Sunday 29 May

What a tumultuous fortnight it’s been, with pressure building prior to the publication of Sue Gray’s report, incriminating evidence emerging of even more illegal parties, rising concern over the cost of living crisis, the Prime Minister’s non-apology, the predictable ‘support package’ with windfall tax U-turn and Boris Johnson’s unilateral watering down of the Ministerial Code – perhaps his most alarming act yet. His statement this week in the House of Commons was nothing short of embarrassing, referencing non-existent humility, ‘deep sorrow’ and the like, yet despite some Tory MPs and ministers putting their heads over the parapet there are incredibly still quite a few (enablers, as journalist Jonathan Freedland calls them) who stick to the ‘he’s apologised, he’s paid the fine’ line, even when it’s crystal clear that the Met Police investigation and outcomes were seriously faulty. Sources have estimated letters to the 1922 Committee, 54 being needed to trigger a vote of no confidence, as between 18 and 40, some clearly submitting then withdrawing when they believed an intervention may yet save the PM.

I find myself wondering whether there’s an MP or minister whose letter would halt this hokey cokey by triggering an avalanche of letters. A ‘source’ has now suggested that 54 will indeed be reached. Yet again, it’s unacceptable that all this is the decision of Tory MPs: we need a new and written Constitution enabling the electorate in extremis (and if this isn’t it, I don’t know what is) to rid themselves of an amoral and dangerous government between elections. How on earth can we go on under this regime for the next two years?

 On the important topic of Johnson ‘enablers’, Marina Hyde delivers another finely honed hatchet job on most of the Tory MPs, ‘a very weird bunch to stay loyal after the damning Sue Gray verdict on Partygate….. No drive, no spine, very little vision: even science can’t explain the creatures clinging on to Johnson. ….For the past six months, the prime minister and his cabinet explained that they couldn’t comment on the Partygate scandal because they were waiting for the Sue Gray report. Then, the very day that report was published, they explained it was in the past now and it was time to move on’. Did they seriously expect the electorate to buy that after what many have suffered over the last two years? ‘Think of them more as a huge barnacle community living on the underside of a whale. Unfortunately, the rest of us only get this clear a view of who’s on board when the whale has done something perhaps fatally unfortunate, like swim up the Thames, or explain why its lady petrol-fuelled leaving speech was more important than your mother’s lonely death’. A key reason, of course, for these ‘barnacles’ continuing to cling is their awareness (at least at some level) that many  would struggle to find a decent job if they were turfed out of this one.

Many references have been made to the PM’s shamelessness and two rather alarming things have become clear – a) rather than feeling shame and embarrassment he and most of his government actually enjoy the brinkmanship, think they’re being clever, and testing what they can get away with (as per the words exchanged following one of the parties) and b) congregating casually and socially in the presence of food and alcohol passes for work for this individual, hence his ‘difficulty’ in distinguishing work from a party. As one commentator said: ‘The closest a narcissistic sociopath can get (to shame) is a feeling of self-pity – the solipsist’s apology for compassion’. The tragic irony he didn’t seem to see, though, was his assertion that it was a ‘duty’ of leadership to bid farewell (‘raise a glass’) to departing staff and also to ‘thank staff for their service’ when the general public had no opportunity to bid farewell to dying loved ones. But what about emerging news of parties not covered by the Met or Sue Gray? There’s news of another party organised by Carrie Johnson (about whose whereabouts there’s been some speculation) and more desperate attempts to distract us from all this, the latest being the wheeze to reintroduce imperial measures. How risible is that?

The Sue Gray report was already lacking 100% authority because of Johnson deciding the timing of its release and limiting its remit, but more damaging was the news that there was a meeting between these two around a month ago, one which both sides suggested the other had initiated. Unusually for this regime, no 10 did later admit to having requested this meeting. Even more concerning is news that No 10 Chief of Staff Steve Barclay asked to see this report and asked for amendments to be made. Yet MPs and the media still allude to Sue Gray’s ‘unimpeachable integrity’ and the report’s ‘independence’. Some commentators have suggested she should be questioned by the appropriate Select Committee but despite the often excellent work of some committee chairs and members, such hearings seem fairly toothless, unable to bring about real change. (A good example is Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries’s appallingly arrogant and ignorant performance at the Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee on the subject of the Channel 4 privatisation).

It was initially thought that Boris Johnson would make Sir Simon Case (Cabinet Secretary) carry the can for his own demeanours and fall on his sword but this no longer looks on the cards. Not surprisingly, civil servants and their unions are up in arms that Case has evaded censure. ‘Instead, Case and the entire No 10 top team appear to have avoided any sanction or even reprimand at all, and it is fair to say not everyone is happy – particularly more junior officials, dozens of whom were fined’.It’s now clearly too much to expect but where’s the fairness in this? Ok, so no one should have attended these parties but junior staff could have felt directed or encouraged to go if their bosses did and it’s worth remembering that the Civil Service (or it certainly had) has a command and control culture which leads to conformity. But we don’t have to look far for the answer.

A former top civil servant said that the lack of sanction against Case was unsurprising. ‘He’s joined at the hip with the prime minister. If Simon Case had gone, that would completely expose Johnson. He’s a shield. How could you take action against him, when he wasn’t fined, and not the prime minister, who was fined?’ But Case had blotted his copy book some time before, which would have reinforced the anger of those feeling dumped on. ‘Even before Gray’s report emerged, many in Whitehall said Case’s conduct throughout Partygate – even having to recuse himself from leading the inquiry because of a Christmas quiz organised by his office – was unforgivable’. Chris Bryant, the chair of the House of Commons Standards Committee, said the prime minister had turned Downing Street into ‘a cesspit full of arrogant, entitled narcissists’. At no point, though, do the perpetrators seem to grasp the extent to which they are brining this country into disrepute, a laughing stock on the world stage – hardly ‘world beating’ (except in the idiocy and corruption stakes). At least a Tory MP told the FT: ‘Most of us are resigned to the fact that he won’t be going but that we’ve lost the next general election’. You almost have to feel sorry for them only apparently recently seeing the light and preparing, amid a Conservative Party ‘identity crisis’ (according to senior Tories, on account of recent ‘unconservative’ interventions) facing inevitable decline, fresh revelations and the likelihood of slaughter at the forthcoming by-elections.

Miraculously, following the Sue Gray report uproar, the government performed its umpteenth U-turn (in the 20s now), shaking that magic money tree to produce a £15bn cost of living rescue package, including the windfall tax on energy companies, proposals they had so heartily rejected for weeks on end. Funny to think that just days before, Boris Johnson was hoping to dampen down demands for urgent action on the cost of living crisis by stressing that work was the best route out of poverty (as if he would know), just as an energy firm chief warned that 40% of households could soon be in fuel poverty and regulator Ofgem warned that the energy price cap was likely to escalate from £1,971 to £2,800 a year in October. Predictably, Rishi Sunak and colleagues said their policy was very different from what Labour had long proposed, as it mandated company investment. When is a windfall tax not a windfall tax? Answer – when it’s an ‘energy profits levy’. But so much for another Conservative mantra – ‘targeted support for families which need it’: every single household including well off ones will ‘benefit’ from the government’s largesse. So how can it be ‘redistributive’?

Interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday, Sunak wheeled out several mantras including ‘The prime minister has apologised and lessons have been learned. I hope we can now move forward and continue delivering for the British people’ (how is this learning ever manifested?), yet the #NotMovingOn hashtag continued to trend on Twitter. Another part of the excuse-making script is the argument that all will be well because Boris Johnson has changed the structure at no 10 and brought new people in. Only the gullible will be taken in by such cosmetic tinkering when the culture of an organisation filters down from the very top. Bob Kerslake, a crossbench peer and former leader of the civil service, said Partygate was ‘about conduct and behaviours that can’t be dealt with by changing structures’.

 From his alternative universe, Sunak also said: ‘I really want people to have confidence that this is what we’re going to do…’- given his government’s performance where does he think this confidence might come from? It was also unfortunate timing for him that he appeared in the latest Sunday Times Rich List, the first Chancellor to do so. This is bound to further demonstrate the gap between many in the government and the electorate. The Independent gives us another example – the Chancellor paid £10k for a private helicopter to take him to a Tory dinner in Wales.

