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What a week. It’s been full of coronavirus news here in the UK.

Vaccine

The UK was the first country in the world to distribute a coronavirus vaccine.

A 90-year-old grandmother, Margaret Keenan, was the first person to receive the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock wept. He’s never openly cried about those made unemployed and destitute during the coronavirus crisis for which he is largely responsible. Sickening:

Good Morning Britain‘s physician, Dr Hilary Jones, explained that Mrs Keenan could still get COVID-19 and transmit it:

It seems to work the way that a flu vaccine does. If one gets the virus, the effects won’t be as bad as if one weren’t vaccinated.

I wouldn’t advise thinking about that too much, because it could lead down a rabbit hole:

The great scientists of SAGE also said life would not return to normal (see Select Committee section below). We are likely to be in the same situation well into next year, probably the autumn. This is what the ex-barrister and co-editor of Conservative Woman says:

Continuing down the rabbit hole re the vaccine:

Wales

Meanwhile, in Labour-controlled Wales, coronavirus hospitalisations are higher than they were early this year — despite a short, sharp lockdown, ‘firebreak’, that recently ended:

Guido Fawkes opined (emphases in the original):

Lockdowns, even short ones, evidently temporarily drop cases. Yet selling them on the promise that they enable more things to open once they end, as Welsh Labour did, appears to turbocharge case numbers far more than having simple, predictable and steady rules. The psychology of re-openings could well mean that in the long run, Wales’ “short sharp firebreak lockdown” – modelled on Keir Starmer’s demand – did more harm than good…

The Prif Weinidog — that’s First Minister in Welsh — Mark Drakeford blamed his own countrymen for the failure of his ‘firebreak’:

I couldn’t agree more. Lockdowns, firebreaks — whatever one calls them — do not work.

Why would anyone trust a government to dictate their lives? This is a photo of Grenfell Tower (public housing) in London, which burned in June 2017 because of faulty cladding:

And that brings me neatly to the next topic.

PCR versus Lateral Flow testing

The UK Government rejected a petition about PCR (swab) testing because they said they are not responsible for it. Hmm:

This is the nub of the problem. The Government absolves itself of responsibility. So do the scientists. People actually believe this guff.

Where do Government ministers get the idea for lockdown and excuse potentially faulty test results if it weren’t for the scientists and health organisations working with them?

But I digress.

Returning to testing, a few weeks ago, nearly all of Liverpool’s residents took the Lateral Flow test in a pilot programme. The Lateral Flow test works similarly to a pregnancy test and could be used on a daily basis as an ‘all clear’ strategy to give people more freedom and certainty to go about their lives. If successful, its use could allow visits to patients in care homes.

Very few of the Lateral Flow results were positive. If I remember rightly, the figure was 0.3%.

No doubt if those same people had taken the PCR test, the results would have been very different.

Therefore, this is interesting:

I’m just posting it to show there is a huge question over which test is more accurate.

PCR could work, provided the cycle thresholds were lowered from 40 to 35. But that is not happening.

The scientists of SAGE: Susan Michie

Anyone who reads Guido Fawkes regularly will know that SAGE has some questionable members, including this woman who appeared regularly on BBC News during the first lockdown. She might still be appearing on the BBC. I only watched between March and June to watch the spin they put on the Government’s coronavirus briefings:

Michie’s mother was worth a fortune:

The Daily Mail said the owners of the painting were a mystery, until all was revealed (emphases mine):

The painting was in fact sold by 30-year-old Ms Murray’s mother, Professor Susan Michie. She and her two siblings had been left the picture by their mother, the celebrated IVF pioneer Dame Anne McLaren.

When she died in 2007 she left an estate valued at £52,105,910. The vast bulk of that sum represented the value of the painting.

In her will, the Mail can reveal, she stated that if her children chose to sell then ‘if possible it should be sold to an art gallery or museum in the United Kingdom’.

