Do the UK covid-19 guidance & regulations permit Dominic Cummings trip to Durham?

People are calling for Dominic Cummings to be sacked after reports that he and his wife and 4 year old child traveled by car from London to Durham, whilst he had symptoms of Covid-19. Both Cummings himself and a Downing Street spokesman have since defended the trip. According to the BBC report, the statement from Downing Street reads:

“Owing to his wife being infected with suspected coronavirus and the high likelihood that he would himself become unwell, it was essential for Dominic Cummings to ensure his young child could be properly cared for.

“His sister and nieces had volunteered to help so he went to a house near to, but separate from, his extended family in case their help was needed. His sister shopped for the family and left everything outside.

“At no stage was he or his family spoken to by the police about this matter, as is being reported.

“His actions were in line with coronavirus guidelines.”

Cummings has also claimed his actions were reasonable and legal.  So, do the guidelines allow for this?

Let’s consider a case that some are making that they do. This web page of government guidance tells people to stay at home and self isolate if symptomatic, but it appears to have a get out clause:

If you are living with children

Keep following this advice to the best of your ability, however, we are aware that not all these measures will be possible.

Additionally Dr Jenny Harries, Deputy CMO for England, in this clip from today’s press briefing on the coronavirus, when asked about this situation, does say that if the parents of a child are unable to care for that child and can’t get support locally then this would count as an exceptional circumstance. Defenders of Cummings are suggesting thus that the “exceptional circumstance” applies and justifies Cummings decision to drive his wife and child to Durham where extended family could then support them.

An additional piece of evidence being cited is the lockdown regulations themselves which supply a non-exhaustive list of “reasonable excuses” to leave home that includes this reason in section 6 (2) (d): “to provide care or assistance, including relevant personal care within the meaning of paragraph 7(3B) of Schedule 4 to the Safeguarding of Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, to a vulnerable person, or to provide emergency assistance;”

So lets assume that the account given in the Downing Street statement is accurate. It would thus appear that Cummings anticipated the possibility of he and his wife becoming sufficiently ill to be unable to look after the child, and took his family to a residence in Durham, near his extended family who could provide support during the self isolation, including looking after the child should that become necessary. In doing so, he took the risk of spreading the disease if for any reason they had to make contact with others during the journey (e.g. if they stopped at services for a bathroom break for their 4 year old child).

The defence of this action is that the “exceptional circumstance” Harries mentioned, and the get out clause in the guidance and the lockdown regulations themselves all permit this.

For this to be the case, it seems to me that both of the following conditions must apply for this to fit with the guidance:

  1. Cummings and his wife were unable to find friends, relatives or other support in London to deal with this possibility.
  2. Cummings extended family were unable to come to London, even to take the child back to Durham to be cared for whilst the parents were ill, let alone stay in London to provide support.

Remember Cummings and his wife were both symptomatic and decided to drive 250 odd miles, risking spreading the disease if they had to stop along the way, so for this to be reasonable in the circumstances (to trigger the “exceptional circumstances”) you pretty much have to assume they had no other realistic choice than the action they took. That seems unlikely to me.

For it to fit with the lockdown regulations themselves means we must either interpret the circumstances as being an unlisted “reasonable excuse”, or interpret provision of care to the child to cover temporarily moving to a different residence so that the person who could provide the care if both parents fell ill would be able to do so. Maybe one of these could be argued in a court of law by a skilled lawyer but it is not obvious to me that this interpretation would stand unless the 2 conditions above applied.

In the meantime, I expect there will be numerous cases of families where both parents were worried about falling ill but stayed put because of the government’s guidance and instruction to do so, who will be looking at this situation with incredulity and anger.

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Letter to MEPs regarding Articles 11 and 13 of proposed copyright directive

Dear MEPs,

I am writing to urge you to vote against the proposed EU copyright directive when the plenary vote is held on the 5th July, due to the inclusion of the proposals in Articles 11 and 13, which I believe represent a major threat to freedom of speech on the internet, will undermine development of open source software and will put European internet companies, especially small companies, at a serious competitive disadvantage. 