What marked a new and alarming low in this government’s trajectory is Boris Johnson’s unilateral watering down of the Ministerial Code, crucially meaning that those found guilty of breaches won’t automatically have to resign. It’s absurd that this is the decision of the Prime Minister, although in former times this post holder’s probity could mostly be taken for granted. Not now. Chair of the Commons Standards Committee Chris Bryant said the Code needs putting on a statutory footing and that ‘The new ministerial code is a disgrace. It means that the tiny semblance of accountability disappears. If you break the rules just rewrite the rule book is the motto of this despicable government…. The Prime Minister always finds himself innocent in the court of his own opinion’. It’s not surprising to see #Fascism and #Dictatorship trending on Twitter. Johnson’s unilateral change of the Code is a clear signal that the downward spiral is accelerating.

We appear to be morphing into a fascist state – this latest example of the deletion of the principle underpinning democracy (separation of powers – executive, legislature and judiciary) should be halted immediately. This captures what’swrong: ‘However, the ministerial code is governed by the prime minister himself, and Johnson resisted pressure to give Geidt the power to launch his own inquiries without consent. Under his revised terms of reference, there will be an “enhanced process” to let Geidt initiate inquiries – but he will still require the prime minister’s consent before going ahead’. And this is chilling: Johnson also rewrote the foreword to the ministerial code, removing all references to honesty, integrity, transparency and accountability’. Surely the big question now is what happens to address the fact that both the Sue Gray and Met investigations (the Met one alone costing £460,000) are clearly incomplete, with further evidence of illegal parties continuing to emerge? Yet another investigation? At the very least the authority of both is now severely undermined.

Journalist Andrew Rawnsley demonstrates just ‘how much will have to be done to disinfect our government institutions when Mr Johnson is finally thrown out’ and this ‘disinfecting’ is no mean feat. He reckons three key changes will be needed for the country to recover from the Johnson motto of ‘see what you can get away with’ being turned into ‘the degenerate creed of Number 10: the ministerial and civil service codes need stiffening and the policing of them has to be placed in independent hands; related to undue influence and lobbying conflicts of interest, the invigilator of second jobs for politicians and civil servants needs to be armed with legal powers and meaningful sanctions against rule-breakers; ‘a change in the culture so that the lodestar of parliamentary and ministerial life is not seeing what you can get away with, but probity….. You can wipe wine stains off walls and mop vomit from the carpet. It is our institutions of government that will need a deep clean once the party animal at Number 10 is finally taken out with the trash’.

Hardly a week passes without some news about failing mental health services and this last week has been no exception. Although the headline suggests 420,000 children and young people are being treated this appears to be a fudge as the so-called ‘open referrals’ include those waiting to start treatment. A very different matter but this is not the total figure either because many more in need don’t even make it onto the waiting lists and statistics. ‘The total has risen by 147,853 since February 2020, a 54% increase, and by 80,096 over the last year alone, a jump of 24%. January’s tally of 411,132 cases was the first time the figure had topped 400,000. Mental health charities welcomed the fact that an all-time high number of young people are receiving psychological support. But they fear the figures are the tip of the iceberg of the true number of people who need care, and that many more under-18s in distress are being denied help by arbitrary eligibility criteria…. GPs, teachers and mental health charities believe the criteria are too strict, exclude many who are deemed not ill enough, and amount to rationing of care’.

 It’s common to see this situation attributed to Covid-related demand but there was marked unmet need prior to this. Needless to say, there’s the usual defence from the NHS mental health director: ‘The toll of the pandemic has inevitably had an impact on the nation’s mental health, with more young people than ever before accessing NHS services. As these figures show, demand continues to skyrocket, with a third more children treated in February this year compared to February 2020’. Note the attribution to the pandemic. She also said ‘the NHS had responded by expanding mental health teams in 4,700 schools and colleges and setting up 24/7 mental health crisis telephone support services for all ages, which now receive 20,000 calls a month’ but what this doesn’t clarify is that in England counselling provision in schools still isn’t mandatory. This very worrying lack of mental health service capacity means more and more parents of these young people will have to seek private help if they can afford it or go without help.

On the other side of this coin, a CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) psychiatrist explains why she felt compelled to quit her job. ‘..After 15 years working in the NHS alongside extremely dedicated and committed colleagues, I made the difficult decision to resign because I could no longer be part of a system which is clearly broken, and no longer able to provide the early intervention that is so vital in so many cases. While CAMHS has been stretched for many years, with lengthy waiting times and limited availability of therapeutic services, the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath has ground the service to a halt. Waiting times increased in some cases from one year to three years. Many children are now being told they do not meet the threshold for CAMHS, despite being suicidal or restricting their eating to dangerously low levels’.

Step forward, Conservative Party would-be leader Jeremy Hunt, former Health Secretary under whose tenure severe cuts were made to the NHS, not to mention abject failures in workforce planning. In a conflict of interest his colleagues seem unable to see, Hunt is the Chair of the Commons Health Select Committee, often having to preside over discussions of failures which directly or indirectly arise from the aftermath his own policies. He has now written a book, ironically called Zero – Eliminating Preventable Harm and Tragedy in the NHS, which purports to propose ‘how the NHS can reduce the number of avoidable deaths to zero and in the process save money, reduce backlogs and improve working conditions….Delivering the safest, highest quality care in the NHS post-pandemic could be our very own 1948 moment’. What hubris. As one reviewer, palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke asks, ‘given that he was the longest serving health secretary in NHS history, why didn’t he impose his vision while in office, rather than waiting for the tumbleweed of the backbenches to write about it’?

Dr Clarke commends the book for its thoughtfulness, seriousness and for the author clearly being moved by poor patient care, but at the same time says: ‘But this is also the work of a consummate politician. The prose, in a word, is emollient. Hunt glides seductively over his track record in health, using omission and elision to rewrite history…. What is most disappointing from a frontline perspective is Hunt’s failure to match his fine words on candour with action….. Political choices, in short, are causing avoidable deaths here, now, in every NHS hospital in the country. Hunt knows this yet chooses not to voice it. Presumably he still has one eye on Downing Street. And that’s the thing about candour. You can’t credibly advocate total transparency while dipping in and out of being candid when it suits you. A true patient safety champion would lead by example, speaking out about all kinds of patient harm, including those inflicted by their party in government’.

In more cheerful news, the opening of the new Elizabeth Line (formerly Crossrail) in London shows that the UK, despite its problems, can still pull out the stops when it comes to engineering. Over time and over budget (and still not fully open), the launch on 24th proved quite a party despite its debut at the unearthly hour of 6.31 am, many having waited since before midnight to be part of it. ‘By 10am, 130,000 journeys had been made on the new line, Transport for London said. The first were made by hundreds of people, from around the country and beyond, who had braved the rain to queue outside Paddington and Abbey Wood in the early hours’. This is the kind of party we can commend! One passenger had even made Elizabeth Line cupcakes to hand around. London Mayor Sadiq Khan said: ‘My peers abroad would envy it. No other city, as we embark on recovery, has this piece of national infrastructure to help get people back from home to the office, to entice and incentivise them, and to get tourists back…Walk these platforms and step on to the new air-conditioned trains, he added, and “I challenge anyone not to come off with a smile, a spring in their step and whistling to be in this great city.”

While most people will have heard of the Booker Prize the International Booker (which began in 2005) is less well-known but worth our attention as it broadens awareness of the vast amount of literature written languages other than English. This year ‘Geetanjali Shree’s extremely exuberant and incredibly playful Tomb of Sand, translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, has won the International Booker prize, becoming the first novel translated from Hindi to do so. Shree and Rockwell winning the £50,000 prize – which is split between author and translator equally – not only marks the award’s first Hindi winner, but also the first time a book originally written in any Indian language has won. Tomb of Sand is about an 80-year-old woman, who slips into a deep depression when her husband dies, then resurfaces to gain a new lease on life. The woman travels to Pakistan to confront the unresolved trauma of her teenage experiences of Partition, and re-evaluates what it means to be a mother, a daughter, a woman and a feminist’. This prize also raises awareness of the importance of translation, which can differ so markedly between different translators. I wonder if bookshops and libraries will now stock and promote this book, in the same way they do for English language works.

Finally, with all the shortages and distribution problems we’ve been hearing about over the last year, the latest to hit the news is that of bunting. ‘Patriotic shoppers have been snapping up bunting, party hats and cake stands in huge volumes ahead of the bank holiday weekend. However, the huge spike in sales had caught some retailers off guard, leading to some products selling out completely…. It is estimated that 39 million adults will be doing something to celebrate the jubilee, with 4.1 million families due to attend a street party’. Hmm, that’s still quite a few not planning to celebrate, but I wonder how much these celebrations are related to the Jubilee or simply because people want to get together and it’s the right time of year for it. Also because the news has been so dark and depressing that this signals some welcome levity. It seems to me support for the monarchy has markedly declined recently and that the media are conflating the desire for parties with enthusiasm for the Jubilee when this might not be the case. Those unable to get supplies are urged to have a go at making their own – a bit simpler, perhaps, than growing your own veg!

