Sunday 12 September

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 will be concentrating minds even further on Afghanistan and the west’s legacy there. As accounts of Afghans’ distress and persecution continue to emerge, the only guard of the Kabul UK embassy to have made it to the UK with his wife and baby was interviewed on Radio 5 Live last night. He has been pleading for his family in Afghanistan to be rescued and it’s not surprising that when asked whether he thought the UK government didn’t care about the Afghans, he diplomatically said he couldn’t answer because he didn’t know this country or its rules. Naturally, more views have emerged as to the West’s mistakes and lack of political vision, including one citing the hopelessness of the mission given previous abortive British invasions in 1839, 1878 and 1919. Key factors are thought to be the Afghans being easy to conquer but hard to rule, that they’re ‘mosaic of competing tribes’ which make sure no central authority can work there and that liberal democracy is a system of government alien to them. In Newsweek Rod Dreher said that ‘twenty years and $2trn later, our nation building folly has ended in catastrophe, with the Taliban back and the US humiliated’. Another side-effect is the rise of terrorism here – the Director General of MI5, Ken McCallum, has said the threat is ‘real and enduring’ and that more than six Islamic terrorist plots had been foiled during the last year (29 late-stage attack plots disrupted over the last four years).

In Financial Express Muhammad Mahmood pointed out western lack of attention to Afghan losses: over the 20 years ‘at least 164,000 people were killed – by reaper drones and B-52 bombers and by the CIA-controlled militias, who controlled countless atrocities under the guise of rooting out the Taliban’. He also suggests that the West exaggerates its achievements but these are ‘somewhat illusory….only 2% of women, mainly from the Western-backed elite, had access to further education; 84% are still illiterate…. the Taliban may be brutally repressive but to many in a weary embittered nation it offered stability……’. A former diplomat wrote to the Times to challenge government spin about this being the biggest air evacuation since the Berlin blockade (1948-9) when other examples are more relevant, for example one in Kabul in 1928-9, much more challenging because of far less airpower and technology. ‘Politicians ought to do more historical research’. A sceptic tweeted: ‘The neo-cons did *not* want to impose democracy on the world, they wanted to open up new markets & make loadsadosh, mainly by disaster capitalism’.

Meanwhile, the Taliban have strengthened their position politically and symbolically, having claimed to have defeated the rebels in the Panjshir Valley, having raised their flag (a white banner bearing a Quranic verse) over the presidential palace on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and having finalised their all-male governance structure (different from what was thought a week ago). Three key positions are: Amrullah Saleh, ‘legitimate acting president of Afghanistan’ and leader of forces resisting the Taliban in Panjshir; Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund is prime minister; and Ahmadullah Muttaqi is multimedia branch chief of the Taliban’s cultural commission.

Meanwhile, there appear to be two different universes where Covid is concerned due to government mixed messaging, some seeming to believe that it’s all over (‘things are opening up again’, encouraging facemask refuseniks) and others noting with dismay, even alarm, that on Friday there were 147 deaths (compared with 45 in Germany), cases are rising dramatically and the government has denied (aka it will happen but we’re pretending it won’t) plans for a half-term ‘firebreak’. ‘At the top of the Tory party, meanwhile, the political optimism ignited by vaccines is still alive, and there remains a hope that ministers might somehow slip free of the Covid crisis and begin to leave the whole mess behind’. If it wasn’t so dangerous it would be quite touching that the government has so much faith in the vaccination programme – Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said the booster programme will ‘protect the most vulnerable’ and enable the virus to transition ‘from pandemic to endemic status’ next year. It’s still being treated as a silver bullet, which is manifestly not the case and which the government seems to believe will exonerate them from mandating other important measures.  

 In another important change, Zahawi was on the Andrew Marr programme last Sunday talking up the commitment to vaccine passports, but now, only a week later, Health Secretary Sajid Javid has announced yet another government U-turn, again pathetically demonstrating that this government is in hock to its vociferous backbenchers. Another interesting development is the decision by the chief medical officers to override the JCVI’s recent advice against vaccinating 12-15 year olds. The vaccination is expected to start around 22 September. Whatever the wisdom of this decision, it could surely undermine the authority of JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation).

Another polarity is the one between those who believe we should go ahead with a booster programme here (eg ministers) and those of the view that none of us are protected until every country is, therefore donate doses to needy countries. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden defended the number of doses Britain had donated to other countries and pointed to the fact that Israel had begun giving third doses to its citizens.

We now hear that the Prime Minister is expected to address both parliament and a news conference on Tuesday about the government’s plan for managing Covid through the autumn and winter, prompting a wag to tweet: ‘The government has a plan?!’ No wonder, as we repeatedly witness this government’s reactive and poorly thought out approaches to key issues, followed by a strategy, if it can be graced with that description, which goes off at half cock and only partially addresses the problems. Good examples are the policies adopted on schools and on social care reform. The Covid plan is thought to include repealing some parts of the Coronavirus Act but retaining some elements, including giving sick pay to those isolating from day one rather than day seven, directing schools to remain open if they close against government guidance, and helping the NHS to get the emergency resources it needs.

Gabriel Scally, Visiting Professor of Public Health at Bristol University and a member of the independent Sage group of scientists, has usefully revealed the holes in this plan besides its cynical narrative. He criticised the government for ‘inadequate’ public messaging and not mandating measures like better ventilation and better quality face masks. ‘The government and its senior officials claim that Covid should be regarded as similar to influenza and that we have to ‘learn to live with it’. This worryingly persistent and flawed approach ignores the hazardous and evolving nature of the virus. Buildings need to be modified to improve ventilation, he says, and the public should be encouraged to wear properly designed masks that may protect them as well as others. All too often, messaging has been aimed at transferring responsibility to individuals. Pointing the finger at people who are obese, are reluctant to be vaccinated, or are unlucky enough to have severe underlying conditions and telling them to be ‘cautious’ is no substitute for what has been missing all along – an effective strategy for getting the virus under control’. Exactly.

It’s no surprise to learn that Boris Johnson has fallen to his lowest approval rating since becoming Prime Minister, a net score of -17. Approve: 32% (-3) Neither approve or disapprove: 19% (NC) Disapprove: 49% (+4). But as usual this is likely to be water off the duck’s back.

The debate over social care reform has also dominated the news, some Tories having threatened to vote against the government because of their attachment to the Conservative ideology of a ‘low tax economy’. It seems astonishing that these Tories would prioritise this selfish and doctrinaire approach over the glaring need for this crisis to be resolved, especially when an ‘oven ready deal’ had been promised two years ago. It was a sizeable opposition in the Commons, MPs voting 319 to 248 to back the measures, which include a 1.25% rise in National Insurance paid by employees and employers. I’ve long thought it strange that those over 60 were not required to pay though many could afford to do so. A major problem is that the amount this is predicted to raise, £36bn over three years, will mostly go towards clearing the NHS backlog, with only £5.4bn going to social care.  

Although the PM has radically quadrupled the means test threshold for social care recipients to £100,000, social care experts believe the deal falls far short of what is needed. ‘But in supporting documents published by the government was the reality of the deal Johnson was so far offering: £1.8bn a year extra for social care instead of the more than £6bn extra that the Health Foundation think tank calculates will be needed by the end of this decade just to keep up with demand. Improving services in the often threadbare social care sector could cost an extra £14bn a year’. Is this an example of ‘all fur coat and no knickers’, big claims to progress but with little substance beneath?

A sceptic outed the elephant in the room which is a wealth tax: ‘Sajid Javid: the Nastiz have kept their promise not to raise tax. The sub-text: Albeit it’s their less-familiar promise; by hiking NICs not IC, the Tories have kept the one promise they value, their promise not to tax the super-rich and wealthy more’. The NI increase is thought to unfairly penalise young employees and the whole approach does nothing to resolve intractable problems like staff shortages, low wages and postcode lotteries regarding service provision. Boris Johnson also failed to give an answer to Keir Starmer’s question about a guarantee that no one would have to sell their home to pay for care. Selling one’s home seems to have long been considered the last bastion of social care provision.  I’ve personally seen nothing amiss about homes being sold to pay for care – although it’s true young people have it hard these days the common expectation of an inheritance seems entitled and socially divisive since many will have no opportunity of getting one.

More worryingly and further proof of the ‘half cock’ general approach, the proposals are thought likely to only help a tenth of older people in need. ‘After it comes into effect in 2023, the new policy will directly help about 150,000 more people at any one time, according to government documents. But already about 850,000 older people who receive care have at least some of the cost paid by local authorities. Age UK estimates that a further 1.5 million older people need care but are ineligible for support – up from about a million in 2014. Some pay for it themselves, some get help from their families and some go without any care at all. But while the prime minister’s £36bn national insurance tax rise focused on how care will be paid for after 2023, he made no provision to ensure that the sector survives the crisis engulfing it now’. Experts also point to the likely rise in council tax these proposals will result in. ‘Unless more generous funding for councils is announced at the upcoming spending review, we can still expect significant council tax rises in the coming years, if rising needs and the myriad of pressures facing other council services are to be met’. An unpopular measure indeed.

Not least because of the campaign by Peter Stefanovic, whose video about the Prime Minister’s lying has had 34m views but still no coverage on the BBC, there’s more awareness of this ongoing mendacity. The Guardian’s John Crace shows how the social care reform debate has illustrated this. ‘There can be benefits to being a serial liar. While politicians with a reputation for honesty can find their careers ended by one broken promise, those, like Boris Johnson, for whom the truth is by and large an unknown country, can skate by unscathed. Simply because no one expects him to keep his word. His relationships with family, friends and voters are entirely transactional. They get to hear what they want: he gets to bend reality to whatever serves him best at any given time. One of the great illusions is that so many mistake his constant shape-shifting as a sign of self-confidence. It isn’t. It’s a sign of someone with no self-worth’. Despite some powerful opposition from his own side on the social care vote, the Prime Minister was sure of getting it through, almost as if this justified breaking promises. ‘Another broken promise had paid off. In the short term at least. Whether it would cost him the next election when Tory voters had felt the impact of the tax hike was something he would worry about later. Like most pathological liars, Johnson really only lived for the day’.

Meanwhile, the strained and understaffed NHS soldiers on, a relevant expression in view of news that the Unite union in Scotland has said the army should be drafted in and “pop-up wards” erected at Accident and Emergency departments where patients are waiting hours to be admitted, for example at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow. The head of the ambulance service has apologised for long waits, but Unite says waiting times of up to three hours puts patients’ lives at risk.

At the same time it’s no surprise that Minister for Care Helen Whately deflected from the longstanding NHS underfunding by warning NHS trusts about some senior managers’ salaries being too high, eg £270k and more. This tendency towards disproportionate salaries has indeed occurred across the entire public sector in recent years but in this case the intention of her intervention comes across as somewhat cynical.

Still on NHS issues, pressure continues to mount regarding the difficulty of getting GP appointments and the rise in virtual rather than in-person consultations. This definitely contributes to people’s anxiety and symptoms could become worse if people are disincentivised from contacting the GP. A GP writing to the Daily Telegraph reinforced the need for the system to change: ‘Ideally we would have many more GPs and a system funded to allow walk-in open surgeries with no barriers’. He attributes the current access problems to the falling number of full-time GPs coupled with the rising complexity of this role. A writer and economist spells it out even more clearly: in The Times James Kirkup, director of the Social Market Foundation think tank, says the main problem is the way GPs are paid. ‘Their financial incentives are at odds with the interests of their patients. GPs now earn so much that fewer feel the need to work full-time….in many cases doctors quit because their pension pot has hit the £1m cap beyond which higher taxes kick in’. He also cites as a major problem a formula (Carr-Hill) intended to get GPs to work in areas of particular need, but this formula doesn’t sufficiently recognise deprivation, leading to GPs opting for easier options in ‘leafy suburbs’. So much for ‘the doctor will see you now’.

The longstanding underfunding of mental health services in this country has now shown itself in a different form – inquest judgements. In a useful piece of work, the Observer identified 56 mental health-related deaths in England and Wales from the start of 2015 to the end of 2020 where coroners identified a lack of staffing or service provision as a ‘matter of concern’, meaning they believed ‘there is a risk that future deaths could occur unless action is taken’. Examples include the case of a woman whose referral to psychotherapy was still outstanding when she died 11 months later, and another individual had waited 7 months for a psychological assessment.

These aren’t unusual. It all begs the question of whether ministers and policymakers are even aware of coroners’ Reports to Prevent Future Deaths (PFD), which register when they believe action should be taken to prevent deaths occurring in future, and which are then sent to relevant individuals or organisations for them to respond. Do Clinical Commissioning Groups ask NHS trusts to submit details of these reports and to what extent they have addressed them? These trusts could well say the circumstances are beyond their control because of insufficient funding and psychiatric beds. Many of the cases are suicides, which are increasingly flagged up by coroners when they didn’t used to be. Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, Labour’s shadow minister for mental health, said: ‘The Conservatives have cut a quarter of mental health beds since 2010. This has put the NHS at breaking point, with devastating consequences for people’s lives’.

Having stuck so rigidly and for so long to an avoidance strategy, Prince Andrew once again has tried to evade the arm of the United States law regarding the sexual assault allegations, this time by fleeing to Balmoral in a story which could run and run. We learned this week that following one failed attempt to serve civil suit papers on the Prince, these papers were actually served. How pathetic it seems, then, that because of Andrew’s refusal to cooperate (despite earlier assurances that he would) a US court will hold a pre-trial conference on tomorrow to determine if the papers were properly served before the case can progress. ‘The prince has repeatedly denied the allegations in the lawsuit brought by Giuffre, 38, a longtime accuser of the late convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. When the suit was filed last month, legal experts suggested it left Andrew with no good options as he seeks to repair his image and return to public life. If the prince tries to ignore the lawsuit, he runs the risk that the court could find him in default and order him to pay damages. If he decides to fight, Andrew faces years of sordid headlines as the case winds its way through court’. So Prince Andrew is between a rock and a hard place, but as long as this saga continues, with the Queen continuing to protect him, the more reputational damage it could inflict on the royals. Surely, whatever the outcome, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Prince Andrew ever to return to public life.

Finally, some good news for those who detest the mess on our pavements caused by discarded chewing gum. Following government threats to impose a gum tax, manufacturers headed this off by agreeing to pay up to £2m a year for gum removal. We’re told that pilot projects to both remove gum and to encourage people to bin it rather than drop it reduced the problem by 64% but the plan does beg several questions. About 87% of England’s streets are thought to be ‘blighted’ by gum, but how would it be decided which streets benefited and if the money was donated to councils how would it be guaranteed it would be used for this purpose rather than being absorbed into general expenditure? Answers on a postcard…….

As the school term begins and with Parliament about to return, 178 deaths from Covid were recorded on 2 September, the highest number for some time, yet mask wearing on public transport is still patchy, some passengers reporting only around 25% compliance on their journeys. When in Wales recently it seemed to me that compliance was much higher. This could be partly due to restrictions having only just been lifted then, as opposed to the much earlier date in England, but I suspect it’s also because the leadership shown by First Minister Mark Drakeford commands more authority than the chaotic version in England.

But what seems common everywhere is quasi mask wearing, for example masks hanging around the wearer’s neck. A professor of public health, Dr Nisreen Alwat, tweeted about the important debate around ‘normality: ‘Masking in crowded indoor spaces during a raging viral pandemic is ‘normal’. Pretending the pandemic is over with more 245 thousand people testing positive in 1 week is not normal. I feel we need to work on the definition of ‘normal’ away from propaganda’. An even more fundamental debate emerging is the effects of Covid in reshaping people’s ideas about their place in society, the role of the state, individual freedoms versus protecting public health and even about democracy itself. This debate is bound to intensify as holidays end and autumn properly kicks in. Many are rightly asking themselves where they are in their lives: do they want to return to pre-pandemic activities, ambitions and lifestyles or has all this changed irrevocably?

Back to last week…. Education Minister Gavin Williamson, in a typically poor interview on Radio 4’s Today programme, yet again showed how the government is behind the curve. He alluded to Co2 monitors being ‘rolled out this term’, signalling no advance preparation, put the crucial ventilation issue back onto those mostly underfunded schools and kept avoiding key questions by repeatedly playing the vaccination silver bullet card. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has advised against vaccinating 12-15 year olds and the four nations’ chief medical officers will now decide whether or not to override this advice.

Concern is also rising about supply chain problems due to the shortage of HGV drivers, which many media outlets are still reluctant to admit is anything to do with Brexit. Reports about the shortage of chicken in Nando’s and milkshakes at McDonalds might lead some to think less consumption of such items might be a health benefit but the problem is now urgent due to undelivered flu vaccines and with waste collections in some parts of the country.

As Afghanistan continues to dominate the news, a key UK event this week was Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s appearance before the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, during which his hubris and denial were fully on display. He refused to answer the question as to the date he’d gone on holiday, but later it was proved that this was a fortnight after the Taliban takeover of Kabul was predicted. Raab’s key defence was his extraordinary projection of failure onto MOD intelligence and his accusation that those ‘anonymously briefing’ against him were ‘passing the buck’ suggests he doesn’t grasp that as Foreign Secretary the buck stops with him.

During the hearing, Raab apparently appeared to be taken by surprise when he was asked why he had not acted on the Foreign Office “principal risk report assessment” from 22 July, which warned: ‘Peace talks are stalled and US Nato withdrawal is resulting in rapid Taliban advances. This could lead to: fall of cities, collapse of security forces, Taliban return to power, mass displacement and significant humanitarian need. The embassy may need to close if security deteriorates.’ One account of the hearing suggested Raab deliberately adopted an uncharacteristically monotonous tone, suspected to be a technique to deter his interrogators.

On Tuesday Raab gave a defensive and avoidant interview on the Today programme, during which the presenter failed to challenge him on his breathtaking comment that the 5,000 or so unanswered emails from MPs and charities making urgent requests for help for Afghans at risk would be ‘responded to within days’ – when all the flights had already left. The whistleblower who broke the unanswered emails story reckons there are about 9,000 Afghans at risk in Afghanistan, not the ‘low hundreds’, as claimed by Raab during the  hearing. A volley of scathing tweets accompanied the Today interview, one saying: ‘If, at any time, I am stopped by a policeman who accuses me of speeding I shall say: ‘I don’t accept that.’ That’s how Dominic Raab replies on Today when confronted with the truth. No accountability’. Another pointed out the cynical use of semantics: ‘I don’t think it’s worth getting ahead of ourselves on this,’ self-excuses Raab. So that’s it – inaction = ‘not getting head of ourselves’.

Perhaps the most extraordinary remark was when Raab referred to ‘so-called Afghans’, prompting incredulity from some listeners. Such a remark is surely a sign that questioning and dismissal of these Afghans’ nationality could be used as a reason not to help them. Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, was impressed with how active a number of European politicians had been for several months and said that the Foreign Secretary needed to outline what exactly he had been doing for the last four months. In a classic example of buckpassing, Raab spoke on BBC Breakfast about the UK’s role. ‘It did morph, if you like, into something closer, more akin, to nation-building, and I think we need to be realistic, particularly in an inhospitable climate like Afghanistan, about the extent to which over 20 years those objectives are reconciled with the means to achieve them. That’s something that I’m sure Lord Dannatt (former head of the army) would need to reflect on as well, given his role over many years’.

