Category Archives: Public Relations

Coronavirus – podcast

Was good to join Slugger O’Toole for a podcast on the Coronavirus, the Northern Ireland Executive’s response and some international comparisons on YouTube.

Coronavirus – Keep it simple on Cummings

One of the reasons Left Liberals lose a lot is that they don’t know how to keep things simple.

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It was made very clear, by the Prime Minister himself, that everyone had a civic responsibility not to break the rules or people would “suffer”.


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It was made clear from his Twitter account as he lay in intensive care that there were no exceptions.

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It was also clarified a few days later that the “rules” are not guidance, they are the law. And understandably, since everyone could “suffer” and they “include you”.

On 31 March prominent adviser to the UK Government Professor Neil Ferguson received a female guest at his home in London. The same day, prominent adviser to the UK Government Dominic Cummings drove from London to Durham.

These were the Regulations as they applied in England on that day.
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In Mr Cummings’ case, there is a further problem with his having left home, namely that both he and his wife (who was also in the car) had symptoms. The guidance for people with symptoms across the UK was, is, and for some time will be:

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It was clear that Professor Ferguson had to resign; the law does not permit people to “leave the place where they are living” to visit friends, but he had encouraged someone to do so to visit him.

It is obviously equally clear the Mr Cummings has to resign. The law does not permit people to “leave the place where they are living” to deposit their children with grandparents or indeed anyone else, whether 260 yards or 260 miles away. In his case, the Guidelines are also clear that neither he nor his wife were allowed to “leave home for any reason”.

Let us not complicate it, therefore. As the Prime Minister’s own account put it, if one person breaks the rules we all suffer; the rules apply to everyone including Mr Cummings; Mr Cummings and his wife broke the rules and therefore broke the law; and Mr Cummings and his wife acted clearly contrary to the Guidelines.

“Common sense”, for the record, would dictate that if there was any issue with childcare, someone else should have come to the house to deal with it. But many people with symptoms not requiring hospital care have managed childcare perfectly well.

(Note the Regulations allow only childcare carried out by a public service.)

That’s it. And any Cabinet Minister or MP claiming otherwise (or indeed any journalist reporting otherwise) is embarrassing themselves. Remember, the Government itself has explained why these rules and guidelines exist:
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So Mr Cummings, on the Government’s own terms, must go. It is probably time the Prime Minister went too. A crisis of this scale is no time for Downing Street to be occupied but a convalescent, far less one as obviously hypocritical and incompetent as the current occupant.

Coronavirus – better an admission of failure than a pathetic cover-up

It’s the cover-up that gets you, not the issue” said Nixon, about his resignation. Politicians seem very unwilling to learn the lesson half a century on, however.

The UK was in fact quite well prepared for a pandemic. It had run simulations; it had stockpiled PPE; it had prepared modelling; it had drafted emergency legislation. The problem was that it had prepared for an influenza pandemic; the UK Government’s risk register had an influenza pandemic very high, above nuclear fall-out; but any other sort of pandemic was felt almost impossible.

On the basis of the simulations and the stockpiles, the UK began modelling in January, drafted emergency legislation on 10 February; and was already preparing administratively from mid February. The Government asked the scientists what the value of was in this case, allowing for reasonable modifications in people’s behaviour; the response going into March was “2.3”.

This was an error. It was in fact 2.8.

This does not sound much different, but in early March it was the difference between hitting peak of infections around ten weeks later (i.e. about now) or hitting them five weeks later (i.e. at Easter). The Government thus prepared to introduce gradual lockdown measures.

This was also an error, and not just of timing. The modelling was all about protecting the NHS from an influenza pandemic which would affect the broad population and be spread primarily by children. But in fact this is a coronavirus pandemic which disproportionately affects older people and is primarily spread by people of working age.

Even though it was beginning to be obvious to amateurs just watching the graphs comparing the UK and Italy, it was not until 12 March that the Government received further modelling saying it was 2.8, not 2.3; meaning that from that stage, the UK was four weeks, not nine weeks, from peak of infections. To protect the NHS, which was always the main aim, lockdown would have to be introduced faster.

