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Why vaping will be accepted as Australia’s response to tobacco

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 28/03/2022 - 4:47am in

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Vaping represents a historic opportunity to dramatically reduce Australia’s annual loss of 21,000 lives from smoking. But understandable intense hatred of tobacco companies and a strong preference to eliminate nicotine use has contributed to a hostility to vaping in Australia which is irrational and unsustainable. Smoking remains Australia’s most important long term public health issue. After control Continue reading »

OBR Forecast Reveals Pressures on NHS Waiting Lists – and Casts Doubt on Chancellor’s Cash Promises

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 25/03/2022 - 11:34pm in

Published in the minutes following the Chancellor's Spring Statement, the Office for Budget Responsibility's fiscal forecast raises alarm over post-pandemic health pressures

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The £13 billion a year for the NHS announced in the Chancellor's Autumn Budget last year comes at a time of “extraordinary pressure” for the health service, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has said.

In its Economic and Fiscal Outlook, published following Rishi Sunak’s Spring Statement this week, the OBR states that, while pandemic pressures have “eased somewhat”, the increase in funding promised by the Government “arrives at a time where several indicators point to intense pressures across the health service”.

The outlook was published on 23 March 2022, two years after the start of the first lockdown when people across England were told to stay at home and protect the NHS. 

The pressures on the NHS are most visible with increased waiting times, including an 100-fold increase on patients having to wait for more than a year for non-urgent care.

In 2019, of the 4.2 million people waiting for non-urgent care, only 0.1% had to wait longer than 52 weeks. As of December 2021, the waiting list had grown to 6.1 million with 5.1% waiting longer than a year.

At the same time, 31% patients in need of non-urgent care are waiting for 18-52 weeks, an increase from 13.2% in 2019. 

This has been exacerbated by staffing pressures, with vacancies in the NHS rising since the start of the pandemic to 22,900 in July 2021. Vacancies were at 15,900 in January 2019.

Even more concerning is that the numbers of people waiting for non-urgent, ‘elective’ care could be higher than estimated.

New referrals for non-urgent care dropped off at the start of the pandemic – in early 2020 there were just under 1.8 million referrals for non-urgent care, a number that reached a low of 500,000 in the first lockdown. The pre-pandemic average was around 1.5 million. 

As a result, there are fears that around 10 million people who might have otherwise come forward for treatment have yet to do so, risking a health crisis down the line. 

The Missing Millions

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has modelled various scenarios on the impact of waiting lists should those patients come forward for treatment in the coming months. It found that, if as few as 30% approached the NHS for treatment, waiting lists would continue to increase until June 2023, when they peak at 7.4 million before returning to current levels in September 2024. 

Should 50% of patients come forward, waiting lists would reach 8.7 million in October 2023, and if 80% of those ‘missing’ patients refer themselves for non-urgent care, lists would hit 10.8 million in December and never return to pre-December 2021 levels. 

From an economic perspective, the OBR said in its outlook that “to the extent that such pressures – or indeed broader pressures from pay and inflation – were accommodated in higher budget allocations, that would represent a risk to our forecasts”. 

However, policy risks from NHS spending "could well still remain to the upside”.

Analysis by the IFS found that, between the 1982 Autumn Statement and the 2015 Spending Review, there have only been two occasions when health spending has risen by less than was originally planned.

The resource spending plans for the NHS set out in the Autumn Budget were, according to the OBR, consistent with average real annual growth of 3.8% in the NHS between 2021-22 and 2024-25, broadly in line with this historical average. 

The OBR explained that revisions to its GDP deflator forecast since October mean that the real growth rate consistent with its latest forecast is 3.3%.

"Despite the £13 billion increase to NHS funding at the 2021 Spending Review, policy risks from NHS spending could well still remain to the upside," the forecast concluded.

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Few aged care facilities deliver high quality care while also making a profit

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 25/03/2022 - 4:55am in

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Health, Politics

Just 4% of for-profit providers were in the highest quality tier. You don’t have to look to far to find examples of poor quality residential aged care. Most recently, residents have too often been un-vaccinated, frightened, isolated, and have died alone in aged care facilities during the pandemic. It’s tempting to see poor quality as simply the result Continue reading »

Government Only Took Minutes in Two Out of Eight Randox Meetings, New Watchdog Report Reveals

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 24/03/2022 - 11:01am in

The National Audit Office points out significant transparency holes in the Government’s approach to the healthcare giant Randox, which won COVID contracts worth hundreds of millions

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The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) sidestepped normal transparency rules in relation to the contracts awarded to the testing company Randox, that won COVID-19 deals worth more than £400 million without competition, the National Audit Office (NAO) reveals today.

The contracts were the subject of a major parliamentary row earlier this year when private messages revealed that former Conservative minister Owen Paterson, who was at the time employed by Randox, had personally lobbied the then Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock to consider the firm for Government work.

Paterson last year faced a 30-day suspension from Parliament for breaching lobbying rules, in relation to his previous efforts to advocate on behalf of Randox, but resigned before Parliament voted on his suspension.

Boris Johnson had intervened on Paterson’s behalf in an effort to relax parliamentary standards rules, but backed down amid the public and political uproar. The Conservatives subsequently lost Paterson’s North Shropshire seat to the Liberal Democrats in a by-election, losing a 23,000-vote majority.

The NAO report reveals that, in total, Randox and its strategic partner Qnostics Ltd won £776.9 million in business during the pandemic through 22 different contracts.

Almost all of the contracts were for the provision of testing services, and 60% (£463.5 million) of the total value of the contracts was awarded directly without any competition under emergency procurement rules. By 18 October 2021, the DHSC had paid Randox £407.4 million for its testing contracts.

The DHSC told the NAO that a competitive tender process was ruled out due to the need to move quickly, and that it could not award the contract from an existing framework – essentially a contract already agreed by the department between multiple potential suppliers – as the value of the contract exceeded the framework limit.

