you know what? we’re dying out here

Why Is ‘Test and Trace’ Still Failing?
Mike Buckley, Byline Times, Oct 31 2020
(Mike Buckley is director of the campaign group ‘Labour for a European Future’)

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock. Photo: PA Images

Why is the Government’s test and trace system a failure? It has had nine months to get it working, with the full resources of the state at its disposal. It has spent billions trying to make the system work but still it fails, taking with it any chance of avoiding stringent lockdowns, lost lives and economic harm. In the past week, ‘test and trace’ has seen its worst ever figures, reaching fewer than 60% of contacts when at least 80% is needed for it to work. Even when contacts are traced many ignore the mandated two week isolation. The Government’s own MPs are now calling for change. Bernard Jenkin, chair of the powerful parliamentary Liaison Committee, has called for the system’s current lead Baroness Dido Harding to be sacked, warning of a “vacuum of leadership in test and trace which is destroying public confidence and compliance.” Jenkin is right that Harding is part of the problem. She appears to be incapable of making the system work, and appears to have been appointed, along with many Cabinet ministers, more for her loyalty than her competence. But removing Harding alone is unlikely to make much difference. A senior medic describes the current set up as a “completely dysfunctional private sector trying to work to headlines not deadlines in a field they’ve never actually worked in before,” arguing that Serco, Deloitte and the other private companies given the keys to run test and trace had no experience in running health tests or tracing contacts before this.

The Government has done with test and trace what it has done with many large public contracts over the past decade: passed them to the private sector. Whether because it genuinely believes that the private sector will do a better job, because it wants to give lucrative contracts to companies run by old school friends, or because it hopes for payback come the next election, the result is the same. Outsourcing has been king for 10 years and was the default when designing test and trace. This is not the first time that outsourcing has been an expensive failure. But where other failures have been minor news items, this one has played out publicly and costs lives. Divorcing test and trace from the NHS, with which it has no relationship other than using its logo, has meant that untrained recruits have been tasked with administering medical tests which would normally be the job of nurses or health assistants.

Some doctors believe that failed tests or poor results are inevitable. One I spoke to admitted sending some of his own patients to a private clinic to be certain of getting an accurate test result. Most of us do not have that option. Even if it recognised the failures of private provision, the Government has limited its room for manoeuvre. The public health system has been underfunded and downgraded for years. A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research found that 10 years of cuts had “ripped resilience out of health and social care,” with deprived areas receiving six times more cuts to public health budgets than wealthier areas from 2014 to 2019. A prior review in 2016 found that there was “a high burden of preventable disease and unacceptable inequalities in England” and that “despite agreement on the need for prevention the Government has cut public health budgets by a cumulative 10% to 2020.” Like the scandal of personal protective equipment (PPE) stockpiles being junked years ago, the Government had simply not invested in public health. Pandemic prevention was never a priority, despite years of warnings. Perhaps another Government would have used the pandemic to invest in the recovery of public health. Instead, this one has given more money and autonomy to the private sector.

Some see the Government’s behaviour as part of a centralising, privatising agenda. Back in May, the Guardian reported that the Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock was “using the pandemic to transfer NHS duties to private sector,” accelerating the dismantling of state health-care. Hancock is centralising NHS data, potentially making it available to US pharmaceutical or insurance industries, and has provided no reasonable explanation for the test and trace contract given to US data mining group Palantir. Providing credence to this theory is the Government’s decision to abolish Public Health England. Doing so allows it to reinvent the system through greater private sector involvement as it has done across the NHS since 2010. In all likelihood, the test and trace system’s failure is a result of a hollowed-out public realm and the consequent need to rely on an ill-equipped private sector. But there is an alternative explanation.

