Coronavirus virus illustration

The Risk of Reopening Schools During the Coronavirus Pandemic

I haven’t written on here about the Coronavirus situation,  but I have been in healthy dialogue with peers on Facebook and Twitter. However, I want to address two issues in relation to children and the reopening of schools in September.

There is a lot of speculation in the media and online about two aspects of children returning to school. The first is educational, the other is about their mental health.
Whilst the educational impact of not being in school or a suitable educational environment conducive to learning is quite clear, the impact on mental health is far less clear cut.

Yesterday a study was reported in the BBC which had shown that anxiety in children had decreased markedly during the ‘long summer’ of school closures. Whilst many children were missing their daily interaction with school friends, many found ways around this. Some had social bubbles of school friend families. Others used outdoor social distanced socialising. Most had access to either telephone or internet communications. There is clear evidence that the way we do schooling and formal assessment is itself a threat to the mental health of children. The government urgently need to do something about this.

One big concern is that most state schools simply do not have the space for the social distancing measures required if an entire school is in attendance. Another issue is that school do act as an amplifier of the virus into the local communities. Two studies in April, albeit with slightly different aims and methodologies, both came to the conclusion that closing educational places had the single biggest impact on slowing the virus spread out of all the measures that we’re implemented.

There is no sure way of knowing what comes next. Other countries are showing mixed data which is not readily comparable to the UK situation. However, winter is a time when viruses spread the most and it should be noted that the main reason for this isn’t so much that people are indoors more, although that is a factor, it is the simple fact that children are back at school.

Further information

BBC Radio 4’s “Inside Science” programme this week (follow the link to listen on BBC Sounds) Paul Hunter, Professor of Medicine at Norwich Medical School, covered the data and risks associated with children going back to school in far more detail than this brief overview. On the programme, they, however, failed to note the report of the drop in anxiety levels during the lockdown period. This is an area that I am sure will attract much research in the coming months and years.

Professor Hunter also mentioned a very useful website for information and data about children and covid-19,


I note that some will come back at me with, “well, what would YOU do?” or “could YOU do better?!” That’s not the point, and I don’t know because I am not in the position to have the information about what could be done. I just think that we all need to be abreast of the facts.

What has a £900,000 paint job got to do with democratic accountability?

The Voyager transport aircraft, tasked with flying senior ministers to global events and summits, will be repainted at a cost of £900,000.

This doesn’t sound like just a routine maintenance repaint to me. A normal paint job is £100k, it sounds like it simply doesn’t need doing at all. There’s a lot that is unclear about what exactly this contract covers, however, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said of the decision to repaint the jet from its standard grey:

“The £900,000 cost incorporates the cost of creating a design that will promote the UK around the world without compromising the plane’s vital military role. Voyager can better represent the UK around the world with national branding. All of the work has been done in the UK.”
And that’s the rub from a public and democratic accountability viewpoint: contracts are usually opaque and are harder to scrutinise. Conservatives argue that contract law is robust to deal with things, but there is an issue here as to how much of what used to be publicly accountable is now hidden behind contracts and “commercially sensitive confidentiality”.
This is the case with the ‘track and trace” app and service where millions of pounds have been spent with little accountability and no democratic transparency, only to be scrapped and open-source alternative being investigated.
It’s also of major significance in the London borough of Barnet where the council has contracted out EVERY SINGLE FUNCTION of the council to ONE company: Capita. Where there was once democratic accountability now there is commercial secrecy.
I could list more: the NHS, local health authorities, many functions of government and local authorities, public transport……. and public money is being paid to companies who make a great profit with no accountability: no one can vote out Capita at the next local election. And no one knows the true extent of vested interests when they are hidden behind such enormous veils.

Bizarre Customer Services Interaction of the Year [updated]

When the customer service experience takes a trip into another reality altogether…

I have a 15-year-old MINI Cooper S. It’s doing well, just routine maintenance needed for such an old car to keep it in the best condition. The latest job is to replace the rear suspension, mounts, trailing arms and so on. So I’ve been getting all the parts together.