The NAO’s enquiries revealed that Randox attended eight meetings with ministers – mainly with former junior Health minister, Lord Bethell – but only four were declared on the public record under transparency rules. Minutes were taken at only two of the eight meetings. Meetings that were not made public, during which no minutes were kept, included ministerial decisions of the need to recall some of Randox’s tests, and the growing backlog of cases being tested by the firm.

The NAO pressed the DHSC to reveal all the documentation it held on Randox contract negotiations and whether any conflict of interest issues had arisen.

The watchdog sought access to Whitehall records of discussions and ministerial meetings with Randox, and private email accounts held by former ministers and special advisors. Altogether, 11,000 items were checked but little or no documentation emerged. The NAO also revealed that no work had been done on price comparisons for the services that Randox was set to provide – or the level of profit margins the company would make from the contracts.

The watchdog then insisted that the department also check the email accounts of senior ministry officials who were in charge of the deals, including Dido Harding, who formerly ran the UK’s ‘Test and Trace’ operation. The DHSC provided all the emails except those held by Dido Harding.

The NAO concludes that the gaps in the audit trail mean that it is not able to provide its normal conclusions, but that it has not seen any evidence that the Government's contracts with Randox were awarded improperly.

“The overriding need to create a high volume testing capacity rapidly at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that standard public procurement approaches were not appropriate. Even taking these exceptional circumstances into account, the documentation of the decision-making process for such large contracts was inadequate,” Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said.

Dame Meg Hillier, Labour chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said: “Government didn’t document decisions properly and the public is right to raise questions about whether it was playing with a straight bat.

“Over 75% of testing contracts were awarded to ‘high priority’ companies, including those referred by ministers, MPs or Number 10. The public needs to trust that their taxes are spent on the basis that it’s what you know, not who you know.”

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The return of the state? The role of government in managing the pandemic

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 23/03/2022 - 4:58am in

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Many countries with very high rates of COVID infection and pandemic deaths had governments reluctant to intervene to protect public health because of a strong belief in small government. Since UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s ushered in aneconomic reform program that rolled back the role of Continue reading »

Roof Collapsed in Vaccines Manufacturing Centre

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 22/03/2022 - 10:11pm in

Sam Bright investigates the concerns of a whistleblower who says that the UK’s flagship vaccines manufacturing hub is shrouded in secrecy

A walk-on ceiling collapsed in the UK’s flagship Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre (VMIC) in July 2021, Byline Times can exclusively reveal.

A whistleblower with knowledge of VMIC contacted Byline Times to express their concern with the secrecy of the project – raising the collapsed roof as an example. Indeed, this incident has never been mentioned by VMIC or the Government publicly.

VMIC was conceived in 2018 as a flagship endeavour to prepare the UK for future pandemics. Initially intended to open in 2023, at a 74,000 square foot facility in Harwell near Oxford, its creation was accelerated due to the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, and is due to open this year.

Structured as a non-profit enterprise, VMIC had three founding members – the University of Oxford, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Imperial College London – and was heavily backed by Government investment. Indeed, largely thanks to Government vaccines investment during the COVID-19 pandemic, the taxpayer has ploughed £206 million into VMIC so far.

However, the Government faced a widespread backlash last year after it was announced that VMIC was being put up for sale. In particular, public health experts have warned that, while the centre was originally intended for early-stage vaccine development – involving a high degree of uncertainty – a private owner would not have the same incentive to invest in risky schemes.

“The real risk is we’re going to lose the ability to do that early phase stuff that actually told us that you could use the adenovirus to make really good vaccines. There’s a whole host of new vaccine platforms at very early stages of development that will need to be evaluated in what was the original vision for the VMIC,” John Bell, who has held a series of influential roles in the Government’s COVID response, has said.

“Expecting industry to make the necessary long term investments is naive. The history of vaccination includes numerous examples where a mix of short term industrial priorities and lack of long term political planning compromised the ability of research, development, and manufacturing hubs to attract private and public investment,” scientists have further argued in the British Medical Journal, in relation to the proposed sale of VMIC.

However, the Government has pushed ahead with the sale, and reports from the Telegraph suggest that VMIC will be sold to the US pharmaceutical giant Catalent.

Byline Times was contacted by a whistleblower a number of months ago, who said that VMIC has always been shrouded in secrecy, and that officials working on the project had no indication that it was going to be sold.

In particular, they cited the collapse of a ceiling at the centre in July 2021, which they said “delayed its delivery and added substantial costs to its completion”. They said the ceiling collapse may well have been the “straw that broke the camel’s back”, in the decision to sell the centre.

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Byline Times subsequently filed a Freedom of Information request with UK Research and Innovation, the results of which confirmed that the ceiling collapse had taken place. According to an incident report created after the event, “the installation method was not in accordance with the specification detailed in the manufacturer drawings and... There was a lack of adequate communication, co-operation, and co-ordination during the design. This centred around not reviewing the suitability of the complete design and materials with reference to relevant structural assessments and not following manufacturer’s specifications.”

As their name suggests, walk-on ceilings are designed to accommodate people walking along them, so this collapse could potentially have caused a serious injury. It’s not known whether this was the case.

A VMIC spokesperson said: “I can confirm that VMIC is for sale and has entered a period of exclusivity with a preferred party, following a broader sales process. We remain committed towards a deal that brings continued vaccine manufacturing capability to the UK.

“We cannot add any further information at this point as the details are commercially sensitive to the interested party.”

A Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy spokesperson said: “We are supporting VMIC Limited’s board following their decision to pursue a sale of their company. In that process, the Government’s primary objective is to ensure UK retains a strong, domestic vaccine manufacturing capability.”

No further comment was offered on the collapse of the ceiling.