According to a source, family members were ‘disappointed’ at the decision to put the painting on the market. While the sale attracted a tax bill of £20million, that would have left the trio about £10million each — more than enough to share around other members of their extended family.

Three SAGE members appear before Select Committee

Moving on to other SAGE members, Sir Patrick Vallance, Prof Chris Whitty and Dr Jenny Harries appeared once more before the Science and Technology Select Committee on Wednesday, December 9, for a year-end review of lessons learned during the pandemic. Greg Clark MP, who heads that Select Committee, and MPs from both Conservative and Opposition parties asked probing questions. You can watch the three-and-one-half hour session here.

Unfortunately, Vallance, Whitty and Harries were no clearer about lessons learned. In fact, they were vaguer than they were in earlier sessions:

– The vaccine will not be a fix for coronavirus. Not everyone will be able to take the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine because it will not be suitable for them.

– Human behaviour (Harries’s speciality) is very hard to predict. Harries admitted that.

Hospitality has been the scapegoat because that is where alcohol can be consumed.

– Conclusions on BAME communities’ susceptibility to the virus are unclear.

– Lockdown restrictions will be with us well into next year.

The worst admission — and I have been saying this to my far better half for at least a month — was when Vallance said that self-isolation is better for the person who has a steady job and can work from home. Self-isolation, he said, is not suitable for someone in precarious employment who has to show up to work every day! (Who knew?) Good grief!

They have no real answers, yet they’re still ruling our lives via the Government!

Sky News suspends newsreader

Kay Burley, one of Sky News’s star newsreaders, celebrated her 60th birthday on Saturday, December 5, in London.

Unfortunately, the celebrations did not take place in an entirely COVID-compliant way.

Ms Burley was suspended until early January 2021. (See update below.)

Guido Fawkes has the story:

Some people won’t see that as big news, but it is.

It points out the hypocrisy of the media, who were clamouring for a lockdown in March then flout the rules when we are still in one via the tier system. London is in Tier 2.

This was Kay Burley’s apology:

The Guido Fawkes team delved deeper. This is what they discovered (emphases in the original). Guillaume Depoix (point 5 below) owns the Folie restaurant:

The trouble for Kay is that this statement does not address the whole story, and contradicts what the owner of the restaurant told Guido about the event yesterday. Either the restaurant owner was not telling the truth to Guido, or Kay has been fibbing…

    1. Her party at the “Covid compliant” club was made up of ten people, split across two tables. Yet the ‘Rule of Six’ apples to social events like birthday parties inside or outside. The only other gatherings such as business meetings can exceed it...
    2. Kay’s statement presumes she walked all the way to the restaurant Folie to spend her penny. Despite it being not exactly next door to the club she came from.
    3. Kay does not mention the other people who came with her into the second restaurant. Yet the owner admitted to Guido yesterday that “several people” came in to the restaurant.
    4. Guido was initially told by the restaurant owner that Kay and her friends had gone in to the second restaurant after curfew “to pay a bill, that was it”. Not to go to the loo…
    5. When Guido put to restaurant owner Guillaume Depoix that Kay and company had been in the restaurant for quite a while, “a couple of hours”, this was not denied. Guido certainly got the impression the group were there for a considerable amount of time.
    6. Kay does not mention the other people who came back to her home. Yet she didn’t deny it.

Whilst Kay’s statement tries to take all the blame, Guido has yet to hear what her Sky News colleagues and party guests Beth Rigby, Inzamam Rashid, and Sam Washington have to say …

On Tuesday, December 8, i reported (emphases mine):

Sky News presenter Kay Burley has been taken off air after she admitted to breaching coronavirus restrictions, i understands. She has been replaced on the breakfast show for her remaining shows this week and is already due on annual leave until 4 January …

The TV host is facing an internal inquiry for what she described as “an error of judgment”.

Sources told i the presenter was called into Sky’s headquarters in Osterley, west London, for an urgent meeting with bosses on Tuesday morning. The channel’s most senior staff, John Riley, head of news, and Christina Nicoletti Squires, director of content, were seen entering the newsroom at the time the meeting was due to be held.

