"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
"Boris Johnson is unfit to be the Prime Minister; the government had no Covid plan; all it had was a plan to have a plan."
"You're scaring people." was the sharp rebuke I received in 2003 from a senior police commander. During the initial stages of SARS, I'd put my officers in PPE, given that we covered the Prince of Wales Hospital, then the epicentre of the outbreak. All the medical staff wore PPE; thus, it seemed logical and prudent because a police uniform is no protection against a virus.
Unfortunately, the sense of crisis had yet to permeate Police HQ. The police public relations branch wanted answers from me because the press raised the issue. A tense exchange followed that ended with me asking, "Are you ordering me to remove the PPE, Sir? I'm prepared to do that and then record your order in my notebook."
That ended the conversation. Within days the same officer hurried to reassure the public that the police service would continue to function.
This exchange all returned to me with a strong sense of déjà vu as I listened to Boris Johnson's former special adviser Dominic Cummings. He lamented the chaos and lack of urgency that pervaded the UK's initial response to Covid. As Cummings identified, the system or the people in it failed to switch to crisis mode.
Let's not forget that in 2003, Hong Kong's Director of Health, Margaret Chan, initially played down SARS. She, of course, went on to head the WHO.
Scrambling to protect my staff, I faced resistance from various quarters. When I asked for extra PPE and bleach for cleaning, the clerks informed me I'd not budgeted for this and thus couldn't receive it. And, yes, they had it in their stores.
They helpfully told me to place estimates in my budget for next year, and I may get more supplies six months later. I met the same inertia as I went up the chain of command. Finally, I sat down with my regional commander, who soon understood the potential disaster that loomed. He knocked down the roadblocks.
And yet, even with such top-cover, it took weeks to get the kit we needed. In the meantime, I did direct buying of PPE and kept the receipts hoping repayment would come.
In a similar vein, the complaints against the police office sought (unintentionally) to sabotage our response. I'd adjusted duty schedules to have officers on two-hour stints in the Prince of Wales Hospital to minimise their exposure. A team of volunteers agreed to cover the hospital posts based on such flexibility.
Then, a member of the public saw one volunteer in a 7/11 Shop buying a drink, which attracted a complaint about taking an unauthorised break. CCTV confirmed he'd been there less than two minutes, but CAPO considered this a 'break' that needed recording. They threatened to discipline the man.
So here was the system going through the motions at a time of calamity, undermining morale and acting against everyone's interests. Only after an exchange of frank emails did we resolve that.
Thus, I can comprehend Cummings's frustrations. All organisations are process-driven, reluctant to switch direction and careful to guard their domain. In Hong Kong, none of the clerical or administrative staff, who have their hands on the levers, will act unless told. This reluctance to show initiative is especially prevalent when anti-corruption measures incentivise absolute adherence to regulations.
Cummings is in many ways an unsympathetic character. He's portrayed as a ruthless political operator with laser focus and an incredible intellect. Yet, he came across as more human than expected, apologising for his role in the Covid deaths. Except his confession looked like a ploy to weaponise his later evidence.
Also, in the week before his appearance before the committee of MP's investigating Covid, he staged a single-handed campaign that softened up Downing Street. He tweeted intent to storm their trench, and there would be casualties. This build-up soon had the vultures circling in anticipation.
Then on the big day, with his trade-mark dishevelled 'fuck you' fashion sense, he put in a seven-hour, seven-minute scorching performance. The fusillade of shots he landed was blistering. In short, Boris Johnson is unfit to be the Prime Minister; the government had no Covid plan; all it had was a plan to have a plan.
Strange that Cummings only recognised the unsuitability of Johnson for the job once he's given the boot. Oddly, Cummings's massive frontal cortex couldn't see that in the years he worked to get Johnson elected.
Next came the allegations that Matt Hancock, the Minister for Health, should have been fired 15 to 20 times for lying. Wrapping it up was a civil service of 'lions led by donkeys.'
Cummings laid out specific charges against Hancock as a serial liar, responsible for the deaths of thousands in care homes, which he failed to protect despite giving assurance of a 'ring of steel.'
Hancock stands accused of sending thousands of vulnerable, sick, old people out of the NHS and back to care homes. This step was in anticipation of the NHS needing the beds to treat a surge of Covid patients. That surge never appeared. But many of the old folks sent away died.
How these deaths came about is a complicated subject with conflicting sets of data. There is evidence that asymptomatic infected agency staff, moving between care homes, brought the Covid in. Only a comprehensive inquiry will establish the truth, if that's even possible.
This allegation raised the spectre of corporate manslaughter charges. That would take some doing because the hard evidence is not there at this time.
Johnson and Hancock, supported by their MPs, fought back that Cummings is a disgruntled ex-employee with an axe to grind. That's an assertion that holds some truth, but it does not take away from aspects of the evidence he gave.
Many of the claims that Cummings made were already known. Plus, I'd add that the initial response is always confused, disjointed, and unsettling in most crisis. That's the nature of the beast. And even with robust contingency plans, society and organisations take time to switch their mindset.
Cummings asserts that there are many well-qualified people who could have done a better job. I'd counter that even the best-qualified get things wrong, and it's not because they are idiots or evil or corrupt.
It's just that when making decisions without adequate facts, uncertainty prevails, and errors occur. Atop that, you can't wait for the smoke to clear to see the complete picture because it's too late.
You have to act and be prepared to get things wrong.
"Operating under the mantle of press freedom, breaking the law was of little consequence to Bashir and the BBC."
Shock, horror — a BBC journalist lied and used forged documents! No one with any insights into the workings of the BBC should express surprise at the findings of Lord Dyson. In Hong Kong, we've long seen the BBC distorting the truth, most recently with its portrayal of the 2019/2020 civil unrest.
By whitewashing the mob violence here while vilifying the forces of law and order, the BBC gave tacit support to criminals and put innocents in danger. Even today, the BBC is doing the same with its one-sided coverage of trouble in Paris that seeks to taint the French police.
Lord Dyson's report on the infamous 1995 Princess Diana/Bashir interview gives legal weight to a well-known truth; the BBC is intrinsically deceitful. That assessment applies to BBC news output and its opinion programmes. But don't worry, the wildlife documentaries are primarily believable because the BBC can't get Lions and Tigers to lie.
The Princess Diana saga is awful on two levels. First, underhand methods snared the interview; second, the BBC sought to cover up, deflect, and disparage anyone who dared to challenge them. That cloaking took a sustained effort over decades.
In 1995, with the help of the BBC, reporter Martin Bashir forged documents to groom Princess Diana, coaxing her into giving him access. The interview triggered a series of events that led to her divorce, removal of royal protection and her eventual death at the hands of a drunk driver in Paris.
And while we may quibble over the direct linkages, you can hardly deny the impact. At best, Bashir was unethical, and at worst, he's part of an evolution of events that led to her death. All the while, the BBC supported, applauded and encouraged him.
Of course, Diana is not entirely innocent in this matter. As an adult, she made decisions. Although, given her evident 'spurned woman' status, she was vulnerable. Bashir exploited that.
Operating under the mantle of press freedom, breaking the law was of little consequence to Bashir and the BBC. We hear the same here in the case of a journalist who lied to get information from the Transport Department. Convicted in the courts, she continues to argue her case.
Also, I've seen warrior cops adopt a similar attitude in pursuit of the bad guys, prepared to bend, or break the rules, to get a result. Any short-term positive outcomes come outweighed by the erosion of the law. Then when the truth emerges, the damage taints the whole organisation and society.
In a lame defence of his actions, Bashir seeks to downplay the importance of the forged documents. That's the only hope he has. Unfortunately, I don't think it will wash in the court of public opinion. If I were Mr Bashir, I'd be looking to keep a low profile for the next two to three decades.
As academic David Sedgwick identified in his seminal work on the BBC "The Fake News Factory", many journalists believe themselves above the law. They are willing to use unethical and illegal means to get results in their self-appointed status as guardians of all that is right and good.