Government briefings have suggested that Raab will be sacked over Britain’s chaotic departure from Afghanistan, but he dismissed anonymous critics today as ‘lacking in any credibility whatsoever’ and now he seems to think he can compensate for his complacency and inaction by dashing around Qatar and Pakistan. The supreme irony, given the government’s recent record on asylum seekers, is its ‘Operation Warm Welcome’ and its disconnect with the tactics of Home Secretary Priti Patel. A Today listener tweeted: ‘Surely there is nobody in the entire country who buys the “warm welcome” for refugees rhetoric from this government this morning? Reporting on it without mentioning plans to reject and criminalise refugees contained in Patel’s Borders Bill is a joke’.

We learned from Victoria Atkins, now minister for Afghan Resettlement, that one third of councils have offered to help, prompting the question from some quarters as to whether all local authorities should be compelled to join the scheme. We can’t necessarily assume that it’s only the most cash-strapped councils which aren’t stepping up. But the minister was keen to assure us that more will come forward – surely something the government really must work ‘around the clock’ on rather than the false ‘straining every sinew’ sound bites we heard early in the pandemic. Chancellor Rishi Sunak is under pressure to double the amount of funding given to councils to house refugees after a leaked Whitehall memo revealed a multimillion-pound shortfall. Ministers are said to be in urgent talks with councils to find permanent homes to resettle more than 8,000 Afghans who were evacuated last month, a complex issue as many already have long waiting lists, those waiting perhaps fearing they could be deprioritised in favour of the refugees

Former Civil Service head Sir Mark Sedwill has said the UK has ‘no coherent plan for the refugee crisis’ and clearly hasn’t been impressed with the bandying around of ‘Operation Warm Welcome’. ‘Mark Sedwill, a former ambassador to Afghanistan and senior adviser to two British prime ministers, said the emergency airlift out of Kabul had only helped “relatively small numbers” and greater pressures were likely to emerge as people fled overland. ‘Forty-five senior officers, including myself, wrote an open letter to the government in July to say that a large proportion of British nationals and interpreters and other locally engaged civilians were at risk from the Taliban. We urged greater generosity and speed because time was not on our side. The response to that was very disappointing. As far as Dominic Raab is concerned, I shake my head because I wonder how people can go on defending the indefensible’.

As Dominic Raab busies himself in Qatar and Pakistan, he’s said the government needs to engage with the Taliban but not recognise their regime, a tricky position to adopt but one some suggest is akin to the relationship we have with countries like Myanmar. He wants to establish a new international ‘coalition’ of interested countries to ‘exert the maximum moderating influence’ on the Taliban, citing four ‘critical tests’ they would be judged on, including allowing Afghan and other citizens with the correct documentation to leave the country, preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a ‘haven’ for terrorists and allowing access to humanitarian aid workers.

Meanwhile, we hear that only one of the team of 125 British embassy guards who were promised help to leave Afghanistan by the Foreign Office has made it to the UK. The plight of those left behind is pretty desperate, sacked by the outsourcing company which employed them, not paid for August and no promise of severance pay. While the US apparently evacuated all their 500 guards and their families, the UK ones were subjected to a hokey-cokey approach, first having been told that as outsourced workers they weren’t eligible, followed by a U-turn. ‘Buoyed by UK promises of assistance, and hopeful they would be evacuated to the UK last Thursday, many sold their possessions – cars, televisions, carpets, furniture – and handed their homes to relatives. When the evacuation attempt failed, some returned to homes stripped of furniture. Others have been forced into hiding, after visits from Taliban representatives’.

The 124 left behind, described by an embassy staffer as ‘loyal and dedicated’, received this final chilling email: ‘You were authorised for evacuation by the British military. The evacuation has now ended. We are sorry if, as we think, you were not able to reach the evacuation point. If you were approved for evacuation, you will be supported if you wish to relocate to the United Kingdom’. Can you imagine what it would be like getting a message like that, knowing your details were left behind at the embassy and with the Taliban on your tail?

There’s still a great deal we don’t know but the key question perhaps is can the Taliban go beyond conquering Afghanistan and actually develop the infrastructure of government needed to support a population (nearly two thirds under 25) much better educated and with higher expectations than was the case in 1996? Will it be held back by its ideology, including separation of the spiritual and political roles and will it be able to convince the world of its capacity to distribute foreign aid appropriately, tackle the corruption hindering its progress and to form effective relationships with world leaders? Let’s hope that those not normally engaged with the news and politics understand how important all this is: not only will the events in Afghanistan shift tectonic plates in the geopolitical sphere, but here in the UK there are the refugees to manage and Taliban regime could lead to a resurgence in terrorist attacks on these streets.

You couldn’t make up the deluded concerns of some Conservatives, though. Writing in the Observer, Tobias Ellwood has demanded ‘an immediate end to the “unseemly and unprofessional” row between the foreign and defence secretaries over Afghanistan, warning that it is further damaging the UK’s already battered reputation on the world stage……’. He thinks ‘the crisis has exposed the weakness of the UK as a global player, and calls for a complete overhaul of the way foreign policy is handled in Whitehall’. He wrote: ‘We’ve lost the passion and the art of leadership – and have caused further reputational damage in the unattractive blame game over Afghanistan that has played out so publicly. This unseemly, unprofessional squabbling must stop’. He seems to have no idea that in the eyes of many the UK’s reputation on the world stage was shot to hell some time ago but it’s surely extraordinary that he believed this government ever had ‘passion and the art of leadership’.

Several developments on the home front risk raising public anxiety further. It’s shameful that, in 2019 having announced a long-awaited plan to reform social care, our Prime Minister still hasn’t produced said plan but now has announced a possibility, based on rising tax and national insurance. As ever ministers have different views on this and it was striking that former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, while pressing for reform, also seemed to agonise about this being the reverse of Conservative economic policy and a breach of a 2019 manifesto commitment not to raise taxes. But so many such promises are broken and what better cause than social care, which is currently in such a dire state?  Although not held in high esteem by many, former Tory leader Iain Duncan-Smith stressed how important it was to decide what needed to be done and how, before discussing how it should be paid for.

He has a point, but there’s a more immediate catalyst for reform and how many of those needing care could fall through the net because of these problems? We already know that Brexit has caused some to leave this area of work, as has the low pay and in some cases the requirement for compulsory Covid vaccination. Now it’s emerged, not surprisingly, that care workers have been leaving for better paid jobs, which, interestingly, includes Amazon, not known for employee care. It’s thought there could be 170,000 vacancies by the end of the year. This comment from a care home manager about one of the leavers puts the situation in a nutshell: ‘She said she loves her job and doesn’t want to leave but going to Amazon she can work three days a week and earn more. Society doesn’t value the work being done in social care’. This is an important issue in itself, how society values certain jobs, or not. Carers should be valued, no doubt about it, but how is it possible to change attitudes and quickly?

It’s been pointed out that it’s the strained NHS which will have to step into the breach, but how, given their own challenges? The Department of Health and Social Care spoke from its alternative universe: ‘We are working with local authorities and providers to ensure we have the right number of staff with the skills to deliver high-quality care to meet increasing demands. The vast majority of care staff are already vaccinated and we are focusing on encouraging even more staff to get jabbed to protect their colleagues and those they care for’.

As we hear that the NHS needs a £10bn boost to deal with its backlog and the effects of Covid, anything less regarded as inadequate, perhaps it’s not surprising that it’s been suggested free prescriptions for the over 60s should go and the age of eligibility raised to 66. What a false economy this could well be: analysis by Age UK already suggests that such a measure would have a ‘devastating impact on the health of tens of thousands of older people’. As so often, the false economy would lie in the likelihood that those unable to afford the charges could well feel reluctant to consult their GP in the first place or find their conditions worsening, perhaps with fatal consequences but also additional costs to the NHS over the longer term. It seems to me that governments really must learn to adopt long-term planning, not just short term thinking suited to the length of parliaments.

A consultation apparently attracted 32,000 responses and ‘in a joint open letter urging the government to reconsider proposals to scrap free prescriptions for over-60s in England, 20 healthcare organisations expressed “deep shared concerns” that the move would leave many patients unable to afford medication, intensifying existing health inequalities and having a devastating impact on some older people’s health. It’s been described as ‘a tax on the sick’, but as usual the parallel universe of the DHSC attempts to minimise the potential impact: ‘90% of community prescriptions in England are free of charge, and people don’t pay if they are on a low income, over 60, or have certain medical conditions. The upper age exemption has not changed since 1995 and that is why we are consulting on restoring the link between this and the state pension age. No final decisions have been made and we will publish the consultation response in due course’.

In recent weeks the media have been criticised for low to zero coverage of the forthcoming German election, but this is important for a number of reasons, including Germany’s key role within the European Union and its role on the world stage via the G7 and NATO, etc. Long-term Chancellor Angela Merkel is leaving the stage, her potential successors in the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) party thought to be somewhat unimpressive.  

A useful Radio 4 exploration of Merkel’s impact and legacy was interesting for several reasons, one being the role she embraced (hence the ‘Mutti’ (mum) nickname) as container of the nation’s psychological wellbeing. Exactly what we’ve never had recently in the UK. Whatever challenges the nation faces, the qualities of its leaders, ideally including steadiness and consistency, go a long way towards making the population feel in safe hands, reducing individual anxiety levels. BBC Europe correspondent Katya Adler spoke to a number of interesting interviewees about how they experienced the 16 years of ‘phlegmatic Angela Merkel…… ‘unassuming and hard to pin down….. an enigma’ and so on. One who hadn’t liked the CDU told Adler she’d completely changed her mind about Merkel – ‘I love her very much (laughs) She gave me security… she’s steadfast, consistent in her decisions….’.

This was a common view, including ‘she has a good deal of trust’, ‘she’s a great manager with a deep sense of duty’, a quality Germans value very highly. During big global crises like the euro, refugee and Covid crises, one said ‘it was good to have someone calm and thinking, not jumping forward’. A psychologist spoke about her diamond shaped hand gesture (hands folded over the lower stomach), which carries ‘a great deal of symbolism……a caring, protective boundary (inside which) people can pursue their own hobbies, interests and desires while she ensures nothing bad happens’. Such statements capture exactly what we don’t have in the UK, where incompetence, cynicism and self-interest are more to the fore in our leaders, resulting in the population missing this protective boundary.  

After Merkel started on this positive tack, but then swerved, it seemed to me, towards criticism of Merkel, citing all the things she had allegedly not achieved. Merkel has apparently become a byword for prevarication in key policy areas eg not investing in her own country, seen as reactive, a manager without a big vision without a big vision, she’s over-protected the German car industry, hasn’t got rid of coal production and risked opprobrium at home by allowing 1m refugees into the country (a policy which seriously impressed President Obama, though). But could it be that this is less important than the other qualities she’s brought to the table? As for the ‘enigma’, it’s said she likes singing and making potato soup and is a splendid mimic – interesting combination.

An article by the Guardian’s Berlin correspondent constitutes an exit report, detailing her approach and performance regarding key policy areas including Russia and China, Europe, refugees and the climate crisis. He quotes Stefan Kornelius, the foreign editor of Süddeutsche Zeitung and author of her authorised biography, as saying ‘She has two core qualities. She is risk-averse and a centrist in the sense that she wants to bring people together rather than alienate them. These qualities apply to domestic politics as well as the European Union, which is a political constellation that has an intrinsic tendency to drift apart’. It’s quite something that ‘Unlike all her seven male predecessors, she will be stepping down of her own will, at the end of a full term, and while her popularity ratings remain so phenomenally high that her three most likely successors have all in different ways modelled themselves on her’.

She comes across as an arch-diplomat, but ‘Critics say the cost of Merkel’s success has been an erosion of the political landscape: by co-opting other parties’ policies and programmes, she has made Germany’s traditional parties increasingly indistinguishable. The CDU has struggled to put up a united front as it approaches the post-Merkel era: party insiders fear a defeat at the September vote could throw the once-dominant force of German postwar politics into an existential crisis that could culminate in a split between centrists and conservative hardliners’. We will see, but one thing’s for sure – she will be a hard act to follow.

More organisations opting for a hybrid model (some days working from home, others in the office) and Parliament returning this week has turned attention once again to matters sartorial. An article featured in The Week by someone clearly keen on more formal dress, especially the suit, suggests that the apparent freedom to wear what we like at work following the wearing of underwear for zoom calls at home isn’t real freedom. He cites the school uniform argument, that a more genuine kind of freedom arises from not having to think too hard about what to wear, the choice of which will inevitably invite judgements and expose inequalities.

But has the Speaker now shown some much-needed authority? Sir Lindsay Hoyle has repeatedly failed to challenge Boris Johnson on his misrepresentations and question avoidances but has now updated the ‘Rules of behaviour and courtesies’ in the House. He stressed the required dress standards, clothing such as jeans and chinos being disallowed. The guide states: ‘the way in which you dress should demonstrate respect for your constituents, for the House and for the institution of Parliament in the life of the nation…Members are expected to wear business attire in and around the Chamber…Jeans, chinos, sportswear or any other casual trousers are not appropriate. T-shirts and sleeveless tops are not business attire. Smart/business shoes are expected to be worn. Casual shoes and trainers are not appropriate. Men are encouraged to wear a tie, and jackets must be worn. It is a privilege to serve as a Member of Parliament and your dress, language and conduct should reflect this’. A wag tweeted: ‘Surely the scruffiest MP in most need of cleaning up his act is the PM Boris Johnson…’.

Finally, in a lovely piece of community engagement and cultural ‘nurturing’: la Barraca de Cinehas been travelling around remote Spanish villages showing films where this wouldn’t normally prove viable. ‘We want to create magic… Our motto is cinema for everyone and anywhere’, say the founders. ‘It is a cinematic take on an effort launched nearly a century ago by Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. In the early 1930s, Lorca along with writer and film director Eduardo Ugarte, launched an initiative to bring classical theatre to villages across Spain.The project was named La Barraca, referring to the makeshift wooden stalls set up at fairgrounds. “Lorca did it with theatre and we do it with cinema,” said De Luna. Theirs has a bar, too’. Great stuff – something similar has happened in remote Scottish areas but it would be interesting to know what similar initiatives have taken off.

Monday 30 August

Not for the first time, key issues dominating the news and causing distress and anxiety bear a common imprint – government incompetence. Afghanistan, Covid and climate change have all been aggravated by the government’s approach of too little, too late, zero planning and with only days before schools reopen, there’s still no effective guidance on Covid safe practices eg ventilation and whether to vaccinate 12-15 year olds.

As the tragic events in Afghanistan continue to unfold following the deadly terrorist attack and the US drone strike, the crisis has given rise to numerous views as to what went wrong, what could have been managed better, and more fundamentally whether the West should have gone in there in the first place. Some commentators say 20 years is nothing in terms of changing such a country and that a much longer investment was needed, others feeling that trying to introduce Western democracy to this intensely tribal and fragile country was always flawed, if not hopeless. What must have been an additional blow for desperate Afghans was President Ashraf Ghani fleeing at the earliest opportunity, called a ‘mistake’ by the Taliban. The US withdrawal and how it was done certainly scotched Joe Biden’s ‘America is back’ mantra and the myth of the ‘special relationship’ between the US and UK.

Although it would be true to say the whole world was taken aback, even blindsided, by the speed of the Taliban takeover, especially given the numbers, (80k militants versus 300k US trained soldiers) it doesn’t excuse governments not having seen the writing on the wall the minute the US announced its withdrawal. Ministers’ excuses have been generally pathetic, along the lines of ‘no one saw this coming’.  But the sheer impact of this lack of anticipation and planning has been made much worse by the emergence of contributory factors like Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab remaining on holiday (having been given permission by his boss), the lie about the phone call to the Afghan government opposite number and failures in the system for rescuing Afghan citizens who worked for the UK. A tearful Defence Secretary Ben Wallace admitted that some would unfortunately be left behind, later getting flak for euphemistically describing the situation as ‘sub-optimal’ and a ‘matter of deep regret’. What seems particularly unforgiveable and incompetent is that fleeing British embassy staff left behind on their desks details of Afghans for the Taliban inevitably to find.

General Lord Richard Dannatt, former head of the British Army, has added his voice to others criticising the government for its inaction, thrown into sharp relief by the contrast with France, which started taking its people out in May. ‘Dannatt said it was ‘unfathomable’ that the UK government appeared to have been ‘asleep on watch’ when it came to ensuring the safety of Afghans who helped soldiers and officials. Amid bitter recriminations between government departments over who was to blame for leaving behind thousands of people with links to the UK, Dannatt questioned why ministers had not engaged earlier on the safety of Afghan allies, given that the issue had been raised repeatedly by senior army officers.

Demanding an inquiry, Dannat said: ‘On the particular issue of those who we knew were in danger, people who had worked for us, interpreters, former locally engaged civilians, this issue has been in the media…. This issue has been on politicians’ desks for two to three years and, certainly, it’s been there during the course of this year … Back in July, 45 senior officers wrote to the government … saying there are people we are concerned about and if we don’t do the right thing, their blood will be on our hands’.

As the country’s collapse is on the cards due to widespread hunger, homelessness and a crashed economy, prompting calls for major humanitarian aid, questions continue to be asked about how it came about that the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and various civil service departmental heads were on holiday at the same time. There’s a clear sense of entitlement here and zero sense of urgency, eg Raab and his stay in a Cretan 5 star resort.  But surely, those occupying such key positions need to understand that there are limits to their holiday entitlement – when crises occur they need to be back at base, not trying to defensively bat them away from the beach.

For once ministers were subjected to challenging interviews on the BBC, Raab desperately trying to claw back some semblance of authority by constantly repeating that no one could see it coming and playing the old ‘speculation in the media’ card:  ‘I am not going to add to speculation in the media – the idea I was lounging on the beach is nonsense’. Ministers can’t keep repeating that they did as much as they could when shocking revelations emerge, such as the huge backlog of 5,000 unread emails from MPs and charities notifying government of urgent cases of Afghans in fear of Taliban reprisals needing rescue from Kabul. No wonder some newspaper headlines have screamed ‘Asleep at the wheel’. The government suggests that numbers left behind could be around 1,100, but the whistleblower who alerted the media to this catastrophic procedural vacuum believes it could be many more because these people have families but also because of the unread emails. ‘They cannot possibly know [how many people have been left behind] because they haven’t even read the emails. Even among those who’ve been registered, many have been left behind. But there’s also a much, much larger group of people who just haven’t been dealt with at all’. The government almost boasts about bringing 15,000 out and while this is an achievement, some estimates put those left behind as close to 9,000.

A Radio 4 Any Questions listener tweeted: ‘Trump’s unilateral “deal” with Taliban should have been a signal to prepare for an orderly withdrawal. Biden’s decision to carry through with the US withdrawal should have meant plans were stepped up. Instead, Johnson just had an “it’ll be all right on the night” approach’.  Despite the Taliban’s declaration that they’re not the same as 20 years ago, evidence on the ground suggests there’s been no change. Besides accounts of massacres, summary executions and unmarried women being handed over to fighters, numerous desperate Afghan teachers, women’s rights workers and others likely to be targeted by the Taliban have spoken to UK media outlets – heartbreaking to listen to. One wanted his family to be given safe passage to the UK, saying ‘I know I will be killed’.

As to the cynically framed rhetorical question about an alternative approach, one tweeter had had some substantial suggestions: ‘What more could the UK government have done? 1. Recognise it has never been only “interpreters” 2. Start evacuating them in 2015 3. Really think about Trump’s unconditional withdrawal, then Biden’s acceptance of it 4. Start withdrawing far more under ARAP, early’. Another added: ‘Create safe routes to asylum, scrap the Nationality and Borders Bill, don’t criminalise refugees and show them compassion’.