In March, pandemic advisor Graham Medley said that “we are going to have to generate what we call herd immunity” by allowing “a nice big epidemic.” The plan was rejected after Neil Ferguson, then a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), published a report laying out the human cost of generating ‘herd immunity,’ hundreds of thousands of lives lost. But, if the dream did not die, then a failing test and trace system would help the cause, as would the refusal to enter a second lockdown despite rapidly rising infections. Conspiracy or not, the tragedy is that every day that test and trace fails, more lives are lost. By taking time to lockdown when cases rise and by continuing to tolerate a malfunctioning test and trace system, the Government is condemning more lives, many of them from among the most vulnerable groups in society. COVID-19 mortality in the UK has already taken a disproportionate toll on poor and minority groups, a reflection of systemic racism and poverty. That trend will only continue. At the same time, the Government is prolonging the economic pain, losing more jobs and spending more in employment support than would otherwise have been necessary. The Government is not short of money, having spent billions on health measures and support for the economy. It is not restricted by Parliament as the use of public health legislation and the further powers conferred by the Coronavirus Act gives it complete freedom. This failure is the Government’s alone.

The Government’s Inept Pandemic Communications Read like a Manual for Failure
David Oliver, Byline Times, Oct 31 2020
(David Oliver is an experienced NHS acute hospital consultant who has treated patients with COVID-19. He has undertaken a variety of national professional leadership, academic, policy and governmental roles and writes a weekly column in the ‘British Medical Journal’)

Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: PA Images

Working as an acute hospital doctor throughout the pandemic, I’ve seen what COVID-19 can do to patients and colleagues and how clinicians and managers in local front-line roles have stepped up to re-organise services at pace, putting their own well-being on the line. I’ve also witnessed a series of failings in policy responses from the Government and its agencies, compounded at every turn by serial shortcomings in communication, by turn inept, economical with the truth and uncoordinated. This makes our jobs harder and destroys the trust of the public and professional workforce at a time when this is crucial. Let’s start with those famous slogans. ‘Hands, face, space’ is a crisp steer for public behaviour, but some of the other components including ‘stay alert,’ ‘control the virus,’ ‘save lives’ and ‘protect the NHS’ seemed confused and vague, and in the latter case contributed to people not seeking care when they should have. Rules and instructions over which groups should shield and how, or the size of groups or support bubbles, curfews and allowed or forbidden activities, and mask-wearing have also caused endless confusion, with ministers themselves often being unable to explain them accurately in interviews.

People absolutely understand that, as a public health crisis evolves and new evidence emerges, governments may have to change tack, but ministers have never satisfactorily explained the scientific advice or rationale leading to those changes. If people are told openly and on the level the reasons for certain decisions being made, then there is a chance you can take them with you. But this hasn’t happened. On some occasions, it has emerged that political decisions flew in the face of the advice from the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and other scientific advisors, for instance the timing of October’s lockdowns when SAGE had advised a ‘circuit breaker’ weeks before. It also took far too long for SAGE’s deliberations and membership to be put into the public domain and was done only following pressure.

From from the outset, the Government could and should have published all data on infection rates, COVID-19 mortality, other causes of health service utilisation and bed numbers to independent bodies such as the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the National Audit Office. The daily Downing Street briefings started by presenting data only on deaths in hospital for people with positive COVID-19 tests, with the Government having to be pushed to present the ONS data on deaths outside of hospitals in settings including care homes and deaths which have COVID-19 recorded on death certificates, whether the person had a COVID-19 test or not. There have been further shifts in definitions of COVID-19 deaths even though doctors writing certificates are bound by clear responsibilities and have no control over data aggregation and presentation. But this led to avoidable rumours about whether COVID-19 deaths were being exaggerated or played down and resulted in the professional integrity of doctors questioned.

Then there were the near meaningless numbers pumped out on Coronavirus testing. Britain went into the pandemic with so little testing capacity that it struggled to obtain them even for sick hospital patients, let alone those at home or in care homes, or staff. The testing numbers have increased by multiples since March. Even now, there is no coherent strategy or operational approach to ‘test, track and trace’ of the type used successfully in several south-east Asian nations or elsewhere in Europe such as Germany. Yet, the Health and Social Care Secretary Hancock turned the whole endeavour into some kind of macho contest in which he could brag about test numbers for the sake of it, without actually defining testing’s purpose. In any case, what does it matter about how many tests there are if people consistently struggle to access them?

