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26 August 2020

First Thoughts: Public Health England, catastrophe bonds, and the Last Night of the Proms

Matt Hancock says the replacement for the disgraced Public Health England will be “world-renowned”. Renowned in the same way as King Harold's performance in 1066? 

By Peter Wilby

Sometimes insincerity is a good thing in a politician. In 2018, when allegations of anti-Semitism began to assail the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn’s aides proposed options for reclaiming “an overwhelmingly hostile narrative”. According to a new book by the journalists Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire, serialised in the Times, these included a visit to Auschwitz, a meeting with children at London’s Jewish Free School, and an interview with Haaretz, Israel’s liberal broadsheet. None was taken up.

They would have been mere gestures, events staged specially for the media, as so many politicians’ public performances are. They required Corbyn to swallow his pride and pretend empathy for the fears of British Jews, even though he believed that they were far more secure than other minorities and that he risked seeming to betray the Palestinian cause to which he had devoted his political life. Corbyn clung to what he considered his biggest strengths: his sincerity and authenticity. He ended up losing an election to a man who lacked either quality and who was himself guilty of indulging racism.

Lowering expectations

Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, says the replacement for the disgraced Public Health England will be “world-renowned”. What will it be renowned for? Until now, most of this government’s responses to the pandemic have been allegedly “world-beating”. Does this new category represent lower expectations, implicitly accepting that the new body may be world-renowned in the same way as King Harold’s performance at the Battle of Hastings in 1066?

English asses

Or perhaps the new body will be world-renowned in the fashion of the Last Night of the Proms: as an example of the English making asses of themselves. “Land of Hope and Glory”, proclaiming that “wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set”, sounds pretty daft with the UK struggling to keep Scotland on board. So, with England boasting one of the world’s highest Covid-19 death rates, does the reference in “Rule Britannia” to “nations, not so blest as thee”. This year, in the absence of a flag-waving audience, orchestral versions will be performed without lyrics. The Tory press is enraged. But the decision is right, not so much because it prevents offence to minorities but because it saves the white majority from displaying its delusions.

Cat bonds

Struggling for a decent return on your savings? I don’t want to sound like an advertisement for a dodgy investment fund, but I feel bound to point out that holders of catastrophe bonds can get an annual return of around 7.5 per cent while most bank accounts and government bonds offer 1 per cent or less. “Cat bonds” are issued by businesses that wish to protect against natural disasters caused by global warming. The market for them, now worth more than £75bn, has increased rapidly since they were invented in 1996.

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The more the world is hit by hurricanes and floods, the more investors lose.But global warming deniers, if they believe what they write, should regard the bonds as risk-free.

In the past, I have challenged deniers such as Peter Hitchens and James Delingpole to reveal whether or not they hold cat bonds. They have not responded. I hereby challenge them again.

Marxist rugby proles

With 70 editorial jobs to cut, the cash-strapped Guardian tells its sports department to reduce coverage of horse racing and club rugby union. The thumbs-down for racing is no surprise: following its founders’ nonconformist principles, the paper didn’t cover the sport at all for more than a century.

Even today it doesn’t publish racing cards. But why rugby union? Presumably it is singled out as a sport followed mainly by right-wing, semi-fascist toffs. But what are left-wing, semi-Marxist, rugby-besotted proles such as myself and my friend Dave to do?

Even the Leicester Mercury’s website pays scant attention to our hometown club, the Tigers. The only alternatives are Rupert Murdoch’s Times or, worse still, the Telegraph