It’s been yet another action packed and febrile week in the news, not at all conducive to mental wellbeing, including Ukraine and Putin’s Victory Day Parade, the State Opening of Parliament and Queen’s Speech, the cost of living crisis, the Northern Ireland Protocol stand-off with the EU and stalemate at Stormont, not to mention the latest rash of Partygate fines (now over 100 for Downing Street so far and some way to go). It’s also been Mental Health Awareness Week, with the theme of loneliness, but the emphasis on ‘awareness’ has long been an irritant for some service users and campaigners because it’s less ‘awareness’ they need than properly resourced treatment. Every time this government feels in particular trouble (that is, over and above its usual sub-optimal performance) it reaches for a distraction or gimmick and this week is no exception. The latest ploy to appear to reduce public spending by cutting 90,000 Civil Service jobs is an example of reactive dog whistle tactics – commentators have pointed out that this could actually prove more expensive because of the legalities and redundancy payments involved. But, as Jacob Rees-Mogg’s car crash interview on Friday’s Today programme demonstrated, the Minister of State for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency is an emperor wearing no clothes. Affected speech and use of long words just won’t cut it. Another inevitability is our Prime Minister going AWOL from scrutiny when things get tough, this week in the form of a visit to Finland and Sweden, with the transparent aim of associating himself with their applications for NATO membership.
Any of these events and problems alone would be unsettling but the sum total of them will certainly be undermining the nation’s mental wellbeing. Needing a diversion from the disturbing and uncertain world we are living in could be one reason for the obsession in some quarters including the media with the ‘Wagatha Christie’ court case, allowing us vicariously to peer into this celeb bust-up from a safe distance. These tweets perhaps sum up the polarized view of this trial: ‘People who cannot see the enjoyable side of this spectacle need to stop cluttering up the #wagathachristie hashtag; give us this tiny amount of trivial joy to help make up for all the general terribleness of everything, I beg you’. Another said: ‘In a time of food banks ,war and high fuel bills isn’t it galling that 2 girls are keeping this stupid case going. What a waste of court time, money and coverage. I wish they would shake hands agree to disagree and donate court costs to a charity’.
The cost of living crisis remains centre stage, even more so after the intervention of Ashfield (Notts) MP Lee Anderson, who talked up food banks, the possibility of making a meal for 30p and in suggesting the problem was ‘generations of people who can’t cook and can’t budget’. He does have a point to some extent about the capacity to ‘make a meal from scratch’ and highly commends his local food bank for teaching these skills, but he seems to miss the main issue and it was pointed out how much he claimed in expenses in addition to his salary. The government has been criticized for delaying any further action to ease the situation for the desperate until the next Budget in the autumn, when it’s doubtful people can hold out that long. The Tory script on this is that further help would spark further inflation – I wonder how many economists would agree with that.
But ministers still reject the introduction of a windfall tax for energy companies. If and when they have to capitulate on this, would it be their biggest U-turn yet? The price of some foods has risen 9% during April, the Office for National Statistics tells us. And there are no words for the latest government wheeze to tackle the problem. A commentator tweeted: ‘So Johnson’s new initiative to tackle cost of living is to the delay the banning of junk food adverts. I’m sure that’s going to really help with putting money back in the pockets of those who need it. We need a serious government for serious times!’ We now hear that food writer and activist Jack Monroe has instructed libel lawyers following a much publicized interview in which Anderson alleged that the writer and food blogger was profiteering from the poor and much else besides. Anderson should worry because Monroe won a high-profile libel action against the former Daily Mail columnist Katie Hopkins in 2017.
What an embarrassment to the government this could prove – will they support Anderson or hang him out to dry?