A similar ritual played out when it came to the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff, with the Government claiming big numbers and plane-loads. However, this was no comfort to those doing dangerous work on the frontline who could not access it. The insult was compounded by reports of clinical staff being disciplined for speaking out about their concerns and the downgrading in April of the pandemic’s severity by Public Health England, allowing it to recommend lower levels of PPE for staff. A suppressive news management and message control effort from the Government and its agencies made NHS trusts fearful of saying much, with pressure transmitting down to their staff. Journalists complained of poor access to any one who is willing to talk on the record, as they still are regarding hospital activity data in Manchester and Merseyside. In such an atmosphere, unhelpful rumours and investigative exposés thrive. Why, for instance, did the Government have to be pushed and dragged screaming into releasing data on the number of frontline staff who had died from COVID-19?

But then there has been little transparency generally. This has included on the awarding of public contracts for testing and track and trace to companies, despite a number of them having an insufficient background in the area. The comms operations has also compromised senior doctors and nurses working in governmental and non-departmental body roles by putting them up front and centre as human shields to lend credibility and ballast to ministers, finding themselves unable to challenge misleading statements and speak out freely due to the Civil Service Code. There should have been clarity from the outset that accountability for decisions lies with ministers and that advisors merely advise. The Government’s oft-repeated mantra that is was “following the science” was a distortion.

Perhaps the most egregious failure, however, was those in charge flouting the rules. The actions of both the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick and the Prime Minister’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings undermined public trust around the lockdown. The co-ordinated defence of Cummings in particular by the majority of the Cabinet coincided with changes in public adherence to distancing and travel rules, as reported by a Lancet medical journal study in August. Unfortunately, I don’t see any relief from this catalogue of errors coming any time soon.

The government dished out millions on highly questionable contracts while denying starving kids free school meals
Tom Coburg, The Canary, Oct 31 2020

Evidence shows that the Conservative government has thrown hundreds of millions of pounds at companies for what could only be described as dubious or questionable contracts. In contrast, the government was happy to deny free school meals during the October half-term break, meaning many kids were left hungry. In September, The Canary published a listing of known personal protective equipment (PPE) and coronavirus (Covid-19) contractors at that point in time. Some were identified as Tory Party donors; others were dormant or had no experience of producing or sourcing PPE. Since then more evidence has emerged via Jo Maugham QC regarding some of those firms in relation to the provision of ‘coveralls’ (isolation suits):

Maugham showed that the government spent £708m via the 11 biggest contractors, up to 18 October 2020, for the purchase of coveralls. Based on one set of figures, Maugham calculates that £708m is enough to buy around 29m coveralls. However, Maugham points out that so far only 533,000 coveralls have been used, thus leaving a massive shortfall in products or a massive overspend. Contractors and their awards specifically referenced by Maugham in his evaluations include:

Maugham claims corruption at play:

Also, leaked documents seen by Maugham’s Good Law Project reveal that “Cabinet Office contacts and others were helping ‘VIPs’ sell PPE to Government outside normal procurement channels” at inflated prices. And this government largesse is not confined to PPE contracts. Journalist Sam Bright, writing in Byline Times, shows that £180m has recently been handed out to major corporations Bain and Company, McKinsey, Deloitte, KPMG, Accenture and Price Waterhouse Coopers. Their contracts, each worth £30m, state they will “support the successful delivery of the UK’s economic and political independence” and that this will include “relationships with the EU and the rest of the world.” Bright comments:

It seems ironic that Brexit was flogged on the notion that the UK would be regaining its democratic sovereignty from Brussels, yet the country’s “independence” will be delivered by a flock of highly-paid, grey-suited, unelected corporate consultants.

