CategoriesThought of The Day

Lockdown Weather and Pascal’s Wager

At the high risk of being ridiculed, I’ll write it regardless. The best weather in my lifetime, coincided with the only lockdown in my lifetime. During this weird period, like many people, I have never spent more time outside. And I love it.

Quoting the devout atheist Christopher Hitchens: “Coincidence is no accident.”

I don’t believe that God (if such a thing exists) has punished humanity with floods because, say, of gay marriage, but I don’t know why it feels (how unlawyerly, how unscientific) that this Great Pause has something otherworldly about it. The coincidence that we are compelled to spend more time outside whilst the weather is spectacular blows my little mind.

For me, never has nature seemed so bouncy, so effervescent, confident. I feel as if nature is saying: Look at us! Yes, us. Take care of this planet. We all rely upon each other. This is a warning. Humankind, make changes, now.

A few weeks ago, I walked around The Stray in Harrogate, taking routes that I wouldn’t normally use. I found myself down an empty road – a road which is usually a de facto carpark, hence in normal times it wouldn’t be a route to take. I may sound like an oddball, but at one point I had to stop and admire the majesty of the trees. They stood, well, proudly, perkily, commandingly. The photograph below will not win awards, nor does it capture the energy – the fizz – of the moment. It is my recording of that instant, for me.

photo of harrogate

Some of you will be familiar with Pascal’s Wager – that humans should believe in God because if they are wrong, then they lose very little, but if they are right, then they stand to gain a great deal. Deploying similar logic, regarding our environment I would say: if you take the view that humans aren’t causing climate change, or take the position that our activities have only a negligible impact on global heating, on the basis that you may be wrong, given that we are stuck here for the foreseeable future, wouldn’t it be optimal if we proceeded as if we are destroying earth? If you are right and I am wrong, we have lost little. If I am right and you are wrong, we have all gained immeasurably.

We must make changes as to how we coexist with nature. The planet cannot withstand our pursuit of perpetual growth in GDP. We know this.


Covid healed the Brexit wound

Tonight’s NHS clap on our street was the loudest yet! Accompanying the obligatory clapping and clattering of pans were fireworks and music. Although Dominic Raab’s instruction, just a few hours before, was for a further three weeks of lockdown, our neighbours were in rumbustious mood. At a distance, we discussed with them just how many times we had performed this weekly ritual: three, four or five? Who knows: the days have become indistinguishable.

And what a change from the toxicity of Brexit. Pre-31 January 2020 (and every other imaginary date set by this Government), our Whatsapp memes were all anti-Brexit; we were at each other’s throats. But these last few weeks our Whatsapps contain hilarious videos of people – often older people – ridiculing their lives in lockdown. Society has become so much nicer, more collegiate.

At work, with our stock-in-trade being disputes, our lawyers report that conversations with their opponents are now, believe it or not, pleasant. Cases are settling quickly, as egos have been despatched with. We are all in it together, to a greater or lesser degree.

And then Brexit ruined the day by rearing its ugly head again. With good reason, the EU have hinted that they may need to extend the transition period because, frankly, there are more pressing issues to contend with, like a pandemic which has triggered a depression. The response from Downing Street: non! Given that the officials cannot meet in person, and remembering that even Michelle Barnier contracted Covid, our Government’s response is undiplomatic, un-British, unkind.

We are a courteous nation of people who apologise to someone who has accidentally bumped into us. Few sane Brits would hold it against Boris if in these wild times the transition period was extended, regardless of your Brexit views.

Covid has brought the British people together, because we are grown-ups: we know that regardless of whether we are Brexiteers or remainers what is important is that we get along, helping each other out. Disappointingly, this Up Yours Delors moment from our Government portends future isolationism, and the worst of all Brexit deals. This, at a time when we need international cooperation, as the United Nations Secretary General implores, is not in the British national interest. The EU won’t forget this, nor should they. We should hang our heads in shame.


RIP The British Economy: murdered by bureaucracy         

As a small business owner, and as someone who interviews business owners for the The Harrogate Podcast, I fear for our SMEs. Most have been clobbered by COVID. My best guess is that 1 million businesses will perish in the next few weeks – all caused by British bureaucracy and presided over by this incompetent Government.

Regular readers to my blog will note my fury at the lack of preparedness and foresight displayed by this Government, particularly when it comes to matters of health. Just remember the debacle over ventilators (see my post here) as well as the disgraceful absence of PPE.

However, I welcomed the Chancellor’s semi-blank cheque to businesses and to workers. I welcome the Chancellor’s proclamation that this is not the time for ideology (code for: our right-wing economics will fail here, as it failed with austerity). And I praise the Chancellor for essentially introducing universal basic income in the form of the furlough scheme for employees and the £2,500 available to the self-employed. Praise where praise is due. The Chancellor started this crisis well.

But as all business owners know, cash is king. Hopeless zombie businesses can survive for years when money is plentiful. Although the concept of Government-supported loans for SMEs is to be applauded, the schoolboy Chancellor should have realised just how impossible it would be for the banks to provide the lending and to do so at pace and scale.

Two weeks ago, I had the misfortune to telephone my business bank. After 102 minutes, my call was answered. I was told that I could get a call-back in two weeks’ time! Businesses will be going under as I type because of the predictable difficulties of transferring billions of pounds from banks to businesses, whilst obtaining approval from the British Business Bank – an institution that I bet you hadn’t heard about before this crisis.

The first iteration of this loan scheme had to be scrapped because it demanded that businesses could only obtain funding if they first applied for commercial lending – at a time when it takes 102 minutes for the phone to be answered! In addition, the scheme required business owners to accept personal guarantees. Why would a business owner accept personal guarantees up to £250k if they didn’t know how long the lockdown would last, nor whether there would be future demand for their services? Pre-Covid, most SME owners moaned about their banks. Any business owner could have told the Chancellor that his first scheme was doomed to failure. Our Chancellor, who is married to a billionaire’s daughter and who has only worked in city hedge funds, couldn’t possibly know what it is like to run an SME. Why would he?

Am I being harsh on our Government? Let’s contrast how our system is working compared to Switzerland. This article appeared in The Times several days ago. The author, Tyle Brule, a Canadian entrepreneur working in Switzerland, described the Swiss scheme as follows:

“Fill out a form with six basic questions, send it to your bank and, all being well, you would receive a loan covering up to 10% of your turnover, with a ceiling of 500,000 francs, within 24 hours — zero interest, no penalties, repayable in five years and a jail term to match for wrong answers.

As Switzerland is home base for my businesses, I tried it out. Would they come good on the snappy turnaround? Could they really make a decision that quickly? Just 18 hours later I had my answer: 500,000 francs was in my account at UBS in St Moritz. My partner sent in an application at 11am on Tuesday and the funds were with him three hours later.”

Businesses will survive in Switzerland, but they will not here. Prudently managed businesses, run by caring competent owners, are going to the wall, leaving a trail of destruction and a negative economic tornado. This is all entirely preventable. Using data from Companies House, the Government could transfer 10% of last year’s turnover to the nominated bank account which pays Corporation Tax or VAT. Moreover, as humans cannot make the lending decisions fast enough, particularly when so many are poorly and/or caring for children at home, technology could have saved the day.

Clearly, it is better for the economy – for people – that most businesses receive some financial support and that there is some abuse, rather than the current farce which prevents abuse, but leads to SME insolvency en masse.

If businesses are to survive – and therefore the economy is not to tank – loans need to be paid to businesses now. There is no time for due diligence. This is the time for rapid action.

RIP to the economy as we knew it.

CategoriesThought of The Day

Can I say this? The kids have never been happier

As we roll into our fourth week in lockdown (we started earlier than most because of my wife’s high temperature), my children – 8 and 10 – are the happiest we have ever known. Against the backdrop of the daily carnage, the children’s joie de vivre is uplifting.

It sure didn’t start that way. Their affection and friendship for each other has grown each day. When they were bickering at the start, they are now enthralled with each other’s company.

If the role of the parent is to provide a safe and happy childhood, though we have tried our best, the pandemic has caused us to reconsider how we will continue to parent. It is disconcerting just how wrong we got it before all this.

Why are they happier?

Let’s start by deconstructing how we are living. For the kids, the day starts at 9am with exercise: either Joe Wicks on Youtube, trampolining or scooting. Pre-corona, at 8:30am, we would be flying out of the house – often late, often in the rain, often angry – on foot, evading angry cars and the pollution. So far, the day has got off to much more pleasant start!

At 9:30am, the children practice their set spelling and then – here’s the cool part – they test their friends on Zoom. Not only does this give the children the chance to see a friendly face, but they learn the role of the teacher, whilst using awesome, free tech. Every session has been a success.

At 10am, shared between two other families, my children begin their second Zoom lesson of the day, this time with a brilliant teacher who had the previous night emailed to us the lessons. Taking three children at a time, whilst the other child finishes their homework, at a cost of £10 per hour per family, my children are enjoying a ratio of 1:3 with their teacher. At school, the ratio is ten times higher.

With my wife and I having completed a morning’s work (or there or thereabouts), we have a homecooked meal together as a four. Surely this beats a school dinner!

Following a spell in the garden, at around 1pm, Gran teaches them both German via Zoom – something that they wouldn’t be doing at school. At around 2pm, Grandma reads to them, or listens to them read, again via Zoom. (We appreciate just how lucky we are to have both grans on earth, with both being former teachers.)

At around 3pm, I take over…. My time – which I adore – consists of either exercise in the form of a walk, or the building of a treehouse. As the least practical person I know, my kids have never experienced their father using his hands, other than to type. Away from the constant pinging of email, I’ve had some awesome time with them both, whilst my wife works.

We eat at around 7pm, eating better than we did pre-pandemic: our third meal of the day together as a family. At bedtime, oftentimes a grandparent reads to them via Zoom. And then we press “repeat”.

Of course, their new-normal is so very different from their pre-pandemic lives. Adaptation has been easy for them. But as their lives pre-pandemic were so – we thought – good, why are they happier now? I don’t know, but I must apply my mind to it. Some possible answers, or a combination of them, are:

  1. They now spend much more time with each other, rather than being in different classes.
  2. The children enjoy more time with their parents.
  3. And more time with grandparents – significantly so.
  4. We have had to allow them greater use of technology, earlier than we had planned.
  5. We spend more time outside.
  6. We eat better food.
  7. The children now have the time to get bored.
  8. We no longer rush to meet deadlines, either to school or clubs.
  9. We don’t face pollution on the walks to and from school.
  10. The confines of the curriculum are no more.

Are they better placed in this new world than their old world? I don’t know, but they are happier. I accept that we are one of the most fortunate families in lockdown; that most families don’t enjoy our options. We are doing our best, playing the hand we have been dealt.

The answers to what to do post-corona may lie in the seminal Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. Our brains are not wired for today’s hectic world. In the history or our species, it is only in the last few hundred years that parents have sent their offspring to school. Before that, parents, grandparents and the tribe raised the child. It takes a village to raise a child goes the African saying, rather than a system of education designed by Victorian industrialists, politically tinkered with each time a new Education Secretary is appointed.

Back to the drawing board, literally.