Burley will be replaced by early morning presenter Niall Paterson on Wednesday and other presenters will cover her programme for the remainder of the week. Burley was already set to be on annual leave from next Monday until 4 January 2021.

A source close to the presenter said she “doesn’t have a leg to stand on” after breaking the Government’s rules, while being employed to grill politicians over the need to follow guidelines.

It is not clear if she has been removed from air as part of formal disciplinary proceedings.

When the news of the breach broke on Monday night, Burley was in Coventry, where she was due to anchor the news channel as the first Covid vaccines were administered. She was hastily replaced and ordered back to London for Tuesday’s meeting

Too funny.

Burley, along with colleague and birthday guest Beth Rigby, were among the media stars who endlessly criticised Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s advisor Dominic Cummings, who is staying on until the end of the year, for his lockdown breach during the first lockdown during the Spring:

Burley, who presents a daily breakfast show on Sky News, has grilled politicians on lockdown throughout the pandemic.

In May, she questioned cabinet minister Michael Gove on the controversy over Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle.

A Sky News spokesman said: “We place the highest importance on complying with the Government guidelines on Covid, and we expect all our people to comply.

“We were disappointed to learn that a small number of Sky News staff may have engaged in activity that breached the guidelines.

“Although this took place at a social event in personal time, we expect all our people to follow the rules that are in place for everyone. An internal process is under way to review the conduct of the people involved.”

Sky News declined to comment on Burley being taken off air.

This tweet shows Beth Rigby having a go at Dominic Cummings in May during his press conference:

The Guardian had more on the story:

All of the Sky staff are facing a review of their conduct by their employer, which said it was “disappointed” by the incident.

Burley’s usual 7am breakfast programme was presented from Coventry University hospital on Tuesday by Sarah Hewson. Burley is understood to have already been in the city, where the UK’s first vaccine dose was administered, when the decision was made. There was no mention of the reason for Burley’s absence when the show began

Burley is understood to have blamed the situation on misunderstandings in planning and organising the event. But she did not address why a group of four people, including Rashid and former Sky News royal correspondent and Huawei PR executive Paul Harrison, returned to her home after the dinner, a claim that is not believed to be in dispute. Other Sky News staff are understood to be irritated by details of the event.

Under the tier 2 restrictions in London, indoor social gatherings of any kind are barred except among those who live together or have formed a support bubble. Groups of up to six can socialise outdoors. Police can impose fines of £200 for a first-time breach.

Under the rules, Burley’s initial gathering would only have been allowed if the two tables remained separate throughout and sat outside. It is not clear how many of the group went to the second venue, but Burley’s tweets suggested that the rules were broken during this part of the evening. A group of four gathering at her home would be against the rules unless they remained outside throughout.

Burley has been a stern interrogator of politicians who have been perceived as making excuses over lockdown breaches this year.

In May, she conducted a widely shared interview with the cabinet minister Michael Gove about the Dominic Cummings affair, repeatedly asking him to clarify what the government advice would be for a member of the public “struggling with Covid-19 and you think you’ve got a problem with your eyesight”, in reference to Cummings’ explanation of his trip to Barnard Castle.

She also interviewed the health secretary, Matt Hancock, after Prof Neil Ferguson was forced to resign as a government adviser and asked: “What did you think when you read it? Did you bang your head on the desk?”

Burley’s colleague Adam Boulton, the other star of Sky News, was deeply unhappy with her. The Guardian told us all about it in ‘Kay Burley row could undermine Sky News, warns Adam Boulton’:

The Sky News presenter Adam Boulton has warned that the row over a breach of coronavirus restrictions by his colleague Kay Burley has raised concerns over “the credibility of our journalism”.

With executives at the broadcaster weighing their decision over what sanctions are merited by the actions of Burley and three colleagues who attended her 60th birthday party last weekend, Boulton retweeted several posts about the story on Wednesday, including one that read: “Look at the state of Sky News. The morons spent all summer preaching to us and now look at them!”