If it’s not government incompetency, it must be something far worse. No doubt in the New Year many more multi-million-pound Brexit-related contracts will also be awarded. Despite these huge awards, the Conservative government, backed by 320 Tory MPs, refused to provide free school meals in England during the Autumn half term. Instead, it was left to local initiatives such as foodbanks, charities, local businesses, councils, and mutual aid groups, to step in and help. An interactive map showed the extent of these initiatives. A similar map was made available by #EndChildFoodPoverty. The Kids Meals Map by The Food Foundation was another resource. It’s claimed by the Food Foundation that 1.4m children age 8-17 experienced food shortages during the summer holidays. Examples given include:

  • Having to eat less and make food last longer because of lack of money to buy more (6%);
  • Parents not eating because there wasn’t enough food at home (5%);
  • Children being hungry but not eating to avoid using up food at home (4%);
  • Children being hungry but not eating because of lack of food at home (4%);
  • Not eating a proper meal due to lack of money for food (4%);
  • Eating at a friend’s house because there wasn’t enough food at home (3%).

But Tory meanness is no aberration:

Meanwhile, Save The Children has produced a Winter Plan For Children proposal, which includes extending eligibility for free school meals in England. Those MPs who voted to reject free school meals for the Autumn half term are the modern equivalent of the beadle (workhouse overseer) in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist: greedy, sneering, and indifferent to widespread poverty. In contrast, during the period 1 Jun 2019 to 31 May 2020 alone, MPs of all parties claimed more than £28m in expenses. This is Britain today: divided by class, governed by the corrupt; where the rich get richer and the poor are treated with contempt.

Starmer begins purge of Corbyn supporters from UK Labour Party
Robert Stevens, WSWS, Oct 31 2020

Sir Keir Starmer at the party’s online conference.
(Photo: Stefan Rousseau/AP)

Within hours of suspending former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, the party leadership under Sir Keir Starmer stepped up its witch-hunt of his supporters. Asked on BBC’s Today programme if Corbyn could be expelled, Starmer said:

Yes, people have been expelled from the Labour Party.

Hew stated that hundreds of ordinary members had been expelled since he replaced Corbyn in April. To enforce its McCarthyite witch-hunt, Labour’s “Governance and Legal Unit” declared that the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) “Investigation into anti-Semitism in the Labour Party” could not be criticised by any party member. Corbyn’s justifiable questioning of the report’s claim of widespread anti-Semitism in the party was the pretext used to suspend him on Thursday. The guidance to Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) from General Secretary Dave Evans, who formally suspended Corbyn, states:

Social media accounts of branches, CLPs and other Party Units should not be used to comment on the EHRC investigation or the publication of its report. Social media accounts where comments or discussion is permitted (for example Facebook groups) must be closely moderated or access to post at all temporarily suspended.

Another guidance document warns:

The Party has accepted the recommendations in full. Consequently, motions that seek to question the competence of the EHRC to conduct the investigation in any way, or repudiate or reject the report or any of its recommendations are not competent business and must be ruled out of order.

The witch-hunting of members is being intensified by an online dragnet of members’ comments. The Skwawkbox blog made public a document from the party leadership to officials which states:

If you see any members who you believe may have broken the Party’s rules with what they’ve posted on social media, whether that be on anti-Semitism, the independence of the EHRC, or reducing the EHRC’s report to smears, staff can submit evidence here.

This refers to a link where members can be reported, with the Labour bureaucrat boasting:

I also have an open communication channel with the social media networks if we need to escalate anything quickly.

The Zionist Community Security Trust (CST) stepped in to reinforce Starmer’s witch-hunt, with the Guardian reporting:

The group said it had used software to search for terms linked to left-wing anti-Semitism, such as ‘Zionist,’ ‘Mossad’ and ‘Rothschild,’ alongside Starmer’s name over the past 30 days.

In the Labour leadership contest, Starmer and the three other candidates were all asked if they were Zionists and all said they were. He told the Jewish News:

I do support Zionism! I support Zionism without qualification!

