces that MacSharry suggests and certainly not a call that “everybody should unless absolutely necessary be back in their normal place of work”. That would appear to be a misrepresentation.

I’ve noted that the very same day as the PS guidelines dropped I was informed by the area I work in in the PS that:

…staff who can work remotely from home should do so. In
addition to the public health risk, it is also acknowledged that the capacity of public transport … may not be adequate to accommodate all staff in making their way to work … consequently a reduced on on-site capacity is required.

Oddly MacSharry doesn’t bother to acknowledge, let alone, address any of that. I’ve no doubt that some in the PS are keen to see workers back in offices (though this is an interesting straw in the wind) – but as people on here will attest, some have been working in those offices for the duration of the crisis, or most of it, and others like myself are working from home doing a 9 – 5.30 day and have been for months now. And the logistical problems remain – such as transport. In four weeks or so there’s going to be additional strains put on the transport system as schools and other educational institutions return. Realistically, given there is a pattern of private sector employments where feasible operating remotely, it makes little sense to force workers back.

What you want to say – 5 August 2020 August 5, 2020

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As always, following on Dr. X’s suggestion, it’s all yours, “announcements, general discussion, whatever you choose”, feel free.

Over 50s shielding? August 4, 2020

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From the Guardian:

According to the Sunday Times, measures under consideration [by the UK government] include asking older people to shield once again and lockdown-like conditions for London should there be a second wave.It was claimed it could even lead to those aged between 50 and 70 given “personalised risk ratings”, in a move that would add to the 2.2 million people who were deemed most vulnerable and asked to shield themselves from society during the spring peak.

If that proposal is unlikely to see the light of day it does indicate the ever increasingly extreme nature of this ‘new normal’ and how far from any genuine normality it is. Zoe Williams in the same paper notes that ‘…it shows a poor understanding of family composition: many people in their 50s will still have teenagers and young adults living at home. Their children, unless the plan is that they also shield, should be going back to school or university, not to mention restarting the economy with their social lives – which would completely negate the extra protection afforded their parents by remaining at home. Before the crisis, one in five people aged between 50 and 64 was a carer for an elderly relative; that proportion has surely risen, now that even the elderly who were not previously housebound are considered too high risk to go out’. And then there’s ‘no consideration of the knock-on economic effect: no talk of a tailored furlough scheme, no indication of who will be able to afford to “eat out to help out”, once all the boomers are out of the picture’.

As Williams notes, it seems so unlikely that perhaps it was a deflection mechanism used by the Tories. But it points up a certain truth. The sheer vulnerability of so many in populations is such that ‘living with the virus’ seems to be almost impossible to achieve. At every turn there are paths for the virus to burn through to those who are vulnerable.

Exile? August 4, 2020

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Noted in comments here by Paul Culloty. Isn’t this remarkable news, that Juan Carlos, former King of Spain is going into exile? This on foot of investigations into corruption, not least:

Probes are under way in Switzerland and Spain where media regularly publish details of the murky management of funds allegedly paid to the former head of state by Saudi Arabia.

Spain’s Supreme Court announced in June an investigation to determine the legal responsibility of the ex-monarch – but only for acts committed after his abdication, due to the immunity he previously held.

Apparently ‘The letter [in which he announced this decision] did not mention where the former king would go, nor when exactly he would leave Spain’.

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