Sunday 23 January

The febrile political atmosphere has been intensifying over the last fortnight, catalyzed by ‘Partygate’, as allegations and revelations come thick and fast, the Prime Minister finally well and truly on the ropes. Although anger over Partygate has been building since before Christmas, three key events this last week have heightened tensions – the emergence of a significant email from a senior official warning Martin Reynolds, the PM’s personal private secretary, not to hold the summer party on 20 May, making crystal clear that this could not be described as ‘work’ (although such a gathering would also have been illegal); proof that Boris Johnson had indeed known in advance about the party (despite his protestations to the contrary); and the latest silo from his nemesis Dominic Cummings to the effect that he had challenged the PM about the party but this was ignored.

And these three events build on Johnson’s non-apology in the House of Commons which had angered so many, especially the thousands who had stuck to the rules and were unable to see loved ones before they died from Covid. Sue Gray must have lost count of the number of ‘gatherings’ she has to investigate since it emerged that the ones hitting the news were supplemented by regular ‘wine down Friday’ drinks, which Boris Johnson observed en route to his flat but did nothing to intervene on. As if this wasn’t enough, rumours have been circulating of further parties in the PM’s flat, involving friends of Carrie Johnson. Gray will now have access a detailed log of staff movements in and out of the building from security data including swipecards.

With his long history of getting away with things, it seems if he gets away with this mountain of fibs and misdemeanours, he can get away with anything. Facilitated, shockingly but predictably, by a scores of sycophants prepared to suppress any moral compass they may have possessed to ensure their own survival, not to mention the too often compliant media. The threat to Johnson’s leadership of so many ‘2019ers’ (Red Wall Tory MPs taking seats from Labour at the last election) and others writing letters to the 1922 Committee seems to have slightly receded and the defection of Christian Wakeford to Labour is said not to have had the impact it could have had, but knowing what we know now, this version could be ministers briefing against the rebels. But as the PM and ministers continue to repeat the litany ‘wait for Sue Gray’s report’ (when civil servant Sue Gray isn’t even independent and is quite likely to exonerate the PM in yet another whitewash) these revelations about bullying whips could prove further nails in the PM’s political coffin.

‘Tory whips were accused on Thursday of using dirty tactics to intimidate rebels as Boris Johnson was said to be increasingly convinced he could see off a vote of no confidence. Though allies of Johnson believe a vote is almost inevitable after the inquiry into Downing Street parties is published next week, one cabinet minister said on Thursday there were now significant doubts among the rebels about whether they could defeat the prime minister. The Guardian has been told of at least five MPs who have expressed concerns about the government threatening funding for their constituency or encouraging damaging stories to be published in newspapers’. Typically, the PM and various ministers have said they’ve ‘seen no evidence’ of those threats: of course they won’t have if they look the other way and don’t do or say anything to arouse the whips’ ire. Such stonewalling will be stopped in its tracks if the victims of this bullying decide to release recordings or texts of these exchanges with whips. It’s also quite possible that the rebels remain firm, as it’s been suggested that sources close to the PM have been briefing against the rebels as a damage limitation exercise.

A Radio 4 stalwart tweeted: ‘It’s not the whips pulling the strings, is it? They do what Johnson tells them to. It’s the Eton Flashman bullying system, fags, whips etc. same thing. The bully at the top infiltrates those below’.

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With the title ‘Baby-faced assassin has Boris Johnson in his sights’, the Guardian’s parliamentary sketch writer describes how Tory MP William Wragg outed the whips’ alleged bullying tactics as he opened proceedings of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, which he chairs. ‘He wanted to make a statement, he said. It had been brought to his attention that a number of MPs believed to be unhappy with Johnson’s leadership had reportedly been intimidated by government whips and threatened – in a direct breach of the ministerial code – with having public money withdrawn from investments in their constituencies. Furthermore, these MPs had also allegedly been leant on with blackmail threats. If they didn’t fall in line, then the government would whisper in the ear of tame newspapers to plant hostile stories – who cared if they were true? – in the press’. 

Wragg is surely naïve about this, though: ‘As such it would be my general advice to colleagues to report these matters to the Speaker of the House of Commons and the commissioner of the Metropolitan police’. Good luck with that as neither of these two sources of authority have shown any recent interest in exercising it in the current context. Conservative commentator Tim Montgomerie tweeted: ‘Lots of people trying to discredit William Wragg. I believe him. In last 24 hours two Tory MPs have told me how whips have threatened their constituencies but both are frightened about going public. It’s shameful behaviour by the whips’. Another commentator said: ‘The whips & no10 briefing against junior MPs is a desperate low. Everyone is lambs to the slaughter for the man who wanted to be king of the world and pissed it all away’.

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I found it equally interesting but appalling listening to an interview with a former whip, Rob Wilson, during Thursday’s edition of Radio 4’s The World tonight, in which Wilson said people didn’t understand the whipping process (how could they when it’s been kept so dark within the Westminster bubble?), going on to casually and almost jokingly allude to some of the very unpleasant tactics used. He seemed concerned that news coverage might ‘blow the lid off years of parliamentary practice’ but in my view it’s high time the public was made to see what dastardly tactics are being used behind the scenes of our ‘democracy’. Another interviewee was Lucy Fisher, deputy political editor at the Telegraph, who interestingly implied that the 2019er rebels could be more courageous as they had mainly only had each for political company (eg via WhatsApp) and because of the restrictions and their recent election had not been inculcated into Westminster culture over years like their more experienced colleagues.

I spoke too soon about the police tardiness in investigating serious allegations as the Met has now agreed to meet Wragg next week and has even more cause to do so following suggestions that Conservative ministers and whips have started spreading rumours about his personal life. It’s noticeable that deniers and apologists interviewed in the media so far aren’t those who would attract the attention of the whips and even if the whips don’t have the power to remove funding from certain constituencies it doesn’t stop them making the threats. How refreshing to hear Chris Bryant (Chair of the Committee on Standards) on the Today programme on Saturday, telling it how it is, including the fact that at least 12 MPs have spoken to him about these bullying tactics. Christian Wakeford has recently confirmed that Gavin Williamson was the MP (then a whip) who threatened to cancel a new school in his constituency if he voted against the government on free school meals.

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What could complicate the picture further is the extent to which the parliamentary Conservative Party is divided, more and more factions emerging which could prove problematic in getting the government’s agenda through. Not that there’s been that much progress in any area, especially ‘Levelling Up’. The more Johnson feels his position under threat the more concessions he could be tempted to make to satisfy noisy demands, the 2019ers themselves numbering more than 100 MPs. The list includes Singapore-on-Thames brigade (MPs ‘frustrated that after departure from the EU Johnson has not fully seized what they believe are the opportunities for slashing regulations and focusing on growth through unfettered free enterprise’); Brexit ultras; lockdown opponents (largely comprising the so-called Covid Recovery Group, anti lockdown and restrictions); net zero sceptics; the 2019 intake (feeling ‘let down and worrying that the man who helped propel them into parliament is now electorally toxic’); the culture warriors (includes the Common Sense Group (!), led by the veteran MP John Hayes, which opposes what it calls “subversives” such as Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter); and the dislikers (linked by the desire for Boris Johnson to go).

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Before all this, though, the situation was already building to a crescendo, with David Davis’s unexpected intervention at Prime Minister’s Questions (‘in the name of God, go’), the highly transparent and absurdly named Operation Save Big Dog and Operation Red Meat intended to beef (!) up Johnson’s flagging authority, and the appalling (in the eyes of many) decision for Plan B restrictions to be eased despite the mounting Covid death toll. For weeks the government and collusive media have been spinning the line that the pandemic is mostly in the past, but a clinician interviewed recently is probably right: we might be past the peak of Omicron but not beyond the broader pandemic. A commentator tweeted:  ‘How could anyone in their right mind look at this data and justify lifting the basic protective measures we still have left? Our PM is literally gambling with our lives to save his own job!’ Another said: ‘No experts attended Sajid Javid’s conference. This is because this move is purely political and not based on science or medical advice. Johnson is making decisions that will kill people in order to stay in power. It is corrupt and it is murderous’.

One of the planks of both ‘operations’ was Johnson loyalist Nadine Dorries’ statement about the future of the BBC licence fee, a dog whistle aimed at galvanizing right wingers against alleged left-wing bias when it’s been clear for years that the bias is right wing. She stated that the BBC licence fee will be abolished in 2027 and the broadcaster’s funding will be frozen for the next two years. There are difficulties with both the licence fee and a subscription system but what always strikes me is the strange attitude some have that because they don’t watch the BBC ‘live’, then they are not liable to pay and the failure of some to see how much good content there is across the board of BBC radio and tv programming which may not be apparent to those who default to Netflix and their like. The danger with Dorries’ threat is that news coverage will become even more right wing biased, as both the Tory chairman and director general seek to appease their paymasters by failing to challenge the Tory narrative. It also threatens the longstanding reputation of the BBC as a state broadcaster which has generated trust globally, not a good plan in terms of geopolitics.

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Many will be troubled by the announcement so transparently aimed at shoring up the PM that plan B measures will stop on 26 January and compulsory self-isolation for people with Covid on 24 March. Already some arts and hospitality venues are resisting this and asking visitors and customers to continue wearing masks inside except when eating or drinking. ‘A director of public health at a city in the north of England said they were also concerned at the move. “This feels like more of a political decision than a decision based on the evidence and the science, and it could be quite London-centric…We’re seeing a reduction in cases, but they’re still incredibly high. Taking out all these measures does feel risky. And if our focus is keeping kids in schools as much as possible, this may result in more disruption to education. I worry the decision has not been made for the right reasons.” While Johnson’s statement will please a number of his backbenchers, it prompted concern from teaching and health unions, and from NHS and public health representatives’. This situation could also heighten existing polarities between the non-compliant and the risk averse as the latter will no longer be able to argue that rules are in place to mandate mask wearing, etc. And where does this leave employers who want their staff back in the office, faced with a good number, most likely, who prefer to continue working at home?

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What all this unfortunately lays bare is the plummeting of standards in public life, from the casual drinking and socialising culture clearly pervading Downing Street to the dirty tactics increasingly used by those in power to influence policy making and funding. More importantly, it affects the mental health of all of us: not only are we in the hands of an incompetent and disingenuous government but this same government is chillingly prepared to sacrifice lives and the public’s mental wellbeing in order to cling to power. So much for democracy – it seems absurd that so much hangs on the Conservative Party and what it decides over the next few months. There should surely be a way, in extremis, of the electorate being able to call for an election or vote of no confidence. It doesn’t help that we have a compliant media, as least as far as the right wing press and the BBC are concerned, the flagship programmes subjecting news items with potential for government embarrassment to a blackout (eg the current massive buildup of lorries en route to Dover, tailing back 15 km ) and not challenging the PM or ministers for repeating untruths like the ‘UK has the fastest vaccine rollout in Europe’. Ditto on examples of Tory narrative like ‘We are continuing to deliver for the British people’, when very little has actually been ‘delivered’, least of all Brexit, when supply chain problems and the Northern Ireland protocol remain unresolved. There’s also the widely overlooked issue of Covid deaths statistics, the government using the figure of 150,000 when the true number substantiated by the Office for National Statistics is 172,420.

Journalist Jonathan Freedland writes that the current crisis isn’t just about Boris Johnson although he’s a major part of it – it’s also much about the collusion of so many others, Brexit, he thinks, and a widespread undermining of values the Conservative Party long held dear. ‘… the shaming events in Downing Street are a function of a Conservative party that is now something else. Despite the name, that organisation is no longer conservative in the way that was previously understood and in which it once took great pride…. There was a time, not so long ago, when no Conservative would have dreamed of partying in a government building on the eve of a royal funeral, even if there was no pandemic. They would have been affronted by the very idea of it’. In contrast to these values and standards, he cites the unthinking and destructive actions of Johnson acolytes Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg, respectively committed to undermining the BBC as we know it and endangering relations with the Scottish Conservative Party.

‘Vandalism became a Brexit habit – hardly surprising for a project dedicated to uprooting a tangle of connections with our continental neighbours that had grown dense and thick over half a century – and this is the Brexit government. Like all revolutionary endeavours, it believes that the end justifies all means, no matter the damage to those things conservatives once cherished’. And this attitude is what we often now see, even recently exemplified by interviews with Edwina Currie and Michael Heseltine, whose stance is effectively ‘this is politics today so suck it up’.

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Given his recent record, we have to wonder what further revelations Dominic Cummings might have up his sleeve to complete his Operation PM defenestration. Many of us will just see the blog quotes he tweets but here’s a view from a subscriber to the £10 a month silo stack. ‘Whenever and whatever he does post, you can be sure it will contain plenty of extraordinary ideas, unexpected insights and eye-popping indiscretions. Cummings appears to have little or no filter on his thoughts, with the result that his writing offers as clear a view into the dark heart of contemporary politics as is available anywhere. He has no time for any of the usual pieties. What you get is a voracious intellect – Cummings is interested in everything from 19th-century German history to quantum physics – coupled with a tireless curiosity about anything that lies outside the conventional wisdom. It’s a revelation’.

But there’s a serious downside. ‘His blog is exhausting to read – too long, too aggressive, too inward-looking. He rarely bothers to explain who’s who in his cast list of spads (government special advisers), physicists and tech gurus. Anyone in the know will already know, and everyone else should be grateful simply to be allowed inside the loop. His hobbyhorses are ridden to death’. Interestingly, this article is itself very long but worth reading. What does it conclude?

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For a little bit of light relief, you could do worse than view the Twitter feed of ‘Parody Boris Johnson’ – one of his latest reads: ‘If you are wondering where I am, I’m currently working around the clock on a matter of the utmost national importance – how to save my own skin’. He could even be ‘straining every sinew’.

Another individual increasingly on the ropes is Prince Andrew, who has experienced one humiliation after another recently, his medals, patronages and HRH title having been taken away as he continues to face the Giuffre civil law suit. It seems he’s almost being airbrushed away, as the royals worry that this case will tarnish the forthcoming Platinum Jubilee. There’s even been a suggestion that he could have to start paying for his own security and it can’t have helped that ITV last week broadcast a documentary about the Ghislaine Maxwell case in which he was clearly in the frame. Whatever the outcome is, commentators have said he is now ‘out in the cold’ and his future looks poor.

As much airtime continues to be wasted by MPs and ministers responding to key questions (eg ‘Is the Prime Minister a liability?’) with the cowardly ‘wait for the Sue Gray report’, there’s a danger other important issues could be overlooked. One is that, thankfully, the Lords successfully toned down and removed the key damaging clauses of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill, for example the provision to disallow ‘noisy protests’. Disappointingly, though, it seems the Lords have fallen down on the job with the Health and Social Care bill, meaning that, if it goes ahead, no one can any longer be sure of being guaranteed free NHS treatment. This then opens the field for the ever increasing incursions of the private sector into our healthcare system, exactly what Conservative administrations have aimed at for years. One of the excellent blogs you could follow on this is Calderdale and Kirklees 999 call for the NHS on WordPress and also the Twitter accounts of organisations such as Keep our NHS Public. One example of privatisation by stealth is the news that the NHS is purchasing services from the private sector: yes, they need to get through their long waiting list but how much of a slippery slope is this?

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Finally, we learn that Lake Superior State University in Michigan has published its annual list of banned terms, this time including ‘no worries’, ‘that being said’, ‘deep dive, ‘circle back’ and ‘at the end of the day’. All excellent candidates but some others favoured by business people and politicians could be added, such as ‘going forward’ and ‘direction of travel’. Others will be able to suggest more candidates!

Saturday 8 January 2022

Happy New Year to all readers, insofar as this is possible given the current worrying situation! The feeling in many quarters that things are out of control can rarely have been so pronounced. Since the last blog post in mid-December, the intertwined Covid and political situations have been a rollercoaster, and just when you think the government can’t get any worse, it does. Besides the alarming rise of Omicron and an NHS crisis of a magnitude the government refuses to recognize, December was dominated by the succession of damaging revelations of lockdown breaches in official circles, leading to palpable anger amongst those who obeyed the rules, and knife edge discussions as to whether Christmas and New Year plans should go ahead. As we know, they did, mostly so the government and right wing press can say ‘Boris saved Christmas’, then New Year, when such plans are bound to lead to a Covid spike later this month. This was presented as throwing ‘a lifeline’ to the hospitality industry without registering that the lifeline for hospitality contributes to its deletion for others.

The Cabinet has now met twice to discuss ‘restrictions’ (as one clinician has observed, this libertarian narrative language needs changing to ‘precautions’), looking strong in some eyes and weak in others for sticking rigidly to Plan B, which is only selectively implemented anyway. Who hasn’t seen numerous individuals in shops, supermarkets and public transport sans mask? Health Secretary Sajid Javid had the nerve to criticize the other three nations for their safety measures when it’s actually the Westminster government demonstrating recklessness and doing far less that other European countries too. Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford said ‘The outlier here is not Wales – Boris Johnson has failed to take the necessary action to protect people in England from Covid’. Instead, we get macho posturing of ‘riding out Omicron’ and sanctimonious repetitions about not ‘overwhelming the NHS’ when it’s clear the NHS has been overwhelmed for weeks.

Ministers have a strange definition of ‘overwhelmed’, when you factor in 11 hours wait for an ambulance in some areas of the country, staff on their knees and experiencing unmanageable stress and daily deaths now creeping up beyond 300. An NHS consultant writing anonymously said: ‘Boris Johnson “know[s] the pressures on everyone in our NHS”. But does he really? Has he got any idea of the exhaustion, burnout and low morale that I see and feel every day? The dread that my colleagues and I express as we talk about what this winter holds in store, again? How it feels to be potentially facing yet another wave?’

Disgracefully, the PM’s words reveal just how distant he really feels from the coalface: ‘We have a chance (?!!) to ride out this Omicron wave without shutting down our country once again… hospitals at the moment are sending out signals saying that they are feeling the pressure hugely (yes, as indicated at least by the 24 trusts having declared a critical incident) and there will be a difficult period for our wonderful NHS for the next few weeks because of Omicron … I just think we have to get through it as best as we possibly can’ (aka ‘as best they can because I will be well away from it’). The 5m plus waiting for surgery, some of it urgent, must be in despair at how much longer they could have to wait, their condition worsening in the interim. Pressure is increasing on the unvaccinated because they’re the ones taking up most of the ICU beds, though, in contrast to some European countries, the government still has no intention of mandating vaccination. The question does have to be asked – to what extent should some notions of personal liberty take precedence over the urgent public health needs?

It borders on sinister that the media is mostly colluding with this narrative that the NHS can ‘manage’ when accounts given elsewhere by clinicians reflect the despair many are feeling. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘I am struggling to get my head around this. The NHS is on a war footing. The military is being called in. But pubs are open, mask-wearing is not being enforced and NHS staff are still not getting decent PPE. You literally cannot make sense of incoherence of this sort’. Broadcaster and palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke tweeted: ‘As the NHS scrambles with tents & portakabins to create Covid surge capacity, never forget that since 2010, the NHS has endured the longest & deepest financial squeeze in its history. A political choice, not an economic necessity. It has deadly consequences’. It’s also alarming that the PM doesn’t intend the Cabinet to meet to discuss public health measures until much later this month, a further signal of ‘riding out Omicron’ (aka ‘you’re on your own’) despite the cost.

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The Guardian’s parliamentary sketch writer, John Crace, produced a typically comical picture of the risible stances taken by the Covid Recovery Group, pointing up the inappropriate reliance on ‘luck’ to ‘ride out’ Omicron. ‘It’s come to something that surviving this episode of the pandemic will come down to luck rather than scientific judgement. Then Boris will be Boris. Steve Baker and Mark Harper, two hardline members of the CRG, invited Boris to end all restrictions now. In their world, it is their bravery in standing up to Omicron that had forced it into being weaker than Delta. Had the government imposed another lockdown, Omicron would have been inspired to be a much stronger variant’.

Epidemiologist Deepti Gurdasani epitomized the cynical strategy lying behind this laissez faire failure to act: ‘The gaslighting cycle: SAGE: Don’t wait till hospital admissions to rise to act or it’ll be too late. Govt/media: -‘too much uncertainty’/’mild’/’need more data’ -‘SAGE modelling wrong’ -‘closely following the data’ (what data? PCRs/LFD capacity reached) -‘hosps mostly incidental’ -‘too late now’!’ What’s increasingly being realized is that this strategy kills two birds with one stone for Boris Johnson, or so he thinks – placating his vociferous libertarian wing and running down the NHS to the extent that it will ‘have to be’ privatized, a long term goal of Tory administrations. Nearly 36,000 NHS staff were off work last week – up 41% on the previous week – how is this sustainable? Yet besides Covid a key underlying cause is the government’s failure to invest in the workforce over years. I think it would be a salutary experience for ministers to volunteer at hospitals (mopping floors, cleaning toilets and the like, not photocalls) to see what life at the NHS ‘coalface’ is really like. It’s shaming that the army has had to be brought in and I wonder what (since I’ve seen no coverage of it) what army personnel think about being asked to prop up the NHS and the supply chain because of government failures.

This didn’t stop a former Health Minister, Jeremy Hunt, increasingly treated as a sage by our media, speaking about a report showing ‘the government’s recovery plans risk being thrown off course by an entirely predictable staffing crisis. The current wave of Omicron is exacerbating the problem but we already had a serious staffing crisis, with a burnt-out workforce, 93,000 vacancies and no sign of any plan to address this’. This and similar opinions have been expressed apparently without any sense of his own responsibility for the policies leading to the current crisis.

The instruction for secondary school children to wear masks again as the new term started this week is yet another example of reactive kneejerk policymaking – the announcement was only made the day before and despite the bluster of Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi it’s clear very little has been done over the intervening months to ventilate school buildings. The best he could do was to invoke the ‘Blitz spirit’ and suggest impracticable measures like combining classes, immediately dismissed by education experts.

The government is also ignoring the dangers of Long Covid, which has around 200 potential symptoms, and which leads many to feeling debilitated for months on end, possibly years, it may turn out. There’s limited provision for Long Covid patients in the NHS, but no problem if you have a few thousand to spare, as some retreat centres have capitalized on this opportunity to offer treatment in luxurious settings. ‘In September, the Office for National Statistics estimated that 1.1 million people in the UK currently suffer with long Covid, while between July and August, only 5,737 people were referred to specialist NHS clinics. With the Omicron variant threatening more lives, there’s a gap in the market for long-Covid care, and plenty of private practitioners are happy to fill it – for a price’.

‘In ascending order of eye watering, there’s: the Park Igls Fit After Covid “therapeutic module” in Austria for £3,000 a week; the RAKxa long Covid programme in Thailand at £2,893 for three nights; and the Arrigo Long Covid Healing Programme in Somerset, £2,500 a day (minimum seven-day stay). Then there’s VivaMayr, where patients can exercise in the Alpine air, jump into the icy lake and have frequent massages to help them relieve their symptoms’. Some patients clearly benefit from treatments like ‘acupuncture on a heated bed covered in flower petals, then a bath with magnesium flakes’ but the doctors involved admit there’s still much we don’t know about this syndrome, how it exposes health inequalities and political polarities – neoliberal ideology of self-responsibility versus state provision of health services.   

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Meanwhile, ministers might not be thanking their boss for instructing them to prepare ‘contingency plans’ for the 25% workforce shortages when this situation has been of his own making. More than 90 care home operators in England have declared a red alert over staffing, which must be desperately worrying for vulnerable residents’ families and we see daily staff shortages everywhere, from reduced public transport services to reduced opening hours in restaurants and museums, etc.

Our Prime Minister was so invisible over the break (but surely it shouldn’t be a break for government given the current situation) that a good number of social media users were prompted to ask ‘Where is Boris?’ Asked this question by a journalist, the PM seemed to bluster and hesitate (some had believed he’d been in Mustique) before laughing sheepishly ‘I’ve been in this country’. He clearly hadn’t been rehearsing his parliamentary performance, as evidenced by the first Prime Minister’s Questions of the year, pretty much a car crash. As Keir Starmer had tested positive again, he faced Labour deputy Angela Rayner, who gave him a thrashing. The exchange was dissected by John Crace, who, like various other media sources outed the four lies Johnson resorted to without (again) challenge from the Speaker. Challenged by Rayner on inflation now running at 6% when in October he’d said fears of inflation were without foundation, he initially ummed and erred but then denied having said it. ‘From that point on, Johnson was pretty much lost, careering from one car crash to the next. In between wittering on about cold weather payments and the warm home discount – he claimed it was worth £140 a week: it isn’t, it’s £140 a year, though this was probably less a lie and more total ignorance – he just bounced from one lie to the next causing ever greater self-harm’. Given the insult to Parliament and MPs this conduct delivers, it’s strange and inexcusable that the Speaker doesn’t call out these untruths –surely something John Bercow would have done.

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Sleaze didn’t take either a Christmas or New Year break, with revelations rolling in ‘at pace’ (to use that well-worn government phrase), the latest being the gullible Lord Geidt’s exoneration of Boris Johnson over the saga of the Downing Street flat refurbishment. It seems to me that the heads of all these whitewash inquiries should be questioned and hauled over the coals in the same way the alleged perpetrators of the inciting misdemeanours are meant to be. How predictable that messages between the PM and the refurbishment funding peer Lord Brownlow (clearly showing the link between this funding and the promise to look at Brownlow’s Great Exhibition plans) weren’t available during Geidt’s investigation because of a replaced phone. This, when everyone knows WhatsApp threads can be retrieved for the new phone.

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The PM’s letter of apology for conveniently overlooking and excluding these messages is a luxury he could ‘afford’ since by then the exoneration was in the bag. We understand Lord Geidt is now being pressed to re-open his investigation but can we have any faith in his skills? What authority and weight can such investigations carry when they never fail to exonerate the guilty parties despite plenty of evidence to condemn them? It’s also a huge waste of public time and money. Another side-effect of the continuing ‘sleaze’ is that people will be far less likely to comply with further restrictions, should they be introduced, especially lockdowns when Downing Street and others were enjoying parties during previous ones.

You have to wonder about the level of cognitive dissonance in ministers who get the media round gig every day, the struggle to defend the obvious sleaze becoming more challenging day by day. On Friday morning it was the turn of Business Minister Paul Scully, who tried to deny that the two issues (of refurbishment funds and the donor’s exhibition plans) were linked, this link indicating corruption. Green MP Caroline summed up the reactions of many on Twitter: ‘One of the many depressing consequences of having a PM who is corrupt, venal & deceitful is that it infects all around him. Ministers who were once presumably pretty decent are sent out every day to defend the indefensible & they do it. Where’s their self respect?’ Where indeed?

The honours system came in for predictable flak, when this week it emerged that 25% of Tory donors had received one. What a surprise. The number of honours rolled out at least twice a year is surely contributing to a situation whereby it will be unusual not to be a knight or a dame. The strongest reaction, though, was disbelief and anger at Tony Blair receiving the highest order of the knight category (Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, the oldest and most senior order of chivalry), interestingly decreed by the Palace and not Downing Street. It’s still not clear why this decision was taken but already thousands have signed a petition asking for the knighthood to be rescinded. Many were also incredulous that Speaker Lindsay Hoyle defended this award, adding that this was the toughest job and that all prime ministers should be similarly honoured. ‘Whatever people might think, it is one of the toughest jobs in the world and I think it is respectful and it is the right thing to do, whether it is to Tony Blair or to David Cameron. They should all be offered that knighthood when they finish as prime minister…I would say if you’ve been prime minister of this country, I do believe the country should recognise the service they’ve given’. Surely the key question there is have they actually given service? Or have they simply used the position for their own interests and self-aggrandisement? One of the objectors tweeted: ‘No honours should be automatic. There are few effective controls on bad politicians and especially PMs. Withholding an honour is one of the few (if pathetic) options left. The honours system anyway needs a complete rethink. It’s too biased to certain types of people/professions’.

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As the Ghislaine Maxwell trial reached its conclusion and guilty verdict, the pressure further builds on Prince Andrew, his lawyers still trying to get him off the Virginia Giuffre law suit on a technicality. While many have been askance at Maxwell’s brother, Ian Maxwell, being interviewed on Radio 4 for the second time, some important questions not receiving much coverage are raised by journalist Jonathan Freedland. One is ‘how many others enabled the travelling child abuse ring that Epstein and Maxwell operated, turning a blind eye to what was surely obvious’? The black book of Maxwell/Epstein contacts citing the powerful and (so far) protected enablers and participants could yet be opened. Freedland challenges the stance that wicked behaviours can only stem from systemic failures.

‘There was an echo of it in the closing argument from Maxwell’s defence lawyer, when she asked “why an Oxford-educated, proper English woman would suddenly agree to facilitate sex abuse of minors”. Only the poor or poorly educated behave badly. We can see the flaw in such reasoning, even before you get to the insult it delivers to all those who endured great privation, emotional or material, without becoming abusers. And yet, the absence of easy answers does not give us a licence to stop asking hard questions. We need to be able to stare wicked acts and evil deeds in the face, rather than to comfort ourselves that they exist solely as functions of failed systems, errors that could be eliminated given the right policy tweak’.

https://bit.ly/34xTP1b

There are many interesting (if unsavoury) aspects to this case but I find myself interested in two particularly: who is paying Andrew’s legal bills (if the Queen, as widely reported, what kind of message does this convey?); and the fact that the longstanding assumption of those in high places including the royals that they are protected from the law clearly is not cutting ice with the US judiciary. Whatever the outcome is, though, it doesn’t augur well for the Prince’s future and quality of life, especially when it is eventually no longer possible to hide behind his mother. Meanwhile, we’re still waiting for the decision Judge Kaplan on Tuesday would come ‘soon’, as to whether a settlement agreement between convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and Ms Giuffre offered the prince protection from her legal action against him. There’s speculation that Andrew will try to settle out of court in order to avoid a trial, but whether or not this transpires, his role in public life is surely at an end.

This is the time of year when some will already have abandoned New Year’s Resolutions and I’ve long believed it’s best not to make such a big deal of it but to be aiming at various desired improvements incrementally and throughout the year. The fable of the tortoise and hare comes to mind. It’s also important to watch out for the many wanting to make money out of us to implement said resolutions, and while some external input can be useful, we do really have to rely primarily on our own motivation and application. A lighthearted look at how to make improvements ‘without really trying’ proves an interesting and refreshing read, recommending amongst other things trying to read a poem a day, be polite to rude people, take Twitter off your phone, drop your shoulders, always take something to a dinner party even when told not to, plant bulbs, have a cold shower before your hot one, don’t save clothes for best, wear them and enjoy them, unsubscribe from unwanted emails (usually retailers?) give compliments widely and freely, do that one thing you’ve been putting off, and make a friend from a different generation. See what you think!  

https://bit.ly/3q5mWkC

It’s also useful to see what ten books about self-improvement are suggested by a cultural historian – some going way back, such as Meditations, by Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (AD 121–180), who believed that all suffering is in our minds. Importantly, this article strikes a balance between those who argue that the concept of ‘self-improvement’ is a cynical by-product of capitalism (the industry is valued at £8bn globally) and those who appreciate its long history, recognising a universal wish ‘for self-knowledge, for mastery and for transformation. It is a timeless desire and an essential part of what makes us human’.

https://bit.ly/3r2VDH5

Finally, having enjoyed the fascinating and elegiac documentary The Truffle Hunters, about how this ancient tradition of searching for rare and expensive truffles is pursued deep in the forests of Piedmont, Italy, it was pleasing to learn that truffle hunting has now been recognised by Unesco as an ‘intangible cultural asset’. Italian truffle hunters apparently campaigned for 8 years for this recognition, the practice being described as being ‘marked by a special relationship with nature in a rite that is rich with anthropological and cultural aspects’. We’re told that that Italy has more than 70,000 hunters (interesting the market can support this many in Italy alone!), many having learned the whereabouts and the skills to extract the truffles from their parents and grandparents. I’d not previously heard of Unesco’s intangible cultural assets list and it’s interesting to learn that Italy has 15, including the art of dry stone walling, Neapolitan wood-fired pizza making and ‘religious processions incorporating shoulder-borne structures’. Perusing Unesco’s list makes interesting reading!

https://bit.ly/3ntGVIj

Sunday 12 December

Various media outlets are now finally discussing the degree to which we can trust the Prime Minister, citing a plummeting in trust over recent months. The major theme of this blog has been the risks to public mental health when we can’t trust our leaders, who function as proxies for our early authority figures (eg parents) and who have a duty of care to psychologically hold their ‘charges’. It’s no coincidence that, since the start of this administration and most particularly since Covid, we have seen repeated inconsistency, corruption and incompetence which severely undermine the trust which should exist between political leaders and the people. This has contributed to the rise in public anxiety and demand for mental health services, themselves in a dire state.

At the recent departure of Angela Merkel as Germany’s longstanding Chancellor, there were understandable criticisms of some of her policies but there was pretty well a consensus on her capacity to ‘hold’ the nation. People could trust her, one manifestation being her pandemic strategy to effectively create a partnership between government, scientists and the people. This meant that, unlike the UK, politicians didn’t try to keep the public in the dark, so although Covid has proved an unprecedented challenge, Germans could feel safer and less anxious overall. There was someone actually in charge, not just in office.

Each week it seems as if an unprecedented amount has happened in the political sphere but this last week must cap them all, our Prime Minister central to all these related issues. It’s well-known that he has ‘got away with it’ all his life but now, finally, it looks as if his cynical, opportunistic and disingenuous chickens might be coming home to roost. And becoming a father once again can’t be expected to save him. To those who try to dismiss the many misdemeanours by saying they happened some time ago there are many more who see this is as a pattern which must be taken into account. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘The attitudes and behavior from the previous year are still relevant today unless those offending individuals can show they have changed. The problem with #partygate is that they tried to deny it rather than fessing up, and therein lies the real problem’. Ok, so it’s ‘Never apologise (genuinely, that is – never explain. Another said: ‘There are some Tory loyalists bending over backwards to defend Johnson. It’s indefensible. The rules were there for a purpose. Millions followed them and missed important family gatherings, some for the last time’.

Adding to the pile on of this week, we now also have news of the Christmas quiz, where Boris Johnson was clearly seen in close proximity to two colleagues, one of whom was adorned by tinsel. We can wonder what else is waiting to come out.  It’s noticeable that Downing Street is still trying to fib its way out of these scenarios, suggesting this was a ‘virtual quiz’.

Many are understandably very angry, especially those who lost friends and family members but who had obeyed the ‘rules’ set by the government. Some media phone-in callers still don’t see any of this as a moral failing, though: one even suggested the main problem to be that the revellers just hadn’t done enough to cover it up. Every day more evidence emerged to substantiate the previous revelations, such as The Times revealing that the party had been planned for weeks, invites having been sent via WhatsApp. ‘Invitations to last year’s event were circulated at the end of November, asking people to attend the press office’s “secret Santa” gathering with an exchange of gifts. The invitation said it would be held on December 18 and that there would be food and wine’.

https://bit.ly/3GSmOL9

As if this wasn’t enough, the Guardian attempts to list this plethora of parties, amounting to no fewer than six, and how many more might come to light?

https://bit.ly/30kgOeh

I spoke too soon, as the independent Byline Times has identified eight parties including one at no 10 itself, allegedly organised by Carrie Johnson to celebrate the exit of Dominic Cummings. But as we’ve seen this year, Cummings has been more than getting his own back by intervening at crucial junctures, most recently on Partygate, saying it would be ‘very unwise’ for Downing Street to lie about these parties.

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The Guardian’s John Crace lampooned the ‘partygate’ deniers (‘Sajid Javid and Mike Ellis both claim nothing untoward happened at events that did not take place’), describing how many tied themselves up in knots trying to defend the indefensible and cynically accepting ‘assurances’ that nothing of this kind took place. In retrospect, the media were fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on how you look at it) to have any ministers appear on their programmes during the early part of the week because in the latter part they were refusing to appear (finally refusing to do the PM’s dirty work and fed up with being put in a difficult position?), to the extent that the Today programme actually had to (!) interview an opposition spokesman instead. Many of those listening were impressed with the reasoned arguments of Wes Streeting, Shadow Minister for Health and Social Care.

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It adds insult to injury that the Met Police have found all sorts of excuses not to investigate the party, especially when social media and media shows are full of callers saying how devastated they are to learn of this levity and complacency when their own relatives were sick and dying alone. The key excuse was the absurd suggestion that past events could not be investigated when, by definition, all crime is retrospective. Policing and prosecution sources told the Guardian there was no reason in law for police not to investigate, and essentially the Met’s decision was a choice. A former Met police chief said the force was acting as judge and jury. ‘Each investigation must pass a public interest test – that is, is it in the public interest to put resources, time and effort into an investigation. It is up to the discretion of the force, and ultimately subjective’. Surely such important decisions should not be discretionary: there should be uniformity across all police forces so that events of undeniable importance should be consistently investigated.

Going back to the start of the week, which now seems a long time ago, we heard Dominic Raab’s car crash interviews denying evidence of the ‘shambolic’ exit from Afghanistan and how the safety of Afghans who’d worked for the British government had been put at risk through careless exposure of their contact details; not long after Sajid Javid had said they had no intention of re-introducing Covid restrictions the government, finally spooked by Omicron, er, re-introduced Covid restrictions; the refusal of ‘Partygate’ to go away, leading to numerous MPs and ministers including Kit Malthouse choosing to accept ‘assurances’ that no party took place; as the hugely damaging footage of the mock Allegra Stratton party interview emerged, absurd attempts to redefine ‘party’ (eg ‘gathering’ or ‘a few drinks’); the  resignation of a tearful Allegra Stratton proving that, clearly, a party had taken place; the emergence of news that other parties had also taken place including one held by then Education Secretary Gavin Williamson; and now the possibility that Boris Johnson misled Lord Geidt, who was investigating the issues around the financing of the Downing Street flat refurbishment and for which the Conservative Party has already been fined nearly £18k for not fully disclosing.

One of these would have been enough for people to question Boris Johnson’s credibility and integrity but the full range means there can be no doubt of what many have long known. Yet, astonishingly, as heard on various radio programmes, those in denial continue to call in, suggesting the Prime Minister has had a very challenging year and has dealt well with the pandemic via the vaccine rollout (when it’s been clear for some time that this can’t be the silver bullet originally intended), refusing to acknowledge what many are now openly calling the PM’s serial lying. Perhaps the clue lies in Stephen Nolan’s BBC 5 Live Friday programme, in which  author and journalist Harry Mount, who’s known Johnson for a number of years, acknowledged the sheer disorganisation central to the PM’s modus operandi (and to some degree the lying) but said ‘you can’t help liking him’, citing ‘enormous charm’. Nolan rightly challenged the issue of liking someone who lies, and Mount responded that whether or not Johnson had completed his Telegraph article back in the day was ‘only a little lie’.

The stance of Tory stalwarts like Sir Roger Gale, interviewed on Radio 4, who kept stressing his ‘incredulity’ about the party has to be heard to be believed: this is either extreme naiveté (unlikely in a seasoned politician) or cynical denial to protect their own position. Accepting no 10 ‘reassurance’ about the Downing Street party (and the others) is effectively an admission of lack of backbone and moral compass, in my view.

Johnson’s conduct might just about pass muster for the journalist the PM once was but surely not for major political office. It comes to something when Johnson is publicly eviscerated by former Attorney General Dominic Grieve and former Speaker John Bercow, whose statement in a tv interview ended with the devastating ‘I’m sorry to say it, but I’ve known 12 Prime Ministers in my lifetime and by a country mile Boris Johnson is the worst… this guy stinks in the nostrils of decent people’. Oof.

Even worse comes from his own side, though. Westminster sources are suggesting this the endgame for him and Conservative MPs have not held back, judging by comments in the i newspaper: ‘Two years on almost to the day from Boris’s biggest triumph he has, not to put too fine a point on it, f***ed it. His chances of making the next election have slipped well below 50-50. He is treating the British public like he has his previous relationships and it’s not an edifying sight. Using a football analogy, another said: ‘He gave us some great victories, but now it feels like we’ve got a Mourinho during his second season and he’s lost the dressing room’.

Even given the prevailing shambles, though, it’s thought the 80 seat majority and Tory MPs reluctance to initiate a leadership challenge will ensure Boris Johnson will yet again emerge not unscathed but safe for now. So much for democracy in this country. This is the kind of statement that says it all, the use of euphemistic language clearly intended to take the heat out of it: ‘The next 18 months are going to be really difficult for him and he cannot afford any more missteps’. So this ‘dressing room’ is rather a mixed bag.

https://bit.ly/3DNiRoW

Meanwhile, on Friday pollsters reported Labour taking a six-point lead over the Tories and all eyes will be on the North Shropshire by-election next week to see if those constituents have woken from their long-term Tory MP returning slumbers. (You might recall that, a few weeks ago when news of the Owen Paterson scandal broke) numerous locals interviewed in Oswestry hadn’t known about his fall from grace and came out with views like ‘They’re all as bad as each other’/’Better the devil you know’.

It’s strange that Covid restrictions such as mask wearing on public transport have been introduced before Parliament votes on them. Many more were wearing masks on the London Underground and for the first time ever this week I saw Transport for London enforcement officers at work, but within days it was more ‘relaxed’, with only some station staff wearing a mask, or half wearing it. The restrictions have been lampooned on social media for their mixed messaging, ie ‘Don’t go to work, go to Christmas parties’.

The government faces a tough challenge when these measures come to the vote next week as around 57 Tory MPs have declared their intention to vote against them on the grounds of ‘human rights and civil liberties’. This prompted a tweet from a specialist in international refugee law: ‘Nope, sorry, not feeling it. If you’re an MP saying you’ll vote against public health measures because of “human rights and civil liberties”, but voted for the Borders Bill, which specifically strips both from other people, you obviously don’t care about either.’

But how will these MPs react to the leaked news that, due to Omicron cases rising exponentially, yet further measures are likely to be necessary? Interviewed on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House today, it was quite refreshing to hear Wales First Minister Mark Drakeford come out and say how ‘selfish’ it was in response to the stance of Tory MP Marcus Fysh and others up in arms about restrictions such as mask wearing. He rightly pointed out that such people were only concerned about their own freedom, rather than the collective concept of freedom which means considering others.

‘The warning (about the possibility of further restrictions) came as the government reported a further 50,867 daily Covid cases, 813 more admissions to hospital and 148 additional deaths on Thursday, marking rises on all measures over the past week. Omicron spreading faster than in South Africa The UK Health Security Agency identified a further 249 Omicron cases on Thursday, almost twice the number announced the day before, bringing the UK total to 817’. Experts predict that this pattern is likely to continue, possibly leading to 8,000 in a week and 64,000 in two weeks on top of the continuing Delta cases’. We know the government is going to review these measures on 18 December, suggesting that this gives people time to consider their Christmas arrangements but it’s far too late in the day for that. In any case we have to seriously consider the possibility that the government’s proven hypocrisy regarding Covid rules means that any made now are likely to be widely disregarded.

https://bit.ly/3lUD06w

But the big question which must be occupying many minds now is whether Christmas in terms of gatherings and household mixing can go ahead and major decisions on 18 December will leave many scrambling to implement their own Plan B.  Commentators have rightly pointed out that ministers with a different take on these issues will be deciding this year, ie Steve Barclay and Sajid Javid, as opposed to the more cautious Michael Gove and Matt Hancock this year. Those of us who fault the government’s short-sighted policy of focusing mostly on vaccination as the silver bullet have been vindicated by at least one adviser to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), who described this approach as “all the eggs in one basket”: it puts everything onto ‘scientific intervention’ to limit the spread of Covid than human behaviour.

https://bit.ly/3rZMnFO

But the Prime Minister’s broadcast (pre-recorded, which was criticised for the fact that no journalists would be there to ask questions) this evening wasn’t as some may have wished (his resignation) but to declare a state of (Omicron-driven) emergency which previously he had seemed fairly relaxed about. What a lot can change in a week.

As for the resignation of scapegoat Allegra Stratton, many were infuriated first by the original footage showing her laughing and joking on film then unconvinced on Wednesday by her tearful appearance in front of tv crews when she had known about this and lived with it for a year. For anyone with a moral compass this would be quite a task.  ‘The British people have made immense sacrifices in the battle against Covid 19. I now fear that my comments in the leaked video of 20 December may have become a distraction against that fight’, said Stratton, whose resignation surely would not have happened without the emergence of the incriminating footage.  Before this the party was still being denied by official sources but this resignation placed it beyond doubt. Robert Peston, ITV’s political editor, who had worked with Stratton while she was a journalist, said her resignation was confirmation the event had taken place. “She is a model for many in modern politics … in that she has taken responsibility and quit without prevarication. It would be nonsensical for [Stratton] to have resigned if the Downing Street party had never happened, and she wasn’t conspicuously making light of it. So she has just blown up the prime minister’s ‘I’ve been assured the party never happened.’”

https://bit.ly/3s02zXG

The investigation of ‘Partygate’ by Cabinet Secretary Simon Case has already been labelled a ‘whitewash’ in some quarters – like so many inquiries which have taken place over recent years, such a waste of public time and money. Numerous newspaper columns and commentaries have now been devoted to the ramifications of Partygate but it’s worth reading John Crace on it – he manages to be funny at the same time as capturing the ghastliness of this situation. In ‘It’s my party and I’ll lie if I want to:  Boris Johnson is bang to rights’, Crace observes the demeanour of Johnson’s colleagues at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday. ‘Some of the Tory backbenchers looked furious. The others just appeared bewildered to have been fooled for so long. Taken for mugs, like the rest of the country. But they needn’t have been. After all, Boris Johnson was always going to be Boris Johnson. A liar is gonna lie. He speaks, he lies. He’s a man without moral authority who degrades and poisons everything with which he comes in contact. A sociopath whose main pleasures are self-preservation and laughing at those to whom he has a duty of care’. While the PM tries to brazen out the accusations and jeers coming from the floor, even trying to play the innocent by saying he was ‘furious’ when he saw ‘that’ footage, ‘…his eyes gave the game away. Bloodshot, furtive pinpricks. The telltale signs of the chancer who feels his world beginning to close in on him’.

Despite the PM’s reality distortions ‘no one believed the prime minister, so could he at least show some self-respect by admitting the truth…. The rules were for the little people. Like Tricia, who had not been able to say goodbye to her mother in person while staff at No 10 were having a knees-up and rehearsing their lies. Like the Queen, who had sat alone during Prince Philip’s funeral. Just not for Boris and his cronies. They could do what they wanted… Labour’s Rosena Allin-Khan wondered how Boris sleeps at night. The answer was simple. He sleeps on one side of the bed and his conscience sleeps on the other. God knows where Carrie sleeps’.

https://bit.ly/3dKmiSK

With so much going on last week something potentially important could be overlooked (though many commentators fear it misses the boat) – that is the government’s new ten year drugs strategy. This (eventually) comes in the wake of the second part of the review, published in July, by Dame Carole Black, who estimated that the illicit drug market in the UK was worth £9.4bn a year, but cost society more than double that figure in terms of health, crime and societal impacts. This is surely the most important issue to consider: I always remember a striking exhibit in the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition about drugs some years ago. It was a frieze occupying the length of an entire wall, which tracked the journey of drugs such as cocaine from their origins in South or Central America to the streets of Europe, adding on the financial and human costs at each stage. It’s this chain of misery which the government probably rightly believes that ‘middle class weekend cocaine users’ just don’t get as they don’t see the wider implications of their recreational use.

‘So-called “lifestyle” users of class A drugs face losing their passports or driving licences under proposals designed to target wealthy professionals who the government will argue are driving exploitative practices with their demand. Police officers will be handed powers to go through drug dealers’ phones and contact their clients with warnings about drug use in a bid to spook them into changing their behaviour’. Ministers have been said to be now convinced that drug use is a health issue and that the strategy will include ‘overhauling’ treatment plans. It will be interesting to see how this strategy pans out – commentators are already critical of it ‘for going “backwards” by embracing a criminal sanction-led approach while other countries and federal states are adopting more progressive approaches, such as legalisation of cannabis in Canada’. And a recent analysis of policies in other countries concluded that, contrary to expectation and belief in some quarters, decriminalising cannabis use, for example (often seen as the first step to use of heavier drugs) has not actually done away with the illegal trade, a major goal of decriminalisation. At least one irony is that evidence has been found of drug taking in the House of Commons.  

https://bbc.in/3pSoA7N

Finally, some light relief in the form of a cheering story. Since March 2017 Lancashire plumber James Anderson has been offering free or low cost plumbing services to those in need, like the elderly bed-bound man whose boiler had stopped working. ‘Since that day, Anderson has worked to protect other vulnerable people from exploitative or unaffordable heating bills. He founded Depher, a community interest company (he is in the process of turning it into a registered charity) that provides free or heavily subsidised plumbing and heating services to people on low incomes and other vulnerable groups. Around 30% of Depher’s funding comes from donations, although it’s always a struggle to get enough. The rest comes from Anderson’s own pocket. When he launched Depher, he closed his profitable plumbing and heating business without thinking twice’. This work has made him aware of the hidden poverty in his town, likely to get worse with rapidly rising energy bills. He says: ‘It’s not about getting a reward. It’s about that feeling of humanity you get when people work together. Imagine how much better this country could be, if everyone pulled together’. Quite right and good on him – what an absolute contrast to the cynical manoeuvrings of this government.

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This blog will now be taking a break till the New Year. Seasonal greetings to everyone and thanks for following and reading!

Sunday 5 December

How things can change in a week – ten days ago despite rising Covid cases some commentators and politicians were blithely alluding to Covid as being in the past: on UnHerd Andrew Lilico had said ‘Britain is remarkably well-placed as it emerges from the pandemic. Public health officials will of course continue to be concerned about infection levels but as a grand policy question, Covid is finished’. Then last weekend the Omicron variant (now 160 in the UK), thought to be highly transmissible and dangerous, emerged here, more coming to light every day. Boris Johnson’s and ministers’ complacency about Christmas has been punctured and the public now has a double dose of anxiety – not only the increased risk of Covid but uncertainty due to the government’s mixed and unscientific messaging. The PM, Oliver Dowden and others, obviously concerned about attracting opprobrium, have effectively said continue with Christmas events, others displaying more caution.

Whereas Work and Pensions Minister Therese Coffey said there shouldn’t be ‘much snogging under the mistletoe’ (a bit of ‘snogging’ is ok, then?), Sajid Javid and science minister George Freeman in media interviews took the opposite view and Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden said ‘People should keep calm and carry on with their Christmas plans, as long as they abide by the mask-wearing in the settings we’ve set out, namely public transport and retail’. It comes hours after government advisor Professor Peter Openshaw cautioned: ‘Personally, I wouldn’t feel safe going to a party at the moment’ – even if attendees were vaccinated…..the chances of getting infected were too high’.

Lamenting the lack of political leadership over Covid, Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust who stepped down as a government scientific adviser last month, said ‘Omicron shows the world is closer to the start of the pandemic than the end’ and that progress is being ‘squandered’.

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Boris Johnson typically undermined leading scientists and health officials who advised people to cut back on unnecessary socialising, instead urging people not to cancel their Christmas parties or nativity plays. He said the best thing was to get booster jabs, with a massive NHS effort backed by the army to offer all adults one by the end of January. As usual ministers are continuing to see vaccination as the silver bullet rather than considering further measures other countries are now implementing. This laizzez faire attitude could cost more lives. Having seen what happened last year, many have nevertheless been cancelling hospitality bookings and at least some planned holidays will have to be postponed because of the quarantine requirements imposed by a number of countries, not to mention the hurriedly re-introduced pre-departure tests. On Tuesday, the first day of the reintroduced measures, there were 39,716 new cases in the UK and 159 deaths, with mask refuseniks on public transport being caught out by substantial fines. Up till now there’s been very little policing of mask wearing on transport systems but at least in London the situation has definitely changed over the last few days.

On Day 1 152 people were fined £200, and a further 125 were ejected from London’s services, with 127 refused entry to stations. Will this continue, though? It’s been common to see unmasked staff and it’s fairly likely that there will be less attention paid to policing it over the coming weeks and perhaps months. The groups of police at station entrances also need to get themselves down onto platforms and trains – it’s not uncommon to see people remove their mask once they’ve got past ‘officialdom’. Not to mention their doing nothing about maskless passengers emerging from escalators and lifts.

The hospitality and travel industries have once more been plunged into gloom, 70% of hospitality venues seeing cancellations and a steep decline in bookings since the emergence of Omicron. ‘Of the 290 independently owned Best Western hotels in the UK, three-quarters have had an increase in Christmas cancellations and 89% have expressed concern about the festive trading period, the group said. About 70% have seen a decline in bookings since the Omicron variant emerged. More than two-thirds are worried businesses and individuals will still be wary about booking in the early part of next year’.

The travel industry will find itself under yet more pressure due to the latest ruling, one representative calling it ‘a hammer blow’. All international arrivals to the UK will be required from early Tuesday to take a pre-departure Covid-19 test to tackle the Omicron variant. Some callers to Stephen Nolan’s Five Live programme yesterday were up in arms about this and other measures because of their illogicality – when people are required to quarantine they can still and do travel from airports to their homes by public transport. Perhaps the travel industry (reacting ‘furiously’) will now have to take on board the messages they refused to during COP26 – their partial responsibility for the climate crisis.

https://bit.ly/3GgeLHp

As ever, our Prime Minister looks on the bright side, substituting hope and optimism for sensible polices and contingency planning. This ‘Bertie Booster’ act is now wearing thin with his own colleagues let alone those who saw the light months or even years ago. The Guardian’s John Crace writes: ‘The PM’s response to Omicron is to do the bare minimum his deranged backbenchers will tolerate’. It was also to disown Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency and frequent speaker at Downing Street press conferences, after she publicly advised limiting our social contacts at this time. Crace then deconstructs various ‘Tory MPs: ‘Graham Brady, another of the more intellectually challenged MPs, reckoned that if the Omicron variant was resistant to the vaccine then it was best all round if people died sooner than later. Then we’d know where we were. Craig MacKinlay rather agreed. There was no point developing a new vaccine that worked against Omicron as the virus would only mutate again. Christopher Chope couldn’t work out why people who had been vaccinated should be made to wear masks even if they were infectious, while the fundamentalist Steve Baker saw it as something of a crusade’.

The article ends with the Prime Minister’s modus operandi in a nutshell: ‘Besides, you only really needed masks if you were meeting people you didn’t know. Mmm. Fingers crossed and all that’.

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As if there wasn’t enough important news on the agenda, a supplement which must have been very unwelcome to Boris Johnson was the revelation of the Downing Street party last December – against lockdown rules, of course. Some ministers unlucky enough to draw the short straw for the daily media round have been tying themselves up in knots trying to deny it. It was actually a couple of parties, involving ‘food, drink and games that went on past midnight’ although no 10 has said ‘all rules were followed’. Ironically, that same evening we’re told police handed out £34,000 in fines after breaking up a student party in Sheffield. Much easier for the police to do than tackle rulebreaking at government level.

 Besides further adding to the ‘one rule for us, another for them’ attitude, it’s highly cynical of the media to only ‘out’ this now when they must have known about it at the time. The difference is the media are now far more disenchanted with the PM and his colleagues than they were last year. An exasperated commentator tweeted: ‘You could not have a party in December 2020 & comply with rules which said you cannot have a party! How hard can this be!!!’ As the Do Not Comply hashtag has been trending on Twitter this last week, news of this illegal party will further strengthen the resolve of those opposed to mask wearing, vaccination and other Covid safety measures.

As so often, the media collude with the government in focusing on other issues eg deflecting attention onto the rise of Covid cases in Germany. Meanwhile, many have been flabbergasted by the Met Police saying they only investigate an issue on request and they don’t investigate retrospectively! Whatever happened to the concept of proactive policing? And by definition all crime has been committed ‘in the past’. This has resulted in Labour MPs and many members of the public tweeting and writing to the Met to demand an investigation into this party. A series of tweets reads: ‘Dear Met Police, I wish to report a flagrant breaching of Covid rules at 10 Downing Street SW1A 2AA where a gathering of over 40 people took place on 18th December 2020. This included the Right Hon Boris Johnson will you please investigate this matter. Thanks.’

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Amid the Omicron and Downing Street concerns, what should surely have attracted more attention is Ian Blackford’s striking performance on Tuesday spelling out Boris Johnson’s misrepresentations, calling him a liar but without any demand to retract his comment from ‘Madam Deputy Speaker’. Blackford, Leader of the Scottish National Party in the House of Commons, has long gunned for Boris Johnson, but at least this time has perhaps scored a bull’s eye. He tweeted: ‘Last Christmas, the Prime Minister hosted a packed party in Downing Street, an event that broke his own lockdown rules. When public health messaging is so vital, how are people expected to trust a PM when he thinks it is one rule for him and one rule for everybody else?’

The Herald (Scotland) tells us that ‘prior to the session, the Commons Deputy Speaker Dame Eleanor Laing warned MPs about their conduct, saying “intemperate abuse” was “out of order”. However, she added, that “things may be said which the chair would not normally permit.” The SNP scheduled the debate to raise their concerns about the ongoing claims of corruption and sleaze within the Conservative party, and within Government in general.  They have specifically called for Mr Johnson to be censured for his alleged role in the scandals, and for his ministerial salary to be reduced by half’. 

https://bit.ly/3lBY6WU

Meanwhile, despite the Owen Paterson/Geoffrey Cox and many other examples of corruption, sleaze continues unabated in some quarters, more examples emerging like that of former health minister Steve Brine, who ‘started raking in £1,600 a month giving “strategic advice” to Sigma pharmaceuticals, just months after quitting as Public Health Minister in March 2019’. Except he’s only recently quit. At issue is his breaking the ministerial code by claiming in the register of interests to have consulted Parliament’s revolving door watchdog before taking a £200 an hour job with pharma company Sigma when in fact because he’d already started the job. ‘The firm was later handed a Covid-19 testing contract worth £100,000’. (Former Ministers have to consult jobs watchdog the Advisory Body on Business Appointments (ACOBA) before taking any job within two years of leaving government). Faux gracious innocence is one way we could describe the MP’s response to the Sunday Mirror: ‘I am going to look into all of this with the House authorities, at the earliest opportunity, and make sure everything is in order. I am grateful for your bringing it to my attention’. You couldn’t make it up.

https://bit.ly/32W5GoR

Opinion polls show how Boris Johnson’s assumption of public support can no longer be taken for granted, as trust plummets following the ongoing revelations about his conduct and that of his MPs. ‘Trust in politicians to act in the national interest rather than for themselves has fallen dramatically since Boris Johnson became prime minister, according to figures contained in a disturbing new study into the state of British democracy. The polling data from YouGov for the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) shows a particularly sharp fall in trust in the few weeks since the Owen Paterson scandal triggered a rash of Tory sleaze scandals’.

‘In 2014, when David Cameron was prime minister, 48% of voters believed politicians were “out merely for themselves” as opposed to their country or party. This had increased to 57% by May 2021 after nearly two years of Johnson in No 10, and leapt to 63% last week in the wake of the Paterson affair. In the same poll, just 5% of voters thought politicians were in the job primarily for the good of their country’. It’s significant that Boris Johnson was booed when he parachuted into Shropshire last week, although the seat held by Paterson had been a safe Tory seat.

https://bit.ly/3dnGwS6

The IPPR report (Trust issues – dealing with distrust in politics) is the first in a series that will look at the causes of distrust and possible remedies to shore up UK democracy. It concludes that declining trust is a serious danger to the efficient functioning of society. ‘It matters for our democracy: where an absence of trust turns into active distrust – characterised by cynicism and disillusionment – it can lead to a downward spiral of democratic decline’. It’s relates to the central topic of this blog – that the collapse of trust in our leaders (who function as important proxies for our early authority figures) has a direct effect on our mental wellbeing. It’s not surprising that since this government took office but particularly given its conduct during the pandemic, demand for mental health services (themselves cut to the bone by this government, with long waiting lists) has risen markedly. That won’t only be due to uncertainty caused by Covid but the very clear evidence that our leaders are in office but not in charge and not performing their role of containing the public’s anxiety due to a toxic combination of incompetence and corruption.

The rising tide of antidepressant prescriptions in England has risen alongside these developments: in 2011 – 47.3 million; 2012 – 50.1; 2013 – 53.3; 2014 – 57.1; 2015 – 61.0; 2016 – 64.7; 2017 – 67.5; 2018 – 70.9; 2019 – 74.8; 2020 – 80.1. If this continues nearly a quarter of our adult population will be prescribed ADs by 2030. It’s important to see these statistics in the wider socio-political context – the medical model tends far too easily to attribute mental ill health to individuals rather than considering the effects of the wider socioeconomic environment.

In order to bring about ‘democratic and social renewal’, the report’s authors see four ‘significant social and significant gaps’ which need to be closed and which their work will be contributing to getting addressed (we hope): between the lives people expected to lead and the lives people are experiencing; between the scale of the social challenges we face and the (perceived) ability of government to deliver against them; between the principles of liberal democracy and the reality of our political system as it manifests today; and between the values and experiences of citizens and those who govern on their behalf. This sounds fascinating and vitally important work which the media needs to cover in order to bring it more to public attention.

https://bit.ly/3dmKESl

By-elections are rightly concentrating numerous minds and it begs the question what is wrong with people that the Conservative yet again won Bexhill and Sidcup on Thursday, albeit with a greatly reduced majority (from almost 19,000 to 4,478)? The clue is perhaps in the words of one constituent, who said ‘better the devil you know’. Maybe not. ‘Parody Boris Johnson’ tweeted: ‘Huge thank you to the people of Old Bexley and Sidcup for voting in favour of higher prices, empty shelves, turds in our rivers, corruption and sleaze, higher taxes, suppression of protest and privatisation of the NHS’. Regarding the North Shropshire by election to replace Owen Paterson, Conservative MPs now fear they could lose after Richard Tice’s Reform UK split the vote in Old Bexley and Sidcup. But attributing their narrow win to this would be to sidestep government misdemeanours, which will penetrate the tough shell of some voters’ political ignorance at least to some extent. Tactical voting plans are in evidence there: as one voter tweeted ‘As a North Shropshire Labour voter, I can say it’s almost certain the Lib Dem candidate will get my vote. Helen Morgan seems to be an excellent candidate too. Having a non-Tory MP is the most desirable outcome, bar none.’

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Spending time in nature has long known to boost mental health, but, crucially, the report by Forest Research is the first to estimate the amount that woodlands save the NHS through fewer GP visits and prescriptions, reduced hospital and social service care, and the costs of lost days of work. The research also calculated that street trees in towns and cities cut an additional £16m a year from antidepressant costs. ‘The estimated £185m cost savings are comparable to estimates of the value of all recreation, which the Office for National Statistics puts at £557m a year’. The report ‘uses evidence of reduced depression and anxiety as a result of regular nature visits, as well as data on woodland visitor numbers, and prevalence of mental health conditions and the associated costs. The evidence included an Australian study, showing that visits to green spaces of 30 minutes or more during a week reduced overall rates of depression by 7%, and a UK study led by White that found a two-hour “dose” of nature a week significantly boosted wellbeing. The evidence on the benefits of street trees came from studies in the UK, the Netherlands and Germany’.

The authors say woodlands have value in their own right but that economic valuations aimed to make them relevant for policymakers. This is a real challenge, however, as much research of this kind is qualitative rather than quantitative. Let’s hope this work does cut the required ‘ice’, given the parlous state mental health services are in, and perhaps serves as a catalyst for other organisations to carry out similar work.

https://bit.ly/3EtY0bd

Recently this blog included pieces about changes in drugs legislation in various countries, more European countries now moving towards legalisation of cannabis in order to undermine the illegal market. Interestingly, a Times columnist has just described this direction of travel as ‘a slow motion car crash’. This view is based on the fact that years ago ‘pot’ contained about 2-5% concentration of THC, the main psychoactive component, but now modern ‘skunk’ is thought to be five times as potent, often leading to cannabis-induced psychosis. The first NHS clinic to treat this has been ‘swamped by referrals’ and the article points to evidence that liberalisation eg in Colorado and California have neither reduced the criminal black market nor brought back the less concentrated kind – both intended by the legislative change. So another intractable problem continues. It will be interesting to see if the government’s new 10 year drug strategy, to be released tomorrow (Monday) makes much difference.

Finally, most of us will be familiar with the bright red leaved plant, poinsettia, which starts appearing in shops in the lead up to Christmas. They’re difficult to keep going as the leaves so easily fall off, especially in the warmth of central heating, but some green-fingered folk seem able to keep them alive all year. It’s been interesting to read about these exotic plants in the local garden centre’s email, which says the plant is also known as the Christmas star or Mexican flame leaf. It originated from a Mexican shrub and ‘was first cultivated by the Aztec people, who used it for dye making and as a medicine’. Not only beautiful but potentially highly useful, scientists have recently created a set of drugs for Alzheimer’s Disease made from chemicals found in the plant. I won’t be able to look at Euphorbia pulcherrima in the same way again!

Sunday 28 November

After social psychologist Professor Stephen Reicher tweeted that trust was crucial for people to accept and follow government restrictions a sceptic responded that trust is not specific to one area of government action: ‘sadly this government has repeatedly shown itself to be dishonest and corrupt, harming public health’. This principle is central to this blog, that we look to our leaders to provide psychological containment of the nation’s sense of security and when this doesn’t happen (repeatedly) it raises public anxiety considerably. This week there have been several intractable examples of short termism, dishonesty, narcissism and downright incompetence which would be risible if they wasn’t so serious. These include the latest manifestation of the migrant crisis, the social care bill debate, the instability inside no 10 and the very worrying emergence of the Omicron Covid variant, all of which need careful consideration, diplomacy and attention to detail followed by appropriate action. But what we mostly get is a series kneejerk responses which prioritise ego games and government narratives and which don’t address the urgency of the situations. One commentator tweeted: ‘I think we just all have to accept that there isn’t a single situation that Boris Johnson can’t make worse’.

Earlier this week the Prime Minister’s stumbling and unprofessional speech to the CBI provoked widespread concern and derision, a journalist even asking Boris Johnson afterwards if he was ok, to which a deluded PM responded that the speech had gone down well. Downing Street risked losing any shred of credibility by saying that the PM was ‘physically well (what about mentally?) and had a full grasp on the prime ministership…. he was not ‘pissed’ but I understand he did take a rather large overdose of cough and cold medicine this morning’.

He doesn’t seem to have any idea what danger he’s in and perhaps doesn’t yet realise that the narcissistic carapace is failing to serve him. During the 20 minute keynote speech to business leaders he compared himself to Moses, pretended to be an accelerating car, referred to himself in the third-person, lost his place and eulogised Peppa Pig World as an example of private sector entrepreneurialism. Numerous Conservatives were worried, publicly or privately, and a senior Downing St source said ‘there is a lot of concern inside the building about the PM….It’s just not working. Cabinet needs to wake up and demand serious changes otherwise it’ll keep getting worse. If they don’t insist, he just won’t do anything about it’.

https://bit.ly/3cUCzEa

Surely the sudden emergence of the dangerous Omicron Covid variant will finally stop ministers referring to the pandemic in the past tense eg last week ‘we’ve just come through a pandemic’. No – with around 1000 deaths a week we definitely haven’t, though you could be forgiven for not being fully aware because of the way it’s been minimised by BBC News. B.1.1.529, or Omicron, was designated as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday night due to its ‘concerning” mutations and because preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant’. It’s feared to have an R or reproduction value of 2 with the potential to evade vaccines. It’s now known we have two cases in the UK (which probably means many more). Having been contemptuous about mask wearing for some time, Boris Johnson is now saying we should wear these in shops and on public transport, but as ever with this administration, there’s no enforcement – those  required to quarantine are merely ‘asked’ to take tests etc and people have been tweeting from airports that no checks are being carried out. The official version is that ‘Travellers to the UK must take day 2 PCR test and self-isolate until they get negative result’.

https://bbc.in/3FViCJT

In another example of Covid complacency, news has emerged that Boris Johnson has been accused of ignoring a plan to prepare Britain for vaccine-resistant Covid variants. Following the sudden emergence of Omicron, Clive Dix, former head of the vaccine task force, said there was no evidence that the blueprint he submitted in the spring had been acted on. ‘Under Dix’s strategy, a coordinating team would seek out new vaccines, give the company involved a “fast track” to a swift trial, access to the data and regulatory approval, in return for early access to new vaccines. He said this system worked at the start of the pandemic and should be repeated’. Being a partner in vaccine development means the UK is in a good position to secure doses, which doesn’t apply if we are out of the frame. Dix has seen no sign of his blueprint being activated.

You’d never guess this risky situation from the bland government statement, however. ‘This past year we’ve witnessed unprecedented scientific innovations and breakthroughs, made possible by collaboration between medical experts, governments and industry. Earlier this year, we joined the 100 Days Mission, which will ensure industry is part of a robust collaboration alongside governments, international organisations and academia over the coming months and years to take action towards a common goal: protecting people from future pandemics through developing and deploying safe, targeted and effective diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines at scale’.

https://bit.ly/3E1aXJj

Health Secretary Sajid Javid is surely taking quite a risk (of subsequent humiliating U-turn) by saying so bullishly that we’re ‘nowhere near imposing Covid social distancing rules’. But how does he expect the measures he has imposed from Tuesday (why the 3 days notice?) to be acted upon when so many people have disregarded them for so long, Do Not comply is trending on Twitter, there’s no means of enforcement and our own Prime Minister has set such a bad example via his contempt of mask wearing? Asked if he could guarantee that meeting families and friends over Christmas would go ahead, Javid responded that no guarantees could be given (at least they’ve learned that) but that these measures (including the likelihood of extending boosters to the under 40s) should be enough. ‘It will give us the precious weeks our scientists need to assess this variant. I think people should continue with their plans as normal for Christmas. It’s going to be a great Christmas’.

https://bit.ly/3cUDYKX

Meanwhile, the lockdown and (from February) compulsory vaccination in Austria has caused other countries to rethink their strategies. It might be that people’s personal liberty has to be infringed in order to prioritise public health and David Nabarro at the World Health Organisation has spoken of the necessity of mandatory vaccination. A clinician writing anonymously in the Guardian shows howmost of the resources we are devoting to Covid in hospital are being spent on people who have not had their jab’, exemplifying the feeble and unscientific ‘reasons’ the unvaccinated give for refusing the vaccine. Examples include ‘The man in his 20s who had always watched what he ate, worked out in the gym, was too healthy to ever catch Covid badly…. the 48-year-old who never got round to making the appointment. The person in their 50s whose friend had side-effects. The woman who wanted to wait for more evidence. The young pregnant lady worried about the effect on her baby. The 60-year-old, brought to hospital with oxygen saturations of 70% by the ambulance that he initially called for his partner, who had died by the time it arrived; both believed that the drug companies bribed the government to get the vaccine approved’.

https://bit.ly/316RCYX

Unfortunately, the BBC continues to collude with the government in repeatedly deflecting attention from the UK to Austria and Germany when the UK has 44% more cases than Austria and three times those of ‘national emergency’ Germany. This is not only unacceptable for the state broadcaster but also highly misleading, as many without other sources of information except the mostly right-wing press and perhaps with little interest in politics won’t know any better. In turn, this could reduce compliance with restrictions because of a false sense of security.

Recent attention grabbing news may have temporarily deflected attention from the controversial social care legislation currently going through Parliament, but another source of disillusionment for Tory MPs this week was the arguably disingenuous presentation of proposals which would seriously disadvantage the less well off. ‘Christian Wakeford, the Bury South MP, expressed anger that the plans appeared to have been changed since MPs voted in September to support the £12bn a year health and social care levy that will pay for the policy….The Department of Health and Social Care caused alarm on Thursday when it revealed it would calculate the £86,000 cap on lifetime care costs in a way that could leave tens of thousands of England’s poorest pensioners paying the same as wealthier people. Wakeford said: ‘If we’re changing the goalposts again, halfway through the match, it doesn’t sit comfortably with me or many colleagues…It shouldn’t be taken for granted that we’re just going to walk through the same lobby’.

After a key debate MPs voted 272 to 246 in support of a change to the social care reforms, meaning council support payments would be excluded from the new £86,000 cap on lifetime social care costs in England. In an utterly astonishing interview with Business Minister Paul Scully on the Today Programme, he wheeled out the lame excuse that this was better than what has gone before (the half-baked approach to policy again) and said ‘The social care bill is fair. Rich and poor people will pay the same’. When interviewer Mishal Husain pointed out ‘But, poor people will pay a far greater proportion of their assets’, in logic from the government’s parallel universe Scully responded: ‘But that’s levelling up’.

All is not lost, though. The House of Lords will get their hands on this bill soon. It will be interesting to see what modifications they manage to get through. Several MPs challenged the Sky News announcement of the debate’s result, generalising about support for the bill. Lib Dem Layla Moran tweeted: ‘Not all MPs. I voted against. I do want a Government to tackle social care and yes someone was always going to have to pay. But Lib Dem values mean we want the biggest burden to be carried by the broadest shoulders. This Tory plan hurts the poorest most. Atrocious. Yet expected’.

https://bit.ly/3d31c1n

Although, as usual, Home Secretary was absent from the airwaves, the government instead sending others to do the media rounds, Priti Patel was firmly in the frame this week following the tragic death of 27 migrants as they crossed the Channel in small boats. Typically, as commentators have pointed out, the half-baked strategies being employed to deal with the migrant crisis are not working because they’re not addressing the fundamental ‘upstream’ issues. The Home Secretary did herself no favours in the way she spoke about the crisis, lampooned by the Guardian’s John Crace for its abdication of responsibility, not to mention its lack of humanity. ‘It was only last Monday that Priti Patel was forced to answer an urgent question on people crossing the Channel in small boats. Her response was typically belligerent and unapologetic. Nothing to do with her, everything to do with people-smuggling gangs, economic migrants trying to enter the country illegally. And, of course, the French. Never forget the French. Everything can usually be traced back to the French’. A sceptic tweeted: ‘People coming from France in small boats to the UK aren’t the real threat. The real threats are the people coming from Eton in their pin striped suits emboldened by their sense of entitlement to rule’.

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In yet another macho intervention intended to humiliate France but which proved an own goal, the PM tweeted his letter to Emmanuel Macron when such a diplomatic device would normally remain confidential. This then led to the exclusion of Priti Patel of today’s meeting of European nations to discuss the crisis. Though he’s long protected her from scrutiny and the sack could Patel now be cursing her boss for his ill-advised action which caused her to be ‘disinvited’ from this important meeting? Her exclusion is shaming for this government. A commentator tweeted: ‘If you tried to write a letter designed to irritate France, this would be it: 1 self-congratulate and take moral high ground 2 make letter public, to enhance 1 3 tell France and EU to do more to patrol a border that the UK left EU in order to regain control over its borders’. We have to wonder again what advice the Prime Minister is getting in order for him to pursue such a short-sighted and embarrassingly sabotaging strategy. It was enlightening to see what was described as Lord Kerr of Kinlochard’s ‘brilliant evisceration of government claims about refugees yesterday in the House of Lords – the facts, stark and clear’.

He rebuts the government’s narrative and misinformation by stating that the numbers of refugees is far lower than 20 years ago, that the reason small boats continue to be used is the defences around train and road routes, that the reason migrants pursue this strategy is the lack of official asylum routes and that the majority are indeed asylum seekers, not the ‘economic migrants’ condescendingly alluded to by the Home Secretary. ‘Unless we provide a safe route, we are complicit with the people smugglers. Yes, we can condemn their case and we mourn yesterday’s dead, but that does not seem to stop us planning to break with the refugee convention. Our compassion is well controlled because it does not stop us planning, in the borders Bill, to criminalise those who survive the peril of the seas and those at Dover who try to help them. Of course, we can go down that road. But if we do, let us at least be honest enough to admit that what drives us down that road is sheer political prejudice, not the facts, because the facts do not support the case for cruelty’.

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Part of the wider context of the migrant crisis has been the Home Office’s failure, three months after it was announced, to begin the programme to allow Afghans to resettle in the UK. ‘Some Conservative MPs are understood to have confronted the home secretary directly over the delay in launching the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), which was announced with great fanfare in August as the Taliban seized control in Kabul. MPs say the Home Office’s failure to follow up its promise with action is pushing refugees to take deadly risks and leaving vulnerable people who have remained in Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban’.

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The state of the NHS continues to cause concern – besides the increasingly common stories of long waits for ambulances, staff shortages and long waiting lists, news emerged that alcohol and drug related deaths rose by 27% between April 2020 and March 2021 (3,726 people died while in contact with drug and alcohol services – up from 2,929 the year before). We’re told that a key factor was changes to support and reduced access to healthcare during lockdowns but it’s also well known that due to funding cuts treatment availability was reduced. It’s galling that yet again last week former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was on the Today programme speaking about the situation in the NHS and social care. Not only is it always sidestepped that the deficits he alludes to were initiated under his watch but also his conflict of interest (in his current role as chair of the Commons Health Select Committee) is never addressed.

https://bbc.in/3lgW12y

Meanwhile, the latest wheeze purporting to help cope with ambulance waiting times is for odd-job workers to be sent out to people’s homes under plans for a “one-stop shop” model for social care to ease pressure on the NHS. ‘Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of NHS England, said handymen and women could be dispatched by local councils as part of a team response so that ambulances were left free for more serious incidents’. This doesn’t sound very practicable or realistic – it will be interesting to see if this idea sees the light of day.

https://bit.ly/3E1t4iD

In important news regarding mental health, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which dictates NHS policy, has finally launched a consultation on its update to the clinical guideline for Depression in Adults. This is after a long period of back and forth with various consultations on this key clinical guidance. The good news is that for those with ‘mild depression’ (though, in my view, defining ‘mild’ is problematic)  therapy is to be offered before antidepressant medication, which is often habit forming and which should only be prescribed for short periods but which many patients remain on for years. The less good news is that what NICE considers ‘therapy’ still privileges Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, when what many patients want and need is relational therapy which seeks to get to the root of their difficulties. It’s also group CBT as the first offer, which is likely to immediately limit patient take-up.

It’s also tricky that NICE recommends that ‘a menu of treatment options’ be offered to patients by health professionals before medication is considered: in theory this is good but NHS therapy services often have such long waiting lists, with only CBT mainly on offer, that GPs could find themselves hobbled in such discussions with patients and fall back once more on medication. ‘This (group CBT) could be followed by offers of seven other treatments including individual CBT, self help, group exercise or group mindfulness or meditation, before medication is discussed as an option)’.Nevertheless, the consultation is timely as  ‘Figures from the NHS Business Services Authority show more than 20 million antidepressants were prescribed between October and December 2020 – a 6% increase compared with the same three months in 2019’.

https://bit.ly/3cYahJ6

In more cheerful news, since museums and the arts have considerable potential for enhancing our wellbeing, it’s good that 925 cultural organisations across England have received grants totalling £107m in the latest round of the Culture Recovery Fund. This includes more than £100m awarded in continuity support grants to 870 previous recipients of the Arts Council England-administered fund. A further 57 organisations in need of urgent support have received a share of £6.5m through the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Historic England arm of the fund, and 62 cinemas have been awarded £6m through the British Film Institute. The Museums Association quotes Darren Henley, Chief Executive of the Arts Council: ‘This continued investment from the government on an unprecedented scale means our theatres, galleries, music venues, museums and arts centres can carry on playing their part in bringing visitors back to our high streets, helping to drive economic growth, boosting community pride and promoting good health. It’s a massive vote of confidence in the role our cultural organisations play in helping us all to lead happier lives’.

https://bit.ly/3lfEnw8

During the last few months we’ve heard a lot about food and drink shortages due to the supply chain crisis. Now the emphasis is on Christmas as retailers gear up for what they hope will be healthy sales. But it’s interesting that several of the feared shortages applied to less than healthy items, if you remember the kerfuffle over the potential lack of fried chicken, milk shakes and crisps. It also smacks of ‘first world problems’. The latest candidate is a potential alcohol shortage, as a group of 48 wine and spirits companies including the Wine Society have written to Transport Minister Grant Shapps with their concerns. They said that rising costs and supply chain “chaos” had held up wine and spirit deliveries, raising the risk that supermarkets will run dry and festive deliveries arrive late. ‘The alcohol industry is the latest in a long line of sectors to warn of possible Christmas shortages amid supply chain difficulties, with concerns also raised about deliveries of turkeys, trees and toys….The supply chain is facing a number of pressures, such as drivers leaving the industry and difficulties recruiting new ones, border issues and delays with the movement of shipping containers’. Somehow, I think we’ll manage……

https://bit.ly/3FXLnWb

As the beautiful curlew is one of my favourite birds, it was pleasing to read of an initiative in Wales to prevent their extinction there. We’re told that the curlew holds a cherished place in Welsh folklore and culture because ‘its bubbling, haunting call is traditionally regarded by many as a harbinger of spring’. But the decline (possibly as few as 400 breeding pairs left in Wales and numbers are continuing to fall) has prompted conservation groups to get together with a plan to arrest this decline. ‘The 10-year programme includes a plan to identify the areas where curlews survive, and introduce targeted conservation measures, such as managing grass and heathland more effectively. It will be launched on Monday by an umbrella organisation called Gylfinir Cymru/Curlew Wales….. Gylfinir Cymru will work for packages of support to be provided to farmers and land managers, enabling them to create the sort of landscapes in which curlews can thrive. Also planned is the recruitment of a Wales curlew programme manager and volunteers to help’. Let’s hope the plan succeeds.

https://bit.ly/3HY4G3D

Finally, another acronym gaining momentum is HOGO, featured for example in Wednesday’s Woman’s Hour. A relative of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), HOGO stands for the Hassle of Going Out, particularly noticeable after 18 months of getting used to having to stay in, coupled with the now freezing weather and uncertain service in restaurants etc. ‘We have become too comfortable sitting on our sofas watching TV. The effort of putting good clothes on and leaving the house is too much. This hassle of going out (HOGO) has been blamed by the hospitality industry for an increase in the number of no-shows at restaurants and paid-for live events’. All this is understandable but one of the programme’s interviewees made the important point that especially for those living alone it’s important to get out and meet people, get a change of scene and so forth so it was worth challenging one’s HOGO. We might need to waste no time in doing this in case another set of Covid-related restrictions descends in the not too distant future!

Sunday 21 November

There are almost no words for the shameful spectacle which has engulfed British politics during the last few weeks but which has its roots in the privilege and sense of entitlement nurtured over many years, particularly within the Conservative Party. This will be adding to public anxiety, already long exacerbated by the effects of pandemic and Brexit-related incompetence and corruption. Little could Boris Johnson or Owen Paterson have realised how dramatically and humiliatingly this would unfurl and the fact that it was allowed to explode during COP, when we needed to sell the UK as an effective and dignified democracy, was incomprehensible. As we well know, the PM’s ego rules supreme, yet his astonishing U-turn, when he’d whipped his MPs to support moral compass busting measures to rip up the rules, humiliated and infuriated them. He was then forced to admit to the 1922 Committee that he’d ‘driven the car into a ditch’.

But it’s also now clear, partly thanks to Tom Newton-Dunn in London’s Evening Standard (Wednesday) that the much more independent-minded 2019 intake of Tory Red Wall MPs control the PM’s majority and are now effectively in charge. There are 107 of them, close to a third of all Tory MPs, ‘relatively close-knit, well-organised and held together by their own WhatsApp group called The 109, after a journalist misrepresented their number…. .there’s a new sheriff in town and the 2019ers are the masters now’: they ‘led the coup against Downing Street’s defence of the indefensible, the Old Guard Tory who was bang to rights over corruption’. At the same time as undermining the authority of the PM and Chief Whip they also ‘despatched the Spartans – the group of older and fervently Eurosceptic Tory MPs – who  for years had been the pre-eminent Tory grouping and had also orchestrated Owen Paterson’s botched defence’. Boris Johnson’s recognition of this power shift was partly illustrated by his inviting The 109 to drinks at no 10 and apparently working the room hard, assuring them it would all come right in the end. Unlike the older, longstanding grandees, it’s far less likely this lot will be taken in by his plea for them to trust him.

So now there must be an open war within the parliamentary Conservative Party, 2019ers versus the Spartans, the latter now exposed in all their unprincipled glory and likely to lose thousands of pounds in the longer term. Would any of this have come about without Paterson’s protests at his proposed Commons suspension? ‘…they as well as Boris know they control his political future. If they lose their seats in 2024, he loses his majority. It all means the PM now has his work cut out over the next three years to keep them on side. They won’t let him forget them again’. Fascinating stuff but it’s constituents and this country’s reputation on the global stage which suffer most, the effects of which seem to have escaped the PM and his cohort.

Although it’s long been known that some MPs have additional sources of income and many of them are involved in lobbying, the Owen Paterson debacle has caused the massive iceberg beneath this ‘tip’ to emerge. In parliament, 90 out of 360 Conservative MPs have second jobs compared with five of Labour’s 199 MPs and two each from the SNP and the Lib Dems. Questions have rightly been asked as to whether well-paid parliamentarians should have second jobs, which are almost bound to detract from their primary duty to constituents. What’s extraordinary, though, is the difficulty some politicians and media appear to have in grasping the distinction between someone working as a doctor, nurse or teacher (ie public service) and someone blatantly engaged in private sector work with an agenda to influence government policy. It’s been appalling for many to witness the transparency with which the second jobs defenders voted down Labour’s proposals for a clear system with an implementation timetable, instead watering them down to measures which it’s estimated would only affect about 10 MPs. The Standards Committee will report in the New Year on the parliamentary code of conduct including second jobs but we have to wonder what ice this will cut.

The Guardian’s parliamentary sketch writer, John Crace, produced a blistering account of Boris Johnson’s performance at Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions. Noting the rare sight of sparsely occupied Conservative benches (on account of their extreme dissatisfaction with their leader) he reckons those who did attend may desist in the future because ‘what we got was Boris at his absolute worst’…. the raw, childlike, unchannelled, psychotic Boris. Angry, out of control and out of his depth. Lashing out randomly while blaming others for his own shortcomings. The shallowness of his empty narcissism ruthlessly exposed. Not a pretty sight and one normally only seen by women and friends he has betrayed’. A key parliamentary moment must have been when an angry Speaker, who normally allows Johnson to get away with far too much, instructed him to sit down, reminding him that it wasn’t the Leader of the Opposition’s questions. But the PM’s day didn’t get any better – he apparently had a rough ride later at the Commons Liaison Committee. ‘If Boris thought his troubles were over once the questions moved away from sleaze, he was badly mistaken. Everyone went for him. Particularly his own MPs. Mel Stride, Philip Dunne, Julian Knight, Tobias Ellwood and Jeremy Hunt all took chunks out of an under-prepared and badly briefed Johnson’.

https://bit.ly/3DF3rE0

As if all this wasn’t enough, Boris Johnson further shot himself in the foot via the  admission that he benefited from £1800 worth of hospitality at Heathrow in the form of his use of the luxurious private Windsor suite en route to his Zac Goldsmith donated holiday in Malaga. ‘The declaration was made in the latest update to the register of MPs’ interests, where donations or other gifts must be set out, with their value’. In addition, those attending the recent private dinner at the Garrick Club were stunned to hear the PM making unguarded and derogatory observations about his marriage. The New European reports: ‘At the dinner, hosted by Daily Telegraph columnist Charles Moore at the all-male Garrick Club, Johnson appears to have made the grave error of assuming all those gathered at the table were friends whose discretion could be depended on. For a journalist to make such a mistake demonstrates a worrying lack of judgment……the prime minister was asked how family life with his new wife and mother to his child Carrie Symonds was going. His reported answer, that he was experiencing “buyer’s remorse” over the union, astonished some of those present’.

Commenting on this latest lapse of judgement besides the ongoing major one, the article points up the sense of entitlement behind the stance that rules must work in the PM’s favour. ‘And so if a rule doesn’t work in his interest, it should be apparent to everyone that it should change. That is why the government is so brazen when it rips up the rule book, defies standards and conventions, and why it can never really come up with good ways to hide what it’s doing: the man at the top doesn’t even realise he should be hiding it, or should be ashamed. No wonder polls now show the country is getting buyer’s remorse’ (my italics). Shockingly, it’s been revealed that on Thursday night the Director of Communications at 10 Downing Street phoned the New European’s editor, saying Boris Johnson would be suing the paper for defamation but later denied they had made this threat. The paper intends to stand by its story. This is important news in the public interest but the BBC isn’t reporting it and is appearing to intensify its collusion with the government narrative.

https://bit.ly/3cxb17F

More Conservatives seem to be increasingly disenchanted by their leader and more across the politician spectrum are concerned at what they see evidence of growing dictatorship whereby opposing voices are silenced. The latest example is ministers removing funding and powers from the umbrella transport authority for the north following the body’s furious reaction to swingeing cuts to the flagship Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) project. Eminence grise and former Chancellor Ken Clarke said: ‘I…am not pleased that people who think like me – internationalist, outward-looking, progressive – have been marginalised. The party is now more right wing and nationalist than at any time in my lifetime’.  

As the PM headed for (or should that be ‘fled to’?) Chequers for the weekend, there was understandably much disquiet amongst his colleagues. One former Cabinet minister told the Mirror: ‘There’s a lot of very unhappy people and the longer this rumbles on the more unhappy they’ll become. Boris has failed to get a grip on this and now it’s in danger of spiralling out of control. He has never had many friends in the Commons and the number of times he’s marched us up the hill, he has fewer than ever’. Another Tory backbencher said: ‘A lot of us put our faith in him because he was an election winner. But the scales have started to fall away for many of us. If that lustre continues to fade…’.  Another senior Tory said: ‘No 10 is a really difficult job and he doesn’t have the skillset to run it, he just doesn’t. He’s a great campaigner; a terrible administrator. But he doesn’t trust anyone to run it for him’. Professor Rob Ford, an elections expert at Manchester University, observed: ‘I can’t think of a story when there’s been so much harm wilfully inflicted by a government on itself’. Astonishingly, though, voters in recent focus groups still seem to have faith in the government – ‘they’re in an unprecedented situation, they’re doing their best job’. ‘Their’ is surely the operative word – their best job is manifestly way below the standard we should be able to expect.

https://bit.ly/3oRfjN1

The Prime Minister didn’t just ‘drive the car into a ditch’, as admitted to the 1922 Committee, but also ran the train into the buffers with the announcement about the northern section of HS2. The government attracted more opprobrium for cancelling its Eastern ‘leg’ to Leeds and also the Northern Powerhouse line. Rail experts branded the revised Integrated Rail Plan ‘incoherent’ and demonstrating a worrying lack of awareness of how railways actually work. In another government flight of fantasy, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, called the long-awaited £96 billion Integrated Rail Plan, ‘an ambitious and unparalleled programme’ to overhaul links across the north and Midlands.

Yet again (why isn’t there a rule against this?) the plan is an example of misrepresenting the amount of ‘investment’ because only a portion of this is new money. A sceptic tweeted: ‘Now that rail development plans have proved to be a Johnson lie, will the penny finally drop that the benefits of levelling up and Brexit have also been a Johnson lie?’ Critics have observed that the anger and sense of betrayal in the region are palpable, perhaps seen as a final nail in the coffin of ‘levelling up’? We’re now faced with the disconnect just after COP26 whereby passengers and freight that would have moved on clean, swift trains will instead be burning up petrol on the roads.

https://bit.ly/30Nqe2c

Interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme, Rother Valley MP Alex Stafford breezily alluded to the need to get all the properties compulsorily purchased ‘back on the market’ but this isn’t likely to happen any time soon, if at all. An HS2 letter to local councillors stated: ‘Safeguarding remains in place along the full route, as does access to the range of HS2 property schemes. At this time, we do not expect any changes to safeguarding, or to eligibility for these schemes, unless and until different plans are confirmed’. Stafford’s stance, not to mention that of ministers, also ignores the plight of those whose homes were compulsorily purchased. Today Labour’s Lord Berkeley alluded to a ruling (doesn’t the government know?) which in such circumstances allows compulsorily purchased homes to be bought back at the same price. This surely needs a more media coverage.

https://bit.ly/3nyik5j

Journalist Jonathan Freedland traces the trajectory of how Boris Johnson’s personal dishonesty has spread wholesale to the Conservative Party, the lies and broken promises ranging from HS2 to Brexit. ‘But dishonesty is no longer merely the character flaw of one man. It has become the imprint of his party and this government.

‘Admittedly, the Conservatives’ collective dishonesty is less florid than Johnson’s individual variety. If you were being kind, you would call it intellectual dishonesty or, kinder still, magical thinking. Sometimes it takes the form of arguing two contradictory things at once; often it comes down to saying one thing and doing the exact opposite…. The government has adopted Johnson’s notorious attitude to cake – wanting to have it and to eat it – and made cakeism its defining creed. The Tories want both to look good on climate and withhold cash from the transport system. They want both to spend big and keep taxes low. They want both to leave the EU and keep Northern Ireland exactly as it was. They want both to hold the red wall and keep giving preferential treatment to their own blue-wall faithful’. Unfortunately, though, judging by the polls, some are still taken in by the false promises.

https://bit.ly/30JYZVQ

There’s been increasing concern recently at how the BBC is colluding with the government narrative, in flagship news programmes focusing on what’s happening elsewhere or frankly trivial issues rather than government misdemeanours and failures. A clear example of this is the focus on the rise of Covid cases in Europe when the situation is worse here. Statistics for Thursday recorded 46,807 infections in the last 24 hours, 277,261 infections in the previous 7 days, 199 deaths during the previous 24 hours and 1,026 deaths during the previous 7. Austria is to go into a national lockdown on Monday as a fourth wave of coronavirus sweeps across Europe. Vaccinated and unvaccinated people alike will be ordered to stay at home for between 10 and 20 days, with exceptions for grocery shopping, taking exercise and seeking medical help. Vaccination will be compelled from February. Yet a chart of COVID cases per million people clearly shows the UK (as third, after Belgium and the Netherlands) as having a higher number of cases than the countries constantly featured in the news. Ministers are still holding off introducing Plan B measures like mask wearing despite further evidence of its efficacy. They seem terrified of upsetting sceptics and vaccine hesitants but at what cost?

https://bit.ly/3nASXzM

A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘Flabbergasting that Today presenters are so nonchalant about the extremely high Covid 19 infection rates in UK, in top 3 in world, completely overlooking this in coverage of other W European countries where there is concern on high infection rates & which are now taking measures’. It’s frankly terrifying that rather than acting on the evidence the government is relying on chance and luck: ‘Ministers hope immunity is higher in England than in some other countries because of the decision to open up earlier’. Even worse is the nonchalance around the state of the NHS, whereby ‘significant strain’ seems to be acceptable despite the stress and upset it causes staff. Ministers only react when it’s ‘at breaking point’. A clinician said: ‘We’re going to have high levels of infection for many months, so I think the NHS will unfortunately be under significant strain. It may not get to breaking point, where we were close to before, but significant strain for a very long period of time is certainly on the cards…’. This is the kind of thing guaranteed to rack up public anxiety – the increasing awareness that ministers are in office but not in charge.

For quite some weeks now we’ve witnessed media handwringing about possible shortages at Christmas, from food to consumer goods and toys. Now we also have it about next week’s Black Friday spending extravaganza, surely a disconnect hot on the heels of COP26 if there ever was one and a key candidate for Twitter’s First World Problems hashtag. Retail experts predict that shoppers will spend £9.2bn next weekend – 15% more than in 2020 when much of the UK’s high street was in lockdown. Numerous retailers don’t stop at just one day or even a weekend – Black Friday offers seem to be running for over a fortnight in some cases. It’s ironic that news programmes don’t seem to see the contradiction of covering climate change and the Right to Repair initiative, only minutes later to bang on about Black Friday.

The knotty issue of cultural restitution has come to the fore again, focusing on the perennial case of the Elgin Marbles but which has implications for many museums and heritage organisations. How typical then, of our Prime Minister to demonstrate his laissez faire approach once more, saying the decision would be up to the British Museum. Surely what we need is a consistent policy on cultural restitution and not this abdication of responsibility, which puts unfair pressure on individual institutions. But this is seen as a softening of the government’s position because before this it had been opposed to returning the marbles to Greece. ‘Johnson met the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, at No 10 on Tuesday evening, with Mitsotakis reiterating his offer to exchange a series of treasures that had never before left Greece as rotating exhibitions for the British Museum in exchange for the marbles’. Or could Boris Johnson just be telling the Greek PM what he wanted to hear?

You couldn’t make up the next bit, when the spokesman reiterated the independence of the British Museum when we’ve increasingly seen evidence of government influence in the cultural sector, regarding the linking of funding to institutions’ stance on historical interpretation (acknowledgement of slavery connections, etc). ‘The British Museum operates independently of the government. It is free, rightly, from political interference…..’. And, conveniently, the chair of this ‘independent’ institution’s trustees is one George Osborne. This issue isn’t going away any time soon. ‘There is no doubt that the pressure is building up for genuine, post-imperial reconciliation in the cultural sphere and Johnson is trying to evade it. Greek media said Mitsotakis had told the UK leader the marbles were “a significant issue” for bilateral relations that Athens would not be dropping’.

https://bit.ly/3x6JOSK

Still on cultural matters, an interesting article laments the lack of attention paid to ‘treasures’ rarely treated to media attention because they’re housed in institutions in the north of the country. This is particularly relevant in the week that London’s Courtauld Gallery re-opens after a three year closure for refurbishment but also because of the much-trumpeted ‘levelling up’ mantra. Although not down to ministers, it could be helpful for journalists, academics and others to highlight these northern treasures. Describing impressive exhibits in York’s art gallery, Rachel Cooke writes on this north-south divide: ‘But still, something in me rankles as I read of this comeback (Courtauld), phase one of which has cost £22m. Once again, London draws all the oxygen, not to mention the cash; once again, it’s as if nothing could possibly be happening anywhere else. I always carry a slight resentment of this metropolitan monomania: a bat-squeak grudge born not only of my roots, but also of the way I tend to side instinctively with the underdog’.

https://bit.ly/3nDxmH3

Finally, around this time of year we’re treated to a mince pie league table and this year is no exception. It’s interesting that, perhaps compared with a few years ago, we can no longer predict that the quality retailers will outdo the cheaper ones. We learn from consumer group Which that this year Iceland is stocking the best mince pies. ‘In a blind taste test conducted by 66 shoppers, Iceland’s Luxury All Butter Mince Pies came out joint top with Tesco’s Finest and Co-op’s Irresistible ranges. But at a price of only £1.89, Iceland’s mince pies are the best value at 11p cheaper than the Tesco and Co-op versions’. So, if you like mince pies get thee to Iceland PDQ!  

Saturday 6 November

During the week our prime minister continued to downplay the likely effectiveness of COP26, admitting that the preceding G20 summit of world leaders in Rome had failed to ‘step up to the plate’ regarding action on climate change. Despite the efforts of some politicians to marginalise Greta Thunberg, it will have a marked impact that she’s just declared COP26 ‘a failure’ and what has been the price tag for this conference, we have to wonder. One interesting issue to emerge this week, generally overlooked, I suspect, is the amount of waste generated by the wedding industry. It begs the question as to how those in the fairly new career of wedding planning are taking this into account.

Whatever the conundrums and vagaries of this conference, though, it seems an extraordinary example of shooting himself and the UK in the foot for Boris Johnson to allow what amounts to a significant undermining of Parliament and democracy to be witnessed all over the world. Not to mention his decision to take a private jet to attend a dinner with Lord Charles Moore on Tuesday at the men-only Garrick Club, actions of this kind being a contradiction of what COP is surely all about. Unless he considered himself let off the hook given that there was no fewer than 52 private jets at COP. Not surprisingly, the PM is seen as ‘a clown’ by foreign media, presiding over ‘chaotic organisation’ at the summit, according to France’s Liberation, Le Monde commenting on the ‘apparent nonchalance’ from the British side. ‘He (Johnson) seems a lot more interested in re-litigating Brexit with Brussels than with convincing global leaders to raise their CO2 reduction targets’.

https://bit.ly/3H7KjRl

This week saw the dramatic playing out of a series of events emanating from attempts by fellow Conservatives to rally around the disgraced MP, Owen Paterson, who had been found guilty of breaching lobbying rules, then facing a 30 day suspension from the Commons. It could be seen as a good example of karma: what Paterson might well have assumed was a letting off the hook enabled by Andrea Leadsom’s proposed amendment to reform the system of evaluating MPs’ conduct then becoming a worse nightmare following the government’s U-turn in the face of a public backlash, leading to his resignation. Thursday was described by the BBC as ‘a tumultuous day in politics’, putting it mildly when the shameless attempt to throw the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards under the bus and its aftermath amount to a serious attack on parliamentary government.

The Guardian usefully analyses what rules Paterson broke, his defence and the evidence, deconstructing his arguments about his allegedly altruistic motives in raising issues of food safety, about use of his parliamentary office for private work and failure to disclose interests. ‘The combination of factors led to the commissioner saying Paterson’s breaches “were so serious and so numerous that they risked damaging public trust” in the House of Commons and in MPs generally’. This led to Paterson playing the victim card, saying he had not received a fair hearing.

https://bit.ly/3CSpMgY

Boris Johnson leaving Jacob Rees-Mogg to make the U-turn announcement was not surprising, as we’ve seen how often he’s  managed to avoid challenging situations, this time leaving those successfully whipped to vote for the amendment looking pretty foolish besides unprincipled. It also wasn’t surprising to learn that Paterson himself knew nothing in advance about the U-turn and had been in the supermarket when he received a BBC reporter phone call about it. At least now serious questions have been raised about lobbying and MPs having second jobs. There will be an emergency Commons debate on Monday on these issues so it will be interesting to see what emerges from that.

The Leadsom amendment attracted a shocking number of signatories (nevertheless passing by only a narrow margin, 250 to 232), causing many at Twitter’s My MP hashtag to post photos of their MPs who had effectively voted to sanction corruption. It also wasn’t lost on commentators that 22 of the signatories had themselves been investigated or were currently being investigated by the Commissioner. Commentators are rightly noting the lack of accountability underpinning these events, for example Simon Jenkins: ‘At such moments, we must ask who guards the guardians. Downing Street has clearly treated parliament as a populist assembly, a lapdog to executive power. That 250 Tory MPs on Wednesday night, after damning dozens of ordinary MPs such as Keith Vaz and Ian Paisley for unethical behaviour, could obey Johnson’s orders to bail out his friend is, if anything, more awful than Johnson’s own decision…. After months of purges, there is no one left in the cabinet who is willing to hold the prime minister to account’.

There are just so many extraordinary and shaming elements of this pantomime, including Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng’s suggestion (before the U-turn, of course) that the Commissioner should ‘consider her position’ when she had simply done her job; MP Peter Bone’s disproportionate complaint about his constituency office being ‘vandalised’, scaring his staff, when it was just graffiti outside; Jacob Rees-Mogg’s attempt to justify the U-turn in terms of arguments first advanced by Labour; and Owen Paterson’s own self-pitying narrative, saying he would remain a ‘public servant’ outside the ‘cruel world of politics’. All of these smack of entitlement and lack of awareness besides seriously undermining the integrity of Parliament. Today a regular Uber user told me at least four drivers had recently asked her whether we’re living in a banana republic, that they were used to corruption in their own countries but they hadn’t expected to see it here. Meanwhile, not surprisingly though they have been naive in the extreme, we hear Johnson is facing a backlash from furious MPs. One senior backbencher disclosed: ‘You cannot overestimate the level of anger among colleagues who were told to vote for this rotten amendment’.

The drama gave rise to a volley of tweets, including at least one which questioned Paterson’s suggestion that the investigation had contributed to his wife’s suicide: ‘When Owen Paterson appeared on BBC Woman’s Hour a few months ago, he said he no real idea why his wife committed suicide…he’s giving this as a reason only since he was found to have broken Parliamentary standards’. What has also caused alarm is the BBC’s increasing control of the news agenda by ignoring this elephant in the room, leading on the racism in cricket debate and discussing anything under the sun to avoid the political debacle. An observer tweeted: ‘The BBC has lost the news again. Whilst everyone else is talking about Tory Sleaze, Radio 4 chooses to prioritise the cricket story. Transparent and shameful manufacturing of the agenda’. It’s good news that despite efforts to trash her reputation, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone, is said to be undeterred and that she will continue in post until the end of her term in December 2022.

Meanwhile and astonishingly, Downing Street has declined to rule out the possibility Johnson could nominate Paterson for a peerage – a final nail in the coffin of our upper chamber’s credibility? Former PM John Major, now seen in some quarters as an eminence grise, was interviewed on Saturday’s Today 08.10 slot and it’s well worth a listen: Major didn’t hold back on what he sees as the corruption and undermining of parliamentary democracy exhibited by this government. ‘This is very unconservative: if I am concerned, you can bet most of the public are. They have broken the law, broken treaties, broken their word, whenever they run up with difficulties, they don’t placate, they become hostile. This is the PM we have’.

Refreshingly and unlike today’s PM and ministers, he didn’t deny sleaze during his own administration, agreeing it had taken place, eg the cash for questions  scandal, and what he had done about it, eg establishing the Nolan Committee. On the peerage possibility, Major said there had been ‘some extraordinary elevations to the peerage in recent years’ – you can say that again. It almost seems that some misdemeanour, underperformance or donating to the Conservative Party have become the qualifications for elevation rather than any notable achievement or track record.

https://bbc.in/3033xGU

COP and the political drama this week have taken some eyes off the pandemic but it hasn’t gone away and the deputy Chief Medical Officer, Jonathan van Tam, has again made his concerns known. ‘Too many people believe the Covid-19 pandemic is over’. Worried that increasing numbers of deaths show ‘the infection is now starting to penetrate into older age groups’, the statistics bear out this concern: on Wednesday there were 41,299 further Covid cases, 888 additional hospital admissions and 217 deaths.  Over the past seven days there have been 1,141 Covid deaths in the UK, a rise of 13% on the week before. The government still persists in its line that everything is under control despite NHS staff being run off their feet.

https://bit.ly/3BSc9gv

Speaking of resignations, a senior member of the BMA has resigned over the government’s plan to name and shame GP practices regarding the provision of face-to-face appointments. The government is correct in principle about the importance of FTF appointments but Dr Richard Vautrey, who was chairman of the BMA’s GP committee, has opposed plans by the health secretary, Sajid Javid, and NHS England to record the number of in-person consultations between family doctors and patients. This is because there’s a much more systemic problem in the NHS and general practice in particular which the government is not addressing, namely GP shortages and higher demand.

Doctors are now considering strike action, which would be disastrous for patients when this situation could have been averted if the government had listened to doctors, made an effort to understand how general practice works and had invested appropriately in the NHS over the years.

https://bit.ly/3o12ajT

The Week’s briefing feature focuses on the general practice crisis, addressing the causes of the frustration of both doctors and patients, to what degree the pandemic is responsible, what’s wrong with virtual appointments, the extent of the GP shortage, whether or not GPs are overworked and whether or not things will improve (concluding ‘probably not’.) Regarding the shortage, there are only 0.45 GPs for 1,000 patients in England, ‘well below that of comparable wealthy nations’, while the population is growing and ageing, with the accompanying risk of multimorbidity. The significant move to virtual consultations, often problematic because so often troubling diagnoses can be missed, had a number of coinciding catalysts.

The 2019 NHS Long Term Plan set out that within five years the NHS would offer ‘digital first primary care’ for every patient (how many knew this?), which some may argue was a cynical way of reducing demand. But despite slow progress at first the goal was given a big leg up by the pandemic, coupled with former Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s enthusiastic embracing of ‘tech’. Besides hitching his wagon to the dubious Babylon virtual service, Hancock hailed the new era of ‘Zoom medicine’, inaccessible to some patients because of technical issues or plain reluctance to ‘see’ their GP this way. The BMA sounds pessimistic about change, accusing the government of being completely out of touch with the scale of the crisis on the ground ahead of what could be a very difficult winter. As we’ve seen, this is not the only area the government is ‘completely out of touch’ with.

Following on from last week’s news about legalisation of domestic use of cannabis in Luxembourg, it’s interesting to see speculation that now Angela Merkel has gone, Germany is considering going down a not dissimilar path. Apparently there are around 4m regular cannabis users in Germany and the new leadership is keen to address the waste of police and judiciary resources entailed in the status quo. If legislative change comes to pass, because of Germany’s prominence in the European bloc it could effect quite some sea change across the EU and the world. Philipp Luther of the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung said if other countries follow suit ‘we may see cannabis migrating from parks and basements to pavements and pubs’.

Meanwhile, questions are rightly being asked as to why the illegal market is still thriving in California in spite of legalisation. How galling it must be for legislators and drugs experts for this to be the case having taken such a major step. ‘Five years after cannabis legalization, California is awash with signs of an apparently booming industry. Californians can toke on Justin Bieber-branded joints and ash their blunts in Seth Rogen’s $95 ceramics. They can sip on THC-infused seltzers, relax inside a cannabis cafe, and get edibles delivered to their doors. But behind the flashy facade, the legal weed industry remains far from the law-abiding, prosperous sector many had hoped for. In fact, it’s a mess’.

On closer inspection, though, it sounds as if a muddled approach over the years has contributed to the illegal market remaining top dog (accounting for 80-90% of cannabis trade), with legal operators saying they have to go illegal to stay afloat. Another contributory factor is perhaps the different policies adopted by different municipalities within the state. ‘In the places that do allow pot shops and grows, business owners say high taxes, the limited availability of licenses, and expensive regulatory costs have put the legal market out of reach. And many of the Black and brown entrepreneurs who were supposed to benefit from legalization have actually ended up losing money. Meanwhile, consumers remain confused about what’s legal and what’s not’.

Despite politicians’ avoidance it’s important this issue is fixed because of the social consequences for other areas of public policy. ‘Though botching weed legalization sounds like a trivial issue, it intersects with many of the issues that are fundamental to our lives, from criminal justice to public health, gang violence to economic inequality, the opioid crisis to the wellness craze. Cannabis is the second-most-valuable crop in the country, after corn and ahead of soybeans’. Let’s hope Luxembourg and Germany take note of the difficulties encountered by California and other US states in order to make their own policies more effective.

https://bit.ly/3ERQkQ4

Staff shortages and supply chain problems continue to dog retail and hospitality and now the consequences are being experienced by customers. The Office of National Statistics reported 1.2 vacancies last month across all sectors. A letter to the Daily Telegraph asked why Amazon was able to deliver promptly and effectively when other retailers were struggling, clearly being unaware that Amazon is resorting to the unethical practice of poaching staff from other businesses by offering signing up bonuses of up to £3000. Recently, outings to two restaurants illustrated the problems, one giving very poor service and another having almost all beef products off the menu. Yes, you could say first world problems, but they could lead to businesses closing if these difficulties continue, customers going elsewhere or staying at home, not good for the economy.

This week the death was reported of the restaurateur Ado Campeol, regarded as responsible for the invention of that ubiquitous pudding tiramisu. The coffee-flavoured dessert was launched in 1972, its name meaning ‘lift me up’. It comes from the Treviso dialect’s “tireme su”, and was claimed to have aphrodisiac effects. The ingredients listed don’t include alcohol but I (and others) believe it should have liqueur within, something like Tia Maria. Here we have the answer: ‘Although the original recipe – certified by the Italian Academy of Cuisine in 2010 – was alcohol-free, variants include alcohol such as rum or marsala’. Unlike zealots who have strong opinions on how key dishes should be made, a chef at the inventing restaurant, Roberto Linguanotto, generously observed: ‘Every country has their own taste…As long as it lifts you up, it’s fine by me’.

https://bit.ly/3GUirQl

Finally, an interesting and amusing situation has arisen between China and Hong Kong in contrast to the very worrying developments we usually hear about. China is desperate to halt the entry into the country of Australian rock lobsters, which are a delicacy there but which are now banned due to the currently difficult relationship between China and Australia. But Hong Kong has no such restrictions. Imports have apparently risen 20-fold and it’s thought most are destined to be smuggled into the mainland. Beijing’s response (that it’s a threat to national security) could be seen as disproportionate but how interesting after all this time that Hong Kong seems to be in the driving seat in this situation. It’s reported that 13 smugglers have already been arrested but we can nevertheless suppose that a good number of the crustacean Trojan horses have reached mainland kitchens!

Sunday 31 October

Last weekend the Times columnist Matthew Parris wrote a hard-hitting and chilling article explaining why he thinks (and he won’t be alone) ‘we’re going to the dogs’. ‘We haven’t quite woken up to the mess we’re in yet, but we will. In the unconscious mind of the nation the dots are all there, waiting to be joined up. When the connections are made, and as his Marbella tan begins to peel, the aimless occupant of 10 Downing Street will be in for a shock. The new queues are of ships at ports such as Felixstowe. Pictures of acres of unfetched containers have put the wind up retailers and consumers alike as Christmas approaches. A first-world problem? First-world governments are elected to take first-world problems seriously. Johnson appears not to.. Suffice it to say we scent panic at the heart of government. Above the voters’ heads floats an unsettled sense of official confusion. Ministers seem to be making speeches, but pulling levers connected to nothing.

The core problem is him. Directionless and without momentum now Brexit is done and Covid survived, Johnson is a giggling impediment to the unifying sense of political momentum that Mandelson describes. It may be his insouciance itself that brings him down….A feeling persists that there’s an unoccupied place at the centre of our politics. “Levelling up” won’t hack it, and may soon attract the scorn that “the Big Society” finally invited. Politics abhors a vacuum. “Watch this space” is often a lazy way of ending a column, but this time there really is a space. Watch it’.

https://bit.ly/2ZDA1a0

Several ongoing key issues set his observations in context, including COP26, Covid, the parlous state of the NHS, Brexit, worsening supply chain issues plus the latest spat with the French over fishing rights, none of which can be deleted or overlooked by this week’s Spending Review despite Rishi Sunak’s best efforts to project fantasy level optimism.

As the climate change conference (COP26) approaches, with Covid cases rising rapidly to over 1000 deaths a week, the government’s reluctance (remind you of anything?) to implement ‘Plan B’ looks increasingly connected. Having already, with the usual lack of self-awareness, embarrassed itself environmentally with proposed legislation allowing water companies to continue discharging sewage into rivers (followed by a rapid U-turn) and the incomprehensible Spending Review measure to cut tax on internal flights, the government won’t want any further obvious humiliation in the form of enforced mask wearing and social distancing as foreign leaders enter the UK. Therefore we can perhaps expect the reintroduction of restrictions the minute COP is over. But already COP26 itself is looking a bit like a damp squib, with some key polluting countries not attending, not to mention the Queen, the extravagant razzmatazz beforehand and Johnson himself trying to dampen down expectations of this event having trumpeted non-stop about it all year.

Meanwhile people will continue suffering and dying as ministers ignore health experts, some even publicly contradicting them and trying to invalidate their concerns. Professor Peter Openshaw, a key adviser to the government and member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said the current number of cases and deaths rates were unacceptable, and reiterated the importance of measures such as working from home and mask wearing. He fears another Christmas lockdown and urged the public to do everything possible to reduce the spread of the virus. Despite the government’s macho stance the Observer found out that the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) contacted local authorities last week to canvass their level of support for the “immediate rollout of the winter plan – plan B”.

Another blow for the government is further evidence that vaccination is not the silver bullet it keeps pretending it is, a study having shown that double vaccination does not prevent household transmission.’ Albeit a fairly small sample, the results suggest that even those who are fully vaccinated have a sizeable risk of becoming infected, with analysis revealing a fully vaccinated contact has a 25% chance of catching the virus from an infected household member while an unvaccinated contact has a 38% chance of becoming infected’.

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The Spending Review predictably occupied many column inches and dominated the airwaves this week, some of this being the valuable commentary deconstructing this budget (eg from the Resolution Foundation) which, sadly, many won’t read because they only follow the headlines. To listen to the Chancellor, it sounded like one fantastic intervention after another, resulting in cheers and ‘hear hear’ all round in the Commons. But Labour Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves and commentators wasted no time in proving that, in fact, many more families would be paying more tax than the numbers forecast by Rishi Sunak to gain from this Budget. It seems that the promises of money for mental health ‘support’ (often a weasel word for the use of short-term and superficial interventions not helpful over the longer term) have mostly not been fulfilled. These were said to be directed especially to new parents and the government is also audaciously pinching New Labour’s innovatory Sure Start family support initiative, most of those centres having been closed by successive Conservative administrations. The new ‘family hubs’ will  take some time to set up, by which time the parlous state of NHS mental health services will get even worse.

Nursery World reports in more detail on the Spending Review’s measures directed at family support – £500m including ‘£80 million for the Family Hubs, where families can go to access the services they need in one place. These result from MP Andrea Leadsom’s Early Years Healthy Development Review, which highlights the first 1001 days of a child’s life as crucial for children’s health and wellbeing and called for families to have access to services’. But we didn’t need Andrea Leadsom to demonstrate the obvious – New Labour based their successful Sure Start centres on exactly this kind of evidence which has been in the public domain for many years. 

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Meanwhile, mental health services are generally in a dire state. Mind, Rethink and other mental health organisations have expressed ‘disappointment’ about this, which is putting it mildly given 1.6 million people on the waiting list and another eight million needing treatment but not meeting clinical thresholds. Mind’s Vicki Nash, head of policy, campaigns and public affairs, acknowledged that, while the Budget did reveal that spending on the NHS in England will increase by £44bn, clarity was needed about the mental health investment because ‘the nation’s mental health is at breaking point’. The impact of the pandemic is being felt throughout the services but it’s striking that there’s been a 29% increase in the number of people being referred to NHS services for a suspected first episode of psychosis compared to pre-pandemic levels. This is hardly surprising considering the uncertain world we are living in but also given the lack of competent leadership which would help contain public anxiety.

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I doubt whether I’ve ever heard a more embarrassing speech than Rishi Sunak’s on Wednesday: yes, he’s a good performer but in parts he almost came across as a stand-up comedian, with those theatrical digs at the EU, for example, which didn’t even stand scrutiny. The government is fond of saying such-and-such wouldn’t have been possible during our EU membership when this is not the case, for example the development of free ports. The speech was full of deluded declarations like ‘this is a government that invests and delivers’, describing the Conservatives as ‘the real party of public services’ when they’ve decimated public services over the years. Some commentaries described it as ‘smoke and mirrors’, with only 20% of new money (the rest being recycled from previous announcements), the amounts promised being nowhere near enough and average take-home pay increasing only slightly or. even declining. Rishi Sunak said he was “not comfortable or happy” about the tax burden as it emerged that the average household would pay £3,000 more in taxes thanks to the decisions he and Boris Johnson have made. But his stance seemed to be that there’s no alternative: one would be to equip the authorities like HMRC to claim all unpaid tax.

The Guardian usefully summarises the Autumn Budget’s main points, accusing the Chancellor of ‘smoke and mirrors’.

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The   Resolution Foundation think tank analyses it, pointing out that the Chancellor has set the stage for a new high tax economy – rather than the high wage economy pledged by the Prime Minister, or the low tax one favoured by many Conservative MPs. It’s a bit befuddling hearing the government talking up our economic growth when the Foundation says the UK is in the midst of its weakest decade for pay growth since the 1930s.

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Days before the start of COP26 it also beggars belief that the Chancellor has reduced the tax on internal flights. It will be interesting to see what demand is now triggered by this change. A sceptic tweeted: ‘Rishi Sunak cuts rate of air passenger duty for domestic flights in half for 9m UK travellers a year. Errr… the week before COP?! Madness!

We’re told that, talking to the press on his flight to Rome for the G20 meeting, Boris Johnson likened the globe’s battle against the climate emergency to a football team losing 5-1 at half-time. ‘I would say that humanity as a whole is about 5-1 down at half-time. We’ve got a long way to go, but we can do it. We have the ability to come back but it’s going to take a huge amount of effort. Team World is up against a very formidable opponent in climate change’. What’s so cringe worthy is the media repeating his frequent statements of the obvious as if they’re pronouncements of the oracle. A sceptic tweeted: ‘Please do not parrot PM Johnson’s counterproductive hyperbole … it only encourages him to be even more of an embarrassment to us all’. He’s already dampened down expectations of COP, saying it’s ‘part of the process’ of keeping on track with the Paris accord goal of limiting warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. At least the threatened rail strike in Glasgow has been cancelled, which would have been quite some embarrassment but problems persist such as shortages of accommodation and staff.

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As Brexit-related issues rumble on, ‘Lord’ Frost has picked yet another fight with the EU (nothing to do with causing a distraction from Covid and supply chain issues, of course), this time accusing them of endangering part of the science programme. Frost said the UK was “getting quite concerned” about Brussels delaying ratification of the UK’s participation in the €80bn (£67bn) Horizon Europe research programme, which could cost British scientists their place in pan-European research programmes. The seven year Horizon programme is regarded at least by scientists as very important as it would ‘help the UK maintain a thriving science ecosystem supporting jobs in universities and laboratories as well as acting as a magnet for overseas talent’. There’s a suspicion the delay in ratifying the UK’s role was related to the Northern Ireland Protocol dispute, particularly the continuing role of the European Court of Justice the UK has fought against, as other non-EU countries like Norway have had their places ratified.

https://bit.ly/2ZLV2zJ

Another embarrassing issue for the UK which isn’t going away is the Prince Andrew versus Virginia Guiffre case, which so far lawyers acting for the Prince have tried to use technicalities to invalidate. Last week we heard that Andrew must answer questions under oath by next July in relation to the lawsuit. Now his lawyers have asked the judge to drop the case, suggesting Ms Guiffre is after ‘a payday’ – some accusation and trivialisation of her case, some may argue. The request also said if the case wasn’t dismissed, Ms Giuffre  should provide a “more definitive statement” of her allegations, which sounds like playing for time, and that ‘accusing a member of the world’s best known royal family of serious misconduct has helped Giuffre create a media frenzy online and in the traditional press’. If that’s not playing the ‘royal family is above reproach’ card I don’t know what is. The next hearing is on 3 November, after which, perhaps, we can expect to hear yet more ingenious defences suggested to rescue the Prince from this case and what must difficult isolation for him.

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In what seems extraordinary lack of awareness, it was reported during the week that locals interviewed in Oswestry didn’t know that their MP, Owen Paterson, is facing a 30 day Commons suspension for breaking lobbying rules. The former cabinet minister was found to have breached paid advocacy rules two years after it was revealed that he helped lobby for two firms he was paid to advise – Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods. Not one but two separate committees found him guilty of an ‘egregious case of paid advocacy, repeatedly using his privileged position to benefit two companies for whom he was a paid consultant and bringing the Commons into disrepute’. The Parliamentary Standards Commissioner would hardly deliver such a judgement lightly, yet Paterson continues to plead his innocence, his daughter also now saying there’s been a miscarriage of justice and Paterson saying he wants to go to court to clear his name.

Locals interviewed barely had a good word for this MP, one saying what a contrast he was to his predecessor, John Biffen, and although there is sympathy for Paterson having lost his wife, who had taken her own life, the committees must have felt that this was not relevant to their judgement. Many of these locals were of the view that politicians were all ‘as bad as each other’ but the cost of their ignorance of politics, especially concerning their own areas, is making it easier overall for the less able and less than honest to thrive in politics and government. Wouldn’t you just know that despite the suspension decision, this could be reduced to 24 hours and Paterson’s career saved due to some political manoeuvring by Conservative allies?

https://bit.ly/3BImI5P

In a bid to curtail the illegal market in drugs, which leads to so much misery, Luxembourg has become the first European country to legalise growing and using cannabis. ‘Under the legislation, people aged 18 and over will be able to legally grow up to four cannabis plants per household for personal use. Trade in seeds will also be permitted without any limit on the quantity or levels of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the principal psychoactive constituent’. The THC measure is interesting in view of its strength. The change is for domestic cultivation and use only, public use and transport remaining illegal but we have to wonder whether the first change won’t lead to changes to public use, especially when that offence won’t attract a criminal categorisation and fines will be reduced.

‘Luxembourg will join Canada, Uruguay and 11 US states in flouting a UN convention on the control of narcotic drugs, which commits signatories to limit “exclusively for medical and scientific purposes the production, manufacture, export, import distribution, trade, employment and possession of drugs” including cannabis’. Whatever happens, other European countries will be awaiting developments with interest because of the ongoing war against drugs in so many societies.  

https://bit.ly/3w8RTG3

We regularly hear about young people moving back in with their parents because of the difficulties of getting onto the housing ladder. Perhaps a new development attributed to the pandemic is that of ‘baby boomer boomerangs’. ‘The reasons are varied, from the positive grown-up children ensuring their parents had care and company during lockdowns to the negative, including financial and relationship breakdowns….. Polly Neate, the chief executive of Shelter, the homelessness and housing charity, said falling incomes – whether through furlough, job losses or relationship breakdowns – had left some older people “barely hanging on to their homes during the pandemic’. Some reported a good experience, being able to support elderly parents and saving money, but there can be an issue with dependency and infantilisation, and one man found the experience difficult.

‘When the pandemic hit, I was put on full furlough. This turned out to be advantageous as it meant I could look after my parents and ensure they could remain fully isolated. But things changed dramatically as the lockdown progressed. The lack of exercise had an adverse effect on them and by the end of the final lockdown, it was apparent they needed so much help that I can’t leave here now. What started out as a temporary arrangement has become a permanent one. The only comfort I have is that at least I have been able to help my parents by living with them’. As the lockdowns could recur and there’s no sign of the housing crisis and relationship breakdowns abating, perhaps we can expect much more inter-generational house sharing in the future.

https://bit.ly/2ZGa4a5

Finally, art and heritage enthusiasts will be interested, even excited, by the massive new Munch museum in Oslo, 13 stories and costing £235m, except they’re not even calling it a museum. Its architect and its director are keen to show they’re about more than the artist’s best known work, the Scream, and want to create a different experience, for example calling it simply Munch, and not the Munch museum. The director tells us to ‘forget everything you know about museums, this is totally different’.

 ‘More than a decade in the making, and subject to intense political wrangling over its cost, form and location, the museum finally opened on Friday, one of the largest in the world dedicated to a single artist. It is a mighty mall of Munch, a towering stack of 11 galleries connected by zigzagging escalators, crowned with a rooftop restaurant and bar’. It will be interesting to see what visitors make of it.

https://bit.ly/3CAUr2i

Saturday 23 October

With so much going on in the political sphere, increasingly impacting on our mental wellbeing, an economist (Walter E Williams) quoted in the Sunday Telegraph seems especially fitting: ‘Most of the great problems we face are caused by politicians creating solutions to problems they created in the first place’. As we continue to reflect on the aftershock and implications of the Sir David Amess killing, now clearly linked to terrorism, a cluster of issues jostle for attention, including the shortage of HGV drivers and now butchers, the Northern Ireland protocol logjam, COP26 preparations widely regarded as insufficient, the prediction that energy prices will rise for 18 more months and the crisis in the NHS, which the government insists isn’t a crisis. Last week’s damning report on the government’s management of the pandemic will make us more alert to delayed action and it was significant that our Prime Minister ensured he was away on holiday (yes, again) at the time of its release.

Perhaps most worrying, though, is Johnson’s and ministers’ denial (contrary to NHS evidence and pleas for reintroduction of some restrictions) there’s anything much amiss, spinning the narrative that Covid deaths are no higher than can be expected etc when this reluctance to act promptly is clearly linked to fear of vociferous backbenchers. About 1,000 a week are dying and 50,000 new cases a day, yet the government appears to have learned nothing from last year, when they acted far later than they should have. There have apparently been only 16 days throughout the whole pandemic when cases were higher in the UK. A good example of government denial is the statement by Health Minister Edward Argar that the NHS still has 6,000 free beds for Covid patients, a ‘degree of headroom’, bed occupancy rates being used to justify delaying any move  to ‘Plan B’, aka reintroducing measures like mandatory facemasks. Of course he was careful not to allude to the A&E crisis in many hospitals which is causing 11 hour waits in ambulances for some patients.

Good luck with mandating mask wearing, though, when things have become so ‘relaxed’ on public transport that you’re lucky if you see more than a third of passengers masking up. But the government and its false narratives have led to this false sense of security. There have been several insidious and cynical examples of complacency and narrative creation this week: one was Jacob Rees-Mogg suggesting his party didn’t need to wear masks because ‘we on this side know each other’ and ‘have a convivial fraternal spirit’ (but does the virus know?). The other was Health Secretary Sajid Javid coupling his ‘advice’ to get vaccinated and wear masks in crowded places (except, it seems, the House of Commons) with a ‘save Christmas message’ – aka if Christmas is clobbered for the second year running it will be our fault, not the government’s.

Dr Kit Yates, a mathematical biologist at the University of Bath and a member of the Independent Sage group of experts said: ‘The narrative has become that case numbers aren’t important, but they still are. They don’t mean the same as they did before vaccination, but the link between cases and deaths has not been broken. We are seeing over 120 deaths a day on average, which for me is unacceptable. Just glancing at the numbers from our neighbours in Europe demonstrates that it didn’t have to be this way’. Despite this evidence to the contrary, ministers still pretend the pandemic is over, using the past tense and alluding to ‘coming out of the pandemic’.

They continue to play the vaccination silver bullet card when it’s clear that vaccination doesn’t prevent hospitalisation and death. Vaccination and booster rates have also slowed down. ‘We are just walking into this winter crisis’, said a BBC Any Questions contributor. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘It is staggering that the UK has a Health Secretary who will not implement basic public health measures to stop the spread of disease. The job of government is to protect its population, not just to manage pressure on the NHS’. Another didn’t mince their words: ‘The government’s reluctance to take simple preventative measures to keep infections down shows how much Johnson is controlled by the swivel-eyed gammon flakes on the right of his party who for some inexplicable reason oppose such hardships like mask-wearing’.

Now it’s not only NHS clinicians, the BMA and policymakers calling for more Covid measures but also local public health directors. At least 12 in England are breaking from the government’s official guidance and recommending so-called plan B protective measures (mask wearing and working at home etc) to curb the rise in coronavirus cases. One effectively challenged the government’s vaccination silver bullet policy. ‘We can’t rely only on vaccines. It’s test when have no symptoms, wear face covering more often than not, give people space, work from home when can, vaccines, isolate when symptoms, ventilate etc’.

https://bit.ly/3GbO73j

On the vaccination policy, the government didn’t do itself any favours this week by fielding the new Vaccines Minister, Maggie Throup (no, many have never heard of her) to answer questions in the Commons, an event lampooned by John Crace in the Guardian. ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the woman. There’s a fair chance you haven’t heard of Maggie Throup. There again, there’s a fair chance that Maggie Throup hasn’t heard of Maggie Throup……..Someone who would be out of her depth in a teacup. And yet, for reasons no one has as yet determined, she is the UK’s new vaccines minister during the worst public health crisis in 100 years. Still, her complete unsuitability for the job made her the ideal health minister for Sajid Javid to send out to take the flak for him by answering Labour’s urgent question on the Covid pandemic. After all, the less she knew, the less chance of her accidentally revealing something potentially embarrassing’. Of 8m eligible for a booster, only 4m have received one and the overall vaccination programme has stalled, we’ve learned. Not a good look for a government trying to depend solely on one solution for our protection.

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Some commentators are already predicting the failure of COP26, the forthcoming international climate crisis conference, as three of the main polluters (China, Russia and India) will not be attending, but also our own government has done insufficient to prepare. What seems sickening and humiliating, then, is Boris Johnson’s gathering of business leaders including Bill Gates at a Global Investment Summit, his errors over the amounts to be invested and fantasy promises during his speech. ‘No need to mention the inconvenient truths of food and lorry driver shortages. Covid infection rates increasing at an alarming rate could also be safely ignored. Those were all just present day irritants. The story he wanted to tell was of a future in which Britain would lead the world to the promised land of net zero by 2050. A speech that was light on detail but peppered with recycled gags’.

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Possibly more embarrassing was the PM’s dinner for potential investors, which sounded like more razzmatazz than substance and which included roping in the royals to glad-hand the lucky attendees at the Queen’s reception for them at Windsor Castle. We have to wonder how the royals feel about being used in this way. Meanwhile, corporate sponsors who have committed millions to finance COP26 feel short changed, some complaining about the involvement of young and inexperienced civil servants who know nothing about managing relationships with the private sector. One sponsor employee said that “the biggest frustration” was the lack of information about how the event will run, and the role for its key backers, because important questions have gone unanswered and planning decisions have been delayed. ‘They had an extra year to prepare for COP due to Covid, but it doesn’t feel like this time was used to make better progress. Everything feels very last minute’. No surprise there, but a Whitehall veteran of such summits said: ‘It feels like some of these sponsors have forgotten the actual reason we’re in Glasgow. COP isn’t about branding, it’s about tackling climate change. Keeping 1.5C in reach is the best thing you can do for your bottom line: they would do well to remember this’.

The situation doesn’t look promising in terms of effecting real change but let’s hope this event doesn’t just turn out to be an extravagant jamboree. As host, the UK has a special onus to lead by example and we are apparently doing well on pledges eg to reach net zero by 2050 (but that’s the easy bit, isn’t it?) but badly on others, being the 17th highest emitter in the world. It will be crucial to see just what progress is made on NDCs (nationally determined contributions) and interesting to see if key figures like David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg actually appear.

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Journalist and broadcaster Adrian Chiles attracted attention this week with his article which gets to the heart of the climate crisis – our attachment (addiction, even) to ‘stuff’. He points up both the distinction many seem unable to make between needing and wanting and the cynical tactics of advertisers and retailers. ‘I’m so sick of stuff. Some of it is stuff I really need or that is at least genuinely nice to have, but a good 70% is useless stuff…. Stuff, stuff, stuff. Advertising people, pushing at the open door of our acquisitive instincts, dedicate their lives to fooling us into acquiring more of it. It bugs me how these people regard themselves as “creatives”, as if they write plays or novels or grace lighted stages and silver screens’.

Then there’s the illogicality of multiple storage facilities: although there are sensible uses like the need to store furniture between property moves and so on, we have to wonder how much space is given over to ‘stuff’ its owners could do with going through and dealing with. ‘Look around you next time you make a road trip. There are storage companies springing up everywhere. We’re so stuffed with stuff that we’re actually paying people to store our stuff for us. This madness must stop, but I don’t see our lunatic addiction to stuff addressed in the plans to get to net zero. What we need is a brilliantly executed ad campaign around the slogan STOP BUYING STUFF’. And, getting beyond the domestic to global environmental concerns: ‘We now have so much stuff stuffed into shipping containers all over the world that the entire system is congested, stuffed up with stuff’. Christmas and birthdays also play their part – perhaps we will eventually be able to transition more permanently to gifts which aren’t planet and home clogging ‘stuff’!

https://bit.ly/3vCKqig

But hey, if COP26 fails to cut much showcasing ‘global Britain’ ice, the government still has Unboxed (the 2022 UK creativity festival) to come. Originally planned by Theresa May’s administration and since endorsed by the Johnson regime and the devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast., the idea of the event derided by some as a ‘festival of Brexit’ is to draw on arts, science, engineering, technology and maths in a government-backed £120m celebration of ingenuity. When interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme this week, I thought it was noticeable that Martin Green, Unboxed’s chief creative officer, didn’t use the B word and was perhaps keen to distance himself from associations with Brexit. The article describes the ten successful projects chosen from over 300 submissions, which certainly sound innovative, if a little wacky. The good thing is that this is a UK-wide exercise, which should help encourage community involvement and avoid accusations of metrocentricity. Dame Vikki Heywood, the chair of the Unboxed board, said: ‘The programme will support economic recovery in the UK by reanimating towns and cities and expanding our connectivity through new online communities. As the programme unfolds, it will both entertain us and inspire us to imagine what the future might hold’.

https://bit.ly/3pvPzYC

Amid news that UK households will be £1000 poorer next year, due to rising energy prices and shortages of workers and supplies caused by Covid and Brexit, there’s been premature leaking (to the regular annoyance of the Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle) of the likely contents of next week’s Spending Review. Not before time, it will include investment in mental health ‘support’ (a weasel word usually employed to disguise lack of substance) for parents and, crucially, ‘family hubs’ to provide all round support. What a nerve that Conservative governments dismantled New Labour’s Sure Start centres, which achieved so much, and are now pinching the idea at the same time as saying these hubs will do ‘much more’. It will be very interesting to see how long they take to be set up and what they will actually deliver.

The Local Government Chronicle outlines the ‘tricks’ used to obfuscate, presenting an appearance of investment, very important if they’re serious about ‘levelling up’, rather than genuine investment. ‘Too often, government ambition breaks down in the face of Treasury penny-pinching. So how will we be able to tell whether what we’re getting from the chancellor is premium unleaded or if he’s instead flogging us low-grade red diesel? Here are a few common tricks every chancellor uses to confuse us, to look out for on October 27th.’ One of the main tricks the media need to be alert to and challenge is recasting of existing funding as new money. Another is making substantial initial investment, but for this to tail off during the course of the project. A third concerns ‘real terms rises’, that is whether investment will keep pace with rising inflation: if not, its value will decline.

https://bit.ly/3C9UD8q

Earlier this month mental health organisations again stated the dire state services are in and that1.5m people are already waiting for treatment, with about 10m people needing help over the next three years as a result of the pandemic. So far the government has gone nowhere near what the Centre for Mental Health urges for this Spending Review, ie making the nation’s mental health a priority. The Centre reckons there are three key priorities within this overarching one.

‘The Government should make three major commitments in the Spending Review. First, it should commit to keep the promises of the Long Term Plan for mental health. That includes giving mental health services a fair share of NHS funding, expanding support in communities, and boosting social care. Second, it should take action to improve children’s mental health. That means investing in evidence-based parenting support for young families, in helping schools to promote mental health for all children, and in early support hubs for young people. And third, it should take steps to prevent mental ill health. This should start with a pledge to keep the £20 Universal Credit lifeline to keep people out of poverty at this critical time. And it should include investing in public health services, with funding that enables them to protect the mental health of their local communities’. We will wait to see what is actually promised on Wednesday.

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As of this wasn’t enough to contend with, another mental health issue has entered the lexicon: ‘range anxiety’, caused by the worry that one’s electric car will run out of power before it reaches its destination. Fortunately for the government, given the severe under investment in mental health, the solutions to this anxiety are quite concrete, said to include the deployment of extensive charging infrastructure, the development of higher battery capacity at a cost-effective price, battery swapping technology, use of range extenders, plus accurate navigation and range prediction. But how long before these developments come to fruition?

I thought one of the most amusing yet sickening news items this week was the palpable anger of BBC royalty editor Nicholas Witchell on being left out of the loop regarding the Queen’s hospital stay. Visibly annoyed, Witchell complained that the media had not ‘been given the complete picture’ to relay to viewers and readers. ‘We were now being told that she was resting, undertaking light duties and in good spirits. Well, we must hope that we can place reliance on what the palace is telling us.’ Some commentators thought the Palace had indeed handled this badly, as the story was only ‘outed’ by the Sun, but there is a key element Witchell fails to see, which is the line to be drawn between ‘the privacy individuals are entitled to on medical matters and the expectation the nation has of being informed about the health of its head of state’.

We’ve long known how the royals feel about Witchell and the inquisitiveness demonstrated generally by these royal correspondents but these days more and regular news is expected than during the pre-internet age. One amusing aspect was Boris Johnson commenting: ‘But I’m given to understand that actually Her Majesty is characteristically back at her desk at Windsor as we speak…’ when we’ve seen how often he is away from his own ‘desk’.

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A good dose of Schadenfreude was afforded last week by the swift withdrawal of an extraordinary job offer by the UN to former Heath Secretary Matt Hancock, that of helping Africa’s economy recover from Covid. You really couldn’t make this up. At least the UN, on hearing about the damning report on this government’s pandemic response, thought better of their offer but you have to wonder why they even considered it in the first place. We’ve long known that Hancock is ambitious, a case of ego exceeding ability, so now he will have to continue elsewhere his search for rehabilitation.  

Finally, perhaps relevant given the above discussion about ‘stuff’, we learn that fashionistas are not only investing in clothes for the real world but the digital world as well. A site called DressX sells a range of 1,000 digital garments which are then pasted onto their photos for use on social media. A new entrant to the job market, then – digital clothing designer/retailer!

Saturday 9 October

To hear politicians pontificating from their conference hall bubbles recently, you’d almost think there wasn’t a fuel and supply chain crisis surging through the rest of the country, the sticking plaster solutions clearly not working. The request for overseas drivers (some of whom have not minced words in their media about how badly they felt treated by the UK) resulted in just 27 applications, at one point misrepresented by media as 127. It’s estimated about one in six adults have been unable to buy essential food items during the past fortnight and that these shortages, together with fuel and carbon dioxide shortages, have led to panic buying, a vicious circle and the threat of ‘ruining Christmas for millions’. But this obsession with Christmas does seem a bit ‘first world problems’ compared with what’s going on elsewhere in the world. It’s also manifest short-termism because supply chain problems aren’t just for Christmas.

It’s also been suggested that ‘everyday cleaning products’ are becoming hard to come by, but this might be an opportunity to ditch these polluting chemical products in favour of our grandmothers’ remedies for household management, unless, that is, items like vinegar, bicarbonate of soda and lemon juice are also disappearing from supermarket shelves. In which case, the corner shop might save the day, as they were often found to do during lockdowns. Despite much evidence to the contrary, Boris Johnson said the fuel crisis was ‘abating’ and he was ‘very confident’  that this Christmas would be ‘considerably better’ than last year, but by now we have the measure of the value of his ‘confidence’.

How shaming is it that ex-Tesco boss David Lewis has now been parachuted in to ‘save Christmas’ (and the Prime Minister’s skin?) after such a build up of incompetence? Downing Street said ‘Drastic Dave’ has been tasked with ‘both identifying the causes of current blockages (!!) and pre-empting potential future ones, and advising on resolutions either through direct Government action or through industry with Government support’.  We’re told ‘this will be the first restriction-free holiday since the Covid emergency erupted in March last year. As such, retailers are expecting a party like no other. Sainsbury’s is taking on an extra 22,000 staff and paying out ­handsome bonuses’. Maybe this is taking too much for granted (remember last year?) as, despite a seeming news blackout on it, Covid cases are rising (on Friday 127 Covid-related deaths and a further 36,060 infections recorded) and 1 in 4 believe there will be another lockdown this winter. A sceptic tweeted: ‘Sewage in our water, rocketing energy prices empty shelves, fuel supply issues, inflation rising, worst Covid rates in Europe, pigs incinerated, another bleak Christmas: “You’ve never had it so bad” under these BrexiCons’.

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Revelations of corruption and profiteering emerging from the Pandora papers leaking came thick and fast during the week, highlighting high profile figures like Tony Blair and those connected to the Conservative Party – hardly likely to inspire confidence. ‘Millions of documents reveal the secret transactions of 35 present and former leaders and more than 300 public officials’, proving once again the apparent belief that for some in public life ethical conduct is optional. The Times reported the case of one party donor. ‘A millionaire Conservative donor who has given more than £500,000 to the party has been named in connection with a corruption scandal in which a bribe was paid to the daughter of Uzbekistan’s president. Mohamed Amersi, who donated to Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign, is said to have advised a Swedish telecoms company on the structure of a deal which was later found to include a £162 million bribe…..Fergus Shiel, from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, said: “There’s never been anything on this scale and it shows the reality of what offshore companies can offer to help people hide dodgy cash or avoid tax’’…. The leak could prove embarrassing for the British government, which has repeatedly failed to act on promises to introduce a register of offshore property owners despite concerns that buyers could be hiding money-laundering activities’. The parade of world leaders cited by the Pandora Papers shows just how depressingly widespread this kind of covert activity is.

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It seems like the Pandora papers constitute a gift that keep on giving, judging by the number of revelations that kept piling up last week. Labour has now written to the co-chair of the Conservatives, Oliver Dowden, regarding donations to 34 Tory MPs by the companies backed by a Russian-born oil tycoon linked to an alleged corruption scandal. One of the striking things about all these ‘arrangements’ coming to light is the lengths those involved and their facilitators have clearly gone to construct complex webs of ownership and provenance to disguise their unsavoury activities.

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Another blow for many was the ending on Wednesday of the Universal Credit uplift, defended by Justice Secretary Dominic Raab in a typically poor Today interview, saying it was ‘unsustainable long term’ when pursuing unpaid tax would pay for it and billions have been wasted by this government in crony Covid-related contracts. But there may be another U-turn yet, as a Tory peer who helped design the UC system is tackling the government on it and the now Dr Marcus Rashford has entered the fray. Philippa Stroud, Chief Executive of the rightwing think tank the Legatum Institute and a former adviser to Iain Duncan Smith during his time as work and pensions secretary said: ‘By our calculations, the decision today to remove this uplift will push 840,000 people into poverty – 290,000 of those are children – and so this is … a really bleak day for many, many families up and down the country…. Our safety net is supposed to protect vulnerable people and that includes people who are sick, disabled and who have disabled children at this time.’

 Lady Stroud has spoken of challenging Boris Johnson from the House of Lords, noting that the decision was taken by ‘the executive’ and that MPs weren’t given a say. It will be interesting to see if Lady Stroud and/or Marcus Rashford (who has stepped up his campaign against child hunger in the run-up to the government’s spending review on 27 October) will cut any ice. The level of engagement amongst Tory MPs can perhaps be illustrated by the fact that only four turned up to the food bank charity Trussell Trust’s breakfast meeting held during the conference.

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Earlier in the week there was justified criticism of Dame Cressida Dick being allowed to stay on in her Met Commissioner post despite evidence of misdemeanours by other serving police officers and of the public inquiry announced in response to the Sarah Everard murder. This government seems to have a particular talent for offering half measures (the fact that the inquiry isn’t statutory means witnesses cannot be compelled to give evidence) but to want kudos for simply appearing to respond to a problem. Surely by now even some Tory supporters are beginning to see through this ‘all fur coat and no knickers’ approach to public policy.

Not surprisingly, much discussion and newsprint this week have been devoted to the Conservative Party conference and a more embarrassingly bad speech by our Prime Minister I can hardly imagine. The contrast between the adoring and gullible sea of faces there and the excoriation by commentators, trade unions and business leaders was palpable. Prior to this, though, Boris Johnson had been interviewed on the Today programme for the first time in two years and it was classic radio when presenter Nick Robinson told the PM to ‘stop talking’, clearly recognising the PM’s determination to control the exchange. Every claim could be deconstructed, for example ‘We’re putting money into every area of UK public services’. Not in any genuine sense as there have been massive cuts in public health services, with serious consequences further down the line, and what is ‘put in’ now in no way compensates for earlier cuts. Only days before during Andrew Marr’s programme had the PM been caught out, claiming that ‘wages are going up’ when Office of National Statistics figures tell a different story.

The conference seemed marked by two profoundly worrying phenomena: the deluded denial from this bubble of the crises engulfing the country (manifested by karaoke sessions which included DWP minister Therese Coffey singing along to I’ve Had The Time of my Life – no doubt benefits claimants would see it differently) and the presentation of failures as successes, for example the shortages as a change of direction, a ‘transition to a high wage economy’. A third could be added: how seriously they take themselves, which would be amusing if it wasn’t so serious. Journalist Rafael Behr supplied a good example of this spin in motion:  Michael Gove describing the blights of inequality and poverty pay as a function of the ‘old EU model’ that voters had rejected when the EU had never actually sanctioned low wages and inadequate workplace rights. It all adds up to the most sinister kind of gaslighting.  

As for the PM’s speech itself, Times columnist Iain Martin said ‘Boris sounded like a man at the bar in the first class lounge of the Titanic ordering another round of drinks and telling funny stories just after midnight as it becomes clear there is insufficient lifeboat capacity’. It was described as ‘bombastic, vacuous and economically illiterate’ by right wing think tank the Adam Smith Institute, and another conservative think tank, Bright Blue, opined: ‘The public will soon tire of Boris’s banter if the government does not get a grip of mounting crises: price rises, tax rises, fuel shortages, labour shortages. There was nothing new in this speech, no inspiring new vision or policy’.

The Guardian’s John Crace offers a scarily comic analysis: ‘The lights went out and Spandau Ballet played through the PA system. “You’re indestructible, always believing you’re gold” is the narcissist’s theme tune. No wonder Boris loves it. He is the man who doesn’t have to try too hard. Even when the country feels like it is falling apart around him, in his universe he can reconfigure it into his own image as a roaring success.

Johnson looked up and smiled. The conference centre was his kingdom. His bubble. He could say what he liked and no one would care. The audience just wanted to be embraced into his realm. To experience his vision of an England where there were no queues for petrol, no food and labour shortages, no inflation and no tax rises. Those things were all constructs of a media and Labour party obsessed with talking the country down. The longer he went on, the more rambling and lazy the speech became. It lasted a thankfully brief 45 minutes but it wasn’t even immediately clear that he had actually ended as he seemed to finish mid-sentence. No one cared. The audience cheered, none more so than the cabinet – each of whom was desperate not to be seen to be the first one to stop clapping’.

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You couldn’t make it up – the conference’s theme was ‘delivery’. The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee describes a ‘party in denial’: ‘ministers witlessly blamed petrol queues on public ‘panic’ – an insult to those desperate to get to work, school or hospital. Next, ministers claimed this had nothing to do with Brexit – even though there are no queues or empty shelves across the Channel…. Under Johnson, Britain is living through a real-time great economic experiment, the uncharted waters of a Brexit without plans: with more than a million job vacancies, will the invisible hand of pure market forces send pay shooting high enough to pull people into unappealing work in far-off places? That free market religion had the fantastical Brexit minister Lord Frost claiming, “The British Renaissance has begun!”Dare the prime minister sit back, arms folded, waiting for free markets to fix everything?’ The current crisis has certainly exposed the dangers of over-relying on ‘the markets’.

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In response to a tweet (‘Brexit is done and not to be talked about anymore, and its effects nonexistent. 2. Brexit Wars must be continued as the existence of an external enemy (all evils are due to the EU) keeps the Conservative Party united and in line and in the HoC majority’) a psychiatrist rightly responded: ‘We psychiatrists call this cognitive dissonance and this usually ends badly for your mental health’. Meanwhile, one of the most recent lambastings of our Prime Minister comes from Matthew Parris in the Times, who challenged the view that the PM has lost his judgement (he never had any) and that ‘he broke into Downing Street by clambering up a drainpipe called Brexit’.

Another was from commentator Max Hastings, suggesting it was now time for Johnson to ride off into the sunset: ‘He could resume his career as an entertainer and we might get a PM worthy of the office’. For his replacement ‘the most immediate and important task would be to appoint ministers for their competence, rather than for mere loyalty to their patron…. (and he’s so right about this): a habit has grown up in the media, as well as in the country, of displaying a courtesy towards members of this government that is only justifiable by their possession of state offices and the shrugged mantra “there is no alternative”, rather than any objective assessment of their performances’.

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Yet another, from Ellie Mae O’Hagan, director of the Centre for Labour and Social Studies, gets to the theme of this blog, which is the connection between uncaring incompetence leading to crises and the resulting mistrust, which directly impact our mental health. ‘But ultimately this speech is merely tarpaulin the prime minister is using to cover up fuel shortages, soaring living costs and a brutal and cruel social care system that will be relatively unchanged by recent policy announcements. Johnson’s quixotic musings can’t make those issues any less real for the people of this country, and the gap between his rhetoric and their experiences may lead to more mistrust, more cynicism and less belief in the possibility of progressive change – which paradoxically create the anti-politics sentiment that leads to people voting for charlatans who govern in colour’.

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We already know how much unmet need there is for mental health services in this country: now a global study has demonstrated what many have long suspected, that the pandemic has caused a huge mental health deficit around the world. Researchers found that cases of anxiety and depression increased dramatically around the world  in 2020, ‘with an estimated 76m extra cases of anxiety and 53m extra cases of major depressive disorder than would have been expected had Covid not struck’. Women more affected than men and younger people more than older people.

The project head, Dr Damian Santomauro of the University of Queensland said: ‘The pandemic has placed a large burden on mental health systems that were already struggling to cope. We have to seriously re-evaluate how we respond to the mental health needs of the population moving forward. I’m hoping that our results can provide some guidance to those needing to make decisions around what needs to be prioritised and what populations are most impacted’. Fat chance of that in this country, it seems, as so many alerts have been issued about mental health service failings, which continue to be sidestepped by the NHS and government.

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Such deficits are even more to the fore because it’s World Mental Health Day tomorrow, with a timely theme of Mental Health in an Unequal World. Each year the event aims to raise awareness, educate, and decrease the stigma around mental health. A while back the Mental Health Foundation, associated with the event in the UK, produced green ribbon badges (along the lines of the pink breast cancer awareness ones) so if you see one, you’ll know what it’s about. Commenting on the PM’s conference speech, mental health charity Mind said: ‘1.6million people are on the waiting list for mental health support (and 8 million more can’t even get on the waiting list because they’re not ‘sick enough’). But the Prime Minister didn’t mention mental health in his speech at the Conservative Party Conference today’.

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Perhaps it’s no coincidence, given ‘that’ conference speech this week, that Radio 4’s Four Thought this week focused on doubt and how we could harness it more productively. Nicola Reindorp, CEO of Crisis Action, believes we should reframe doubt, to be seen as a strength in leaders, not a weakness. ‘I’d seen my own doubts as negative, disqualifying me from leadership. I had seen others believe the same. But, I asked myself, aren’t the best leaders not the ones that say they have all the answers, but those who know they don’t? Not those who say they see it all, but those who ask whose perspective is missing? Rather than a deficiency to be hidden, maybe doubt should be seen as a power to be harnessed?’ Perhaps a healthy alternative to politicians’ denial and hubris? She points out how human beings seek certainty and public figures displaying uncertainty get flak. But managing uncertainty is one of the milestones towards becoming a mature adult and perhaps colluding with people’s need of ‘certainty’ is unhelpful long term. She says ‘potential leaders hide their doubt’ but suggests the conviction that they can’t show it is a barrier to getting the ‘leaders we want and need’. And, importantly, ‘We’re starting to learn more about the perils of over-confidence’. Not half. The best leaders could indeed be the ones who know they don’t pretend have all the answers. ‘Build back better’, anyone? Or, as Greta Thunberg put it mockingly recently ‘Build back better blah blah blah’. And a quote attributed to philosopher Bertrand Russell: ‘The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts’.  

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Finally, two news snippets this week made me wonder if I’d missed April fool’s Day. One was that Evan Blair (son of Tony Blair) has amassed a paper fortune of £167m after his education start-up attracted substantial investment, allegedly making him richer than his father. The other was actor Daniel Craig being made an honorary commander in the Royal Navy, the same rank as his James Bond character. This could be good timing for the actor in his last Bond appearance – what could Commander Craig get up to next?