This article is not about the peculiarities of why the Government relied so much on one set of modelling rather than on what was going on around it. In Scotland in late February a Nike event had already proven a “super-spreader”; somehow, this was not revealed, even to neighbouring businesses, until May. In other words, there was evidence right before their eyes, even without a cursory look at the comparison graphs with Italy, that spread was much faster within parts of the UK than the modelling was suggesting. The reliance on modelling (which is not even forecasting and is only as good as the data you put into it – and the data from China was at best patchy) is a debate for another day, albeit an extremely important one.

There ensued a degree of panic as a Prime Minister, who knew little about the virus because he had taken much of February off on holiday and does not seem a big fan of hard work anyway (has anyone seen him recently?), returned on 2 March to tell everyone he was washing his hands but also still shaking them. Only 10 days later he was faced with the reality that to protect the NHS he would have to lockdown.

And there is that phrase again – “protect the NHS”. Still not having adjusted from an influenza pandemic, the focus was mainly on protecting the Health Service (likely, during an influenza pandemic like 1918, to become overburdened with people of working age) and also contemplating school closures (a standard response to an influenza outbreak).

It is worth emphasising here that almost every Western country struggled with this adjustment. The emphasis across Western Europe was on ensuring that there were enough ICU beds essentially for an influenza pandemic. Ireland and German state authorities even closed their schools, as a standard response to an influenza outbreak. Only the German Health authorities and some other smaller countries recognised quickly that this was not, in fact, an influenza pandemic but a coronavirus and therefore the rules were slightly different: national governments and public health authorities in countries such as Germany, Austria, Norway and Iceland therefore focused resources early on trying to understand the virus rather than assuming it was just like influenza. They have been a month ahead of everyone else in Western Europe and North America ever since, saving initially at least tens of thousands of lives as a result.

The result in March was an intentional policy of pushing people out of hospitals as quickly as possible (as well as building new ones), to create space for the victims of the pandemic. One of the places they pushed them into was residential care. In other words, as we approached peak infections from a virus to which older people were most vulnerable, the UK Government intentionally pushed people out of hospital and into care homes where many of those older people live.

This looks in retrospect like a truly shocking error of public policy. At the time, however, it was not totally unreasonable – it was based on all the plans prepared for an influenza outbreak. In such a case, it would have been the correct policy.

But it was not the correct policy. The fundamental error was the failure to grasp quickly enough the difference between the expected influenza pandemic and the actual coronavirus pandemic. (This failure also led to the UK throwing away its initial testing advantage in the belief it did not really need to understand the virus – summed up on 27 March by one of its senior advisers in a media briefing with the line “Testing is something of a sideshow“.)

UK Government Ministers now have two options. They can either admit the error: “Yes, we were following detailed pandemic plans set out by scientists with world-leading credentials in this area, but although this was also the case in other countries we now realise that in some of the detail those plans led to errors, for which we apologise and from which we intend to learn“; or they can, well, lie: “No, but really we were protecting care homes, and we never pushed people into them, and really no one could have foreseen all of this and it was all just a bit of bad luck“.

If they were to go for the former, the public would probably be quite understanding. The policy was well intentioned and well researched – it just turns out the research was skewed to the wrong type of virus.

However, just lying about it is callous and destructive. It shows an inability to accept responsibility and to learn from fundamental errors. No one is expecting any government to manage a crisis of this scale without making mistakes; but people do expect them to be honest about them in order to learn from them. The Government needs to learn, fast, that this is not an unreasonable expectation.

Coronavirus – blog review

I thought it worthwhile to summarise some of the points made on this blog so far with regard to the new Coronavirus.

I re-emphasise that I have no expertise in biology and medicine, but I do have some in public policy (and I happen to speak German, thus enabling the comparison between the English-speaking world and the German-speaking world upon which I intend to build in the coming days and weeks). These are analysis pieces for information and interest; they do not constitute formal research, far less government policy.

If, like me, you are in Northern Ireland, remember the core government advice currently remains stay home, save lives.

In summary, the most important thing right now is that there must always be room for doubt. We still do not understand this virus, so we cannot say anything about public policy responses with absolute confidence (so those who do are making it up).

We must be aware that in our own response to this, it is as much about managing and perceiving risk as anything else. Also, the objectives are not quite as obvious as we might at first think. Even when we establish what they are and judge performance thus far, we must also be aware that our own intuition may be deceiving us fundamentally and always apply the plausibility and relevance test.