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Dental care must be on the election agenda – it’s time

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 21/03/2022 - 4:58am in

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Health

As the federal election looms so too does a crisis in affordable access to dental care. The pandemic has served to further widen the socio-economic dental divide – and there are consequences for healthcare costs, productivity and social inclusion. This perennial issue will only be resolved if policy makers and politicians acknowledge that oral health Continue reading »

The Conservative Stable: How Horse Racing and Tory Politics are Interlinked

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 18/03/2022 - 2:02am in

The Conservative StableHow Horse Racing & Tory Politics are Interlinked

As the jockeys put on their silks and the horses gallop at Cheltenham, a new report from the Byline Intelligence Team and The Citizens can reveal the numerous connections between those in the industry and the Conservative Party

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The Conservative Party has received at least £1.2 million in donations over the last 10 years from individuals and companies with notable interests in professional horse racing, much of it coalescing around the Jockey Club, its subsidiaries and directors, an investigation from the Byline Intelligence Team and The Citizens can reveal.

The annual Cheltenham Festival kicked off this week – an event that was accused of spreading COVID-19 among racegoers two years ago. Cheltenham racecourse is owned by the Jockey Club.

There are no allegations of wrongdoing on the part of those mentioned in this article. Rather, the network between the Conservative Party and the UK’s horse racing elite provides an interesting insight into the world of Conservative politics.

The Jockey Club is the largest commercial horse racing organisation in the UK – owning 15 of the country’s most famous domestic racecourses. Its structure includes: Jockey Club Racecourses, Jockey Club Estates, The National Stud, Racing Welfare, Jockey Club Catering, Jockey Club Live, and Jockey Club Services.

Donors linked to the Jockey Club include Alexander ‘Sandy’ Dudgeon, who was appointed as a steward (director) of the club in 2018. Dudgeon gave £2,500 to the Conservative Party in March 2021

Dudgeon previously sat as an advisor to the Wates Group from 2005 to 2010. Members of the Wates family are Conservative donors, and are known to have an interest in racing, with former director Andrew Wates having been a director of Jockey Club Racecourses.

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Chairman of Jockey Club Estates, Peter Stanley, donated £5,000 to former Health and Social Care Secretary, and horse enthusiast, Matt Hancock in 2019. Hancock is the MP for West Suffolk – which includes the town of Newmarket, whose racecourse is owned by the Jockey Club.

Jockey Club Estates directors Tim Syder and Duke Andrew of Bedford, have between them donated a further £70,500 to the Conservatives. 

At least six further directors of Jockey Club subsidiaries including The National Stud and Racing Welfare have donated £47,000 to the Conservatives, while Conservative peer Lord Grimthorpe sits as a director of the National Stud.

“The Jockey Club has no political affiliation and we are proud to welcome employees and members from a wide diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints. How an individual chooses to vote or whether they become a member of any major political party is entirely their prerogative and does not involve us. It has no bearing on or benefit to the Jockey Club, which is governed by Royal Charter to support the long-term health of British horse racing and is a major contributor to all of the communities we operate in nationwide,” a spokesperson for the organisation told Byline Times.

Reports in The Mirror in 2020 revealed how former Health Secretary Hancock had also received £350,000 from figures linked to horse racing, including £140,000 from racehorse owner Bill Gredley’s Unex property business, and £132,400 from horse auctioneer Tattersalls, both of whom are included in our updated figure.

The Mirror also revealed that Hancock used to rent a Grade-II listed property on the Thurlow Estate – a property owned by Lord Vestey and his family. Vestey was chair of Cheltenham Racecourse for 21 years.

One of the Conservative Party’s largest donors, Lord Bamford, also has links to elite horse racing and Hancock, with the former Cabinet minister once riding a horse co-owned by Bamford’s wife. Hancock rode Star of Bengal at a race in Newmarket in December 2019, tweeting afterwards: “Brilliant riding out in Newmarket this weekend on Star of Bengal. I’ll always support the wonderful sport of horse racing”. 

Lady Bamford denied any knowledge of the event, with a spokesperson stating: “Lady Bamford has never met and does not know Matt Hancock. Equally she was unaware of him riding Star of Bengal”. Hancock’s spokesperson said the ride had been arranged through John Gosden, who was Star of Bengal’s trainer. Gosden has donated £25,000 to the Conservatives, including £10,000 to Hancock personally.

Lord Bamford, his family and his company, JCB, have donated more than £9 million to the Conservative Party over the last 20 years. The opening race on the final day of Cheltenham 2022 is the JCB Triumph Hurdle. 


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Perhaps most infamously, Jockey Club steward Baroness Dido Harding was appointed by Hancock to run the Government’s ‘Test and Trace’ system during the early stages of the pandemic – serving in the role from May 2020 to May 2021.

Harding was appointed to the House of Lords in 2014 by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, while her husband is the Conservative MP John Penrose.

The Jockey Club was also linked to former Conservative MP Owen Paterson via his late wife Rose Paterson. Owen Paterson was forced to resign from the Commons after the Government unsuccessfully defended his attempts to lobby ministers on behalf of two private firms that employed him as a consultant – including the healthcare giant Randox. Those in charge of enforcing parliamentary standards had recommended that Paterson should be suspended for 30 days – a decision opposed by the Government.

Separately, the Government was forced to reveal documents showing that Paterson had lobbied Hancock during the early stages of the pandemic, urging the Government to consider using Randox as a COVID testing provider. The records show that Hancock passed on these suggestions to officials.

Randox has also been a long-standing sponsor of the Jockey Club-run Grand National, a signature race of the Aintree racecourse, which Rose Paterson also chaired. 

“All contracts were decided and signed off by the civil service – who are independent of ministers,” a spokesperson for Hancock told Byline Times. “What is completely true is that Matt is a champion of the horse racing industry, always has been and always will be.”

Frances Stanley, wife of Jockey Club Estates chair and aforementioned Hancock donor Peter Stanley, is the director of Newmarket racecourse and the National Horseracing Museum. Her company, CH&L, was the recipient of a £14.4 million contract to supply personal protective equipment during the pandemic. The contract was unfulfilled, and the deposit paid to the company was returned to the Government, with Stanley blaming “unforeseen logistical circumstances”. 