Sunday 15 May

It’s been yet another action packed and febrile week in the news, not at all conducive to mental wellbeing, including Ukraine and Putin’s Victory Day Parade, the State Opening of Parliament and Queen’s Speech, the cost of living crisis, the Northern Ireland Protocol stand-off with the EU and stalemate at Stormont, not to mention the latest rash of Partygate fines (now over 100 for Downing Street so far and some way to go). It’s also been Mental Health Awareness Week, with the theme of loneliness, but the emphasis on ‘awareness’ has long been an irritant for some service users and campaigners because it’s less ‘awareness’ they need than properly resourced treatment. Every time this government feels in particular trouble (that is, over and above its usual sub-optimal performance) it reaches for a distraction or gimmick and this week is no exception. The latest ploy to appear to reduce public spending by cutting 90,000 Civil Service jobs is an example of reactive dog whistle tactics – commentators have pointed out that this could actually prove more expensive because of the legalities and redundancy payments involved. But, as Jacob Rees-Mogg’s car crash interview on Friday’s Today programme demonstrated, the Minister of State for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency is an emperor wearing no clothes. Affected speech and use of long words just won’t cut it. Another inevitability is our Prime Minister going AWOL from scrutiny when things get tough, this week in the form of a visit to Finland and Sweden, with the transparent aim of associating himself with their applications for NATO membership.

Any of these events and problems alone would be unsettling but the sum total of them will certainly be undermining the nation’s mental wellbeing. Needing a diversion from the disturbing and uncertain world we are living in could be one reason for the obsession in some quarters including the media with the ‘Wagatha Christie’ court case, allowing us vicariously to peer into this celeb bust-up from a safe distance. These tweets perhaps sum up the polarized view of this trial: ‘People who cannot see the enjoyable side of this spectacle need to stop cluttering up the #wagathachristie hashtag; give us this tiny amount of trivial joy to help make up for all the general terribleness of everything, I beg you’. Another said: ‘In a time of food banks ,war and high fuel bills isn’t it galling that 2 girls are keeping this stupid case going. What a waste of court time, money and coverage. I wish they would shake hands agree to disagree and donate court costs to a charity’.

The cost of living crisis remains centre stage, even more so after the intervention of Ashfield (Notts) MP Lee Anderson, who talked up food banks, the possibility of making a meal for 30p and in suggesting the problem was ‘generations of people who can’t cook and can’t budget’. He does have a point to some extent about the capacity to ‘make a meal from scratch’ and highly commends his local food bank for teaching these skills, but he seems to miss the main issue and it was pointed out how much he claimed in expenses in addition to his salary. The government has been criticized for delaying any further action to ease the situation for the desperate until the next Budget in the autumn, when it’s doubtful people can hold out that long. The Tory script on this is that further help would spark further inflation – I wonder how many economists would agree with that.

 But ministers still reject the introduction of a windfall tax for energy companies. If and when they have to capitulate on this, would it be their biggest U-turn yet? The price of some foods has risen 9% during April, the Office for National Statistics tells us. And there are no words for the latest government wheeze to tackle the problem. A commentator tweeted: ‘So Johnson’s new initiative to tackle cost of living is to the delay the banning of junk food adverts. I’m sure that’s going to really help with putting money back in the pockets of those who need it. We need a serious government for serious times!’ We now hear that food writer and activist Jack Monroe has instructed libel lawyers following a much publicized interview in which Anderson alleged that the writer and food blogger was profiteering from the poor and much else besides. Anderson should worry because Monroe won a high-profile libel action against the former Daily Mail columnist Katie Hopkins in 2017.

What an embarrassment to the government this could prove – will they support Anderson or hang him out to dry?

Watching some of the State Opening of Parliament on Tuesday, I was struck, not for the first time, by what increasingly feels like the anachronistic pantomime associated with it, including all those costumes and robes and on this occasion the crown being driven to the ceremony in its own limo – surely a significant expense alone. ‘The Sword of State and the Imperial State Crown have been transported from Buckingham Palace to the Palace of Westminster, in order to allow the ceremony to begin’. Another thing that may not be commonly known is that four ‘counsellors of State’ are allowed to represent the Queen in her absence. ‘As opening parliament is a core constitutional responsibility of the monarch, the letters patent had to be issued to delegate that responsibility to two counsellors of state. There are currently four counsellors of state: Charles, William, Andrew and Harry’. Interesting and some would say unacceptable regarding Andrew.

But the most striking thing, perhaps, was the bored and resigned expression on the faces of the royals as they stood in for the Queen – I almost felt sorry for Prince Charles having to read out that cynical and distasteful stuff. No fewer than 38 bills have been planned but very little of it seemed to be about genuinely helping people and several bills are profoundly undemocratic such as the legislation to criminalise protest.  Human rights barrister Adam Wagner human rights barrister tweeted: ‘Bill of Rights: the first in history of democracies to decrease rather than increase rights protection, politically partisan “anti-work” nonsense which is frankly an embarrassment – Public Order Bill: to make it easier for police to suppress peaceful protest’. And would this ‘invasion’ of the Duke of Somerset’s land (which benefits from public funds but is closed to the public) by picnickers and musicians be criminalised?

The rising cost of living was naturally a key focus of the Queen’s Speech debate in the Commons, Boris Johnson having the nerve to say the UK ‘can’t spend its way out of trouble and will need to grow the economy’ when there had been plenty of money for the crony contracts and Track and Trace during the first stages of Covid. One of the sickest jokes of the debate must be the PM’s hyperbolic promise ‘to get the country back on track’, when the ‘track’ it’s been on for the last 12 years is due to Conservative administrations and successive swathes of cuts to public services. And we’ve learned how his promises work out – remember the 2019 social care declaration?   

Two other phenomena are very noticeable in recent weeks: the use of euphemistic language by politicians and the media to describe what to many is a desperate situation eg ‘feeling the pinch’ and ‘feeling stretched’; and ministers’ talking about ‘a package’ of support, ‘a range’ of measures, which often boil down to small and unrelated interventions which don’t add up to more than the sum of their parts. Meanwhile, surveys suggest that more than 2 million UK adults can’t afford to eat every day and that a further quarter million will face destitution by 2023 unless clear action is taken. Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said: ‘This Queen’s Speech does nothing to help the millions of families and pensioners facing soaring bills and eye watering inflation. It shows a prime minister refusing to listen to the clear message sent by voters at last week’s local elections who are fed up of being taken for granted by this Conservative government’.

It’s commendable but shouldn’t be this vital that locals are taking up the cost of living cudgels in view of the vacuum left by government. The Guardian describes a Lancashire community-based project called Fur Clemt, meaning “very hungry” in Wigan dialect. It is ‘a much-loved community supermarket which sells unsold or overproduced food at a heavily discounted price to local people struggling with their household budgets. Since December, its owner, Shirley Southworth, has observed a shift: “We’ve seen membership soar and become more varied … It’s not just people on benefits, it’s those who are just about managing, people trying to keep their head above water.” Fur Clemt is one of a growing number of community-led organisations which, exasperated with a lack of government support to tackle the cost of living crisis, are taking matters into their own hands’. Not surprisingly, high percentages of locals surveyed believed that central government is out of touch with the real needs of communities and that much more power needs to be delegated to these areas to deal with the issues themselves. There needs to be some balance here – great that such supportive schemes are stepping up but there also needs to be intelligent intervention by government to address the problems and not just abdicate responsibility.

A related article describes the growth of ‘social supermarkets’ in the UK, one notably within the City of London scheduled for a September launch. Small social supermarkets have been springing up across the UK in recent years, some of them having started out as food banks. (At a social supermarket users pay for their groceries, but get a large discount.) They cater for low-income families – in the case of Christ Church these are referred by the local primary school – and pay a membership fee and/or a weekly fee for their shop’. One of the founders reckons these social supermarkets are the next evolution of the food bank.

Personal finance expert Martin Lewis was on fire on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, seeing some benefit in teaching cookery skills but mostly lamenting the lack of personal finance training in schools and saying the government must use ‘the political levers to put more money in people’s pockets’ as it’s simply not enough. He was profiled in The Week recently, predicting civil unrest unless government intervenes to help consumers cope with energy bills which could reach £3000 annually. The Economist reckons that Lewis could be called the most influential man in British politics, his Money Saving Expert website having a ‘readership which rivals the collective reach of Britain’s newspapers’ and an ITV show watched weekly by 4 million people. ‘Ministers would do well to listen’ says The Economist.

