Tag Archives: armchair epidemiologists

Never let a good crisis go to waste

Harvesting chickpeas in Myanmar

Apparently it was Machiavelli who said (almost certainly in Italian) “Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis.” Churchill followed him by saying “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Obviously their advice is being followed.

I just read that the government will unveil a new food strategy ‘and tell farmers to produce more fruit and vegetables in the wake of record inflation.’

Not only that but government is going to call for changes to make it easier to turn land into farms, make poultry workers eligible for seasonal migrant jobs and propose that schools, prisons and hospitals offer vegan options.

Some people haven’t got a clue. If UK farmers could make money out of producing fruit and vegetables, they’d already be producing fruit and vegetables. But now, in the wake of record inflation, they’re not only expected to produce them, but produce them cheaply to keep prices down. Answers on a postcard please, why is this not going to happen?

But given that only weeks ago the policy was to turn farmland into forestry, perhaps the ‘oil tanker’ of government policy, which has regarded farming as expendable since the 1980s, is at last turning round?
But I do love the way the whole vegan experience has leapt onto the bandwagon.
I went on the BBC website for some vegan recipes for people in schools, prisons and hospitals.
Falafel burgers; – basic ingredients chickpeas, not grown in this country but most come from India, Australia, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Turkey. Strikes me as some of these countries would be better off eating their own produce rather than producing cash crops to export of the wealthy west.

Vegan chili; – containing sweet potatoes, (somebody did manage to produce a crop commercially in the UK, but effectively they’re all imported from the US, Egypt, Vietnam and Spain) a can of black beans (There are trials going on to see if there are varieties that can be grown in the UK but they’re largely exported by India, Myanmar, Brazil and the USA) and a can of red kidney beans. (Again the main exporters are Thailand, Brazil, South Africa, Ukraine, and Papua New Guinea. These beans probably like a warmer climate than we can manage.)

Finally (because I’m just doing the first three) Spiced aubergine bake.

Of course the aubergines are largely imported as commercial production in the UK is under plastic and may involve some heat, (so don’t look for an expansion of UK production any time soon) whilst I suspect that you will search for a long time to find the UK coconut plantations to provide you with the coconut milk.

So we have a war, a food and an energy crisis, and a vocal minority have convinced government this can be tackled by importing expensive food from abroad.

But to be fair they’re not the only ones taking advantage of a good crisis. I know somebody who had to take a family member to hospital. Of course they were not allowed in A&E with them. So an elderly, injured and vulnerable person was separated from anybody they knew. The person they most wanted with them was left outside in the carpark. At night. In the dark. But this lady left on her own in the carpark couldn’t just go home, she had to wait there so the hospital could tell her to come and take the elderly person home. Perhaps. In their own sweet time.

And at 3am, after six or seven hours, alone in her car on a dark carpark, she could finally take the person home.
Come on, why?
What on earth is the epidemiological reasoning behind this? I could see it if hospital staff led closeted lives, not mixing with anybody and keeping themselves in a bubble. But I know hospital staff. They go home to their families, they kiss their children good night even through the children mix with everybody else at school. For all I know they might even condescend to kiss their partners. They go into shops (unmasked and with no PPE) and they are even seen in public houses and other places of entertainment. So if doing these things is so dangerous, why on earth are they allowed into hospital? They’ve every bit as potentially infectious as the rest of us.
The sneaking suspicion is that it’s no longer epidemiological, it’s just we’re a damned nuisance and if they can discourage us from going in, it makes life easier for them. Especially if there’s nobody with sharp elbows asking why they haven’t done their job properly.

And we’ve seen other people using the crisis. I think that government has had a lot less trouble pushing forward nuclear than it would have had. In this case events have concentrated minds. Similarly others have grasped the opportunity to push forward with electric cars, which are starting to look more economic.

But I confess I do wonder. Electric cars will not work for a lot of people who currently run a car. They are fine if you have a nice house with a drive and even a garage. You can back your car into the garage overnight and charge it at the cheapest times in perfect security. If you live in a flat are you going to have to dangle your expensive and anonymous copper cable out of the window and across the carpark to your car?

Or perhaps that brief window of human existence when perfectly ordinary people had the opportunity to just go anywhere they wanted, at a whim, without worrying about timetables and suchlike, is drawing to a close?

And a final thought, people are trapped between high energy prices, high food prices and high housing costs. In all candour, government can do very little about food costs. They could cut fuel duty, but again, most of our energy is imported to they can do very little about energy costs. But housing costs is something they might be able to tackle. After all, we don’t ‘import it’.
There’s already talk about increasing taxes on second homes. I suspect that will go down well enough with voters.

But what about capping rents. Limiting them to a maximum of £x per square meter (or yard or whatever) so that, for example, a three bedroomed house was no more than £650 a month. Combined with regular inspections to make sure they were fit for habitation. Yes there would be howls from buy to let landlords but the answer to them need only be, “Well you can always sell up.” I suspect the releasing of housing onto the market would bring prices down with a bang. Electorally this could play well for the government that brought it in. Far too much money in this country goes into housing as it is. It’s warping the economy. Perhaps we shouldn’t let a good crisis go to waste?


There again, what do I know. Ask an expert.


As a reviewer commented, “This book charts a year in the life of a Cumbrian sheep farmer. It’s sprinkled with anecdotes and memories of other years. Some parts (especially when featuring Sal, the Border Collie) were so funny as to cause me to have to read them out loud to my husband. It’s very interesting to read these things from the pen of the man who is actually out there doing it – usually in the rain! A very good read.

Agricultural Epidemiology and going back to school

Looking round yesterday everybody was busy. Combining, baling and carting straw, baling and carting round bale silage, each one was working flat out. I suspect the average age of drivers was a lot lower than what it’ll be next week when so many of them go back to school.

It’s been an ‘interesting’ harvest round here. We tend to be later than further south, and as August gets blown into September the whole thing can be pretty much catch as catch can. I noticed one field where the combine was leaving muddy wheel marks behind it. This isn’t a good sign.

I saw another field being scaled out for silage. The chap does try and make a bit of hay, because we’ve a decent trade locally selling it for horses. But whilst he’s managed to make some beautiful stuff this year on other fields, the weather was never right long enough to mow this one. Now he’s got a field of elderly grass that he’s mown. I felt some of it by the gate. Late August sunshine is never going to kill it, and indeed he rowed it up not long afterwards and it’s baled and wrapped. It’s just one of the gambles of farming. If he’d had a fine week in the last month and a half, he’d have produced something which would have been sought after, as a lot of horse people don’t want ‘seeds hay’ but prefer something older because they worry about the horse having digestion problems. Now he’s got some moderate round bale silage. A lot of horse people turn their noses up at it because of the danger of mould. So he’s probably hoping for a long winter then somebody will buy it off him for feeding big rough store cattle who will eat anything and thrive. The problem with agriculture is that the Bank will ask us to do a business plan, but to produce one that has even the most tenuous connection to reality, you really have to sit down with God and have him feed in his side of the job.

This set me off thinking about a lot of the tractor drivers working at the moment. I know lads who’ve not been at school since March and have been working seven days a week since then. One lad has effectively been half of a contracting business. Dad would drop him off at the farm with tractor and slurry tanker and leave him to it. My guess is that the tractor had ten horsepower for every year of the driver’s age. But having watched him at work, he’s perfectly competent. What intrigues me is how he’ll cope when he has to go back to being a schoolboy having been treated as a proper adult for the last five or so months. Looking at the forecast, I can see a lot of Dads asking their lady wife to phone the school to express doubts about the safety of their son going to school, what with the virus and everything. Or perhaps they might suggest she explain to the head that they’ve just come back from a heifer sale in France and have to quarantine for a fortnight? Otherwise they won’t get the straw cleared before the weather breaks.