Watching some of the State Opening of Parliament on Tuesday, I was struck, not for the first time, by what increasingly feels like the anachronistic pantomime associated with it, including all those costumes and robes and on this occasion the crown being driven to the ceremony in its own limo – surely a significant expense alone. ‘The Sword of State and the Imperial State Crown have been transported from Buckingham Palace to the Palace of Westminster, in order to allow the ceremony to begin’. Another thing that may not be commonly known is that four ‘counsellors of State’ are allowed to represent the Queen in her absence. ‘As opening parliament is a core constitutional responsibility of the monarch, the letters patent had to be issued to delegate that responsibility to two counsellors of state. There are currently four counsellors of state: Charles, William, Andrew and Harry’. Interesting and some would say unacceptable regarding Andrew.
But the most striking thing, perhaps, was the bored and resigned expression on the faces of the royals as they stood in for the Queen – I almost felt sorry for Prince Charles having to read out that cynical and distasteful stuff. No fewer than 38 bills have been planned but very little of it seemed to be about genuinely helping people and several bills are profoundly undemocratic such as the legislation to criminalise protest. Human rights barrister Adam Wagner human rights barrister tweeted: ‘Bill of Rights: the first in history of democracies to decrease rather than increase rights protection, politically partisan “anti-work” nonsense which is frankly an embarrassment – Public Order Bill: to make it easier for police to suppress peaceful protest’. And would this ‘invasion’ of the Duke of Somerset’s land (which benefits from public funds but is closed to the public) by picnickers and musicians be criminalised?
The rising cost of living was naturally a key focus of the Queen’s Speech debate in the Commons, Boris Johnson having the nerve to say the UK ‘can’t spend its way out of trouble and will need to grow the economy’ when there had been plenty of money for the crony contracts and Track and Trace during the first stages of Covid. One of the sickest jokes of the debate must be the PM’s hyperbolic promise ‘to get the country back on track’, when the ‘track’ it’s been on for the last 12 years is due to Conservative administrations and successive swathes of cuts to public services. And we’ve learned how his promises work out – remember the 2019 social care declaration?
Two other phenomena are very noticeable in recent weeks: the use of euphemistic language by politicians and the media to describe what to many is a desperate situation eg ‘feeling the pinch’ and ‘feeling stretched’; and ministers’ talking about ‘a package’ of support, ‘a range’ of measures, which often boil down to small and unrelated interventions which don’t add up to more than the sum of their parts. Meanwhile, surveys suggest that more than 2 million UK adults can’t afford to eat every day and that a further quarter million will face destitution by 2023 unless clear action is taken. Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said: ‘This Queen’s Speech does nothing to help the millions of families and pensioners facing soaring bills and eye watering inflation. It shows a prime minister refusing to listen to the clear message sent by voters at last week’s local elections who are fed up of being taken for granted by this Conservative government’.
It’s commendable but shouldn’t be this vital that locals are taking up the cost of living cudgels in view of the vacuum left by government. The Guardian describes a Lancashire community-based project called Fur Clemt, meaning “very hungry” in Wigan dialect. It is ‘a much-loved community supermarket which sells unsold or overproduced food at a heavily discounted price to local people struggling with their household budgets. Since December, its owner, Shirley Southworth, has observed a shift: “We’ve seen membership soar and become more varied … It’s not just people on benefits, it’s those who are just about managing, people trying to keep their head above water.” Fur Clemt is one of a growing number of community-led organisations which, exasperated with a lack of government support to tackle the cost of living crisis, are taking matters into their own hands’. Not surprisingly, high percentages of locals surveyed believed that central government is out of touch with the real needs of communities and that much more power needs to be delegated to these areas to deal with the issues themselves. There needs to be some balance here – great that such supportive schemes are stepping up but there also needs to be intelligent intervention by government to address the problems and not just abdicate responsibility.
A related article describes the growth of ‘social supermarkets’ in the UK, one notably within the City of London scheduled for a September launch. Small social supermarkets have been springing up across the UK in recent years, some of them having started out as food banks. (At a social supermarket users pay for their groceries, but get a large discount.) They cater for low-income families – in the case of Christ Church these are referred by the local primary school – and pay a membership fee and/or a weekly fee for their shop’. One of the founders reckons these social supermarkets are the next evolution of the food bank.