“I had planned to donate any profits to a local charity. At no point did I ever talk to Matt Hancock about our plans to help, only [Department of Health and Social Care] purchasing officials involved in the process,” Stanley previously told Byline Times.


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The Jockey Club is also noted for having numerous high-profile sponsors for the various events that it hosts – including a number of companies with previously unreported Conservative links. These include JCB, Ultima Business Solutions, Cazoo, Marsh, and Pertemps, all of which have donated to the Conservatives either through directors or via the companies directly.

The Jockey Club itself has, since 2014, given at least £15,700 in hospitality to 10 MPs, eight of whom were Conservatives.

To repeat: there is no suggestion that the individuals or firms associated with the Jockey Club won any contracts – or had any influence on the Conservative Government – due to their participation in the club. Nor is the Jockey Club a political organisation, or one with any demonstrable political influence.

Rather, this story highlights how Conservative donors, and even ministers, are at times drawn from narrow social circles that many will see as broadly unrepresentative of the British population.

COVID and Cheltenham

Cheltenham Festival received a great deal of media attention two years ago. The festival was held from 10 to 13 March, despite fears that it could become a super spreader event of the emerging Coronavirus. 

Those fears were well-founded: 78 deaths and 13,000 infections were attributed to the decision to push ahead with the festival and a Liverpool Champions League match that same week, according to one analysis.

On the day that Cheltenham began, an emergency scientific meeting presented new evidence suggesting that there were 5,000 to 10,000 COVID infections already across the country. By the final day of the festival, more than 200 scientists had signed a letter condemning the Government’s hesitant approach. Ten days after the end of the festival, Boris Johnson announced the UK’s first lockdown.

A year on from the event, ex-British Horseracing Association boss Nick Rust publicly admitted that Cheltenham 2020 “shouldn’t have gone ahead”. Hancock had defended the decision to push ahead with the races, stating that “the Government took the right measures at the time”.

“In 2020 I stated publicly that I wanted a full inquiry into how and why the Cheltenham Races went ahead at a time when COVID cases were rapidly increasing,” local Liberal Democrat councillor Paul Hodgkinson told Byline Times.

“I was pleased when the then Health Secretary Matt Hancock agreed to hold a review into why major sports events went ahead, but nothing at all has happened since. We know that many people fell ill – and some very sadly died – after attending the 2020 races but no lessons appear to have been learnt.”

This year’s festival similarly takes place amid rising COVID-19 case numbers, with the number of recorded cases standing at 69,855 on 10 March, versus 30,468 on 24 February.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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The Heat is Still On: Climate and life at 3 degrees

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 17/03/2022 - 5:23pm in

Heat and health

As I write this article, it’s a little after 9am on day three of a combined heat and humidity event in Brisbane that the Bureau of Meteorology has classified as a severe heatwave. My trusty BOM app tells me that the temperature is 31.8°C, but the ‘feels like’ temperature is already 37.4°C.

Day one of this event felt like a typical warm Brissie day, but it was stifling by evening as the usual cool failed to arrive on schedule. This was just a taste of what was to come. Heeding the forecast, I got up extra early on day two to close up the house and keep out whatever I could of the day’s heat. I shut the windows and doors, shoved sheets against under-door gaps in lieu of door snakes, and carefully put cardboard over windows that didn’t have coverings. I used Blu-Tack for this, but by 10am it had melted and the cardboard had fallen, leaving me to bring out the more reliable gaffer tape.

I live in a 1920s Queenslander. Charming to look at, these houses are basically made of cardboard. They have virtually no thermal mass and have gaps everywhere, so without concerted effort the inside quickly reaches the same temperature as outside—or hotter, if the heat passes through the glass and there’s no breeze. This rapid heat exchange can work well in a warm climate like Brisbane’s as long as the day doesn’t get too hot and—very importantly—the nights are sufficiently cool to reset the temperature, ready to start again the next day.

This particular week’s heat and humidity event was unpleasant, or ‘oppressive’ as my BOM app kindly forewarned me as I needlessly rechecked the forecast before bed. It is also potentially dangerous. Heat kills people. More heat kills more people. And when it’s humid our bodies’ natural evaporative-cooling mechanism, achieved through sweating, doesn’t work. You still sweat, but the water just sits on your skin, refusing to evaporate, as you accumulate heat. When it’s hot, your heart has to work harder to pump thicker blood around while trying to get it closer to the surface of your skin in a futile effort to cool your body down. Your other organs are also under pressure.

You’re at greatest risk of becoming ill or dying in a heatwave if you’re older or less mobile or have a disability or an underlying chronic condition. You’re also at high risk if you can’t access or afford the means to keep sufficiently cool, such as air-conditioning at home or in public places. You’re at risk if you’re undertaking any kind of physical labour or otherwise being active in the heat; if you’re homeless or living in institutional care, such as an aged-care facility or a prison, or if you live in poor-quality housing; if you live in an area where there are few trees or where you don’t feel safe opening the windows at night.

Ambulance attendance, hospitalisations and deaths increase with the duration of a heat event and are associated particularly with higher night-time minimum temperatures. Much like our homes, if our bodies can’t shed their accumulated heat each night and reset, we begin the next day from a higher baseline.

Our hottest decade

All the weather we experience today is happening in a world that has, on average, already warmed 1.1°C since industrialisation. That’s only the average, tempered by the Earth’s oceans. Australia, as a large land mass, is heating up more rapidly than the average, with warming now at 1.5°C. Because of the wet La Niña event last year, 2021 was the coolest for a decade—a decade that had been the hottest on record. The hottest ever decade just past will be remembered as one of the coolest in the lifetimes of my kids, now teens.

Throughout Australia, the number of annual ‘hot’ days is increasing. Heatwaves are becoming longer, more frequent and more intense. Night-time minimum temperatures, the ones we rely on to reset our bodies and homes overnight, are warming faster than daytime temperatures—our nights are getting relatively hotter, and increasingly oppressive.

There’s about a twenty-year lag between greenhouse-gas emissions and the associated observed warming, meaning that our weather today is the result of all the cumulative emissions leading up to around the time Kath & Kim premiered on the ABC and Queens of the Stone Age topped Triple J’s Hottest 100. In 2002 in Australia, state and territory leadership was dominated by the Labor Party: Bob Carr, Steve Bracks, Peter Beattie, Jim Bacon, Geoff Gallop, Jon Stanhope and Clare Martin, with only Rob Kerin briefly flying the Liberal Party flag for South Australia before losing to Mike Rann. Nationally, however, Australia was an LNP stronghold. John Howard was prime minister and he was steadfast in his refusal to allow Australia to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to plan for a reduction in emissions.

Today, there is about another half a degree of global warming already in the pipeline from emissions we’ve pumped into the atmosphere over the last two decades. We’re going to have to work extremely fast to have any hope of limiting global mean warming to near 1.5°C, as agreed at the 2015 UN climate conference in Paris.

Arena Quarterly #9

This article appears in the pages of Arena Quarterly. Order a printed copy and help support independent radical publishing!

The climate lag time

The twenty-year delay in the climate system also means that even if we could magically abolish all emissions overnight, any gains we might make today would take two decades to show up in the climate signal and start bringing temperatures down again.

Is it too late, then, to do much about it? Well, yes and no. Right now, in this moment, we can’t change what the next twenty years will look like. That ship has sailed. But we can—and must—change what the following years and decades will look like by the decisions we make right now. Global warming is already bad for our health, but more warming is worse.

A recent report from the Climate Council exposes Australia’s delayed action and paltry emissions targets as severely inadequate and describes the steps that must be taken—now—to give us our best chance at not exceeding 1.5°C and of seeing a gradual return to a more stable climate. It explains that the federal government’s 2030 emissions targets of 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels keep us on a course towards more than 3°C warming, which would be catastrophic to human health and to the ecosystems that support us. States and territories are showing more ambition, with their collective 2030 pledges adding up to reductions of 37 to 42 per cent below 2005 levels, in the realm of national Labor’s recent pledge of a 43 per cent reduction. It might be noted that it was pretty easy for Prime Minister Morrison to finally commit Australia, in 2021, to net zero by 2050 because this aligns with the cumulative outcome of what the states and territories are already planning. The trick seems to be to set national targets that will be met without lifting a federal finger.

But even these more ambitious targets from the states and territories and from federal Labor are not nearly enough to steer us away from catastrophe. As the report explains, to have a chance of keeping warming below 1.5°C, by 2030 Australia will need to have reduced its emissions by 75 per cent on 2005 levels. Having dilly-dallied for decades as emissions kept on rising, the cuts we need to make really are this big and this urgent. 

With Prime Minister Howard, Australia lost its chance to be at the forefront of the global energy transition. The Coalition has long argued against Australia showing leadership on climate action, but now we are left well behind. Australia’s non-action on emissions is out of step with other wealthy nations, who have pledged 2030 targets that are twice as ambitious or more than Australia’s. The United States and the European Union have committed to at least 50 per cent, the United Kingdom to 63 per cent. Without more ambitious targets and the policies to match, and with billions of dollars in subsidies providing life support to fossil fuels, Australia is not taking the health risks of climate change seriously.

At only 1.1°C average global warming, Australia is already experiencing harm to health and livelihoods. It’s not just record-breaking heat we’re up against but record-breaking storms, floods, megafires and droughts. And these are merely the events that have an immediate impact on our health, through illness, injury and trauma. Other health consequences include mosquito-borne diseases, which flourish where it is warmer and wetter; food crops that are ruined by drought and storms; and pollen that is more allergenic and abundant, triggering epidemics of thunderstorm asthma. The biggest health impacts from climate change are, however, those that are even more diffuse: widespread famine; conflict and war over increasingly scarce resources; the displacement of whole populations as islands go under water or temperature extremes render some places uninhabitable.

Contrasting responses to COVID and climate

There are many parallels to be drawn between the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. They are both of our making, arising out of human actions and how we interact with our environment. They are both complex, global crises that require global cooperation that reaches across sectors if they are to be managed and solved effectively. The people who are most at risk from both climate change and COVID are those already vulnerable in some way, through poverty or underlying illness, and there are vast inequities between those countries most able to take preventative action (to meaningfully reduce emissions/vaccinate their populations) and those most at risk from inaction (lower-emitting, poorer countries). But Australia has approached the two global health emergencies very differently.

Our response to COVID-19, although far from perfect, at least recognised this emerging health crisis for what it was. The experts, for the most part, were listened to. We turned on a pin to change the way we did business and how we socialised. Collectively we acknowledged the need to transform aspects of our everyday lives, make personal sacrifices for the good of others, adopt new and unfamiliar practices and technologies, and do so quickly.

As with climate change, much of the leadership on managing COVID came from the states and territories. But the federal government, although slow on vaccines and on RATs, did do one thing spectacularly right: the JobSeeker COVID supplement. Australia nearly and magnificently—but unfortunately only temporarily—eliminated poverty overnight. For the first time many people didn’t have to choose between rent, food or medicine. We invested to protect people, and it paid off. People lived, they could afford to meet their health needs, and the economy kept ticking over.

Itching to get back to ‘normal’, government support and public health directives aimed at reducing COVID transmission were then stripped back just in time for the Omicron variant. To no one’s surprise, except, apparently, those who made these decisions, case numbers then went through the roof, testing and tracing systems failed, and health services and workers were overwhelmed. Businesses closed because staff were ill or isolating, and people took it upon themselves to stay home to stay safe. Spending in hard-hit Sydney in early January 2022 was lower than at any other time in the pandemic.