Mind you, schools appear to be suffering from epidemiologists at the moment. We’ve seen them when they inflict farming. In the middle of a disease outbreak they’ll appear and put in place systems which they assure everybody will halt the disease in its tracks.
If you try to explain that the suggestions are impractical, impossible to implement, or just counterproductive the normal response you get is that ‘farming ought to become a modern industry’ and ‘if you cannot keep up, perhaps it’s time you left the industry.’

And now teachers have got them. I extend my genuine sympathy to every teacher and head who is trying to work out how on earth you follow the advice. (To be fair, you’re lucky it’s only advice, in agriculture, we just get regulation. But then they know we just ignore advice that is so bad that it’s just silly.)

I was talking to a friend. He has had to work all the way through the whole mess. Ships don’t build themselves and you can hardly take home a section of hull to work on in the back garden. So on the first day of school his lady wife has been instructed by the school that their two sons, aged four and six, have to be at school at exactly 9:30am. But because of bubbles etc., one of them has to be presented at the door at one end of the school and one has to be presented at the door at the other end of the school. (And don’t fetch the wrong child to the wrong door, perhaps because the bubble will pop.)
Alas for the epidemiologists, these two small boys share the same bedroom, use the same bathroom, and eat their breakfast at the same table.

There again somebody was telling me about her daughter’s dancing class. The hall has tape on the floor and each child (from what she said I doubt any of them are much over 12) has to dance in the socially distanced box created by the tape. The exceptions being when they’re taught those dances which you dance in pairs. When learning those dances two girls dance together in one box. Let’s not beat about the bush here, I’m not sure you can dance a socially distances waltz or tango.

Mind you, there’s one positive thing I’ve noticed. If you watched the responses to YouGov surveys, all through this summer, when asked about lockdown, the largest number of people asked always wanted the lockdown increased in severity. But last week when asked about opening schools I noticed that over 70% wanted all children to go back to school. Whether people are beginning to get over their fears, or are just desperate to get their children out from under their feet I don’t know.

Yesterday as Sal and I arrived back from feeding heifers, Sal noticed that some milk had been poured down a drain. (A cow had just calved and the first few milkings don’t get put into the tank.) Billy had found prime position for reaching into the drain to lap it up.

Sal walked behind him, put her nose between his back legs, and lifted him out of the way. Billy, somewhat indignant picked himself up and watched her. Sal then went to take his position so she could lap up some milk. But even as she took up position she stopped. I think she realised that she would leave herself open to Billy getting his own back. So she went round to the other side of the drain which wasn’t quite such a good place. But at least she could lap the milk and keep an eye on Billy at the same time.

Sal has learned that you cannot take the micky and not expect people to get their own back.

A collection of anecdotes, it’s the distillation of a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England. I’d like to say ‘All human life is here,’ but frankly there’s more about Border Collies, Cattle and Sheep.

As a reviewer commented, “A collection of blog posts that give a real insight into the harsh world of a small farmer. But this book is much more than that, imbued as it is with Jim’s trademark sly humour and his evident love of his countryside and his livestock. Excellent holiday reading.”

They wouldn’t let me use the first title I had in mind for this


Obviously I’m an expert epidemiologist, I’ve read three facebook posts on the topic. To be fair I did farm through foot and mouth so I’ve learned one thing. Matters go better when the politicians shut up, back off, and let the epidemiologists run it. One of the big problems back in 2001 was that the Prime Minister wasn’t listening to his epidemiologists, he wanted his general election and was trying to say the outbreak was beaten so he could hold it on his preferred date.

