Sunday 21 November

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 6 November

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 31 October

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 23 October

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 9 October

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 3 October

Yet again it’s a week during which the feeling of things being out of control is even more in evidence, from queues at petrol stations, HGV driver shortages leading to some empty supermarket shelves to the anger at police failings following the sentencing of Wayne Couzens. On Radio 4’s Today programme, Home Office crime and policing minister Kit Malthouse gave a defensive interview regarding police culture, regarded by many as institutionally sexist, and its head, Dame Cressida Dick. It emerged that he had voted against violence against women and girls being made a serious crime in the forthcoming policing bill. When challenged on this, he demonstrated his poor grasp of this issue by suggesting that measures could be adopted if such violence was a ‘systemic problem’ in particular areas whereas it needs to be across the board. He also grasped at the ‘digital improvements’ straw, which didn’t cut much ice. Sarah Jones, Labour MP, tweeted: I’m afraid Kit Malthouse is being disingenuous about the new serious violence duty in the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill. I had an amendment in committee to include violence against women and girls and the government rejected it out of hand’.

And you couldn’t make up the pathetic police ‘advice’ to women feeling threatened by individual police officers to call out to passers-by or ‘flag down a bus’. Can you imagine that having any effect in London or any other large city? As the Independent headline read: ‘Don’t tell us to flag down buses – vet your police officers properly’. Very pertinent, especially as Couzens was known to have committed offences which should have been a huge red flag long before the Sarah Everard murder and other officers have also been placed under investigation. Establishment figures like Lord Blair (former Met Commissioner) and Inspector of Police Tom Winsor (Chief Inspector of Constabulary) continue to defend the status quo and leaving Cressida Dick in post. A good start would be the no brainer of making domestic abuse training compulsory for all police forces – astonishingly, it isn’t already. A shocking statistic that probably won’t make mainstream media coverage is the 81 women killed by men since the murder of Sarah Everard.

Meanwhile, we hear that, as the country struggles to function, Boris Johnson, ahead of the Conservative Party conference, is fantasizing that he can reinvigorate his party and administration. We’re told to expect ‘big bold decisions’ when what we’ve actually seen is dither, incompetence and corruption and the supreme irony must be the lack of staff to serve the Tory faithful as they descend on Manchester Central Convention Complex. For once, though, it’s doubtful he will be able to evade anger at the combined reality of petrol shortages, worsening supply chain problems, increase in poverty due to furlough ending and the cessation of the Universal Credit uplift and severely undermined confidence in the police and the government. All of these issues will be raising public anxiety considerably. A Guardian podcast discusses the nature of the PM’s complacency: ‘When Boris Johnson returned to the UK from his visit to New York to speak at the UN general assembly, he got off the plane with a spring in his step. He had presented himself as a climate crisis leader on a global stage. He had completed his reshuffle, got rid of some dead wood, and installed party favourites such as Nadine Dorries and Liz Truss in top cabinet jobs. His government was starting to look towards a post-coronavirus agenda, with Brexit a distant memory. The upcoming Conservative conference appeared to be a golden opportunity to tell voters what “levelling up” would really mean – and why they should support Johnsonism. Instead, he flew back into the teeth of a crisis – with shortages of petrol creating media coverage of disgruntled drivers and gridlock on service station forecourts. With energy companies still going bust (12 so far this year) and many observers attributing at least some of the blame to Brexit, his hopes of turning the page on a crisis-ridden two years now appear tenuous at best’.

Boris Johnson won’t have done himself any favours with his shocking ‘definition’ of what ‘levelling up’ will look like in NE England, telling the BBC’s  Luke Walton on Friday:  ‘I’ve given you the most important metric which is, never mind life expectancy, never mind cancer outcomes, look at wage growth’. Even some of his colleagues could be shocked to hear him say something so insensitive and ruthless. The Guardian gives its predictions as to how this conference will go, alluding to ‘research’ which shows that the PM sees the need to ‘shake a sense of national paralysis (not just a sense, is it?) and reassure his party before a daunting winter’.

This kind of pretentious pantomime won’t necessarily fill us with confidence, not least because characters in Greek theatre had something more about them this current crop of politicians.  ‘Above all, Johnson’s aim for the conference will be to try to shake that sense of inertia. He will characterise himself as the delivery prime minister, even if his own MPs complain there has been precious little delivery so far. To symbolise that idea, he will take to the stage at the Tory conference next Wednesday in Manchester quite literally surrounded by his ministers and party members. Reminiscent of an ancient Greek theatre, the stage set-up will be almost entirely in the round’. It also might not cut much ice with the group of senior Conservative MPs which has broken ranks to openly question how Boris Johnson can deliver on his promise to increase prosperity in poorer parts of the UK while at the same time raising taxes for working people and cutting benefits.

All the problems we’re facing were avoidable – lack of foresight and planning has led to what we are witnessing now. Kit Malthouse was also challenged on the petrol shortage and repeated the ministerial mantra that the situation was ‘stabilising’, trying to attribute it to ‘panic buying’, but it’s manifestly not. All over the country there are long queues at petrol stations and motorists have also found them closed altogether. There have also been reports of abuse and violence, knives being drawn in some areas and the latest news is that the problem is getting worse in the South-east, not better. While this situation is distressing for all motorists, it’s particularly acute for those needing to drive for their work, for example the community midwife interviewed this week, where the consequences of their inability to get to their visits could be severe. Cancer patients are among those who have had appointments delayed by the fuel crisis, with patient transport services unable to fill up and NHS staff struggling to get to work.

But the Today programme quoted an EU hauliers union rep as saying ‘we will not go back to England to help them get out of the shit they created themselves’. It will be interesting to see how the recruitment drive goes. The situation has exposed, in common with the agricultural industry, the fault lines in the business model, keeping wages low while not improving working conditions. Many Brits would not want to work long shifts with poor access to washing facilities which amount to little more than cattle trough sinks in some lorry parks. It might prove a wakeup call for employers but also for consumers, who mostly won’t be questioning how the goods they want get to them.