Therefore, never has the truth been more important. Almost anything said with absolute certainty does not merit attention – it is invariably said to appeal to prejudice rather than truth. We even need to consider that the reverse of what we view to be instinctive may end up being true. There is also considerable risk in simple, apparently clear claims which are in fact profoundly misleading, even to the extent of missing key points in their favour. If we must make comparisons… well, we probably shouldn’t too often.

“Lockdown” always was a profoundly good idea, provided it was properly prepared for. However, it is a long way from the “safe” option it is sometimes presented as, and it cannot last forever. Even right now, you can legitimately argue for or against “raising lockdown”, but make sure you are asking the right question. When it is raised, however, other countries can be taken into account and it must not be done piecemeal, but rather via a phased or staged approach, and based on the Regulations which set out what we are trying to achieve.

For all the discussion about “lockdown, however (understandable because it is what most obviously affects most of us), the difference between good and bad outcomes is predominantly to do not with “lockdown” but with early diagnostics. This truth may be boring but that does not make it less true – indeed, we should always be seeking solutions, not headlines. It is also legitimate to attack the UK Governent for its early inaction, but such attacks must be specific to where it actually erred otherwise they serve no purpose.

It is also important to report what actually matters to us. Targets and personalities are meaningless; actions and delivery are what count. We should probably also define our terms. “Social distancing” does not mean “lockdown”, for example – saying the former must remain for months or years does not mean the latter must.

One of the difficulties in dramatic here-and-now news is it misses the broader analysis, such as the awkward truth that the difference in outcomes between the UK and Germany is not narrowly in the two countries’ response to the new coronavirus (regardless of the UK Government’s very evident failings in that regard), but in the fundamental basis of their health services. The UK is always fire-fighting whereas German-speaking Europe puts in the early preparation in a targeted way – this reveals itself further in the two countries’ testing strategies. Yet, for all that, things in Germany are (and were, when the linked piece was written) nothing like as smooth or simple as they are reported in the English-speaking world (and they are still not even post-lockdown); its lockdown was fundamentally less strict.

There are also differences within the UK just as there are within Germany – Northern Ireland is going its own route in some significant areas and has its own recovery plan, maintaining rightly or wrongly a later lockdown, which is not perfect but is an improvement on the UK Government’s. We have also not paid enough attention to the immense challenges of re-opening the Health Service. To some degree, this is what devolution is all about.

There are some quirks, too, such as why planes are still in the air and why we need the return of sport. There is also always the chance that we are closer to the end of this than we think – but that really is not very likely. We are probably over-thinking apps, and there are also always just random questions.

We also need to consider our own personal well-being, not least how we think our way through living during the virus and after it and how we imagine the future.

Where does all of this end? There will surely be some good to come out of it; we just do not know when.

I have also included some Facebook posts, for example on how we ourselves can balance probabilities in terms of virus transmission; the meaning of “Step 1” in Northern Ireland; on the practicalities of shopping with the virus about; and on that ever present danger of comparisons.

I also reckon this external article from Unherd is essential reading for anyone genuinely wanting to understand the public policy and scientific challenges around all of this.

In the meantime, here is some outline practical guidance primarily for people in Northern Ireland.

Worst thing Brexit demonstrates? Rampant “classism”

I still intend to make very little political comment on this blog, as there is very little more about it to say. Any rational person can see that the English-speaking world has succumbed to crazed populism, and every further issue – from what to do about mobile roaming charges to how to restore the Northern Ireland Executive, derives from that basic problem.

However, for me the most appalling thing brought home by all of this in the UK has been the British media’s rampant classism (is that a word? It is now).

Ultimately, there used to be a basic deal with the media that they would report the words of senior MPs because it was reasonable to assume they carried some expert weight. Perhaps this deal was always an illusion. Now, it is obviously ridiculous.

Almost all of the Conservative back-bench MPs given prominence by the media on the subject of Brexit speak with upper-class accents. Not one has a single iota of expertise to offer on the subject. Nor will any suffer the consequences.

So why are they covered? At all?

Indeed, last week, a “research report” from a group of them was covered as lead story on the news. It is a basic fact that the report was complete rubbish. That fact was not reported.