What’s been striking is the hubristic and deluded stance of the US and UK governments, implying they have some power in this crisis and some clout with the Taliban when they actually have very little. Joe Biden described the US service personnel as ‘heroes’, insisted they would not be deterred by terrorists: ‘We will not forgive, we will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay’. Meanwhile, the UK government believes that because Afghanistan is 75% dependent on foreign aid, this automatically gives the West leverage, when the complex means of aid distribution and desire not to disadvantage the Afghan people mean this surely can’t be taken for granted. Yet the government still affects a high-handed and faux authoritarian attitude. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘We will judge them on their actions not their words’ says James Cleverly about the Taliban. ‘If they act like a proper government, then we will engage with them Shame the UK electorate didn’t apply the same criteria to him and his cronies’.

An interesting article focuses on what a Taliban government could look like, quoting leadership sources as suggesting there will be a 12-man council, including offering ‘some pliant members of the former U.S.-supported government the ministries of their choice as they strive to form an administration that is acceptable to the international community’. This sounds like they’ve more than understood the need to at least appear acceptable to the West. The article reckons that the main four men mentioned ‘represent one of the world’s biggest criminal and terrorist cartels…. The Taliban make billions of dollars each year producing and trafficking heroin and methamphetamine, as well as smuggling mining assets including marble, lithium, and gemstones’. It also suggests that this and discontinuing the presidential role will lead to problems and ‘open the door to factional struggles’. We will see.

A Radio 4 profile of Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar is useful listening – politicians who find leaders like Putin and Xi Jinping challenging will no doubt have to step up to an even more demanding plate. ‘He says very little, he’s very secretive, we really don’t know what he believes in….’ observed one contributor. Regarded as a ‘skilled political operator’ and now thought to be a linchpin for bringing different factions together, he has been active since before the Taliban last took control in 1996 with its ‘draconian’ laws and punishments and suppression of women’s rights. It will be interesting to see what further insights emerge about him.

Meanwhile, Covid hasn’t gone away despite the widespread focus on holidays and world events. On Wednesday 149 deaths were registered, 141 of deceased having been vaccinated once, a situation we would not have anticipated months ago. Despite the Office of National Statistics reporting that the number of weekly deaths is at its highest level since March for the third week in a row, there seems no sense of urgency about addressing this. There were 571 deaths in England and Wales registered in the week ending August 13 mentioning Covid-19 on the certificate. That was up from 527 the week before, and 404 a week earlier. These numbers (people testing positive – 35,847; admitted to hospital – 859; patients in ventilation beds – 957), are substantially attributed to the Delta variant, which apparently doubles the risk of hospitalisation. Meanwhile, those opposing reintroduction of any restrictions, like the Covid Recovery Group’s Mark Harper, continue to spin the outdated narrative which paints the vaccine as almost a silver bullet.

If some people and politicians are too sanguine about this, health professionals are not, reporting themselves ‘braced’ for a surge of cases after the Bank Holiday, due to packed beaches and music festivals, etc. Newquay in Cornwall has been badged England’s Covid capital and a local director of public health said: ‘The lifting of restrictions and the successful vaccination programme has caused people to drop their guard against Covid, adding to a really high pressured situation for Cornwall’s health system. Living with Covid is not the same as pretending it doesn’t exist, and I think that’s what has happened. It’s not just younger people, that’s a general picture for people who have been told that all gloves are off and they’re taking that at face value’.

An interesting article about the profiles of patients dying (about a hundred a day) suggests key differences between now and the second wave in January. One relates to the age factor: at the height of the second wave in January, when the under-65s accounted for just 11% of deaths but recently it’s been about 25%. Deaths amongst the over 65s have now fallen. ‘If vaccine coverage was equal in all age groups, experts would expect to see the same proportion of almost all deaths from Covid in elderly people. But the younger age groups are not vaccinated at the same rate as older age groups and this is resulting in a relative increase in younger people dying’. I’d have thought the rise in younger people’s deaths was also attributable to a persistent number of antivaxxers (at least two high profile cases in the media this week, both being parents leaving young children behind) and far greater attendance at crowded events such as festivals.

Scientists also suggested that men were more at risk and warned that cases will rise as schools return. Teachers and others have been very concerned that with only a few days to go before the school term starts, they have received no guidance about Covid safe practice and a decision about vaccinating teenagers still hasn’t been taken. Needless to say, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has assumed the usual ministerial ostrich-like stance, brushing off these concerns and adopting a wing and a prayer approach. He told the Financial Times: ‘We don’t want to see the same level of disruption … My hope is that, combined with the mass testing we’re doing, children aren’t going to be in the situation of having to self-isolate’. Is his ‘hope’ enough?

A key point made by one article and the central theme of this blog (the anxiety caused when we cannot trust our leaders, who abdicate their role as psychological ‘containers’) was the unacknowledged role of distrust in governments in vaccine hesitancy and refusal. ‘What all these doubters have in common, whether they’re from Kansas or Khartoum, is that they don’t believe the state has their interests at heart. The trust has gone’. For example, sceptics reportedly see ‘outrageously profitable’ healthcare and pharma companies spending huge amounts on lobbying, leading to suspicions about profit motives behind the developments. Maybe this alone wouldn’t be that damaging but coupled with many governments’ incompetence in dealing with the pandemic it makes for a powerful influence. ‘You might, if you lived in the UK, doubt the government’s assurances that the vaccine had been rigorously tested, after seeing senior officials appear to make up pandemic policies as they went along, dragging the nation with them through U-turns and lockdowns whose rules they did not follow themselves. State failure breeds paranoia. And when trust in government breaks down, people turn to personal vigilance. This climate of hesitancy and wariness is heightened by poorly regulated media that trade in falsehoods. In the UK, for example, a misleading report about ethnic minority people being excluded from vaccine trials was resolved only with a short correction in a footnote. Vaccine rejection doesn’t happen in a vacuum…. it’s a measure of how political systems work. We should spend less time haranguing anti-vaxxers for their stupidity and more time scrutinising the systems that have lost their trust’. Hear, hear.

Naturally, this time of year has put the knotty issue of PCR tests further the spotlight, and it seems that for some time some rogue operators have been given a home on the government’s website, companies which charge excessively, don’t return results in time or worse, not even sending the tests for analysis, obscuring additional charges and customers even being sent the wrong results. This is unacceptable anyway but especially because customers are spending hundreds of pounds on tests to take families on holiday.

After Health Secretary Sajid Javid said ‘rogue’ companies could be removed from the list of approved suppliers (but how did they get onto it in the first place?) the regulator, the  Competitions and Markets Authority, came on stronger and said they could face enforcement for breaching consumer law. But could is the operative word – this laissez faire approach means all kinds of unethical and unfair practices can slip through the net in all fields. Another reason why this is an intolerable situation is the knock on effects on the struggling NHS – it has to step in when such companies don’t deliver. Isn’t it interesting that some entrepreneur hasn’t created an app to review and rate PCR tests?

Climate change is another thing that’s not gone away, of course, and many are concerned that the clock is ticking in the lead up to COP26 and there’s been little planning as to how to dramatically reduce emissions. Extinction Rebellion has been active again, disrupting traffic in central London and elsewhere. Although it’s annoying to have journeys interrupted it doesn’t seem to have been universally grasped that this is the only way protesters have found to puncture people’s complacency. A wag tweeted: ‘Who knew saving the planet would be so inconvenient?’

One woman was astonished at what she experienced as police brutality, ripping apart women who’d glued themselves together so that bandages were needed afterwards. ‘I’m a white middle-aged woman; I’ve not experienced police violence before … now I have direct experience of police violence. The public need to know that women and mothers trying to protect their children are being violently attacked by our state police. We pay their wages and they basically attacked us for trying to protect all life on earth’. How the Met from its parallel universe put it was that ‘officers intervened when protesters were building a structure at Oxford Circus. Some individuals have glued themselves to the structure, specialist officers are working to support their removal’.

It seems clubbers at the Pipe in Aberdeen got even better value than expected on Saturday night when Michael Gove, tipped to replace Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab at the next Cabinet reshuffle, joined them for several hours. The Guardian revealed that ‘arms aloft, suit jacket on, Michael Gove has been filmed giving it his all in an Aberdeen nightclub after reportedly trying to avoid a £5 entrance fee by stating that he was the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’. Which was the most embarrassing, I wonder – Gove’s ‘dad dancing’ or trying to wriggle out of paying to get in? ‘His hands flailed wildly, and occasionally swung in time to the music, in the clip filmed by a fellow clubber. Friends of Gove denied that he had attempted to avoid paying’.

Finally, the biblical expression ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’ must have come to archaeologists’ minds when they found the remains in Pompeii of a ‘remarkably well preserved’ fast food joint which ‘closed for business’ (that’s one way of putting it) almost 2,000 years ago. Excavators made the discovery in 2019 and it opened to the public last week. Experts believed it served hot meals made from pork, goat and even snails, typically purchased by poorer Pompeii residents who had no kitchen of their own. Will future archaeologists be excavating a McDonalds  at some point, we could wonder…..

Sunday 15 August

Last week’s news, much of it a continuation or repetition of what we’ve seen before, served as a timely reminder of what an uncertain world we’re living in, this naturally impacting on our mental wellbeing. As we move closer to the global climate change conference, COP26, experts and politicians deliver ever starker messages but often with no actual plan to reduce emissions as radically as global policies dictate. Boris Johnson wants to be seen as a world leader on climate change, but there’s a lack of urgency and the absence of a plan has partly been attributed to two opposing factions within the Conservative Party. There are the ‘blue environmentalists’, including his wife Carrie Johnson and there are the sceptics, including some climate change deniers, who worry about the cost to consumers. Other groups outside the Conservative Party with a powerful agenda are the ‘climate change warriors’ and the ‘Labour net zero pragmatists’. The dire climate emergency raises a conundrum which will surely test the capacity of COP26 deliberations – how much individual responsibility can governments expect their citizens to take when some regimes like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia at the G20 deliberately prevented a decision to end fossil fuel subsidies? And what can individual countries achieve when China’s emissions are 28% of the global total and are continuing to increase? There’s the intrinsic challenge that these forums like COP26 take place on the global stage, far removed from the localised government mechanisms which actually get things done. In the Financial Times Philip Stephens said ‘the gap between the soaring rhetoric of international conferences and policy inaction at home will have to be bridged, and soon…… Look at the weather’.  

Just before the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy minister Kwasi Kwarteng gave a car crash interview on Monday’s Radio 4 Today programme, consisting largely of sound bites and clichés which didn’t add value to the discussion. His perpetually languid and disengaged manner doesn’t help. Meanwhile, evidence of climate change is undeniable, many parts of the world experiencing unprecedented levels of flooding and wildfires. At least there’s a glimmer of hope that the IPCC report has been described as a massive alert that the time for climate action has nearly gone but crucially not gone yet.

The situation in Afghanistan is surely another lesson, as if we needed one, on the folly of Western intervention in such countries. More specifically, Western intervention without a genuine plan for sustained support for the Afghan government and the people. Having taken so many other cities and areas, the Taliban are now ‘at the gates of Kabul’ and unlikely to be halted now. It’s striking how hard some politicians and generals have been working to try to justify the last 20 years, whereas many, especially those who have lost family and friends there, feel it has been a waste. The main justification seems to be that during this time we have seen very little Al-Qaeda terrorism here but what about the Afghans? Those interviewed express despair about the return of the Taliban, pointing out the difference between their new propaganda and what’s actually happening on the ground. A sceptic tweeted: ‘The Taliban has changed – its PR is better’. Another said: ‘Western leaders are saying “but we educated millions of girls in Afghanistan” over the last 20 years. How does it help to now abandon 20m women to the Taliban and condemn them to a life in the Middle Ages’? It was heartrending to hear an Afghan woman say that the Americans had shown them a beautiful world and now President Biden had abandoned and betrayed them.

There’s also the key issue of the former interpreters: some have been welcomed to the UK but there are still many others there at risk of Taliban persecution and elimination. Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy said there needs to be some genuine UK leadership on this (and what about the massive cut in foreign aid recently decided?), but it seems the complexity of the situation and the summer holidays are slowing down a considered response. At least Boris Johnson has recalled Parliament for Wednesday, though it seems he did initially resist this. The BBC also reported that Afghan students offered scholarships by the UK government won’t now be able to take up those offers because of paperwork not being completed in time by the British embassy there. Surely there must be a way around this.

Regarding the speed at which the Taliban has effectively toppled the Afghan government, one commentator interestingly attributed this partly to this government not being perceived as truly Afghan, having been built up from returning exiles. Former Tory MP and Afghanistan expert Rory Stewart tweeted: ‘At the centre of this is the most astonishing failure of intelligence + analysis from the US and its allies. The US presence was small, sustainable and vital to the country. It was removed in an utterly reckless fashion – as this shows with no understanding of the impact’.

As in previous years, there’s the usual August debate about exam results but this year, with two years of pandemic-related challenges, there’s rightly been a sharper focus on inequalities within the system, grade inflation and, because of teacher assessments, many more qualifying for university places than before. Labour has said that this makes Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s position untenable, but needless to say, both he and Schools Minister Nick Gibb carry on regardless, not even acknowledging the problems.

‘Asked whether private school teachers had been too generous in their grading, Keir Starmer said the attainment gap appeared to be to do with a ‘lack of a coherent framework to do the assessment provided by the government. Some were testing very often and some not very often…It led to the widening and now yawning gap between private and state schools. The hallmark of this government is wherever there is an inequality they can make it bigger and they are very busy doing that’. It’s not only Labour calling for Williamson’s sacking – he’s apparently held in very poor esteem by Tory MPs and the Cabinet, but it’s not clear that   those touted as a possible successor (Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi and Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch) would be much of an improvement.

Meanwhile, as the gap between private and state schools comes under yet more scrutiny, an interesting article by Brooke Masters in the Financial Times, featured in The Week, aims to demonstrate how private schools have lost their grip on Oxbridge. Admissions tutors have moved towards a more inclusive policy, focusing more on state school pupils who have worked hard to overcome barriers, rather than simply privileging public school products from wealthy backgrounds who have also been groomed for the interview process. These parents who have shelled out thousands over years trying to ensure Oxbridge for their offspring find themselves in a new moral conundrum. Whereas many will publicly espouse the need for equality of opportunity, when it comes to this situation they see what they had assumed for their children as being under threat. One ‘grouchy’ father was heard to ask a school head to explain how he would protect the boys there from ‘social engineering’. A firm sense of entitlement accompanies this level of spend over years. ‘I feel genuine sympathy for anyone concerned for their child’s future, but complaining about a loss of privilege comes across as tone deaf’.

We’re told that since 1981, annual applications to Cambridge rose from 5,000 to 20, 426. It’s now four times harder to get a place than when these parents were applying and the pandemic has exacerbated the situation because of teacher-assessed grades leading to hundreds of extra students. I feel sorry for the children of these parents who went to Oxbridge themselves, expecting their sons and daughters to follow suit but without understanding what has changed. But rather than parents engineering their children’s futures, a healthier approach is for those students to determine their own future. One sixth form college principal has long tried to convince parents that Oxbridge entrance isn’t the be all and end all: ‘Things have changed very dramatically in 30 years… for parents it’s about learning to let go a bit and learning to let students drive the process… our job is to walk alongside them. It’s not to go in front and drag them’.

The shocking shooting in Plymouth raised a number of issues which need closer scrutiny, such as what seems a dereliction of duty in the police reissuing the gun licence to this disturbed man after it had been removed following Jake Davison’s involvement in an assault. We know how depleted police forces are but this is surely an area of their work they cannot afford to carry out negligently. Three other key issues are Davison’s association with the incel movement (which not everyone is yet familiar with), whether this should be treated as a form of terrorism, and yet another situation in which inadequate mental health services have played a part.

‘Davison had shared hate-filled views on Reddit forums used by incels – men who express hostility and resentment towards those who are sexually active, particularly women. Earlier this year, authorities in the US warned that attacks linked to the incel movement were on the rise, and authorities around the world have begun to treat the ideology as a more serious terrorism threat.

‘The condition of Davison’s mental health has been questioned, with one person familiar with his family claiming relatives had requested help from mental health authorities. Writing on Facebook, the neighbour said: “His family [pleaded] for help to the mental health team, the NHS basically said that they are short-staffed and that was it. The family even asked for the police to come out to see him as he was talking and acting strange but they didn’t do a welfare check’.

A useful article describes what ‘incel’ culture is and how it could be on the rise. ‘Incels are men who describe themselves as “involuntary celibates”. Laura Bates, author of Men Who Hate Women, said: ‘In other words, they’re not having sex and they want to be. They see women as completely commodified and dehumanised sex objects [that] are there purely for male sexual pleasure. And they blame women for the fact that they’re not having sex’. Bates estimates that the incel community in the UK could be as large as 10,000, with hundreds of thousands more worldwide and that the movement is actively grooming and recruiting young men.

The policy of ‘living with the virus’ is being manifested in various ways, especially the normalisation of substantial numbers of new cases and of daily deaths (around 90 each day). One of the key disillusionments of recent times must be the realisation that vaccination doesn’t prevent us getting Covid and doesn’t prevent hospitalisation. When the vaccines were first developed we didn’t have the lethal variants to contend with, but now we hear that the double jabbed only have a 59% protection, down from 83% earlier this summer, due to the Delta variant. The decline in protective antibodies after the second job has strengthened calls for autumn booster jabs, although no decision on this has yet been taken. This and related decisions must be taken soon since experts are advising the government that vaccine-resistant variants could ‘set us back a year’. Various scientists and commentators (including Dominic Cummings) have urged the government to produce a Covid risk assessment strategy relating to contingency plans, but so far we’ve mainly seen reactive short-termism.

‘Stephen Reicher, Professor of Psychology at the University of St Andrews, said: ‘It very much makes sense to be prepared. Scotland is setting up its standing committee on pandemics. It will be interesting to see what emerges on a UK level. In the longer-term we need a systematic inquiry into what went wrong (and right) so we are prepared and also so that we can institute systemic changes to protect us. The pandemic has been like a barium meal which has exposed so many deficiencies in our society. We can no longer pretend we are not aware of them. This has been a deafening wake-up call. Let’s make sure we don’t press the snooze button’. Government sources have said Public Health England and other bodies are monitoring the situation ‘through rapid surveillance and genomic sequencing of the virus’ but it could be argued this already doesn’t reflect the urgency of the situation.

We heard this week that Baroness Dido Harding will be stepping down from her role as chair of NHS Improvement in October in the wake of her unsuccessful attempt to become the next NHS England Chief Executive. Well overdue, some may say. In another embarrassing but not surprising revelation, the government has also admitted that it had the data on deletions and disabling of the NHS Covid app amid the ‘pingdemic’, but refused to release the figures. The Department of Health and Social Care again demonstrates how it takes us for fools, in trying to suggest that the release of such information was not yet in the public interest, also declining to say when this time might come.

Meanwhile, for those travelling abroad, there’s been increasing disquiet about profiteering by the companies (over 400 according to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps) offering PCR tests. The Competition and Markets Authority has now entered the fray, concerned about pricing and test results being delayed or not returned. The CMA is providing data for the Department of Health and Social Care to act on. As a reminder and to see the contrast with other countries: ‘PCR tests are needed to travel to some overseas holiday destinations and on return from amber and green-list countries. Similar tests for days two and eight after return to England listed on the government’s website can cost more than £300 or as little as £20. On average, prices in the UK are £75 for a single test, compared with about £40 in France and Greece’. Some travellers have found that the cheaper tests listed on the website aren’t available when they come to book them, prompting questions about the authenticity of the apparently low costs. This situation again throws up inequalities, with only those able to afford these tests able to go abroad. Even a Tory MP observed: ‘It’s almost as much as the holiday that they’re having to fork out in Covid tests which means for a vast majority it’s a no go. I couldn’t afford to with a family of five’.