The media seem to be milking predictions about Christmas and potential shortages, as if there aren’t more important issues to engage with. Apparently sales of Christmas goods have been surging already. ‘Millions of Christmas dinners will be saved by importing turkeys from Poland and France’! All the harping on Christmas is in very poor taste considering the challenges this country and the world face’, said one tweeter at the First World Problems hashtag. With food and goods shortages, not to mention potential blackouts depriving us of the internet, we may be back to the Victorian Christmas yet, maybe no bad thing – perhaps there will be a run on second hand pianos to facilitate the traditional sing-songs. Not to mention poaching your own rabbit.  But hey, none of this might need to happen because of the government’s latest U-turn, allowing overseas drivers to stay until March in the interests of ‘saving Christmas’. Besides saving his own skin, could the PM be feeling he owes us for Christmas effectively being cancelled last year?

Perhaps Boris Johnson thinks he doesn’t have to worry about how the conference goes, because of what a commentator calls his ‘rigging of the system’ to stay in power. Four examples of this, according to journalist Jonathan Freedland, are ‘hobbling’ the elections regulator, weakening the courts, limiting protest and devising new rules which would gag whistleblowers and the press. ‘Almost unnoticed, perhaps because it’s done with an English rather than a Hungarian accent, our populist, nationalist prime minister is steadily setting out to weaken the institutions that define a liberal democracy: the ones that might act as checks and balances on him. And he’s moving, Orbán style, to make it ever harder for his government to lose power’.

The likely changes to the justice system are chilling to read about, as are several other categories of change, for example limits on what journalists can report by widening the scope of the Official Secrets Act. ‘But Johnson is bent not only on preventing his government from being held to account. More sinister, he is taking steps to ensure it can’t easily be replaced. He wants to tilt the playing field of electoral competition permanently in the government’s favour, and his first target is the referee’…. There is a pattern here, if we’re only willing to see it. A populist government hobbling those bodies that exist to keep it in check, trampling on democratic conventions and long-held rights, all to tighten its own grip on power. We need to recognise it, even when it wears a smile and tousled hair, and speaks in the soothing cadences of Eton College’.

Meanwhile, mixed news on the health front. NHS Digital statistics show that the proportion of in person GP consultations is now only marginally higher, at 58%, than during lockdown. This is so unsatisfactory because many doctors have said worrying symptoms can be missed because they’re not seeing the whole person and observing their demeanour and some patients will not consult the GP if only virtual consultations are on offer. Long Covid also continues to be an insufficiently acknowledged problem. Researchers at the University of Oxford, the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and the Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) shed fresh light on the scale of the problem after studying more than 270,000 people recovering from Covid in the US. They found 37% of patients had at least one long Covid symptom diagnosed three to six months after infection. The most common symptoms were breathing problems, abdominal symptoms, fatigue, pain and anxiety or depression. Not only are these conditions complex to treat but NHS facilities for treating Long Covid are in short supply, with availability determined by postcode lotteries.

Encouraging news comes in the form of the new Covid drug trial, which has involved giving recently diagnosed Covid patients the anti-viral pill (molnupiravir) twice a day. Interim results from the trial by US pharma company Merck suggest that it could cut the risk of hospitalisation and death by half.

What also seems very positive news is the NHS plan to create diagnostic hubs in community venues close to people’s homes, to speed up ‘life-saving checks’. Maybe this initiative (the pandemic has further catalysed the need for radical change in the way NHS services are delivered) could encourage those disliking virtual GP consultations to see a clinician, but the service isn’t planned to be operational until March. Some concerns have been expressed at the difficulties in recruiting staff, suggesting that the initiative could result in clinicians being taken out of hospitals.

On top of all the mental health service deficits discussed here recently, we’re hearing more and more about how young people’s mental health has been detrimentally affected by Facebook and Instagram use. Instagram is particularly in the frame for its tools which allow users to rate the appearance and personalities of others, giving rise to further self-esteem problems. One commentator criticised the ‘monetizing’ of children and apparently children as young as nine are setting themselves up as ‘influencers’, a travesty of childhood, surely. But given that Facebook is unwilling to admit the problems, let alone address them, it begs the question how can tech be controlled? At least there’s more awareness now that the tech Trojan horse has inveigled itself into our lives in ways which can be dangerous as well as convenient.

In many cases social media use by young people will be contributing to the rise in anxiety, and now some cynical operators have stepped into the vacuum left by NHS mental health services. Radio 4’s File on 4 has investigated some of these offerings, highlighting, as another of their programmes did last year, the statutorily unregulated nature of private counselling and therapy services. Parents desperate to help their children with anxiety predictably found long waiting lists for NHS treatment, leading some to seek help privately, some of these therapists also having long waiting lists.

 The programme alludes to ‘rogue operators’ with barely any appropriate qualifications charging huge sums to ‘cure’ children of anxiety, using various cynical marketing methods such as implying if parents don’t pay they don’t care about their child. Some parents were charged £5,000 and encouraged to go into debt to finance the ‘treatment’, which, not surprisingly, did not work in numerous cases. No surprise there: it should be better known that ‘cure’ is an inappropriate concept to apply to this kind of work. The journalists ask – why isn’t the law protecting people who seek help online? Having long pressed for statutory regulation of counselling and therapy, I doubt it’s likely to happen any time soon: Conservative governments have always taken the stance that there’s no evidence to suggest regulation is necessary. There’s plenty of evidence…..

Another situation which has been unregulated for far too long (and obviously more to the fore during the last 18 months) is the opacity of the funeral industry. The vulnerability of many bereaved people has meant that they don’t explore and challenge (and often don’t know they can) what undertakers tell them they need. These companies often issue invoices which aren’t itemised, one heading I recall being quite a sizeable one for ‘funeral director’s fees’. Fortunately, Quaker Social Action has been involved in catalysing a Competition and Markets Authority investigation through its Fair Funerals campaign (2014-2018). QSA also engaged fully with the investigation, giving feedback throughout consultation, informed by detailed (anonymised) evidence from their Down to Earth funeral costs helpline. Two of the main outcomes are disaggregated price lists. It seems shocking that the average cost of a simple funeral in the UK is £3,837 (Royal London, 2020) and during the last ten years prices rose well above the level of inflation. Let’s hope this investigation really makes a difference and that it also prompts the bereaved to find out more about their options, the less expensive ones traditional funeral directors don’t necessarily tell them about. (Useful information can be obtained from Dying Matters, a not-for-profit coalition working to create an open culture to talk about death, dying and bereavement).

Several weeks ago we heard that the UN agency Unesco had taken the radical decision to delist some of its World Heritage sites, including Liverpool, because of excessive development on the water front. It now looks as if a site in Derbyshire could be under threat. In the Derwent Valley mills area there’s a plan to build a 17 storey block of flats opposite an old silk mill, which Unesco is unhappy about. It would be a blow if the site is delisted because it has enjoyed Unesco status since 2001 in recognition of its importance during the Industrial Revolution and would no doubt have encouraged tourism in the area. Again, it raises the conundrum of how we balance preservation of heritage sites with the need to create more housing.

With so much going on in the UK, we could perhaps be (slightly) forgiven for overlooking the key election last weekend in Germany, which saw the departure of Angela Merkel after 16 years and the ‘ascension’ of Olaf Scholz (SPD – Social Democratic Party leader) if he can produce a successful coalition. It’s important stuff as what happens in Germany will impact directly on the EU bloc and generally on the world stage. Scholz, former mayor of Hamburg, is profiled in Radio 4’s useful Profile series, considered a little ‘robotic’ and lacking in charisma. Sholtz is apparently good at rising again after falls from power and his performance during the pandemic has been praised. He’s shown he can make tough decisions. Concerned about his weight, we learn that at the age of 40 he took up running and rowing. He apparently doesn’t mind being considered ‘boring’ and we’ve seen where ‘charisma’ leads in the UK and US – in the longer term sturdy and reliable politicians are likely to do their electorates much more good.

Meanwhile, Angela Merkel’s legacy has been discussed in many fora. While she has performed a valuable role in psychologically holding the nation (not called Mutti for nothing and something we’ve manifestly not benefited from here), especially important during the anxiety generating pandemic. But her conservatism and risk adversity have been criticised by some commentators, for example keeping existing structures going when they need reforming. While critics have to acknowledge that economic performance remains good in terms of exports and GDP growth, they suggest that this has negatively impacted public investment, for example Germany is said to be way behind other nations in ‘the digital revolution’.

Finally, it’s good news that London has two new stations on its elderly Northern Line (used to be known as the Misery Line), no doubt to support the extensive redevelopment about the former Battersea Power station. The new stations, Battersea Power Station and Nine Elms, represent the first major development of the Underground this century. ‘Taking six years of construction and testing, and a longer period again of design and planning, the £1.1bn project – adding nearly two miles of tunnel as well as the two stations – has put the dramatically changing area of south London on the Tube map’. It will be interesting to see how this opens up this area to a wider ‘audience’ and whether the promised 25,000 new jobs and more than 20,000 new homes will actually materialise.

Friday 24 September

Just when you think the government can’t get any worse, it does just that and in spades this last week. As our Prime Minister undermined the climate change message by jetting off to New York with what seemed a sizeable entourage, giving the most embarrassing performance to the UN General Assembly, back at the ranch his colleagues tried to wrestle with rocketing energy prices, shortages of petrol and other supplies (very carefully not attributed to Brexit) and growing opposition to the imminent cut in the Universal Credit uplift. The forever languid and disengaged Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, gave an unconvincing performance in media interviews to the effect that ‘the lights would not go out’ despite massive energy price hikes which coincide with National Insurance increases and the Universal Credit uplift disappearing, but many will be desperately worried at the prospect that they could be choosing between heating their homes and feeding their families. Several energy companies have already gone to the wall and Kwarteng was oblivious to the irony of his assertion that this ‘responsible government’ would not bale out companies which were not well managed. Pots and kettles.

What this and the Co2 shortage have brought to the fore, however, is the mythology propping up neoliberal economics: ‘the market’ cannot be relied upon as the sole determinant of a nation’s wellbeing. Unfortunately, many are now finding that the longstanding ‘advice’ since the privatisation of utilities to switch providers to obtain a better deal is pretty threadbare – the large ones have a much better chance of surviving than the smaller newbies purporting to offer a good deal when they’re little more than call centres. What these problems also reveal yet again is the government’s lack of planning and sense of urgency: so often ministers say they’re ‘looking at a plan’ when a ‘responsible government’ should have contingency plans to ensure continuity of supply. Relying on an overseas company for a large percentage of our CO2 supply is just reckless. As a Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘I think the main problem is a shortage of competent leadership. Which is also due to Brexit.’

Having stuck to their guns about not making special provision for recruiting HGV drivers, petrol shortages and long queues at petrol stations have now driven ministers to consider changing their minds regarding relaxation of immigration rules for lorry drivers. A very breezy Grant Shapps, in media interviews, said that he would not rule anything out, including deploying the army to drive petrol tankers, but played down the idea that loosening border restrictions would fix labour shortages. I wonder if army bosses tire of being expected to step into such situations when some contingency planning would have made such a drastic step unnecessary. Finally, a sense of urgency: as ministers met for talks, Sky News suggested that they’re likely to sign off on temporary visas for HGV drivers to ‘avoid a full blown crisis’. Not surprisingly, ‘U-turn’ is trending on Twitter.

Brexit is clearly in the frame despite the government’s sidestepping of it and the media’s collusion in not citing it as a cause. Apparently the shortage is 100,000 drivers but even before Covid it was 60,000, though Covid contributed because of a large backlog in HGV driver tests, making recruitment impossible. The BBC helpfully detailed the reasons for the shortage, effectively including wage suppression and (yet again) lack of ‘succession planning’ as many drivers were over 55. The situation we face today has clearly been building up for some years, another issue not anticipated by the ‘hindsight’ government.

Besides dismissing French umbrage at the Aukus defence and security deal, demonstrating his statesmanship by telling them to ‘prenez un grip’ and ‘donnez-moi un break’, Boris Johnson embarrassed himself and the UK by his ridiculous stance at the UN General Assembly and coming away with  little from his meeting with President Biden.