But one thing I learned, unfortunately the hard way, was that back in 2001 social media was full of people who knew infinitely more about virology and similar sciences than those who’d merely spent their entire careers in these fields. Every political nutcase and every single issue pressure group was sure that everything was a conspiracy and that it could all be sorted in an afternoon if we adopted their policies.
One thing I will never forget is the 9p vaccine. Apparently farmers were too evil, stupid, wilful, and mean to protect their livestock, even though there was a perfectly good vaccine and it only cost 9p. I was phoned by our vet who was working for MAFF at the sharp end. Word had come down from the Cabinet Office, the PM had been told about this vaccine and why wasn’t it being used. The obvious answer was ‘what vaccine.’
But for the next week or so the message boards of usenet as well as other parts of nascent social media as well as some of the papers were going on and on about this vaccine that farmers were too stupid and stuck in their ways to use.
I finally found the vaccine. It was produced in India, was a live vaccine (so couldn’t be used in Europe) and was to cope with a strain of FMD endemic in India but which had never been seen in Europe. It would have been less use than a chocolate fireguard. But the ‘well-meaning’ muppets had caused all sorts of chaos and upset and genuinely screwed peoples’ lives with their silly advocacy of an utterly inappropriate vaccine. I know farmers who contacted me, desperate to know if the vaccine existed and how they could get it.

And now the muppets are at it again. Just to give an example, our great army of arm chair experts is demanding that the schools be closed. Now I’m involved with our local foodbank. We had a query from a school, “If they had to close, could we feed the pupils they have who are entitled to free school meals. They would give us the money that the government gets to pay for them.” I suspect this is a conversation going on all over the country.
Now it struck me that this is an entirely sensible question. Somebody at the school is taking their duties seriously. After all they have over two hundred children who have to be fed. Whilst armchair epidemiologists are happy for them to go hungry, we see here a teacher taking their responsibilities seriously.

We have a problem. There is no way we can just add them to our normal foodbank clients. The assumption is we’re going to get more clients anyway because we’ll have people who find themselves with no income. Not only that but there is a fear we’ll see a drop in the amount of food donated. (I know one person who discovered that the collection point they have set up for us had been pillaged).

Even if we got enough money to buy the food, we don’t have the volunteers to cope with the extra work, especially as virtually all our volunteers are in the at risk age group and if those over seventy are told to self-isolate we’ll lose an awful lot of people.
Another problem is that for some children this is the only hot meal they get a day. There is no way we can provide hot food. Not only that but how would we physically feed them? The obvious way would be to use the school kitchens and feed them at the school which rather undermines the reason for shutting the school.

Then there is the problem of who looks after the children when we send them home. Even if there are grandparents available, by definition they are the most vulnerable group and the children are the ones who spread it fastest! So parents have to stay at home. Wonderful, the NHS suspects it might lose between a quarter and a third of its staff off sick at the height of the outbreak. It doesn’t want to lose another ten or so percent even before things kick off properly, because they’re off providing childcare.

And then somebody complained that they weren’t testing for coronavirus any more. But why would you divert trained medical personnel to testing? I mean, what are you going to do with the information? By the time you’ve got the data it’s out of date. Also the vast majority of the people you test are going to have a week of flu-like symptoms before they’re well again. Wouldn’t it be better to use trained people to look after those who’re really ill and who need help?
But what really hacked me off is a group called Reignite, who are emailing people to ask, “Will you be a Coronavirus strategy advisor?”

And what do you need to be a Reignite advisor? Why you have to answer five questions. Are you worried about the outbreak, do you think schools should shut, do you think the NHS is ready, are you happy with Boris’s handling of the situation. And the fifth is an open request to share your wisdom further.

Then after a page of blurb and pictures telling you how bad it is, you are asked
How can I protect my family?

Basics such as washing your hands frequently and covering your mouth and nose when you sneeze apply to Coronavirus.


However, keeping surfaces clean is the most crucial part of protecting yourself and your family. Whether you’re at home or out in public, Coronavirus particles may stay active on surfaces for several days. But how do we ensure that surfaces remain sanitised?


The answer comes in the form of a revolutionary new product called Mobile Klean.


Lucky you, you get a chance to buy this wonderful product for £43.94 including postage and packaging.


Has anybody got a sick bucket handy please.


In case you’re completely out of toilet paper, purchase the following in paperback. Never run short of paper again, buy as many copies as you want.

As a reviewer commented, “Yet another quiet, but highly entertaining, amble through Jim Webster’s farming life, accompanied by Sal, his collie extraordinarie.
Sheep, cattle, government eccentricities and wry observations are all included.”