Meanwhile, the ‘staycation’ industry continues at pace despite the UK’s unpredictable weather and amid complaints about crowds, inflated accommodation prices, shortages in shops and queues for restaurants and cafes. But not everywhere – after this summer there will no doubt be positive accounts of less popular holiday spots, some quite off the beaten track. Anonymous street artist Banksy is also doing his bit for the British seaside, as he tours the UK in his campervan, his works already appearing in Lowestoft (Suffolk), and Gorleston and Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. I wonder how many media outlets already have a team combing the roads and resorts for the elusive artist.

‘In one work on the concrete sea-defence wall of a British beach, a rat lounges in a deckchair, sipping a cocktail. In another, sticking to the seaside theme, a mechanical claw dangles above a public bench – as if anyone who sits there is about to be plucked up like a prize in an arcade game. Another shows a giant seagull hovering above a skip full of oversized “chips”. A fourth shows three children in a rickety boat. One looks ahead while another is busy bailing out water with a bucket. Above them, appears the inscription: “We’re all in the same boat.”On the roof of a bus shelter, a couple also dance to the tune of a flat-capped accordion player, in a black and white painting evoking the faded, down-at-heel feel of many of the country’s once-prosperous seaside resorts’. It will be exciting to find out what further works appear and in which resorts.

Prince Andrew is once more in the news since his legal team has not responded to lawyers representing the woman accusing him of sexual assault when she was a teenager, Virginia Giuffre. The main lawyer, Daniel Boies, has said that Andrew cannot ‘hide behind castle walls’ and that his client had ‘tried every way she can to resolve this short of litigation’. Apart from the hiding not being good for the Prince himself, it gives a poor impression of this country and of the Royal Family.

 ‘The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages. Giuffre accuses Andrew of sexual assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The lawsuit said that 20 years ago, ‘Prince Andrew’s wealth, power, position, and connections enabled him to abuse a frightened, vulnerable child with no one there to protect her. It is long past the time for him to be held to account’. If he doesn’t respond to this current request, he will anyway be drawn back into these accusations because the delayed trial of Jeffrey Epstein consort Ghislaine Maxwell will take place in the autumn.

Again, mental ill health hits the news, from several different sources. Besides the failure of services in Plymouth to respond to the alerts regarding Jake Davison, the Guardian tells the story (and this will be the tip of the iceberg) who had to give up their jobs to care for mentally unwell children because of service failures. One mother had to give up her work as a much-needed ITU nurse to care for her daughter. ‘Leese is one of many parents who are the collateral damage of the funding crises in children’s mental health services (Camhs) and the special needs education (Send) system. The Observer revealed last month that up to half of all children and teenagers referred to mental health, learning disability and autism services in 2019-20 were left without proper support. But the effect on parents is often overlooked – forced to abandon their careers so they can look after their children full-time and fight endless battles with cash-strapped bureaucracies for the most basic support’.

One of the shocking things is how much money these parents have had to spend on assessments and legal fees in order to get their children’s needs met. ‘Ruth Cliff has spent £20,000 in two years on legal support and private assessments for her 17-year-old adopted son, draining her savings and sending her into debt. Her son, who has ADHD, hasn’t attended school since March 2019. She had to go to her GP three times just to get a Camhs referral’.

But on top of all this what a lonely place for the parents to be in, their own mental health also compromised. ‘As a parent of a child who struggles with mental health and with special educational needs you basically have to become the expert, not only of your child and their needs, but also of what needs to be put in place to support them..It doesn’t seem that services that are supposed to help will willingly help – you literally have to fight every battle to get them to help you’. Needless to say, Department of Health and Social Care issues statements about how much it’s ‘invested’ but it’s never enough or in the right places. A distressed and sceptical parent said: ‘I watched them in the Commons saying by 20-whatever year it was they’re going to have this, this and that done, and how much progress they’ve made. And it was like, if you think you’ve made progress for the pathway into assessments then come to my house and see the state of my child, because I can tell you that you haven’t. I would welcome any of the health ministers into my house to look at my child, to spend a day in my shoes, so they can see they’ve not changed anything. Nothing has changed’.

 Meanwhile, counselling and therapy, which many initially seek through their GP, have moved substantially online and via apps, a trend reinforced by the pandemic but one which started with the ill-conceived (in the eyes of some) IAPT (Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies) programme, which privileged short-term work and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy when what many need is relational therapy which goes to the roots of difficulties. There’s no doubt the programme has broadened access to therapy but it has also unhelpfully removed elements of the special relationship between client and therapist. It was appealing to politicians and policymakers because it appeared to deliver ‘treatment’ at much lower cost and achieve success rates, but now we know how these figures have been fabricated.

‘Elizabeth Cotton, a former psychotherapist working in the NHS, is an academic based at Cardiff Metropolitan University whose recent research is focused on the “Uberisation of mental health”. She carried out a series of surveys (including three about the impact of Covid on working life in mental health) and has published them under the title The Future of Therapy. We speak on Zoom, of course, and I marvel inwardly at how we have taught ourselves to communicate in this new land, our own faces hovering meanly to the right. “Essentially,” she says, her argument is that “an industrialisation has taken place, a downgrading of therapy, which opens the doors to digital providers, and what is emerging now is the Uberisation of mental health services.” Cotton shows how the original intentions of IAPT have been undermined and explains how figures are manipulated.

She stresses that there are still good therapists and services. ‘But the model is designed in a particular way, to downgrade the service. To shorten the interventions, to reduce the number of highly trained clinicians that you need to take on a supervisory role rather than a direct clinical role. To reduce expectations. To reduce what people think is a treatment’. The NHS has a major conundrum to wrestle with, on top of very inadequate investment in mental health, despite what some disingenuous ministers maintain: it tries to help a greater number of people, though waiting lists are often still long, but often at the expense of choice of treatment and work which can genuinely help them, resulting in revolving doors and people having to seek help privately, which not everyone can afford. ‘The gold standard of therapy remains two people in a room, one talking, the other listening. In Britain right now, that level of care is reserved for the very wealthiest and the very sickest, while those in between have traditionally relied on luck and compromise’. While the new digital approaches will help some, many will not experience them as helpful, leaving patients to finance the work themselves or continue as best they can. The frustrating irony is that for years counselling and therapy professional bodies have been urging the NHS to recruit their qualified and experienced members to meet the need but this hasn’t happened.

Finally, on a positive note, related to the earlier piece about addressing educational inequalities, it’s good news that another 30 black students will get £20k a year scholarships to Cambridge, thanks to rapper Stormzy. Having started with two students a year in 2018, it’s now ten for the next 3 years, enabled via a partnership with HSBC. The star said: ‘I hope this scholarship continues to serve as a small reminder to young black students that the opportunity to study at one of the best universities in the world is theirs for the taking’.  

Sunday 8 August

Although we’ve now officially entered the ‘silly season’ regarding news, there’s plenty of it and, more insidiously, ‘living with Covid’ seems to have been conflated with normalising the damning statistics (92 Covid deaths on Friday and 31,808 new cases), not to mention the terrible health, financial and societal side-effects. Our Prime Minister continues to shame this country, first refusing to accept Nicola Sturgeon’s invitation to meet on his visit to Scotland, his ‘crass’ joke about Margaret Thatcher giving a “big early start” to green energy by closing coalmines, and by demonstrating yet again what’s now trending on Twitter – #oneruleforthem. He has refused to self-isolate after having been in close contact with a staffer who tested positive, although Downing Street denied this, of course. Anneliese Dodds, Labour party chair, said it was clear Boris Johnson ‘hasn’t learned anything from what happened last time he tried to cook up a reason to be above the rules everyone else has to follow…Senior Conservatives are really taking the public for fools. This is yet another example of one rule for them and another for everyone else’. It’s not surprising, then, that we hear Johnson’s approval rating has dropped to its lowest level since October 2020, now -16, according to the Observer poll Opinium.

While the Prime Minister is at Chequers again for the weekend, COP26 supremo Alok Sharma has attracted flak for jetting around the world in his diplomatic mission to get a global climate deal agreed, although this has been defended by some experts and campaigners. The timing is important as Monday a ‘landmark report’ will be published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. ‘Details are still under wraps, but the Guardian has confirmed that the warning from the IPCC will reinforce how vital it is to try to prevent temperatures from reaching more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Beyond that threshold, scientists will warn, the consequences of extreme weather will be devastating. The world must act urgently: if greenhouse gas emissions are not halved in this decade, 1.5C of heating will be inevitable and probably irreversible’. This does raise an interesting debate, though: to what extent should high-level activity of this nature be allowed to release those involved from obligations they’re desperately trying to get the rest of us to wake up to?

Meanwhile, much in the news again this week is what some describe as the ‘obsession with foreign holidays’, as the government’s ‘traffic light’ system comes into further disrepute, thought to be driven more by politics (eg regarding the withdrawal of quarantine requirement for those coming from France) than science. Ministers have not released data on which their decisions are based and the latest change to get people up in arms is Mexico moving to the red list. If those tourists don’t make it back to the UK before the deadline, they face large bills for the required stays in quarantine hotels.

The ‘amber watch list’ was also abandoned after it emerged a top adviser had left. In yet another scenario you couldn’t make up, it seems Transport Minister Shapps was the author of the scheme he later turned against. His colleagues were reportedly ‘furious’ as he initially briefed for it, then against, then tried to blame the Prime Minister. You have to love the way Boris Johnson said that he wanted ‘a simple traffic-light system for international travel’ – right. The current hokey-cokey can hardly be described in such terms. Citing the two week delay before putting India on the red list in April, Labour’s Ben Bradshaw said decisions about the traffic light system were an ‘absolute scandal’ and had ‘nothing to do with public health and everything to do with politics…The government has repeatedly failed to publish the detailed data on which its decisions are made…Every other country in Europe does this, so the public and business can plan. Air passenger numbers in Europe have already recovered to about 60% of pre-Covid levels, while the UK figure is 16%’.

But what seems increasingly clear is that ‘staycations’ aren’t always the answer. The BBC showed packed beaches in Cornwall (lifeguards estimated 14,000 on Perranporth beach at one point last week), local services including the NHS under severe pressure, long queues for everything and some people complaining about empty shelves in shops, staff shortages in restaurants and inflated accommodation prices. This is surely another example of a serious issue not being thought out by the Westminster government – they would have known long ago that Covid measures would put much more pressure on the UK’s seaside resorts but what help did those local authorities get when most are already suffering from significant cuts in their budgets?

And this is only if you can afford a holiday in the first place – for many low-paid workers it’s proving impossible. ‘Ministers have urged Britons to holiday at home but big rises in the cost of accommodation and limited availability have made that impossible for many. Inevitably, it is the people who have been most stretched during the pandemic, poorly paid frontline workers, who are in greatest need of a break and least able to afford one’. Another Observer Opinium poll registered findings which aren’t surprising, eg people in higher social and economic groups were much more likely to have taken a holiday abroad, but this is a stark finding: ‘almost two-thirds (64%) of the poorer group said they had not taken and had not booked a holiday this year; that figure was 52% for the wealthier group’. What a shame this is: those frontline workers really need a break yet one NHS worker quoted said she was now only looking to 2023 for a holiday.

The forever jaunty Grant Shapps came in for a second dose of opprobrium last week. When interviewed on Thursday’s Radio 4’s Today programme and asked about the secret ‘advisory board’ of rich Tory donors and their potential influence on government policy, he described them, in an outrageous example of disingenuous gaslighting, as people ‘who love their country and want to see it prosper’. For ‘prosper’ read changing policy to support crony profitmaking.

Three other ministers have also been in the news and not for positive reasons. Prominent Brexiteer Steve Baker has now called Brexit ‘a fiasco’, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab failed to quarantine on returning from France and, maskless, met Princess Anne only days later, and health minister Lord Bethell continues to be under pressure for appearing to take steps to avoid scrutiny regarding the award of crony contracts and use of private messaging rather than official email. He claimed to have broken and replaced his mobile phone, thereby rendering inaccessible the WhatsApp exchanges which could otherwise incriminate him. At issue is the controversial award of £85 million in contracts to Abingdon Health last year, for Covid testing kits, following a private meeting which Bethell did not declare.

We shouldn’t have to depend on private organisations taking the lead on this but again, the Good Law Project is leading the way. During an interview with James O’Brien on LBC, director Jolyon Maugham said: ‘These [contracts] involve epic amounts of public money so we need to be sure that they’re not doing what Dominic Cummings admits he’s done twice, which is giving contracts to his friends. You have a duty to account to those who give you that public money through our taxes and explain how it is that you came to award these weird and wonderful contracts to your friends or Tory donors…If you deliberately destroy evidence or break your phone… it’s very possible that you’re committing the criminal offence of perverting the course of justice. Once we receive the answers to the questions that we put to the lawyers acting for the Department for Health, we will be taking a close look at whether a criminal offence has been committed’.

Last week we heard that the NHS had gone down from 1 to 4 in a list of 11 countries’ health systems compiled by an American think tank, the Commonwealth Fund. Numbers 1-3 are now Norway, the Netherlands and Australia. Siva Anandaciva, chief analyst at leading UK health think tank the King’s Fund said: ‘According to this report, our previously world-beating health service is at risk of moving to the middle of the pack, largely due to growing delays across the system in people’s ability to access care quickly’. It’s hardly a surprise, because of this government’s longstanding underinvestment in the NHS, and this analyst makes clear the situation can’t be attributed solely to Covid. ‘We can’t brush this under the carpet as being solely a consequence of the impact of the pandemic on patients, staff and services. Even before Covid, waiting lists for treatment were already sizeable after a decade of stalling funding and a growing workforce crisis. As Covid put the NHS under unprecedented pressure, the waiting list for routine NHS care has ballooned to levels not seen since the early 2000s. Whilst the NHS is doing its best to keep services running, increasing demand for hospital, mental health and GP services means the whole health and care system is now facing a capacity crunch’.

This article is interesting, if depressing, on the criteria used for ranking countries. The UK’s rating declined on three important criteria: access to care; care processes, which look at the co-ordination of treatment and how well patients are involved; and equity, or the ability to obtain healthcare regardless of income. The UK was described as ‘a remarkably lean spender among high income countries’. Apparently ‘nearly 60% of adults in the UK found it somewhat or very difficult to obtain after-hours care, one of the highest rates among the countries surveyed’, and as we well know, mental health services have been inadequate. ‘Just 33% of patients said that they got counselling or treatment for mental health problems when they sought help from a specialist in psychological or psychiatric illness – a new indicator that the think tank had not previously analysed. The NHS was the second worst performer of the 11 countries on that criterion, just ahead of France’. This doesn’t surprise me at all – there are long waiting lists for most IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) services and often poor choice of treatment, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy being privileged when what many actually need and want is relational therapy.

We hear, not surprisingly, that with the NHS on its knees, funding will be a stand-off between Health Secretary Sajid Javid and ‘hard-nosed’ Chancellor Rishi Sunak. While GPs report having to deal with many more patients in pain because of long-delayed procedures, the crisis overall is attributed to a convergence of ‘Covid issues, the emergence of health problems hidden during the pandemic, soaring waiting lists, an exhausted workforce and the continued pressures on capacity caused by increased infection control’. In turn, NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson attributes the funding crisis to an insufficient settlement in the first place, expensive new manifesto commitments, a social care crisis, a massive care backlog and ongoing Covid costs. ‘Any one of those by themselves would be a major pressure. The problem is the combination of all five of them at once…. “There’s real danger of a very large gap between the Treasury and the NHS, the Treasury insisting that they have to regain control of the public finances and get back to the May settlement as quickly as possible – the NHS saying that the demands on the service have changed dramatically and they can’t provide the right quality of patient care in a world of Covid-19 unless those pressures are recognised. It’s difficult to see how those two views get reconciled’.

It was shocking enough hearing recently that the NHS waiting list was about 5 million – it’s now predicted it could rise to 13 million before it starts to fall. Two key factors add to the conundrum’s mix – the new NHS Chief Executive, Amanda Pritchard, and Javid himself, who, as former Chancellor, had a reputation as a ‘fiscal hawk’. But the Prime Minister will also be involved, the King’s Fund said. ‘There won’t just be wrangling between the Department of Health and Social Care and the Treasury. No 10 always has a strong hand in NHS funding decisions and will have a keen interest in showing the electorate that a Conservative government can be trusted on the NHS’. Unfortunately, we’ve seen plenty of signs suggesting that the Conservatives cannot be trusted with the NHS but some commentators think that the 2024 election on the horizon might concentrate minds this time around.

There have been a number of reports in recent years on the need for better investment in mental health services and we need these more than ever, as the pandemic has given rise to much higher demand. The latest report is from the Centre for Mental Health (Now or Never) and calls for strategic government spending on mental health and for services in England to radically change to be fit for the future and respond to the aftermath of the pandemic. Crucially, it points out that it’s not only about investment but about addressing longstanding structural problems in the way services are conceived and delivered, including the inappropriate historical divide between physical and mental health services. Staff shortages are significant, but as the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) has long pointed out, thousands of well qualified and experienced counsellors and therapists are available for recruitment to help resolve this. But unfortunately the NHS has pursued a policy of training up a separate workforce, primarily in CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), which is not only wasteful but also continues to sideline approaches to therapy which are often found to be much more helpful to patients. The report also highlights the important need for focus on preventative work, less costly in the long run.

BACP makes the good point that health inequalities across England reinforce the need for mental health services to feature in any real ‘levelling up’ agenda. Centre for Mental Health chief economist and report author Nick O’Shea said: ‘Mental health care needs to change if it is to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. Our Mental Health Act remains a direct descendant of nineteenth-century predecessors. We still see people being placed in long-stay hospitals and nursing homes far from home for mental health treatment’. A review was conducted of the Mental Health Act a while back but it’s unclear what has been planned as a result of the review’s recommendations. Yet another can the government has kicked down the road? Nick O’Shea reckons ‘the NHS is going to need two to three times current capacity to adequately meet and treat the expected increase in mental health problems resulting from the pandemic’. That’s quite some investment.

Worrying yet predictable findings from another report (by Carnegie UK) concern the decline in wellbeing and rise in loneliness in England, which had already been the case pre-pandemic but increased with lockdown. Governments continue to measure success in terms of GDP and the like, but wellbeing and our degree of connection with others are key determinants of quality of life. It’s appalling and it speaks volumes that such data have been so badly delayed – 17 months for Office of National Statistics data on wellbeing compared with 8 months for economic data. 

Within the context of loneliness in adults in England rocketing by 44% during 2020, from 2.6 million to 3.7 million, the charity is proposing a new measure of national progress – Gross Domestic Wellbeing, or GDWe – to measure whether life is getting better or worse. Chief Executive Sarah Davidson makes clear that this isn’t to minimise the importance of economic data: ‘We’re not saying that economic factors are not important, because they are, and the model of wellbeing that we talk about highlights the importance of balancing social, economic, environmental [and] democratic outcomes … In order to properly capture what’s important to people’s lives, you really need to measure all these things…. if we used GDWe instead of GDP growth ‘as the guiding star” for economic policymaking, it would be a major step towards measuring what matters most to people’.

Meanwhile (and the major principle of this blog), trust in government was found to be at an-all time low following a nearly 40% drop from 2018/19 to 2019/20 (from 31% to 19%). There’s a direct relationship between ability to trust our government and our mental wellbeing, this drop leading to the rise in public anxiety.