The BBC obediently colluded with the Johnson pots and kettles narrative, without irony reporting his urging of world leaders to take action on climate change, that COP26 was a turning point for humanity (his personal reputation staked on it, of course) and that it was time for the world ‘to grow up’, also trying to suggest that the US had made concessions to the UK. This prompted a volley of tweets from sceptics, eg: ‘Biden didn’t just lift travel ban for UK, it was for all Europe. US not interested in a trade deal, we are deluding ourselves about that importance…. way overblown by the government to excuse lack of post-Brexit progress’.

 The Guardian’s John Crace lampoons the PM’s humiliating performance (‘Prime minister’s bluster meets real world as promised post-Brexit trade deal fails to materialise’) in which his ego was well and truly punctured: ‘When the highlight of your first trip to the US as prime minister is an awkward minute-long conversation with the president about a shared interest in trains, it’s probably fair to say that things haven’t gone quite as well as hoped. Boris Johnson may feel himself to be the unassailable world king in the UK, but on the other side of the Atlantic he’s pretty much a nobody. Come Wednesday morning, Johnson wasn’t even pretending to put a positive spin on things…. The previous day he had tried to hang on to the veneer that some kind of trade deal with the US was in the offing. Or failing that, a deal with the US, Mexico and Canada that Liz Truss had found knocking around somewhere on the floor when she had been minister for international trade. Though that last option didn’t survive the night before Downing Street dismissed it. Presumably because by then someone had started reading the small print’.

A useful Guardian article attempts to read between the lines of the PM’s UN climate change speech, interspersing what he actually said with what he really meant, or more often, what he unconsciously reveals about himself. ‘He quickly swerves into far different territory, revealing far more perhaps of the preoccupations and psyche of the prime minister himself than of the aims of Cop26 and the task the world faces’. For example, in the bit about humanity being the age equivalent of a teenager, he lambasts our alleged irresponsibility, citing philosophy (to add authority?).  ‘In the words of the Oxford philosopher Toby Ord, ’We are just old enough to get ourselves into serious trouble.’ We still cling with part of our minds to the infantile belief that the world was made for our gratification and pleasure and we combine this narcissism with an assumption of our own immortality’.

This is dissected thus: ‘Name-checking a moral philosopher is a shortcut to signalling high seriousness, and Ord is noted for his work on existential risk at the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford. But perhaps a psychologist rather than a philosopher might have been more appropriate – Johnson has frequently been accused of narcissism, and what better way to deflect the charge than extend it to the whole of humanity? With its extensive references to mistakes made in the name of gratification and pleasure, and a new willingness to reform, this is definitely the speech of a man on his third marriage’. This article goes on to cite further examples of hypocrisy and disingenuousness, for example excusing his earlier forays into anti-climate change rhetoric, the PM says ‘the facts change and people change their minds and change their views and that’s very important too’. But as the journalist says, facts do not change: ‘The facts, though, have not changed: the IPCC was set up in 1988, to investigate the clear likelihood that human actions were causing changes to the climate. The scientific evidence was forceful enough even then to bring Johnson’s predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, to the UN the following year to call for urgent action’.

In contrast to some newspapers calling this speech ‘a triumph, this article’s conclusion summarises the various disconnects between the PM’s theatrical talk and reality. ‘The rhetoric may soar between Greek tragedy and the Muppets, but the decisions the government has taken – cutting overseas aid; continuing the expansion of oil and gas, and perhaps a new coalmine, in the UK; dropping references to the Paris temperature goals from the Australian trade deal; forming the Aukus defence pact with climate rogue Australia, and so offending ally France and the pivotal player at the Cop26 talks, China, in doing so – will do far more than any words of the prime minister at UNGA to set the diplomatic tone for Cop26’.

As if all this wasn’t enough, at this critical time Boris Johnson refused to say whether he could live on the basic Universal Credit (£118 a week for couples), and the unfortunately named Environment Minister George Eustice (often billed ‘Useless’ in social media) had the nerve to suggest that Joe Biden is wrong about the Northern Ireland Protocol because he does not understand the complicated nature of the post-Brexit trade deal. Interviewed on Sky News, Eustice said: ‘He is probably at the moment just reading the headlines, reading what the EU is saying, reading what Ireland might be saying, which is that they would like the Northern Ireland protocol to work in the way the EU envisage’. Seeking to distance himself from his minister’s comments, Johnson fibbed again by saying the subject of Northern Ireland had not come up in their meeting, when it was widely reported that it did.

As more misgivings continue to be expressed regarding the appointment of Nadine Dorries to the Culture brief, there’s yet more evidence of failing mental health services, which was her previous brief. Last week I said she had been disingenuous in the Commons by implying that problems were due to the shortage of people ‘coming through’ to work in mental health, when thousands of counsellors and therapists who trained at their own expense could have been recruited. Therapy Today, the journal of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, also reports that BACP wrote to her to correct erroneous statements in the Commons and on social media about deficits in counselling for children and young people. It’s a shocking state of affairs when professional bodies in any field feel compelled to write to government ministers to point out their misinformation, which many through no fault of their own will just believe.

Hardly a week goes by without there being some reporting of mental health service deficits. Now psychiatrists have said how desperate the need for additional funding is. ‘There were 1.5 million people in contact with English mental health services in June, 12.4 per cent higher than the same time last year. About 1.6 million people are waiting for treatment. We need the right resources and decisive action on the long-term challenges to help stretched services that are struggling to meet demand. This means building new mental health hospitals, transforming outdated infrastructure and training more specialist doctors’. This situation doesn’t just impact on the patients themselves, hard enough though this is: for everyone who is waiting for treatment many others including their friends, families and employers will be negatively impacted. I’d just have to disagree with the argument that we need more ‘specialist doctors’: what’s really needed much more is many more NHS psychotherapists to help patients get to the root of their difficulties, rather than going down the short-term medical model road of cognitive behaviour therapy and (often) dependency-inducing medication.

From its alternative universe the Department of Health and Social Care said that its ‘NHS long-term plan would provide mental health services in England with an extra £2.3 billion a year by 2023-24.In addition, our £500 million mental health recovery action plan will ensure we offer the right support over the coming year to help people with a variety of mental health conditions. The government is determined to ensure the NHS has the funding it needs to support those whose mental health has suffered during the pandemic’. As we well know, it’s not just about putting more (but never enough) money in – it’s about the right kind of help and not wasting resources on short-term ‘revolving doors’ pseudo solutions.

It’s also been reported that the ongoing shortage of mental health beds has meant children being inappropriately placed on acute medicine wards, not only unsuitable for them but also preventing those needing those wards getting the beds. A paediatric consultant said: ‘Over the last five years there has been a gradual increase in the number of children admitted on to our acute paediatric unit who don’t need the kind of medical treatment we offer. Consistently this summer, 20% of our beds have been occupied by children who need either a specialist mental health bed or a specialist residential placement in the community…. Many of these patients are not getting the care they need because neither I, nor my colleagues or the nursing staff are trained to provide the level of psychiatric care they require. We are trained to deal with medical problems. The mental healthcare teams don’t have the capacity to provide the level of daily input that these children need’.

A director of children’s social services, while absolutely acknowledging that these aren’t the best places for these distressed and traumatised children, explained that they effectively have very little choice because of lack of provision of the right facilities. ‘We know a hospital is not necessarily the right place for them, but there is a real gap in specialist provision between a “tier 4” psychiatric bed or welfare secure placement, which are both in short supply, and existing residential or foster care provision, where these children can receive bespoke, wraparound support’. The cost of the government ignoring these mounting problems can be seen in this director’s fears for the children concerned: ‘The consequences of nothing changing are stark – an increased risk that children seriously harm themselves or worse, or them harming other people and ending up in the criminal justice system’. Apart from the immediate distress to children and their families, not to mention those trying to help them, failing to fund these services effectively is yet another false economy which will have much heavier long-term costs.

Further proof of the dire situation is that it’s estimated there could be around 4,000 illegal detentions under the Mental Health Act because of sufficient beds to send the patients to and a record number of young people are waiting for eating disorder treatment in England (207 waiting for urgent treatment, up from 56 at the same time last year and many more waiting for ‘routine treatment’). Yet the then minister, Nadine Dorries, insisted that mental health provision is working.

If the government continues to ignore this situation, perhaps some funding at least could be freed up if results of a Public Health England report are implemented. This report showed 10% of the drugs people are prescribed are a waste, can be clinically ineffective and, moreover, increase the likelihood of medical complications and hospital admissions. This is a pretty shocking finding, likely to have been exacerbated by very busy doctors over-relying on prescribed drugs. ‘The landmark review, ordered by the government in 2018 and published on Wednesday (!!), concludes that overprescribing is a “serious problem”. As many as 110m medicines handed to patients each year may be unnecessary and even potentially harmful, it suggests’. Instead, the report recommends doctors doing much more social prescribing, including exercise, gardening, walking and volunteering, which have huge benefits without the unpleasant side-effects some entail. Obviously, some medications are necessary but repeat prescriptions are in the frame and it definitely sounds as if stringent medication reviews are called for across the board. We’re told that Health Secretary Sajid Javid has enthusiastically accepted the report: how long before the recommendations filter down to a GP practice near you?

Positive news, related to the above, comes in the form of the rise of community gardening, a development also facilitated by the pandemic, perhaps. It’s significant that the Royal Horticultural Society has now set up a Community Awards scheme as these gardens become more common. Such places have the capacity to boost mental wellbeing and tackle loneliness through the mutual sharing with others and the well-known therapeutic benefits of growing things and of connecting with nature, the passing seasons and the soil. ‘Where groups like this existed, communities seemed to be more resilient when it came to a crisis [like Covid] because they had a pre-established network of volunteers and people already knew each other so they could easily offer support (Kay Clark, head of the RHS community gardening programme)…. With wellbeing and nature connection becoming top priority during lockdown, we had this massive surge of interest in gardening and the community groups were there to help people learn how to garden, teach skills, share knowledge, plants, tools and all sorts as well as inspire people and cheer them up’. It will be interesting to hear who wins the awards at the end of this month.

On a related theme, several projects focus on rewilding and its benefits for the environment. A vast ‘stretch’ of the Scottish Highlands is to be rewilded in an ambitious 30 year project to restore nature. ‘The project has been launched after two years of conversations and meetings between local communities and conservationists from rewilding charity Trees for Life. Similar to the WildEast project in East Anglia, it is a community-led effort to restore nature over a large area, which organisers hope will be a catalyst for social and economic regeneration’. One of the most challenging aspects of such projects is bringing stakeholders together (in this case over 50) and winning over sceptics. At least Brexit doesn’t seem to have invalidated the UK’s access to Rewilding Europe funds: it helped fund the work with a €300,000 (£250,000) grant and it will be the organisation’s first UK project, so a bit of a flagship of which might be expected. There nine RE projects underway, including those based in Romania’s southern Carpathians, Croatia’s Velebit mountains, Italy’s central Apennines and Bulgaria’s Rhodope mountains.

Again on an environmental theme, it’s very interesting, given the city’s increasing discontent with excessive numbers of visitors, that Venice has now bitten this bullet and imposed an admission charge on visitors, who will have to book time slots in advance. Residents and their relatives will be exempt, as will tourists staying in hotels, so this is clearly aimed at cruise ships, which disgorge thousands of tourists every day who mainly spend nothing to support the local economy as everything they need is provided on board. The scheme isn’t starting until next year, though, so locals will have to put up with the strain on services a bit longer.

Museums and other cultural institutions (as per the Belgian project described last week) also have their part to play in enhancing mental wellbeing and now we know the winner of this year’s Art Fund Museum of the Year. It’s Firstsite, described as a ‘Colchester contemporary art venue’, now it its tenth year and, importantly, focusing on relevance to local communities. ‘Firstsite supported people during the pandemic by lending its building to the Community 360 charity to run a food bank. It also created activity packs that went on to feature 50-plus artists and were downloaded by more than 92,000 households….. Award presenter John Wilson described Firstsite as the “Marcus Rashford of museums” pointing to the fact that it had turned a lobster restaurant into a canteen serving free school meals’. The £100,000 prize should certainly be a further shot in the arm for the museum.