One lesson that could be learned from Australia’s handling of the pandemic—including  the Omicron wave—and applied to the climate crisis is that the economy is people. If we fail to protect people’s lives and health, the economy suffers. You can’t have a healthy economy without healthy people to drive it. Protecting people’s health costs, but it is a worthy investment with exceptional returns.

Government is now looking to reinvigorate the nation’s economy. Transforming the energy sector to limit climate change and avoid its worst health consequences also requires investment. Where we put that money right now should be a no-brainer: a win for health and a win for the economy, with bonus rewards for the planet and the systems that sustain us.

Despite all the expert evidence, however, the decision federally is to direct COVID investment towards propping up dangerous fossil fuels through a ‘gas-led recovery’. This is neither compatible with the scientific imperative to reduce emissions by 75 per cent by 2030 nor in alignment with other countries’ targets to halve emissions in this time. Instead, it will ensure Australia’s emissions of the highly potent greenhouse gas methane will stay high for years, if not decades, to come. This is the very opposite of what needs to be done to protect health from climate change. The only solution is to go straight to renewables, fast. Much is said about the supposed costs of reducing emissions by investing in renewable energy transition, but no regard is given to the costs of inaction. And 3°C is where we are currently headed.

We’ve known about climate change and how to stop it for decades. We could have acted early. Think for a moment: if Prime Minister Howard and other global leaders had shown climate leadership in 2002, if we had pivoted to renewables like we pivoted to online meetings, we would soon be seeing a downturn in temperatures. In this fantasy scenario, climate right now would be about as hot as it was going to get, and we would soon see temperatures beginning to decline, slowly but surely. We would be looking back on the last ten years as some of the hottest in our lifetimes rather than as some of the coolest. Heat events, like the one I’m sitting in right now (the ‘feels like’ temperature has now crept up to 39.8°C and even the gaffer tape is failing) would be declining. In the years to come, fewer people would die due to extreme heat. The Black Summer of 2019–20 would be about as bad as it got.

But there’s no point regretting the inaction of the last several decades. What matters now is where we go from here.

There’s a key difference between COVID and climate change: we can’t close our borders against the latter. Climate change is a gargantuan, protracted emergency that will threaten us all if heating rises to 3°C, with obvious consequences for economy and society. Perhaps if we see climate change for the health emergency it is, government will see the threat more emphatically, and respond accordingly. Surely climate change presents us with the ultimate health crisis; isn’t it time we started treating it like one?

Fracked Futures

Kirsty Howey, Dec 2021

If production proceeds in the Beetaloo Basin, it will unleash a carbon bomb of huge proportions, and expose the Northern Territory’s environment and people to numerous other risks associated with fracking, including contamination of groundwater supplies, which make up 90 per cent of the Territory’s consumptive water use.

We Need to Learn From the Fight Against HIV/AIDS—and Its Mistakes—to Tackle COVID-19

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 17/03/2022 - 3:27am in

Tags 

Health

An interview with INET Global Commissioner Winnie Byanyima

In this interview, Dr. Folashadé Soulé and Dr. Camilla Toulmin discuss with Winnie Byanyima – Executive director of UNAIDS and a CGET (Commission for Global Economic Transformation) commissioner. Before joining UNAIDS, Ms. Byanyima served as the Executive Director of Oxfam International, and she was elected for three terms and served 11 years in the parliament of her country, Uganda.

In the two years since the pandemic started, what is your perspective on how the COVID pandemic has affected inequalities globally and especially in Africa?

It’s two years since the pandemic broke, and I’m very worried about the state of multilateralism – the world has failed to come together to solve this big global challenge. In the first year of the pandemic, the world was racing to find a solution. And we were all asking - can we find a scientific response to this virus? We saw even then that despite rich countries putting a lot of money into finding a vaccine, this would not solve all the problems. Past experience, especially from work on HIV treatment, tells us that a vaccine can be found but the question of distribution - to reach everybody - would be a big one, too. We started to campaign for what we called the “people’s vaccine” even before the vaccine was found because we knew from HIV that it took almost 10 years after antiretrovirals were developed for them to become accessible to people in the South. Meanwhile, 12 million people, mostly in Africa, died needlessly. The antiretrovirals were putting people back to health, to live normal lives in the rich countries, but people in the South were dying. We knew something like this would happen for COVID, so we started to tell leaders to put in place a plan for the distribution of these vaccines, and give a temporary waiver so that any country can replicate them without being liable to a court case. We also wanted a plan in place for sharing the technology, so that manufacturing can take place across the African region.

Today, the virus is still ahead of us, because a handful of companies have monopolized the technology and cannot meet the global demand for this vaccine. We're seeing a big failure of global leadership to come together, and put in place a plan. We’ve seen targets for 2021 come and go. By the end of the year, 40% of the world should have been vaccinated, but we missed it. Now they are saying by the middle of 2022, 70% of the world should be vaccinated. But we will miss it again at this rate. That's because governments have taken a backseat, and will not ask their companies to share the technology, although they have received a great deal of taxpayers’ money. I'm seeing a global crisis, with huge consequences, mostly for Africa, which is the least vaccinated continent. African economies have been shut, half-open, and shut again, bringing massive layoffs in key industries, which were producing for the rich countries. Look at the flower industry in Kenya, and the tourism industry there. They’re decimated, and you see something similar going on across Africa. Where we are part of global supply chains, we have been hurt terribly.