Personal finance expert Martin Lewis was on fire on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, seeing some benefit in teaching cookery skills but mostly lamenting the lack of personal finance training in schools and saying the government must use ‘the political levers to put more money in people’s pockets’ as it’s simply not enough. He was profiled in The Week recently, predicting civil unrest unless government intervenes to help consumers cope with energy bills which could reach £3000 annually. The Economist reckons that Lewis could be called the most influential man in British politics, his Money Saving Expert website having a ‘readership which rivals the collective reach of Britain’s newspapers’ and an ITV show watched weekly by 4 million people. ‘Ministers would do well to listen’ says The Economist.
It was difficult watching the Queen’s Speech debate because of Boris Johnson’s theatrical and deluded defence of the government’s programme and performance. ‘Johnson said the country had “risen to challenges with no precedent in recent history” including the Covid-19 pandemic and vaccine rollout, as well as Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, the UK’s supply of weapons to Kyiv and the sanctions regime that had been imposed.’ The 38 bills cited include plans ‘to tear up the Human Rights Act, make it harder for councils to rename streets and privatise Channel 4. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said the speech showed the government had no guiding principle, while Torsten Bell, the director of the Resolution Foundation think tank, was equally withering. ‘British politics is out of ideas. Further action has been promised on the cost of living, but there certainly wasn’t any in the Queen’s Speech. It rightly highlighted the need for growth – the essential precondition for ending our living standards stagnation – but did little to actually bring it about.”
It’s an embarrassment for this government to receive criticism from its own side, including David Davis and John Redwood calling for tax cuts and Theresa May’s former chief of staff Lord Barwell saying that both morally and politically the government needed to do more. As so often, though, such comments will probably be water off a Johnson duck’s back. But if anyone thought this was appalling enough, they were in for another shock on Wednesday morning. Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, who hasn’t been seen much in public recently, did the media round, not only dissociating himself from the annual new housing target, citing shoddy structures in the wrong place not adding to ‘beautiful communities’ but in one tv interview putting on ‘funny voices’ and attempting American and Scouse accents. While some commentators suggested he was under the influence of substances and condemned the performance, the PM’s spokesman offered ‘Michael Gove is an effective cabinet communicator who has a variety of means of getting the message across’. You can say that again.
Hot on the heels of the HRT shortage, there’s news of a critical shortage of key drugs thousands are dependent upon, such as painkillers and blood pressure medication (65 million prescriptions).The shortage also threatens the 40 million anti-depressant prescriptions but I hope this might catalyse GPs and policymakers to rethink this damaging and longstanding practice. Many are effectively being prescribed anti-depressants because of a shortage of NHS talking therapies, which could help patients to get to the root of their difficulties instead of merely masking the symptoms. ‘The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC), which represents more than 11,000 pharmacies nationwide, has warned that 67pc of its members are facing supply problems daily. And in its survey of more than 1,000 pharmacy staff, it found that 75pc had faced “aggression from patients” due to the medicine supply issues.
And we have to wonder whether this HRT strategy will work, since so many government-appointed tsars seem to have gone very quiet after the initial flurry of media coverage. ‘This follows the recent appointment of vaccine taskforce director general, Madelaine McTernan, to spearhead a new HRT Supply Taskforce. She said: “This is a step in the right direction of tackling the supply issues women are facing when it comes to accessing HRT and ensuring ongoing, reliable supply.” Health Secretary Sajid Javid wasn’t altogether convincing, not least due to prior over-use of such clichés like ‘working around the clock’, ‘straining every sinew’ etc: ‘We will leave no stone unturned in our national mission to boost supply of HRT’.