Following news last week of Boris Johnson’s ‘weird and gimmicky’ crime plan, which involved offenders being made to wear high viz jackets, a ticking off has been delivered in the form of shoe repair firm chief James Timpson’s tweet, which caused a stir: ‘Instead of making offenders wear high viz jackets in chain gangs, how about helping them get a real job instead? In my shops we employ lots of ex-offenders and they wear a shirt and tie. Same people, different approach, a much better outcome’. This is a much more intelligent approach, of course, the Prime Minister’s plan instead appealing to a certain mentality amongst his voters.

‘Since 2008, when he opened a shoe repair workshop in HMP Liverpool (no key-cutting skills were practised), his company has employed more than 1,500 ex-prisoners. Just four have returned to jail. Many of those who turned their backs on crime – including some with drug and alcohol issues – have progressed to senior roles in the company, including a current board member’.

Crucially, he addresses the root causes of crime. As his parents successfully fostered 92 children, many from the care system, he’s well placed to understand how often these children have poor attachment patterns, leading to unmet emotional and educational needs, difficulties trusting others and poor relationships with authority. ‘What are we going to do with people we release from prison? Unless we stop putting offenders down, they will continue to distrust us and carry on down the paths their lives have led them to. Our evidence shows there is another way, which most certainly does not involve showing them up in public’. Quite so, but a problem for governments in addressing this is the polarity we often find between those wanting to prioritise punishment of offenders and those wanting the greater emphasis to be placed on rehabilitation.

Recently the media rightly made an issue of the unprecedentedly high number of drugs deaths in Scotland. What the BBC at least spent less time on was not dissimilar findings for England and Wales. Sky News reported that ‘There were 4,561 deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales in 2020, up 3.8% from the previous year and the highest number since records began in 1993….. Two thirds (2,996) deaths were related to drug misuse, while around half (2,263) involved an opiate’. The opioids crisis is another serious issue in this country which has been under-reported in the media. Experts know that the problem has worsened during the pandemic, and while the Office for National Statistics attributes the rise to some concrete causes like people using benzodiazepines besides heroin and morphine, the root causes like despair and poverty can be overlooked.

While the government has set up a new unit to tackle the problem, experts point to the underinvestment and closure of much-needed drug and alcohol services over recent years. Sky quoted Dr Emily Finch, Vice-Chair of the addictions faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists: ‘Years of cuts have left addictions services ill-equipped to treat people and prevent these deaths from rising. The government needs to wake up to the fact that cuts to services, disconnecting NHS mental health services from addiction services and shifting the focus away from harm reduction to abstinence-based recovery is destroying lives and fuelling the increase in drug-related deaths’. The perennial question is can government detach itself from short-term sticking plaster measures in order to effectively address this situation?

In case you missed it there was a bit of really life-enhancing tv last week, in the form of actor Richard E Grant’s travels around Italy, referencing books which had demonstrated the country’s impact on the writers. What a great gig to get but well-deserved: Grant comes across as a lovely bloke who has numerous jolly and informative encounters with locals. Two worth watching out for are his experience of the sulphuric lemon drink and his obvious enjoyment of a freshly made Neapolitan pizza, during which his agent reprimanded him on his table manners.

Finally, something else you couldn’t make up… Health Secretary Sajid Javid is one of five and he’s let it be known that his mother always wanted one of her sons to be a doctor. This didn’t happen but now she is apparently delighted that Sajid is finally something ‘in healthcare’! You could say that….

Sunday 1 August

Although the news continues to be dominated by Covid-related issues, there was another stark reminder last Sunday of the climate crisis, parts including London once again experiencing flash floods. We’ve become used to seeing these in other countries but it feels even more alarming when you see for the first time footage of local places under feet of water. It seems at least two local authorities in London don’t have a regular regime of drain inspection and in one borough councillors denied there was a problem despite being sent evidence of blocked drains. No doubt there will be more of this and more media coverage as we approach COP 26 in November.

News yesterday that the Johnsons are expecting their second child (the PM’s 7th or is it 8th?) already has some sceptics wondering what bad news this has been timed to push under the radar, although the news we already have couldn’t get much worse. It seems strange, if not extraordinary, that politicians, media and commentators are mostly pushing the view that Covid cases are declining (based on a very limited time span) when medics yet again feel overwhelmed, conveying quite a different experience. More young people are being admitted to hospital than before and a 34 year old anti-vaxxer died last week. We don’t even yet have the data reflecting the effects of ‘Freedom Day’ and what too many are ignoring is that recorded case numbers aren’t reflecting actual numbers because so many have deleted or disabled the Covid app to avoid its ‘pinging’. Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, London, opined that we’re ‘not out of the woods yet’ (too true, with deaths of 91 and 131 on a couple days last week) and perhaps we will have to go much further into those woods before emerging from them.

Oddly, it was suggested for a while that it wasn’t possible to obtain statistics on the amount of app deletion and disabling but now YouGov has polled it and according to them, 40% of people say they never downloaded it, 34% did but have since disabled it to avoid being pinged and only 22% continue to ‘use it correctly at all times’. This is quite a low figure!

It’s worrying that progress with the vaccination programme has revealed that numerous young people have opted not to be vaccinated when they could be, often not realising that they are at risk of becoming seriously ill and perhaps not grasping the disabling effects of Long Covid. ‘NHS England said one-third of 18- to 29-year-olds had still not had at least one dose of the vaccine – a figure that falls to one in 10 for the whole adult population. While young people are generally at a much lower risk of dying from Covid, doctors say they are increasingly witnessing them become severely unwell. Dr Samantha Batt-Rawden, senior intensive care registrar, said the patients they were seeing were “getting younger and younger”…… ‘The latest data from the Office for National Statistics shows that coronavirus in England is now largely an infection among young adults, with cases in 16- to 24-year-olds almost six times more common than in 50- to 69-year-olds’.

A serious point is why, apart from blatant protection of the government, are so many media sources spreading what could well be false optimism without giving the bigger picture? For example, ‘hospital bed occupancy for coronavirus patients has also increased significantly in the last week, with occupancy of mechanical ventilation beds rising by 31% and other bed occupancy up by 33%’.

The Times conveys the contradictory nature of this debate and speculation about the trajectory of Covid, with some commentators trying to cover all bases. Professor Ferguson said we could be looking mostly at the back of it by October, but cases could well rise, for example when schools re-open in September. At least some sources recognise that the reduction in app use and in testing is contributing to the apparently positive (but possibly misleading) data. ‘Some scientists believe this reflects less testing as schools break up for the summer, while another theory being taken seriously in Whitehall is that a big part of the reduction is because people are avoiding tests in case their summer holiday plans are ruined’.

Following the recent ejection from the Chamber of MP Dawn Butler for calling out the Prime Minister’s serial lying, coupled with the longstanding efforts of journalist Peter Oborne and lawyer Peter Stefanovic, the mainstream media is now finally paying some attention to this mendacity. It was beyond embarrassing this week to see Work and Pensions minister Therese Coffey, interviewed on Sky News by Kay Burley, trying to dismiss such evidence as trivial social media stuff, saying she was ‘proud’ of the Prime Minister and that he was doing ‘a great job… leading from the front’- manifestly what he is not doing. But an equally serious issue is how helpless this can make us feel, when such behaviour is not called to account even in the House of Commons. One tweeter said: ‘Our political system can’t cope with a Johnson. His misdemeanours are so numerous, his lies so incessant, his morals so non-existent, his incompetence so gobsmacking, his chutzpah so breathtaking, the system has no answer. He goes ploughing on. We spectate – powerless’.

If it wasn’t so serious you could almost feel sorry for these ministers, one after another having to submit themselves to media interviews (as their boss won’t) during which they have to defend the indefensible, or, in the case of Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Transport Minister Grant Shapps, misrepresent the government’s kneejerk and defensive policy switches as part of a carefully laid plan. It shows how desperate the government has become about the lack of tourists and their spending power that they’ve suddenly agreed that double jabbed visitors from the US and EU no longer have to quarantine, but the exclusion of France from this arrangement, allegedly due to their Delta variant prevalence, is a shameless projection of the UK’s situation.

But despite at least some now being away on holiday, a number of ministers have been in the news this week because of intractable situations they’ve done little to effectively address, for example the significant increase in migrants, demands for more former Afghan interpreters at threat from the Taliban to be allowed to settle here and the ‘advice’ for Latin to be on state schools’ curricula, allegedly to tackle elitism. Insufficient desire to resolve these situations and lack of brainpower to do so are only going to increase public anxiety further when confidence in the government has long been in marked decline. One tweeter summed up the views of many: ‘The police have no confidence in Patel; the teaching profession regards Williamson with contempt; Javid is a disaster zone for health workers; Dowden has left the highly successful creative industries in a state of despair; and Johnson is an embarrassment to all and sundry’. The latest example must be his antics at the unveiling at the memorial for fallen police officers, when he showed himself incapable of managing an umbrella. Several video versions of this have gone viral and Prince Charles could be seen joining in with the general amusement, though this was clearly an occasion warranting some gravitas from our Prime Minister.

Details have recently emerged of what many must have suspected for some time, that is, quite apart from regular lobbying, government policy is being influenced by a select group of Tory donors. One tweeter described The Financial Times piece about this as ‘Great article showing how this government is rotten to the core and reliant on money from anywhere. Cash for policy is not democracy it is autocratic and corrupt’. Lawyer and Good Law Project founder Jolyon Maugham tweeted: ‘There’s a rather charming frankness about the Tories’ decision to call the fantastically wealthy donors who give vast sums to push their personal agendas an Advisory Board’.

‘The club, some of whose members have given at least £250,000 to the party, has been developed by Ben Elliot, Tory co-chair, as a means of connecting major Conservative backers with its top figures. The club does not appear in party literature but Conservative officials confirmed the Advisory Board “occasionally” meets with Johnson and Sunak “for an update on the political landscape”.

Wouldn’t you just know that the Conservative Party denies the existence of this ‘250 club’?

‘Government policy is in no way influenced by the donations the party receives, they are entirely separate. Donations to the Conservative party are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them, and fully comply with the law. Fundraising is a legitimate part of the democratic process’. Maybe not this kind of fundraising, though.

The Week summarises an article from US magazine The Atlantic about the enigma who is Boris Johnson, revealing the different sides of his character lurking beneath the superficial bonhomie. ‘Johnson is unlike other prime ministers I’ve covered’, said author Tom McTague…contrasting him first with Blair and Cameron (‘polished and formidable’), then with Brown and May (‘rigid, fearful, cautious’), he says Johnson is ‘scruffy, impulsive, exuberant – the first British leader I’ve seen who genuinely seems to be having a good time’. At our expense, perhaps? McTague details ‘his ambition, his outrages, his scandals’ over the years, saying that what ‘drives opponents mad’ is that nothing ever seems to stick. The most recent revelations of mendacity would appear to prove this. During a conversation about John le Carre’s views on ‘England’s failing ruling class’, he more or less admitted to being a cynic as well as a romantic, being determined to ‘squeeze out’ ‘world-weariness’ within the government and re-energise it with ‘some of the energy and optimism that this country used to have’.

This sounds alarmingly simplistic: it’s not without merit but ‘energy and optimism’ need to have firm foundations, some track record and surely can’t be achieved simply by jollying people along. It’s probably no understatement to suggest that for many, Brexit knocked the stuffing out of the country. The article emphasises what appears to be his unrealistic optimism, his close aides concerned that he’s too reliant on faith that things will be fine. ‘The duality of his character continued to fascinate me. There is the light and the colour he wants the world to see. But there is also a darker side that most who know him acknowledge, the moments of introspection and calculation’.

Shortly after the unveiling of Boris Johnson’s rather simplistic-sounding Beating Crime Plan (for England and Wales), it’s timely though arguably strange that a police review has been announced which will explore the reasons for the rise in the teenage murder rate. ‘Every government agency involved in the victim’s life – health services, local authorities, children’s services, probation, and even voluntary groups – will contribute to an examination of what went wrong and consider how to identify the signs of a life at risk. Police hope to see patterns that will help to prevent future murders. If the pilot scheme is successful, it will be introduced across England and Wales’. While the cross-sectoral approach in this review sounds promising, it’s surely way overdue: so far this year 22 teens have been murdered, compared with 14 in 2020. While it’s clear to authorities that Covid restrictions, lockdowns and the drugs trade have contributed, partly because gangs have targeted pupils out of school, it’s surely a significant factor that so many youth clubs have closed. Apparently, between 2010 and 2019 (coinciding with Conservative governments) 760 youth clubs closed in England and Wales, related to councils’ expenditure on youth services declining by 70%. While these places cannot be a panacea, they’ve provided much-needed structure and opportunities for personal development and friendships that won’t be available to all of these young people at home.

Some good news for the NHS this week must be that Baroness Dido Harding, who has presided over the massive Test and Trace shambles, didn’t get the Chief Executive job. ‘Lord Stevens of Birmingham’s deputy is to replace him as head of NHS England in a decision that signals continuity as the health service attempts to recover from the pandemic. Amanda Pritchard was confirmed as NHS chief executive yesterday after a protracted recruitment process that was overshadowed by rows over the candidacy of Baroness Harding of Winscombe, the former head of Test and Trace’. Pritchard has over 20 years experience in the NHS and apparently knows her way around Whitehall, but the fact that two very corporate candidates were seriously considered for the job would yet again indicate the government’s privatisation intentions. On a related issue, Stevens does sound worthy of a peerage but how many more peers can be created when numbers already exceed those of MPs? ‘He became a crossbench peer three weeks ago and is expected to become a prominent advocate for social care reform and related issues’.

As an aside, the efforts of former Health Secretary Matt Hancock to rehabilitate himself were dealt a blow last week when Newmarket Town Council passed a vote of no confidence in him. ‘The full motion said: “Newmarket Town Council states its concerns that the West Suffolk MP Matthew Hancock neglected the best interests of his constituency. As secretary of state for health he has demonstrated hypocrisy and hubris in the pursuit of his own interests. Newmarket Town Council states that we no longer have confidence in Matthew Hancock MP representing Newmarket’. Although this motion only passed because the Mayor used his casting vote and the local constituency party is still backing Hancock, such a judgement won’t help him.

Worrying news about the NHS, though, is the crisis in primary care, with GP practices groaning under their workloads while staff shortages undermine patient care further. Many have experienced the effects of this, for example their GP practice perhaps going into special measures, the difficulty of getting to see the doctor in person because of the massive move to virtual and telephone consultations and the knock-on effects these have for onward referrals. ‘Doctors are warning that general practice clinics risk cracking under the pressure of “unsustainable” workloads unless the government ramps up the recruitment of medical staff and takes steps to reduce burnout. The Royal College of GPs is calling on the government to introduce an emergency rescue package to shore up general practice clinics after the pandemic, including recruiting 6,000 more GPs and 26,000 additional support staff, such as nurses and receptionists, by 2024 as well as reducing paperwork and investing in £1bn worth of improvements to infrastructure and technology. Without these changes, patients will not receive the care they need, the college said’.

The ‘rising and ageing population’ is thought to be the main reason for the rise in consultations but perhaps the after-effects of Covid are adding to this as well, not to mention issues patients didn’t feel able to consult their doctor about during lockdowns and restrictions. Over the last 5 years the number of qualified GPs in England has apparently declined by 4.5% and it’s shocking that many are considering leaving the profession because of stress and burnout. Needless to say, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesman detailed all the investment the government is apparently putting in, but also falls back on that old bribing chestnut of saying how ‘incredibly grateful’ the government is ‘for the tireless efforts of GPs’, when gratitude isn’t going to do the business.

Following the controversial news last week that Unesco was removing World Heritage Site status from Liverpool because of ongoing waterside development, it’s good news that this status is now being granted to Snowdonia’s slate landscape. ‘The landscape in Snowdonia National Park became the world leader for the production and export of slate during the 18th century, when the industrial revolution saw demand for slate surge. The industry had a considerable impact on global architecture and urbanisation in Europe and North America, with Welsh slate used on buildings, terraces and palaces across the globe. According to Unesco, the status was awarded in recognition of the region’s 1,800-year history of slate mining, its people and culture, and its role in “roofing the nineteenth-century world”…. The region is the UK’s 32nd World Heritage Site and the fourth in Wales, following the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, Blaenavon industrial landscape and the castles and town walls of King Edward in Gwynedd’. We hear that Boris Johnson backed the bid – how long before he claims credit for it, we could ask ourselves.

It’s worrying, though, that several UK sites are under threat of having this status removed, including Stonehenge, the Lake District, Devon and Cornwall, Edinburgh and Westminster, the urban ones being related to what are felt to be inappropriate developments threatening to dwarf the skyline. Some commentators have been critical of Unesco’s decision making, citing the need for regeneration and other social issues – perhaps in Unesco’s eyes these aren’t reconcilable with recognising key heritage sites.

Last week saw the publication of this year’s Booker Prize long list, in which the latest novel by Rachel Cusk was thought to stand out. ‘Mercilessly anatomising privilege, creativity and ambition, male-female relationships and lockdowns Covid-driven and emotional, Cusk is brutally funny and honest about shame, ego and our sense of self. The novel is truly one of a kind’. It does sound a very interesting list of contenders but I do hope the judges avoid the temptation often given into that the winner should be unreadable by anyone except academics and critics.

Finally, in the current circumstances of needing to adapt our ways of greeting others, it seems to me another book would be well worth reading. The handshake: a gripping history, by ‘evolutionary biologist Ella Al-Shamahi’, focuses on how the shaking of hands has persisted over years despite attempts to ban it during previous pandemics. She reckons that since chimps and uncontacted tribes of humans have similar gestures, we could be genetically hard-wired to shake, ‘perhaps to deliver things like smell-related chemosignals to each other’. Although people don’t often seem to expect women to shake hands, I’ve always liked it and regarded it as very civilised, with the exception of the wet haddock hand shake most of us will have experienced at some point. I hope the other kind persists despite this pandemic!  

Sunday 25 July

Yes, I seem to say this most weeks but you really couldn’t make up what happened last weekend. On the cusp of the much trumpeted Freedom Day, the Health Secretary tested positive and the PM and Chancellor were told to self-isolate, taking out at one fell swoop three key government figures. ‘Beyond satire,’ as one commentator put it, but, for a while, it was suggested that a special scheme would enable Johnson and Sunak to continue with their duties in Downing Street, before an absolute outcry about one rule for them, one for the rest of us forced a humiliating u-turn just hours later. But not before Boris Johnson had hightailed it to the much more comfortable setting of Chequers, thereby breaking more rules. While Housing minister Robert Jenrick said this scheme had been set up last December, it was odd no one had heard anything about it and claims that Transport for London were participants were immediately rebutted by TfL.

Actor and director David Schneider tweeted: ‘It’s almost like they know millions self-isolating undermines their countrycidal “Freedom Day”. So by not self-isolating themselves they push everyone else not to do it. £37bn on Test & Trace and now they’re making sure it’s ignored. We’ll be back in lockdown in weeks’. Palliative care doctor and broadcaster Rachel Clarke outed the PM’s ‘explanatory tweet’, which had read ‘Like so many people I’ve been pinged by NHS Test and Trace as I have been in contact with someone with COVID-19, and I will be self-isolating until Monday’ by saying ‘Unlike so many people, you had to be publicly shamed before you did the decent thing’. On Monday there was a car crash interview with Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi on Radio 4’s Today, during which the minister tried to suggest that the PM proactively did the right thing instead of being shamed into the U turn.

What a different experience for Boris Johnson from the one most of us will have – Chequers reportedly has splendid leisure facilities and an excellent wine cellar, not to mention those lovely grounds and the surrounding countryside. What’s surely way overdue is a tv documentary about Chequers: it would be most informative.