It was difficult watching the Queen’s Speech debate because of Boris Johnson’s theatrical and deluded defence of the government’s programme and performance. ‘Johnson said the country had “risen to challenges with no precedent in recent history” including the Covid-19 pandemic and vaccine rollout, as well as Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, the UK’s supply of weapons to Kyiv and the sanctions regime that had been imposed.’ The 38 bills cited include plans ‘to tear up the Human Rights Act, make it harder for councils to rename streets and privatise Channel 4. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said the speech showed the government had no guiding principle, while Torsten Bell, the director of the Resolution Foundation think tank, was equally withering. ‘British politics is out of ideas. Further action has been promised on the cost of living, but there certainly wasn’t any in the Queen’s Speech. It rightly highlighted the need for growth – the essential precondition for ending our living standards stagnation – but did little to actually bring it about.”

 It’s an embarrassment for this government to receive criticism from its own side, including David Davis and John Redwood calling for tax cuts and Theresa May’s former chief of staff Lord Barwell saying that both morally and politically the government needed to do more. As so often, though, such comments will probably be water off a Johnson duck’s back. But if anyone thought this was appalling enough, they were in for another shock on Wednesday morning. Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, who hasn’t been seen much in public recently, did the media round, not only dissociating himself from the annual new housing target, citing shoddy structures in the wrong place not adding to ‘beautiful communities’ but in one tv interview putting on ‘funny voices’ and attempting American and Scouse accents. While some commentators suggested he was under the influence of substances and condemned the performance, the PM’s spokesman offered ‘Michael Gove is an effective cabinet communicator who has a variety of means of getting the message across’. You can say that again.

Hot on the heels of the HRT shortage, there’s news of a critical shortage of key drugs thousands are dependent upon, such as painkillers and blood pressure medication (65 million prescriptions).The shortage also threatens the 40 million anti-depressant prescriptions but I hope this might catalyse GPs and policymakers to rethink this damaging and longstanding practice. Many are effectively being prescribed anti-depressants because of a shortage of NHS talking therapies, which could help patients to get to the root of their difficulties instead of merely masking the symptoms. ‘The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC), which represents more than 11,000 pharmacies nationwide, has warned that 67pc of its members are facing supply problems daily.  And in its survey of more than 1,000 pharmacy staff, it found that 75pc had faced “aggression from patients” due to the medicine supply issues.   

And we have to wonder whether this HRT strategy will work, since so many government-appointed tsars seem to have gone very quiet after the initial flurry of media coverage. ‘This follows the recent appointment of vaccine taskforce director general, Madelaine McTernan, to spearhead a new HRT Supply Taskforce. She said: “This is a step in the right direction of tackling the supply issues women are facing when it comes to accessing HRT and ensuring ongoing, reliable supply.”  Health Secretary Sajid Javid wasn’t altogether convincing, not least due to prior over-use of such clichés like ‘working around the clock’, ‘straining every sinew’ etc: ‘We will leave no stone unturned in our national mission to boost supply of HRT’.

A day doesn’t go by without the NHS being in the news, whether it’s for staff shortages, ambulance waiting times or long waiting lists for treatment, not to mention the interventions of people like former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who was the very author of some of the faulty structures in place today. But diagnosis has to precede treatment and very striking is the finding from a Lancet Oncology study showing that more than a third of cancer patients only find out they have it following an unrelated admission to A&E. We’re told that patients diagnosed via this route have a substantially greater risk of dying within 12 months. I found myself wondering (have asked but no answer forthcoming) whether those A&E clinicians break the news or whether they delegate this to the patients’ GPs, which would result in more delay. An unpleasant task for any clinician but an added pressure for hard-pressed A&E staff.

Meanwhile, an article in the Financial Times reflects on the apparent assumption that our NHS is ‘free’ but actually how far down the American private route we’ve already gone. It’s called privatisation by stealth, for example the takeover (allowed by the Clinical Commissioning Groups) of GP practices by large conglomerates with dubious records in some cases) but we are now also required to pay for more procedures than a decade ago. We’re reminded that ‘going private’ isn’t just something middle class people do: ‘most of the rise in such spending has been amongst the lowest earning fifth of the population who don’t want to spend years on waiting lists’. The writer reckons the most telling signal that the NHS is at breaking point is the rise twentyfold in the last five years of people resorting to crowdfunding to pay private medical fees. No doubt ministers would explain this by suggesting it’s about ‘patient choice’.

Perhaps the most serious under-investment has always been in mental health services and, given the new legislation flagged up in the Queen’s Speech, although this is related to the outdated Mental Health Act, we need to ask if it will or could address the appalling treatment of the prison population. It’s long been known that a high proportion of prisoners experience mental health problems: prison just isn’t the right place for them. This week Radio 4’s File on 4 and a Guardian article have highlighted their plight again. The article takes the form of just one woman’s experience (difficult life experience, diagnosed with anxiety, depression, PTSD and borderline personality disorder, imprisoned and then twice recalled to prison after attempting to take her own life, lost custody of her child, etc) and the account of a prison officer who describes the deficits in treatment and says  ‘They are ill. It is inhumane [to put them in prison]’. Just when will this shocking situation be addressed and why has it been allowed to continue so long?

On a lighter note, it’s interesting to speculate on the likely winner of Museum of the Year – museums have long been shown to have the potential for taking us out of ourselves and enhancing mental wellbeing. Five contenders are competing for the £100,000 prize but the other four will still get £15,000: Derby Museums, Museum of Making; Horniman Museum and Gardens, London; People’s History Museum, Manchester; The Story Museum, Oxford  and Tŷ Pawb (Everyone’s House), Wrexham. Judge of the panel, Art Fund director Jenny Waldman, said: An abundance of applications to be Art Fund Museum of the Year 2022 shows the creativity and resilience of museums right around the country, despite the immense challenges of the last two years. The five superb finalists are all museums on a mission who are tackling the vital issues of today – from combating the climate emergency to improving literacy or exploring migration – and reaching diverse communities as they do so. Each is working hard to encourage the next generation to get involved, both to inspire them and to equip them with essential skills’.

Finally, The Week carries an interesting article about nutmeg, which, in my mind at least is the most preferred from the spice ‘family’ which includes cinnamon, cloves and allspice. The article describes how, a few hundred years ago this ‘ridged brown kernel’, native to Indonesia, was very expensive but compared with the 18th century it’s very low profile these days and nutmeg graters are no longer ‘standard kitchen kit’. This does seem the case, as we hear a lot about cinnamon buns and other spices in cakes and punches, etc, but not nutmeg, but I fondly recall what the top sprinkling did for the erstwhile egg custard. But apparently nutmeg is still working hard behind the scenes – it’s the under-recognised ingredient in ‘numerous packaged foods’ and an ingredient in Coke and Pepsi. The writer contends that ‘nutmeg isn’t unloved but we often don’t recognise our own desire for it’. For those without, time to acquire a nutmeg grater, perhaps!  

Sunday 8 May

As ever, a fortnight is a long time in politics and world events: much has happened to further bring the Conservative Party into disrepute, especially the Angela Rayner leg crossing saga, ‘Tractorgate’, which resulted in the resignation of porn viewing MP Neil Parish, and the High Court’s finding against the government on care home Covid deaths. Erstwhile Health Secretary Matt Hancock wasted no time defending himself against the Court’s decision, following in the footsteps of his former boss in lying outrageously to suggest the Court had exonerated him, which was not the case. Did he not think anyone would check? Another lie was Johnson and Hancock telling the House and journalists that ‘of course’ Covid asymptomatic transmission was not known about in March 2020 when in fact this phenomenon was well known by the January.

But the epitome of hubris must be Matt Hancock writing a book about ‘the inside story of the pandemic’, royalties to be given to NHS charities. You really couldn’t make it up: no doubt Matt will once again attempt to exonerate himself and his government’s terrible performance. The publisher, Biteback, sounds equally deluded, saying  said it was ‘delighted’ to announce Hancock’s book, which it describes as a ‘unique and candid account of Britain’s battle to turn the tide against Covid-19….it will offer an honest assessment of the lessons we need to learn for next time – because there will be a next time’. Are they not aware that Matt and his colleagues could have been much better prepared this time, if they’d taken sufficient note of the 2016 pandemic preparedness Cygnus exercise?