This was widely hailed by Jewish publications, who would all now be identified as part of a spike in anti-Semitism by the CST’s software. Corbyn was forced to deny the EHRC report’s claims of widespread anti-Semitism attributed to his leadership of the party, but added:

While I do not accept all of its findings, I trust its recommendations will be swiftly implemented to help move on from this period.

Thus, Corbyn gave a de facto endorsement to the continued witch-hunt of his own supporters, just as he did while still party leader. He has urged those ready to quit the party in disgust:

Don’t go away! Don’t leave the party!

Len McCluskey, the leader of the Unite union, said that Corbyn’s suspension was an “act of grave injustice” which could lead to a split. But this was a warning to Starmer of a danger he is trying to prevent. He said:

A split could create chaos within the party and in doing so compromise Labour’s chances of a general election victory.

A victory under Starmer and three and a half years from now! Later he added:

My message, really, to literally hundreds of thousands of our members who are already expressing their anger is to stay in the party.

Corbyn’s former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott tweeted:

Divided parties don’t win elections.

Former Labour general secretary Ian Lavery said there are fears that Corbyn’s suspension was a “war cry” that could force some MPs to leave the party and stand as “Independent Labour.” He replied to the Guardian:

I would urge those MPs not to leave, and I would urge the leader’s office to reach out. We have got to try to keep people calm. This dispute with Jeremy has got to be resolved as quickly as we possibly can, and then we can move forward.

The EHRC report is a political fraud that does not establish widespread anti-Semitism on the left because it cannot. The report politely questioned by Corbyn and held up as sacrosanct by Starmer admits:

We examined 70 complaints of anti-Semitism made to the Labour Party between Mar 2016 and May 2019.

Under the section “Prevalence of anti-Semitic conduct in the complaint sample,” it states:

We found that the Labour Party is legally responsible for the harassment evidenced in two of the 70 complaint files. These included using anti-Semitic tropes and suggesting that complaints of anti-Semitism were fake or smears.

One of these cases was former Mayor of London and Labour MP Ken Livingstone, a member for almost 50 years. Livingstone was kicked out of the party, with Corbyn’s backing, after being falsely accused of anti-Semitism. As part of their dirty tricks operation, Corbyn’s opponents handed over to the Metropolitan Police in 2018, via the LBC radio station, a dossier of what they claimed were 45 cases of anti-Semitism by Labour members. In February, the Met announced that following its lengthy investigation, just four people had been arrested and two people interviewed under caution. Five files of evidence were sent by the Met to the CPS. As a result, four of the people were informed they faced no further action. Just one person, out of the 45 cases, was charged. This was a charge under the Communications Act. The Corbyn leadership said that the individual had been expelled from the party before he was arrested. Corbyn and his backers did nothing to oppose the campaign against them, despite being aware of the main content of the EHRC report months before it published. The Guardian reported Wednesday:

A draft report is known to have been shared with the Labour party in July, as well as with a small number of key figures from the Corbyn administration.

Among those denounced by the EHRC in its draft report was former Labour MP Chris Williamson. Williamson was driven out of Labour on false accusations of anti-Semitism because he said the party had “given too much ground, been too apologetic” towards politically-motivated accusations. Corbyn refused to defend his ally, even though he is now saying much the same thing. On the release of the EHRC’s report, Williamson said:

They decided to name me in their draft report, but despite an intense campaign of vilification against me, the EHRC has determined that I did not contribute towards ‘unlawful harassment related to Jewish ethnicity’ by the Labour Party. I was able to assemble a top legal team which exposed the draft report’s monumental flaws, and secured substantial revisions to what the report says about me and several others who were maliciously maligned. In fact, many pages and references have been deleted in their entirety.