In fact, it was reported rather ludicrously that “economists [plural, even though only one was cited] see benefits of Brexit” and that a “customs expert [one Dutch lad whose actual experience was never outlined” had been involved in some research about technology. Actually not a single economist believes Brexit will cause anything other than damage to the UK economy; indeed, not a single person with even an ounce of common sense (quite obviously if your main competitors can trade freely and you can’t, you will be at a disadvantage). Not a single customs expert believes customs frontiers can be managed solely through “technology”, and again anyone thinking about it can see why not and understands that not a single customs frontier works that way with good reason.

Why, therefore, are MPs with no expertise and no basic understanding of society wheeled out and given priority by the media for comment? The common link is that they all speak with upper-class accents.

Underlying this, therefore, is the notion that because someone speaks with an upper-class accent, they must have something expert to contribute (and conversely, that those who do not speak with such an accent should not be given priority and should therefore yield the air waves to those who do). This is plainly not the case. In fact, in the case of Brexit, those given such priority have not the first clue what they are talking about – zero experience, zero expertise, and actually zero interest (the outcome is of no concern to them after all).

They also tend to be men, by the way. Indeed, referendum coverage saw men given 84% of the air time. Is that not a scandal?

It would make for a much more interesting public debate if MPs you constantly hear of were not given priority media coverage, and instead others – with different accents, and a few women – actually were. You may then receive real expert input, and encourage a meaningful discussion.

As it is, the media continue to report this as an upper-class soap opera. We have Downton Abbey for that. The issues around Brexit are of profound concern to millions of people. We need a proper debate, involving people who actually know what they are talking about. Is that not what we pay the licence fee for?

Identity politics work – sadly

In the UK yesterday, many people from the “Remain” end of the spectrum expressed disbelief that UK passports will be blue from October 2019. Some, the current author included, noted that they were not blue in any case before they switched to their current burgundy; others suggested there were other priorities in national life; still more tried to pin a cost on the change (we will come to that…); and pollsters said people did not really care that much.

Meanwhile, in the US, the President was arguing for the term “Merry Christmas” in preference to “Happy Holidays”. There was a similarly disdainful reaction from Liberals; and pollsters again said people did not really care that much.

However, I suspect people do care. That is why the UK Prime Minister and US President are getting up to such antics around “identity politics”. As we know only too well in Northern Ireland, identity politics work.

A few years ago, at around this time of year, Sinn Fein decided to switch its stance on the Union Flag at City Hall, thus meaning that an Alliance amendment in line with its own policy would see it flown only on designated days. Very few people would have expressed much interest in the subject to pollsters, but Sinn Fein was deliberately pulling at emotions and identities; and the DUP responded. The result was economic chaos – and both parties improved their position at the subsequent elections. Having messed around for a year now while Health goes unreformed, Education becomes unsustainable and the economy fails to grow, the two parties should be being punished by the electorate for their callous unwillingness to get on with the job – yet both, in fact, are scoring record poll numbers. Identity politics work.

I was in the US last month and I did notice the preponderance of the word “holiday”, to an extent that it is now plainly ludicrous. A market outside the Smithsonian in Washington DC plays Christmas music, sells Christmas gifts, is based on German Weihnachtsmaerkte (“Christmas markets”), yet incredibly is referred to as a “Holiday Market”. This, to people of even slightly Conservative leanings, is surely an example of political uber-correctness, and a reaction is unsurprising. This notion that things which are obviously one thing cannot be referred to as that thing for fear of causing some kind of “offence” genuinely and often in fact legitimately annoys people, even though they overtly make little of it. So, when someone actually appeals to that covert annoyance, it is unsurprising that that appeal is successful. Identity politics work.

And so it was with the response to the blue passports. Firstly, there is the somewhat academic factual reaction (“Ah, but Croatia has its own colour and it is in the EU”); but for people like last week’s Question Time audience in Barnsley, that misses the point and just looks smug. Secondly, there is the (entirely legitimate) mockery of the notion that the colour is “iconic” for the simple reason that UK passports were never that shade of blue; but perhaps this too misses the point, which is presumably that at least they will not be burgundy like the Continentals. Thirdly, there is the notion that there are other priorities; but here we have the Remainers/Liberals engaging in fake news of their own. Although the new passport provision contract will indeed cost nearly £500m, the fact is it would cost that regardless of the colour – so the notion that not changing the colour would leave £500m over to tackle homelessness or to spend on the NHS is no more accurate than the infamous £350m claim on the Brexit bus.