Finally, the highly calorific cronut (croissant and doughnut combo) is at risk of being displaced by a new pastry du jour. A Breton speciality called kouign amann (meaning butter cake in Breton) and pronounced ‘kween ah-Mon’ is now becoming an international phenomenon, according to the Financial Times. It’s been described as the ‘fattiest pastry in Europe’, consisting of 40% flour, 30% butter and 30% sugar, and you could wonder why it’s so popular at a time when people are becoming more health conscious. The answer comes from a Singapore bakery owner, where they’re a bestseller. ‘It’s the texture people crave…it’s heavier than croissant, it melts in your mouth but it’s also crunchy and chewy’. How soon before they appear in a cafe near you?

Sunday 19 September

As the working week ended with our climate-aware Prime Minister jetting off to the States and 178 Covid deaths, it started with ‘acceleration’ of the vaccination programme and continuing debate over autumn and winter strategy – with much in between. It’s been quite some week, which will have been unsettling for many, from the reshuffle to changing ‘traffic light’ system rules and from social care reform proposals to autumn/winter Covid planning. If what we’ve heard can be called a plan. On Wednesday 30,597 new cases (8,000 Covid patients in hospital) and 201 deaths were recorded, but some individuals and organisations seem impervious to this worrying news, firmly attaching themselves to the ‘things are opening up again’ narrative. This is probably due to wishful thinking and lack of awareness but also faulty government messaging.

In the LA Times a respiratory therapist’s account of the 7 stages of severe Covid makes salutary reading, especially the chilling Stage 7: ‘….We extubate you, turning off the breathing machinery. We set up a final FaceTime call with your loved ones. As we work in your room, we hear crying and loving goodbyes. We cry, too, and we hold your hand until your last natural breath. I’ve been at this for 17 months now. It doesn’t get easier. My pandemic stories rarely end well’. I wonder how many Covid deniers and antivaxxers would stick to their guns after reading such an article.

Although re-introduction of restrictions hasn’t been ruled out (the government has at least learned that lesson from last year) the autumn/winter plan seems fairly feeble despite its 30 page length – still, despite evidence to the contrary, treating vaccination as a silver bullet on which they’re relying far too heavily. The imminent easing of travel arrangements, welcome though it is to holidaymakers and the travel industry, surely poses quite some risk, particularly reduction of the red list. As a piece reported on the huge drop in mask wearing (it now seems normalised and unchallenged on public transport, around here in north-east London at least) and predictions of 1000 deaths a week, a sceptic tweeted: ‘We are going to have to watch Boris Johnson dither, delay and obfuscate before announcing a new lockdown under a new catchy three-word title. The delay is going to cost lives. And this government will be responsible’. Another said: ‘How can we rely on people to do the right thing while refusing to tell people what the right thing is? Johnson loves mixed message chaos – it means his opponents have a hell of a job pinning him down’. At least Chris Whitty was the voice of caution, warning against presumptuousness because we haven’t faced a winter with the Delta variant before: ‘Those who say they know how it could pan out have not understood the situation’. Unfortunately, this didn’t stop a deluded and hyperbolic Sajid Javid on Wednesday talking up the ‘amazing’ treatments and ‘fantastic’ vaccination programme. Anyone would think he was trying to deflect from the need for more nuanced thinking.

Meanwhile, the BBC paints a depressing portrait of what this coming winter could look like, flagging up a likely massive rise in hospital admissions, higher food prices driving up inflation, avoiding a ‘lockdown lite’ and a likely rise in school absences because of Covid fears, to name just a few. Others would include the imminent ending of the Universal Credit uplift and of furlough. There’s no substantial evidence that the government is taking these issues sufficiently seriously, which will contribute to public anxiety.

The doctors’ union, the BMA (British Medical Association) weighed into the fray, its chairman suggesting that the so-called Freedom Day on July 19, when many restriction were eased, was a ‘gamble’ that has since then contributed to almost 40,000 hospital admissions and more than 4,000 deaths. Besides criticising ministers for dismissing calls for a rapid inquiry into the crisis before the second wave of infections struck last year, meaning that crucial lessons from the previous six months were not learned, he faulted the ministerial mantra of ‘living with Covid’, which belies the reality that thousands of people continue to need hospital care for Covid, with hundreds dying each week (around 6m people are still unvaccinated, too).

Regarding mask wearing, there have been comments about their lack in the House of Commons and can we have faith in a Health Secretary who thinks you can only get Covid from strangers? Sajid Javid said that Boris Johnson and his ministers didn’t need to wear masks at cabinet meetings because they were not ‘strangers’, yet this is how the PM and others contracted and spread Covid last year, through close contact with colleagues. What’s even more telling is the confirmation that vaccine passports would not be required at the Conservative Party conference next month after senior Tories had threatened to attend a rival event if people had to show their vaccine status to get in. So much government policy seems to be unhealthily driven by the desire to appease certain vociferous groups, whether it’s Tory backbenchers or the travel industry.

A contributory factor in faulty messaging has been seen by some scientists as partly attributable to the sidelining of behavioural experts, who were told their input to SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) is no longer required. ‘They also warned of an absence of independent advice at a time when the virus’s spread depends largely on individual behaviour and social norms rather than laws. The intervention comes as ministers face criticism for mixed public health messaging on face coverings – including the new cabinet meeting maskless in a packed room on Friday – and a U-turn on vaccine passports in England, while Scotland and Wales press ahead. Professor Stephen Reicher said: ‘I very much welcome the expansion of in-house behavioural science advice but … you want people who can speak uncomfortable truths and it’s very difficult to do that when your job depends on it’. His understandable concern as well is the timing, as individual behaviours are a key factor in the spread or suppression of the virus. Yet another transparent government attempt to control the advice they get to hear?