Besides his generally poor performance during the Susanna Reid Good Morning Britain interview on Tuesday, the much-vaunted ‘Oxford Union debating skills’ sadly not in evidence, there was yet another lie, not to mention avoidance of the key issue: during the revealing exchange about pensioner Elsie travelling around London on buses as she couldn’t afford to heat her home, Johnson said he had introduced the Freedom Pass. This was untrue, as was another lie, that he had, as London Mayor, funded the Elizabeth Line (formerly Crossrail), which is due to open on 24 May. Personally, I find these desperate lies as bad as the Partygate ones, because their spontaneous opportunism is just so chilling and the gullible will be taken in yet again.  

Nevertheless, the Partygate ones have been a turning point in British politics, not only for demonstrating contempt for Parliament and democratic norms, but also for their routine rolling out and collusion of so many colleagues. As one tweeter said: ‘It isn’t just the gatherings, it’s the months of denial that anything happened until forced to admit it, and they’ll keep denying things until forced to admit them, and there are many more lies’. There have now been a number of calls, including that of the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, for Parliament to be reformed but who would initiate this? I’d go much further: the entire ‘democratic’ process in this country needs reforming, including local government, which routinely sees a low turnout rate at election time, and our lack of a written and effective Constitution.

There should be a way whereby, in extremis, the people can trigger a vote of no confidence or an election: this should not be the sole fiefdom of the party in office. Within the current arrangements, we are dependent on the Tories to offload Boris Johnson, or not – this is unacceptable, especially given the challenges the country is up against. Business Minister Kwasi Kwarteng, in the wake of Tractorgate, tried to suggest that no fundamental reform was necessary, it was just a ‘few bad apples’. Classic avoidance and defensiveness on the part of an individual benefiting from the status quo. But the weak Speaker is one of the problems and his plea for ‘kindness’ isn’t going to cut it.

Relevant to all this is a news item I suspect could easily be missed, that in an ‘election shock’ in Slovenia, a newly formed liberal/green party, led by a political novice (this could be a trend, given Zelensky and others) has won a massive victory, ending the regime of a right-wing populist who had been in line for a fourth term in office (though not consecutive). The Week tells us that Robert Golob, an energy expert, formed the Freedom Movement in January and billed this election ‘a referendum on democracy’. Something we could do with here. The defeated populist, Janez Jansa, was felt to be eroding democratic norms and clashed with the EU – remind you of anyone? It will be interesting to see how the new government fares.

 John Crace lampoons the PM’s tv interview: Boris Johnson’s compassion-free GMB interview went from car crash to pile-up as he mansplained away his dishonesty. Reid asked:“Are you honest, prime minister?” “Yes,” replied the Convict. The interview had run for less than 20 seconds and Johnson had already told his first lie. Reid gave him a second chance to rethink his answer. Neither she nor Boris seemed to think it at all unusual that the first thing she would want to ask a prime minister after five years was whether he was a liar. Both knew the presumption was that he was. That’s how low we’ve sunk. A country reduced to the level of a shallow narcissist….. “I do my best to represent faithfully and accurately what I believe,” he said. This was telling. Both for the admission that the truth does not come easily to him, that at times there is an unbridgeable gap between fantasy and reality in his consciousness, and the implicit acknowledgment that the only cause in which he truly believes is his own survival’.

There’s of course been much else in the news and in people’s minds but the local election results have pushed everything else into the background for the time being. Despite some efforts to dismiss these as being about ‘local squabbling’ and cynical attempts of ‘local Conservatives’ to distance themselves from their Westminster colleagues, they’re key indicators of how voters are feeling about the parties overall and this government in particular. It’s also a massive exercise, with 4,000 council seats in England being contested, 1,200 in both Scotland and Wales and all 90 seats of the Northern Ireland Assembly in contention. Commentators initially discerned a marked anti-Tory feeling but not one which translates to a very positive feeling for Labour.

The fact that the Lib Dems and Greens have done well has again prompted suggestions of an opposition alliance, but none of them have so far shown enthusiasm for this. But during Friday the Tory position worsened considerably, losing almost 500 seats. One minister declared it ‘shocking’ but said Johnson would not recognise that he had caused the problem. ‘He won’t care though. We’ll have to lose a general election first’. How depressing to have to recognize that in your leader but we can’t be too sympathetic as the Boris Johnson writing was always on the wall. A London Tory MP showed less of a grasp on reality: ‘We had thought that our people would stay at home and not vote. That is what we were told. But they didn’t. They came out in anger to kill us’.

Labour took Crawley, Worthing and Southampton; Lib Dems took Somerset and Woking; and the Tories lose control and/or biggest party status in W Oxfordshire, Tunbridge Wells, Maidstone, Huntingdon, Wokingham, Castle Point and, notably, Monmouthshire, when this county had been the only one they controlled in Wales. It must have been a shock for the DUP that for the first time Sinn Fein got more seats in Northern Ireland. How typical that the DUP are now finding a reason not to allow Sinn Fein to take up the First Minister role, thus again depriving people of their government there.

A telling article drills down to the feelings of locals in two former flagship Tory councils, Westminster and Wandsworth. A Westminster resident, happy that Labour won, had been appalled by the council’s decision to spend £6m on a mound at Marble Arch, which was widely mocked and forced to close after failing to attract visitors. Some others, though, are still in thrall to the cult of Boris. A Daily Mail reader said Boris Johnson had had a ‘bad patch’ but added: “He’s started to regain his touch. I don’t think Boris has done anything wrong. What’s the matter with having a drink when you’re the prime minister? Starmer did it as well’. A Wandsworth resident gets it in one: ‘The council hasn’t behaved as outrageously as the prime minister, but it is time for a change. I work in a food bank, and poverty here is just disgraceful. People are just desperate’. What’s noticeable in these vox pops is their divergence from what many Conservatives say they are hearing: many of them would have us believe that the doorstep canvassing chats didn’t include anything about Partygate, a likely story.

There was predictable yet still disgraceful anti-Labour bias shown by presenters Nick Robinson and Mishal Husain on Friday’s Radio Today programme and by Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, trying to suggest opposition parties had not done well and totally minimizing the key Conservative losses of  six councils including the flagships of Westminster, Wandsworth and Barnet. Unlike their Cabinet colleagues, Tory council leaders have clearly pointed the finger at Boris Johnson, saying he’s been the problem ‘on the doorsteps’, Johnson himself only conceding that it had been ‘a tough night’ for the Conservatives in London. Meanwhile, elections expert John Curtice said the Tories are finding out Boris Johnson is ‘electorally mortal’, regarded as ‘probably the most damning thing he’s ever said’. How long can this liability hold out for? Nevertheless, the so-called ‘cult of Boris’ continues, allegedly 30% of the electorate, one example being the deluded Tory councillor in Ipswich, who, on losing her seat, said ‘I would die on a hill for Boris’. It beggars belief.

Another worrying example of media censorship, especially in the lead up to these elections, is the failure of the BBC to report the raiding of a peer’s home as part of an investigation into corrupt Covid contracts. Conservative peer Michelle Mone is implicated in the National Crime Agency investigation into PPE Medpro, a company that secured more than £200m in government contracts near the start of the pandemic without public tender. ‘The Guardian has previously reported that Mone approached Gove, Lord Agnew and Lord Bethell on behalf of PPE Medpro. All were at the time ministers involved in pandemic procurement… Mone appears to have been instrumental in PPE Medpro being entered into the “high priority” VIP lane by Agnew in May 2020’. This kind of thing makes you wonder how much more is yet to come out about the PPE contracting corruption saga.

It’s not only censorship by omission, though: it’s been noticeable these last few days how many BBC presenters have seized on the confected ‘Beergate’ story and how many others have tried to suggest that there’s some parallel between what Keir Starmer could have done and what Boris Johnson has repeatedly done.

Conservative Party chairman, Oliver Dowden, was Friday’s candidate for the media round, getting into quite a satisfying tussle with Nick Robinson on Today, who, despite his own Tory credentials didn’t give Dowden an easy ride. Such people have taken dishonest reframing to a new level, Dowden suggesting how well they’d done outside London and citing Nuneaton Council in the same breath as the lost Westminster flagship. Dowden tried to brush away ‘difficult headlines’ such as Partygate, Tractorgate and non-dom status as if they didn’t actually happen and his recipe for the future was to ‘focus on delivery’. This assumes they had something to ‘deliver’ in the first place and falls into the cynical Tory narrative camp, of which DWP minister Therese Coffey showed herself to be a paid up member on Friday’s World at One programme. A key phrase in this script is ‘continue to work on the things that matter to the British people…., getting on with the job’, etc, as if they’ve been working on ‘the things that matter’ in the first place. Asked to comment on the role the cost of living crisis has played in the results, out of touch Dowden said ‘I don’t accept this is an economic horror story: we need a sense of proportion.’ As one tweeter asked: ‘Does ‘proportion’ provide food or heating?’