Regarding Article 13, this makes platforms that allow users to upload content liable for any copyright infringements those users might make, unless they can demonstrate they made best efforts to prevent the upload appearing in the first place. 
This will mean that simply in order to minimise the chances of being held liable for an infringement, they will have to check every single upload against copyrighted works to judge whether they infringe those works. This will entail automated filters being applied to all uploads of content whether it be music, photos, video, text, podcasts or even code (e.g. on sites such as Github), and the platforms will err on the side of caution to block uploads if there is any doubt.  
This is a seriously misguided approach to copyright enforcement for the following reasons:
  • Such automated filtering requires general mass surveillance of user’s activities on the internet and thus constitutes a general monitoring obligation, which is on contradiction to rulings of the European Court of Justice
  • Algorithms cannot tell whether copyright has been infringed. 
    • They can at best indicate that there is some content in common shared between an uploaded file and any files in the database being checked. However this does not tell you whether the copying is permitted under fair use laws or even if whether it’s the uploaded file or the file in the database that’s violating copyright.
    • No filter can possibly review every form of content covered in the mandate including text, audio, video, images and software.
      • Article 13’s mandate is technically infeasible.
      • Attempts to automate filtering of videos and music, such as Google’s Content ID, are already making ridiculous errors and applying this to every platform and every form of copyright is simply insane.
    • Users will thus find their freedom of expression curtailed because it will be difficult to quote from or to parody copyrighted works, even though it is perfectly legal to do so, due to the filters over-blocking.
  • The requirement to put such filtering in place will add considerably to the cost of setting up any internet based businesses that involve enabling users to share content of any sort and thus put European start-ups and other European countries at a major disadvantage,
  • The requirement to filter all forms of copyrighted material this way impacts on code sharing sites and thus will undermine the development of open source software that has powered much of the modern internet, including most major AI and machine learning platforms and packages, as explained in this post from Github (probably the most widely used code sharing site currently). Note that clauses restricting the requirement to not for profit code sharing sites do not address these concerns properly.   
Regarding Article 11, my understanding is that this will require people to get a licence if they wish to quote snippets from journalistic content (e.g. newspaper and magazine articles) in online works. This again is a throughly misguided proposal:
  • Quoting from articles is normally protected by fair use laws and is standard practice in academic discourse, blogging, and for that matter in journalism itself.
  • The proposal does not even allow a publisher to waive the requirement for a licence thus interfering with the rights of those who wish to publish under the Creative Commons licence
  • The proposal violates the Berne convention.
  • The aim of the proposal is apparently to address the issue that some publishers believe that news aggregators, by automatically providing titles and/or snippets when linking to articles are somehow depriving  the publishers of those articles of revenue. This fundamentally misunderstands what is happening here:
    • By providing links with snippets to news articles, the news aggregators drive traffic to the sites concerned, that is they provide publicity for the site/articles concerned and consumers will visit who would not otherwise have done so. Attempts to prevent people from providing such links will simply lead to those sites being ignored.
    • There are numerous ways a site can prevent aggregators from picking up articles from (sections of) their website. For example, to stop Google (and many others)  indexing pages you can simply set up a robots.txt file. See also:

I believe both of these proposals, if enacted, will do great harm to the openness of the internet in Europe, will seriously undermine freedom of speech on the European internet, and will put European companies, especially the smaller companies, at a major disadvantage as they try to deal with the burdens these would impose on them.

I urge you please to vote against the copyright proposal accordingly, in the upcoming plenary vote on July 5th.

Yours Sincerely,

James Hammerton

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On leaving the EU with no deal: Potential disruption to air travel

In her Lancaster House speech, Theresa May said:

And while I am confident that this scenario need never arise – while I am sure a positive agreement can be reached – I am equally clear that no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain.
(emphasis added)

Given this position, it’s worth knowing what the consequences of “no deal” would mean. In the worst case scenario (e.g. talks breaking down) this means looking at the consequences of Britain reaching the Article 50 deadline without any sort of agreement whatsoever having been struck with the EU.

In this scenario, on the day before Brexit, Britain will still be a full member of the EU enjoying all the privileges and subject to all the obligations that entails. On the next day, Britain will be outside the EU completely, treated in the EU’s parlance as a “third country” and having to deal with the EU on the default terms they apply to any non EU/non single market country. When references are made to a “cliff edge” in the media comment on Brexit, it is this sudden transition from full EU member to being outside the EU (and the single market) that is being referred to.

Here, I consider the consequences of leaving without a deal for the airline industry, where recently the Guardian reported that UK airlines may have to open bases of operation in other EU states and/or sell off shares to EU nationals post Brexit or lose major routes.