Not for the first time, Work and Pensions Minister Therese Coffey didn’t cover herself in glory when responding to questions on Radio 4’s Today programme about the Universal Credit uplift issue. Besides suggesting measures which are unworkable, such as working extra hours when many employers have cut down employees’ hours, there was very much a ‘let them eat cake’ attitude on display. There will be a lot of anxiety around about this, as the temporary uplift comes to an end on 6 October, meaning a cut in income to almost six million people. Almost two in five people on Universal Credit have jobs. It’s clearly a difficult issue to resolve, as the Chancellor has said he definitely won’t extend this UC uplift, yet statistics of those on UC have almost doubled during the pandemic, from three million in March 2020 to 5.9 million at the end of July. At least one tweeter wants to alert the government to the reality of this situation: ‘If PR phrases could cure poverty the government of Boris Johnson would be world-beaters. However, ‘levelling up’ and ‘build back better’ are merely words while the £20 cut to Universal Credit is real’.

But perhaps there will be yet another government U-turn as Boris Johnson is facing a backbench rebellion because the cut is thought likely to risk poverty for more than 800,000 people.

On a not dissimilar theme, Labour MPs outed an elephant in the room – the lack of a wealth tax – to fund social care reform, asking for the inclusion of such a clause in the forthcoming legislation. ‘The health and social care levy will become payable only after the Chancellor of the Exchequer has laid before the House of Commons an assessment of the merits of raising at least the same amount of revenue for health and social care as would be raised by the levy by introducing instead a wealth tax on individuals with assets totalling over £5,000,000’.

Meanwhile, the government continues to ignore another elephant in the room (unpaid tax), which could help fund social care reform and the Universal Credit uplift. The amount of tax lost in Britain through non-payment, avoidance and fraud has increased to £35bn, according to official figures but some years ago the number of HMRC investigators was reduced (another piece of ignorant short-termism). And a good number of the avoiders and evaders will be supporters of this government, so there’s little incentive to upset them. As George Turner, the Executive Director of the TaxWatch campaign group, said that fraud was a much bigger problem than had been acknowledged, the timing is terrible because public finances have been so strained by the pandemic. We have to wonder whether any ministers how regret the shortsighted strategy to hobble HMRC in their investigative efforts. From a parallel universe, Jim Harra, HMRC’s Chief Executive, said: ‘It is encouraging to see such a large proportion of businesses and individuals meeting their tax obligations. We want to help everyone get their tax right, which will help fund our vital public services like the NHS and emergency services’. Except he doesn’t seem to recognise that many will be evading any HMRC overtures which would enable or force them ‘to get their tax right’!

In the Guardian parliamentary sketch writer John Crace lampooned the Autumn/Winter Covid plan press conference. ‘For the last few weeks in Westminster, it’s almost been as if Tory backbenchers – and many frontbenchers for that matter – would rather do anything than be reminded that Covid still remains the country’s main public health problem. Despite the many posters pinned up around the parliamentary estate urging people to ‘wear a face covering’, almost everyone on the government benches is snuggling up to one another, defiantly mask free. It’s as though the coronavirus was yesterday’s problem. Or the guidelines are only for the little people’.

If Plan A is thin, Plan B seemed even thinner, Javid even venturing the astonishingly clever advice that if people feel unwell they should stay at home. ‘This involved making face masks compulsory in certain circumstances – cue loud boos from Desmond Swayne and others on the Tory benches – asking people to work from home, though definitely not during the party conference as the Conservatives didn’t want to be out of pocket, and the introduction of vaccine passports. The same vaccine passports that Javid had said only days earlier the government definitely wouldn’t be introducing. More like a case of definitely maybe’.

Several commentators have observed the difference in the stance adopted by Vallance and Whitty at these press conferences – whereas last year they were muted and perhaps even slightly cowed by the unaccustomed attention, they are now openly more aware of this government’s and Prime Minister’s deficits. ‘He (Vallance) looked at Boris with something approaching disdain. He seemed to be thinking that the UK could get similar results (as other countries with far fewer cases) if we didn’t have such a deadbeat for prime minister, who couldn’t even get his own MPs to wear a mask’.

Perhaps one of the most striking things this week was the Cabinet reshuffle – rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic comes to mind. While it was clear that some would definitely be ‘out’, like Dominic Raab and Gavin Williamson, who nevertheless deludedly tweeted about his ‘transformative reforms’, it was less obvious in the case of others like Roberts Jenrick and Buckland (housing and justice), who hadn’t appeared (beyond the usual Tory low bar) to have done anything wrong. It emerged that what the PM wanted was people who were upfront (tweeted a lot?) about promoting their ‘work’. We heard that Michael Gove, replacing Jenrick, was already getting into his brief so perhaps that clubbing the other weekend gave him a shot in the arm. But appointing Liz Truss as Foreign Secretary and Nadine Dorries as Culture Minister does beggar belief, the main criterion obviously being the candidates’ degree of loyalty to Boris Johnson. Liz Truss has bragged about not being diplomatic, but seriously, a self-confessed non-diplomat as Foreign Secretary? A complete nonsense but presented by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg as a good thing, a sign of strength.

A tweeter got it in one (‘PM prizes uselessness above all with new jobs for the likes of Truss, Gove and Dorries’) but the prize for the most classic comment must go to journalist and broadcaster Matthew Parris, who said: ‘He’s a complete charlatan and this is a charlatan’s Cabinet’. But Parris also said the reshuffle was done ‘elegantly’, when we know it had been a very tense meeting between Johnson and Raab.

As for repetitive and waffling Nadhim Zahawi, he’s seen to have done so well as Vaccines Minister that he gets the plum education gig. The move which personally strikes me the most is that of Nadine Dorries to Culture (a former star of I’m a celebrity – get me out of here), given her lamentable performance in the mental health role. Various arts and culture organisations have already expressed dismay, besides noting the government’s lack of interest in this area, as manifested by regular changes of incumbent (ten in as many years). Broadcaster James O’Brien tweeted: ‘It’s appalling, obviously, and conclusive evidence that Johnson holds the Culture department in complete contempt, but Nadine Dorries becoming Secretary of State is straight up hilarious’. The media have made much of her being the author of many books and how many words she commits to writing a day but we have to wonder in such cases about the level of commitment to the day job they’re so well remunerated for. Dorries tweeted: ‘From Breck Road in Liverpool to the Cabinet Room in No 10. Surreal experience but excited to get stuck into the hard work’, which attracted the response: ‘Having once been poor does not qualify you for government’.