The most complicated part has been assembling the rear shock-struts. Just a lot of parts that I then need to assemble. To get the best deals I have been shopping around and for a lot of things, ebay is actually rather good in this regard. You just need to spend time tracking parts down.

…the other box contained a completely wrong part. It wasn’t what was listed, it wasn’t as pictured, it wasn’t even for the MINI! Bearing in mind, this was the part on the listing that I originally sent the message about!

eBay - Top Strut mount listingAnd so it came to something called the ‘Top Strut Mounts’. It’s a metal plate that goes on top of the assembly, that is what you bolt to the actual car chassis. BMW charge nearly £80 for it, but on ebay you can get new replacements for around £14. After searching a while, I came across the ‘ACP Top Strut Mount Kit’ listing, as pictured on the right. I messaged asking which side this was for, as the listing didn’t say, and I would also like to know the listing for the other side too. The reply came. I was told it was ‘for the left’ and given the listing for the right. So, two weeks ago, I duly ordered both items at the same time.

The delivery came after the weekend and I hurried to open so I could get building the two struts. One box felt lighter than the other. On opening, I saw that the top mount for the right-hand side was correct, but the other box contained a completely wrong part. It wasn’t what was listed, it wasn’t as pictured, it wasn’t even for the MINI! Bearing in mind, this was the part on the listing that I originally sent the message about.

This was obviously a warehouse packing error and could easily be corrected. I immediately took photos and messaged the seller. Here are the ensuing exchanges between customer services and myself.

25th Nov, 20:20
Dear ACE Parts,
One of the items delivered, pictured right, was not the item that I ordered. It’s completely different foam and doesn’t include the top mount. I had ordered left and right, I am unable to say which I have, but the marking on the box for the correct item says NTM302242 MINI, the box with the wrong item in says NTM 302240.
I look forward to your prompt resolution.

26th Nov, 10.23
Hi Peter,
I am really sorry to hear of this error, would it be possible to send us an image of the part number on the box? I am afraid I could not see this in the images you sent.
Kind Regards
aceparts_uk Customer Support

The wrong part26th Nov, 15.15
Hi, Attached is the photo of the box with the wrong item. The correct item has an ‘R’ stamp in a circle on it, so I presume that means right-hand side.

27th Nov, 09.07
I can see that you purchased two items, one NTM302242 and one NTM302240. Have you only received NTM302240 and not NTM302242?
Please can I ask for your full UK vehicle registration and I will be happy to have a look for you.
Kind Regards
aceparts_uk Customer Support

27th Nov, 09.10
The reg [my car reg]
either way, what I received is not what was pictured in the listing, as my first picture showed.

27th Nov, 13.18
Could you please send us an image of what is in the bag that is incorrect as Iam unable to see what the part on the right looks like in the first image.I am sorry about that.
Kind Regards
aceparts_uk Customer Support

27th Nov, 09.10
Quite simply, there was no large metal top mount plate, and these items are completely wrong. The part should look like the 2nd photo.
[I sent the photo of the incorrect part AGAIN, and a photo of the correct right-side part that I had received.]

28th Nov, 09.32
Please can we ask you to request a return through eBay using the reason incorrect part and we will provide you with a freepost return label.
On receipt of your return we will issue a refund for you.
Kind Regards
aceparts_uk Customer Support

At this point, I was hopeful that this was on track and sent the incorrect part back. But I missed the part about “refund.” So, today (4th Dec by this point!) I sent them this message:

4th Dec, 09.05
Hi, I have returned this. I didn’t see the bit about the label, however, I put the details in the box. I don’t want a refund, I want the correct part, please. This is a matter of urgency!

This is where things took a bizarre turn and I entered into an alternative reality.

4th Dec, 13.35
Unfortunately we don’t have alternative to offer for those , we can only process a refund upon return.
Kind Regards
aceparts_uk Customer Support

4th Dec, 13.35
You delivered the wrong part, it wasn’t the one pictured or advertised. I even contacted yourselves to find out which side it was for then asked for the opposite side upon which I ordered both parts together. This conversation makes no sense what so ever. Please, can you get someone who understands what your selling!

4th Dec, 15.50
We did ask for more details as previously explained, we needed to locate the part number of the one which was incorrect as you purchased two of the different ones. As we didn’t have enough info we will issue a refund. We are sorry for any inconvenience caused.
Kind Regards
aceparts_uk Customer Support

Yes, I know. So, I replied:

I have found this experience utterly baffling. All I want is the item that is listed, as advertised, and as pictured in the advert. The Top strut mount kit for MINI Cooper S R53 for the left-hand side of the vehicle. The part that was sent out was nothing like the part pictured, it was something completely different to what was ordered, as I showed in two photographs that I sent. PLEASE, can you direct me to where I can order the Top Strut Mount Kit for the MINI R53 for the left-hand side AS pictured in the advertised image and description?
I really don’t understand how this seems to have become so difficult!
Thank you

Update: 5th Dec

Is the part number 302240 correct? The 302242 should really just be a mirror copy of 302240.
I am sorry for our confusion. If you could send us an image of the two parts contents this will help us out.
Kind Regards
aceparts_uk Customer Support

5th Dec, 16:18
The items as sent to meYes, 302240 is correct and is pictured on the left of this picture. The other item pictured on the right, as I have been trying to say all along, is not correct and certainly is 302242 as shown in the listing. There must have been a boxing error or a packing error.
The 2nd picture [shown earlier in the posting, 26th Nov] shows the close up of what was sent.
All I want is the correct item, the mirror item to the correct item that was sent.
Thank you for your attention

Can anyone recommend an occupational therapist, particularly any who are specialists in medico-legal/case management areas?

I am preparing for a PIP tribunal appeal, and need to have a legal defence prepared for some absurd possibilities. I am waiting for my appeal tribunal to contest a PIP benefit decision, waiting since February. As part of the decision I am appealing, they downgraded my mobility component which meant I was no longer eligible for a vehicle from  the Motability scheme. As part of my discussions with my appeals advisor, she told me about cases where people had lost their appeal to regain the ‘enhanced mobility’ component BECAUSE they could drive a car. (To be brief incase you need clarity, Enhanced rates mean that one cannot walk over 20 meters repeatedly, reliably, with in a reasonable time, and safely.)  The reasoning, I’m told, that some tribunal judges decide this is because they say it takes a reasonable amount of physical competence to drive a car. I have been told that one person was told that as they were able to operate the pedals of a car, she was able to walk more than 20 meters. All of this seems to me to be utterly absurd. In my case, the reason for being rejected by assessment was that “he lives alone and isn’t housebound as he goes out in the car regularly,” and on the daily living component that my grip strength was bought in to question [not trying hard enough / suboptimal effort] because “he drives a manual car.” (Notice it was the gear changing and not the steering.)  I was incredulous. So my hope is that somehow –  with the help of an occupational therapist I can once and for all provide evidence to the tribunal that driving a car is not physically synonymous with being able to walk over 20 meters (repeatedly, reliably, with in a reasonable time, and safely…), that driving modern cars requires very little physical exertion (I argued that I could change gears with my little finger it was so light, to no avail) – I can put an end to this utter nonsense for myself and everyone else in a similar situation.

Lloyd Markem’s Story of a Kafkaesque labyrinth all too familiar to all who’ve had dealings with the DWP

Last week, on BBC Radio 4, I heard author Lloyd Markham sharing a Kafkaesque tale about belonging – and not belonging. His story is all too familiar to anyone who has had to deal with the DWP. He particularly marks out the draconian position that anyone having to deal with the state find themselves in, and concludes that the checks and balances, against the states power to ensure it is not abused, have long been removed.

I provide here a transcript of the short talk, but also encourage you to visit the Radio 4 website and download the audio of the talk for yourselves. Please share far and wide, as this tale is the story of a blight inflicted on the most needy and vulnerable in our society.

Four Thought – Belonging, On Hold

[00:00:03] Hello and welcome to forethought. We’re in Wales tonight and our speaker has just been nominated for the ‘Wales Book of The Year Award’ for his first novel ‘Bad Ideas Chemicals’. It’s a dystopian vision of life in Bridgend, just down the road – a very noisy road tonight, where we are at the moment with our audience at the Volcano Theatre in Swansea; and tonight he’s got another dystopian story for us. Please welcome Lloyd Markem.