A day doesn’t go by without the NHS being in the news, whether it’s for staff shortages, ambulance waiting times or long waiting lists for treatment, not to mention the interventions of people like former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who was the very author of some of the faulty structures in place today. But diagnosis has to precede treatment and very striking is the finding from a Lancet Oncology study showing that more than a third of cancer patients only find out they have it following an unrelated admission to A&E. We’re told that patients diagnosed via this route have a substantially greater risk of dying within 12 months. I found myself wondering (have asked but no answer forthcoming) whether those A&E clinicians break the news or whether they delegate this to the patients’ GPs, which would result in more delay. An unpleasant task for any clinician but an added pressure for hard-pressed A&E staff.
Meanwhile, an article in the Financial Times reflects on the apparent assumption that our NHS is ‘free’ but actually how far down the American private route we’ve already gone. It’s called privatisation by stealth, for example the takeover (allowed by the Clinical Commissioning Groups) of GP practices by large conglomerates with dubious records in some cases) but we are now also required to pay for more procedures than a decade ago. We’re reminded that ‘going private’ isn’t just something middle class people do: ‘most of the rise in such spending has been amongst the lowest earning fifth of the population who don’t want to spend years on waiting lists’. The writer reckons the most telling signal that the NHS is at breaking point is the rise twentyfold in the last five years of people resorting to crowdfunding to pay private medical fees. No doubt ministers would explain this by suggesting it’s about ‘patient choice’.
Perhaps the most serious under-investment has always been in mental health services and, given the new legislation flagged up in the Queen’s Speech, although this is related to the outdated Mental Health Act, we need to ask if it will or could address the appalling treatment of the prison population. It’s long been known that a high proportion of prisoners experience mental health problems: prison just isn’t the right place for them. This week Radio 4’s File on 4 and a Guardian article have highlighted their plight again. The article takes the form of just one woman’s experience (difficult life experience, diagnosed with anxiety, depression, PTSD and borderline personality disorder, imprisoned and then twice recalled to prison after attempting to take her own life, lost custody of her child, etc) and the account of a prison officer who describes the deficits in treatment and says ‘They are ill. It is inhumane [to put them in prison]’. Just when will this shocking situation be addressed and why has it been allowed to continue so long?
On a lighter note, it’s interesting to speculate on the likely winner of Museum of the Year – museums have long been shown to have the potential for taking us out of ourselves and enhancing mental wellbeing. Five contenders are competing for the £100,000 prize but the other four will still get £15,000: Derby Museums, Museum of Making; Horniman Museum and Gardens, London; People’s History Museum, Manchester; The Story Museum, Oxford and Tŷ Pawb (Everyone’s House), Wrexham. Judge of the panel, Art Fund director Jenny Waldman, said: An abundance of applications to be Art Fund Museum of the Year 2022 shows the creativity and resilience of museums right around the country, despite the immense challenges of the last two years. The five superb finalists are all museums on a mission who are tackling the vital issues of today – from combating the climate emergency to improving literacy or exploring migration – and reaching diverse communities as they do so. Each is working hard to encourage the next generation to get involved, both to inspire them and to equip them with essential skills’.
Finally, The Week carries an interesting article about nutmeg, which, in my mind at least is the most preferred from the spice ‘family’ which includes cinnamon, cloves and allspice. The article describes how, a few hundred years ago this ‘ridged brown kernel’, native to Indonesia, was very expensive but compared with the 18th century it’s very low profile these days and nutmeg graters are no longer ‘standard kitchen kit’. This does seem the case, as we hear a lot about cinnamon buns and other spices in cakes and punches, etc, but not nutmeg, but I fondly recall what the top sprinkling did for the erstwhile egg custard. But apparently nutmeg is still working hard behind the scenes – it’s the under-recognised ingredient in ‘numerous packaged foods’ and an ingredient in Coke and Pepsi. The writer contends that ‘nutmeg isn’t unloved but we often don’t recognise our own desire for it’. For those without, time to acquire a nutmeg grater, perhaps!