We also see that even when we got the vaccine and Africa was at the back of the queue, trying to pay for them, in the midst of a debt crisis. Many African countries are already failing to make debt repayments, and some are in debt distress. The international solidarity should have been there to get us all out of the crisis. While there was some relief to postpone the repayments for two years or so, it wasn’t enough, it wasn't deep enough to enable countries to get themselves back on their feet. We saw a lack of solidarity on financing, and its clear the global rules that don't work for the majority of people. These global rules are not changing because the international system can't come together and do the right thing for people. Many governments we call democracies have been captured by big money, they are not working for ordinary people. What are those global rules? I mentioned the trade rules at the WTO. We have a resolution from South Africa and India asking for a waiver. Many countries are coming round to this, even the United States, but the UK and Germany who host these monopolies are not coming on board. Trade rules need revision to see how to incentivize innovation, and at the same time guarantee access to medicines for all. Look at the global financial system, as another example. We all agreed to issue special drawing rights, but most of them go to help the richer countries and very few go to developing countries. We have a financial system that's skewed against developing countries, it does not help to resolve shocks of this kind, and leaves the poor vulnerable.

We have tax rules that favor those who hold capital. There are many resources in Africa that could be taxed, but what should be taxed is not taxed, and is sent off to tax havens through an elaborate set of loopholes that are legal. That's tax evasion. Countries can't collect the revenue they need to deliver services for their people. We see a crisis in the global rules, which don't work for the poor countries, for the small person, for the ordinary person. Whether it's the pandemic or the climate crisis, we need to reorder the global rules. But it’s not easy to reach agreements on this, even when we see a calamity ahead. Looking at the longer term, I feel pessimistic. Maybe in the short term, we might get some relief from this pandemic because Omicron is so mild, and it has spread to more than 90 million people. This means many people are getting some immunity against it, but we cannot be sure that the next variant won’t be more lethal. It is still very uncertain, and African countries are still sinking. They don't have the money to pump into the economy, such as the stimulus packages we see in the rich countries.

What has been the role of UNAIDS during this pandemic? Where do you see the links between the fight against HIV/Aids and COVID-19?

There are several positive things we have learned, including some mistakes, from fighting HIV/AIDS, which apply to how you fight any other pandemic. One of them I have mentioned is access to the solutions that science brings. We learned the hard way that unequal access to antiretrovirals cost us millions of lives. We should never repeat that mistake. We must make sure that when there's a scientific solution, we immediately make it available to everybody and find ways to incentivize the innovator. Right now, there are two or three companies that own the mRNA technology, and their leaders have become billionaires. One wonders how many billions would make them happy! This would be the time to share the technology.

The second lesson we have learned is that a global pandemic affects everyone. It doesn't respect borders, so you have to find a global solution. This is what happened with HIV. The world came together and made a global plan, set global targets, and put resources behind them. A global problem needs a global solution. UNAIDS is a Joint Programme to fight HIV/AIDS. It has global targets, we set them every five years, we study the pandemic, and we monitor how the world is progressing. We know where the gaps are, what needs to be done, and those who can afford to pay more. But with this COVID pandemic, two years on, there's no global plan. The UN Secretary-General has called for one, but nationalism has come in the way of finding a global solution. The HIV pandemic still doesn't have a vaccine or a cure, but within that frame, out of 37.7 million people with HIV, we have 28.2 million who are on treatment and living healthy lives. We have 9.5 million who, for many reasons, cannot access the benefit of the science that's available, the ARVs, but we have a global strategy. This is completely missing for the COVID-19 pandemic, and without it, this virus will always be able to mutate in some part of the world, become a more lethal variant, and come back to attack the world.

The third very important lesson is that a pandemic is not just a medical or health issue. It is about inequalities because it moves along the cracks of the inequalities in society. If you don't close those cracks, it doesn't go away. That is what we have learned and that's why we have a “whole-of-society” approach to fighting HIV. It's never just about giving somebody some tablets in a hospital. No, it's more than that. It's about human rights and closing the gaps in access to human rights for people, those who are underground. We have to look out for them and fight for them to enjoy their rights, to come forward and get treated, such as gay men, sex workers, or transgender women, they need to come forward to get their treatment. They must enjoy their human rights. It’s a legal issue.

If you look at these travel bans on Africa, they are so senseless and are not based on science. I call them racist, actually, because they're not helping anybody to protect themselves. Rules and policies are often not based on the evidence of science, so we have to work with legal frameworks to enable collaboration, cooperation, and freedom….

The COVID-19 pandemic also raises many economic issues, as we have seen. We have learned that the health of economies and the health of people are tied tightly together. When you apply public safety measures, they have an impact on the economy. How do you optimize and get the right mix? We must bring economists and social scientists into the equation of finding a solution for a pandemic. We saw some countries that got it right, that were able to put together multi-sectoral teams. Many others either securitized the issue and had it handled by people from the military, or who made it a medical issue and placed it in the health sector and ignored all other aspects.

But most of all, it’s about communities, about people taking charge and protecting themselves through prevention, treatment, and testing. It’s about empowering people, and taking the services to them – we can see this is the quickest way and the shortest way. These are some of the lessons we have learned from HIV and which apply in the fight against Covid with some success. We must get better at the global level, to learn from our experience.

Could you highlight some positive examples of work and innovation by NGOs and civil society during the pandemic, and how might we build on these?

Yes, I'll give you an example from South Africa. This is one country that has been hit hard not just by HIV/AIDS but also by COVID. After a period of denial, they got behind a strong strategy to fight HIV. South Africa has the largest number of people living with HIV in the world and they have made some of the greatest gains against HIV in the last 10 years. One thing they have done is to empower communities to take charge, so when COVID hit, the entire infrastructure from the battle against HIV could kick in. From the laboratories and the scientists to the communities who are active in fighting HIV, they could work on both pandemics at the same time in smart ways. In South Africa, if you remember the early phase, before it penetrated into communities, the important task was to identify those with the virus, isolate them, and prevent the spread of the virus. This work in South Africa was largely done by communities because they were already mobilized, trained, able to learn how to identify the symptoms, how to engage people, and then offer them support.

The same community-based organizations that do campaigns about HIV prevention were now carrying the messages about protecting yourself from COVID, sanitation, social distancing, mask-wearing – the same communities were taking this work on and delivering. South Africa has one of the best surveillance systems in the world, but the scientists don't work alone. They are able to detect new variants well ahead of most other countries, even though they get punished when they share their knowledge, as with Omicron. They work with people in communities who gather the data they need, to carry out their technical work. It's a partnership between them and community leaders, whom they have known for many, many years and who are trusted, as they have the skills to help with surveillance and collection of data.