It was noticeable during the week that there was even less compliance than usual with the mask wearing requirement on public transport, around here at least. Apparently transport staff unions won’t be enforcing it and just to take one Underground carriage as an example, just one individual was wearing a mask correctly. The other passengers had no mask (or put it into their bag when boarding the train) or were wearing it under their nose or around their throat. I’ve also observed several times people not wearing a mask on the train but putting it on to exit the station, clearly when there’s a likelihood of more officialdom. Interestingly, the public being once more ahead of the government, The Week describes public polling suggesting that two thirds think masks, distancing and travel limits should have continued for another month and ‘a sizeable minority’ want freedoms restricted permanently. One in four of us even want nightclubs closed for good and two in ten want a permanent 10 pm curfew.

Again, the government narrative makes itself apparent, creating a false polarity between restrictions and a total lack of them, ‘living with the virus’ being taken to mean just allowing it to take over. In a letter to the Observer, all four of the UK’s independent public health bodies warned: “Living with Covid-19 is not the same thing as letting it rip. We should proceed carefully, not recklessly … The government must promote effective public health measures because personal responsibility will not be enough’. This is certainly true – we’ve seen plenty of evidence that many aren’t capable of using their ‘common sense’, if they have any in the first place.

The extra time being holed up at Chequers will afford Boris Johnson extra time to deliberate his hubristic legacy, since we’re told he wants to ‘echo Blair’s promise of an ‘opportunity society’ and energise those who feel left behind’. A source sounding as if hailing from a parallel universe disclosed the comparison of ‘levelling up’ with Blair’s programme: ‘We’re going to do the thing that Tony Blair failed to do for the people who voted for him. We’re going to energise the towns and regions that feel left behind: we’re going to reach out to those places and improve people’s life chances’. How on earth do they think they’re going to do that, since Red Wall voters are already beginning to see the light about the Emperor’s lack of clothing and in any case ‘levelling up’ has proved to be vacuous waffle? ‘Johnson’s biographer, Andrew Gimson, told Politico’s Playbook on Friday that as Johnson celebrates two years in power this weekend, “he’ll be pretty pleased because he’s a bit like Tony Blair, oddly enough, with the wider public. He’s having an unnaturally prolonged honeymoon. He’s high in the polls and the Labour party have got terrible difficulties at the moment. I think Boris Johnson will think to himself: ‘This is just the start – if I play my cards right, then I can win three more elections’’’. We could well ask why there’s been no evidence of his ‘opportunity society’ after 11 years of Conservative government and Johnson has led the party for two years.

Meanwhile, who is running the country while Covid cases rise rapidly (on Tuesday 46,558 new cases and 96 more deaths were recorded, the highest number of fatalities since March), the frequency of Covid app pinging has resulted in staff shortages  and cross-party work found a significant decline in analysis of red list country arrivals’ positive tests for variants? ‘The analysis of NHS test and trace data was carried out by the House of Commons library, commissioned by the chair of the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on Coronavirus, Layla Moran’.

Various industries are pressing the government to urgently review the way the Covid app works, as it’s been shown to often ‘ping’ people unnecessarily and staff shortages across the economy, especially transport, are having a serious impact. A news bulletin today suggested that without urgent action in the distribution and retail sectors, the supply chain would break down within two of three weeks. The system will change on August 16, when the double jabbed will no longer be expected to self-isolate when pinged (an advisory system, as opposed to the Test and Trace phone calls, which confer a legal requirement to isolate), and new adjustments to allow some key workers to continue have been criticised for their longwinded procedures. ‘The government has said supermarket depot workers and food manufacturers will be exempt from the ten-day self-isolation rule if pinged by the Covid app or contacted by a Test and Trace official, regardless of vaccination status. Instead they will do daily Covid testing and can carry on working if they test negative’.

Up to 10,000 workers are expected to qualify for the scheme across 500 key sites. The measures have started at 15 supermarket depots, to be followed by 150 depots this coming week. As ever, we can sense the government’s reluctance to properly take responsibility for a difficult situation as they go off on holiday, but this latest abdication will further raise public anxiety. They seem repeatedly to demonstrate poor capacity for nuanced thinking, resorting to blunt instruments and one-size-fits-all approaches, which prove unhelpful. The daftest example must be the plans to introduce Covid passports for nightclubs and other venues in September, a good example of trying to close the stable door once the horse has bolted.

 As if all this wasn’t enough, Health Secretary Sajid Javid was lambasted this morning for an ‘insensitive’ tweet in which he’d appeared to boast about recovering from Covid within 8 days, advising that people shouldn’t ‘cower’ before the virus. Notice that government narrative again? If you’re being careful given the premature ending of restrictions you’re somehow being cowardly. Hours later he was forced to remove the post and apologise but he can’t undo this so easily: ‘I’ve deleted a tweet which used the word “cower”. I was expressing gratitude that the vaccines help us fight back as a society, but it was a poor choice of word and I sincerely apologise. Like many, I have lost loved ones to this awful virus and would never minimise its impact’. Even this could be seen as a non-apology as it resorts again to government narrative – ‘we’re all in this together’ (‘Like many, I have lost loved ones’). One of the main organisations to complain was the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group. Co-founder Jo Goodman said earlier that the ‘flippancy and carelessness’ of Mr Javid’s comment had ‘caused deep hurt and further muddied the waters of the government’s dangerously mixed messaging’. As one tweeter put it: ‘I am not in a position to delete tweets due to poor choice of words. A health minister who cannot consider impact of choice of words until some time after tweeting perhaps needs to consider if twitter is an appropriate medium for communicating re serious issues’.

Meanwhile, numerous commentators point out the trivialisation of the pandemic by alluding to the ‘pingdemic’, which proves the app is actually doing its job, albeit perhaps too effectively in some instances. Observed one tweeter: ‘The pinging problem is being framed in terms of the sensitivity of the app. The real problem is the number of infections’. Anecdotally (crazy that the government can’t supply statistics on this) it seems many are disabling the app because they don’t want to be pinged, so an unsatisfactory situation all round.

The government continues to get it in the neck from various critics, including Sage member Sir Jeremy Farrar, who runs the Wellcome Trust. ‘Boris Johnson’s failure to start a public inquiry into Covid this year is a disgrace that is all about “political manoeuvring” to protect his reputation, according to a leading scientific adviser to the government. The comments from Sir Jeremy Farrar came in the third extract from his book Spike – The Virus vs The People: The Inside Story, where he claims that Johnson’s pledge to wait until 2022 to start the inquiry into what happened with the management of the pandemic is for “no reason other than political manoeuvring”. Farrar’s latest comments come after he revealed that he nearly stepped down as a member of Sage over Johnson’s decision not to lock down the UK last autumn’. Sir Jeremy is highly critical of Boris Johnson’s lack of strategic thinking at the start of the pandemic (although surely this has been the case throughout) and reckons what we need is ‘hard-nosed independent assessments of political and structural capability’, not a likely outcome of anything the government controls.

Another regular critic, of course, is the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, who also reveals in this piece that, not for the first time, some NHS trusts have been gagged so the public doesn’t get to hear how bad things are. So much for ‘not overwhelming’ the NHS. ‘The prime minister had planned a Churchill-style speech. But his U-turn reveals the true cost of his Covid bungling. ‘Please, please, please be careful’, Boris Johnson urged in full U-turn, but that’s not what his lot practise. His “irreversible” pledge has vanished because, right here and now, disaster has already struck an exhausted NHS all over again.

But so as not to spoil freedom day, the public was not supposed to know about it. The Health Service Journal reports that three NHS chief executives have been banned from speaking to the media about the “unsustainable pressure” their hospitals are facing, and banned from commenting on the reckless removal of masks, social distancing and indoor gathering limits’. Citing the example of the Health Secretary testing positive and who had recently visited a care home and had attended Cabinet meetings, she points out what at least some ministers don’t grasp, that there’s no invincibility however much the rules are bent: ‘That’s the story: the virus is everywhere, disease-inducing and still deadly to VIPs and little people alike…. Boris Johnson’s “Do what I say, not what I do” freedom day won’t be remembered for Churchillian declarations, but for foolish boasting, toxic politics, and calamitous health policy misjudgement’.

But the news making most impact this week must be Dominic Cumming’s latest silo in the form of the documentary on BBC2, which featured him being interviewed by the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg. Coming over as supremely arrogant and Machiavellian, it was nevertheless telling that when she asked ‘How do you see yourself?’, he had to ask what she meant. Of numerous revelations, one of the most damaging must be the one in which Boris Johnson appeared to refuse an autumn lockdown because those at risk of death were only those in their 80s. Or it could be the one where he had to be dissuaded from visiting the Queen, although Downing Street denies this, or was it the one where Johnson said the Telegraph was his boss? The most humiliating suggestion must have been that ‘Boris Johnson’s closest aides decided he was unfit to be prime minister within weeks of his 2019 election victory and began plotting to oust him’. Downing Street can deny away because, despite the obvious faults and curious amorality of Cummings, his description of events rings too true to be dismissed, as with his previous revelations. Will Cummings keep them coming till he engineers Johnson’s defenestration, as he did with Matt Hancock? Hell hath no fury like an adviser scorned.

The BBC produced a useful piece about this interview called Dominic Cummings: eight takeaways from his interview, the eighth concerning his alleged ease with criticism. ‘Portraying himself as someone who wanted to reform government and was opposed by the “establishment”, Mr Cummings says he wasn’t afraid to upset people to get things done. People thought of him “generally as a nightmare”, he said. ‘If you are airing big difficult things, it’s going to be upsetting for a lot of people… A lot of people have a pop at me, but you don’t see me crying about it’. I suspect he would see being considered ‘a nightmare’ as a badge of honour.

If we needed any further proof that many government ‘inquiries’ these days are whitewashes, the Greensill inquiry outcome will supply it. Although it concluded that David Cameron showed ‘significant lack of judgement’, it didn’t find him guilty of breaking any rules, demonstrating the weakness of those very rules rather than Cameron’s exoneration. To be fair, the report did suggest that the rules needed strengthening, but we have to ask why chairman Nigel Boardman was allowed to get away with consistently refusing evidence from Lady (Suzanne) Heywood, the widow of former Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood, who feels that her husband has been scapegoated by this inquiry. The inquiry said Lord Heywood had failed to fully consider conflicts of interest over a government role for the financier Lex Greensill, but Lady Heywood said there had been insufficient scrutiny of ministers who signed off the Greensill appointment. ‘In a statement after the report’s release, Lady Heywood described the report as ‘nothing less than a travesty….His absence is being exploited to distort the facts of a decade ago and divert attention from the current government’s embarrassment at the collapse of Greensill Capital long after Jeremy’s death’. Not surprisingly, a Cabinet Office spokesman said the inquiry had been a fair process, that they had listened to Lady Heywood’s concerns, and that they would respond ‘in due course’.

Another clear example of faulty procedure is the ejection from the Chamber on Thursday of Brent MP Dawn Butler, for outing Boris Johnson as a liar. There’s been no end of evidence for this assertion but the old parliamentary rule disallows calling a member a liar even if they manifestly are. It’s an absurd anachronism that you can be ejected for calling someone a liar but not for lying in the first place. In Byline Times Hardeep Matharu argues that Butler’s removal exposes the structural failings at the heart of the British state. This is a key point and I believe the Speaker is very much at fault in this: ‘Johnson has not been required to correct the record in the Commons over his many misleading statements – which have been catalogued by the journalist Peter Oborne and others – and is hardly ever robustly challenged by the Speaker when he repeats them weekly in Prime Minister’s Questions… There is nothing to compel Johnson to demand greater accountability of his ministers or to offer greater responsibility himself. As the Ministerial Code – a guide rather than a guard-rail – states: “Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.” It makes no mention of to whom Prime Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament should present themselves’. Matharu makes the key point that besides the current procedures not being fit for purpose, the government isn’t being held to account by a robust media, especially since BBC governance has been packed with those with links to the Conservative Party. All of this can make us feel rather disempowered.

Yet again NHS mental health services have been in the news, with further evidence, if any was needed, of the deficits which have caused pain and distress to many. An area of acute need is eating disorders, with deaths and suicides amongst young people having resulted from service inadequacies and the continual raising of the bar allowing someone to even qualify for treatment. For some time it’s been very difficult to even ‘qualify’ for a place on the CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) waiting list. Across the whole of mental health, the most recent statistics showed that ‘up to half of all children and teenagers referred to mental health, learning disability and autism services in the run-up to the pandemic were left without proper support, with parents telling the Observer of children waiting years for treatment and a seven-year-old girl denied support as she was not suicidal’. It’s an appalling situation that parents have to prove their child is suicidal before help can be considered, and not always then. Following her own ‘horrendous’ experience, one parent last week ‘posted on Facebook asking for people’s experiences of CAMHS and got 500 responses within a day. Parents described years of waiting for help, with many saying CAMHS refused to help unless their child was suicidal’. Not surprisingly, ‘he pandemic has seen a rise in demand for young people’s mental health services. It was revealed last week that referrals rose by a third in 2020-21 compared to 2019-20. Mental health minister Nadine Dorries recently tweeted that “we lead the world in the delivery of [mental health] services” and “we are not in the middle of a MH crisis” after a deluge of parents described their negative experiences of CAMHS’.

Nadine Dorries, not unlike most NHS spokesmen, is severely in denial here, as it’s well known that there’s been serious underinvestment in mental health services for years. One of the most galling misrepresentations was when she tried to suggest in the House of Commons that some service issues were caused by ‘lack of people coming through’ (to work in mental health, when there are thousands of qualified and skilled counsellors and therapists not recruited by the NHS. We find many not benefiting from cheap options like apps and computerised Cognitive Behaviour Therapy: what they want and need is relational work during which their difficulties are explored and understood rather than quick fixes being foisted upon them which don’t work long term anyway.

Last week Liverpool received the unwelcome news that, after several warnings, it was going to lose its UNESCO listing as a World Heritage site, because of what the United Nations agency considers unacceptable waterside development. Liverpool officials are fighting back, regional mayor Steve Rotherham saying that ‘places like Liverpool should not be faced with the binary choice between maintaining heritage status or regenerating left-behind communities and the wealth of jobs and opportunities that come with it’. Others have found it shaming, though, because only two other sites have lost this status since the scheme started in 1978: Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in 2007 and the Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany in 2009. It seems there is no appeal process so Liverpool will have to live with this and see to what extent it will dent tourism.

Finally, good news about museums: the Art Fund’s Museum of the Year shortlist rightly focuses on institutions which have focused on their local communities during the pandemic. ‘The Art Fund museum of the year prize is the world’s biggest museum prize, with the winner receiving £100,000. The five shortlisted museums were named on Wednesday: the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Derry, Experience Barnsley, Firstsite in Colchester, the Thackray Museum of Medicine in Leeds and Timespan in Helmsdale, a village on the east coast of the Scottish Highlands’. In recent years the competition has helpfully focused on smaller museums rather than large, national museums – it makes sense as those institutions already benefit from other funds. The competition also usefully alerts us to museums we may not previously have heard of. The winner will be announced on 20 September.

Saturday 17 July

Having watched football on tv for the first time ever (the Euro 2020 semi-final and final) I am now a football expert (!) and I did think it seemed a mistake for Southgate last Sunday evening to bring on different players for the penalties. Gratifyingly, many of those who know the game inside out seemed to agree, but how well the team did to even get to the final. Even more shaming, then, was the behaviour (not called out by the government) of some fans booing the opponents’ national anthems and abusing England players for falling at the last hurdle. Even more shaming, in the eyes of many, was the government’s hypocrisy over a period of time, condemning ‘taking the knee’ as ‘gesture politics’, giving the green light to misbehaving fans, then appearing to condemn the very abuse this stance had led to. ‘This England team deserve to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused on social media. Those responsible for this appalling abuse should be ashamed of themselves’, tweeted Boris Johnson, leading to this response from footballer Tyrone Mings: ‘You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens’. Oof.

While one Tory MP had the nerve to tell footballers to stick to their day jobs (of course, that would be convenient for them, for these critics to be silenced)‘Sayeeda Warsi, a Conservative peer and former co-chair, sent a public message to Patel, the Home Secretary, calling on her and all Conservatives to “think about our role in feeding this culture in our country. If we ‘whistle’ & the ‘dog’ reacts, we can’t be shocked if it barks & bites,” Lady Warsi tweeted. “It’s time to stop the culture wars that are feeding division. Dog whistles win votes but destroy nations’. It comes to something when even a member of the Conservative Party feels the need to publicly criticise this evident racism.

Dominating the news this week, with all the anxiety it provokes, is the increasing division between those seemingly desperate for ‘Freedom Day’, regardless of the potential costs, and those urging caution because of the significant rise in Covid cases and hospitalisations. While it was always clear that vaccination couldn’t be a silver bullet, the government has treated it as such and continued with its schtick of ‘vaccination has broken the link between infection, hospitalisation and death’. Now the schtick has to change as this is manifestly not the case: those infected and hospitalised include the double jabbed and it seems every week there’s news of a new variant which has a high transmission rate and which is vaccine resistant.

The government’s determination to stick to Freedom Day on Monday 19 July come what may, is a display of hubris only modified by its having already to roll back on its ‘irreversible’ mantra. It’s an offloading of responsibility onto the people. Seeming to see no irony, former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, interviewed on Saturday’s Today Programme, predicted that we could see another lockdown by September and said ‘much depends’ on people’s behaviour over the next few weeks. This again reinforces the message that if people get ill (and there’s been effectively no recognition of disabling Long Covid, now affecting 1m in the UK according to May statistics) it’s their own fault and fails to even acknowledge that perhaps this is the wrong time to reopen everything at once. It seems somewhat of an ironic comment on all this that Health Secretary Sajid Javid has tested positive today. Who will now step up to the plate? Boris Johnson doesn’t seem to have much faith in the junior health ministers (no surprise there), but there’s always Matt Hancock. Not serious but it’s nevertheless interesting that this week London’s Evening Standard reported Hancock as talking to former colleagues to plan his comeback.

Freedom Day schtick also indicates poor recognition of what the clinically vulnerable have to face after Monday: whereas at least some felt safe to get out and about when restrictions and mask wearing were mandated, many now fear being confined to their homes because they can’t rely on the public’s sense of responsibility, wearing masks in confined spaces, for example. Earlier this week junior health minister Edward Argar told the media: ‘people will make their own judgements. I trust in the innate responsibility of the British people to exercise that responsibility in a cautious and sensible way’. This is so disingenuous because we see time and time again evidence of lack of judgement and ‘common sense’, not least in the Euro 2020 crowds last weekend.

Another faulty polarised argument has been ‘If not now, when?’ but a sensible solution would be to wait until many more are vaccinated (currently 52%), so it’s not either continue with restrictions or open up immediately. It’s been interesting to see this last week more and more organisations, especially Transport for London, mandating the continued wearing of face coverings, effectively resisting government policy, although in some cases it cannot be legally enforced. Meanwhile, more than 1200 scientists and medics have added their names to the letter to The Lancet which urged the Prime Minister to rethink his strategy. What’s even more galling is that health experts all over the world are condemning the government’s approach, experimenting with herd immunity, as it doesn’t only affect the UK but the entire world.

‘Professor Christina Pagel, the director of University College London’s clinical operational research unit, told the meeting: “Because of our position as a global travel hub, any variant that becomes dominant in the UK will likely spread to the rest of the globe. The UK policy doesn’t just affect us. It affects everybody and everybody has a stake in what we do.”The letter to The Lancet said: “We believe the government is embarking on a dangerous and unethical experiment, and we call on it to pause plans to abandon mitigations on July 19, 2021.”