Sedgwick further holds that the BBC, captured by a minority of activists, seeks to mislead, unnerve, and inflame their audience. He makes a convincing case that takes in Brexit, the war in Syria and the BBC's portrayal of rape victims in the north of England, who suffered at the hands of Asian gangs.
Meanwhile, these activist journalists continue to take public money to pursue their agendas without any proper oversight. In short, the British public is paying for an enterprise, which is starting to look criminal.
There is no doubt that the terrible behaviour of one man – Martin Bashir - was responsible for much of this malignancy. Yet the role that BBC leaders played to obstruct investigations needs exposing. But, I can see that the 'rogue journalist' excuse getting rolled out to protect the rest of the corrupt edifice. Already, the defenders of the BBC caution against a feeding frenzy as they did after Savile and other nastiness.
Then with Bashir gone, the BBC will revert to the norm, looking for the next story to fabricate. Unless something is done, we will have this conversation every couple of years.
While demands for change are rising, the question remains can the BBC reform? History suggests not. Savile, Harris and many other terrible incidents tell us that this organisation doesn't learn. The culture is self-preservation above all else hidden behind a veneer of press freedom.
In truth, I'm not sure how you bring about change, given that the BBC is a massive beast with its tentacles in many domains. There are parts of the organisation that do commendable public service work. These need keeping.
Perhaps making the BBC a subscription service could have the desired impact instead of forcing people to pay. If BBC products are so much in demand, the public can subscribe. If not, then the Beeb will need to change or disappear.
Lastly, I must applaud the Duke of Cambridge for his eloquent and heartfelt statement. In all this madness, he presented himself as steadfast, moderate in tone but deeply sincere. He's starting to look like a future King. Well done, Sir!
Peter Mandelson typifies Labour's arrogance with assertions like "the working class have nowhere else to go".
In case you missed it, last week, two seismic shifts rattled British politics. This jolting of the UK's tectonic plates could have profound consequences. And as I alluded to in an earlier blog, Hong Kong will feel the ripple effects. Anyone heading that way needs to understand significant changes are coming that may see the ‘united kingdom’ fragment.
First, the Scottish National Party won a decisive victory in the Scottish Parliamentary elections. While Nicola Sturgeon failed to get a majority by one vote, her alliance with the Green Party means she remains First Minister. In no time, she pledged to press ahead with plans for a second independence referendum.
For Prime Minister Boris Johnson, this is terrible news, because as Sturgeon asserts, "there is no justification to deny a referendum". A constitutional battle now looms that may make Brexit look like a picnic.
To head off Sturgeon, Boris called for a Covid-recovery summit with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In the process, he inadvertently signalled he's a leader only in England. Thus, is drawn a de-facto line of separation between the nations to reinforce Sturgeon's position. The optics don't look good. How long Boris can deflect the Scottish question is anyone's guess.
The second event may give Boris some comfort. The opposition Labour Party has imploded. The Hartlepool loss is a stark confirmation that the working class has made the cultural break from routinely voting Labour. This affirms that the 2019 general election result wasn't a blip.
I dare say that in regular times Hartlepool should be an easy win for Labour. As a working-class area, you'd expect them to walk it. But times have changed, although Labour doesn't appear to have recognised that.
The election results paint a picture of a Labour rout except in Wales and London. And Labour only has itself to blame. So while the left and right of the party are busy throwing bitter attacks at each other, the public look on with despair at this ideological ranting.
The dominant narrative is that a London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of brigades of woke social media warriors, has captured the party. Although, in truth, Labour's disconnect from the working class began some time ago under Tony Blair.
Often forgotten is that New Labour lost 1.5 million votes in the North of England between 1997 and 2010. That process gathered pace in recent years under the leadership of Corbyn and Starmer.
There is plenty of evidence that a metropolitan elite who dominate the Labour party — most of whom never had 'dirty hands' jobs — sneer at ordinary folks. In 1979, 37 per cent of Labour MPs came from a manual work background. By 2015, that number dropped to 7 per cent.