There are many other good examples. For example, in some countries, we were touched by stories of people living with HIV coming together and solving problems together. This time looking for solutions to COVID, they were afraid to go to health centers, to collect their antiretrovirals because everybody feared getting COVID, but at the same time, they need to stay on their treatment. So they organized ways of taking a bicycle ride, to go collect their medicines, and then distribute to people in ways that limited contact, using digital technology to identify where people are living. Many of them don't want to be seen collecting their medicines. They need their privacy because of the stigma associated with HIV. They were very creative about supporting each other to keep people alive, as these are life-saving treatments.

We have many examples of defending human rights together. Sadly, it is often the case in society when there is a problem that doesn't have a solution, a scapegoat is found. And very often it has been the weakest, minorities, people living with HIV, but if they can come together, they can build this resilience, from fighting HIV, to defend themselves and claim their rights.

Many have called for the pandemic to be considered as an opportunity to “build back better,” and to improve the capacity to better prevent, detect, and respond to health emergencies. Do you see African governments using the crisis as a way to trigger a new health paradigm in Africa?

This is what has made me the most hopeful in this crisis. When the pandemic was spreading and we saw rich countries that have the means turning inwards, African leaders didn't look inward. Instead, they came together, understanding the weakness of the continent in the global economy, to access the vaccine, buying in bulk to use their market power to get fair access to the vaccine and medical supplies. They tried hard, and their efforts were partially successful. But they also realized that even with their whole big market, putting all their resources together, they were still being pushed to the back of the queue. Those with the strongest, sharpest elbows, the richest, were at the front of the queue, and even hoarding vaccines. So, African leaders were disillusioned and decided they must not be found in this situation again; when the next pandemic breaks, Africa must be in a stronger position. They have been working together on a strategy for the manufacturing of health technologies in Africa. It is a serious plan that is already being implemented, with several countries building up capacity for mRNA technology. South Africa, Senegal, and Rwanda are in different stages. The leadership of the Continent is aware that this production must be for the whole continent, not just for one country. This collective action makes me a proud African, that we come to solve problems together. I want the world to learn from Africa about that, we have things to teach the rest of the world, even though many in the rich world always think they have much to teach Africa.

For me, this is one important example of coming together and facing a problem together. The investments that have been made are serious and real. In South Africa, they are trying to build a plant that can make the same kind of mRNA technology as Moderna. If Moderna were to say “here's our technology, here's how we did it” they would reach a solution in the next two years. But instead, they'll take longer, it will be slower because of the monopolies. Africa has taken the right steps to secure its future for access to medicines. And, we need to make the AfCFTA work, Everything hinges on that agreement working, and being put into operation. I think Africa is ready for it now.

What will be the future of multilateralism after COVID? How to reform the system in order to make multilateral institutions more responsive?

I think that the multilateral system is paralyzed because these institutions were created long ago, in the political context of the time. Seventy years ago, the world was different. Since then, the world has changed a lot. We need to be bold about reforming the multilateral system so that it reflects the way the world is today and the principles that it was founded on, that every country is equal and human rights come first. Institutions like the international financial institutions need to be reformed so that they actually do what they were set up to do, which was to cushion the world from economic shocks maybe from a security threat or a climate threat, to help countries absorb such shocks and lift themselves up. But these institutions today don’t do this - they are controlled by a few rich countries.

Reforming those institutions will take a political will, which will have to come from the rich countries - the European Union, United States, China, Russia, Japan. These countries must show a willingness to reshape the global system to solve economic, social, and environmental problems. The institutions are there, but they do not function because the countries themselves don't respect the very rules that they made, whether that’s the rules of war, or the rules of the economy. They have used their power in the international system to create rules that protect monopolies which put the right to profit before the right to health.

The multilateral system is dominated by the rich who want to protect the interests of a handful of capital owners. We have to look at the state of democracy in the world too. As I said earlier, rich countries and their own democracies have been changing, and are being eroded. The voice of interests is stronger than the voice of ordinary citizens in these countries which we call “liberal democracies”, and this has also influenced the culture of the multilateral system. The people who lead are not leading for ordinary people. They are leading for big interests. I always try to go to the root of problems, and I think people must organize to claim back their power, particularly on our continent which is seeing military coups left and right. The democratic deficit is everywhere. It is also for citizens in the United States of America and in Germany, wherever, to claim back their power, and push back special interests so that ordinary people can shape the rules.

I don't see this as just a problem where we have a dictatorship. No, it's everywhere. We need to work on democratization across the world. We need some movement towards finding a plan for future pandemics. We have some negotiations starting here in Geneva, which could be an opportunity to put in place what’s needed in each country and then get effective coordination at the global level, then we would be better able to withstand a future pandemic. But if it just becomes a place to agree on access to information, so that those who have power can get your data and run off with it, to find solutions for themselves that they don't share with you, that just won’t work. There is now a push towards giving WHO power to be able to move quickly and get the information it needs in order to prevent a virus breakout from becoming a global pandemic. This is good but it's not enough.

If you have a health system in collapse, which has become privatized as well, the majority of people can't even access basic services and you are not going to be able to fight a pandemic. That's not a structure to get you out of a pandemic. The right to health means giving people the right to health care across the world, and the right to social protection. A pandemic means people and their lives are disrupted, uprooted, and the poor suffer. Social protection is key and needs to be there as a basis to fight a pandemic. Around a formal health system is an army of volunteers, of community health workers, or young people or communities working to connect people to the health system. Even with our fractured multilateral system, these are the sort of things that I think the world can make some progress on. That's why I'm here in this role to help member states to make progress. We may not be where we should be, but we can do a few things to push forward.

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