[00:00:38] In May 2014 I became no-one for a while. I say I became no-one because in order to be someone you need to belong somewhere. And in order to say you belong somewhere you need proof that you belong somewhere, and that proof needs to be accepted by the somewhere you say you belong to. In May 2014, the somewhere I thought I belonged, Britain, no longer accepted my proof of someoneness. At the time, I was not aware of this. I was busy with my master’s degree labouring under the illusion that I was still in fact someone. Someone named Lloyd from Zimbabwe, who had moved to Bridgend with the rest of his family when he was 13; someone whose dad had British citizenship; someone who had been given indefinite leave to remain as a teenager; someone who planned to one day get citizenship himself, once he had the money; someone who belonged.

[00:02:00] That was the someone I thought I was until January 2016 when, shortly after starting work at a shop, I was called into the backroom by the manager. The H.R. department had contacted him to say that the passport I provided was “insufficient proof of my right to work.” This was because one of the legal changes brought into effect in 2014 was that expired passport, even with the correct Home Office stamps, were no longer considered proof of legal residency.

[00:02:34] I was bewildered. Up until this moment I’d taken the permanence of my Indefinite Leave to Remain for granted. The word indefinite meant forever after all, right? I was of course mistaken. After 2014 forever had become for now. Distraught I went home and decided to finally apply for British citizenship. It would be very expensive over a thousand pounds but my options were limited at this point.

[00:03:12] The next day at my Job Centre meeting I informed my advisor of the situation and asked what I should do given that no one was allowed to employ me. She expertly responded by telling me to ring the helpline. I called the helpline and waited the usual 30 plus minutes listening to a tinny rendition of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ that was repeatedly interrupted by a robotic voice informing me that someone would be with me shortly.

[00:03:42] Eventually a man answered. I explain the situation and he helpfully replied, “er,” and then, “ah.” And then after a while, “I better had a word with my supervisor; could I put you on hold?” I agreed that he could, and again waited. Then waited a bit longer. Then a bit longer still. Dun dun dun de-de-daaa… Dun dun dun de-de-daaa… Eventually, another man answered and informed me that they could not make a decision. “Oh,” I replied. Continuing he explained that my situation was “complex” and therefore they would need to request the abilities of a “complex decision maker.” This complex decision maker would make the complex decision, and then contact me. In the meantime, I should keep applying for jobs, filling in activity diaries, and attending Job Centre meetings. And so, I did that.

[00:05:00] Two weeks passed. My next Job Centre meeting came up and by advisor asked me a very existential question, “Lloyd, why are you here?” To which I replied, “Eh, er, um, the meeting?” She told me that my claim was cancelled and that I should call the helpline. So, I went home and called the helpline. Queue Vivaldi; queue 30-minute wait; queue- someone telling me that my claim had been cancelled and that I should receive a letter explaining why soon.

[00:05:41] Weeks passed. I made good progress on my citizenship application. Finally, I received a letter from the complex decision maker explaining the cancellation of my claim. It had been decided that: because I was not a British citizen I shouldn’t have been allowed on Universal Credit to begin with and therefore all the money I had received must be “recovered.” The amount totalled £2428, 66 pence. I was advised to contact the debt management team who would help arrange for this “overpayment” to be recovered. I was also advised that I should contact them soon or action will be taken against me for “non-compliance.”.

[00:06:28] I felt absolutely defeated and resigned to being in debt for several years. But my friends and family encouraged me to go speak to Citizens Advice. It took a few days to arrange an appointment with someone experienced enough to discuss such a “complex” case, but eventually I got to speak to a person and they encouraged me to contest the decision and request a “mandatory reconsideration notice.” I mailed off the official request forms the following morning on “Next Day Delivery.”.

[00:07:01] Two weeks later, I got a letter from the debt management team. It claimed that I had not communicated with Universal Credit in regards the overpayment, and that if I did not contact them soon they would take action. I called them and got through surprisingly quickly. No Vivaldi for debt management… I explained that I had actually sent my request for mandatory reconsideration notice weeks ago and it should have arrived well before the deadline. I was told that Universal Credit had not said anything and that I should call them. So, I did. Queue Vivaldi etc… Universal Credit then told me that my request had been received on time, and was being processed and- they didn’t really know why debt management hadn’t been informed. They assured me that there would be a message marked ‘Urgent’ sent to the relevant people. Assured, I put down the phone.