In fact, we all get embroiled in identity politics – even those of us who claim to be above it get embroiled in it, even though we tell ourselves that we only do so to try to emphasise why we are above it. In fact, I do think it is worth making the point that having a big fuss over changing a passport colour does make the British themselves look rather insecure and their government look pathetic. If anything, however, even this is merely a representative symptom of the broader problem – that the British are fundamentally insecure and their government is pathetic. To be clear, I could not care what colour my passport is, which means it does not bother me to change it; what bothers me are the ludicrous fantasies of “bringing back”, “iconic colours” and “independence” when we should not be seeking to “bring back”, there is nothing “iconic” about the colour, and the fact the passports will be made abroad to standards set abroad rather demonstrates the absurdity of the notion of “independence” in an interdependent world.

For all that, in fact what has happened is the Prime Minister has successfully diverted attention from the real story, which is that David Davis’ impact assessments have now been shown beyond doubt not to, er, assess impact. Since one Cabinet Minister has gone for lying, there is a cast iron case for a second going. But we are not talking about that. Identity politics can be a lovely diversion when you want to shield some other story – which is why they work. Sadly.

Media still don’t understand referendum result

The biggest issue with the referendum result is not, in fact, what now happens with regard to the UK’s relationship with the EU, but who governs the UK and with what legitimacy.

The media continue to misunderstand this, but presenting the referendum victory as one for Messrs Johnson, Farage and perhaps Hannan. Those names were not on the ballot paper, and I would safely say that if they had been, only a minority of Leave voters would have voted for them.

The Leave vote is being characterised by the very Liberal Elites they were kicking in the teeth as essentially a rural Conservative/UKIP one. Look at the results charts, however, and that fundamentally misunderstands who Leave voters are.

The very first sign of the Leave victory came from a whopping lead secured in Sunderland. This is hardly a citadel of Tory farmers! On it went – Sheffield, Hull, even Birmingham had Leave majorities of varying sizes. While not discounting the Conservative voters who did vote to leave (though even many of these came in some of the poorest parts of the south, such as Hastings and Folkestone), the vast majority of Leave voters were not Conservatives or even UKIP. A lot were (previously, at least) Labour and, most notably of all (but missed completely by the media) a huge number were non-voters.

Actually, overall, the north of England voted Leave in greater numbers than the south. So where in the media are the northern English voices about what should happen now?

Many Leave voters were putting down a marker not just against the political elite but also the media elite which it feels ignores them too. The fact it is ignoring them even now rather demonstrates the point!

The average Leave voter simply does not look like Mr Johnson or Mr Farage. Think urban north and you are much closer. This is very important – because they are still distant from real power, and indeed with Mr Johnson and Mr Farage in charge they will only become more distant.

This brings us to the most important issue of all. In the words of the Prime Minister who took us into Europe: “Who governs?”

And with what legitimacy?

A Prime Minister Johnson, or Gove, or even May comes to power without an election, but is also entirely unrepresentative of the Leave voters who in effect created the vacancy. (For the reverse reason, their legitimacy would also be instinctively questioned in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but we will come to that in another post!)

The media have to be very alive to this issue, but it seems they are not. Focused as their are on political (would-be) leaders rather than the actual social issues the voters themselves were feeling, they are simply missing the point – and the people. There is no point reporting who the next Prime Minister will be or even how negotiations will likely proceed without also assessing the legitimacy of that Prime Minister’s actions through the eyes of those who in effect put him or her in office.

As I wrote from the start, these are not political matters so much as social and economic ones. So they need to be reported as social and economic ones. To report them otherwise is to miss the point – and to contribute to the very alienation which drove much of the Leave vote in the first place.

Time to redouble efforts on Road Safety

The last road fatality in Northern Ireland brought the total this year to equal to the total for the whole of 2013 – in other words, by mid-October as many people had lost their lives on our roads as did in the entirety of 2015.

It can be argued that this is inevitable as an economic upturn sees people driving more. However, with vehicle safety improving every year, even that does not necessarily stand to reason. Comparable countries have not seen the rises we have seen in the last two years.