How damning is this? The Prime Minister has brought the UK into global disrepute. ‘In New Zealand we have always looked to the UK for leadership when it comes to scientific expertise, which is why it’s so remarkable that it is not following even basic public health principles,” said Michael Baker, a professor of public health at the University of Otago and a member of the New Zealand ministry of health’s Covid-19 Technical Advisory Group’.

Professor Pagel also deconstructed the Prime Minister’s two arguments for ending restrictions now, so it’s interesting that Chris Whitty has accepted them. The ‘rationale’ is based on over 90% of the most at-risk people being vaccinated and it being better to have mass infection during the summer than the winter, when the virus spreads more readily and the NHS is more burdened. While scientists have described a mass infection policy as ‘a dangerous experiment’, the NHS is already under severe strain at a time when it’s trying to deal with the massive backlog of delayed procedures and cancer treatments, etc. Pagel also cites the damage caused by Long Covid and effects on the clinically vulnerable, but another key issue undermining the PM’s stance is that new infections make mutations more likely.

 ‘Dr Susan Hopkins, the head of Public Health England, estimated three more doublings of cases before the peak, potentially meaning more than 200,000 cases a day in six weeks’ time. Even the health secretary, Sajid Javid, concedes there are likely to be more than 100,000 cases a day (implying around two more doublings), which would be higher than the highest recorded day in January. This could easily mean another 2 million people infected before cases return to the low levels we saw in early May’.

Professor Pagel makes the strong point that ‘infectious diseases are a matter of collective, rather than personal, responsibility’ and that as a society we could choose to sign up to keep certain measures in place including investing in better buildings ventilation, and to demand better than what appears to be the government throwing in the towel. ‘We could choose to suppress this virus over winter and protect our population and our NHS and so provide far more freedom to go about our daily lives. The current government position is that it’s not even going to try. This is not good enough and we have to demand better’. Newcastle Labour MP Chi Onwurah made some good points on BBC’s Any Questions, including the loudly applauded ‘You cannot outsource public health to the public, which is what he (Boris Johnson) is trying to do’. Just one indicator of the strain the NHS is under came with the news that one of the country’s largest hospitals, Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth, cancelled dozens of elective operations for two days, including liver transplants, because of the increase in Covid cases, and we can be sure it won’t be the only two days this happens.

Very timely is an article this week about misleading ‘hygiene theatre’, suggesting that excessive cleaning gives us, especially those with health anxiety and OCD, a false sense of security, that ‘something is being done’ to mitigate Covid risks. But such an approach leads to the important things not being done, such as ensuring effective ventilation, which cost more and take time to implement. The article cites a beauty business where the staff frantically clean after each appointment and customers say they feel really safe there, but…. ‘the one measure that would contribute most to the safety of the clients and workers in Claudia’s clinic isn’t being implemented: ventilation’.

‘What Claudia is performing on behalf of the customers who frequent her skincare clinic is “hygiene theatre”. The term was first coined by the Atlantic writer Derek Thompson in a July 2020 essay, in which he defined hygiene theatre as Covid safety protocols “that make us feel safer, but don’t actually do much to reduce risk, even as more dangerous activities are still allowed”. Hygiene theatre is plastic facial visors that do not protect wearers from breathing in infected air or contaminating the people around them. It is single-use cutlery and disposable menus in restaurants and shields between tables. It is staff fastidiously cleaning communal touchpoints in pubs while maskless groups chant football songs at full volume. It is hazmat suit-wearing officials fumigating entire streets with disinfectant. It is gyms that require people to wipe down every piece of equipment they touch, but do not make them wear masks. It is quarantining your post by the front door and wiping down your groceries with bleach. All well-intentioned, but mostly ineffectual, gestures that make us feel safe, but do not keep us safe from the threat posed by Covid-19’.

I suspect many would be shocked to read this article, learning that what they’ve been religiously doing for months on end is ‘mostly ineffectual’. It could also be that such hygiene enthusiasts have been judgemental towards the others less inclined to follow such procedures. Although the term was only coined in 2020, it has interesting origins, being based ‘on a concept originated by the security expert Bruce Schneier in his 2003 book, Beyond Fear. Schneier coined the term “security theatre” to describe the safety measures implemented at airports after the 9/11 terror attacks, such as banning nail scissors and cigarette lighters. In reality, these measureswere pointless: a complicated charade to reassure nervous passengers rather than anything grounded in reality. They also came at a huge cost to taxpayers – the US has spent more than $100bn on aviation security since 9/11’.

This is the most interesting article I’ve read about the pandemic in a while. It concludes that ‘Hygiene theatre can be actively dangerous because it prevents people from making informed choices about the levels of risk they’re willing to accept in their lives’. What makes it even more important now is the imminent ‘Freedom Day’, when people have to make their own judgements because the government has abdicated responsibility. Yet even Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty recently reiterated the importance of handwashing (the hands, face, space mantra looks a bit facile now) but not that of ventilation, now seen as one of the most important interventions in controlling the spread. If you read nothing else, read this!

What’s contributed markedly to the current febrile mood is concern about the NHS Covid app ‘pinging’ people left right and centre (some say unnecessarily), instructing them to self-isolate, which has forced some businesses and organisations to slow down or grind to a halt because of lack of staff. Allusions to a ‘pingdemic’ have been criticised for trivialising a serious situation, the pings being an indicator of potential new cases, yet businesses and some commentators are asking for the app to be adjusted to make it less ‘sensitive’. Although after 16 August double vaccinated people and those under 18 won’t have to self-isolate if a close contact tests positive, this leaves almost a month for this limbo to continue.

As we know, numerous people have been deleting or disabling the app in order to avoid pings, and those without smartphones or choosing not to download the app were never available for pinging in the first place. Jeremy Hunt came out with a good phrase during his Today Programme interview, suggesting that the app was ‘losing social consent’, prompting the tweet: ‘The app is ‘losing social consent’ – now that’s a phrase. Should have asked Jeremy Hunt when this government lost public ‘consent’.’

The other issue dominating the news and causing much anxiety is the government’s hokey cokey traffic light system for foreign travel, and how relaxing is it going to these countries when their status can change within hours? This week the Balearics were placed on the amber list and, virtually overnight, some political fudging has led to an amber plus category for France. Those returning will now have to quarantine, which will annoy a great many. If this was a clinically informed decision it wouldn’t be so bad, but it’s clear it’s a projection onto another country of the UK’s own dire situation. Sky News’s Sam Coates illustrates what happens when the consequences of a policy aren’t thought through: ‘By putting France on the all new Amber Plus/Magenta category, people will struggle to claim on their insurance. Sadly no ministers are available tonight to ask.’ It surely adds insult to injury to introduce such a policy with next to no warning, then remain unaccountable by making ministers unavailable to the media.

The groundswell of ridicule and opprobrium surrounding our Prime Minister was given a further boost this week with Boris Johnson’s allegedly groundbreaking speech about ‘levelling up’. It was felt by many to be incoherent and full of empty promises, but perhaps most striking was a new level of bombast, as if he’d finally lost the plot. ‘Boris Johnson’s flagship “levelling up” speech has been criticised by experts for containing scant new policy as concern grows among Conservative MPs that the guiding principle of his premiership risks becoming little more than a soundbite. Two years after first committing to levelling up, the prime minister travelled to Coventry to deliver a freewheeling speech heavy on rhetorical flourishes but light on detail, and urged local leaders to send in their own suggestions’. If this doesn’t sound like someone who’s given up, needing the public’s ideas as he’s got none of his own, I don’t know what does. A former Cabinet minister said: ‘He seems to be throwing the kitchen sink at it, which suggests there isn’t much of a coherent idea behind it’. Quite without irony, ‘Conservative MP Laura Farris told the BBC on Thursday that levelling up was an ambiguous phrase that “means whatever anyone wants it to mean”, prompting a wag to tweet: ‘Levelling up means whatever I want it to mean’ – Boris Johnson channels his inner Humpty Dumpty’. If nothing else does it, the nonsense constituting this speech, (‘strong leadership is the yeast that lifts the whole mattress of dough, the magic sauce, the ketchup of catch-up’ etc), might surely be what makes at least some followers, including the Red Wall MPs, start to question the mast they’ve pinned their colours to. ‘Strong leadership’ it isn’t.

Alarmingly, this week the Health and Care bill, which would lead to NHS privatisation, passed its second reading in the Commons (356 for, 218 against), a Labour amendment being defeated. Problematic measures the amendment cited included the ability of private healthcare companies to sit on boards where NHS spending was decided, allowing more opportunities for outsourcing of contracts without scrutiny and allowing an approach whereby cuts to and closures of services are incentivised. Labour said that the bill ‘does not ensure that the NHS is a fully publicly funded, accountable and publicly delivered service providing free high quality care for everyone who needs it’. So what happens next? A useful WordPress blog by Calderdale and Kirklees 999 Call for the NHS states: ‘Following discussions in the usual channels, the Public Bill Committee is expected to begin its consideration of the Bill in September. Four sittings are expected for oral evidence in the week of 6 September, followed by 20 sittings for line by line consideration, concluding on Tuesday 2 November’.

Much has been written over the last 16 months about work attire and the alleged slide of sartorial standards. The Week summarises an article by Ben Wright in the Daily Telegraph, saying how ‘the suit and tie are fast becoming endangered species in the corporate world’. ‘Numerous zoom calls’ had thrown up only a handful of men (and what about women’s outfits?) thus attired and I’m surprised it was as many as that. Many workers from home have said how they might wear a smart shirt on the upper half, while their lower half remains encased in pyjama bottoms but now, it seems, the upper half has descended (!) to ‘polo shirts and even t-shirts’. While this will spell freedom for some, Wright cautions that it may be a short-sighted view. Staying with the suit and tie saves endless decisions about what to wear, he reckons, and eliminates the competitive system in companies which claim to have no dress code but which actually do: ‘chinos, button-down shirts and armless fleeces’.

An important point he makes, though, is that formal dress at work helps maintain ‘the necessary boundary between being on and off duty…if you’re always working from home you never get to leave the office..and if you’re always casual you never get to fully relax. The best thing about a suit may be that you can take it off’. Interesting, especially when, outside the corporate world, there are those will never have worn a suit to work and whose work attire morphs from casual to scruffy. It’s not uncommon to witness men who’ve been told they must wear a jacket and tie at dinner (in a smart hotel, for example) vote with their feet, perhaps unwittingly, in that they are indeed wearing a jacket and tie, but such ancient and moth-eaten examples that they negate the original instruction. A good example of obeying the letter of the law but not its spirit, perhaps.

Finally, I’ve been enjoying catching up with the 6 part series of BBC4 documentaries on Ernest Hemingway, described as ‘the most influential US writer of the 20th century’. I’m not proud to admit that I’ve never read him, partly because my English degree was English and European literature, the other option being English and American. Yes, I could have done since then but somehow that hasn’t happened: there’s just so much to read and American literature has never appealed that much. One critic described the series as ‘extraordinarily moreish’, but the film makers were rather felt to skate over the author’s ‘rabid violence, racism, disgusting treatment of women…. misogyny and homophobia’. He sounds to have been rather unstable and prone to depression, but it was hardly surprising to discover why: in the first episode we learn that his mother endlessly made her children feel how much she’d sacrificed for them, how child rearing was like a bank, into which the mother first deposited and into which later (a letter from mother to son quoted this) children were expected to ‘make deposits’. The letter told Hemingway he was overdrawn, but not only that: she regularly dressed him in female clothing alongside his sister, as ‘twins’. Such a subversion of a child’s latent sexuality is a sure-fire way to induce psychological disturbance. I’m now keen to see the rest of these documentaries and read some of this author’s work. Many Hemingway aficionados out there??

Sunday 11 July

Ever since the government reiterated its intention to end lockdown restrictions on July 19th, there’s been an avalanche of doubt, anxiety, criticism and incredulity expressed by scientists, medics and the public, given the rapid rise of Covid cases, including the virulent new Lambda variant. Epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding tweeted: ‘Watching—new Lambda Variant now found in 30 countries…The Lambda originated from Peru, with the highest mortality rate in the world.” Some scientists are worried Lambda may be “more infectious than Delta variant’.

It’s concerning for our mental wellbeing not only that the government seems to be pursuing more explicitly a herd immunity strategy but also that this is polarising society. While many, according to polls, will continue distancing and wearing their masks in indoor spaces, and it’s being mandated in some areas of public transport, there are also many rejoicing in the ‘freedoms’. (YouGov polling indicated 71% want mask use to continue to be mandatory on public transport, 21% don’t. 66% want them in shops, 27% don’t). One sceptic tweeted: ‘Yes, 1m Covid 19 cases are projected by Independent Sage in the next 3 weeks alone… The Johnson regime is doing nothing to prevent this’. Another said: ‘Absolutely extraordinary that Sajid Javid has used today’s Mail on Sunday to declare the ‘health benefits’ of allowing Covid to run entirely unchecked through the UK population – without once mentioning Long Covid. This is experimental, reckless and wrong’. The point about Long Covid is well made as it’s still receiving insufficient attention for its disabling effects in many cases.

After the Downing Street briefing several viewers tweeted about the responsibility issue: ‘What is this sudden outbreak of ludicrous ideological zealousness about making our own choices on COVID risk? These are collective risks which need planning and agreement. They cannot be addressed purely through individual choice. This is crazy!’

Alastair Campbell was somewhat less restrained, using the hashtag ‘sadopopulism’: ‘That was a masterclass in mixed messaging …. It will kill people but as Johnson thinks he has got away with more than an eighth of a million dead through his previous mistakes, he thinks he can get away with this too’.

The 19th July decision (though not 100% certain yet) has thrown into sharp focus the divide between those operating according to collective values, their behaviours determined by the common good, and those pursuing individual goals and desires. However we view it, it does seem an abdication of government responsibility: of course self-responsibility is important and there’s not enough of this, but in this context it’s an overarching and evidence-based government strategy we need. Some commentators see this as the start of another ‘culture war’, not unlike that between Remainers and Leavers. The government’s decision has been condemned by the World Health Organisation as ‘moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity’. Care Minister Helen Whately, not for the first time, gave a car crash interview during Monday’s Radio 4 Today programme, delivering a series of vacuous responses, not answering the question as to whether or not she’d continue to wear a mask and coming out with such gems as ‘I don’t think all cultures are the same’.

While Tory backbenchers shouted ‘Hallelujah’ on hearing the news, the backlash against prime ministerial idiocy, including allowing theatres and nightclubs to operate at full capacity, has been loud and clear, scientists predicting new cases rising to 50,000 a day. Clinicians joined forces to write to the Lancet about their concerns, and Jude Diggins, an interim director at the Royal College of Nursing, said: ‘This disease does not disappear on 19 July. No available vaccine is 100% effective … Public mask-wearing is straightforward and well-established – government will regret the day it sent the wrong signal for political expediency’. But already there are signs of government reservations: ‘ministers will hold on to powers to ‘reimpose economic and social restrictions at a local, regional or national level’ if needed to suppress a dangerous new variant, according to a Whitehall document published on Monday’.

Less than a week after his announcement, it seems even our Prime Minister is grasping the need, so he has a ‘get out clause’, to tone down the triumphal rhetoric, although he needed help to do even this. ‘The Prime Minister still believes it is “now or never”, with a later reopening potentially posing even higher risks as cases could peak as children return to school and winter looms. Two Whitehall sources told the Guardian that ministers had been spooked by internal polling. One said the data showed just 10% of the public support the policy of scrapping all restrictions at once, while another said substantially more people believed the government was moving too quickly than at the last reopening step on 17 May. These accounts were denied by No 10’. Despite Boris Johnson warning people not to be ‘demob happy’, not walking that talk himself, of course, adherence to restrictions has been leaking away for months in some quarters.

At least one commentator focuses on the government’s obvious fatigue with Covid and its pushing of responsibility onto us, but this avoidance and cowardice is not what we elect governments for. ‘Boris Johnson ends Covid as a ‘me problem’ and makes it a ‘you problem’ gives it to us straight. ‘The prime minister’s overriding imperative – you could tell by the very many times he said it – is to “move from universal government diktat to relying on people’s personal responsibility”. He’s basically had enough of making all the decisions, and wants someone else to have a go. Absent an obvious single candidate, he’s throwing it on to all of us’.

Meanwhile, a frontline respiratory consultant voiced the views of many colleagues: ‘NHS staff  have a sense of dread about what’s around the corner. While we understand things need to open up some time, the timing feels like utter madness while we are so close to successfully vaccinating the population, and with a more contagious variant circulating’. Again, the government is taking their efforts for granted, failing to recognise the need for a decent pay deal and the level of exhaustion still being felt following the first and second Covid waves. There’s also insufficient recognition of the burdens of the long waiting list, significant rise in Long Covid cases and reduced capacity due to distancing regulations. Let’s hope Sajid Javid doesn’t do as his predecessor often did, just blithely throwing out his ‘I know they can do it’ mantra.

It seems the government is finally realising what scientists have always known, that vaccination was never going to be a silver bullet, despite the soundbite that vaccination is a ‘wall of defence’, ‘breaking the link between infection, hospitalisation and death’. This piece illustrates via infographic how no one measure is 100% effective and how a number of measures are needed to work together.  ‘Australian virologist Ian Mackay, the first to use the Swiss cheese model in relation to the pandemic, says, in reality, the cheese’s holes will constantly open, shut and shift location depending on our behaviour…. It is only by using a number of slices – or measures – that we create the best chance of protecting ourselves and our friends and family’. The simplicity of this infographic’s messaging doesn’t disguise the complexity of the topic, though, something the government has proved itself manifestly unable to manage.

Not unrelated to this desire for simplicity is the government’s pursuit of a cynical narrative, analysed by Rafael Behr in a piece headed ‘Boris Johnson cries ‘freedom’ to fill a void where his leadership should be’. On the Freedom Day ‘pantomime’: ‘They mean freedom from the face mask, asserting their own right to no longer care about Covid infections, while making it sound like freedom from the disease itself. This is the same reflex that wanted to celebrate Brexit with an “independence day” on the grounds that EU membership equated to colonisation by a foreign power. It is the familiar revving of ideological engines, racing through the rhetorical gears from metaphor to hyperbole to paranoid delusion and fantasies of joining the resistance in people whose only political struggle has been for selection to a safe Tory seat’.

He suggests that ‘the language of political emancipation’ has been misapplied to a situation which should be seen rationally ‘in terms of clinical outcome’. Behr deconstructs the series of vacuous soundbites we’ve grown familiar with, eg ‘building back better’ and ‘levelling up’, revealing them as emperors wearing no clothes. Unfortunately, though, many are still taken in by them, including sections of the media. ‘That effect should not be overstated. Johnson is still a unique performer: part raconteur, part escapologist, talking his way out of troubles that would sink other leaders. But a consequence of that shtick is the growing gap between heroic language and grubby practice. It is the duality inherent in any failing ideological project that must keep cranking the rhetoric of abstract ideals higher to cover the stoop to ever shabbier methods. The support it generates is widely spread, but maybe also shallow; a popular consumer choice, lacking the connective tissue of shared and consistent beliefs’.

While some commentators fear the mask wearing issue becoming a culture war, others opine that this needn’t be the case if mask wearing is seen as a form of etiquette. This brings us back to the individual versus collective again. I suspect it’s not commonly realised how many thousands will feel more restricted following 19 July because for various reasons they’ve had to shield due to compromised immune systems. Up till now, for some time they could have felt able to get out and about, if social distancing and mask wearing were in evidence, but not if these measures suddenly collapse on 19 July. Adding to these numbers those yet unvaccinated or double vaccinated, it suggests a large number of people who would be left vulnerable.