Corbyn in contrast did nothing. His guiding principle was to conceal the gravity of the attacks being prepared by the right-wing from the working class. Corbyn’s refusal to legally challenge the EHRC report was despite his own supporters crowdfunding over £330k this year for him to defend himself after it became clear that he faced possible legal action. Events testify to the complete collapse of Corbynism and all claims that the Labour Party could ever be a vehicle for socialism. The pseudo-left Socialist Party claimed that Corbyn taking the leadership represented the potential formation of a “new workers’ party.” They responded to Corbyn’s suspension with a piece demanding that Unite’s leadership “should now institute an immediate conference,” to organise for a “council of war,” the same demand the SP has been making of the trade union bureaucracy for more than a decade. The only actual “council of war” is the one being organised by the Blairites from Starmer’s office while his opponents play dead and oppose any fight back.

Clare Moseley on the horrific plight of English Channel migrants: “They are asking for help, but being treated like criminals”
Laura Tiernan, WSWS, Oct 30 2020

Clare Moseley (Credit: YouTube/OfTheRedProductions)

Clare Moseley, founder of refugee charity Care4Calais, spoke with the WSWS about this week’s horrific deaths of asylum-seekers in the English Channel. Five members of an Iranian family, including three young children, died after their small inflatable dinghy capsized in rough seas off the coast of Dunkirk on Tuesday morning. The deaths are the direct outcome of the xenophobic anti-migrant policies of the Johnson government and the entire British ruling class. This includes the deployment of Royal Navy vessels and drones against defenceless asylum-seekers, stepped-up deportations, and the internment of newly-arrived refugees in concentration camp facilities in London, Wales and Kent. Rasoul Irannazhad, 35, his wife Shewa Mohammed Panahi, 25, and their three children, Anita, Armin and Artin, aged nine, six, and 15 months, lost their lives. The family was from Sardasht in Iran, close to the Iraqi border. They were seeking political asylum in Britain.

