Viva the vaccine passport rebellion

10 Dec

What a week it’s been for the Government. With the furore around whether or not Downing Street had a party – or three – the Electoral Commission’s verdict on Boris Johnson’s wallpaper and the arrival of his and Carrie Johnson’s baby daughter, the media has had no end of things to write about.

Unfortunately for the Government, much more negative attention is on its way, due to a growing Conservative rebellion around Coronavirus vaccine passports, which, on Wednesday, Johnson announced would be implemented in England (in what some have called a “diversionary tactic”). 

Although Conservative MPs have been generally supportive of measures to combat Coronavirus, from the Emergency Powers Bill to curfews, something about the passports has pushed them to their limits.

Tens of Conservatives, including Dehenna Davison, Andrew Bridgen and Johnny Mercer have tweeted their disapproval of vaccine passports (which have been introduced in Scotland and Wales), with William Wragg, a member of the Covid Recovery Group, being so brazen as to call for Sajid Javid to “resign” over the latest measures. Expect a mega rebellion on passports on Tuesday, when they’ll be voted on, with talks of up to 100 MPs rejecting the plans.

The Government’s justification for passports has been the quickly-spreading Omicron variant, which has prompted it to unleash its “Plan B” set of restrictions. This includes asking people to work from home when they can from next Monday, as well as making masks compulsory in many indoor settings; two requirements that have received much less, albeit some, criticism compared to passports.

Part of the reason why MPs may have become more concerned about these is the events elsewhere in Europe, which have brought into sharp focus how illiberal restrictions can become. Austria’s decision to make vaccines mandatory has been a wake up call – to say the least. The more cynical will say that some MPs are simply using passports as an opportunity to kick Johnson when he’s down, having disapproved of his policies for a while.

My own view, in regards to the introduction of vaccine passports, is one of mild disbelief that the Government ever contemplated them in the first place, never mind that Johnson said there should be a “national conversation” on mandatory jabs. 

There seem to be far more arguments against passports than those in favour (many of which are based on emotional reasoning – “well I like the idea” – and a desire to conform – “well France has done it”). They are divisive, literally separating society into two; don’t completely stop transmission; no one knows where the cut off point for such passports should be (flu?) and will make life complicated and miserable, with large economic consequences. The Night Time Industries Association has already said passes have caused a 30 and 26 per cent trade drop-off in Scotland and Wales, respectively.

Perhaps the most worrying thing, though, is we simply don’t know the long-term impact. Passports are one giant experiment, which we have discussed with all the seriousness of whether someone should change bank accounts.

In general, vaccine passports seem to symbolise a wider issue with the Government, in the Covid wars, which is that it hasn’t completely decided how to be “Global Britain” yet. Post-Brexit it has the opportunity to show the world a different approach to the pandemic; one that respects civil liberties, and isn’t so far away from Sweden’s more relaxed strategy. Instead, we seem to be “Herd Britain”, constantly keeping an eye on what France and Germany are up to, with a view to emulating them.

Either way, something has changed in the equation. The crucial question next week is how the Government groups the votes on “Plan B”. If MPs can vote on vaccine passports as a lone category, it makes it far easier for the idea to be shot down. On the other hand, if vaccine passports, masks and working from home are placed into a single “Plan B” vote, the Government might find all of its plans in disarray; as Bridgen warned “I will vote against any legislation that sees [passports’] introduction“. That, or it’ll be easier to sell to Labour, which is pro restrictions. Whatever the case, we need a cut off point as to how far measures can go; viva the vaccine passport rebels, I say.

The Post Office – and a scandal that must never, ever be allowed to happen again

28 Apr

Last week many of us were shocked to learn the full extent of the Post Office scandal, which is said to be the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history.

In total, 39 sub-postmasters had convictions of theft, fraud and false accounting overturned by the Court of Appeal. They battled for 20 years to get their names cleared, having been put in the dock by their own employer.

How on earth did this nightmare become reality? It all started in 1999 when the Post Office introduced a £1 billion IT system titled Horizon, created by Fujitsu, to manage tasks including transactions, accounting and stocktaking.

From the offset, the system had bugs in it – indeed, that same year the Post Office board of directors noted that there were “[s]erious doubts over the reliability of the software” – leading to shortfalls in many thousands of pounds. Sub-postmasters reported the errors they’d seen and, as they became more noticeable, some of them tried to pay for the shortfalls with huge amounts of their own money.

However, instead of Post Office directors pausing the whole system, and admitting something was very, very wrong, they went on the offensive. Between 2000 and 2014, the Post Office prosecuted 736 sub-postmasters for the aforementioned decisions.

It’s hard to underestimate the amount of misery the Post Office inflicted because of its decision to press ahead. Some people spent months in prison (Seema Misra, one of the accused, went to jail while pregnant with her second child); marriages broke up; people’s mental health suffered, with one man taking his own life after £60,000 was “stolen”; and people were ostracised and unable to find work. They learnt that their pleas of innocence meant nothing.

How do you make up for that? The Post Office paid out £58 million to 550 postmasters in 2019, but no amount of money will ever be enough to repair what happened. It’s impossible to quantify the extent of the damage done to people’s lives.

Richard Brooks and Nick Wallis, two journalists from Private Eye, compiled one of the most extensive reports into each stage of the Post Office saga. It is a jaw-dropping read, which highlights a systematic cover up in the organisation from the top down.

While there were “obvious computer errors and glitches going back nearly 20 years and featuring a ‘bug table’ listing 23 serious software faults”, senior executives’ main focus appeared to have been getting the Post Office’s finances on track – and no inconvenient truth was going to get in the way of that.

The name that has been most singled out to blame is Paula Vennells, who was Chief Executive of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019, and reportedly “preoccupied with the Post Office’s financial bottom line.” Even in 2014, she insisted to James Arbuthnot, then the MP for North East Hampshire, that “no fault in the system has been identified.”

Another name Private Eye puts in its “Post Office Hall of Shame” is Tim Parker, who became chairman of the Post Office in 2015 – with no evidence that he questioned the approach to the Horizon scandal.

Several politicians were condemned for their inaction, such as Ed Davey, Norman Lamb and Jo Swinson, who Private Eye said had “failed to properly examine the unfurling public scandal while holding the postal services brief”. Others come off much better (Andrew Bridgen, who called the Post Office’s mediation service a “sham” in 2014, and stood up for a long-suffering constituent).

What happens next? There are calls for Vennells to be stripped of her CBE (awarded in 2019 for services to the Post Office) and to repay bonuses of more than £2.2 million that she received during her seven-year tenure. There will be growing compensation cases, paid for by the taxpayer (as the Government owns 100 per cent of the shares in the company), a Government enquiry, and the Metropolitan Police has reportedly been looking into Fujtisu workers, regarding the evidence they gave in court.

People may have questions about the judicial system. It’s interesting to note that the judge presiding over Misra’s verdict gave a strong warning to the jury about the lack of evidence in her trial. Maybe there will be some questions levelled at a certain Director of Prosecutions while some of this took place.

At the moment everyone will simply be quite gobsmacked that this has happened (what else is going on out there that we don’t know about? You have to wonder). Clearly it will take years to thrash out this absolutely tragic case, which is less about technological fault – more about human greed and arrogance. ConservativeHome can only extend its wholehearted sympathy to the victims, and say that this must never, ever happen again.