I conclude that if there is literally no deal, the likely consequence will be considerable disruption to UK/EU airline industry. This is in neither the UK or EU’s interests, though and a deal that ensures the UK remains part of the regulatory system for aviation in the EU should be feasible. Read the rest of this entry »

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The EU referendum was not intended to be advisory

I contend that, contrary to the claim that the EU referendum was intended to be advisory, it was in fact the clearly and repeatedly stated intention of the government to honour the result of the EU referendum, that our Parliamentarians knew this was the intention when they passed the legislation and voters were told clearly that this was the case in the campaign itself.

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It seems unlikely to me that Brexit will lead to Scottish independence

One the 23rd June, Scotland voted 62% vs 38% for remaining in the EU, which is of course at odds with the overall UK vote of 52% vs 48% for Leave.

Since then, Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish government have been quick to put the option of holding a second referendum on independence on the table, but Sturgeon has so far fallen short of saying it would definitely happen, and talked about looking at all the options for Scotland to remain in the EU.

With the SNP taking 56/59 of the Scottish seats at Westminster in 2015 and forming another administration at Holyrood, with the help of the pro-independence Scottish Green Party, and with the vote to leave the EU being explicitly one of the options Sturgeon had mentioned that might trigger a second independence referendum, many are now talking about the possibility of that happening and thus of Brexit leading to the breakup of the UK.

However despite these poll results, it seems to me rather unlikely that Scotland will become independent in order to become an EU member.

The reasoning for this is simple

  • I expect Scotland to end up outside the EU, having to apply to join, if she obtains independence from the UK.
    • It seems to me most unlikely that Scotland will be able to remain in the EU as the rest of the UK leaves, it is highly speculative as to how it would work and it requires cooperation from the EU and the UK to happen, and it’s not clear why either the UK or EU would entertain the notion.
  • Voting to leave both the UK and the EU means voting for a double dose of economic uncertainty, an extra dose on top of that caused by Brexit itself. It thus seems to me that an independence referendum with that as the choice will be even harder for the SNP to win than the 2014 referendum was. Questions about how the deficit will be dealt with, what currency option will be pursued, etc will be even more stark than they were in 2014.

Additionally, I note that a recent opinion poll did not favour Scottish independence in the event of Brexit.

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It’s too early to assess the impact of Brexit

Since the vote to leave the EU on the 23rd of June there have been a number of reports in the media on the state of Britain’s economy.

On the positive side, the reports have included:

On the negative side, the reports have included:

I have a few problems with these reports:

  • We haven’t left the EU yet! The indicators at best indicate what the impact of the vote to leave has been, and will in fact be some combination of that and other factors. To the extent they reflect the impact of the vote, they will be indicating the uncertainty that has arisen as a result of the vote but prior to even the beginning of negotiations which won’t start until 2017.
  • Some of the indicators are likely to be lagging indicators that will not yet show the impact of the June vote, e.g. figures relating to employment/unemployment will be showing mainly the impact of pre-vote decisions/factors.
  • There’s huge amount of uncertainty that will persist until we know what the outcome of the negotiations with the EU will be.

To claim that predictions about the impact of Brexit, whether positive or negative, are now being proven true (or false) is thus extremely premature.

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Corbyn refuses to say if he would honour Nato’s mutual defence pact

At a Labour leadership hustings in Birmingham, Jeremy Corbyn was questioned about whether he would come to the aid of a Nato country that was invaded by Russia. After Owen Smith said we would have to go to the aid of such a country, when pressed on this issue Corbyn said:

That’s in the NATO treaty. I would hope we that could strengthen our relations and activity within the OSCE, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation within Europe, which includes Russia and every other state. We cannot allow a military build-up which is going to lead to some calamitous, incredibly dangerous situations…

[he’s interrupted by the interviewer here, who presses him again on the scenario]

I would want to avoid us getting involved militarily by building up the diplomatic relationships and also trying to not isolate any country in Europe to bring them up.

[Corbyn is pressed further by the interviewer at this point]

I don’t wish to go to war, what I want to do is achieve a world where there is no need to go to war, where this is no need for it, that can be done.