Speaking to the Guardian, Boulton noted that his retweets did not necessarily constitute endorsements. But he went on: “That said, I retweet things because I think they’re of public interest, and certainly my feed has reflected a lot of people who are very concerned about the credibility of Sky News, and that I think is the important issue: the credibility of our journalism.”

The intervention from the station’s editor-at-large and former political editor is the first significant comment on the situation from a senior broadcaster at Sky News, where executives have been considering how to deal with the fallout from Burley’s celebrations since Monday.

Boulton said: “My view is that Sky has worked very hard during the whole Covid crisis and has taken a very clear line about public safety, and obviously something like this perhaps underlines [the importance of] that.” And he noted that he believed the matter to be “of widespread concern” to colleagues at the station.

Since Guido Fawkes broke the story on Monday, December 7, Burley’s fellow colleagues who celebrated her birthday have also been suspended:

Beth Rigby, Inzamam Rashid and Sam Washington have all been taken off air during discussions over what sanctions will be imposed. On Tuesday, Burley was withdrawn from consideration for a prestigious TV award, while two of the group signed non-disclosure agreements as Sky sought to limit damage from the row.

Other staff at Sky share Adam Boulton’s consternation:

“The situation is just excruciating,” one producer said. “The longer it goes on, the worse it gets and the harder it is to see this ending without serious punishment.”

Boulton noted that he viewed Burley as a “remarkable” journalist who deserved her success on the station. And he added: “Whatever happens next is not my decision and obviously it’s not up to me to criticise colleagues.”

Nonetheless, his comments will be viewed with alarm by executives hoping to keep staff concerns under wraps until they reach a decision, which is expected to be this week.

It appears that Burley had a safari holiday booked:

Burley herself deleted a tweet saying she was going on holiday on Friday to go “sit with lions”, adding: “They kill for food, not sport” – a possible reference to the media coverage of the situation.

Well, she can take her time and enjoy an extended safari holiday.

————————————

UPDATE: Early this evening, news emerged that Sky News has suspended Burley for six months! Excellent.

Furthermore, Beth Rigby has been suspended for three months; Sam Washington and Inzamam Rashid have also been suspended pending an internal Sky News enquiry. Result!

How pleased Kay and Beth were with themselves only a few days earlier …

————————————

It is a bit rich to defy coronavirus regulations then pole up to a hospital, especially one giving COVID-19 vaccinations:

I’m really glad this has come to light:

Agree. I don’t understand why people give these hypocrites any credibility.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

On the back of the highly successful televised daily coronavirus briefings, No. 10 Downing Street has taken the decision to broadcast weekday afternoon press briefings in October 2020.

At least 2 million people viewed the daily coronavirus briefings every day. Anyone who watched them regularly, as my far better half and I did, knew exactly what the latest on coronavirus was.

I used to tune into the BBC afterwards to get their ‘spin’ on the briefings. I felt as if I were living in a parallel universe, because the self-proclaimed ‘nation’s most trusted’ broadcaster twisted all the main messages.

Therefore, it is no wonder that press briefings are sure to be a ratings winner. Britons at home will be able to see and hear the government’s messages first hand without the spin.

Not surprisingly, the media do not want these briefings televised.

ITV’s political editor Robert Peston is opposed:

Oh, having questions from the public would be great. They worked well on the coronavirus briefings.

Peston really loathes the idea of televised briefings:

Sky’s Beth Rigby also made her opposition clear:

The Press Gazette does not seem to like the plans, either. On July 3, they posted an article, ‘Televised press conference to permanently replace afternoon Downing Street press briefing’.

Excerpts follow, emphases mine:

The briefings will commence in October, be hosted by a political appointee who expected to be an experienced broadcaster, and will take place in a room at Number 9 Downing Street to be converted into a media suite

Boris Johnson confirmed the news on LBC, saying people had liked hearing directly from the Government during the Covid-19 press briefings.