On the contrary, the government has, as with so many issues, sidestepped the cost of living crisis, claiming credit for its ‘range of measures’ (noticed how it’s never just one intervention cited, always bigged up to ‘a range’?) which don’t do the business or for which many of those in need are ineligible. The existing contributory factors like escalating energy and food prices have now been added to by the Bank of England raising interest rates – inflation is now set to rise to 10%. (The Tory script here is to attribute the cost of living crisis to ‘global’ factors, suggesting that the entire world is experiencing something similar – not entirely true – and Brexit is barely mentioned). A Times/YouGov poll showed that four in five adults think Boris Johnson doesn’t understand the impact of cost of living increases on ordinary people.

 Rivalling Dowden’s out of touch record was Environment Minister George Eustice, interviewed on the Today programme on Wednesday because his boss, Boris Johnson, had failed to step up to the party leaders pre-election interviews. Oh dear. Pedestrian at the best of times, Eustice excelled himself by denying Johnson had euphemistically alluded to people ‘feeling the pinch’ when they’re actually dependent on food banks, suggesting that doing more to help families would fuel inflation and suggesting that people could better manage their household budgets by substituting supermarkets’ own products for branded items. It’s shocking that 13 million people are using food banks and that it’s said the UK has more food banks than branches of McDonald’s.

The BBC reported the response of Labour’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said that ‘Hard-pressed Brits need support’, urging the government to hold an emergency budget and reduce energy bills through a windfall tax on oil and gas companies. ‘The response by the Conservatives to the cost-of-living crisis has been nothing short of insulting. They are out of touch and out of ideas’.

If party faithful Robert Jenrick and Oliver Dowden gave poor post-election performances, they were topped by a car crash interview on Saturday’s Today programme featuring a deluded-sounding Nadhim Zahawi, still peddling the ‘he (Boris Johnson) got the big calls right’ script and harking back to the vaccination programme, not resisting inserting himself in there. It could reasonably be thought that the biggest ‘call’ is honesty in Parliament, certainly not ‘delivering’ Brexit, which hasn’t been ‘delivered’ anyway, as the Northern Ireland Protocol continues to demonstrate. As Lord Blunkett, appearing shortly afterwards said, the Conservatives talked a lot over the last 12 years about the areas needing serious reform but they manifestly haven’t tackled them, eg social care. The Guardian’s John Crace uses the ‘useful idiots’, those prepared to go on the airwaves to defend the indefensible, attributing this preparedness to their neediness. ‘On LBC, Nick Ferrari asked Dowden what had gone wrong and what had come up on the doorstep for Tory canvassers. Dumber ummed and aahed. No one had mentioned parties. Not one. Amazing, that. Though if they had done, it would have been to ask why they hadn’t been invited. No, what had come up most was the sheer abundance of new Brexit opportunities’.

Although the government and media would like us to believe otherwise, Covid hasn’t gone away and the ONS statistics are effectively incomplete because of the numbers of people no longer testing now tests have to be paid for. It’s quite extraordinary that this isn’t being understood. Death figures (the only meaningful statistic now) are around 1000 per week and surely this is what politicians and policymakers should be focusing on. Instead, we’re being expected to believe that ‘numbers are going down’, when even evidence ‘on the ground’ (eg many more friends, family and acquaintances falling prey to Covid) tells us the opposite.

Shocking but no longer surprising, given the long term deficits of the UK’s mental health services, is the news that the NHS is paying £2bn a year to private hospitals to care for mental health patients because it does not have enough of its own beds. What a false economy the bed reduction exercise was throughout Conservative administrations. We’re told that the ‘independent sector receives about 13.5% of the £14.8bn the NHS in England spends on mental health, a dramatic rise since 2005 when it was paid £951m. Nine out of every 10 of the 10,123 mental health beds run by private operators are occupied by NHS patients’. Healthcare market analysts LaingBuisson research showed that independent mental health care providers now make 91% of their income from the NHS.Yet Care Quality Commission inspections have revealed multiple failures of a large number of these services, graded as ‘inadequate’. This official comment from NHS England speaks volumes, demonstrating an unacceptable arms-length policy, in my view. ‘The NHS has been clear that we expect all services to provide safe and high-quality care and to deliver on our commitments in their contracts, irrespective of whether they are NHS or independent sector-led.”

Still on mental health, it’s striking that more than 4 years after a major review of mental health legislation, some of which was long regarded as antiquated and inadequate, the government is finally acting. Clearly, democracy undermining legislation like the policing and borders bills have been regarded as far more important. ‘The reforms – which will be part of the Queen’s speech next week and are the first big changes to the Mental Health Act in four decades – are designed to reduce the number of people being detained under current laws in England and Wales. The number of detentions rose by 40% between 2005-06 and 2015-16 and have continued to rise year on year’. (Referring to the above item, let’s hope this is a genuine commitment and not just a cynical exercise to reduce pressure on mental health beds). Key measures include ending the potential detentions of those with autism or learning disabilities and allowing those detained against their will to express a preference or refuse a specific treatment where a suitable alternative is available. This must be carefully monitored as we can well imagine situations where detention would take place because insufficient effort was made or funding available for ‘alternative treatment’.

None of this addresses systemic underinvestment, though. ‘The pandemic has led to a dramatic rise in the numbers of people experiencing mental health problems, with 1.6 million waiting for specialised treatment and another 8 million who would benefit from support unable to get on the waiting list’.

So, with the media trying to whip up interest in the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee (paper plates, cake stands and cups piled high in Wilko if anyone’s interested), we hear that neither Prince Andrew nor Harry and Meghan will appear on the Buckingham Palace balcony – only those carrying out royal duties. Seems fair enough but makes a nonsense of Harry recently claiming the role of protector of his grandmother, making ‘sure she has the right people around her’, who talks to him about things she doesn’t to others, special relationship etc etc. Andrew suffered another humiliation recently in the form of York councillors removing his Freedom of the city but possibly more is to come. ‘The removal of this honorary title sends the right message that we as a city stand with victims of abuse. The next logical step is now for Prince Andrew to do the right thing and relinquish his Duke of York title. If he fails to do so, the government and Buckingham Palace must step in to remove his title to finally end Prince Andrew’s connection to York’.

It will be interesting to see how this Jubilee goes, as it seems support for the monarchy has markedly declined in recent years, leading to far less public celebration than for earlier jubilees. This won’t stop people enjoying an extended Bank Holiday, though!

Finally, a poll by Walkers Crisps (so there may be questions hanging over its findings) reckons that ‘the average UK adult eats 35 crisp sandwiches a year’. A writer in the Spectator has ‘long regarded the crisp sarnie as the ultimate fast food, a simple, salty and satisfying snack that speaks of the person you are rather than the person you want to be’. Ingredients regarded as de rigeur include thick white sliced bread (ie nothing posh) and bog standard crisps (again not fancy ones). It’s suggested that a crisp sandwich ‘may not scream nutritional balance’ (you can say that again) but it deserves its status as a classic. I’ve never consumed one and can’t imagine myself doing so, so if some others feel the same it suggests that some ‘average UK adults’ may be consuming rather more than the 35 the poll cites. But I’m now rather intrigued and feel perhaps I should try one to see what the fuss is about – anyone else?!  

Sunday 24 April

Happy Easter to Orthodox Christians celebrating today, including Ukrainians, many of whom will be far from home yet making a point of enjoying their culinary traditions, including painted eggs, sausage and the Easter cake ‘pascha’. It’s now the third month of this invasion (surely increasing the risk of this becoming normalized in the media and in people’s minds) and missiles have now fallen on Odesa at the same time as the evacuation of those remaining in Mariupol seems to have stalled. In the background of all this is what some are calling Putin’s ‘nuclear blackmail’, placing the West in a kind of paralysis. However, it seemed typically unhelpful of our PM to publicly predict that this war would still be going on in 2023.

Here in the UK, the Homes for Ukraine scheme has come in for strong criticism and it’s timely that an anonymous whistleblower has confirmed what many suspected: he revealed ‘that he and his colleagues “don’t know what we’re doing”, and claims the scheme has been “designed to fail” in order to limit numbers entering the UK’. He said he had dealt with numerous cases where UK visas had been issued for an entire Ukrainian family apart from one child, which in effect stopped the family travelling to the UK. What a cynical tactic. ‘This allows the government to say we’ve issued lots of visas. Yet, because they have withheld one, it’s a guarantee those Ukrainians won’t travel’.