The problems I have with this response are that:

  • he has not actually answered the question of what his response as British PM to a Russian violation of sovereignty of a Nato country would in fact be.
  • he appears to think he can avoid the scenario ever rising through diplomacy and through avoiding any kind of military build up, but surely whether or not Russia (or any other country) will decide to invade another state is not under Corbyn’s control. Even if his approach to diplomacy might work to achieve a world where we there is no need to go to war, he’s assuming he’ll have time to put it in place after being elected PM before being faced with such a scenario.
  • it may be Russia’s (or another country’s) intent to invade an allied country regardless of any dialogue or diplomacy,
  • Corbyn seems unwilling to let us know whether he would or would not take military action in these circumstances, but this is surely an important thing we need to know for a would-be Prime Minister.

I conclude that Nato members cannot rely on a Corbyn government to honour the mutual defence pact should the need arise.




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Labour’s dilemma regarding Corbyn

With Labour MPs voting 172-40 for a motion of no confidence in Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and Corbyn resolutely staying put, citing his solid majority when he was elected leader by Labour party members,  we have a stand-off between the leader and the party’s MPs when unity is needed to form an effective opposition and to fight the next general election properly.

On one side we have the bulk of Labour MPs who say they’ve lost confidence in Corbyn, accusing him of a lack of leadership, and who are afraid Labour will lose  the next general election with Corbyn at the helm.

On the other side we have Corbyn and his supporters claiming that he has the backing of the party’s membership, that it would be a betrayal of the members for him to step down and that his opponents within the Parliamentary Labour Party have organised an unconstitutional coup against him.

This conflict can only be resolved if one side concedes defeat to the other, and the longer it continues the less impressed voters are likely to be with the party. How might a stable resolution of this conflict come about? I see only the following possibilities for a stable solution:

  1. Corbyn resigns, opening up a new leadership contest. For this to happen, Corbyn and his supporters would need to be convinced that he would lose if he were to contest a leadership election should one be forced on him. In this context, this means that there would need to be solid evidence presented that the party membership has deserted him. How that evidence would be gathered without a leadership election is unclear.
  2. Corbyn contests a leadership election and is reelected with a solid majority, ideally (for Corbyn’s side) with an increased majority of the party’s members. Those seeking to oust Corbyn would then have to concede defeat at least until the next election. It would however make for a difficult period for the party, as it would open the party up to attacks from the media and the government based on the fact that the bulk of the PLP have expressed no confidence in Corbyn.
  3. Corbyn contests a leadership election and is comprehensively defeated. This would allow the party to unite behind a new leader and put the Corbyn era behind it. But if Corbyn is correct about his support amongst the members how likely is it this will happen?
  4. The PLP decide not to mount a challenge to Corbyn’s leadership after all and to back down and see how he does at the next election. This will leave those MPs looking foolish and weak. Corbyn’s position in the party would be stronger, but he wouldn’t have an effective parliamentary team – who’d take them seriously?

Only possibilities 1 and 3 would really minimise damage to the party. 2 would at least make it clear Corbyn has the confidence of the party at large, but would leave the parliamentary party with a bit of a credibility problem or alternatively might see the party split in two. 4 would be leave the parliamentary party looking like a complete joke.

Any outcome that doesn’t comprehensively resolve the issue would mean the battles will rumble on.

This conflict thus risks the party splitting as it did in the 1980s or otherwise being seriously damaged, but with greater peril since this time round Labour’s already lost Scotland and has UKIP breathing down its neck in both England and Wales. If there is a leadership challenge and a resulting election fails to produce a decisive majority either way, that could actually make things worse.

I conclude therefore that it is not looking good either for Labour or for Corbyn.


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Can the Scottish parliament veto Brexit?

In short: in my completely non-expert opinion, based on plain reading of the Scotland Act and the evidence used to suggest this in the first place, no.

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Boris Johnson: I am not bothered with civil liberties stuff for terror suspects – Telegraph

Speaking on Sky News, Mr Johnson said: “In many ways the guys who did this kind of thing are very often at the fringes of criminality, lured into terrorism by very cynical and clever idealogues. In many ways they are vulnerable to all sorts of criminality.

“You have got to have a very tough security solution, to be absolutely determined to monitor these people, know where they are, know who they’re talking to.

“I’m not particularly interested in this civil liberties stuff when it comes to these people’s emails and mobile phone conversations. If they are a threat to our society then I want them properly listened to.

via Boris Johnson: I am not bothered with civil liberties stuff for terror suspects – Telegraph.

If someone’s a genuine threat then I want them listened to. Surveillance targeted at those the authorities have reason to believe pose a threat is fine, but we should not be engaging in mass surveillance of the general population, and that’s why I oppose the snooper’s charter.


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