In patronising and hectoring tones, working peoples concerns faced rejection by Labour intellectuals. The only conclusion to draw is that Labour is now so out of contact with its grassroots that its institutionally incapable of understanding why it keeps losing elections.
Peter Mandelson typifies Labour's arrogance with assertions like "the working class have nowhere else to go". In this statement, he affirmed George Orwell's position decades ago that socialists don't support the working class; instead, they hate the rich. By the way, this is the same Peter Mandelson who took holidays with convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein. What a working class hero!
Then in 2016, working-class people smelled a rat when Labour vilified them as misled thickos and xenophobic for supporting Brexit. Remember Gillian Duffy. Next up is leading Labour figure Emily Thornberry's sneering at a working-class household flying the English flag. Thornberry is well known for her hypocrisy, having sent her kids to an elite school despite the party opposing such schools.
In contrast, the Tories took the people's vote for Brexit seriously. For the most part, it wasn't the posh boys of the Tory Party who looked down with condescension on working people.
To sum it all up, losing Labour council leader Chris Emmas-Williams, told the Derby Telegraph on Friday, "It's been a disastrous day for us. The voters have let us down. I hope they don't live to regret it."
Instead of capitulating, the working class have now drawn up a seat to watch. They'll amuse themselves as Labour engages in another round of the competitive victimhood based on intersectional nonsense. Labour has forgotten that people aspire to get on in life, moving beyond dependency and patronising help. Plus, they ask, how is the common good served only in pandering to minority interests?
Yes, it's correct to feel compassion for victims of whatever origin, but don't always defer to them. If status as a victim is self-inflicted, deferring entrenches that victimhood.
After all, care must focus on the genuinely needy and sick. Moreover, because someone is a victim or a minority doesn't excuse poor or unethical behaviour we wouldn't accept from the majority.
Lastly, accept no guilt for something you are not responsible for. Above all, visiting the father's sins on the son is an outrage. Accordingly, the toppling of statues, taking the knee and calling for reparations — something Starmer supported — isn't a vote winner.
Instead of insulting the voters, Labour must acknowledge the common decency of working-class voters and their pride. Also, they aspire to a better life instead of playing a bit part in Labour's game of identity politics, as the people who need looking after.
So with Boris as the Prime Minister of England, how does he stop Scottish independence? Without a doubt, that's the big question. Meanwhile, I suspect that Labour will wander the political wilderness, ranting from the fringes and fighting each other.
They may hold sway in London and Wales but no longer command the heartlands that gave them power. It's profoundly sad to see this once great party brought to its knees by taking the knee at the altar of virtue signalling.
Further, the removal of an effective opposition gives free rein to blundering Boris. Is that ideal? On Scotland, Boris should have a brave-heart, call wee Nicole's bluff and settle the matter.
"Thousand of people gathering, a narrow passageway, wet metal surfaces, many stairways and a lack of controls. Alarm bells should be ringing."
On duty, one of my most significant worries was crowds. Thus, a cold shudder ran through me as I read that 45 men and boys died in a crush. This time the scene was Mount Meron in northern Israel, as tens of thousands of worshippers gathered at a Rabbi's tomb.
Any Hong Kong police officer would recognise the elements of a disaster coming together. Thousand of people gathering, a narrow passageway, wet metal surfaces, many stairways and a lack of coordinated controls. Alarm bells should be ringing.
Decades ago, the Hong Kong Police learnt their lesson the hard way. On January 1st 1993, after midnight, a crowd of New Year's Eve revellers emptied out of the bars in Lan Kwai Fong. Some 20,000 people began to descend the small, sloped streets and alleys.
Then someone slipped. Others began to fall. Few could keep upright on pavements and a road surface slick with crazy foam, spilt beer, and champagne—a crush of bodies cascaded downhill to leave a pile of people six feet high. Sixty-three people, most under 20, were injured, with 21 dead due to crushing and asphyxiation.