“People have liked a more direct, detailed information from the Government about what is going on – and I think that they’ve actually particularly liked our brilliant scientific and medical advisers, possibly more than the politicians to be frank,” he said.

“We do think that people want direct engagement and want stuff from us, and so we’re going to have a go at that.”

The Daily Mirror’s Pippa Crerar, chair of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, and the Mail’s Jason Groves, chair of the Lobby, said in a joint statement to Press Gazette that they hoped the changes weren’t being made to reduce transparency and Lobby journalists’ access to ministers

See, they care only about themselves. They do not care about the general public.

There was more negativity:

Their comments were echoed by Huffpost’s executive editor for politics Paul Waugh who said on Twitter that the success of the briefings would “depend on whether they lead to genuine scrutiny or propaganda/grandstanding”.

The Society of Editors shared a similar warning that the Government must not make the briefings too “stage-managed” or pick and choose who is allowed to take part.

Executive director Ian Murray said: “If the aim of the televised briefings is to enable greater transparency then it will be important that they are of sufficient length and inclusive in nature to ensure a broad cross section of the media is able to question the government.

“It is vital that the government gives assurances that journalists or media providers out of favour with the administration will not be barred from such briefings and will also be given the opportunity to pose questions.

“Briefings that are too stage-managed and favour the few will not be in the best interests of the public as a whole.”

Yeah, right.

The coronavirus briefings worked really well, so there is no reason to think these will be any different:

The daily Covid-19 press conferences often saw millions tune in to find out updates and see journalists from a wide range of publications grill ministers and scientists.

Guido Fawkes (Paul Staines) was the only one who championed the briefings. He is the UK’s foremost political blogger. As early as January 9, he wrote ‘Live Stream the “People’s Briefings” from Downing Street’. He and his team used to report the highlights from the lobby briefings but perhaps coronavirus put an end to their attendance. In any event, this is what Guido said (red emphases in the original):

In a digital world where news happens in realtime, not to inky deadlines, it is time to just put the briefings out live, streamed to everyone on all platforms. During the election Boris livestreamed his “People’s PMQs” on Facebook, demonstrating there is no technological reason why the briefings can’t be broadcast via a free digital feed to everyone. Hacks will still get to ask the questions, they just won’t be able to spin off-camera, privately delivered answers as they do now. 

The reality is that it isn’t in the interests of hacks to open up the Lobby system or insist more often that quotes are on the public record. Intermediating allows them to more easily introduce their opinions into their new reports. Transparency will devalue their role because information scarcity makes their possession of a spokesman’s phone number so much more valuable. A start to improving and opening up the system would be to put the people’s briefings into the open, in realtime as it happens…

I couldn’t agree more.

On July 2, Guido declared victory when No. 10 announced the news:

He wrote (red emphases in the original):

Guido has won a big victory against the Lobby today, breaking open the Lobby’s preferred closed-style of briefings from Downing Street …

Boris Johnson has clearly listened to the argument for “a culture of transparency and openness’’ in Westminster by backing the broadcasting of the afternoon press briefings and reducing the number of spin doctors across Whitehall. After the success of the televised Covid briefings, Lee Cain plans to continue the on-camera afternoon government briefings. The role will be filled by a political appointee…

Expect an experienced broadcaster to get the job. No 9 Downing Street – where off-camera press briefings are currently held – will be turned into a modern media studio for briefings. A Downing Street source says: “For too long we’ve been running an analogue system in a digital age. People want to hear directly what the government is doing and to see it being held to account…”

Get this next bit, though. Who knew we had 4,000 communications people employed by the government?

The whole of government communications is being overhauled by Alex Aiken, the Executive Director for Government Communications – it will see departments ordered to reduce the 4,000 spin doctors employed by the government. Aiken and Cain believe the changes will lead to smaller, more agile communications operation. Officials have also been told of plans to plans to drastically reduce the government’s communications operation and the number of press officers across Whitehall. Guido’s happy that a decade-long campaign for government briefings unfiltered by Lobby journalists has finally been won…

Me, too.