Certainly, as I have noted before, the lack of resources for police enforcement is a serious issue. However, that only reinforces the responsibility on the rest of us. We need to consider whether we are giving the road our full attention; whether we are considering all road users and not just those surrounded by metal; and whether our driving is appropriate to conditions as winter approaches.

Typically, between now and end of year, around 12-14 more people are killed on our roads. Let us try to make that zero.

A1 fatalties reason for sorrow – and anger

There was a severe accident on the new A8 road between Belfast and Larne on Sunday, in which there was one casualty but no one was killed. The road is built to the highest possible safety standards below a motorway, including a median barrier throughout meaning that all traffic is proceeding the same way, and there can therefore be no head-on collisions where, in effect, impact speed is doubled or impact is directly with the side door of the car.

Such standards were not originally envisaged for the road and, indeed, there are other, older sections of it where a head-on or sideways collision would be possible due to a break in the median barrier. It is no accident that standards have been raised – people like Wesley Johnston, the roads blogger, and Ben Lowry, in the Belfast Telegraph and now the News Letter, have long campaigned for “no gaps” (i.e. no breaks in the central reservation of a dual carriageway). It was indeed while querying the baffling decision to put median breaks and roundabouts on the new A6 Toome Bypass in 2004 that I got to know both, and upon becoming an elected representative in 2005 I was prominent in highlighting the outrage of allowing blatantly dangerous turnings to remain on prominent, dualled, inter-urban routes.

Our pressure did deliver a change of policy, first apparent arguably on the new A1 Newry Bypass and then more obviously on the new A4 Dungannon-Ballygawley route. A regular dual carriageway would have seen fatalities in the double figures on those routes since 2010 – there have in fact been two. That is the difference in action.

This brings us to the three young gentlemen who had set out on a journey on Sunday afternoon but were not lucky enough to be travelling on a road the standard of the new A8. They were travelling on the A1 between Dromore and Banbridge, a stretch which retains “gaps” (breaks in the central barrier), and where I was interviewed by Niall Donnelly for UTV fully ten years ago appealing for them to be closed (I cannot find the footage but I am certain of the timing). At one of the gaps, the one for Mount Ida Road, all three were killed.

The horrific outcome of Sunday's fatal A1 collision - courtesy BBC

The horrific outcome of Sunday’s fatal A1 collision – courtesy BBC

There is a particular horror to road fatalities. They are so sudden; utterly innocent (and, disproportionately, young) people are involved; there but for the grace of God go the rest of us (I was driving the same route almost exactly 24 hours earlier myself).

In this case, however, there is also a particular anger. There have been proposals to close these lethal “gaps” since 2007, but still we await action – as the answer late last year to this question (not surprisingly asked at my behest) demonstrates.

It is to the credit of TransportNI (the agency formerly known as Roads Service) that they changed policy on dual carriageway construction some time ago, but the Department has been far too slow in implementing the “gap closing” proposals which are frankly straightforward (in that the case for them is clear on safety grounds and they do not require significant new land, etc) and relatively inexpensive (versus other prominent projects which, while improving traffic flow, will not make such a difference to safety).

There has been a rather unfortunate attitude among some senior bureaucrats that they were somehow being cunning by not upgrading the Belfast-Dublin route on the Northern side of the border to full motorway standard, as merely dualling it was cheaper. Let us be clear: merely dualling it and allowing cars to compete with bicycles and tractors across central reservations may have been cheap – but it was lethal.

The whole A1 in Northern Ireland must be upgraded without delay to the standard, at the very least, of the new stretch of the A8. If not, we are guaranteed to see more horror, just as we saw so completely unnecessarily on Sunday.

My sincerest condolences to the families and friends. Let us now ensure this does not happen again.

Auguri, Richard e Martina!

I miei complimenti a Richard e Martina… congratulations to guest blogger Richard Price and Martina de Gregorio on their recent engagement.

I’ve known Richard for some time and had the great honour of meeting Martina in Brussels 18 months ago or so.

I should add that I am not the only person associated with this blog who wanted to wish the happy couple well.

(And, by the way, one guest blog, one engagement – beats Blind Date anyway! Who’s next…?!)

Auguri!