Kurdish peshmerga guard Kirkuk against IS militants. Photo: Getty
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Boris Johnson: Arrest British citizens who go to Syria or Iraq "without good reason"

"The law needs a swift and minor change so that there is a 'rebuttable presumption' that all those visiting war areas without notifying the authorities have done so for a terrorist purpose," says the Mayor of London.

Boris Johnson has said that it should be assumed British citizens returning from Iraq or Syria have been involved in terrorist activities unless they can prove otherwise.

In his Daily Telegraph column, the Mayor of London wrote: "The law needs a swift and minor change so that there is a 'rebuttable presumption' that all those visiting war areas without notifying the authorities have done so for a terrorist purpose." He adds: "There are perhaps five or six hundred Britons currently out there – overwhelmingly, though not exclusively, young men. If and when there is a real attempt to take on Isil, they may come back in a hurry and in a group."

Johnson also advocates the return of control orders, which were introduced in 2005 and repealed in 2011. These allowed the home secretary to restrict an individual's liberty on command, perhaps demanding a suspect surrender his passport and placing restrictions on visitors. They have been described as a "prison without bars".

On the wider question of intervention, Johnson is non-committal. He writes:

"These Isil wackos now control an area the size of Great Britain, considerable oil reserves, a population of about six million, some industry, and a military capability said to be second in the region only to Israel. To take them on will not be easy, and I can see all the arguments for doing little or nothing – letting “history” take its course. No one could claim that previous Western operations have been crowned with success. It is now pretty obvious to everyone (except the bonkers Tony Blair) that things were made much worse, not better, by the removal of Saddam Hussein. How can we be sure of doing better this time?

. . .

No option looks very appealing, to put it mildly; and yet doing nothing is surely the worst of all. If we let Isil get their way, then we will be acquiescing, first, in a gigantic and violent change in international borders. Next, we will be allowing a new and hideous regime to be born: a country where black-flag waving jihadis compete to show they have the most bigoted and reactionary understanding of their religion by persecuting women, Jews, Christians, gays, Yazidis and Shi’ites."

Johnson's comments will renew pressure on foreign secretary Philip Hammond to announce further measures to combat extremism in Britain and terror abroad, following the execution of journalist James Foley by a militant with a British accent. Last week, Hammond ruled out the option of co-operating with Syria's Bashar al-Assad to fight the jihadis of Islamic State (also known as Isis). 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear