Sunday 20 June

As the week pass, it seems they become ever more action packed and this last one has certainly been a corker. It started with various assessments of the G7 summit, some commentators thinking it had been groundbreaking, others seeing it as the equivalent of a weekend spa break. Labour leader Keir Starmer said Johnson ‘was a host not a leader, a tour guide not a statesman’. Time will tell, as work on climate change and global tax arrangements continue, with many steps before their goals are realised. At the summit Boris Johnson worked hard to play down the rift with EU and to play up ‘global Britain’, prompting a sceptic to tweet: ‘Global Britain? Little England, more like’. This tweet does rather sum up the government’s approach to negotiations with the EU: ‘EU: please implement the deal we agreed. UK: hang on, hang on… We need to be pragmatic, flexible, and imaginative. EU: what does all of that even mean? UK: you know the text we negotiated, agreed and ratified? Let’s bin it and do something different. Here’s our list of demands’.

It was also noticed that, despite having just got married in a Catholic church, he didn’t attend mass – no surprise there.  

Having been widely trailed, it was no surprise to hear the official announcement on Monday that the fourth step of lockdown exit wouldn’t now be until 19 July at the earliest, prompting predictably angry reactions from the usual suspects. Speaking VERY EMPHATICALLY (a sure sign he’s on uncertain ground) our PM kept saying ‘I’m confident’ that this or that, but many of us have no confidence in his confidence. It was noticeable that a worryingly snuffly Michael Gove, interviewed on Tuesday’s Today programme, had already downgraded this to ‘pretty confident’.

And ‘irreversible’? ‘The prime minister sees this as the final stretch and wants people to be patient. We are nearly there, it’s one last haul’. The doubt now creeping into this bullishly declared ‘irreversible’ exit schtick is now palpable. It’s telling that polls indicate widespread public support for delaying the exit and for continuing certain measures like mask wearing, despite regular anti-lockdown protests, which this week in Central London had BBC journalist Nick Watt being chased and abused.

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The Times discussed how Conservative MPs were privately accusing the PM of ‘having lost his nerve, especially after Edward Argar, a health minister, conceded this morning that it was “possible” restrictions could be extended again beyond July 19’. This has naturally prompted cries of protest from the hospitality, travel and entertainment industries.

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During Monday’s BBC World at One programme, irascible lockdown sceptic Sir Charles Walker opined: ‘If you can’t lift restrictions at the height of summer, and we are in the height of summer, then you almost certainly are looking at these restrictions persisting and tightening into the autumn and winter. We were told we were going to live with Covid-19 and it now looks like most of the remaining of this year, and certainly the first half of next year, will probably end up with some form of lockdown’. Walker was annoyed at the question as to whether he didn’t trust Boris Johnson, saying he had a ‘great affection’ for the Prime Minister, then, astonishingly, that the PM had nearly ‘given his life to Covid’. A listener tweeted: ‘Surely this comment of Charles Walker’s will go down in history as one of the most deluded about Boris Johnson. He put himself in the position of ‘nearly giving his life’ by ignoring scientific advice, not distancing and shaking hands willy nilly’.

Another dimension of 14 June announcement was Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle’s fury that Johnson had made the announcement at a press conference rather than first to MPs, as per the proper procedure. He said he had been “misled” about the prime minister’s announcement over the delay to the roadmap, telling MPs he had been told no decision had been finalised. ‘I was told no decisions will be taken until the Cabinet meets. I am being misled, this House is being misled. I find it totally unacceptable that once again, once again, that we see Downing Street running roughshod over members of parliament. We’re not accepting it and I’m at the stage where I’m beginning to look for other avenues if they’re not going to treat this house seriously’. Yet again, though, it’s water off the duck’s back: Boris Johnson managed to pacify the Speaker for now but it won’t be the last time he treats the Commons without respect.

Besides general concern about the rapid rise of Delta variant cases, some scientists and clinicians are convinced a Third Wave is on the way, one saying he’s ‘resigned to it’. The criterion as to how bad things are seems to be not the number of cases but numbers of hospitalisations, but as ever, it seems the lingering and disabling effects of Long Covid are overlooked.

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Ministers keep talking up the vaccination programme but other supporting measures have never worked properly and now statistics show that councils refuse about 6 in 10 of applications for self-isolation support. Whereas Track and Trace should have been allocated to local authorities in the first place, this self-isolation support could perhaps have been removed from busy and cash-strapped councils and operated centrally and consistently, ensuring those who need it get it. It’s the government’s criteria for receiving the payments which are too tight, say some local authorities, ‘sparking warnings from trade unions that a key policy to limit Covid-19 is “failing” in the face of rising infections’. It’s known that some who’ve tested positive are continuing to go to work and the Office for National Statistics reckons that between March and May, ‘between 13% and 17% of people who tested positive did not stick to self-isolation requirements’.

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The latest Dominic Cummings silo (how many more are waiting in the wings?) took centre stage last week, texts showing that last March Boris Johnson had called Health Secretary Matt Hancock ‘totally f…ing hopeless’, evidence that can’t easily be undone by Downing Street statements that the PM has ‘every confidence’ in his Health Secretary. The media played clips of journalists calling out ‘Are you hopeless, Mr Hancock?’ This morning’s Radio 4 Broadcasting House featured an amusing piece on this phenomenon by veteran broadcaster Michael Crick, who said it had developed in the wake of Parliament being televised: ‘if in doubt, shout it out’.

A journalist tweeted: ‘No 10 failing to deny Johnson planned to sack Hancock and replace him with Gove will confirm for most reasonable people that he did, leaving the Health Secretary a dead man walking in a Covid crisis’ and Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said: ‘So, Boris Johnson – if you keep a Health Secretary you consider to be “totally f***ing hopeless” in post during a global pandemic, what does that make you…?’

Thanks to Emma for the heads up on this…. Astonishingly, in the Commons on Thursday, Jacob Rees-Mogg defended his colleague, calling Hancock ‘the brilliant, the one and only successful genius who has been running health over the last 15 months…he has done so much to make not only the country but the world safer’. You couldn’t make it up.

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The Guardian’s sketch writer John Crace returned once more to his regular targets – ‘Door Matt’ and the Prime Minister. ‘But on a day of ironies the biggest one was left to last. For who should the government send out to lead the debate on extending the lockdown restrictions for a further four weeks than Hancock. The minister whom even Boris thought was completely f……. hopeless. Still, not even Door Matt could screw this one up as Labour was supporting the government, though he did seem to think the appearance of the Delta variant had been a total mystery that couldn’t have been expected by anyone. Just give us four more weeks, Hancock said, and we’ll be back to normal. Data not dates no longer appears to be government policy’.

On Prime Minister’s Questions: ‘Johnson did what he always does when put under pressure. He blustered and lied…… And Boris doesn’t care that people know he’s lying, because even his own MPs seem happy for him to do so. A liar’s gotta do what a liar’s gotta do. The Tories knew what they were buying when they chose him as leader and, as the Cummings blog shows, he’s not about to have a personality change. The irony is that the same MPs are outraged at perceived breaches of faith from other parties and countries, yet are blind to the more obvious failings of their own man’. With all these goings on, it’s hardly surprising that so many are experiencing insecurity and anxiety, since the government is not only doing nothing to psychologically contain the causes, their role, but actually creating more with a never-ending stream of disreputable acts.

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Guardian columnist Marina Hyde explores why it’s useful for Boris Johnson to surround himself with the ‘hopeless’: ‘from Matt Hancock to Gavin Williamson, these proven failures have become the prime minister’s human shields’. I can’t believe these ministers don’t know this, that they’re being used in the most cynical way, but their egos and desire for spurious advancement must be enabling them to overcome any misgivings or pricks of conscience.

‘….the role of Health Secretary in a pandemic is a profoundly critical one. Likewise that of Education Secretary in a period of disrupted learning and life chances. So to stick with known and proven failures says vastly more about Boris Johnson than anyone else. Despite his matey posturing, the prime minister appears so completely indifferent to the death and myriad forms of suffering his own hopelessness has wrought that he would rather retain Hancock and Williamson as human shields than upgrade his personnel. This is the weak leadership of a man who judges – perhaps rightly – that if he permits the bell to toll for one of his cabinet ministers, it hastens the moment it tolls for him.

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Former Speaker John Bercow’s defection to Labour will be a further blow: although Bercow insisted that this wasn’t ‘personal’ towards the Prime Minister, he did go on to say in interviews that the PM’s contempt for Parliament and his ‘lamentable’ management of the pandemic had been factors. Describing today’s Conservative party as ‘reactionary, populist, nationalistic and sometimes even xenophobic’, he said of the PM: ‘he is a successful campaigner but a lousy governor. I don’t think he has any vision of a more equitable society, any thirst for social mobility or any passion to better the lot of people less fortunate than he is. I think increasingly people are sick of lies, sick of empty slogans, sick of a failure to deliver’. Let’s hope the government doesn’t try to dismiss this as resentment for not being given a peerage – I can just see this happening in tomorrow’s Today programme ministerial interview.

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Other concerning news during the week was that Track and Trace ‘supremo’ Dido Harding had shown interest in the top NHS job, prompting a petition to prevent this happening and palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke to tweet: ‘Dido Harding just threw her hat in the ring. Can we be clear? If Boris Johnson chooses to reward the woman who’s presided over the multi billion pound debacle of Test & Trace with the role of next NHS England CEO, then he has nothing but contempt for the NHS & NHS patients’. As if this didn’t display sufficient hubris, the Baroness, writing in today’s Sunday Times, has vowed to end England’s reliance on foreign doctors and nurses if she becomes the next head of the NHS. This prompted numerous tweets from critics, one calling her ‘a repugnant individual’ and another ‘a serial failure and menace’. One commentator tweeted: ‘Tough words but if Dido Harding is capable of feeding xenophobia to the press to win the NHS top job, she should be utterly ashamed of herself. “Foreign” medics/nurses saved the PM’s life, they are our pride and joy’.

Whoever does get this top job will have their work cut out, assuming they take their role seriously, given the revelation that fixing NHS waiting lists could cost £40bn. Alarmingly, the government seems to think there’s no urgency about this, according to a No 10 ‘source’, because the public are not thought to be ‘distressed’ about long delays. How out of touch is this? I suspect most of us know at least one person waiting for an operation or other treatment and they are certainly perturbed by the wait. The number of patients waiting now exceeds 5 million.

 Professor Anita Charlesworth, an NHS finances expert at the Health Foundation think tank said: ‘The health service now has a mountain to climb. Reducing the backlog of long waits and getting the NHS into a position where waiting time standards are consistently met will need a major increase in funding. But that would also need 5,000 extra beds, 4,100 more consultants and 17,100 additional nurses, as the NHS was too under-resourced to ramp up the number of patients treated’. So much for Dido Harding’s plan to do without foreign staff.

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There were also mixed reactions, particularly from British farmers, about the much-trumpeted trade deal with Australia, promoted as an example of global Britain throwing off EU shackles, its proponents seemingly unable to see that the so-called benefits were not at all comparable with what had gone before. This was brought out on Radio 4’s Any Questions, ‘Dame’ Andrea Leadsom fulfilling the role of government cheerleader, saying what a fantastic opportunity it was that young people could live and work in Australia for 3 years. This was instantly deconstructed by commentator Ellie Mae O’Hagan, who pointed out how much weaker these ‘opportunities’ were than the ones afforded by EU membership.

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Despite Boris Johnson’s attempt to brush off their devastating result in the Chesham and Amersham by-election as ‘due to local circumstances’, it’s clear and some Conservatives admitted that they do need to seriously think about the dramatic overturning of their 16k majority, the Lib Dems winning by almost 8k. While commentators speculate as to whether this is the first breach in the ‘blue wall’, the PM declared that they would ‘continue to unite and level up the country’. ‘Continue?’ questioned one tweeter: ‘He’s done a good job of dividing it’. Commentators suggest this result could mean the end of the ‘safe seat’ and that the local electorate was voting with its feet regarding planning policy and HS2. At least one caller to Radio 4’s Any Answers said the Conservatives had been ‘complacent’ and this did seem evident from the manner of candidate Peter Fleet, who appeared to attribute the Lib Dem victory to them ‘having thrown everything at it’.

It’s striking how many Conservatives are saying ‘this is a very disappointing result’, as if this is a fact rather than their opinion. As for Labour’s failure, a New Statesman article (summarised in The Week), suggests this is partly due to the party’s attitude towards English identity, thought to be more important than Labour recognises. Rather than being a set of regions, traditional supporters ‘have a strong sense of English identity and they worry that regional devolution would put them at a huge disadvantage to Scotland in the matter of funding’. They’re thought to be concerned that Gordon Brown is urging the party to go further down the regional devolution path. ‘Unless it shows more deference for English identity, Labour will remain marooned’.

Former Conservative MP for South West Hertfordshire David Gauke, who was rejected by Johnson over Brexit, thought that the ‘realignment’ in British politics had favoured the Conservatives but now there is vulnerability in areas not naturally aligned with Boris Johnson’s brand of politics. ‘… there are a group of seats – up to 30 or 40 – where the Conservative vote is not Johnsonian, considers the government to be pretty populist, not focused on the interests of taxpayers, not sufficiently pro-business, and that vote is soft. And it’s vulnerable’. Not for the first time, I’m finding that the views of those cast into outer darkness on account of Brexit have just as or more interesting and intelligent views than opposition politicians.  

Although it’s a different setting and set of circumstances (the Labour candidate being the sister of former MP Jo Cox, Kim Leadbetter), all eyes will now be on the upcoming Batley and Spen by-election on 1 July.

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Some good news for the environment, nature, wildlife and indirectly mental wellbeing comes in the form of plans for a £16m fund to pay landowners for creating new woodlands in England. These would ‘boost wildlife, increase public access and reduce flooding’…. The new scheme will cover all the costs of saplings and planting and pay bonuses of up to £2,800 a hectare for woodland that helps wildlife recover, £1,600/ha for riverside trees, £2,200/ha for woodland with long-term public access and £500/ha for cutting flood risk by slowing water flow. Landowners can claim multiple benefits if their project ticks multiple boxes’.

We have to wonder, though, at the government’s claim that this is part of ‘the biggest shake-up of farming policy for 50 years in November, enabled by Brexit’. While the intention sounds good, ‘redirecting subsidies from simply rewarding land ownership or rental to measures that help tackle the climate and wildlife crises’, it didn’t set out the level of payments or how this would be implemented, given the amount of administration such an exercise will involve. The scheme seems to have been cautiously welcomed by representatives of farming and conservation organisations, but, as one said, ‘the devil is in the detail’, so these experts will no doubt be carefully monitoring these developments over the next few years.

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The Week describes some of this year’s finalists, including Father Len Black, a Catholic priest who streamed mass from a shed in his Inverness garden to an online congregation including people from all over the world. Another is a shed turned into a Peaky Blinders themed bar. Category winners will be announced in August – who’d have thought, years ago, that the humble garden shed could reach such heights of sophistication?!

Finally, many will be aware of the men’s sheds movement, which has grown up over recent years to promote a sense of sharing, community and mental wellbeing amongst men who might be less keen to join mainstream clubs and societies. The Men’s Sheds Association describes them as ‘kitted out community spaces where men can enjoy practical hobbies. They’re about making friends, learning and sharing skills. Many guys come just for the tea and banter, everyone’s welcome’. Many had an online presence during lockdown and we can well imagine that these places became even more popular during the pandemic.

I wonder how many in this movement entered this year’s Shed of the Year contest, run by DIY firm Cuprinol, now in its 15th year. Categories included cabin/summerhouse, unexpected/unique, nature’s haven, budget and lockdown. Cuprinol’s Creative Director, Marianne Shillingford, said: ‘Our garden sheds are more than just a place to put our tools – they are a wonderful creative outlet for an individual’s unique artistic vision’.

Sunday 13 June

With Delta Variant Covid cases rising rapidly in the country, it comes as no surprise to learn that the much-trumpeted ‘Freedom Day’ (release from all Covid-related restrictions) scheduled for 21 June is likely to be delayed by at least four weeks. The Delta Variant is said to be 64% more infectious than the Kent strain, cases doubling every 4.5 days in some parts of the country, representing 96 per cent of cases across England. There are now 42,323 cases of Delta Variant in the UK, but the rapid rise from around 29K was partly attributed to a new kind of testing, which delivers results within 48 hours instead of 5 -10 days. And what about the new Thailand and Vietnam variants, which scientists are investigating?

Even with a four week delay, some scientists are predicting a heavy Third Wave, but yet again we hear non-stop emphasis on the vaccine, when other measures need much more work, such as contact tracing and support for those isolating. It’s no coincidence that these are the ones the government itself is responsible for, whereas the vaccination programme was always something only the NHS should take credit for.

Boris Johnson and his ministers will hate eating humble pie and rolling back from the 21 June promise, especially since it seems numerous people are behind the curve and not properly realising the circumstances giving rise to the delay. There’s also very powerful pressure from Tory backbenchers and business leaders, seeing further weeks of lost business added to their debt burdens. We know to expect an announcement on Monday and over this weekend a so-called ‘quad’ meeting will take place, between the PM, Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and Matt Hancock, so the decision will arise from the deliberations of these fine minds.

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It’s been a hefty week for news and confusion over holidays still reigns, Environment Minister George Eustice appearing to ‘rule out’ foreign holidays and thousands of passengers scrambling to return to the UK from Portugal before its demotion to the amber list. This is likely to have defeated the purpose of a holiday for many, as relaxing and invigorating it isn’t, worrying about flights and chaotic airports with zero Covid safe procedures.

There are almost no words for the cringe worthy statements issued by our Prime Minister on Wednesday as he arrived by plane (yes, when climate change is the key item on the agenda) for pre-G7 meetings in Cornwall. ‘I’ve arrived in Cornwall for this year’s G7’, he tweeted, ‘where I’ll be asking my fellow leaders to rise to the challenge of beating the pandemic and building back better, fairer and greener. It will be a busy and important Summit, and I can’t wait to get started’. This raises projection and lack of awareness to another level, suggesting it’s other leaders who need to ‘rise to the challenge’ when he and his government have presided over one of the worst pandemic management performances in the world and shown no genuine interest in ‘building back better, fairer and greener’. The embarrassment continued in the form of responses to media interviews, eg, ‘The pandemic was, let’s face it, a pretty scratchy period’. You could certainly say so but placing the pandemic in the past and the massive understatement of ‘pretty scratchy’ take some beating.

It seems the first substantial thing the leaders did was to agree a global tax deal, which sounds a great achievement, potentially putting a stop to endless disputes over how much tax tech giants and others should pay in different jurisdictions. But is it watertight and will it work? It beggars belief that, just days later, Chancellor Rishi Sunak was asking for an exemption for the City. ‘Britain will seek to exclude the City of London’s financial services companies from a global tax overhaul targeting the world’s most profitable businesses agreed between G7 finance ministers last weekend. The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is concerned that under a version of the plan put forward by the US president – which involves redistributing the profits of the world’s 100 largest businesses – digital businesses such as Google, Amazon and Facebook will be joined by banks that he says already pay a fair share of tax. The impact of Joe Biden’s proposal could prove to be a significant deterrent to banks running many of their operations from London, compounding the impact of Brexit that resulted in a shift of financial trading to Amsterdam’.

But before there’s trumpeting of a ‘historic’ deal, it’s important to realise that the details (and the devil is in the detail) still have to be ‘hammered out’ at a wider G20 forum in Venice in July and this would have to find solutions to attempts to cherry pick from the so-called ‘pillar one’ and ‘pillar two’ measures. (Pillar one would allow countries to tax large company profits based on their sales in that market, and Pillar two would enable a minimum global corporation tax rate to be set).

But even this is just the start: ‘The changes will then be negotiated between 139 countries in a process overseen by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, with the aim of reaching a final agreement by October’. The initial steps, then, look promising, for example estimates that the UK will gain about £7bn a year in extra tax from the minimum 15% tax rate, far outweighing pillar one downsides, but there’s clearly a long way to go to reach the final stage. Let’s hope UK negotiators involved in this project are more skilled than those ‘negotiating’ with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol row.

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Worsening relations between the UK and EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol are at present focusing on the admission to Northern Ireland of sausages and processed meats but it’s an ongoing irritation that some, including various irresponsible media sources, are trying to trivialise the issues as being ‘about sausages’ in the same way as they did the ones about the Downing Street flat (‘cash for curtains’ etc). As we know, much more serious issues are at stake, such as differences between environmental standards, but the main point is that the government, having signed up to this deal in a hurry to ‘get Brexit done’ is now, not surprisingly, reaping what it’s sewn but trying to evade its responsibilities, accusing the EU of intransigence. It cannot be helpful that the main negotiator, ‘Lord’ Frost, seems pigheadedly determined to spin the narrative of an EU implementing the Protocol in such a way that it disadvantages the UK but this is sophistry and the deal is what the government agreed to.

It’s arrogantly taking the EU negotiators for fools for ministers to have believed they could just ‘negotiate’ their way out of it but there’s intransigence on both sides as the EU does want to make an example of the UK ‘pour encourager les autres’, especially as its relations with Switzerland are now worsening. Journalist and commentator Simon Jenkins analyses the situation and options, suggesting that the President Biden’s ‘rebukes’ (although there’s been so sign of them so far at G7) are a much-needed catalyst for Boris Johnson to resolve the impasse. ‘Biden should tell Johnson to stop being an idiot and honour the protocol. Everyone knows there can be no erecting of a border across the fields of Ireland. Johnson knew that when he campaigned for Brexit. He knew it when he decided to leave the single market. If he promised Northern Ireland’s unionists something else, he was lying. He should get busy preparing EU-compatible customs barriers in Belfast, as required by the protocol. Biden might add that Johnson can forget any US/UK trade deal if he refuses, not that any deal agreed by Congress is ever likely to be in Britain’s interest’.

Jenkins suggests a couple of ‘can kicking’ delaying tactics open to both sides, but says ultimately ‘there are only two options…… One is that the protocol becomes permanent and Northern Ireland does indeed become part of an all-Ireland integrated economy. For that there are any number of sound arguments, which Johnson is probably too gutless to grasp. The other is that Britain extends the Northern Ireland deal to the whole of the UK. In effect, it signs itself up to EU regulatory standards across the whole range of goods covered by last year’s ‘no tariff’ deal’.

We’ve seen quite enough can kicking from this government and it’s unlikely the EU will accept yet more delay to a permanent solution so the question is, can the hubris displayed by the government allow it to overcome bruised egos and bear the anger of unionists if they allow Northern Ireland to become part of an all-Ireland integrated economy or the fury of Brexiteers if they sign up the whole of the UK to the EU’s regulatory standards?

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Back at Westminster, the row over proposed reductions in foreign aid rose to a crescendo and had Labour’s Hillary Benn banging his table during an exchange on Radio 4’s Any Questions on Friday. An amendment seeking to reverse the cuts and reinstate the 0.7 per cent target was not selected for a debate in the Commons for allegedly being ‘out of scope’, but Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle ‘told the government that it must give MPs a vote on the decision to cut foreign aid to 0.5 per cent and said he could allow a non-binding emergency debate on the issue in the Commons tomorrow’. Of course, a ‘non-binding’ debate immediately hobbles it. It can’t be often that personalities like David Davis and Gordon Brown are on the same side but they certainly are regarding the damage they anticipate being caused by foreign aid reductions, especially given increasing Chinese involvement in Africa. Although the government only narrowly averted the rebellion backed by thirty Conservatives including Theresa May, it is still refusing to give MPs a vote on this £4bn reduction.

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A major political event this week was Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s appearance before MPs on the combined Health and Social Care Committee and Science and Technology Committee inquiry on Thursday, in the wake of Dominic Cummings’s recent damaging testimony against him. ‘Hancock’s testimony comes two weeks after Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s former adviser, accused him of serial incompetence that should have led him to be sacked. He also alleged Hancock had in effect misled Downing Street into believing that testing on patients being sent to back to care homes was being carried out when it wasn’t. Hancock denies this, saying that his position was that hospital discharges would be tested only when enough testing became available’.

Prominent care home managers were adamant during media interviews that they were more or less forced to take in untested patients and rubbished government figures which had suggested infections were due to care home visitors and staff, not discharged patients. ‘The Care Provider Alliance also called on the government to prioritise testing for care residents to stop the spread of the virus, warning on 26 March 2020 that without it ‘there is no way of knowing whether they are going to infect others’. It also emailed Hancock directly saying: ‘All people discharged from hospital to social care settings … MUST be tested before discharge’. Yet despite the pressure from frontline care operators, Hancock didn’t make testing for hospital discharges mandatory until mid-April, after the first wave death toll had peaked weeks later’.

Palliative care doctor and broadcaster Rachel Clarke tweeted a lengthy thread on this. ‘He *did* lie. He *didn’t* protect care homes. And he’s lying again now in claiming otherwise. And – as someone who dedicates their entire professional life to caring for some of society’s most vulnerable members, our terminally ill – I think this absolutely stinks’. Besides the severity of the claims made against Hancock, I was struck by the number of times both he and Cummings used the words ‘ recall’ or ‘recollect’, when these are likely to have been quite selective and hazy but what about official minutes? All such discussions and exchanges with the Prime Minister and colleagues should have been properly documented, meaning claims and counter claims could be checked. And if not, why not?

As if this wasn’t enough, Hancock also has October to look forward to, when he will face a High Court hearing ‘over an allegation from a bereaved relative of a deceased care home resident that the government breached the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act when their policies allowed people to be discharged into care homes without being tested’. Sadly, for such people, such attempts to set the record straight and call them to account seem water off a duck’s back.

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The Guardian’s parliamentary sketch writer, John Crace, wasted no time in demolishing the Health Secretary’s performance, but to some extent the hearing was hobbled because Cummings had not produced evidence of his accusations and Crace’s theory that the chairmen would give him an easy ride as both have their eyes on returning to the front bench. ‘Matt Hancock – a man with the mixed blessing of a good second-rate mind – has a rather more selective memory. He is brilliant at remembering his own successes and rather less able when it comes to recalling his failures. If indeed there were any, which he is fairly certain there weren’t. Though, when pushed, Hancock might just about concede that things would have been a whole lot worse if he hadn’t been in charge of the nation’s health’.

What’s the point of these hearings if they’re not going to cross-examine properly those summoned? Ah yes, nearly forgot – to give the appearance of accountability. It sounds like Hancock wasn’t properly challenged on statements which were clearly proven otherwise, eg ‘everyone got the treatment they needed’ (including those with learning disabilities having ‘do not resuscitate’ stickers on their foreheads) and ‘there was no national shortage of PPE’ and ‘a protective ring had been thrown around care homes’ (the opposite of what we know from clinicians and care home staff actually happened).

‘Hancock lied: ‘It’s good to be able to set out the truth about what really happened’, hoping he had done enough to survive the next reshuffle. What we had got was the truth as Matt would like it to have been. And we never did get an answer to the question that had hung over the entire proceedings: what on Earth had Door Matt done to Dom to make him loathe him quite so much?’

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One bit of good news, though, except it shouldn’t have been proposed in the first place, is that the Department of Health and Social Care seems to have rolled back on the NHS ‘data grab’ plan, allowing opt-outs until September instead of July. ‘The Royal College of General Practitioners warned NHS Digital a week ago that plans to pool medical pseudonymised records on to a database and share them with academic and commercial third parties risked affecting the doctor-patient relationship. NHS Digital needed to explain the plans better to the public, the group said, as well as outlining how people could opt out’. No wonder many patients (if indeed they know about it) are concerned about this – the NHS is presenting the intention as needing data for ‘planning and research purposes’ but the private sector will still be able to gain access to it, ‘with approval from advisory groups’. Although this has been denied, it opens up the field for insurance companies and the like to purchase patients’ data and target them with marketing messages.

This article highlights the importance of effective communication, which has been seriously lacking by this government throughout the pandemic. Yes, this is the NHS but the NHS is very much directed by the government. ‘This must be a central effort, rather than just being left to individual GPs, to ensure a consistent message…and given the current ‘confusion and lack of transparency’, the scheme would be paused ahead of both a public information campaign and a consultation’.

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Speaking of water off a duck’s back, the Guardian’s John Crace clearly illustrates the Prime Minister’s skill in this, managing at Prime Minister’s Questions to deflect legitimate criticisms with a shrug and cursory dismissal. If the Speaker was up to his job he would not have allowed the PM to get away with this, especially when this forum is specifically intended to allow MPs to put questions to him. ‘Riding his wave, the PM swats away questions, and the protests of lefties such as Theresa May…..’ on such key matters as the education recovery embarrassment, suggesting the tutoring programme was the best in the world, and refusing to see the problem with pursuing a policy of reduced foreign aid during a pandemic and ahead of the G7 summit.

‘As so often, the exchanges between Starmer and Johnson ended in impasse. Though the Labour leader clearly had the better of the argument, Boris’s refusal to answer the questions rendered the whole thing pointless. You could sense Keir’s frustration. Ennui even. There was a time when he believed that his forensic style of questioning could get under Johnson’s skin and expose weaknesses in the government, but the prime minister has realised he doesn’t have to engage with the substance because there is no parliamentary mechanism to force him. Rather he can indulge his passion for stories by inventing his own parallel narrative’. Even more telling is his awkwardness on being congratulated on his recent wedding, just staring down at the floor in embarrassment and ignoring it, observed Crace.

A real turn up for the books this week was lawyer and anti-corruption campaigner Jolyon Maugham, of the Good Law Project, finally being invited onto Radio 4’s Today programme, in the wake of the successful court case proving that Michael Gove had broken the law. To host focus groups on pandemic messaging the contract was handed to the Cummings recommended Public First and it was awarded without question or scrutiny, it seems. The high court agreed with the Good Law Project that this was unlawful. ‘It rejected Gove’s arguments that no one else could do the job. The truth, it found, was that no one had even considered giving the contract to anyone else. It appeared to a reasonable observer – that being the legal test – as though Public First’s relationships with Cummings and Gove had won the contract for it. Gove had indeed broken the law’.

Maugham cites how many other ‘vast’ contracts were placed in a ‘VIP lane’, how those close to ministers ‘cleaned up’, especially friends of Matt Hancock, and asks, since they see this as ‘institutionalised cronyism’, what happens now? He reckons such highlighting of the struggle between civil servants and ministers should lead to better decisions but also resignations. Fat chance of that as there seems very little shame in public life these days. A listener tweeted: ‘Worth noting: Government spent more money on lawyers defending its unlawful award of a contract to Public First than the actual value of the contract. Its own costs were over half a million for a one day judicial review. Extraordinary stuff’.

https://bit.ly/2TTplBg

But for now all eyes (political eyes at least) are now on the G7 Summit in Cornwall, and, oh dear, Boris Johnson is in a spot, wanting simultaneously to demonstrate ‘the special relationship’ with the US but not give ground on the Northern Ireland Protocol row, which Joe Biden has been very firm about. Both positions are mutually exclusive, but nevertheless the Bidens (and later the royals at the Eden Project dinner) were subjected to a charm offensive, with footage of the wives walking along the golden sands (magically emptied of tourists, of course), with little Wilfred in tow. One of the interesting clips was of the royals appearing to turn their backs on the Johnsons, which reminded me of Princess Anne’s determination not to move forward and shake the POTUS hand during the Trump UK visit. The Today programme told us how much Johnson is enjoying hosting the G7, prompting a listener to tweet: ‘Of course Boris Johnson is enjoying hosting G7 – this surface grandstanding is just what he’s good at but what we need from our Prime Minister is commitment to the detailed hard work and consistent policymaking that makes the public feel they’re in safe hands’.

While one article describes the ‘razzmatazz’ in Carbis Bay, the mayor was certainly right to say ‘the G7 is having an impact on just about everybody’. While it will be good business for many (G7 branded pasty, anyone?) there’s also serious disruption, protest groups making their presence felt and it does seem extraordinary that local fishermen received no communication in advance about how their movements would be limited during the Summit. But there’s serious work to be done at this meeting, with commentators saying it’s make or break for addressing climate change. ‘The message in Cornwall is clear – leaders must act now or go down in history as the ones who threw away last-ditch chance’. And we can rely on our Prime Minister to make the first questionable gesture by arriving there by private jet. ‘Lord Stern, the climate economist, said: ‘This is a crucial moment in history. Either we recover [from the pandemic] in a strong and sustainable way, or we do not. We are at a real fork in the road. This decade is decisive’. He pointed out the mixed nature of progress over the last ten years, benefits accruing from developments in renewable energy and electric vehicles but overall progress on reducing emissions being too slow.

‘Scientists have made it clear that greenhouse gas emissions must be halved by 2030 if the world is to stay within 1.5C of global heating – the threshold beyond which extreme weather will take hold, small islands and low-lying areas will face inundation, and swathes of the world will face water stress and heatwaves’. Whatever gets discussed and decided here, it’s clear a lot more work needs to take place ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November.

https://bit.ly/3whM5te

Beyond the glad-handing and bonhomie, though, it’s clear Johnson’s aim for the G7 to be about showcasing ‘global Britain’, the event has been seriously overshadowed by European anger over the Brexit row. ‘The reason for much of the EU’s irritation was a feeling that the UK under Johnson simply could not be trusted. Throughout recent weeks, and on Saturday, the prime minister made it clear he would be prepared to unilaterally delay the full implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol – part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement – in order to prevent a ban on some foodstuffs, including sausages, crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain…. Their annoyance is unlikely to have been lifted by the presence at all the meetings of Lord Frost, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, who was wearing union jack socks… Foreign policy experts and former British diplomats said that while the summit may have its successes on advancing initiatives on climate change and vaccinations for developing countries, it had also shown the UK to be distrusted and therefore unable to be a true global leader’. Again, our Prime Minister’s cakeism and cherry picking has been on full display, expecting the UK to be seen as a global leader when it clearly can’t be trusted.

https://bit.ly/3iA8SfB

It seems that no sooner than we’ve registered the outcomes of the previous one, we get yet another honours list. We hear that a quarter of those on the Queen’s Birthday Honours list have been recognised for their activities during the pandemic and it’s gratifying to see the inclusion of people like Professor Sarah Gilbert, Saïd professor of vaccinology at the Jenner Institute, who becomes a dame. But I almost dread going through this list for fear of seeing yet more crony peerages when we actually need to decrease the number of peers, not increase them.  

‘….there are likely to be eyebrows raised over other honours, including the knighthood for banker António Horta-Osório, whose time in charge of Lloyds Banking Group was marred by controversy amid criticism of its treatment of people whose businesses were ruined in the HBOS Reading fraud scandal….. There was also a knighthood for William Adderley, who donated half a million pounds to the Conservative party under Boris Johnson through a firm he was a director of during the 2019 UK general election’.

These are examples it would be good to see more of. ‘Debbie Williams, of Brexpats – Hear Our Voice, received an MBE for services to UK nationals in the EU. She founded the pan-European citizens’ rights campaigning and support group in June 2016.British Empire Medals go to, among others, siblings John Brownhill and Amanda Guest, co-founders of Food4Heroes, which delivered food from local chefs to NHS frontline staff. A BEM also goes to Rhys Mallows, 25, who repurposed his gin distillery to produce hand sanitiser’.

https://bit.ly/3gv8dtg

Finally, as temperatures reach the high twenties in the UK, salads will have been increasingly on the menu but perhaps without that ingredient which was a favourite of 1960s cuisine – what can I be talking about? Salad cream, of course, often to be found back then alongside the couple of limp leaves of lettuce, soggy tomato and dessicated cucumber. But great news for those who love it, as its manufacture is reportedly coming back to Britain as part of a £140m investment in Kraft Heinz’s existing plant at Wigan. Kraft Heinz had shifted production to Europe in 1999 but has now decided to bring it back to Wigan, alongside its mayonnaise and tomato ketchup. The Week tells us that this is a milestone for the company, its ‘biggest expansion of a manufacturing site outside the US in more than 20 years’, but wouldn’t you just know that ministers have hijacked this development, presenting it as ‘a post-Brexit vote of confidence’? There are no words…….

Sunday 6 June

Last weekend ministers and other Johnson supporters queued up to congratulate the PM well on his ‘secret’ wedding to Carrie Symonds, a pretty clear and intended distraction from bad news since this event had originally been planned for 2022. Many were puzzled as to how Father Daniel Humphreys had deemed it acceptable to preside over such an event, since marrying divorcees is against Catholic doctrine, but it appears the previous two weren’t ‘recognised’ by the Catholic Church, prompting speculation as to the effects on previous wives and children of those unions (now considered illegitimate in this context). A sceptic tweeted: ‘If Boris marrying is Westminster Cathedral is true then, as a Catholic, I would like to know why a twice divorced adulterer was able to and my practising Catholic friend who divorced a husband who battered hell out of her had to re-marry in a registry office. ‘

Carrie Johnson, as she now is (interesting that she changed her name), has even been dubbed First Lady by some media sources, especially relevant prior to her anticipated public role at the imminent G7 meeting. The authors of such gushing and obsequious commentaries don’t seem to realise that First Lady is not a role we have in the UK. Meanwhile, irreverent ‘adverts’ immediately starting circulating on social media, purportedly for a replacement ‘mistress’, the qualities required including the capacity to work horizontally.

https://bit.ly/3fWZd1e

Bad news the nuptials were used to deflect from is legion, including the continuing aftermath of Dominic Cummings’s testimony, the very worrying rise of the strain known as the Indian Variant, the news that days after his elevation to the realm of crony peers, Tory donor Peter Cruddas had given a large sum to the Conservative Party and anger over the foreign travel amber list, especially the sudden inclusion of Portugal. Actual and would-be travellers were interviewed in the media, some saying they’d have to cancel, some deciding to go ahead anyway, leaving the travel industry and those already in Portugal in shock, some saying they had to return immediately to work and couldn’t quarantine. But in any case, who will check? We know the £37bn Track and Trace programme has been particularly weak on tracing and checking on those meant to be self-isolating. It’s estimated that fewer than 20% are fully isolating when required to.

As the Delta Variant is believed to be 40% more transmissible than the original strain of Covid, there’s certainly cause for concern and it’s highly likely the government will have to backpedal on its ‘irreversible’ stage 4 of lockdown easing on 21 June. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘There he goes again, Matt Hancock attributing spread of  #IndianVariant to the unvaccinated. With all the government’s talk of ‘working 42/7’, ‘bending over backwards’, the hardest work it does is in thinking up new ways to deflect attention from their own errors’.

The Portuguese government can’t understand the UK government’s logic in coming to this decision. Many UK residents are equally baffled, but it’s pretty clear that it’s yet another projection of responsibility. The UK has a rapidly rising numbers of cases so the government tactic is to deflect attention by implying the problem lies elsewhere, and because it has to be seen to be taking action, however inappropriate, relegating Portugal to the amber list is the kneejerk result. A key issue will be how quickly the travel industry will issue refunds following the often disgraceful situation last year, many being kept waiting for months on end. And a big question mark hangs over other European destinations, though many are sticking to their plans regardless (tour operator Tui said 50% of their customers planning to visit Portugal still planned to do so).

Many commentators are united on condemning what they see as poor and cynical messaging behind the move: the very concept of an amber list is questionable when it causes confusion and when the EU itself has imminent reopening to vaccinated UK visitors. But it’s again the abdication of responsibility. The Times said:’ It seems ministers are unable to agree the limits of UK policy, so they’ve put the onus on the public to decide, but it’s neither fair nor sensible to outsource border policy during a pandemic to individual holidaymakers… both travellers and Britain’s beleaguered tourism and aviation industries deserve clarity’. If it wasn’t so serious, it would be almost amusing witnessing in the media one minister after another trying to defend such an absurd position, some even having the nerve to play the ‘all in this together’ card because they can’t visit their own second home.      

Meanwhile, as more give up the idea of foreign holidays and opt for ‘staycations’ (yes, one dictionary definition at least includes remaining in the UK, as opposed to its original one of staying at home) those without their own transport will be at the mercy of what seems worsening public services. After a horrendous experience two weeks ago (a journey to Wales of 4 hours, with several changes, becoming 9, with the last connection missed altogether) this pattern continued for me, including a cancelled train from Sussex, which had cost implications for work commitments, and this last weekend a journey to Norfolk took 6 hours instead of 4, due to yet another broken down train. It also was far from plain sailing on the way back, the journey involving a rail replacement bus we had to wait 40 minutes for. Yet again there seems to be no contingency planning, staff either absent or running around like headless chickens, when surely we can assume that applications for franchises demand evidence of such a plan. In this case coaches were laid on to take passengers to the next major station down the line, but with no distancing: we were told, on boarding: ‘every seat to be used’. Such inconsistencies make a nonsense of distancing in stations and on trains.

I’ve heard similar stories from others and can only conclude that these stressful problems are due to the haphazard operation of privatised services, staffing pared to the bone, and services struggling to ‘get back to normal’ following the last 14 months. Although some commentators sound positive about the Great British Railways plan, others say it won’t remove the problems caused by both private and state involvement and unclear division of responsibilities. Although GBR will own the network, collect fare revenues and set most fares and timetables, the private sector will still be active in the form of contractual agreements given by GBR to run lines for a fixed fee. Commentator Simon Jenkins believes the plan is problematic because it still divides responsibility but the outlook generally also isn’t positive because of declining passenger numbers and the ‘exorbitant’ HS2 absorbing most investment.

As aspect of the plan which might well alarm many, is the likely undermining of Trainline, the popular online ticketing system, shares in which fell markedly when GBR was announced. At present Trainline sells around 70% of digital tickets but GBR’s own platform could well eat into this. One commentator thought the smartest move would be for GBR to ‘snap up’ Trainline for its ‘brilliant’ technology.  

Cronyism reared its head again last week, relating to ‘disgraced’ Conservative Peter Cruddas, who’d had to resign as party co-treasurer in 2012 after offering undercover journalists access to PM David Cameron in return for £250,000 in donations. It emerged that he gave more than £500,000 to the Conservative Party after becoming a peer, an appointment advised against by the House of Lords Appointments Commission but overruled by Boris Johnson.

Yet another embarrassment for the government this week, which brought Education Minister Gavin Williamson even further into disrepute, if that was possible, was the resignation of schools tsar Sir Kevan Collins due to insufficient amounts earmarked for education catch up. ‘Sir Kevan took on the role as catch-up tsar in February to develop a long-term plan to help pupils make up for lost learning during the pandemic. But on Wednesday he stepped down saying the government’s funding for the plan ‘falls far short of what is needed’. Head teachers labelled the £1.4bn cash over three years as a ‘damp squib’. The Education Policy Institute had calculated that a catch-up funding recovery would need £13.5bn – and Sir Kevan was reported as having put forward plans costing £15bn’. What a colossal contrast to the £1.4bn actually offered, attributed by some to Gavin Williamson’s poor performance in making the case for more.

‘…Sir Kevan’s resignation has fired a torpedo at the government’s contention that school recovery is one of its top priorities’. Quite, but I wonder what on earth happened to the idea floated last summer to recruit thousands of volunteers, including retired teachers, to help children catch up. Although this important work should be adequately funded, I suspect quite a few volunteers would have stepped up to help but it came to nothing back then, so now there’s much more catching up to do.

https://bbc.in/34Ql6cb

Meanwhile, ByLine Times spells out why the ‘we did everything we could’ narrative is false. ‘This mantra – ‘we did everything we could’ – has been repeated by the Government endlessly during the past 12 months… about the goods and services that it has procured. A Coronavirus death toll of 150,000 people – the highest in Europe – is a glaring and unavoidable fact that obstructs any claim that the Government excelled during this crisis. But, on so many levels, aside from its basic (mis)management of the disease through delayed lockdowns and botched, epidemiologically illiterate relaxations, the Government has failed Britain at a time of desperate need. The author outlines the key areas in which what he calls an ‘unparalleled national calamity’ have been manifested: PPE procurement, Test and Trace, Nightingale hospitals and ventilators. ‘These four crucial areas of Government policy in response to the Coronavirus pandemic have been marked by inconsistency. There has been a haphazard blend of over-compensation, negligence, overspending, secrecy and cronyism’ but it’s all been made light of, presented as ministers and officials perhaps spending too much or acting precipitately, ‘but they only did so to protect the nation at a time of crisis’. The dangerous thing about this, of course, is that, repeated often enough, more will be taken in by this false narrative rather than supporting the scrutiny these actions justify.

https://bit.ly/3g0P2c1

We’ve often seen governments bury bad news or green light a controversial measure when attention is taken elsewhere, and one now gaining traction is what’s happening in primary care. Thanks to campaign groups like Keep Our NHS Public, it’s now more commonly known how efforts to privatise by stealth have been passed by local Clinical Commissioning Groups, including the sale of over 50 London GP practices to an American company (previously covered by this blog). The media have mostly colluded with this by failing to report it, though it was well covered by BBC Radio London once they were alerted to it. Now, unless we opt out in a particular way (not the way most publicised) our NHS records are in danger of being sold under our noses.

The Full Fact website spells out what’s being planned and the details of the two kinds of opt-out, the deadline for the first being 23 June, not far off. The plan is that from July, NHS Digital NHS Digital ‘will start collecting patient data from GP medical records in England about any living patient, including children, and any data about patients who died after the collection started. This is called the General Practice Data for Planning and Research data collection, and NHS Digital says it will be used to help the NHS improve health and care services by allowing it to plan better, prevent the spread of infectious diseases, help with research and monitor the long-term safety and effectiveness of care’.

Sounds very reasonable, doesn’t it? But although NHS Digital says people can’t be identified from the data collected, there are other identifiers besides name, eg postcodes and the like, which could be unique in some areas. It also says the data won’t be sold, ‘but there is a price list on the organisation’s website listing charges for its Data Access Request Service’ and it’s possible organisations wishing to purchase such data could construct a ‘legal’ reason why they needed it. I don’t think everyone will be reassured by the NHS Digital statement: ‘Any data that NHS Digital collects will only be used for health and care purposes. It is never shared with marketing or insurance companies’.

https://bit.ly/2T7fGqE

Several interesting articles discuss different aspects of Covid ‘recovery’, the first consisting of contributions from experts in the key areas of education, physical health, mental health and the justice system. Professor of clinical psychology at the Institute of Mental Health, Roshan das Nair, was interviewed regarding mental health and he’s never been so concerned at the ‘mounting crisis’ in this area.  “The challenges presented by the pandemic are so complex and wide-ranging, they cannot be solved by health and social care professionals alone’. It’s helpful to recognise in this way the need for joined up thinking and working and he also emphasises the need for preventative work, not just addressing issues when they manifest, as often they’ve taken some time to develop, with no help. ‘He calls for a public health response that doesn’t just see money urgently put into the NHS, but seeks solutions that compel schools and employers to take more responsibility in helping people stay well. ‘For instance, there is a role for the education sector to monitor how pupils are faring, and we can train young people to be better at looking after their mental health’. But we know mental health services have been underfunded for years and it’s been a serious misdirection of resources, in my view and those of many, to privilege Cognitive Behaviour Therapy at the expense of the relational therapy many people need. Quite apart from unacceptably long NHS waiting lists, for years the NHS has ignored the availability of thousands of qualified and experienced counsellors and psychotherapists in order to train its own workforce in CBT. This often proves unhelpful for patients, who then have to seek help privately.

‘In the spring the government announced a £500m mental health recovery action plan to ‘level up mental health and wellbeing across the country’ by targeting groups most affected, including young people and frontline staff. Leading medical organisations including the BMA and the Royal College of Psychiatrists have said more is needed and have lobbied for NHS staff to have access to mental health support similar to that available to war veterans’. These organisations make good points and I would add that mental health is the least appropriate place for use of the meaningless and over-used ‘levelling up’ descriptor.

https://bit.ly/3inm4V8

Another article analyses how the government’s rhetoric on Covid recovery has been constrained by the Treasury, the PM and Chancellor Rishi Sunak at odds on the key issue of recovery spending. The ‘levelling up’ and ‘building back better’ schtick has had to be modified by reality, leading to tensions between these two stances. ‘The Treasury’s spending plans, which were settled before the pandemic, allow only for small rises in day-to-day spending of 2.1% each year in real terms between 2020-21 and 2025-26 and much of that money has already been handed to the NHS, schools, international aid and defence. So where will the extra funds for day-to-day spending on schools and hospitals and courts and other services come from?’ The article predicts that last week’s upheaval over education spending is just the tip of a large iceberg, surely one which might make Red Wall voters start to see the ‘levelling up’ for what it actually is, the Emperor wearing no clothes.

https://bit.ly/3iklkQu

The third article by Eva Wiseman on the theme of Covid ‘recovery’ focuses on the individual and the need to adjust to life meaning ‘living on constant alert’. Very tiring. ‘It has become boggling to me, the idea that, once, I was able to simply plan a break. That our lives have now been so neatly delineated it’s possible to mark time as BC or AC, the before Covid period now remembered as a simple cruise through tree-lined boulevards, caressing strangers (consensually), laughing in offices, high-fiving (constantly). And now, well. Even the things that haven’t changed have changed, our own new, raw eyes seeing them in ungenerous and terrible lights’.

I think this article brings out the exhausting need to be so careful and the virtual impossibility of spontaneity as nearly everything has to be booked in advance, not to mention the need to mourn these losses. ‘Life AC (After Covid) is stained with anxiety, some of it acceptable, much not. I watch the world open up with sharpened teeth and feet in concrete and I think about going away. Would it be selfish? Would it be the thing to fix us? Would we simply be decanting our domestic moaning to another town, without our lovely stuff there to soothe us? Would the thrill of travelling outweigh the worry of returning?’

https://bit.ly/3inqJX8

In this context it’s very fitting that Radio 4’s Moral Maze last week focused on happiness and one of its dichotomies – hedonism versus an interpretation predicated on contentment arising from a life well lived. The programme description is interesting, summarising some of the dilemmas around its definition. ‘Philosophers and artists, from Epicurus to Ken Dodd, have grappled with the secret to happiness…. a team of neuroscientists suggest we ‘should lower our expectations to be happy….. this appears to fly in the face of a celebrity culture that chases fame, status and success as ends in themselves’. One of the ‘witnesses’ grilled by the panel targeted the ‘wellness industry’, which has been seen in some quarters to unfairly place responsibility on the individual for wider socioeconomic problems leading to distress.

‘While the wellness industry is booming, so is the prescription of antidepressants, increasingly for teenagers – according to The National Institute for Health Research. What does this reveal about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? What is wrong with personal happiness as a life goal? Some think that there is too much stuffiness about happiness, that there is nothing selfish about self-care, and that people should be free to set the bar as high as they wish and explore personal fulfilment however they chose. Others believe that life should be about more than seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, that the conscious pursuit of happiness can make us more miserable, and that happiness – rather than being an expectation – should be a by-product of a life well-lived’.

https://bbc.in/3z8YGk0

Finally, given that studying medicine has often been an area reserved for the privileged, it was good news to hear that 29 students from a deprived London authority area have won places at medical school since 2017, due to a ‘pioneering’ scheme to widen access. The Mossbourne Federation, which runs schools in Hackney, aims to support would-be medics from less well-off backgrounds by providing the benefits they would have received if attending a fee-paying school. These include access to talks, visits to university labs, hands-on experience and expert training in entrance exams. Let’s hope the Federation keeps track of these students and that we get to hear how they fare. This is a good example of what ‘levelling up’ should look like!

Sunday 30 May

As ever, several key issues have been jostling with each other for media coverage, all of them with very unsettling potential, including the quality of BBC journalism and position of the BBC in the wake of the Martin Bashir scandal, continuing confusion over the Amber List of countries, the rapid rise of the Indian Variant and the damaging Dominic Cummings allegations. A difficult week for the Prime Minister, but news of his ‘secret’ nuptials yesterday, when previously the wedding was planned for 2022, was clearly another attempt to deflect attention.

With 5 million bookings to currently Amber List countries, there’s a great deal at stake regarding the government’s unclear guidance, legally permitting travel to these countries but advising strongly against it. I also heard that there’s little checking at ferry ports – so much for a consistent borders policy, and we know passengers from countries on different lists are mingling in crowded airports. And has the refunds situation improved since last year? Many travellers had to wait months for refunds last year and some are still waiting, faced with closed phone lines and unanswered emails, some companies effectively closing down customer communication channels. I think I only had a £360 refund eight months later not because the airlines had just repaid the company, as stated, but because I’d repeatedly raised it on Twitter and companies don’t like the bad publicity.

There’s also little emphasis in the UK about what the destination countries require (eg locator forms to be completed) and France has prevented entry to Britons because of the Indian Variant, which will not please those with second homes there. The government struggled to even sing from the same song sheet on travel policy, Lord Bethell in the Lords and Peter Bone MP saying travel is ‘dangerous and not for this year’, causing uproar in the travel industry. On the other hand Environment Secretary George Eustice was slapped down by Boris Johnson for saying people could visit these countries if they were visiting friends. Skills Minister Gillian Keegan didn’t endear herself to Radio 4 listeners when she played the ‘we’re all in this together’ card, a typical politician’s ploy. She said although she was ‘desperate’ to visit her second home now is not the time to book a holiday to Spain, telling people to stick to the slim list of 12 destinations on the government’s Green List if they want a foreign holiday. St Helena, anyone?

Equally embarrassing last week was Transport Minister’s talking up of the Great British Railways plan, not only for its jingoistic branding but also because it apparently amounts to yet more cosmetic tinkering and retains the private ownership at the root of longstanding rail transport failures. I experienced the worst journey of my life last weekend, a journey of 4 hours actually taking 9, due to breakdowns, 50 minutes waiting for drivers and several missed connections, necessitating a bus for the last ‘leg’ in the pouring rain. The worst thing was that when passengers were turfed off the first train at Milton Keynes, there was no evidence of any contingency planning or customer communication system to take account of such breakdowns. Surely such planning is a crucial requirement when bidding for a rail franchise. Apart from one or two beleaguered staff on the platform, passengers were on their own without advice to decide how best to continue their journeys – or not.

It looks like we’ll have to wait till 2023 to see if any of the planned benefits actually materialise, such as simpler ticket purchasing systems, easier routes to compensation and more flexible season tickets.

https://bbc.in/3yLEkNz

With 4,182 new Covid cases reported on Friday (over 7,000 altogether according to some sources) and 27 more deaths, there’s further pressure on the government, including from Independent Sage’s Professor Anthony Costello, to consider delaying the lifting of remaining restrictions in June. Costello tweeted: ‘New data is very worrying. Cases and hospital admissions up 25% and deaths up 38%. June 21 step 4 looks very unlikely. The govt should be pouring resources and trace/isolate teams into hotspots. Why aren’t they doing it? Third Wave on the way?’

While the atmosphere on high streets seems mostly buoyant, cafes and restaurants full to bursting in some places, this could shortly prove a damp squib if it all has to be reined in. Even at the third step of lockdown easing roadmap on 17th May, some commentators were advising against inside mixing and there was talk of ‘hugging with caution’, rather a contradiction in terms. When the variant was discovered in at least 86 council areas, the government was lambasted for seeming to imply local lockdowns in the worst affected northern towns, like Bolton and Blackburn, in anything but name.

With no official announcement, advice on the government’s website was changed overnight to suggest there should be no travelling in and out of those areas, a position they shortly had to clarify and roll back on. This proved a humiliating and cowardly strategy, infuriating those local mayors and council leaders – let’s hope it’s not repeated. Such important changes need to be communicated very clearly, not buried on a website which only a few are likely to see. While it’s pretty clear that the Indian Variant was allowed to take hold because of the delay in banning flights from India, Matt Hancock, in media interviews, continued to attribute the rise to those hospitalised having refused vaccination, when it was later shown that some of those patients had been vaccinated once and some twice.

One Bolton couple told the local press they were being treated ‘like lepers’ after a hotel on the Isle of Wight cancelled their reservation and many could have had a similar experience. What’s the betting that despite the government rolling back on the initial ‘advice’, people from these areas might still struggle to make holiday bookings and could well lose their deposits. Commenting on the Radio 4 interview with Grant Shapps, who demonstrated the increasing tendency of the government to abdicate responsibility, one tweeter observed: ‘Common sense is an incredibly amorphous concept which displaces responsibility onto individuals. It allows the govt to stealthily remove itself from the picture and shifts the responsibility of managing risks during a **global pandemic** entirely on to the public’.

The Guardian’s John Crace wasted no time in demolishing Matt Hancock’s particular deflections. ‘It was more a question of do as I say, not as I do. “We must be humble,” said Matt Hancock. Not something that comes naturally to Matt, despite him having a lot to be humble about. Matt talks a great deal about levelling with the country but he can’t even level with himself. The reality is that the government doesn’t learn from its own mistakes as it is unable to admit it has made them. So it is destined to endlessly repeat them. The dead are just collateral damage…. Though Door Matt was at pains to point out it wasn’t really the government’s fault. Those who had got ill had no one to blame but themselves, as almost all the people in hospital had failed to get themselves vaccinated’.

https://bit.ly/3uwv8ta

Meanwhile, as yet another anti-lockdown protest gets underway in London, Dr Helen Salisbury, GP and NHS campaigner, tweeted: ‘I hate to be gloomy but cases are up by 25% and deaths within 28 days are up by 38% this week compared to last week. We are not over this pandemic yet – but it won’t go away just because we are all so bored of masks and restrictions’. We really can’t expect overworked and underpaid NHS staff to cope with a third wave of the virus without the government properly addressing their concerns. Although the ministers and the PM in particular seem immune to shame, it must have been a blow to hear that one of the nurses who cared for the PM 24/7 when he was in intensive care has resigned over the ‘lack of respect’ shown for NHS workers. All the time we see evidence of the NHS being taken for granted (eg ‘I know they can do it’, says Matt Hancock frequently, without acknowledging that they are often ‘doing it’ at considerable cost to their own wellbeing). Describing the proposed 1% pay rise as ‘a kick in the teeth’,  nurse Jenny McGee also revealed that the PM’s staff had later attempted to co-opt her into a “clap for the NHS” photo opportunity with him during what she thought would be a discreet thank you visit to Downing Street. How cynical is that?

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With a full pandemic inquiry delayed till 2022, we have to make do with other inquiries and investigations, some of which are purely or mostly whitewash. One of these is Lord Geidt’s inquiry into the issue of payments for the Downing Street flat refurbishment, which has unsurprisingly cleared Boris Johnson of misconduct. ‘Lord Geidt, the PM’s adviser on standards, said a Tory donor had paid an invoice for some of the costs. But he cleared Mr Johnson – who was seemingly unaware of the arrangement – of breaking ministerial conduct rules’. The whole refurb was thought to have cost about £90,000 and the report didn’t state how much Tory vice-chair Lord Brownlow contributed, although it’s reckoned to be around £58,000. The report will still make for uncomfortable reading, though, coinciding with the Cummings allegations. ‘Lord Geidt questions why Boris Johnson didn’t pay more attention to who was paying for the work in his flat. Why wasn’t the prime minister more curious, he wonders? It is also critical of officials – saying the prime minister was “ill-served” by those around him when it came to this project’.

https://bbc.in/3uxMTbN

On the other hand, the National Audit Office’s recent report, which looked into ‘more than a dozen’ areas of government performance, was fairly damning, saying the virus ‘laid bare existing fault lines within society, such as the risk of widening inequalities, and within public service delivery and government itself…. Amid renewed questions over the reopening timetable, the National Audit Office (NAO) warned that from the very start of the pandemic a lack of planning had left ministers without a “playbook” on how to respond’. It’s exactly this kind of thing which is bad for our mental wellbeing, because we rightly look to our elected representatives to take care of situations, or at least address them effectively, however challenging, but time and time again we’ve seen failure and misdirection of resources. Our mental health can suffer when these scenarios occur and persist and there’s ample evidence of how mental health has been affected during the pandemic.  

‘The NAO report highlighted the need for long-term solutions across areas including the disconnect between adult social care and the NHS, failings in data and IT systems, workforce shortages and ongoing monetary shortfalls, with a warning that already-struggling local government finances had been ‘scarred by the pandemic’. The report also collated the total government extra spend on Covid-related measures, putting it at an estimated £372bn by the end of this March, taking in the full lifetime of all policies’.

https://bit.ly/3yMpjv5

In the media there has been no end of hand-wringing and condemnation regarding the Martin Bashir scandal and how his deceitful tactics regarding the Princess Diana interview had been covered up by the management at that time and Bashir himself was re-hired in 2016. BBC Director General, Tim Davie, rather struggled in an interview on Tuesday and it can’t have pleased the Corporation that media mogul Lord Grade criticised the ‘culture of arrogance at the BBC’. But it also beggars belief that the interviews on Radio 4, for example, discussing ‘the quality of journalism at the BBC’, seemed to be unaware of how a powerful right-wing bias has increasingly intruded and news not consistent with the government’s narrative often goes unreported. ‘There is no problem with journalism at the BBC… it’s a non-story’, said one contributor on Radio 4’s Media Show. A view many would not share.

Not surprisingly, though, most media attention this week has been taken up with the allegations of Dominic Cummings, giving damning evidence to MPs on the trajectory of the pandemic. It’s long been clear that Cummings is a vengeful individual, but his evidence is convincing, and besides declaring that Boris Johnson wasn’t fit to be PM (a conclusion many reached quite some time ago), I do wonder whether Matt Hancock had any idea in advance the extent to which he would be attacked. Cummings didn’t hold back, detailing Hancock’s multiple ‘lies’ and saying there were 15-20 occasions on which he deserved to be sacked. One of the key lies, for which there is clear evidence despite Hancock’s denial, is that despite the declaration that the government had ‘thrown a protective ring around our care homes’ and the commitment to test discharged hospital patients, this had been far from the truth because elderly patients were discharged into care homes untested, causing multiple deaths. One care home manager interviewed on Radio 4 said over 65% of her residents had lost their lives.

The Times detailed Cummings’s allegations and attempts to respond to them. One of the most severe was Boris Johnson’s holiday at Chequers and failure to attend COBRA meetings and about how government operated: ‘The government’s pandemic preparations were ‘basically completely hollow’ despite Matt Hancock’s claims. The Cabinet Office was ‘terrifyingly shit’…..Cummings’s judgment on Hancock is brutal: “I think the Secretary of State for Health should’ve been fired for at least 15, 20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions in meeting after meeting in the Cabinet room and publicly.” Hancock has “performed far, far disastrously below the standards which the country has a right to expect’.

The charge sheet continues, including the failure to lock down because ‘there was no plan on how to do it’, the accusation that Downing Street attention was diverted by a negative story in the press about the Boris and Carrie dog (Dilyn),that herd immunity was indeed the strategy in March 2020 and that the failure to close borders was due to concerns that such a policy would be ‘racist’. No wonder mental wellbeing generally has been affected by the climate generated by such colossal incompetence. Needless to say, ministers have been wheeled out to be interviewed in the media and have been predictably exhibiting via bluster and denial their occupation of a parallel universe, especially Robert Jenrick on the Today programme and David Davis on Any Questions. But another reason the testimony has to be taken seriously is Cummings’s admission of fault regarding the Barnard Castle saga. Some may consider this a cynical ploy, but overall, the evidence presented does present a serious challenge to the government and ministers will struggle to dismiss Cummings when they previously commended him because of his Brexit ‘achievements’.

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In defence Boris Johnson said: ‘We put £1.4 billion extra into infection control within care homes, we established a care homes action plan, I remember very clearly, to ensure that we tried to stop infection between care homes’, carefully omitting the key issue of what happened between hospitals and care homes. Again, he presumed to state what he believes the public wants when he actually has no idea: ‘What people want us to get on with is delivering the road map and trying – cautiously – to take our country forward through what has been one of the most difficult periods that I think anybody can remember’.

For his part, Hancock typically defended himself with denial: ‘These unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true, and I’ve been straight with people in public and in private throughout…..Every day since I began working on the response to this pandemic last January, I’ve got up each morning and asked ‘what must I do to protect life?’ A sceptical tweeter opined: ‘Hancock: ‘I’ve been straight with people in public and in private throughout..Every day since I began working on the response to this pandemic last January, I’ve got up each morning and asked ‘what must I do to protect life?’ Then didn’t do it??’

Meanwhile, one article seems designed to make us question whether Matt Hancock is an over promoted incompetent or a dastardly strategist who ‘knows which levers to pull’. ‘Hancock has managed to cling on to frontbench positions during the No 10 tenures of David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson through a mixture of political skill and overriding ambition…… His success in clawing his way back into the cabinet was a result of hard work, one former cabinet colleague said. “He is enthusiastic – Tiggerish is the right word – and is absolutely focused on doing the job.” Another said he understands the workings of Whitehall better than anyone in the cabinet other than Michael Gove. “It would be wrong to underestimate him, just because he comes across as irritating. He knows which levers to pull,” he said’. Despite ‘numerous calls for his sacking’, though, Boris Johnson has always stood by him, for a good reason, some may think: he will be the fall guy and scapegoat when this administration is properly called to account.

https://bit.ly/3i4nioe

But any ideas of proper scrutiny and accountability can be dismissed for the present because many are still, despite the events of the last year, taken in by Boris Johnson. The right wing press and woeful lack of political awareness in this country mean that many voters still see our PM as a bit of a rogue but all the better for it. The Guardian’s Marina Hyde analyses the ‘dangerous cult that now runs Britain’ – ‘no matter what the prime minister does, no matter the consequences, his devotees line up to heatedly excuse it….. you’ve heard a lot of denials over the past 24 hours. But the biggest UK repository of denial remains the polls, where no revelation of incompetence or failure impacts other than positively for the government…. The thing about cult leaders, typically, is that they’re charismatic, male and able to persuade people of the wisdom of things very much not in their best interests. There is simply no moral failing of theirs that could be placed in front of their followers that would not cause those same followers to passionately excuse it or love them more for it’. This all makes us sound rather doomed.

https://bit.ly/3fvCLM8

Given the nature of the last year, it’s not surprising to learn that alcohol-related deaths in England and Wales have risen 20% from 2019  to 7,423 (Office for National Statistics), the figures representing more men than women and  many more living in the poorer areas of the countries. The deaths are thought to be caused by people drinking more during lockdowns, a common response to fear and uncertainty, especially when there’s been little psychological support, but also reluctance to seek medical help. A key reason, though, has to be the cuts to drug and alcohol services over the last ten years, with some mental health services refusing to take patients with alcohol issues. It was always a mistake to separate drug and alcohol services from mental health services, when the issues are often intertwined but services do need to be available in the first place if we’re not to see rising figures year on year.

With the spotlight on the hospitality industry since the lockdown exit roadmap opened venues first to outside service, then inside, The Economist reports on a ‘headache’ which has gone under the radar in some quarters, that of staff shortages. The situation is said to be worst in London and South East and has been attributed to Brexit, students being less available and workers moving into other sectors such as retail and logistics, which opened earlier. The article suggests that the industry needs to raise wages, which have remained low, to ease recruitment. That sounds a no-brainer but it must be difficult for the owners of venues which had to close for months on end and may themselves be on their uppers.

Another article analyses some likely future scenarios for restaurants, interviewing a top chef, a restaurateur and a street food team. The chef, Tom Kerridge, said of the last 14 months: ‘I’ve tried to take all fear away from the staff….Filtered all the way through, it’s been, ‘Don’t worry, you’re all safe.’ I’ll be honest, it’s been absolutely exhausting. I’m more tired than if the restaurants are open’. Hmmm…. he’s carrying out the psychological containment role for his staff which the government should be doing for the whole population. There’s concern that social distancing measures continuing beyond June will affect business and ‘diners should not expect deals’ – interesting given reports last year of rude and demanding customers expecting just that. Although Kerridge predicts more closures, especially ‘wet-led pubs’, where profit margins are low, he sees opportunities for entrepreneurs due to yet unexploited sites and good deals negotiable on rents, so ‘it’s not all gloom’.

The others interviewed cite other key factors, like people holidaying in the UK boosting trade but the real reckoning point coming in 2022, following a tough winter and VAT and rent rates returning to normal. What emerges forcibly from this very interesting article is the amount of strength and optimism needed in this business within a climate of extreme uncertainty: it’s a salutary lesson for those of us who use restaurants but know little about what they’re up against.

https://bit.ly/3fYXJSC

Finally, it’s encouraging to read a positive story about this business, about a Syrian man who fled with only £12 to his name and now has his own restaurant in London’s Soho. ‘When Imad Alarnab, a Syrian chef, arrived in the UK as a refugee five years ago, he could barely afford to eat. Meals were regularly skipped and a Snickers bar could be eked out over a whole day to help him survive’. The article describes how this massive achievement came about, first partnering with a charity in 2017 to host a pop up kitchen in East London, word of mouth success then leading to many more customers. One thing led to another and ‘Alarnab crowdfunded £50,000 last autumn to help secure the 60-cover restaurant on Carnaby Street, Soho’.

‘This is not because I am strong or brave,” says Alarnab, who begins to well up as staff scurry through the restaurant, prepping for their first service. “I am proof that if you try to do something good for people, something good will happen to you. This is a fact.” Back in Syria, he had lived a comfortably affluent life as the owner of three restaurants and several juice bars and coffee shops’. He lost everything during severe bombing over 6 days in 2012, then was forced to move from place to place with his wife and three daughters, before attempting the perilous journey to the UK over three months in 2015. ‘Almost 10,000 licensed premises – including restaurants, pubs and clubs – closed permanently in 2020 and an estimated 640,000 jobs were lost from the hospitality sector in the last 12 months’. Despite such a difficult operating environment, let’s hope Imad Alarnab survives and thrives.

https://bit.ly/3vzCPQB

Sunday 16 May

Confirmation of the third step of lockdown easing understandably dominated the news agenda this week but wouldn’t you just know that, like last time, the sense of release was marred by the exponential growth in Indian variant cases. These are tripling every week and there are at least 1300 cases in this country, particularly affecting northern towns like Bolton and Blackburn. We can’t be surprised at this, given the delay before putting India on the red list and further delay between announcement and implementation. During this time 20,000 are thought to have entered the country from India but, needless to say, Boris Johnson has denied that the government acted too late. Local politicians in those towns are fighting the advice by some scientists to delay the fourth step in June and the threat of local lockdowns. It’s quite striking that the government aims to remedy this situation by surge testing and vaccination, but the key factor which has never worked properly is Test and Trace. Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zawahi also stressed the need for self-isolating but key factors militating against this are the weakness of the government’s system in enforcing self-isolation and lack of financial support for those who can’t afford to isolate.

‘The PM’s words came as new documents released by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) revealed just how worried scientists are about the variant. Modelling by Sage suggested it was “a realistic possibility” that it could be up to 50% more transmissible than the Kent variant. If that was the case, they said, progressing to stage 3 of the road map – due on Monday – would “lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations (similar to, or larger than, previous peaks)”. Professor Alice Roberts tweeted: ‘The SAGE minutes published on Friday make it very clear the government has not met its own tests for proceeding with reopening. So it’s a political decision, despite the science’. Health Secretary Matt Hancock raised concerns on his Sunday morning media round by again stressing ‘personal responsibility’, prompting a number of plain-speaking tweets: ‘Little Matty Hancock ‘we’re moving towards personal responsibility’, so if Johnson’s latest gamble goes tits up, then the Gov will blame the public’.

Although tomorrow’s easing seems unstoppable, the fourth step now looks in doubt and June 14th has been given as the date when we hear whether it will go ahead on 21st. Doubts hanging over the easing measures will cause more uncertainty and anxiety in the population, especially if they feel that easing is going ahead to satisfy a date-based plan rather than evidence-based strategy. It could be particularly difficult for businesses which have had to close or only partially open all this time, some having invested substantially in the wherewithal to allow Covid-safe opening.

https://bit.ly/3tJr5te

Some experts have gone further, predicting a third wave if restrictions are eased tomorrow and emphasising the risk of Long Covid: millions still haven’t been vaccinated and there could be many hospitalisations despite the vaccination programme. ‘Deaths are not all that matters. The decision to vaccinate older people first was based on saving lives and preventing the collapse of the NHS. The trade-off is more infections in younger, healthy people, and while they are much less likely to die from the disease they are at real risk of long Covid, in which patients continue to suffer from fatigue, brain fog and other debilitating symptoms long after they have overcome the virus itself’.

https://bit.ly/3yhzBmu

From Tuesday onwards the Queen’s Speech, including its omissions, took centre stage. It beggars belief that, having heard the PM boast in 2019 of a ready made plan for social care reform, this has been kicked down the road yet again. Health Secretary Matt Hancock came in for some flak on Tuesday’s Radio 4 Today programme: when challenged about lack of a social care plan he responded ‘We got Brexit done’ and said ‘We’ll deliver on this commitment (social care) just as we have on our other commitments’ (except, as we’ve seen, they often don’t). Green Party MP Caroline Lucas tweeted: ‘Matt Hancock on top form on Today- “I’m really proud that the PM is so *into* fixing social care…we’re gonna deliver”. R4: “why is it not being delivered today?” MH: “the Queens Speech is *jam packed* full of delivering”. Would be funny if not so serious – we need action today. In just a couple of months, it will be the 10th anniversary of the Dilnot Commission on social care reform. What a wasted decade’.

Journalist Polly Toynbee explains why she thinks social care reform isn’t on the government’s agenda, attributing it substantially to it being a devolved responsibility involving local authorities (although this would change if it became a national service) and also because it’s ‘invisible to most voters. When families do suddenly encounter it – frantic parents of a child with special needs, or a family needing care for a parent with dementia – they are shocked to find a threadbare postcode lottery of erratic services. Many voters who cast ballots on Thursday know virtually nothing about social care, blindly assuming it’s like the NHS, until they need it – and most won’t…… Yet again the government calculates that not enough voters benefit to be worth spending the many billions it would take to put this right’.

She explains how the government doesn’t want to lose votes by threatening inheritance expectations (although many surely already have to sell their homes to pay for care) and also reports Age UK’s shocking discovery, that last year 2,000 frail, old people a day had been refused care when asking for help. This is the reality many won’t see.

As every measure to reform social care could prove unpopular, such as tax rises, Toynbee suggests nothing is likely to happen, but didn’t at least one poll reveal that many would be prepared to pay extra tax in order to fund a decent social care service? ‘In name only is Matt Hancock in charge of the Department of Health and Social Care. In practice, the two will stay as divided as ever, until some government some time is brave enough to grasp the nettle’.

https://bit.ly/3wdrwxD

The government was also lambasted for omitting a Covid public inquiry, although this was promised in what some saw as an unintended response to Lib Dems leader Ed Davey. The proposed delay amounts to another can kicked down the road because the Covid Bereaved Families for Justice and many others have long called for an inquiry now, so that lessons can be learned and evidence is still fresh in people’s minds. But the ‘reason’ given was that at a time when the government had to focus on the Covid recovery strategy, too much time would be taken up by those involved having to give evidence to an inquiry. In many minds spring 2022 is far too late to begin. Although the PM has said he will appear and answer questions under oath if necessary, we’ll have to believe that when we see it.

In a piece written prior to the Queen’s Speech, the Guardian identified a number of bodies involved in pressing for an immediate inquiry, including influential think tanks the Institute for Government and the King’s Fund. ‘The King’s Fund said: ‘The suggestion that everyone in government is too busy for an inquiry is a poor excuse’.  The list includes the British Medical Association, the Trades Union Congress, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, the government scientific adviser Professor John Edmunds, the Muslim Council of Britain and the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group which represents more than 3,000 families who lost their loved ones to the virus’. It’s quite astonishing that despite all these organisations and individuals expressing their strong opinions on the subject, Downing Street stood firm, and now we have the announcement of the timetable will they feel any more positive about it?

We also have to be concerned about the remit of the government’s ‘independent’ inquiry, whereas the King’s Fund proposed a format examining numerous areas ‘including how health, demographics and social structure increased risk, the responses of the public health system, the NHS and social care response and the handling of the economy and schools’. More broadly, it’s not an area I claim to know much about but I wonder if the machinery of public inquiries is faulty. It’s thought to take months or longer to establish an inquiry, obviously introducing further delay, and it’s unclear why it has to take so long. If any inquiry deserves urgent attention, it’s this one.

https://bit.ly/3tKn8EJ

So what did the Queen’s Speech actually contain? Some commented that it was thin gruel and you had to feel sorry for the Queen having to wheel out such cliches as ‘levelling up’ – how she must have gritted her teeth at that. We were told that the Prime Minister announced a package of 31 bills that he said would ‘unleash the nation’s full potential’, including legislation to overhaul the planning system, reform the NHS, ‘level up’ the nation and regulate social media companies for the first time. Cynically, some might say, the programme focuses on the needs of the Red Wall constituencies, including adult education and home ownership. But a particularly striking measure thought to amount to voter suppression (because many don’t possess a passport or driving license) is the plan for voter ID. Although very few have been prosecuted for this, ministers are trying to justify this measure by saying we need ‘to keep our elections safe’, when they were never in danger, except perhaps in the wider sense from the First Past the Post tradition. But how typical of an organisation which wants to avoid the challenging tasks – focus on a non-existent problem, trumpeting loudly about it, while omitting the much more pressing problem of social care. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘Such a displacement, ‘bringing forward’ legislation for a problem that doesn’t exist while abdicating responsibility for the one that does’.

https://bit.ly/3tSu0zI

The Guardian’s parliamentary sketch writer, John Crace, wasted no time in lampooning the Queen’s Speech performance, although ceremony was kept to a minimum this year. ‘This was the Queen’s first ceremonial public engagement since the death of Prince Philip, and she remains a class, deadpan act. It’s not everyone who could read out a list of Boris Johnson’s promises and give nothing away on the likelihood of at least half of them being broken. It took quite some doing not to even raise an eyebrow at some of the proposed legislation. Or at what was missing’. Alluding to Keir Starmer’s attempt to make some sense of the speech, Crace described this task as ‘…easier said than done when you’re up against a Prime Minister whose defining quality – one that voters even seem to quite admire – is to not keep his promises. So you have to assume that at least half of what Johnson says he is going to do will never happen. The trick is knowing which half is true. A near impossibility as frequently not even Boris knows’.

It was thought Starmer played it safe, saying he would ‘judge the government on its record, not its rhetoric. And the initial signs were not hopeful. The UK was on its knees after 10 years of Tory austerity even before the pandemic, and all that Johnson was offering was to paper over the cracks. How could he talk of ‘levelling up’ when there was no sign of an employment bill of workers’ rights? Where was the social care bill he had said was ready 657 days ago when he became Prime Minister? And what about the cladding scandal? If the Tories were serious about these things – along with ending conversion practices and online harms – then Labour would work with the government. If not, then the government would have its work cut out’.

https://bit.ly/3tOYXVu

Although this has been raised before, news that  almost 5 million people are on NHS waiting lists is alarming and although Covid has obviously put the NHS under a massive strain, underfunding  of the NHS over years would have contributed substantially to this situation. The BBC’s heartbreaking Hospital documentaries have demonstrated the agonising choices surgeons and other staff are having to make every day as to who should take priority and the difficulty of ‘getting a bed’ for a needy patient when only two operations a day were allowed in one hospital featured. This week’s showed patients repeatedly being told that they were at the top of the list, but then being disappointed because an even more urgent case had to be slotted in. One viewer tweeted: ‘Obviously all private health provision in the UK should be requisitioned until the waiting lists caused by the government’s failure to prepare for a pandemic have been eliminated’.

As we know, an NHS bill was included in the Queen’s Speech, but some will argue that another NHS reorganisation is profoundly unhelpful at this time, when the service and staff need time to recover without such distractions. ‘An NHS bill is expected to give back to the Secretary of State powers to direct the service in England that were delegated under previous reforms. Clinical Commissioning Groups will be merged into a smaller number of new bodies to be known as integrated care systems, with a new responsibility to work with councils on social care. NHS England’s boss, Sir Simon Stevens, is stepping down’. Again, changes will be unsettling for many, already experiencing lack of service from GP practice, some already having succumbed to takeover by an American subsidiary (58 so far). The need to generate profits for American shareholders is highly likely to result in cutting corners, such as increased use of virtual consultations, where diagnosis of serious conditions can be delayed or not happen at all due to the GP’s only partial experience of the patient.  

‘The Johnson government’s record on public service reform is short and unimpressive. The two Conservative prime ministers before him did far too little to address the long-term health challenges facing the country, notably the increasing demands of an ageing population and the toll of chronic and mental illnesses. The failure to legislate for a new funding model for social care must be counted, along with the lack of affordable housing, among the biggest social policy failures of the past 10 years’. This article also identifies another serious problem which has been allowed to build up over the years, that is, the chronic workforce shortages, although the most significant problem is seen as lack of capacity to meet demand for urgent heart conditions and cancer treatment.

https://bit.ly/3olMNCE

This week two further items emerged to add to Boris Johnson’s impropriety

charge sheet: evidence of an unpaid debt of £535 dating from last October, prompting jokes about the possibility of bailiffs turning up at Downing Street, but also questions as how this had to be uncovered by Private Eye and not by the mainstream media. It was also confirmed that the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, Kathryn Stone,  ‘was investigating a possible breach of the MPs’ code of conduct’, based on questions around the Mustique holiday taken by the PM and fiancee Carrie Symonds at the end of 2019. ‘The Daily Mail reported that Johnson spent 10 days on a luxury villa break worth £15,000 – provided courtesy of the Carphone Warehouse founder and Conservative donor David Ross’ but later this seemed to be denied by Ross. ‘Questions were raised when the Daily Mail said a spokesperson for Ross initially said he had not paid for the trip and described the claim as a ‘mistake’, before backtracking and saying he had ‘facilitated the trip’. There seems so much sophistry employed by those defending the PM’s activities, based on use of ambiguous language. Another underlying issue is that the Register of Members’ Interests is way out of date, with no date for the appearance of its update.

https://bit.ly/3fiFirX

More issues rumble on, including the very public post-mortem of Labour’s failure at the local elections, although more credit could be given by the media for Labour’s gains in the mayoral contests. It must be galling for any party when former prime ministers step forward and issue their eminence grise advice for remedying a situation, though, to be fair, they are often wiser than the present incumbents. The Times featured Tony Blair’s intervention, Blair opining that Keir Starmer was not ‘presenting a convincing vision’, ‘lacks a compelling message’ on the economy and was ‘struggling to break through with the public’. Meanwhile, the balance of power appears to be shifting, the Greens ‘surging’ and moving ahead of the Lib Dems in terms of third party position. Commenting on the party’s success, particularly in Bristol, co-leader Jonathan Bartley said: ‘Who does Labour represent any more? Who do the Conservative party represent any more? Neither of those two parties have a vision for the future. We want re-localised economies where people can work from home, we don’t want to shift hundreds of thousands of people a day on the daily commute’.

https://bit.ly/2S0TGgA

Another issue doing more than rumbling is that of former PM David Cameron and his conduct regarding Greensill. Giving evidence to two parliamentary committees this week, Cameron apparently emerged as an arrogant figure, showing no remorse for his relentless lobbying of ministers, but also one, astonishingly, prepared to play the victim card (there was no career path for former prime ministers, especially one so young, etc). ‘In an unprecedented move underlining Cameron’s fall from grace, he was brought before both the Treasury Select Committee and the Public Accounts Committee on one day. The failure of Greensill has jeopardised 5,000 UK steelmaking jobs, as the bank was key lender to Liberty Steel’.

It beggars belief that he maintained he acted ‘in the public interest’, suggesting that his approaches were designed to help the government in their pandemic plight. How shaming that he was told his persistent lobbying of ministers, begging for favours on behalf of the controversial bank he worked for, had ‘demeaned’ the position of the prime minister and left his ‘reputation in tatters’. Yet such a verdict, on the surface at least, is water off this duck’s back, demonstrating yet again the Eton ethos of ‘effortless superiority’ – the rules don’t apply to him and that he’s immune to shame. As if recognising this, ‘Rushanara Ali, Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow and a member of the Treasury committee, said Cameron would come out the other side of the Greensill crisis as ‘Teflon man and a great survivor’, while taxpayers would be left picking up a bill of more than £1bn from the collapse of the bank…’. Too true but Ali’s tearing of Cameron to shreds will most likely cut no ice with him.

‘During four hours of intense questioning, by two committees of MPs, Cameron repeatedly refused to apologise for his personal behaviour in launching, what Mel Stride, Conservative chair of the Treasury Select Committee, described as a ‘barrage’ of lobbying messages. Earlier this week it was revealed that Cameron made contact with ministers and officials 56 times via text, WhatsApp, emails and phone in support of Greensill. Angela Eagle asked if he was not ‘a little bit embarrassed’ about the number of messages he sent, which she said was ‘more like stalking than lobbying’.

https://bit.ly/2Qm2qxf

The Guardian’s John Crace highlighted both Cameron’s neediness (even signing off his texts ‘Love DC’) and his victim card playing. ‘What was hardest to bear was having his neediness exposed. The 56 phone calls, texts, emails and WhatsApps: each one increasingly desperate. The man who couldn’t take no for an answer. Call me, Dave…… He was just a former Prime Minister with too much time on his hands. He had written his memoirs that almost no one had read and had then had a sinking feeling that he was all washed up at 51. So when Lex had suggested he come and work for his bank as an adviser, he had jumped at the chance. It had given him a renewed sense of purpose. All he had ever wanted to do was to help people. To do good. Even now he found it painfully hard to believe that he had been duped into working for an uninsurable bank that had lent money on phantom invoices’.

It’s astonishing Cameron expected the committees to buy his version of the scandal. He stuck firmly to this and refused to disclose what his remuneration had been: ‘Dave reddened and his face developed a sweaty sheen. ‘I was paid generously and I had shares’, he mumbled. Repeated attempts to find out just how generous his remuneration package was were dead-batted. One got the distinct impression that he was scooping up about £1m a year even before share options were taken into account’. It seems the committees were not duped by his story. ‘Dave had not been undone by Greensill. He had been undone by himself. His chilled-out attitude combined with his desperation to get away from his shepherd’s hut had meant he had never bothered to ask himself if Greensill was just too good to be true’. What I always wonder about such situations is the role and attitude of the spouse or partner: did they know what their OH was up to and if so, didn’t they care? Where is their own moral compass? And what about the reputational damage the scandal could inflict on them and their families?

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Although such initiatives don’t compensate for the serious underfunding of NHS mental health services, it’s cheering to hear about the growth of interest in fishing and of a mental health project based in a nature reserve have helped people boost their mental wellbeing. Many long term anglers would already have been aware of this but the tv programme Gone Fishing has considerably boosted awareness of the hobby’s mental health benefits and during the pandemic sales of fishing tackle and applications for licences rocketed, including a new interest from women. ‘Taking up a rod and reel is now even available on prescription. Greater Manchester Mental Health Trust has partnered with a local fishing organisation, Tackling Minds, to help patients with problems such as depression and anxiety. The increasing popularity of fishing is part of a general rise in the appreciation of outdoor life and nature during the coronavirus pandemic alongside outdoor swimming, walking and even naturism’.

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In a not dissimilar initiative, the WWT London Wetland Centre is pioneering a ‘blue prescription’ scheme with the Mental Health Foundation, whereby people experiencing anxiety and depression can participate in a variety of activities associated with mental wellbeing, such as birdwatching, pond dipping, nature walks and habitat protection work. ‘Previous schemes involving activities such as wildlife volunteering noted clear improvements in mental health. YouGov polling for the Mental Health Foundation found that being near lakes, rivers and the sea – ahead of time spent in gardens, parks and the countryside – was rated the highest by people in terms of having a positive impact on their mental health. Using nature as a therapy is part of a wider movement of social prescribing, where exercise, social activities, home improvements and other interventions are used as effective and often inexpensive treatments’.

It’s not surprising that Health Secretary Matt Hancock has backed such schemes, as he wants to reduce demand on the NHS, but the importance of such projects in prevention is not to be underestimated. ‘Jolie Goodman, of the Mental Health Foundation, said: ‘Many people in Britain get no support for their mental health from the NHS. Projects like blue prescribing are a way for people to protect their own mental health and prevent them needing crisis support’. Research in 2019 found that a two-hour “dose” of nature each week significantly boosted health and wellbeing, even if people simply sat and enjoyed the peace. Volunteers on wildlife projects showed a big boost to their mental health in a 2017 study’.

https://bit.ly/2RVQ13B

In contrast, we could well ask if there’s anything retail giant Amazon won’t turn its hand to. It’s already opened its first contactless supermarket in the UK and now its first hairdressing salon is due to open in Spitalfields, a now fashionable part of East London. Its USP seems to be use of technology, for example testing augmented reality systems so customers can see what a style would look like before committing themselves to it. It will be interesting to see feedback – something a consumer news programme should surely include if they haven’t already.

Finally, in what seems a rather counterintuitive venture for Italy, we hear that an entrepreneur in Rome is now selling pizza via vending machine, thought to help those working unsocial hours, for example. The Mr Go Pizza booth serves 24/7 pizzas, kneaded by a machine and served with cutlery, within three minutes of ordering. ‘The concept has been met with a mix of curiosity and incredulity from Roman pizza-lovers in a city filled with street food outlets serving pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice)’.

Feedback has been mixed, but in response to sceptics and defensive traditionalists, Massimo Bucolo is clear that he’s not taking work away from pizza-makers or trying to replicate the traditional Italian pizza. ‘The big mistake is thinking that this is an attack against pizza-makers or that it will send them into crisis. In fact, Mr Go’s final product is not the same as the pizza they make … it is a cross between a pizza and a piadina [a thin Italian flatbread]’. Again, it will be interesting to see how this goes, especially when there’s more choice due to Italy opening up more over the next few months.

https://bit.ly/2STVQip

Sunday 9 May

News last week, including that a senior Tory, Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross, said Boris Johnson should resign if he breached the ministerial code, has been temporarily obscured from view by the striking results of local elections and the Hartlepool by-election. The ‘catastrophic’ losses suffered by Labour including losing control of 21 councils have already prompted recriminations that these were due to weak leadership by Keir Starmer, fielding a Remainer in a Leave constituency, socialists having been expelled from the Party, a deep identity crisis and insufficiently clear policies but it’s also due to their seeming inability to cut through Conservative cronyism and false promises. Whether we like it or not, the lack of political awareness and education in this country have prevented many from seeing the true nature of the tousle-haired bluster merchant they consider their chum.

Boris Johnson has managed to convince many that, as he repeatedly said last week, his government is focusing on ‘getting things done’, whereas the Labour Party wants to ‘play political games’ (aka subjecting the government to legitimate scrutiny). The fact that Hartlepool was Labour for 57 years before this indeed suggests that voters there don’t care about Tory corruption and the number of Covid deaths on its watch, though it has to be said that the right wing press and some broadcast media have done them a disservice by trivialising issues like the Downing Street flat refurb as ‘cash for cushions’. Johnson has maintained his gung-ho rhetoric, claiming his government is ‘continuing to deliver’, when it’s done anything but in many areas of activity.

His government has wrongly taken credit for the vaccine rollout, has only partially ‘got Brexit done’ (as we see from continuing problems in Northern Ireland and this week’s showdown with French fishermen in Jersey) and the main thing which desperately needs addressing, social care, looks like being kicked down the road again. Despite saying he was ready to ‘bring forward’ social care proposals when first elected, nothing further of substance has been heard and the pandemic can’t be used as an excuse. In a car crash interview during Wednesday’s Today programme, Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment (to use the full title) Nadhim Zahawi tried to fob off the presenter with talk about ‘cross party working’, ‘scaling up’ initiatives in some cities, but apparently social care won’t feature in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech. How much more could have been invested in the NHS and social care had not the government handed out so many billions in contracts to companies linked to the Conservatives? It’s also interesting that, having steadfastly refused cross-party consultation and working during the pandemic, the government tries to implicate other parties on social care and its failures, pretty obviously to share blame which belongs to them alone.

Our PM might enjoy glad-handing locals in Red Wall constituencies but, unlike other political leaders, he carefully avoids being interviewed on programmes like Today. John McDonnell tweeted this week: ‘Johnson’s refused to go on BBC’s Today programme. Same tactics as in general election to avoid detailed questioning. He’s playing the BBC again & getting away with it. The BBC should refuse to accept a substitute, blank Johnson’s stunts and offer their slots to the other parties’.

For all the criticism of Labour, though, we have to remember how the other parties have also struggled over the years to find a suitable leader, someone with the key qualities of charisma, effectiveness and integrity. It’s clear we are producing fewer of them these days, one possible reason being the increasing tendency of ambitious politicians to take the narrow route of public school, PPE at Oxford, then becoming a PPS to an MP before being given the opportunity to stand for their own seat, meaning they’ve never had what some refer to as ‘a proper job’. This surely means they will struggle to understand the challenges of ordinary people outside the Westminster bubble. This point has been made in several quarters, eg Birmingham MP Khalid Mahmood, who recently resigned as a Shadow Defence Minister, citing his belief that Labour had left its traditional voters behind in favour of ‘a London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of brigades of woke social media warriors’.

On Saturday it emerged that Labour campaign manager and party chair Angela Rayner had been sacked, a rather kneejerk bit of scapegoating many Labour supporters are up in arms about. All of these events could increase further public anxiety, partly because it feels as if we have no credible Opposition and we are gradually becoming a one party state to the detriment of democracy. The Guardian analyses Rayner’s performance, citing some errors but many more positive points, making her sacking look a bit like an own goal, maybe one with a sting in its tail. ‘The fact Rayner remains deputy leader is also significant. It is an elected position, which gives her an independent mandate from party members. As Corbyn found out when he repeatedly came into conflict with his deputy Tom Watson, it can be a highly important role from which she can build her own power base’.

https://bit.ly/3tA52oC

Regarding leadership, just think about the records of William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith and Theresa May for the Tories and Tim Farron and Jo Swinson for the Lib Dems, not to mention Nick Clegg, who was thought to have brought his party into disrepute by colluding with the Tories and voting for tuition fees. But it counts for something that Mark Drayford has done well for Labour in Wales, his record leading to 30 seats, with only one more needed for a majority. In contrast to England, Labour held onto all but one of its seats targeted by the Conservatives. Another point in Labour’s favour is doing so well in the mayoral elections, including London, Salford, Tyneside, Liverpool and Manchester, with Andy Burnham now seen as a future Labour hopeful.

Mention of David Miliband’s name reminded me that a few years ago, I wrote a spoof piece for a counselling journal about how a certain mental health service initiative would be viewed in 2025. It quoted ‘Prime Minister David Miliband’ and at least one commentator during the last few days has suggested that Labour won’t be rescued until he takes over.

Only when Boris Johnson saw how well the SNP was likely to perform in Scotland did he decide to wheel out a Team UK initiative, allegedly to help the country recover after the pandemic but clearly an attempt to tame and quell the pesky rebels north of the border. ‘Johnson told Sturgeon in his letter: “I believe passionately that the interests of people across the UK and in particular the people of Scotland are best served when we work together. We have shown that through the vaccine roll-out.”

The vaccine procurement programme was “Team UK in action, and I recommit the UK government to working with the Scottish government in this cooperative spirit,” the prime minister added. The Scottish and Welsh governments are likely to see this as nakedly cynical.’ Not half, when previous overtures for collaborative working made to Westminster by the Scots and Welsh governments have gone unheeded.

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Amid all the febrile speculation and debate of the elections’ fallout, the Twitter account of Larry the Number 10 cat adds a slice of perspective: beneath a photo of a serene Larry basking in the sunshine, the text reads ‘Politicians come and go; I’m here to stay’.

Meanwhile, accusations of sleaze continue: it emerged that Boris Johnson’s brother,  Jo Johnson, was made director of Dyson on 18th February 2020, after Covid reached the UK in January and before James Dyson was awarded a ventilator contract on 16th March, which had led to tax regulations being changed in his favour. In an article entitled Britain’s overgrown Eton schoolboys have turned the country into their playground, commentator John Harris traces the trajectory of the UK’s political elite, ‘a story about privilege, and the shamelessness and insensitivities that come with it. More specifically, it centres on the renaissance of an archetype that has been nothing but trouble: the ambitious, dizzyingly confident public schoolboy, convinced of his destiny but devoid of any coherent purpose – and, once gifted with power, always on the brink of letting loose chaos and mishap’. It’s truly alarming how nonchalance and shamelessness have been allowed to gain such traction, based on the Eton ethos of ‘effortless superiority’.

He points how these qualities and behaviours then lead to rules, conventions and consistency being pushed aside. ‘Part of the English disease is our readiness to ascribe our national disasters to questions of personal character. But the vanities of posh men and their habit of dragging us into catastrophe have much deeper roots. They centre on an ancient system that trains a narrow caste of people to run our affairs, but also ensures they have almost none of the attributes actually required. If this country is to belatedly move into the 21st century, this is what we will finally have to confront: a great tower of failings that, to use a very topical word, are truly institutional’.

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Some of us have been campaigning for some time against the privatisation of the NHS by stealth, which has gone under the radar during the pandemic. The government’s former Chief Scientific Officer, Sir David King, pointed out that isn’t an upfront transfer as was the case with British Gas or Royal Mail, ‘but rather a gradual hollowing out, a process that has been further accelerated by the pandemic and will continue under the Johnson government. In 2010, for example, the NHS spent £4.1bn on private sector contracts; by 2019, this had more than doubled to £9.2bn’. The government has actively prevented or hindered information about these dealings coming to light, eg blocking FOI requests, thereby limiting legitimate scrutiny. It’s also thought that creating new organisations can be a way of avoiding accountability, for example abolishing Public Health England and replacing it with the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), headed by Dr Jenny Harries (yes, the woman who, as Deputy Chief Medical Officer took part in many Downing Street briefings, very much abiding by the government narrative).

But campaigning organisations We Own It and Keep our NHS Public have been equally concerned about the selling off of GP practices to the subsidiary (Operose) of American insurance giant Centene. This highly likely to lead to cutting corners in order to meet the objective of generating profits for shareholders – not what was ever intended for the NHS. All this is without any scrutiny or patient and public consultation and many patients will unaware that this is even happening. Meanwhile, recent research suggests that the NHS and social care need an extra £102bn to allow services to be rebuilt post-pandemic – fat chance of them getting that.

https://bit.ly/3hqwAL1

This week marked a significant change for care home residents, too late for some but reportedly wonderful for others after 14 months of confinement. Residents can now make accompanied visits outdoors without having to quarantine for 14 days. One resident’s son said: ‘You can have as many phone calls and window visits as you like, but it’s incredibly tough to have been separated in this way’, and we know from many accounts the extent of stress caused to residents and their families by the conditions imposed. These would not have been necessary had the government indemnified care homes against potential insurance claims. Needless to say, Care minister Helen Whately tried to abdicate government responsibility by attributing it to individual care homes: ‘We recognise that every care home has a unique layout, physical environment and facilities, and residents have their own individual health and wellbeing needs, which is why care homes themselves are best placed to decide how to enable visiting safely’ Again, needless to say, the Department of Health and Social Care demonstrated its occupation of a parallel universe, saying it is ‘working across government, with care providers and the insurance industry, to understand the breadth and severity of insurance problems and whether there is any action the government should take’.

https://bit.ly/3euwXSA

Many have commented on the media’s apparent obsession with summer holidays, speculating that travel to European countries will be possible at some point, but we can predict that flight prices will be sky high by the time it’s known to be safe to book. Meanwhile, most of the countries on the government’s much-trumpeted green list aren’t necessarily the places people want to go. Falkland Islands, anyone? But some good news comes in the form of the UK’s largest travel operator Tui developing PCR tests costing around £20, far less than they have been hitherto. Good news for tourists but not for the profiteering companies already purveying them.

Again on ‘re-entry anxiety’, a good article by bereavement expert Julia Samuel effectively talks about the mindfulness approach to difficult feelings many will experience on trying to enter post-pandemic life, not aiming to avoid them but tolerating and moving through them. ‘Pain is the agent of change, so allow yourself to feel the sadness, feel the confusion, feel the fear, and then over time your system will adapt to this new reality…then you can take meaning from it and that gives the opportunity for growth… People have been living with structural uncertainty for a year. That anxiety, the not knowing and the invisible health threat doesn’t just disappear because we are told we can do what we want… Some people will be optimistic and longing to see friends, but there will be others who have real anxiety, questioning if they have lost their social identity and way of connecting. The important thing is to be self-compassionate’. It’s great to see such articles, in my view, because although it is increasingly being talked about, there’s still insufficient recognition of this particular kind of anxiety, which we haven’t had to experience en masse before.

https://bit.ly/3uxdEOf

The issue of working from home (WFH) has been hotly debated recently, for obvious reasons, as it’s now possible to contemplate a return to the office. For some WFH has been welcome, cutting out commuting time, perhaps re-engaging with the local area and reducing interactions with difficult colleagues, but for others it’s been lonely and/or stressful, many juggling work commitments with home schooling children and needing to find space and sufficient broadband to work with. It seems that while many organisations are downsizing their office space, there’s a tendency to favour a hybrid model of some days at home and other days in the office. There probably is no substitute for the kind of productive interactions ‘at the water cooler’ which could lead to inspiration or at least esprit de corps. Nevertheless, as one commentator in the Times pointed out, WFH has represented a significant transfer of cost from the employer to employee in terms of higher utility bills and extra hours worked. Another commentator, writing in the Daily Telegraph, opined that WFH eventually became ‘a sterile experience’, maybe suitable for creatives but not ‘commercially minded executives’. Goldman Sachs boss David Solomon went a step further, describing WFH as ‘an aberration’. It will be interesting to see how the situation develops over the next few months.

Finally, for those who’ve wanted to get away from the ‘rat race’ altogether, a recent call for applicants to take up residence and help repopulate one of Italy’s deserted villages might have proved tempting. The Sunday Times tells us that ‘Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a walled medieval hamlet perched in the hills of Abruzzo’s Gran Sasso national park, was emptied out by postwar emigration, leaving dozens of empty stone cottages along its winding alleys’. Officials were stunned to receive over 27,000 applications from people fed up with big city life during the pandemic, but many more might have found themselves ineligible. Applicants had to be under 40 and prepared to open a business in the village. Although in return they were promised a fair rent on a house and an annual living subsidy of E8,000, such a venture could still be challenging. For example, it could prove lonely, a long way to travel to necessary facilities and a small village could limit the growth opportunities of the business. But as this is only one of the deserted villages destined for repopulation, it will be very interesting to see how the project goes.

Sunday 2 May

It already seems a long time since last weekend, when many were disturbed to see the thousands taking part in an anti-lockdown protest in London’s Hyde Park and Oxford Street, apparently allowed by the police to go ahead. Of course there was no distancing or mask wearing and a group of six women interviewed for television news sounded worryingly confused, describing the last year’s restrictions as ‘genocide’ without stopping to think what the death toll would have been like with no lockdowns. An NHS staffer tweeted: ‘When I see these ‘antilockdown’ people call a quarantine ‘genocide’, I think of rows of graves in Manaus, Covid running rampant through South America, people gasping for air in car parks outside Indian hospitals, and I feel anger, disgust and shame at their infantile narcissism.’

But last week will surely go down in the nation’s memory as the one when we could seriously wonder if finally, as accusations of misconduct against the Prime Minister pile up, Teflon Boris won’t be able to wriggle away and deflect attention from them. No fewer than three inquiries are said to be underway into his conduct including the funding of the Downing Street flat refurbishment, the effective shielding from scrutiny of a friend of fiancé Carrie Symonds, and the PM allegedly saying he’d rather see ‘bodies pile high in their thousands’ than order a third lockdown. A fourth inquiry, highlighted by Labour’s Margaret Hodge, also looks likely to enter the fray. But what a waste of public money, given all the resources inquiries take, when one, properly conducted, would suffice. It seems the reason for several inquiries is limitations on the remit of each organisation to look at the big picture. Meanwhile, many are already disillusioned by the findings of some recent inquiries, which have effectively been whitewashes.

Although there has been more media coverage of the beleaguered prime minister and his government this week, there has also been much deflecting coverage of India’s Covid crisis, almost as if the UK was not in a terrible situation itself not so long ago. Interviewed on BBC Broadcasting House, former speaker John Bercow said Boris Johnson has ‘an insouciant and flippant disregard for the accuracy of what he says to the House of Commons’, prompting a suggestion from one listener that this sounds ‘like a lot of words for lying’. Demanding that the PM reveals who paid for the renovations, Bercow told LBC: ‘We need to know who paid the bill in the first instance, it’s a blindingly simple and straightforward question.’

Earlier in the week it was confirmed that ‘generous philanthropist’ Lord Brownlow had made a donation of £58,000.Who he, we could ask. ‘Lord Brownlow of Shurlock Row in the royal county of Berkshire, who is ranked the 521st richest person in the UK with an estimated £271m fortune in the Sunday Times rich list, was revealed by the Daily Mail to have paid the Tory party nearly £60,000 towards the cost of the makeover by Lulu Lytle, described by Tatler magazine as “one of smart set’s most loved designers”…. Brownlow has donated almost £3m to the Conservatives and even more to projects and charities supported by the Prince of Wales’. Although this article reveals him as a perhaps a more interesting character than some Tory donors, operating his own company ‘as a meritocracy’, it’s no coincidence that he was made a peer in Theresa May’s resignation honours list. But, astonishingly, this donation represents only part of the bill, so questions continue as to where the rest came from and what obligations the PM would be under as a result of it. The whole issue continues to be dogged by opacity.

https://bit.ly/3eLpAVS

If it wasn’t so depressing, it has been almost amusing to witness the ministers and others paraded on the media this last week to defend the Prime Minister. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace denied a Daily Mail report alleging Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would rather see ‘bodies pile high in their thousands’ than order a third lockdown, describing him as ‘a first class leader’. Work and Pensions Minister Therese Coffey, wriggling on the end of Today presenter Justin Webb’s stick, couldn’t bring herself to admit that declarations of funding are a law. Instead, she claimed the government was focusing on ‘the important things like climate change’, perhaps not surprisingly given the UK will be hosting COP26 later this year. These defenders are a sharp contrast to former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who described the PM as ‘a vacuum of integrity’.

A listener tweeted: ‘One of the things that ‘makes a difference to people’s daily lives’ is having an honest, transparent and competent government and Prime Minister’. Another said: ‘Therese Coffey – can I give you my enormous thanks for explaining on Today exactly what I should, and should not, be caring about. I was getting very confused about finding myself caring about ethics and sleaze and corruption, so it’s a relief to know I can ignore them’. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister and ministers continue to spin the line that the public doesn’t care about such matters (when they have no grounds to make such assumptions), benefiting from some press collusion by way of a ‘cash for cushions’ trivialisation. An Andrew Marr programme viewer tweeted: ‘It’s very frightening to watch the mainstream media constantly feed us the narrative that we don’t care or expect those who control our fate as a country to be honest’. Of course this is dangerous because it leads to dishonesty being normalised rather than called out. Green MP Caroline Lucas tweeted: ‘There’s a reason Johnson carefully choreographs his image as casual and sloppy, down to fake ruffling of hair before he goes into PMQs or on TV – it’s to help give impression his lies are accidental but it’s a script and he knows exactly what he’s doing. And it’s dangerous’.

Increasingly used this week, the ‘sleaze’ descriptor came into its own at Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons, during which Keir Starmer forensically presented the evidence for public concerns and questions arising from them. This clearly drove the PM into a finger pointing, fist jabbing fury, the like of which must rarely have been seen in this chamber. (Is another accusation fitting here, that of unparliamentary behaviour?) Boris Johnson must be truly rueing the day he brought Dominic Cummings into his inner circle, since the much-publicised revelations of his blog look likely to exact a revenge on the scale of Jacobean drama. ‘Demands for action grew on Saturday after Boris Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings made a series of allegations relating to his former boss, including that he had been plotting an “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal” plan to get Tory donors to secretly fund the refurbishment of the No 11 flat in which he lives with his fiancee and their young child. The government has since said Johnson has himself paid the £58,000 bill, but it remains unclear whether he paid directly, or received a loan from the party or a donor. Labour has also raised the question of whether the correct tax has been paid on the refurbishments and any potential gifts’.

We have to wonder whether journalist Sarah Vine (not always acknowledged by the media as Michael Gove’s wife) thought she was doing the government a favour by defending the refurbishment many have considered unnecessary, suggesting the PM shouldn’t be expected ‘to live in a skip’. A listener tweeted: ‘No one suggests he should live ‘in a skip’ but having a major refurb from an elite designer is a far cry from ensuring the Downing Street flat is functional and well-maintained. The rest is ego-driven froth in this case’.

Despite categorical denials from the PM and Downing Street staff, the BBC confirmed with various sources and witnesses that the bodies piling high remarks had indeed been made ‘during a heated discussion in No 10’ (no more f……. lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands’). They were allegedly made ‘after he felt corralled into agreeing to a four-week lockdown in November, months after it was recommended by Sage scientists to curb soaring coronavirus cases. He apparently warned he would never again back another national lockdown’. These words were experienced even more painfully by the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, already angry at the government’s claim it was too busy now to launch a public inquiry into the UK’s handling of the pandemic. Again illustrating his occupation of a parallel universe and his capacity for taking the public for fools, the PM said suggestions he had made the remarks about letting bodies pile up were ‘total rubbish’…… What I certainly think is that this country has done an amazing job with the lockdowns. And they’ve been very difficult. And they’ve been very tough for people. And there’s no question about that’.

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It’s quite striking and testament to the lack of political awareness in this country (eg one Doncaster vox pops respondent thought the PM in 2017 was John Major and another had never heard of Keir Starmer) that despite all the muck the government is mired in, the Conservatives are still doing quite well in the polls, especially important ahead of next week’s local elections. A YouGov poll for The Timesfound an 11-point gap between the Tories and Labour. The Conservatives are on 44 per cent, the same as a week ago, with Labour down one point on 33. The latest Opinium poll for the Observer suggests the issue of sleaze is getting through, but not yet affecting the parties’ standings. ‘Almost four out of 10 voters think Johnson and the Tory party are corrupt. Some 37% describe Johnson as mostly or completely corrupt, compared with 31% who say he is clean and honest. Even more – 38% – say the Conservative party is corrupt, with 31% saying it is clean and honest’.

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The Observer portrays this Prime Minister as unfit for public life, reminding us of the Nolan Principles: ‘Integrity is one of the seven principles of public life, alongside selflessness, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. Enunciated by Lord Nolan in 1995, they set out the ethical standards to which all those who work in the public sector should adhere. It would be fair to expect the prime minister, the most senior public office holder in the land, to set an example for other public servants’. The article shows how the Prime Minister has fallen so short on all of them. ‘That these serious allegations are entirely plausible speaks volumes about just how weak and dishonourable Johnson has already revealed himself to be. Johnson’s premiership embodies perfectly what happens when you get government by people who are motivated not by public service or the national interest but who instead see politics as a power trip that will eventually pave the way for lucrative financial gain. The lack of vision, integrity and principle leaves a vacuum that gets filled with petty infighting, briefing and counter-briefing and obsessing about whether the furnishing of official residences caters to personal tastes’.

https://bit.ly/3eFJMs4

At least one commentator believes the ‘sleaze’ descriptor is inadequate. Describing the PM as ‘utterly careless about everyone except himself’, Aditya Chakrabortty likens him to ‘one of F Scott Fitzgerald’s characters, so insulated by privilege that he will never see the wreckage strewn behind him’. He thinks the ‘sleaze’ word is way insufficient to ‘describe the actions of a prime minister who, amid a deadly pandemic, plots with advisers and public officials on how to drum up a reported £200,000 to redecorate his temporary home in Downing Street…This isn’t some fever dream about soft furnishings; it is about who advanced money to our prime minister, and what they may have expected in return, which is why it is now under investigation by the Electoral Commission. From Jennifer Arcuri to a £15,000 winter break in Mustique, every decision smacks of a knowing recklessness and an assurance that the tab will always be picked up by someone else’.

https://bit.ly/3xQKuf8

But much as the PM and ministers in their Westminster bubble might like to think they’re through the woods and can control the outcome of inquiries (since, absurdly, in at least one the PM has to give his consent, making him judge and jury at his own trial), serious deficits are appearing behind the scenes. Some senior Tories are suggesting Boris is becoming isolated and ‘uncontrollable’, without trusted aides and close advisers insufficiently experienced to deal with this fallout. One source said: ‘The prime minister is being failed here. There need to be interventions from his team but that isn’t happening. These are the moments when it matters – having people who can say no. He is surrounded now by people he doesn’t particularly trust or particularly know’. A good number of Conservatives must now be worried by what further blows formidable adversary Cummings could be planning to inflict and there’s a feeling that, of the two, Johnson has far more to lose. ‘There is now significant disquiet in the building about what Cummings could say or do next. The former adviser has said he will give evidence to a committee of MPs on 26 May’.

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There’s some hope the inquiries will be useful: the Electoral Commission one has ‘sweeping powers to call witnesses and refer matters to the police’ and the one by Christopher Geidt, the new adviser on ministerial standards, sounds as if its initiator won’t have the wool pulled over his eyes. He was described by a former colleague as ‘suave and charming, very proper, clipped and British with a regimental tie, but also with a touch of the spook about him’. Paul Waugh of the Huffington Post tweeted:  ‘Boris Johnson says ‘I think I’ve answered this question’, as he fails to answer the question. That may work in PMQs but it won’t work with the Electoral Commission’

But ‘Downing Street admitted that Johnson will retain the power to quash both probes and exonerate himself and ministers’, begging the question as to whether such inquiries are merely a sop to public concern.

Meanwhile, the Law Society has expressed disquiet about changes being made to the judicial review process which are thought to reduce government accountability. ‘Collectively, the most controversial proposals would allow unlawful acts by government or public bodies to be untouched or untouchable. This would harm individuals that challenged them and others who might fall foul of the same unlawful act or decision in the future. The effect of the proposals would be a fundamental distortion of the protection judicial review is supposed to provide against state action, undermining the rule of law and restricting access to justice’. Human rights organisation Liberty said the plans were ‘part of a much bigger attempt to put itself beyond scrutiny in the courts, in parliament and on the streets’.

https://bit.ly/3nCFA0w

Confirming findings already published, two further pieces of research indicate how mental health services have not been meeting patients’ needs during the pandemic, many reporting a lower quality of care. The research by University College London found that others had problems accessing medication, with appointments being cancelled and, although this could not be helped to some extent, the loss of in person care was felt acutely. It highlights what we’ve long known, that whereas services delivered digitally are satisfactory for some, for many they are not, due to a number of issues such as poor or inadequate IT systems or lack of confidence with them. One patient said: ‘Lockdown has made me feel very angry. I feel the professionals used it as an excuse to stop offering appointments. I was seeing her every week and it’s been cut to every three weeks by telephone’.

Needless to say, the NHS issued its usual defence, though it’s long been known that there’s serious underinvestment in UK mental health services. ‘The pandemic has taken its toll on people’s mental health, but the NHS has continued to provide mental health services – increased appointments were offered, including face to face, and 24/7 helplines are available to anyone who needs urgent support’.

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The NHS doesn’t seem to understand how inadequate many patients and some professionals find digital delivery of services and there’s quite some debate amongst counsellors and psychotherapists about returning (or not) to face-to-face working. Research by mental health charity Mind, involving 2,000 people, found that nearly a quarter of those using NHS services reported their mental health had declined during the pandemic. Specifically addressing the move of services online, ‘about 35% said they found the service difficult to use and 23% said their mental health actually got worse as a result of the support they were offered’. Mind is warning that online delivery mustn’t become ‘the new normal’. Although some respondents liked not having to travel to appointments and appreciated flexibility on timings of sessions, Mind is very clear on what it sees as the downsides.  ‘Online therapy cannot be seen as an easy answer to fixing growing pressures on overstretched mental health services. There is no cheap fix’.

https://bit.ly/3nK0omH

On a lighter note, though you do have to wonder about the use (or misuse) of energy, unless it’s a welcome displacement from the depressing news agenda, the Sunday Times tells us how Sainsburys had to apologise for a faux pas. ‘Sainsbury’s has promised to change a picture in one of its Cornish stores because it showed the wrong sort of tea. The image at a branch in Truro depicted a fruit scone — itself an error for purists who say it must be a plain Cornish split — with clotted cream on the bottom and the jam uppermost. The done thing in Cornwall is to put the jam on first, while in Devon they start with the cream’. ‘Creamteagate’ led to a ding dong between various individuals and authorities in Devon and Cornwall, some customers threatening to boycott the supermarket. The article gave rise to numerous comments, one perhaps getting to the heart of how the dispute developed with such ferocity: ‘We need a lot more of this type of news!! The rest is boring, depressing and repetitive. This is both important and entertaining’.

https://bit.ly/2QMR5GE

Finally, some gardeners could be worried by reports in The Week of a serious shortage of garden gnomes. Apparently there was a ‘massive upswing in their popularity during lockdown’ but now supplies are running down because of problems associated with the recent Suez Canal blockage. This concern was news to me, always have been led to believe that garden gnomes were the epitome of bad taste, but perhaps I will hear otherwise!

Saturday 24 April

Last week the Greensill scandal continued to be the gift that kept on giving, fresh revelations mushrooming up every day, although the government must have been grateful for the three distractions which the media made the most of. The latest bombshell from Dominic Cummings is a distraction the PM definitely won’t be grateful for – more later. The first, of course, was the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh, which many found moving and which caused me to reflect, not for the first time, that Brits do spectacle well. It was a shame it had to be spoiled by media coverage which included hours of what had occurred the previous week – speculation about this or that, interviews with anyone who might have had the most tentative of involvements or even sightings of the Duke, and worse – much obsequious commentary. Last Sunday BBC Royal Correspondent, Nick Witchell, was trending on Twitter for his version of it, which many also found distastefully biased and over critical of Harry.

The other distraction from Greensill was all the heat generated by the European Superleague plan, which collapsed days later following unanticipated opposition from football fans. It was interesting to see how exercised and indignant Boris Johnson and his ministers became about it, saying they would do everything within their power to stop it. They then seemed to claim credit for its collapse when it’s likely this was more due to the strength of opposition from fans. The most ironic part of the government’s intervention was exemplified by Secretary of State for Digital, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden, who castigated football bosses’ ‘greed’ and declared: ‘We will not have our national game taken away from us for profit’ and much more. The lack of awareness was astonishing, given his own government’s awarding during the pandemic of millions of pounds in contracts to profit-seeking firms with connections to the Conservatives. Pots and kettles come to mind.

The third distraction was the worrying discovery in the UK of 77 cases of the highly contagious Indian variant of the virus, coupled with the government’s decision to leave four days before implementing its decision to stop flights arriving from India.   During this time (it was said last week that nine flights were arriving daily at Heathrow from India, let alone other airports) thousands of passengers from India will have disembarked and won’t have been properly vetted by the authorities and inefficient Track and Trace. One bit of good news, though it’s a shocking indictment of Track and Trace, is the adoption of this work by more local public health authorities, which of course should have been allowed in the first place. The latest example is Hertfordshire, where public health teams are making sure that those testing positive and other members of their households can self-isolate effectively. This crucial work can begin promptly rather than waiting for an inevitably slower national system to react. The Watford Observer quotes Jim McManus, Director of Public Health for Hertfordshire: ‘The new scheme is an important step as it will allow teams at the district and borough councils to use their local knowledge of communities and their expertise to determine more quickly where people may have caught the virus, and that knowledge will help to stop the spread and identify any possible local outbreaks’.  It will be interesting to see how many other local authorities follow suit.

https://bit.ly/3sP6NOm

But back to Greensill…. ByLine Times, which the BBC steadfastly fails to even mention in its reviews of newspapers and websites, relates how the PM is using Cameron as a scapegoat. Author Hardeep Matharu describes how, ‘With his dual tactics of projection and deflection, the current Prime Minister has pulled off a masterstroke by launching an inquiry into the former Prime Minister’s conflicts of interest’. Although Cameron definitely has a case to answer, even more having emerged this week, launching this kind of inquiry against a former PM, said to be unprecedented, is arguably pretty rich coming from the current PM who has numerous accusations of corruption and cronyism levelled against him. ‘By launching this inquiry – without any discussion by opposition politicians or the mainstream media about whether similar accountability will be allowed with regards to his own, current Government – Johnson affirms to himself once more that the normal rules don’t apply to him’.

https://bit.ly/3sQPlcd

Meanwhile, based on the Sunday Times investigation, the Guardian unpacks how, (mis)using his personal contacts, David Cameron involved the NHS in an attempt to get them to adopt a Greensill payment app called Earnd. This would allegedly improve the workforce’s wellbeing by enabling them to be paid daily instead of monthly. We already knew last week about Cameron’s texts to Chancellor Rishi Sunak and his drink with Health Secretary Matt Hancock. But Cameron was also found to have liaised with Matthew Gould, chief executive of NHSX, an NHS agency promoting digital innovation, in order to request the personal details of NHS staff. Gould was already known to Cameron because he’d worked for the coalition government and was a school friend of George Osborne, Cameron’s then Chancellor. This is an example of the Eton-born calculating exploitation of contacts to achieve dubious ends, not to mention that alma mater’s commitment to instilling an ethos of ‘effortless superiority’.

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We hear regularly about the NHS England Chief Executive, Sir Simon Stevens, but I admit this is the first time I heard of a Chair, who has questions to answer in this scandal. Lord (David) Prior, the son of Jim Prior, a minister in the Thatcher administration, was called upon to explain how lobbyists managed to access senior NHS staff. Again, we see how these networks operate, one contact leading to more, creating quite a complex web. Lord Prior arranged a meeting between Greensill and Lady Harding, chair of NHS financial regulator NHS Improvement. This then led to introductions to various heads of NHS trusts, with a view to persuading them to get on board with the Earnd app.

Lord Prior also arranged for Bill Crothers, an ex-head of government procurement under Cameron, to meet Julian Kelly, NHS England’s chief financial officer, in July 2019 at a meeting also attended briefly by Sir Simon Stevens. We have to wonder how it was that government officials and trusts succumbed so easily to this lobbying but one reason is clear: having been taught from early days in many cases that forging and exploiting networks of contacts is the way to get ahead, they didn’t seek to question it. This is a dangerous and unethical position they’ve occupied, apparently without awareness of the possible consequences. Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth said: ‘We now need to know how many NHS leaders and officials did Cameron and Greensill lobby? How many NHS trusts in total were approached about a scheme that was really a form of usury?’

Meanwhile, Lex Greensill himself is reported to have ‘gone to ground’, refusing all interviews, an odd situation when surely he and the affairs of his bankrupt company should be investigated.

https://bit.ly/3tHwL7P

All of this has revealed the lack of boundaries in government and parts of the Civil Service, evidenced by the inappropriate use and widespread sharing of personal phone numbers for official businesses. The next thread in this complex web of chumocracy was the discovery of text messages between Boris Johnson and Tory donor James Dyson, promising to ‘fix’ tax rules in his favour if he manufactured ventilators for the NHS. As we know, Dyson’s expertise did not lie in this area and we understand that not a single ventilator was delivered.

As a Radio 4 listener tweeter: ‘What is so amazing over the Dyson story is that actual manufacturers of ventilators were ignored despite offers in favour of Tory donors who had never made ventilators. I can’t square that circle in an emergency can anyone else’. Perhaps the most ‘amazing’ thing, though, is that this behaviour was defended on air by the current Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, trying to normalise  improper communication: ‘…people are trying to lobby ministers, lobby MPs all the time…. business leaders having “direct access” to ministers is good for democracy’. In response to the PM’s ‘If you think there is anything remotely dodgy or rum or sleazy about trying to secure more ventilators at a time of a national pandemic… I think you’re out of your mind’, a wag tweeted: ‘If you don’t think there is anything dodgy and sleazy about guaranteeing a billionaire tax breaks for not manufacturing ventilators at a time of national emergency then you really are out of your mind’.

Having perhaps pre-empted the onslaught of Boris Johnson’s accusations of leaks, his former adviser Dominic Cummings has now hit back with a bombshell that will surely dominate the airwaves for some time. He makes sure he threw his former boss under the bus before he himself was thrown. In his blog Cummings accuses Johnson of trying to quash a leak inquiry as it implicated an ally, and suggested that the plan for donors to pay for the flat renovation was ‘possibly illegal’. He said Johnson had behaved in a way he considered ‘mad and totally unethical’, and that he would happily give evidence under oath to an inquiry.

Beth Rigby (Sky News) tweeted: ‘This is just astonishing. Cummings publishes a complete demolition job of his former boss and No 10 team after No 10 ‘source’ briefings against him’. She quotes Cummings: ‘It’s sad to see the PM and this office fall so far below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves’. Pots and kettles come once more to mind, but perhaps this is just one ‘demolition job’ too far, one which the slippery PM won’t be able to shake off. On Saturday’s Today programme (08.10 interview) an apoplectic Dominic Grieve, former Attorney General, unforgettably described Johnson as a ‘vacuum of integrity’, ‘running a cronyistic cabal’ and ‘chaotic government’ for ‘self-enrichment’.

https://bit.ly/3nfBf3f

Although it’s been serialised before, Radio 4’s current broadcast of its documentary series The Great Post Office Trial is bound to attract more listeners following the quashing of unsafe fraud convictions of 39 post sub postmasters, a shocking 20 years after the problems first began. Instead of looking into the possibly faulty Fujitsu Horizon IT system, many sub postmasters were accused of theft, fraud and false accounting, prosecuted by the Post Office with no police involvement and made to believe they were an isolated case. At least some impoverished themselves by attempting to put back the ‘missing’ thousands with their own money. Some of the tapes of the accused and Post Office interviews are heartbreaking to listen to, guilt clearly being assumed by the interrogators.

By the time of the conviction quashing verdict, three had died, but some of those interviewed sounded remarkably sanguine considering what they had gone through, including prison sentences, mental and relationship breakdowns. One commentator tweeted: ‘The Post Office Scandal is indeed a pitiful tale, all the more so because this was done by a public service, therefore in a sense done on behalf of us all. It makes me very, very angry. The Post Office should be deeply ashamed’. Another said: ‘The Post Office has paid 556 victims a total of £58m, that’s around £104,000 each. That is nowhere near enough these people lost their reputations for 20-years, many lost their homes, all of them lost their jobs. The damages should be 10 times what they have been given’.

https://bbc.in/32GhmbY

But what about the perpetrators? So far no media interview I’ve heard has said how the Post Office bosses at the time would be called to account for their actions, apart from the feeble suggestion by the former minister that there should be a public inquiry (aka whitewash). Former boss Paula Vennells (now an ordained priest, holding other public positions) apparently left the Post Office in 2019 £5m better off but 900 staff were wrongfully prosecuted under her watch.

The Rev. Richard Coles tweeted: ‘I think the case for a full public inquiry into the Post Office Scandal is now overwhelming. We need to establish how it happened, and when that’s clear, those responsible must be held to account, even if that path leads through the boardroom to more exalted corridors of power’. Another was more direct: ‘Vennells is still a CBE and an ordained priest! People died as a direct result of her incompetence, yet her magic invisible friend will forgive her. She should be stripped of her titles and made to stand in a queue for at least 10 years’.

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Continuing the theme of ‘re-entry anxiety’, the Observer profiles a Danish ‘happiness guru’ called Meik Wiking (pronounced ‘Mike Viking’), whose role this last year has been severely challenged by the circumstances dictated by Covid 19. ‘The pandemic has launched an all-out attack on the emotion to which he has dedicated his career. With much of the world stripped of socialising and confined to cramped apartments, the past 12 months might well go down as the grimmest passage in living memory, with many people experiencing a spike in loneliness, anxiety and suffering’. Author of the now famous The Little Book of Hygge, on the ‘Danish art of being cosy and content during harsh winters’, Wiking had already set up a think tank to explore happiness from a scientific viewpoint. His Happiness Research Institute is investigating why some have the capacity for contentment others don’t and how societies can boost their wellbeing. This sounds very worthwhile, though he didn’t need to set up a think tank to discover answers to the first question. A key aspect he looks at is how, despite the bad press it’s had, the pandemic and lockdowns could have brought about a realisation of the benefits of a ‘smaller’, simpler lifestyle.

It’s worth reading this article because it’s not simplistic, despite the mixed reputation often attributed to developing and measuring ‘happiness’. He points out that the pandemic has ‘decoupled wealth from happiness’, reduced the making of social comparisons and highlighted the joy of simple pleasures which can be overlooked in a hectic lifestyle. One of the key elements his research identified was the importance of ‘a sense of purpose or meaning, based on Aristotle’s thoughts on the good life (eudaimonia)’. The pandemic and lockdowns have undoubtedly revealed that many lack this sense of purpose and meaning, which perhaps has been masked until now by busyness and socialising. It’s when such activities are interrupted or prevented that we become more aware of what could be missing in our lives at a deeper level.

 ‘I wish there was a silver bullet, but that’s not the case. I think you know a lot of the things I’m telling you: that your relationships matter, having a short commute and a fulfilling job matters, having enough money to get by matters, comparisons to others matter. Yet even if people do already know, we need to be reminded of things – such as the fact that more money does not always translate to more happiness’.

https://bit.ly/3sPDqeV

But according to some reports there are plenty who don’t seem to be experiencing re-entry anxiety (or they’ve managed to quell it), spending liberally on clothes and makeup in order to launch themselves into the world once more. It’s interesting that so many feel the urge to buy new stuff, when they probably already have plenty of perfectly ok items in their wardrobes and cosmetics boxes and there’s an obvious environmental cost to acquiring more Stuff. The queues outside shops like Primark (thought to be responsible for 8% of landfill) are a sight to behold on our high streets. Apparently items like foundation, fake tan, mascara and nail polish are ‘flying off the shelves’, retailers finding significantly increased demand each time the government announces a further stage in lockdown easing. ‘Shoppers, retailers say, are eager to jettison joggers and leggings and are seeking out bright, cheerful colours as they look forward to better times’. This might be a particular demographic, though: ‘not everyone is keen to put style over comfort, with sales of flip flops, sandals and trainers also up sharply’.

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On the subject of shopping, some sad light is being shed on the decline of bricks and mortar retail and what could be the fate of classic department stores. The Observer warns that ‘locally beloved buildings, from 1930s classics to brutalist edifices, are facing developers’ wrecking balls’, following the closure of stores belonging to erstwhile household names like Debenhams. ‘The Twentieth Century Society is taking action against the destruction or redesign of seven sites, and has concerns about the future of another 23 threatened by the reinvention of town centres following the pandemic and the shift to online shopping’.

Buildings under threat are all over the country, including Glasgow, Chester and Birmingham, where Rackhams has been the subject of an application for immunity from listing, leading to fears that it could be redeveloped in an unsympathetic way. The article quotes Matthew Vaughan, a trustee of Birmingham Civic Society. ‘It is a really high quality building that is not appreciated now, apart from locally, but will be in 10 years’ time. If it can’t be listed then it is lost. If immunity is granted it gives carte blanche to do something extensive’. Mention of Rackhams prompted some memories from years ago: there were two restaurants, the posh one with waiter service, the Lilac Tree, and the self-service one we patronised (but still considered a treat), The Gay Tray. That’s a name that wouldn’t be used now!  

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Finally, as we approach the end of this gripping series of Line of Duty, which most of the nation seems to be glued to every Sunday night, creator Jed Mercurio must be struck by the sayings of Superintendent Ted Hastings reaching the highest echelons in the land (or what should be), Boris Johnson alluding this week to the need to ‘root out bent coppers’. The irony isn’t lost on us.

https://bit.ly/3vaRzVq

Saturday 17 April

After another eventful week, it now seems a long time since Monday, when pubs, cafes and restaurants could open for hospitality outside, and, with the sunny though chilly weather, it does feel that there’s a spirit of renewal in the air. There’s been as much talk about getting a hairdresser or barber appointment as there has about jabs.

But it’s important not to get ahead of ourselves, as too much over-optimism and relaxation of restrictions could causes infection rates to rise again. There are concerns about ongoing Covid ‘hotspots’, residents of two South London boroughs urged to take a test,  at least 77 cases here of the Indian variant, and the UK’s leaky border policy isn’t helping. It’s surely absurd that nine flights from India were expected on Friday into Heathrow alone. I think the real test as to whether the virus has been brought under control will be on May 17th and June 21st, if those milestones actually go ahead.

You have to smile or curse at the nerve of Boris Johnson warning people ‘not to relax too soon… people should enjoy new freedoms but remain wary of the risks’ etc when you think of the cavalier way he and his colleagues (not to mention his father) have behaved throughout.

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Despite the media trumpeting our new freedoms, some businesses have sounded a note of caution, some not reopening till all the restrictions have been eased. A record shop manager said: ‘Record shops will always be about the charm and the cult of browsing in person. We are not an Argos. We need to be fully immersed in the tactile experience, or not bother doing it at all’.  A Northern Ireland machinery manufacturer has been hit with severe trading problems following Brexit, caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol itself but also new tariff rules involving the payment of European duties despite components not even destined for Europe.

https://bit.ly/3uXFsel

Last weekend the BBC flooded with an unprecedented number of complaints (110,000) over its wall-to-wall Duke of Edinburgh coverage, one caller to Any Answers even suggesting that staff including presenter Chris Mason should be sacked. Complainants seemed mainly exercised about the devotion of all its channels to the Duke of Edinburgh’s death but also about the sycophancy characterising many of the tributes, people including MPs seeming to bend over backwards to retrieve some memory of an interaction with the Duke or attribute to him some skill or achievement we’d never previously heard of. Such contributors couldn’t see the irony that the Duke himself, (‘a no fuss kind of man’, in the words of royal correspondent Jennie Bond) would probably have heartily disliked this kind of outpouring and would have urged them to ‘get on with it’. It’s worth noting, though, that 400 were about Prince Andrew appearing, 233 about BBC presenters’ disrespectful clothes and 116 suggesting that complaining was too easy! Some thought that allowing the Duke of York to speak on air represented an Establishment attempt to rehabilitate him, though it’s likely he will find himself on a stickier wicket in July with the start of the Ghislaine Maxwell trial.

It was disgraceful that for the second week running, the BBC refused to field someone to defend this coverage on its own Feedback programme so Feedback invited on a rather defensive theatre and tv director Richard Eyre, who had played a part some years ago in preparing the BBC’s coverage of such an event. So despite all the complaints of last week, will the BBC do the same today for the funeral? The Guardian opined that the BBC has been in a difficult position: ‘Although the BBC is used to finding itself in the middle of Britain’s culture wars, its handling of Philip’s death points to a deeper issue over the ability of a national broadcaster to force the country together to mourn a single individual in an era where audiences are fragmented and less deferential’. Although many will feel sympathy for the bereaved Queen and perhaps some admiration for the Duke of Edinburgh, it’s also possible that these positive feelings could be undermined by excessive obsequious and hyperbolic media coverage.

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It must have been galling for the Queen, as she deals with her loss, to have to make difficult decisions about issues like the wearing of uniforms. As Harry would have been the only one not in military uniform and Andrew had wanted to wear an admiral’s uniform, she is understood to have ruled that no military uniforms should be worn at the funeral. The royals’ valets must have been relieved to hear that.

It was a relief to read two articles which offered an alternative to the hype, from the Guardian’s John Crace and Marina Hyde. Crace gets it in one here: ‘With only a few standard clips – “he leaves a huge void”, “he just slipped away” – on offer from members of the family who actually knew the Duke of Edinburgh, nearly all the eulogies elsewhere in the media have come from professional royal-watchers who have quickly mugged up on HRH’s Wikipedia page. Prince Philip would have been gratified that his real friends had kept their silence and astonished by the number of strangers who claimed to have some insight into his personality….’

As for the recalling of the House of Commons: ‘So as ever on these occasions, the interest was less in what MPs had to say about the duke and more in what their speeches said about themselves….Prince Philip was the polymath’s polymath, Boris insisted: scientist, engineer, artist and conservationist rolled into one. Though the evidence for this was rather thin on the ground. A long-wheelbase Land Rover to carry his coffin. A bespoke barbecue for use at Balmoral. A few unexceptional watercolours. His shooting of a tiger back in the early 60s was rather overlooked’.

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‘Had Prince Philip been there to hear any of it, you could be certain he would have zoned out long ago,’ said Marina Hyde. ‘This is the sort of pontification one formerly expected only from absurdly pompous people utterly devoid of self-awareness or public standing, such as newspaper columnists.,,,, My colleague Jonathan Freedland made me laugh recently when he noted how Twitter had turned everyone into the Archbishop of Canterbury, somehow feeling that every major news story requires them to issue an official statement. Huge numbers of people now regard themselves as bound to post the sort of formal reactions to Philip’s death that were once the preserve of former presidents of the United States or the queen of Denmark’. It seems that this need to voice opinions as to how the Royal Family should conduct themselves has been quite widespread, for example former PM John Major going on the airwaves to suggest that William and Harry should use this opportunity to heal their rift, not to mention the many who said the only speaking Andrew should be doing is to the FBI.

https://bit.ly/3dsCs3C

Much airtime this week has rightly been devoted to former Primer Minister David Cameron and his involvement in the Greensill scandal, an issue which continues to mushroom up, revealing how widely the ripples have spread. It seems our current Prime Minister is rather enjoying (handy deflection from his own shortcomings) hanging his former boss out to dry, with the announcement of not one but two inquiries, though these predictably look anything but ‘independent’.

This week Cameron ‘spoke out’ after a 30 day silence to defend himself from accusations of cronyism and corruption, stressing (as does the government) that he hadn’t ‘broken any rules’. Cameron had worked as an adviser to Greensill Capital since 2018, itself an example of the unhealthy revolving doors syndrome whereby former politicians accept roles in organisations whose activities they were once involved in overseeing. He admitted that there were ‘lessons to be learned’ and that he should have used the formal channels, when it’s clear that a former PM shouldn’t have to learn these ‘lessons’. Interestingly, the ministerial code doesn’t apply to former prime ministers, though we have several times seen the weakness of this code in recent times.

Astonishingly, Cameron tried to spin the narrative that it was necessary for him to speak as his actions could have been ‘misinterpreted’, ‘likely to raise eyebrows in Westminster. As a shareholder, Cameron stood to gain potentially millions from Greensill, but his shares are worthless after its collapse’. It’s clear, though, that the lobbying ‘rules’ are themselves highly inadequate, allowing a former PM, who had potentially valuable shares in Greensill Capital, to lobby ministers including Rishi Sunak and Matt Hancock for contracts to be awarded to the now bankrupt company. In 2018 the shares were estimated to be worth £60m. Unsavoury discoveries continue to emerge, such as Lex Greensill himself having served as an adviser in Cameron’s office and a trip by Cameron and Greensill to curry favour with Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman, months after MBS was widely believed to have been responsible for dissident journalist’s Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination.