Q: What was your reaction to the deaths on Tuesday of Rasoul Irannazhad and his young family?
A: The initial response was one of horror. It’s something that everybody knew could happen, but when it does, that’s something else isn’t it? It’s real, and its horrific. It’s real people. I didn’t know that family, but the people here are our friends, people we get to know. Our volunteers play with their children. Some of our volunteers in the warehouse were in tears. I had to stand in front of them and tell them this had happened. I didn’t have any answers or anything wise to say. What can you say? It’s not necessary. These are people who have come from terrible, horrific things in other parts of the world and they have come to Europe where they’re supposed to be safe. 48 hours before, those children would have been playing in the grass, telling you they wanted to go to school, and then their life is over. It’s deeply, deeply wrong and shocking. The whole refugee community is shocked. Everybody is shaken by it. There are people thinking of making the journey even now, and as much as we wish they weren’t, it seems there are still people who are considering it. It’s terrifying.
Q: Rasoul and his family were reportedly in Calais and then moved to the refugee camp at Dunkirk?
A: That wouldn’t be unusual. What tends to happen is that people arrive and slowly move into their community groups. Most Kurdish people are in Dunkirk, so it would make sense if they first arrived in Calais and then found out there were more people from their community in Dunkirk and moved there.
Q: I understand the camp in Calais was bulldozed by police in September. Could you explain what happened and give our readers some idea of the conditions in Calais as winter approaches.
A: The conditions are awful. There have been continuous evictions all this year. Every two days the police go in and move people on. People are continually hiding from the police. And then, every month or two, they do a really big clearance. They’ll surround a site early in the morning while people are asleep so they can’t get away, and they round people up and put them on buses, forcibly sometimes, and they’ll be sent away to other areas in France. Then they go in with bulldozers and other equipment and clear all their possessions which are left behind. All the tents, sleeping bags and things like that will be destroyed and thrown away. That happens fairly regularly, and it’s really horrible because when people come back, they don’t have anything at all.
Q: When people are bussed away by police, where are they taken?
A: They are taken all over France. There was a clearance maybe only two weeks ago where people were taken to places in the same region of Calais. But the one before that, people were taken as far away as the Spanish border. So depending on how harsh it is, they can be taken a long way away. But we find after a few days some people come back.
Q: Where are refugees held when they are taken to these areas?
A: It varies. It could be anything from a hotel to a more purpose-built centre. You tend to find that families are put in better quality accommodation, whereas men are put in pretty much anything. Sometimes a converted aircraft hangar. Quite often it’s a disused hotel. But one of the problems is that they are only offered proper accommodation if they are willing to claim asylum in France. France takes a lot more refugees than the UK. There are refugees all over France, but the ones who come to Calais seem to be those who have quite a strong reason to go to the UK. They might have family there or something like that.
Q: I understand that aid workers are having difficulty getting food to refugees in Calais due to a crackdown by French authorities. Could you explain the situation?
A: Yes, that’s a really shocking development in recent months. They’ve put a ban on food distribution in quite a lot of the Calais area, which is horrific. It’s beyond belief really. Someone was asking, ‘Isn’t this against human rights law?’, which you’d expect it to be. Some of the French associations got together and took a case to the court saying you can’t stop us giving food to hungry people. I don’t know how, but they managed to lose the case and there is an appeal—but it’s kind of unthinkable isn’t it? That you could be banned from giving food to hungry people, but it’s happened. Because the police actions have been so widespread, one of the problems that we’re having is that people are hiding from the police so that it’s hard for us to find them and give them food. If they are in any of the areas covered by the food ban, we’re not even allowed to give them food. I just don’t have words for it, I’m sorry, you can’t even imagine it: In Europe in this century, that we’re unable to give food to hungry people.
Q: What sort of places are people hiding in and what are your concerns, especially with winter approaching?
A: Up until maybe six months ago, quite a lot of people were staying on pieces of scrappy woodland or little patches of land around the edges of town. But what the police have been doing is going to those places and cutting down swathes of trees, so that all the land is open. If you do put tents up, the police will see and take them down. So that means they can’t even sleep in tents in many areas. Some of the worst things I’ve seen are people sleeping on the tarmac with no covering in disused petrol stations. There are people sleeping homeless in the town centre, pretty much like homeless people you’d see in other towns, in shop doorways or parks, under benches or just wherever they can get out of sight of the police.
Q: How many people would you say this is affecting right now in Calais? How many migrants are there?
A: They are very dispersed. I would say there’s about 1,000 people and then maybe another 400 or 500 in Dunkirk.
Q: What is your response to the Johnson government’s statements in recent days blaming “people smugglers” for the deaths of migrants in the English Channel?
