Boris Johnson has hugged Barclays too close

The Mayor of London's links with the bank risk damaging reputations in London.

The news today that Barclays have been hit with huge fines for their involvement in the interest rate fixing scandal will have caused great anxiety at City Hall.

While no senior politician can claim to have kept the bank at arms length, there is no politician who has hugged them closer than Boris Johnson. In fact, even before he was first elected Mayor of London, Boris was determined to bring Barclays and boss Bob Diamond into his court.

Asked in April 2008 why he hadn’t named any of his advisers yet, Boris quickly revealed that Diamond was top of his list. Speaking to LBC radio, Johnson said he was “delighted” that Bob would head his new mayoral charity explaining that Diamond was “an extremely wealthy man, and I know how much money they make at Barclays because they rip me off with their charges the whole time."

Diamond and other City big-wigs were singed up to an elite “London Business Club” where the mayor extracted large donations over plates of poached eggs and smoked salmon.

According to one report: “The newly refurbished Savoy played host to the likes of ITIS and Streetcar chairman Sir Trevor Chinn, Goldman Sachs head of economics Jim O’Neill and former chief economist and deputy chairman of Man Group Stanley Fink. They were rubbing shoulders along the breakfast table with incoming Barclays chief executive Bob Diamond, who flipped open his chequebook to deliver a £50,000 donation over the meal.” Boris would later welcome a further £1m in charitable donations from the bank.

Such generosity comes at a price and Boris has since taken to the Telegraph to dismiss attacks on the banking industry as “neosocialist claptrap” and told Londoners to stop “whingeing” about house prices pushed up by city bonuses.

He claimed that a tax on banker bonuses would force thousands to flee the country and campaigned relentlessly for the Conservative government to cut the top rate of tax. While every other politician in Britain was desperate to distance themselves from the bankers, Boris - under the advice of his policy chief Anthony Browne - just hugged them closer. Browne has since gone on to become the head of the British Bankers Association.

When Boris announced that he was launching a central London bike hire scheme it was only natural that Diamond’s bank would be approached.

Boris failed to finance the bikes through advertising like other European schemes. In fact despite promising the bikes “at no cost to the taxpayer” (pdf), Boris’s Barclays Bikes have since cost taxpayers £120m with only “up to” £50m set to come back from the bank. Later one City Hall source told the Standard that the Barclays deal amounted to “payback” for Boris’s support during the financial crisis.

Full details of this payback have never been fully revealed, with City Hall claiming commercial confidentiality on the deal. However a London Assembly investigation into the agreement warned that Boris had risked damaging TfL’s own brand if Barclays later “suffered major reputational damage”.

With calls today for a criminal investigation into the bank, that fear has now been dramatically realised. And in typical style Boris was quick today to insist that “the whole banking industry” should come clean over the scandal.

Whether or not this will be enough to stem criticism of his own relationship with the bank remains to be seen. But with his mayoralty so visibly tied to Barclays and its senior management, Boris will now hope that other banks absorb some of that reputational damage fast.

 

Boris Johnson poses during the launch of the London Cycle Hire bicycle scheme in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images

Adam Bienkov is a blogger and journalist covering London politics and the Mayoralty. He blogs mostly at AdamBienkov.com

Photo: Getty
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A clinically-approved birth control app is changing the way we think about contraception

The particle physicist Elina Berglund has created an app that is 99 per cent effective. 

Women around the world using the contraceptive pill have long complained to their friends about its perceived side effects – weight gain, acne, mood swings to name a few. Some more recent studies have verified that anecdotal evidence – a Danish study from 2013 confirmed that there was a 40 per cent increased risk of depression for women who were on the pill, compared to those who weren’t.

Frustration around the inadequacy or ill-suitability of certain methods of contraception is rife. One woman, Elina Berglund, decided to do something about it.

Formerly a particle physicist at CERN (and a member of the team responsible for the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle), Berglund co-founded Natural Cycles, a contraceptive app, with her husband Raoul Scherwitzl. Approved as a contraceptive app earlier this year, it is downloadable on a smartphone and relies on a relationship between body temperature and fertility to tell women when they're fertile.

But contraception campaigners have viewed the concept with caution. Widespread use of the pill, condoms, and diaphragms comes after decades of campaigns against reliance on "natural methods" – not to mention the opposition of religious organisations like the Catholic church. 

At first glance, Natural Cycles might not seem all that different from the Vatican-approved "rhythm method", which is based on observing the exact stages of a woman's fertility cycle and avoiding sex during ovulation. This can be, according to the NHS, up to 99 per cent effective – but in reality it is closer to 75 per cent, because "people can make mistakes". 

Users of Natural Cycles take their temperature daily and input it into the app (which costs £6.99 a month). The app then compares the figure to its own dataset and uses an algorithm based on Berglund's days from CERN. It also asks for other data, such as the dates of user's periods and whether they are planning for a pregnancy or not, to create a personalised calendar.

If it’s safe to have unprotected sex, then the in-app calendar will show up as green. If not, the in-app calendar will show up as red. On those red days, users should find methods of contraception if they aren’t seeking pregnancy.  

Menstrual tracking apps are all the rage (there are around 1,000 of them on the current Apple app store). But recent studies have shown that those apps are often inaccurate and lack any scientific basis. 

Natural Cycles, by contrast, carried out three clinical trials, each time expanding the dataset to reduce errors. The most recent, written up in Contraception, involved 22,785 women across 37 different countries in settings that mimicked real life. The co-authors pointed out that in instances of perfect use, one out of 100 women become pregnant accidentally. However, in instances of typical use, seven out of 100 women had the same result.

When Natural Cycles first gained publicity, Berglund pointed out to the press that “now they (women) have a new, clinically verified and regulatory approved option to choose from”. Berglund and Scherwitzl are looking into getting Natural Cycles prescribed on the NHS, like the pill.

So is Natural Cycles the future of family planning? The first thing to make clear is that the app cannot actually function as physical contraception – on “red” days, the app advises users to use a condom if they’re having sex and don’t want to get pregnant. It cannot prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases either. 

Nor is the app really marketed to those who may benefit from the most information about their sexual health – 16 to 25-year-olds, who are also the age group most likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour. 

A spokesperson for Marie Stopes, the reproductive health NGO, said: "Apps to track fertility are a high-tech version of what women have been doing for years with a diary and a thermometer.

"For anyone trying to get pregnant, they might well help. However, if you want to avoid pregnancy, it’s much better to choose a reliable, long-acting modern method of contraception like an IUD or implant. Traditional methods, including tracking fertility, carry a much higher risk of unintended pregnancy."

The app relies on an algorithm, meaning it is only as effective as the data that it receives from users. It is also not free, which may exclude its usage by certain sections of society. A blog written for NHS Choices emphasised that the data collected in all the trials was collected from women who were already signed up for the product, making it likely that they had an incentive to continue with this specific additional contraceptive, as opposed to looking elsewhere. Even so, a third of users who had signed up still dropped out, potentially because of the maintenance required to get results from it. 

All the same, Natural Cycles has 380,000 users and counting. It has received clinical approval to be marketed as a medical device, and it seems to be meeting a need – 70 per cent of Natural Cycle's users come from hormonal contraception, according to Berglund. In her account of Natural Cycles in the Evening Standard, Kate Wills highlighted that the Apple Watch had all sorts of health inputs, but no way to track periods.  All kinds of apps exist to make modern life easier – why has it taken so long for one that addresses a concern for so many women to make its way into the mainstream?

The history of contraception is littered with examples of women being ignored. Early birth control studies vastly underplayed the potentially debilitating side effects of hormone fluctuations on women’s mental health and physical appearance, often treating users as though they were hysterical. Add into the equation the stigma around accessing contraceptives safely and non-judgementally, and it’s easy to see why a relatively painless and private form of contraception might be appealing. 

Natural Cycles may well work for some women – those who are in stable relationships, hoping to get pregnant and fastidious enough to note their temperature every morning. But it doesn’t prevent diseases, requires a steady commitment and – here's the clincher – can't take measurements when you’re hungover as alcohol can affect your temperature. There's also a big difference between the "perfect" use of the app, and the likelihood of pregnancy when used in a "typical" fashion. So long as that's the case, old-fashioned contraception seems unlikely to be swept away by a digital revolution.