Veteran broadcaster and journalist Alastair Stewart wrote a good article on this for The Spectator: ‘Boris’s TV briefings could end the lobby pantomime’.

The term ‘lobby’ in this particular context refers to the media.

Pantomime — ‘panto’ — in Britain refers to a Christmas play based on popular old fairy tales, e.g. Puss in Boots. They are fun, noisy performances, often featuring famous television actors in crazy costumes.

One thing we learned from the coronavirus briefings is that the top journalists often ask the same question in an attempt to trap the government. From Monday through Thursday, these journalists were often Laura Kuenssberg (BBC), Robert Peston and Beth Rigby.

I used to watch Laura Kuenssberg afterwards for her spin, which always put an unfavourable light on the government, even when they had something positive to report.

Alastair Stewart says:

Political correspondents often asked the same questions, most seeking a ‘gotcha’ moment in relation to something that should have been done sooner, or better. On occasion they would also use the event to ask questions about non-coronavirus matters.

True, very true.

I was delighted when the government opened up briefing questions to the public. Normally, they had one short video and one written question every day. The public asked useful questions.

The regional press journalists also asked pertinent questions.

Both the public and the regional press were streets ahead of Kuenssberg, Peston and Rigby.

Alastair Stewart thinks so, too:

While the local and regional press were often better still at asking specific, trickier questions which people actually wanted to know the answer to. Most interesting of all perhaps were the members of the public, allowed into the secret society in the closing phase of this farce which inevitably always included some hapless person struggling with the ‘mute’ button.

He is right about referring to the lobby as a secret society:

I am not, and never have been, a member of ‘the lobby’ but it is a sort of Masonic gathering of the political hacks with the Downing Street spokesperson. It is almost as ritualistic: steeped in secrecy, they use the language of ‘sources’, ‘unattributable’ or ‘off-the-record’ and other linguistic mysteries of the game. And, like a St James Club, only members are allowed in.

And, yes, there is ‘a line’ that these guys and gals want to pursue for their anti-government narrative of the day:

When I was a member of the lowly Industrial Correspondents’ lobby, we would gather after a briefing to discuss what ‘the line’ was. I understand a similar game is often played by the political corps, post the Number Ten gatherings. Johnson wants to bust this wide open by putting his man or woman in front of the camera, fielding questions from hacks who will doubtless be ready for their close-ups too.

I disagree with Stewart on the follow-up questions. They became irritating, because the most prominent reporters were grandstanding. He, however, sees it differently:

One precedent that surely will endure from the Covid-19 events will be the supplementary question. It was an error for Johnson to drop these when he was the host. Others, like [health secretary] Matt Hancock, often used them to great effect. What’s more, they added to the public cut and thrust of an exchange between a reporter and a minister. It could be enlightening and, at times, entertaining.

As we do not know yet who will front these briefings on most days, Robert Peston has a suggestion:

Of course, occasionally, a government minister or Boris himself will be at the podium.

Stewart reminds us that past press secretaries had been journalists during their careers:

Churchill had his Brendan Bracken, an FT man. Wilson, Joe Haines, a Mirror man to his finger tips. Thatcher’s Bernard Ingham served the Yorkshire Post and, ironically, the Guardian with distinction. TV has less of a role of honour today but the former Sky News man, the excellent Joey Jones, had a spell in May’s Downing Street.

Who knows what effect this will have on today’s journalism. It is likely to step up a notch. One hopes so, anyway.

In any event:

There is more merit in having a free and frank exchange between press and politicians, in the full glare of the TV lights, than in continuing with the semi-secretive pantomime of the lobby.

The public has a right to know what is really going on in government, without the filter of agenda-driven journalists who by definition oppose conservatives and Conservatives.

It’s great that, post-coronavirus, Boris has resurrected the notion of the ‘People’s Government’.

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