A: I completely reject that proposition. I agree that people smugglers are terrible. Anyone who profits off someone else’s suffering is terrible, but I think its misleading to blame people smugglers. They are a symptom rather than the cause of the problem. The issue is that we have people here who want a fair hearing for their asylum claims, but the only way they can get it is to be physically present in Britain, and the only way they can get there is by making a really dangerous journey. If they had an alternative, if they felt there was another way, I am certain they would take it. These are ordinary people. They do not want to get on a boat and they most certainly do not want to put their children on a boat. If we gave them an alternative, they would take it and that would put the people smugglers out of business. I’ve been here nearly six years now and every single year I see the same policies, ‘We’re going to crack down on people smugglers,’ ‘We’re going to spend more on security,’ ‘We’re going to work with the French more,’ but nothing ever changes. There’s a massive weight of evidence that the policies don’t work and yet they’re still following the same policies. They don’t really care, because if they did they would look at alternative solutions.
Q: How do refugees apply for asylum in Britain and what are the obstacles they face?
A: To apply for asylum in Britain, you must be physically present in Britain and there’s no way to get there. That means that they have to make an illegal journey. Refugee law recognises that and says you shouldn’t be penalised for that because it’s not your fault. These are people who might never have broken a law in their lives. They certainly don’t want to take these risks.
Q: There are new laws being discussed in the UK that would see refugees removed from the UK while their claim or appeal for asylum is pending. The Home Office has drafted proposals to send asylum-seekers to remote islands, disused ferries and abandoned oil platforms in the North Sea.
A: They are scarily similar to the way they do things in Australia. The Australian system is one of the most shocking, inhumane and brutal systems there is. Is that the one we want to copy?
Q: What is the feeling among the refugees in Calais about the treatment they face?
A: They don’t understand. They come here because they believe we have human rights and democracy, we have laws to protect people. If you come from somewhere like Eritrea or Iran where there is a dictatorship and where human rights are not respected, they come here expecting Europe to be better. It’s incomprehensible to them why they’re being treated this way. They expect us to have laws to protect individuals. And as far as they are concerned, they haven’t broken any laws, they are not criminals, they don’t want to hurt anybody. They are coming here asking for help. The way they are treated in France is horrible. And the way they are treated in the UK is becoming horrible. You go into the hotels and barracks in the UK and everyone is absolutely terrified of being deported. I spoke to a Syrian person who was to be deported. He asked me ‘How is the UK deporting Syrians? I thought the UK had laws to protect people?’ And to me that really is the crux of the problem. This guy had been tortured extensively in Syria, and yet we have put him through the hell of being detained and deported from the UK, such a traumatic experience. For me personally, and I can’t speak on behalf of Care4Calais, borders are nothing but a historical marker at one point in time, and they change all the time. They are just an arbitrary historical marker, if you want to speak at a higher level, they are just put in place by man. When you work in Calais with people who have fled dictatorship, from Iran or Eritrea, the essence is that individuals don’t have rights. The government or the dictator has absolute power and there’s nobody to protect individuals. They come here because that system we have, where there are human rights, where there are courts and judges and lawyers to protect individuals. But what’s happening in the UK is that we are undermining those rights through changes in the law to attack lawyers and through everything that is happening we’re taking away that system and nobody seems to understand how incredibly valuable it is. We shouldn’t be letting it be taken away, because in the end we will stop being a country that refugees run to and will become a country that refugees are running from.
Q: Could I ask about your own personal background and what led you to found Care4Calais?
A: I was a chartered accountant working at Deloittes for 14 years. I was a corporate and finance type person who knew nothing about politics, or anything else. I accidentally went to Calais for the weekend and saw the situation and I had this kind of life-changing moment. I felt like I had to do something. So, I stayed there, I never left. A complete accident. I was really shocked that this could happen in the middle of Europe and I thought it was just a temporary situation that we would have to manage until somebody more important could come along and fix it. I never dreamed that it would stay like this for years. And then I started to read about politics and about what’s going on and just got more and more shocked.
Q: What does Care4Calais do and how have things changed in the five years you have been there?
A: Care4Calais does four things. Firstly, we deliver direct aid to refugees who are sleeping rough in France and Belgium: clothes, food and sleeping bags. The second thing we do is we try to combat the French and UK government’s policy of deterrence. Essentially, they try to break their spirit, through the evictions, lack of heat, through lack of food and protection from the elements. So, we try and combat that through social policies, making them feel like somebody cares about them. In the UK we campaign for more tolerance and welcoming of refugees. And we’ve also started a new programme in the UK to work with newly arrived refugees. The thing about refugees is that they are running away from things that are so bad that they can’t go back. That’s the whole point of being a refugee. This is borne out by my own experience. I have met so many people who have had terrible things happen to them, even their asylum claims being denied, but you never meet a refugee who says, ‘I’m going home.’ It just doesn’t happen.
Q: There are some 80m refugees in the world, the largest number in world history. What is driving refugees to flee their homes and what is the role of governments in the UK and US in this?
A: Calais always reflects the worst things that are going on in the world. When I first arrived, there were people from Syria, and then maybe a year-and-a-half ago Trump really tightened his sanctions on Iran, and I started to see more Iranians. Maybe six months ago, we started to see more people from Yemen. Whatever is the worst thing that is going on in the world, that is what we see in Calais.

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