According to government figures, 40,000 UK visas have been issued under the scheme since it was launched five weeks ago. But only 6,600 Ukrainians have actually arrived. It’s appalling that we can no longer be surprised at such findings but why does the government think that such facts won’t emerge? As time goes on, I suspect more and more whistleblowers will come forward on this and other issues.

The tumultuous series of events over the last week yet again proves that every time you think this government can’t get worse, it does. Having had some respite over the Easter recess from Partygate revelations, the news that he and his wife had received fines ensured that Boris Johnson had no choice on Tuesday but to face the music in the House of Commons. What a long drawn out spectacle this was, the PM endlessly issuing his robotic apology, the insincerity of which was, not for the first time, demonstrated by his words to Tory MPs in a meeting afterwards and looking pretty terrible throughout. Besides the evident anger in many quarters, it was notable that while some stalwarts still tried to defend the indefensible (eg Bill Cash suggesting that a fixed penalty notice did not signify criminal status, refuted later by a QC on Twitter), not to mention those trying to equate these fines with a speeding fine, support from his colleagues was manifestly leaking away.

The key example was Mark Harper, an erstwhile strong ally, calling for the PM to go and saying he was ‘no longer worthy of the office’. Former Brexit minister Steve Baker also dramatically changed his long-term tune, having seen no remorse in the PM’s apology and feeling annoyed by the Cabinet ‘sitting there fat, dumb and happy’, condemning their sycophancy (‘the gig’s up’). Senior Tory Tobias Ellwood was another, telling Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I fear it’s now when, not if, a vote of confidence takes place. Sadly the absence of discipline, focus and leadership in No 10 has led to this breach of trust with the British people. And it’s causing long-term damage to the party’s brand and that’s proving difficult to repair despite good people now coming into No 10’.

Perhaps the biggest indicator, though, was the government’s U-turn on the issue of referring the PM to the Privileges Committee, which would have delayed any decision on the PM till after the completion of all investigations. Commentator Simon Jenkins described this failure to block the motion to refer the prime minister to this Commons committee as ‘a watershed moment’ from which ‘there is no way back’. ‘The prime minister has no programme, no strategy, no professed ideology: only a frantic search for survival. In a revealing aside last Tuesday, Johnson argued that this was demanded by circumstance. Whenever challenged, he refers to the war in Ukraine, as if this was Britain’s business…..Denial was buried deep in his narcissism. He fell back on a conviction that he could bluff and squirm his way through what should have been a passing crisis. In doing so he has subjected his country to a distasteful farce that has lasted six months and is not yet over’.

Too many Tory MPs for the whips’ liking have now at last come to see this situation as a poisoned chalice, whereby, like the Owen Paterson case, they would have effectively been asked to taint their own reputations in order to save that of ‘Big Dog’. And now it appears more fines are likely to be coming the PM’s way. ‘Boris Johnson is facing deepening peril over the Partygate scandal after a source said a fine had been issued for a second event attended by the prime minister, while senior Conservatives warned he could face a leadership challenge within weeks. This was confirmed when Anushka Asthana, ITV’s deputy political editor, tweeted that ‘fines are landing into people’s inboxes relating to the garden event on May 20th 2020 – the BYOB [bring your own bottle] event – that Boris Johnson did go to’. Afterwards No 10 was forced to deny Johnson had received another fixed penalty notice and on the plane back from India he refused to speak to journalists, who were told he was ‘asleep’. Yes, in more ways than one, yet he felt sufficiently confident (or arrogant) to reassure journalists during his trip that yes, he would still be Prime Minister in October.

 As many have observed, Boris Johnson seems to have long had a serious difficulty distinguishing a social from a work event despite the clear evidence of the presence of food and alcohol, which he was witnessed pouring for invitees himself on at least one occasion. Of course the most insulting thing, except he’s seen it work on the gullible, is the expectation that his protestations will be believed. Remarkably, the Met police have said they won’t release further details of fines until after the local government elections, which indicates they’re politicised: voters are entitled to such information in order for them to get the full picture beforehand.

All this is quite extraordinary, not only the speed of events and U-turns, the way those on his own side are increasingly turning against him and the pathetic attempts to distract us in the form of the Rwanda plan and ‘rail sale’, but the fact that this could be the first time in the PM’s life that he hasn’t ‘got away with it’. That’s quite something now he’s 56. I’m not sure whether this is unprecedented but this last week the PM was eviscerated three times by the Guardian’s parliamentary sketch writer John Crace: ‘It’s about the fact that the Convict never thought for a minute that the rules limiting social gatherings applied to him or his crew. He understood how angry and disappointed people were, he said. And the country had deserved better from him. Nearly there, Boris. What he should have said was that the country deserved better than him….There’s worse coming down the track and the Convict knows it. Much worse. But hopefully if he looked busy in Ukraine then the country would forgive him.Deep down Johnson knows he’s a liar and a fraud. He won’t resign because that’s not his style. But something inside him has been broken. He’s no longer funny. No longer clever. Just a pathetic nobody, desperately clinging to power’. The tide definitely seems to have turned over the last few weeks, changing the situation from ‘if’ the PM survives to ‘when’ it’s the end of the road for him.

 ‘Parody Boris’ tweeted: ‘I’m getting on with the job. Which is to spend all of my time trying to evade the consequences of my lies and crimes in a desperate attempt to cling to power’ and another Twitter user said:’ Tories like Sir Geoffrey (Clifton-Brown) and Conor Burns are going to look increasingly isolated and foolish as their defence of Boris Johnson sees them clutching at more and more straws’.

As if our democracy wasn’t already undermined enough with the blatant disregard for the law and governmental norms over the last two years, there’s another threat in the form of what is surely a significant rise in sexual misconduct complaints against MPs.  It’s thought 70 separate complaints were submitted to the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (set up in the context of the Me Too movement and allegations against several MPs’ conduct), which concern 56 MPs including three Cabinet ministers and two Shadow Cabinet members. ‘The FDA union, which represents civil servants, said it was time to “look again” at the employment relationship between MPs and their staff’. Meanwhile, we hear that Tory MP Imran Ahmad Khan, who was convicted of molesting a 15 year old boy and who undertook to resign his seat still has not done so. It does seem that such attitudes and the numbers of MPs under investigation are further indications of an arrogant and dark side of a Westminster bubble which needs bursting.

Meanwhile, it continues to be alarming that the government and media seem to be colluding to keep Covid news to a minimum, yet last week several days saw a marked increase in deaths (482 on Tuesday, 508 on Wednesday and 646 on Thursday). The Office for National Statistics has shown that only 53% are self-isolating after testing positive and apart from the over-75s, who are receiving their booster vaccinations, our protection from the two vaccinations and booster has been steadily waning over the last few months. It will be interesting (and no doubt worrying) to see the effect of Easter holidays and all that travel requiring no protective measures. No wonder #CovidIsNotOver is a commonly seen hashtag on Twitter.  

The cost of living increase continues to take centre stage and must surely be a significant factor in streaming giant Netflix losing 200,000 subscribers since January, its share price dropping 35%. The company itself attributes this situation to increased competition between streaming services, the war in Ukraine and the number of people who share their logins but numerous subscribers feeling the pinch must be amongst the 200k or at least considering letting Netflix go. As someone who’s never subscribed to any additional tv services, I struggle to understand the perceived need when there’s so much good material on Freeview. It will be interesting to see how this situation pans out over the next few years given the evolving television viewing environment and issues like the future of Channel 4 and funding of the BBC.

Difficulties caused by second homes are coming further up the political agenda, especially in the context of the imminent local elections. More tenants are complaining about the increasing use of Section 21 (no fault) evictions being used for lucrative intent.  The syndrome whereby second homes in picturesque locations are depriving locals of much-needed housing seems particularly acute in Cornwall and parts of Wales. In the Gwynedd seaside village of Abersoch some locals are having to live in caravans because they’ve been priced out of the housing market and it will be interesting to see if the Welsh government’s raising council tax on these properties to 300% will make much difference. It might be reported less but a similar situation applies in inland villages, as a barista told me recently, her own village having been taken over and homes left empty most of the year. This is a key point, too, as it’s not just about the money – ownership of properties only occupied for part of the year by non-locals will profoundly affect the dynamics of the place. It makes me wonder what locals in Europe think about Brits owning properties in their villages.