[00:08:01] Weeks went by. I passed my ‘life in the UK test’ and put my certificate in with the rest of my now completed citizenship application. A huge file containing three years of bank statements, good character statements from lecturers, diplomas, letters from student loans, and letters from Universal Credit. Well, when we are on good terms. The next day I mailed the whole thing off. Crossing my fingers and praying.

[00:08:26] Shortly afterward I got another letter from debt management informing me they were taking action to recover the overpayment. I called them; they still hadn’t heard from Universal Credit. I rang Universal Credit. Vivaldi etc… I was once again told that my request was being processed and that it should have been communicated to debt management. More reassurances. I was not reassured, but I pretended to be.

[00:08:57] Days later I got my first letter from a debt collection agency along with a string of text to my mobile. I contacted them but they wouldn’t take my word for anything and told me to ring debt management. I rang debt management. The woman on the phone was surprisingly sympathetic and arranged to have the order to recover the money temporarily put on hold. I called universal credit again, Vivaldi, more assurances. I don’t even pretend to be assured this time.

[00:09:27] These run around phone calls between debt collectors, debt management and Universal Credit became my new normal for a few months. Eventually I received the mandatory reconsideration notice. It had laborious step by step breakdown of how the complex decision maker had reached his complex decision and every bit of evidence he had used in the process. But, curiously, there was no mention of my indefinite leave to remain status. Could it be that the complex decision maker had not been informed? I decided to query this, and sent him scans of my passport and Home Office letter- the one I had originally received when I was a teenager. And just like that, spell was broken! Everything suddenly me resolved itself. The DWP told me they were dropping everything in light of this “new” evidence I had provided, and were reinstating my claim.

[00:10:32] Things returned to normal, well mostly. I actually continued to be harassed by debt collection agencies well into the following year; but eventually after enough pleading Universal Credit finally talk to debt management and the threatening letters stopped. And in the same month the DWP climbed down from their decision, the Home Office accepted my citizenship application, and I got my British passport. My new proof of someoneness.

[00:11:00] And that’s how my story ends with my someoneness returning to me. Not with a chorus of angels, but with a dry fizzle. If I don’t sound too reassured by my victory it is because in the present context of the awful Windrush scandal, with people who’ve lived in Britain longer than I’ve been alive being bundled onto planes in the middle of the night, it is apparent I was let off easy.

[00:11:32] We are often told that these stricter laws are just there to catch ‘illegal immigrants’ and other ‘wrongdoers’. And, if you’re a law-abiding person then really you have nothing to fear. But, if you make it harder for people to prove their innocence, then logically more innocent people will be found guilty, even if just by technicality. When a system deals in harsh binaries: citizen or non citizen; legal or illegal; someone or no-one; it cannot make nuanced distinctions between those guilty because they have intentionally broken the law and guilty because the forms they were issued with over a decade ago have been rendered obsolete by a politician.

[00:12:20] There is a perverse logic that guides the actions of both the DWP and the Home Office, a logic that bleeds into everything they touch. The Home Office sums it up as, “deport first; appeal later.” Well the DWP sanctions you first, then graciously allows you to contest their sanctions. “Presumed guilty; Punished.” Then you can try and prove your innocence.

[00:12:49] This is an inverse of the rules which are meant to underpin a liberal democracy; rules best expressed in that old maxim that a person is innocent until proven guilty. That maxim is not just about how the law should conduct disputes between individuals, but also about how it should conduct disputes between individuals and the state.

[00:13:11] State bureaucracies wield incredible power and they are meant to be checks and balances against that power to ensure it is not abused; particularly in cases where the individual being acted against is marginalized and does not have the resources to readily defend themselves. I think these stories which are coming to light show that in Britain those checks and balances have long been removed.

[00:13:40] Thank you for listening. My name is Lloyd Markham. A someone, for now.

Copyright and authorship of this talk belong to Lloyd Markham.