‘Reportedly, the Department of Health will be issuing new guidance for the immunosuppressed and clinically very vulnerable. But while support for shielders is needed, confining them to quarters indefinitely is hardly a liberation. Nor is there much choice for exhausted NHS staff who face a soaring workload again, or for patients whose operations are being cancelled because hospitals are treating growing numbers of Covid patients or staff are having to self-isolate. If anything, the authors of the Lancet letter are too generous in describing this as “a dangerous and unethical experiment”: that terminology suggests a degree of scientific rigour and concern. Instead, this is a political wager, in which large parts of the population are not players but gambling chips’.

Radio 4’s Any Answers yesterday was interesting on this conundrum, the presenter getting those with opposing views to speak to each other. It was noticeable that the vulnerable callers sounded calm yet concerned, but those clamouring for restrictions to end annoyed and impatient, suggesting the others would just have to ‘stay indoors’.

Green MP Caroline Lucas tweeted during the Andrew Marr programme: ‘Minister says Government taking a “cautious” approach – but making bonfire of all restrictions is the opposite of caution. People are “expected” to wear masks in public places – but why should others be put at risk by some who don’t meet “expectations”? Utterly incoherent’.

Meanwhile, it’s very interesting, if worrying, that while one government adviser, Christopher Fraser, is trying to insist that use of the ‘NHS’ app is at ‘an all time high’, there’s clear evidence that it’s not, that the app’s inappropriate level of sensitivity is causing people to be unnecessarily ‘pinged’ and that numerous people are deleting the app or switching off notifications. We hear that the politicians are partly doing this because they don’t want to risk being ‘pinged’ just before they go on holiday, some even citing the possibility of their marriages being put at risk if they don’t delete or ignore the app. There must be data available on the usage of this app but it’s not being made public – no surprise there.

It was also alarming to hear (and the media obsession with holidays must take some responsibility here) that NHS staff  in some areas have been pressurised and abused by those trying to get their second jabs before the scheduled time so they can go on holiday. ‘One vaccination lead in the south-east of England said: “We’ve had a number of violent and aggressive incidents at sites, and even had to call the police, with people demanding their vaccine earlier than eight weeks. These incidents involved verbal abuse and aggressive and threatening behaviour. We have had to bring in security for our walk-in and ‘grab-a-jab’ sessions. GP leaders fear that such unsavoury behaviour, especially by younger adults, could intensify following the government’s decision on Thursday to allow double-jabbed Britons to return from amber-list countries this summer without having to quarantine’. It does seem desperately unfair that beleaguered NHS staff  have to put up with this kind of thing and as vaccination experts have said, there needs to be much clearer Government messaging about why bringing the second dose forward is not recommended.

But enough of all this….. across the country and possibly across the whole of Europe, anticipation is building ahead of the Euro 2020 final tonight between England and Italy. It’s still hard to believe England has got this far but very gratifying to see that at least this country can be good at something. Commentators have pointed out the maturity and thoughtful management exhibited by England manager Gareth Southgate, a sharp contrast to the way government is conducting itself. As someone not keen on organised sport and who had never watched football on tv, I surprised myself by watching England vs Ukraine and will watch tonight as well. I was struck by the clever footwork and tactics, particularly of some players like Sterling, but also taken aback by how rough the game was. I didn’t think players were meant to trip each other up and be quite as physical, having attributed that technique more to rugby than football. Needless to say, I’ve been corrected in this misunderstanding by local Arsenal supporters! But now a belated start has been made, who knows…. I might be progressing to trying to understand the offside rule and propping up bar of a local hostelry, pontificating about transfer fees and the deficits of coaches and managers.  

Let’s hope there’s no booing of Italy’s national anthem. What is more sickening, though, is the way Boris Johnson and his government have tried to associate themselves with England’s success, implying that this performance is somehow linked with ‘Brexit dividend’ or an example of ‘global Britain’ manifesting itself. Journalist Andrew Rawnsley suggested that the PM’s desperation to ‘steal himself a slice of their glory’ fails because ‘embracing this diverse and harmonious squad authentically is impossible for the party he’s created’. Marina Hyde wrote a funny piece, lampooning the PM’s appearance at Wembley in a football shirt clearly put on over his shirt and tie, in which he looked only too like a parody of himself. ‘Did you see the prime minister in the fancy seats at Wembley on Wednesday? He seemed to have come dressed as a particularly brutal Matt Lucas impersonation of himself….It’s quite something to think that the government went into the first lockdown last year attempting to score cheap points on footballers’ pay. They are now exiting all restrictions desperately trying to piggyback on what footballers have brought to the country, despite Johnson having managed England’s pandemic like Steve McClaren’.

The PM’s bullish and risible tweets about the England team predictably attracted plenty of derision: ‘Shut up, you tiresome fraud’, said one tweet. Another spoofed his claim to be au fait with sport: ‘I’ve loved rugby ever since I saw Gary Lineker score a century at Wimbledon’. It will be interesting to see what he wears tonight, since he won’t have been wearing his suit today.

Following on from the recent news about George Osborne being made chairman of the British Museum (and his likely role in ‘persuading’ this cultural institution to follow the government line on portrayal of British history), journalist Sam Leith expresses exasperation at the increasing tendency for a certain ‘well connected’ individuals to land jobs they have zero experience for. ‘Good grief’, he said on UnHerd, ‘is there anything George Osborne can’t do?’ Leith points out the two different ‘routes’ taken to career advancement: one ‘where you progress by gaining skills and experience in a specific field’, and the other, where seniority and connections enable a select group of individuals to be appointed to key posts for which they have no experience or expertise. ‘Take Dido Harding, another inhabitant of this world..’, in which the occupants ‘make the right friends at university’, then going on to top jobs, peerages and the like. Alluding to Harding’s hat being thrown into the NHS Chief Executive ring, he said: ‘She’ll probably get that, too. If not, perhaps George Osborne will see her right with senior role at the British Museum’.

After some days of lying low following his dramatic resignation, former Health Secretary Matt Hancock has apparently been seen in public for the first time, having his second vaccination. A bystander described a serious-looking Hancock staring at his mobile phone. Following on from journalist (and wife of Michael Gove) Sarah Vine’s recent piece about political marriages coming under strain and the ‘need’ for a partner who boosts the politician’s ego rather than constantly seeing through their facade, Hadley Freeman has likened Hancock’s affair to a 1980s film, along the theme of ‘dweeb and hot girl’. Apparently Gina Coladangelo was regarded as way out of his league during their university years but in recent times, Freeman suggests, he went out of his way to draw her into his orbit, including her recently vacated NHS non-exec directorship.

‘Boy, did Hancock play the long game here! Lord knows I’ve done some crazy things to try to get a crush to notice me – thrown parties, bought expensive clothes, pretended I could cook – but at least I never gave any of them slightly dodgy jobs and a salary, forcing them to hang out with me. Who knows, perhaps Hancock’s entire career was just a ploy to attract the attention of his university crush. If so, (a) that explains a lot; and (b) while I cannot condone Hancock’s deception of his wife, I do salute his tenacity’. Given their intention to move in together, it seems that hasn’t yet taken place, and we can wonder whether this affair will stand the test of scrutiny. ‘As I write this, “friends of Hancock” are insisting he and Coladangelo are “a love match”. But if Hancock had watched more 80s movies, he would know that getting together with your longstanding crush doesn’t always lead to the expected happily ever after’.

Finally, you might be interested to listen to this episode in the Profile series, featuring England player Raheem Sterling and his rise from ‘troubled youth’ to being one of the highest paid footballers, at only 26. ‘I was probably a naughty kid at school- I didn’t really like to listen to anyone except my mum’, Sterling says, yet a few years later a teacher described him mostly as ‘smile and dreadlocks’. It also seems symbolic that from his home in North London he could see the new Wembley Stadium being built. Many will be looking forward to seeing what he pulls off tonight.

Saturday 3 July

As the shock waves of the Matt Hancock revelations and resignation continue to be felt across the political spectrum, there was derision at Boris Johnson’s later attempt to rewrite history by implying he had actually sacked Hancock, contrary to all evidence. In a car crash Today (Radio 4) interview with Justice Minister Robert Buckland on Monday, Buckland complained about being asked about the Hancock affair when he’d been invited on to talk about youth offending. For once we were treated to a tour de force by presenter Nick Robinson, who gave the minister a deservedly tough ride when so often Labour politicians are grilled and ministers get an easy time.

Questions keep coming about the details of this debacle, the most recent ones focusing on the role and recruitment of non-executive directors. One minister interviewed last week tried to offer reassurance that all appointments were overseen by the Cabinet Office but, as we’ve seen, this ‘oversight’ is lacking and needs rethinking. Peter Riddell, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, said recently that such roles were ‘not regulated at all’ and take place more and more ‘without competition and without any form of regulatory oversight’.

Could it be, though, that rather than ‘hopeless Hancock’ being patronised and lined up as fall guy by Boris Johnson, he’s actually stolen a march on his boss by depriving him of a scapegoat and using questionable contracts/relationships and personal email to protect himself from scrutiny? A related news item this week is that of the Goves divorcing but their statement stresses that ‘no one else is involved’, apparently soon to be contradicted by the Sunday papers, and that they will ‘remain close friends’. What was interesting, though not surprising, about Sarah Vine’s recent article analysing the Hancock affair (and now we know she was speaking partly for herself) was the egoistic pull of Westminster life, the thirst for power needing others to feed it, a process which often would not be performed by a spouse who knew their wiles and defences. ‘…. long-time partners know all your history and insecurities and that they know deep down inside, you are not the Master of the Universe you purport to be.’

‘The problem with the wife who has known you since way before you were king of the world is that she sees through your facade….  there were some politicians who could walk away from power and others who will compromise everything for the sake of it….Westminster changes people… wives of senior politicians are still more or less the same person they were when they got married but their husbands sometimes are not…. And when someone changes, they require something new from a partner. Namely, someone who is as much a courtesan as a companion, one who understands their brilliance and, crucially, is personally invested in it’.

Returning to Hancock, there has also been unease in some quarters at his replacement, Sajid Javid, who raised eyebrows with one of his initial tweets in this role, saying his priority was to reopen the economy. We also understand that he is still continuing to work for the bank J P Morgan. It was as if he was still thinking like the Chancellor he once was, rather than a Health Secretary who should be prioritising public health. Liberal Democrats leader Ed Davey challenged Javid to ‘abolish Conservative cronyism’ at the Department of Health and Social Care, starting by ruling that Tory peer Dido Harding will not be made the next chief executive of NHS England. ‘The public expects so much better from the government during a pandemic’.

The government is between a rock and a hard place, as the alarming rise in Covid cases, the rapid spread of the Delta variant (60% more transmissible than Alpha) and increase in hospitalisations (including the double vaccinated) point to rethinking the 19th July date, but Tory lockdown sceptics, the travel and entertainment industries and others would be up in arms if it was delayed. Public Health England figures show a total of 161,981 confirmed and probable cases of Delta variant have now been identified in the UK – up by 50,824, or 46%, on the previous week. Senior medics are now asking the government to consider retaining some restrictions to help curb the spread of the virus.

‘The British Medical Association (BMA) said that keeping some protective measures in place was ‘crucial’ to stop spiralling cases numbers having a ‘devastating impact’ on people’s health, the NHS, the economy and education. Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA Council Chair, said easing restrictions was not an ‘all or nothing’ decision, and that ‘sensible, cautious’ measures would be vital to minimising the impact of further waves, new variants and lockdowns’. Will the BMA’s views cut any ice with the government? We will see. It will not be good for the nation’s mental health to know that such professional opinions have been expressed and ignored, especially if such a strategy results in yet another lockdown. Whatever the decisions are, we can expect some non-compliance to result from the ‘Hancock effect’, just as we had to from the ‘Barnard Castle effect’.

As ever, the government continues to oversell and over-rely on the vaccine, when important measures like Trace and Trace are seriously underperforming. Many are now complaining about what they see as its faulty strategy, pinging via the app anyone who’s been within any distance of someone testing positive, resulting in an increasing number of people deleting the app or switching off notifications. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘I suspect Boris Johnson unlocking promise on 19th has become a hostage to fortune. He’ll unlock & hope that the NHS can muddle through & accuse anyone being critical of being a doom-monger’.

Another blow to Conservatives came in the form of the Batley and Spen byelection on Thursday, the Labour candidate, Kim Leadbetter, winning by a 323 votes. This number would probably have been much higher without the vote being thoughtlessly split by George Galloway and others. The aftermath has seen much speculation about Keir Starmer’s future as Labour leader, but it doesn’t help that the Labour Party’s far left has been so determined to undermine him. The Conservative Party chair, Amanda Milling, rather ungraciously commented that it was ‘a Labour hold, rather than a Labour win’, but the Party must nevertheless be reflecting on their recent byelection losses and what they mean for the Party’s strategy.

While the extent of the Prime Minister’s less than honest statements is becoming better known, it’s hard to conjure with similar statements emerging from the official No 10 spokesman. One of these was the assertion that no personal email had been used in government business, but in the wake of the Hancock debacle, the Good Law Project issued a press release and tweeted that leaks confirmed use of personal email by Health Minister Lord Bethell (who had also sponsored the official pass of Ms Coladangelo). ‘It’s shocking that the Prime Minister, via his spokesperson, is misleading the public…… On 19 April 2020 Lord Feldman (who you’ll recall lobbied to win PPE contracts for at least one of his clients while working at DHSC) emailed Lord Bethell on his private address about Covid-19 test kits. Plainly this is government business. And plainly Lord Feldman, once co-Chair of the Conservative Party, was writing to James Bethell at his private email address on that government business. This is far from the only email we hold involving Lord Bethell’s private email address’. The press release also mentioned leaked minutes which confirmed Hancock’s own use of personal email. It’s not yet clear how these issues are being investigated – Commons Select Committees can give those appearing before them a rough ride but what outcomes ensue?

Linked to this is evidence, again via the efforts of the Good Law Project, of the existence of a ‘VIP lane’ early in the pandemic not only for PPE supply but also for Covid testing. ‘Bids from politically connected firms to provide Covid-19 tests in Britain were designated as “fast track” according to an email that suggests a VIP priority lane may have operated for tests as well as for personal protective equipment in the early stages of the pandemic….. The same email, sent last April by Max Cairnduff, a Cabinet Office procurement director, also referred to Covid testing, saying there was a separate dedicated email where offers would be “triaged”. It said ‘If they come from a minister/private office then please put FASTTRACK at the beginning of the subject line’. It was later publicly confirmed that a ‘VIP lane’ or ‘high-priority route’ existed for PPE offers’ but it appears this is the first time such a route was found to exist for testing. ‘Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, said there was clear evidence of a VIP route for companies supplying testing kits’ but government spokesmen have strongly denied this. Since they had to publicly admit the existence of the PPE one, how long before they admit the evidence of the testing one? An equally important question, though, is why is it left to organisations like the Good Law Project, to hold the government to account?

Still on accountability and its avoidance, it was reported this week that the widow of Jeremy Heywood, formerly head of the Civil Service, has expressed concern at the way the Greensill inquiry is being conducted. Suzanne Heywood is worried about the neutrality of the inquiry Chair, Nigel Boardman, and she fears her husband could be scapegoated to protect the government. Dominic Cummings said the inquiry would be a ‘stitch up’ and, more worryingly, Conservative-connected Boardman is said to have refused to accept a submission from Lady Heywood or anyone else representing her husband, who died in 2018. Besides the probity issues here, we have to wonder about the cost of such inquiries and lack of public confidence in them because of such weaknesses and biases. Wouldn’t you just know that, when asked for a response, a Cabinet Office spokesman supplied the following reassuring statement: ‘The Boardman review is ongoing, and as we have set out we will publish and present his findings to parliament and the government’s response, in due course’.

How often do we hear that government sound bite ‘levelling up’? This week further news emerged of what this really means: ‘declining life expectancy and deteriorating social conditions in England’s poorest areas’. Health inequalities expert Sir Michael Marmot, who produced two groundbreaking reviews on health equity in this country, has now produced Build Back Fairer in Greater Manchester: Health Equality and Dignified Lives, which reveals ‘jaw-dropping falls in life expectancy and widening social and health inequalities across the region over the past year’. One example is that the Covid 19 death rate was 25% higher in this region than the rest of England, made worse by lockdowns and spending cuts. Whereas the government’s idea of ‘levelling up’ (insofar as there is a genuine one) has attracted criticism for focusing on large infrastructure projects, but it seems the Marmot approach is much more granular, focusing on improving the lives of individuals and, crucially but more complex than large projects, getting to the roots of inequality by addressing the underlying social conditions.

‘Marmot called for a doubling of healthcare spending in the region over the next five years, as well as a refunding of local government, to tackle and prevent these inequalities and growing problems such as homelessness, low educational attainment, unemployment and poverty. Future spending should prioritise children and young people, who had been disproportionately harmed by the impacts of Covid restrictions and lockdowns, and had experienced the most rapid increases in unemployment and deteriorating levels of mental health’. The region’s mayor, Andy Burnham, would have had a hand in commissioning this report and sounds very firmly behind the findings and recommendations.

During the last few years much more attention has been paid to the fundraising choices made by cultural institutions and the decision by some to decline donations from companies associated with questionable or downright unsavoury activities. BP has been in the frame and notably American opioid purveyor Sackler. Culture Unstained is a research and campaigning organisation ‘which aims to end fossil fuel sponsorship of culture’ but I think their concerns extend beyond fossil fuel sponsorship. This is such an important issue for cultural organisations because, if they receive government funding in the first place, it will be limited by smaller amounts being made available, leaving them to seek it elsewhere. But there’s often an ethical cost to doing so.

We now hear that the billionaire founder of online gambling company Bet365, Denise Coates, is supporting a major Van Gogh exhibition at the Courtauld in London next year, described as ‘once-in-a-generation’, partly because it will include a previously unseen showing of Van Gogh self-portraits. But it’s not just this exhibition – Coates has funded an entire new exhibition space: the Denise Coates Exhibition Galleries. The Courtauld’s press release quoted her as saying: ‘I feel sure that the newly renovated Courtauld galleries will give all visitors, both in person and online, a world-class opportunity to experience their own connections to visual art. I have found great fulfilment from my own exposure to the visual arts and I am pleased to be able to support that journey for others with The Courtauld’.

Those familiar with the expression ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’ will be interested to learn of research at Cambridge University, reported in The Week, regarding problems which occupy the attention of podiatrists. There have long been concerns about high heels damaging feet, but the 1950s and 1960s fashion for ‘winklepicker’ shoes must have caused similar concern. Now a team of researchers has found that bunions are not a modern phenomenon but one which was common in the 14th and 15th centuries. Based on findings from an excavation of ancient skeletons, it was found that 27% of the population suffered from the ‘bony lumps’ (bunions), attributed to elongated shoes with pointed toes, called poulaines or crakows. These were apparently even worn by priests, despite being forbidden by the Pope. But the shoes didn’t only cause bunions – they also resulted in frequent fractures because of people wearing them falling forward. The mystery surely is how these pointy shoes were ever considered attractive, whether in the 15th century or the 20th.

Finally, something that might make you laugh. I was in Lush this week buying my regular body spray, and as he fetched it for me and chatted about this product, the young server said ‘You can also spray it on your butt cheeks’. Taken aback by this risqué comment to a customer, I realised, as he chatted on, that he’d actually said ‘You can also spray it on your bed sheets’. I wonder how many misunderstandings have occurred this last year as a result of mishearing what someone may have muttered or mumbled behind their mask!