Cameron’s heavy fall from grace is likely to feel more painful as Cameron himself, back in 2010, committed himself to regulating lobbying. You have to wonder whether the Greensill affair represents an egoistic attempt, not unprecedented in recent years, to keep one’s end up, not disappearing from public life. It’s certainly added to strong feelings in some quarters that this marks the return of ‘Tory sleaze’, though some might argue that it never went away, especially given the evidence of this last year.

Rachel Reeves, Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said: ‘This is a government mired in cronyism and scandal. It’s not good enough for the Conservatives to appoint an inquiry head from an organisation that lobbied to limit the scope of the register, then carry out an inquiry policing themselves and expect everyone to just look the other way’.

https://bit.ly/2OVaWT2

Ripples from Greensill also include how the inquiries will be conducted. The Times tells us that Boris Johnson ‘has commissioned an independent review by Nigel Boardman, a lawyer at Slaughter and May, into the way representations were made to the government and how contracts were awarded’. But Boardman’s role has itself been questioned as he serves on the board of the private Arbuthnot Banking Group which has links to the Conservative Party. How to set up an inquiry but hobble it at the same time? The PM’s spokesman expected the public to believe that the PM is committed to transparency, when we’ve seen anything but during the last year. ‘As you know, there is significant interest in this matter, so the Prime Minister has called for the review to ensure government is completely transparent about such activities and that the public can see for themselves if good value was secured for taxpayers’ money’.

A wag tweeted: ‘Hello Rishi Sunak, I’m one of the 3,000,000 people in the Excluded Ltd. Any chance I can have your personal mobile number so I can send you a text? I know I’m not a past PM, but surely you care as much about me as Greensill, right?’

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This links to another emerging ripple, concerning the number of civil servants found to have also worked for Greensill and other private sector interests. Private sector executives, known as ‘the insurgents’, were parachuted in by the Cameron administration to shake up Whitehall.  ‘It adds to the growing list of government officials facing scrutiny for straddling public and private sector interests’. Such an unhealthy lack of boundaries between the two is bound to lead to conflicts of interest. One example is the government’s former chief commercial officer Bill Crothers, having joined Greensill while still a civil servant (sanctioned by the Cabinet Office). The key issue is about the way private businesses are able to use former officials to try gain preferential access to government contracts. That Crothers has denied any wrongdoing and said such outside roles were ‘not uncommon’ reveals just how normalised this syndrome has become.

https://bit.ly/2QeXgTv

As the gift that keeps on giving, an additional thread, following his admission of having had a ‘private drink’ with Greensill-mired Cameron, is Health Secretary Matt Hancock being found to be a significant shareholder in a company, Topwood, which benefited from being awarded government contracts. Although this was entered in the Register of Members’ Interests, Hancock probably wasn’t expecting an investigative journalist to discover that the company is owned by Hancock’s sister, a conflict of interest kept under wraps. You couldn’t make it up that Topwood’s core business is document ‘shredding, storage and security systems’.

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A not unrelated matter is that of privatisation by stealth of the NHS, which many patients won’t even be aware of as the process has been anything but transparent. A number of organisations including Keep Our NHS Public and We Own It, have been campaigning generally and a recent focus is the takeover (facilitated, astonishingly, by NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups) of scores of GP practices by Operose, a subsidiary of the American healthcare provider Centene. In London alone 49 GP practices have been taken over, with concerns, reinforced by evidence of inadequate services offered by Centene services in the States, about potential cost-cutting measures designed to maximise profit.

The government’s former Chief Scientist, Sir David King, has now taken up the cudgels. He set up Independent SAGE last year as a challenger to official SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), which advises government. There are some good people on Independent SAGE and it seems quite open and democratic as anyone can attend their meetings, which have run on Fridays online via Zoom. King has accused the government of corruption, privatising the NHS by stealth, operating a ‘chumocracy’ and mishandling the pandemic and climate crisis.

Alluding to this government’s longstanding ideological aim of privatising the NHS, King challenged the government’s argument that it had to act quickly during the pandemic so normal tendering procedures ‘couldn’t’ be followed, leading, as we know, to many inappropriate contracts being awarded for PPE, etc. ‘People say it’s a crisis – I say the government is using a crisis to privatise sections of the healthcare system in a way that is completely wrong. A fraction of this money going to public services would have been far better results…..I’m quite sure this has not been an accident, I’m quite sure this has been the plan, there has been clarity in this process. The audacity has been amazing’. It’s refreshing to hear the government’s conduct so clearly called out and it’s be hoped that campaigners, if they can’t stop the current round of GP practice sell-offs, can help prevent further inroads into the public NHS most of us are keen to preserve.

https://bit.ly/3ghftKX

The last few weeks I’ve been writing here about ‘re-entry anxiety’. Now The Week has summarised an article by Simon Kuper in the Financial Times, alluding to a ‘guilty secret’ that we’ve rather enjoyed lockdown and don’t relish the thought of ‘normal life’ returning. He acknowledges how difficult lockdowns have been for many, but also for some ‘there’s been an upside… we’ve been able to lead a simpler life and reconnect with our families. We’ve saved money, been spared stressful commutes…’ and he doesn’t mention this aspect but some have been relieved to have a reason not to attend social events and activities they find stressful. He believes that life in society is ‘unnatural, complicated and overstimulating’ so it’s not surprising that we’ve enjoyed a break from it. He ‘dearly hopes’ to ‘retain some of the soothing routines and slower pace of the past year’ but fears that once again he will get caught up in the ‘pre-Covid whirl’.

Some positive news emerged this week in the form of 4,000 university students across the UK having volunteered to tutor children from disadvantaged backgrounds during the pandemic. Although the students themselves have missed out considerably, they have given 35,000 hours of their time to help these children. The Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative, set up last year by Oxford student Jacob Kelly, got to work as soon as school closures were announced by using social media to recruit tutors. Yet again, a private and voluntary initiative has achieved what the government hasn’t. Remember last summer MP Robert Halfon (Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee) calling for the government to organise ‘armies of volunteers’ (including retirees) to help children catch up? I suspect quite a few people would have stepped up but nothing happened and as far as I know it still hasn’t and of course this will increase inequalities further.

Finally, The Week discusses another example of pandemic related unforeseen consequences. As a result of so many hospitality venues having had to move their business online and for takeaway only, there has been an unexpected demand for condiment and sauce sachets, with supplies running low. Kraft Heinz, long associated with its famous tomato ketchup, has been caught on the hop and although it’s creating additional capacity to manufacture the sachets, it could be too late to meet demand. Restaurants are resorting to different suppliers, although that won’t be the same thing. The article thinks the situation could help ‘loosen Heinz’s magical grip on the US diet and upend the condiment world order’, seen as a Good Thing. Personally, I’ve never seen the appeal of ketchup, although I did always rather like those plastic ‘tomato’ dispensers I’m old enough to remember places having as a regular fixture years ago!

Saturday 10 April

Coverage of the death of Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, announced on Friday, is likely to push other news off the media’s agenda for at least a few days. While many of us will be saddened to hear of his passing, there has been criticism of the media’s wall to wall coverage to the exclusion of other important news, not to mention the sanctimonious tones struck by some contributors. While we might all have learned things about the Duke that we hadn’t known, it’s felt that some interviewees have been casting around for something to say. Journalist Charles Moore was keen to let us know that despite a lifetime of serving a woman, the Duke was still able to ‘be a man’.

A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘Is every single soul who is or was a public figure going to be asked for their reaction to the Duke of Edinburgh’s passing? Some unfortunately competing with each other to achieve heights of sanctimony of the sort the man himself could well have derided’. Another said: ‘MSM are now in a downward spiral of unbroken eulogy, the first to stop will seem traitorous’.

The week leading up to this has been no less eventful than others over the last year. On Monday evening, Boris Johnson bullishly confirmed the second step of lockdown release, the changes to take place from 12 April including the re-opening of non-essential shops, hairdressers, beauty salons, and outdoor sports. It’s common now to hear people talking excitedly not only about vaccination appointments but how they managed to bag a slot at the hairdresser’s. The PM is still between a rock and a hard place, vociferous backbenchers urging him to ease restrictions sooner on civil liberties grounds, yet some experts warning that the easing could result in a Third Wave in the summer. They say much more could be done to improve (or even introduce?) Covid safety measures in venues and workplaces.

Social psychologist Professor Stephen Reicher went to the heart of the matter, the need for an effective test and trace system: ‘As England opens up, it will be even more crucial for people to engage with the test and trace system and feel able to self-isolate if they test positive. My concern is there’s all this talk about the roadmap being irreversible, that we won’t go back into lockdown, but unless you put the measures in place, it’s just talk’. Immunologist Professor Peter Openshaw reinforced this, pointing up the prevalence of people evading Test and Trace: ‘It is so vital that it works, but lots of people are opting out because of the practical problems they encounter. In some countries really effective test and trace systems have been able to knock coronavirus on the head, practically, but for some reason we just don’t seem to be able to get that together’. ‘For some reason’? How diplomatic he is but we all know the reason for its ineffectiveness.

https://bit.ly/3fZYZqc

Besides the inefficiencies of Test and Trace, an ongoing risk is the UK’s leaky border policy, planes full of tourists (up to 8,000) arriving every day according to some sources, drawing concern from Labour that the quarantine system isn’t strict enough. ‘Yvette Cooper, the Labour MP and chair of the Commons home affairs select committee, said the findings raised ‘serious concerns’ and that the Home Office needs urgently to ‘respond, explain and publish these figures’. Needless to say, Immigration Minister Kevin Foster said the government didn’t ‘recognise these figures’ and that ‘tough health measures’ were in force even for those arriving in the UK ‘on a visitor visa for legitimate reasons’.

https://bit.ly/3uCAMKO

As restrictions ease, debate has intensified over vaccine passports and vaccine certificates, the PM now giving a go-ahead for a passport trial. Pilot venues are thought to include football cup finals, the World Snooker Championship, a comedy club and a cinema. At the same time, the NHS is planning a system that will allow people to use an app or a paper certificate to allow access to major events and reduce social distancing measures. Needless to say, though, these plans are attracting flak from those concerned about civil liberties and not just from the usual source of Covid Recovery Group backbenchers. Andrew Bud, founder of the biometrics company iProov, which has been involved in Covid certificate trials, stressed the need for a workable system that balanced convenience with privacy needs and which also guarded against criminal intervention. ‘Forgery I think is a real risk…If they were allowed to happen, I think it would fatally undermine public confidence in the scheme’.

https://bit.ly/3fYCO3P

The Times details the ethical arguments in the form of a Q&A, showing that so far 40 Tory MPs oppose the introduction of domestic certificates. It’s not yet definite that there will be a Parliamentary vote on this though there is firm pressure for one. These Tories believe that the measures will lead to a ‘two tier Britain’, but what seems puzzling is Small Business minister Paul Scully saying that certificates would not be required when pubs open up next week and on May 17 when further rules are relaxed. I suspect there will be many venues which will ask for proof of Covid status, opening up the field to umpteen different schemes and zero consistency.

https://bit.ly/2OCtFCR

Much attention has been directed this week to the AstraZeneca vaccine and problems with blood clots in some cases, causing some European countries to halt its roll out in their vaccination programmes. Experts here have inclined to the view that the risk is small and the risks associated with contracting Covid are far greater, but fears have been exacerbated by the decision not to administer it to under 30s and by the amount of scaremongering the mainstream media continue to indulge in. The Guardian opined that ‘the course correction, as the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Prof Jonathan Van-Tam calls it, may be slight but it will probably have a disproportionate impact on confidence’. The blood clots side effect are said to be very rare, affecting four in a million people who have had the vaccine in the UK but this policy change could make some older people refuse their second dose.

https://bit.ly/3d5KAHn

Meanwhile, the effects of media scaremongering have resulted in further pressure on the NHS due to patients going to their local A&E on experiencing mild side-effects. A number of A&E consultants told the Health Service Journal that their department was “swamped” with patients with headaches who had been sent there by their GP. One said they were ‘scrabbling to cobble together some guidance so as to sensibly reduce the number needing investigation. I gather some units are really, really struggling with this’. This is clearly very difficult for patients, GPs and A&E departments but it’s a situation which could have been anticipated as a result of the relentless media coverage.

https://bit.ly/3wMlvZV

Very much in the news (although you might not know it from BBC News avoidance) is the worsening rioting in Northern Ireland, some trying to ascribe this to conflict over the over-attended IRA funeral which the police allowed to go ahead but which has got much more to do with the aftermath of Brexit. Those critical of the Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland protocol say a border is effectively in the Irish Sea, leaving unionists feeling betrayed. The alleged involvement of paramilitary groups can’t be used as an excuse to dismiss the very real concerns of unionists. The Loyalist Communities Council LCC said there had been a ‘spectacular collective failure’ to understand their anger over Brexit and other issues, and the border protocol must be renegotiated. ‘We have repeatedly urged HM Government, political leaders and institutions to take seriously our warnings of the dangerous consequences of imposing this hard border on us and the need for earnest dialogue to resolve matters. We reiterate that message now’.

https://bit.ly/3t6Bz6h

Brexit is one of the main areas of our PM’s fibs and avoidances and there’s now growing pressure for these to be called out, though it doesn’t set an example that the Speaker doesn’t challenge Boris Johnson to account in the House of Commons. Journalist and author William Keegan dissects these economies with the truth in the Guardian.  ‘…..usually, if one is conned, it is over some relatively minor matter in the great scheme of things, and one learns one’s lesson. But when a significant part of a country is taken for a ride, it cannot be dismissed as a trivial matter from which it can easily recover. Such, I believe, is the condition of the UK at the moment’. He suggests that Covid is preoccupying people to the extent that they don’t yet see the effects of Brexit and points up the doublespeak of the PM’s press secretary, who said he ‘does believe in the wider principles of integrity and honesty’. Right, that’s ok, then. Doesn’t this remind us of a similar example uttered by Brandon Lewis at the time of the threatened Internal Market Bill? (This was the implication that it wouldn’t really breach an international treaty because it would only involve departing from it ‘in a specific and limited way’).

‘In his novel The Three Clerks, Anthony Trollope wrote of the 19th-century prime minister Sir Robert Peel: ‘Posterity will point at him as a politician without a policy, as a statesman without a principle, as a worshipper at the altar of expediency, to whom neither vows sworn to friends nor declarations made to his country, were in any way binding.’ Remind you of anyone? But Peel conducted several spectacular U-turns, not least on the corn laws and Catholic emancipation. If only Johnson were to do a U-turn on Brexit and, like Peel, put country before party’.

https://bit.ly/3a08O3N

Problems related to mental health have escalated during the pandemic, some seeking to alleviate their loneliness and anxiety in this way, for example enquiries to alcohol services are said to have doubled this year. As successive lockdowns have caused problem gambling to soar, NHS mental health head Claire Murdoch points out that gambling firms have hugely profited during the pandemic but have left the NHS to ‘pick up the pieces’ from the resulting addiction. She believes these companies should be paying a levy to fund treatment. During the last year 750 people have been referred to specialist clinics but there aren’t enough of these.

‘After seeing the destruction the gambling industry has caused to young people in this country, it is clear that firms are focused on profit at the expense of people’s health, while the NHS is increasingly left to pick up the pieces. In a year when the NHS has dealt with our biggest challenge yet in Covid-19, the health service’s psychologists and nurses have had to been treat hundreds of people with severe gambling addictions’. There’s currently a review of gambling being ‘overseen’ by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, which is apparently, for the first time, considering an industry levy. Let’s hope the review cuts some ice.  

https://bit.ly/3dV1uYe

The already ‘Cinderella’ mental health service has had a boost recently with the announcement of new perinatal health units. The mental health of new and expectant mothers has long been poorly provided for, for example five years ago 40% of areas in England had no dedicated maternal mental health services. There has been improvement since then, with ‘some specialist services’ in all the 44 local NHS England areas. But it hasn’t been sufficient and contributions to programmes like BBC Woman’s Hour would suggest that some of these women have felt abandoned during the pandemic due to few in person services and pressures on the NHS.

Now 26 sites, to cater for about 6,000 new parents by next April, will offer physical health checks and psychological therapy in one building. This is a very positive development which should perhaps be exported to all area of health, because the longstanding separation of mental and physical health services has encouraged silo thinking, which is unhelpful and another example of the Cartesian divide. Emily Slater, CEO of the Maternal Mental Health Alliance, said: ‘For the more than one in 10 expectant and new mothers experiencing mental health problems, and the increased numbers as a result of the pandemic, there needs to be a system of care available to support them. These new services will enable more women than ever to access vital perinatal mental health care’.

https://bbc.in/3fWOe87

The New Statesman carries an interesting article again linked to mental health and wellbeing, hinging on how we perceive the last year. For you has this been a waste of time, an opportunity for development or something in between? ‘…so many people have told me that, for them, the past 12 months do feel like a wasted year. I’ve heard them describe how they feel a form of mourning – not for a person, but for the time that has been lost.  In England, more than half of the last year has been spent in lockdown, with the rest marked by severe restrictions on what we can do, where we can go, who we can see. We have primarily been confined to our homes, instructed to “wait out” the pandemic with Netflix, Zoom, online learning and Joe Wicks fitness classes. But while we have waited, time has kept passing. Babies have been born who have never met their grandparents or known a world without masks. Children have left school without getting the chance to say goodbye to their friends and teachers’. The author feels it’s no wonder our perceptions of time and ageing have become ‘skewed’.

Many, whether younger or older, feel they have been robbed of time, unable to ‘move on’. Many are quoted on a similar theme, but the author cites a man diagnosed at 24 with an aggressive form of cancer, Luke Grenfell-Shaw, who has taken a different view. Having last year planned a charity bike ride from Bristol to Beijing, this was prevented by Covid, so instead he instead turned to other outlets like producing a podcast. Now back on course with the bike ride, he responded to the author’s having put to him these common reactions about wasted time.

‘Out of all people, maybe I have a really strong reason to be angry and resentful and upset [about the past year]. But ultimately I realised that’s an unhelpful way to think. The question really is: how can I make the most of this time? My attitude, and it’s something I learned through having cancer, is that, in life, there are often situations that we cannot control, things just happen – like cancer, like Covid. What we’re left with is a choice of how we deal with them. I believe we’ve always got that choice’. 

I don’t think these stances are mutually exclusive – it’s possible both to mourn the loss of time and opportunities characterising the last year but also to acknowledge some benefits which may have emerged and to harness our energies as far as possible on achieving our desires as we move on from this experience.  

https://bit.ly/31Zi7N4

We’re rightly hearing more and more about the mental health benefits of being close to nature and appreciating the passing seasons. I had a good reminder of this last week, an intended one, by way of the first visit for eight months to a National Trust property. You usually have to book a slot in advance and although the last one of the day wasn’t ideal, or so I thought, it turned out well because I had the enormous garden almost to myself. There’s something very special about being able to commune with nature without the impingement of others in the vicinity. There was a splendid display along all the walks and paths of blossoming trees, camellias and tulips, with the best to come – carpets of bluebells preparing to burst forth. I can’t wait for that towards the end of this month.

The Week summarises a piece in the Daily Telegraph lamenting the rise of ‘woke’ job titles, prompted by the appointment of Prince Harry as Chief Impact Officer at BetterUp, a Silicon Valley mental health coaching company. The author finds it ‘reassuring’ that royalty has some currency in California but finds the strange title ‘jarring’, citing similar examples, such as ‘Dream Alchemist’, ‘Happiness Engineer’ and ‘Brand Warrior’. (Imagine responding to that common question ‘What do you do?’ with ‘I’m Brand Warrior for xyz’). The author worries that these are ‘non-jobs, propped up by easy money’ and that it will take a crash and serious recession to ‘clear them out’, ‘one so serious that even a Chief Impact Officer might notice’.

Finally, I realised that this blog is now a year old, so on this anniversary just to say thanks again to all followers and readers!