Meanwhile, Defence Minister Ben Wallace demonstrated the intellectual heft of those retaining their posts by seeming to suggest that ‘levelling up’ is about government departments moving oop north. The retained postholders may not have felt that comfortable, though, as the reshuffle continued for three days and it wasn’t till day 3 that Lord Bethell (junior health minister found to have used private email for official communications and who ‘lost’ his phone during the crony procurement investigation) was sacked. He had also sponsored a parliamentary pass for the former health secretary’s lover, Gina Coladangelo.

As usual the Guardian’s John Crace goes for the jugular on the reshuffle which ‘reveals the shallowness of the Tory gene pool of talent – the PM prizes uselessness above all with new jobs for the likes of Truss, Gove and Dorries’. It will be interesting to see how they get on, especially those who’ve already bullishly tweeted about getting into their new jobs. We’re told that Johnson gathered his new cabinet together for the first time on Friday morning (minus masks) and gave them what he called a “half-time pep talk”, stressing the need to deliver on their promises and “level up” the country. What a joke.

Sky News produced a useful listing of who’s in, who’s out, who’s moved and who remains.

As reflections and recriminations continue to emerge from the Afghanistan takeover, the key question many of us have been asking (can the Taliban govern as well as conquer) has come even more to the fore. It’s crucial for world leaders that they know who to engage with in the new regime but within a fortnight of the takeover, those said to occupy the top positions had changed. Now it’s emerged, perhaps not surprisingly, that there has indeed been conflict within the leadership, some claiming to have contributed more to the takeover than others. Now there’s been an interview with an individual new to at least some of us: Mawlawi Mohammad Shebani, officially in charge of policing morals throughout Kandahar, the Taliban heartland of southern Afghanistan. ‘He is newly appointed head of the provincial office for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, a title which strikes fear into many Afghans old enough to remember its previous incarnation under Taliban rule in the 1990s. Its officers served as the brutal enforcers of the group’s extreme interpretation of Islam, whipping men into mosques to pray, policing beard length, smashing radios and televisions and attacking or detaining women who tried to work, went out without a male guardian or showed their faces in public’.

But Shebani says his officers will now focus on ‘persuasion, not violence’, describing the 1990s approach as ‘the mujahideen without a written code’. But how different is it? Within a four-step process of dealing with perceived recalcitrants, the fourth step does allow for ‘stopping him with your hands’. ‘Some people think we are extremist, but we are not like that. Islam is a religion of moderation, not too much and not too little, everything just right. Media channels are publishing negative things about us, please spread the reality to the world’. This statement will result in some raised eyebrows. ‘The leadership is apparently aware of how the organisation is perceived internationally; when they handed out an English language list of new cabinet appointments earlier this month, the vice and virtue ministry was the only one not translated’. Time will tell, as long as Western journalists are allowed free access.

Another question many will be pondering is just how long Prince Andrew can keep on running from the long arm of US law. Having tried to evade the serving of legal papers, his legal team using a technicality to justify avoidance, the Mail Online reports that Andrew, currently at Balmoral, is likely to emerge from hiding in order to visit his pregnant daughter, Beatrice, in hospital. ‘However, royal aides fear the duke’s ‘wall of silence’ strategy towards the sex abuse lawsuit is increasingly damaging the monarchy, with insiders admitting the prince is ‘stressed’ and ‘worried’ as the pressure to respond to the bombshell allegations mounts. It comes as the High Court last week gave Andrew’s legal team seven days to challenge its decision to begin notifying him about the civil sex case in New York against him. As these legal shenanigans continue, a source suggested the Prince’s mood has changed over the past few days and he has become ‘worried’ and is ‘not his usual blasé self’. Not a moment too soon.

In an initiative which reminds me slightly of social prescribing, some Belgian medics are involved in a three month trial to see how museum visits could help patients deal with Covid stress. ‘Patients being treated for stress at Brugmann hospital, one of the largest in the Belgian capital, will be offered free visits to five public museums in the city, covering subjects from fashion to sewage. The results of the pilot will be published next year with the intention that the initiative can be rolled out further if successful in alleviating symptoms of burnout and other forms of psychiatric distress’. Although this shouldn’t be treated as a substitute for treatment such as talking therapy, there’s no doubt that for many cultural activities like this enhance mental wellbeing. One of the obvious benefits is that the visits will be free of charge, which many UK museums already are, but perhaps this is an initiative Nadine Dorries might take an interest in, especially as it reflects her ministerial segue from mental health to culture.

Finally, in a long-running series involving readers responding to others’ questions, some interesting suggestions come up about when and why men stopped wearing hats. Although this would have gone for both sexes, it’s interesting to reflect that the very tall wardrobes one sees in stately homes, for example, were constructed to accommodate an upper shelf for top hats and the like. The questioner cited a photograph of the 1923 Cup Final, which showed almost every man wearing a cap. Respondents’ offerings include the following: ‘It used to be something of a class signifier (flat cap for the working class, bowler hat for civil service types etc), and related to jobs with uniforms. As dress became less formal, and hair fashion became more widespread, the hat lost its cultural significance’; ‘the rise of private car ownership meant that more and more men weren’t standing around waiting for buses getting cold and wet. Plus, when you had a car – what did you do with your hat? You’d have the ludicrous situation where you’d put on your hat to go to the car – take it off, drive to work, put it on again to walk into the office, and then take it off again. So car owners gave up hats as too much faff’; ‘The Hat Research Foundation (HRF), which was apparently a real thing, found that 19% of men in 1947 who didn’t wear hats said it was because they triggered the trauma of war associated with their uniforms. Maybe that’s when the decline began’.

Here’s one that definitely shouldn’t be overlooked: ‘As a bald old man who lives in a very cold climate and walks to run most of his errands – I think the comments are missing some of the more practical roots of hats. Hats are very effective at keeping you warm. My wife with her luxurious mane will occasionally mock my hat while we are for a walk. She simply doesn’t understand how much heat my bold pate releases’. Let’s just hope it’s not a baseball cap – a most unattractive piece of apparel, in my view!

Sunday 12 September

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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