The police and other emergency services, stunned and initially overwhelmed, then swung into action. Cue days and weeks of bitter recriminations, with blame aplenty heaped on the police.
An inquiry chaired by Justice Kemal Bokhary identified many factors that contributed to the disaster. He then made recommendations that empowered the police to act.
In Israel, the police asserted they had no authority at a religious site such as Mount Merton. The sensitivities of the site limited their ability to act. While in Hong Kong, the police faced different challenges. Everyone knew that celebrations like New Year need managing, especially when large crowds gathered. Yet, pressures existed on the police not to be party poopers by imposing controls restricting access to bars and clubs.
Measures such as one-way flows and limiting access drew criticism from business owners. The media, always up for a bit of police-bashing, joined in with diatribes about over-zealous policing. Yet, if Lan Kwai Fong proved anything, it's that a disaster can strike in seconds. And the only way to prevent deaths and injuries is planning, controls and some tough-love policing.
Henceforth, based on Bokhary's findings, a risk-management system allowed Hong Kong to avoid a repeat. Although I have to say, the public has short memories. I faced frequent questions about why we controlled numbers and batched groups entering Che Kung Temple.
Then came moans that the police could move around in designated free-access corridors while the hemmed-in public is behind barriers. This arrangement, recommended by Bokhary, allows officers to move about for control purposes. Besides, these corridors also act as escape and extraction routes for the sick and injured. Unfortunately, impatient and grumpy citizens don't see the threat until it's too late.
Over the past decades, the risk assessment systems grew in sophistication. Crowd psychology, crowd type, geography, area layouts, signs and modelling of crowd flow all came into play. Based on these criteria, the police now come well-armed to argue the case for controls. And a range of options are available; tidal flows, batching movement, one-way systems, escape routes and constant communication with the attendees.
The risk management process aims to achieve several things. These include:
Moreover, police officers and others dealing with crowds must see the clues and cues in the behaviour of different types of gatherings. For example, events with families tend to be calmer. But if you spot the families leaving, with young men left behind, the risk of trouble escalates. Add alcohol to that equation, and thing can get silly.
Unfortunately, the lessons of Lan Kwai Fong didn't reach Shanghai. The 2015 New Year disaster there had all the usual hallmarks. Thousands of people trying to get onto a narrow stairway leading to an elevated viewing platform at Chen Yi Square. As the countdown event at the far end of the square reached its climax, people surged onto the stairway and fell. The result was 36 killed and 47 injured. Most of the dead were females aged 12 to 36.
Looking around at potential risks in Hong Kong, the South Stand at the Rugby Sevens caused me some anxious moments. The heady mix of drunk people crammed on a sloping structure has the potential for a surge. Measures that control the numbers allowed on the stand have gone some way to reducing that risk.
Besides, the banning of adolescents, who tend to get over-excited and aggressive, proved beneficial. Sitting in the side-stands, a different dynamic plays out. I observed that the older, more mature spectators self-policed the kids with the occasional 'quiet word'. This usually calmed any silliness by teenagers.
It always struck me that Wong Tai Sin Temple at Chinese New Year, as the worshippers charged in, to place burning joss sticks, is an accident waiting to happen. With the slow moving elderly mixed in with more boisterous elements, the risk is there. Slowing the movement, and then providing spillover areas, eased the hazards without unduly impacting the atmosphere of this iconic event.
It's hard not to acknowledge that the Lan Kwai Fong stampede was avoidable. The April 1989 UK Hillsborough disaster should have alerted police forces around the world that they needed to up their game.
Fortunately, these days Hong Kong does a remarkable job managing crowds. In truth, there was nothing particularly groundbreaking about the methods developed in Hong Kong. Except to say, the gained experience and the embedding of a culture that mitigates risks is commendable.
Yet, we can't rest on laurels as complacency will catch us out. Thus, robust risk assessments and constant vigilance remain crucial. Finally, we learnt that the critics of police actions need addressing with reminders of what can happen.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.