In Cornwall, Cath Navin, co-founder of protest group First Not Second Homes, said: ‘Last month, there were 111 Airbnbs in and around St Agnes, 96 of which were whole houses. If you looked for long-term rentals, the closest place was Portreath (seven miles away). There’s nothing locally for people to live in’. How are local councillors and MPs responding to complaints about this? Talking about a housing strategy often won’t be enough, as it’s not just about building more houses but about the use of existing ones. Surely ownership could be restricted in some way, as is done in the Channel Islands, for example.

In recent years there’s been serious questioning and challenge to cultural organisations regarding their sources of funding, especially tricky when their government grants are cut or are non-existent. Many have accepted funding for exhibitions and extensions from what are increasingly regarded as unsavoury sources, eg fossil fuel producer BP and the Sackler family via ‘big pharma’ Purdue of addictive opioids notoriety. A number of institutions have been able to eliminate such funding but some large ones remain linked, such as the National Gallery still having a Sackler Room and the V&A a ‘Sackler Courtyard’. Now the British Museum has removed the Sackler branding from its walls after an association lasting 30 years and it’s expected that BP will be the next target. In fact the splendidly named Culture Unstained campaigning organisation reported in February that the National Gallery is cutting ties with BP after 30 years and a large demo at the BM yesterday was to encourage the BM to do the same.

During the pandemic-catalysed closure of numerous department stores, we may have overlooked the cultural aspects of this result of changing shopping habits. A report by Save Britain’s Heritage called Departing Stores: Emporia at Risk ‘details 46 landmark department stores in town and city centres. Some have been restored or redeveloped while keeping their architectural heritage, but others are vacant and at risk of decay or demolition’. At least 18 are thought to be at risk, yet these buildings are often beautiful in themselves, with striking Edwardian or Art Deco features. ‘The same loss of relevance previously faced by stately homes, warehouses and many churches now threatens a new building type for the first time: the department store’, says the author. The idea is that such buildings could be repurposed as homes or cultural centres, both very much needed. Let’s hope some good comes of this report as we don’t want to be regretting their easy loss in years to come, as happened with umpteen stately homes when death duties and maintenance costs defeated the owners. There’s some encouraging evidence in Bournemouth at least – ‘Bobby’s has been successfully repurposed since it closed as a department store last year. As well as retail space, there is an art gallery, with a food hall and rooftop bar planned. The premises include community spaces, and architectural features are being restored’.

In large cities we’ve got used to the sight and experience of gourmet coffee shops and tea bars but now a new market entrant might temp some customers away – a purveyor of luxury chocolate drinks, Knoops, now has 7 outlets selling 20 different types, with gastronomic qualities one might normally associate with wine or coffee. For example, its 80% drink from Uganda evokes ‘a subtle smokiness’. Rather than customers tiring of coffee, though, I think these drinks are suited to particular times of day, eg coffee in the morning and chocolate in the afternoon. In any case it will be interesting to see how Knoops fares, because, like the posh water shop featured here recently, such places could take a hit due to the cost of living crisis. On the other hand perhaps not, since their locations so far are in well-heeled London areas such as Richmond, Kensington and Chelsea. But don’t despair (these people have really thought about their marketing) – they have a Knoopsmobile, which can travel around to customers at festivals and sports events.

Finally, last week’s blog featured hot cross buns and variations on that theme, including even a hot cross bun espresso martini. (Would be interesting to know if anyone had tried this). Now journalist and cocktail expert Richard Godwin has suggested that whatever happens (‘crash, plague, war, depression – we’re not fussy’) the British will continue to drink and cocktails are selling in record numbers. He believes there’s a correlation between cocktails and economics: from 1910-1930 they did well in these years of ‘robber barons, rampant deregulation and boom and bust’; far less well between 1945-79 when incomes grew and beer and wine assumed aspirational qualities; then better again as the income gap widened. But perhaps his key point is that whatever is happening in the ‘outside world’, people do need relatively small luxuries ‘such as lipsticks and martinis’ in the same way as they ‘need’ their lattes and cappuccinos when doing without pricier items: ‘they are relatively affordable ways of escaping reality for a moment and for this reason he thinks ‘we’ll be sinking them for a while yet’!

Friday 15 April

As we approach the Easter weekend the news continues to be grim, with the war raging in Ukraine, inflation running at 7%, rapidly rising Covid cases, service closures and clogged roads and airports due to engineering works Covid absences and Brexit-related delays and continuing mismanagement of crises by this government. All of this is likely to add further to the mental health burden in this country which has steadily worsened over the course of the last two years. But what’s just blown this news aside is the Partygate fines (50 issued so far), which have now drawn Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Carrie Johnson into the net, the former two resisting calls to resign. The craven sycophancy of Tory MPs worried about their seats and futures is embarrassing to behold, many citing the specious idea that the PM can’t resign during a war (except it’s not our war). Needless to say, plenty of commentators and social media users have pointed out extensive precedent for prime ministers resigning during wars and ones which the UK was directly involved in at that. The argument makes even less sense when an acrimonious election is taking place just across the Channel.

The shameless Transport Minister, Grant Shapps, drew the short straw for Wednesday’s Today programme, advancing the usual ‘defences’ such as the PM ‘didn’t break the law knowingly’ or ‘with malice’, ‘he’s apologised’ (devoid of sincerity), ‘you have to look at the man in the round’ and (of course) ‘he got the big calls right’. (But it doesn’t stop here – we now hear the PM may be in line for three more fines. It comes to something when one of his own, Defence Select Committee Chairman Tobias Ellwood, suggested the PM should hold a vote of confidence on himself, albeit only after the local elections).

One listener tweeted: ‘The squirming, wriggling Shapps cannot bring himself to admit there were illegal parties at No.10. What a spineless, shameless excuse for a human being. No honour, no integrity, complete and utter sycophancy’. Tory MP Rory Stewart said: ‘The key point is not that Boris Johnson received a penalty notice. The key point is that the fine proves he has repeatedly lied to parliament about his actions during COVID. Democracy requires – for voting for accountability – leaders who tell the truth. He must go’. It shows the sorry state of our politics that some have gone public and said he can’t go because there’s no one to replace him, especially since Rishi Sunak (compared to Icarus in one headline) so spectacularly blotted his copy book recently. Another rightly pointed out, in response to Shapps saying whether the PM misled Parliament was for the police to decide, that ‘No. It is the responsibility of MPs & ministers to uphold the rules of our democracy. They have to stop trying to slough that responsibility off onto someone else’.

The Guardian’s sketch writer, John Crace, delivers his usual excoriation of Boris Johnson, the ‘Suspect’ now morphing into ‘the Convict’ – so much for the PM’s hope that the Ukraine war and his own absurd and initially secret photo op visit there would make Partygate go away.

Nor did Grant Shapps escape Crace’s acerbic pen, put to use dissecting that Radio 4 interview. ‘It wasn’t his intention to lie….There was no malice in anything he did etc etc (as if ‘malice was the key point) – Johnson had never set out to break the law. It had just never occurred to him that the law might also apply to him. He had always assumed the rules were for the Little People’.

So what’s next? ‘Downing Street has promised that Johnson will make a statement only when the entire police operation is over. However, this could take many more weeks and there is pressure for him to say something immediately, with Labour, the Lib Dems and SNP calling for the Commons, which is currently on Easter recess, to be recalled’. This is surely the kernel of the matter – the country cannot have a criminal in charge, a terrible precedent to set: ‘It is not believed that a prime minister and/or a chancellor has broken the law while in office’. Despite Tory MPs mostly falling over themselves to support the embattled PM, a former no 10 adviser told a journalist: ‘Conservatives, if they stand for anything, stand for the rule of law and the maintenance of order. If they cannot abide their own rules, and do not show humility in the face of justice, it is impossible for them to maintain that mantle’. No doubt the PM and ministers must be relieved at no Prime Minister’s Questions straight after these revelations and they will need some robust preparation for when Parliament resumes. But whether or not he resigns or is pushed should not be the sole decision of the party in office – this is surely one of the things wrong with our unwritten Constitution and why we need a completely new one.

One thing at least seems clear – government via WhatsApp has to stop. The Partygate and other investigations have indisputably found that vital evidence of specific agreements and transactions are too easily obscured by use of different phones and by the convenient ‘loss’ of phones.

Needless to say, many who lost family members and friends during the last two years expressed disgust. On said her father ‘died on his own, on a cold Covid ward without anyone there to hold his hand’ because she and her family had followed the rules. ‘Lobby Akinnola, a spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said: ‘After everything that’s happened, it’s still unbelievably painful to know that the prime minister was partying and breaking his own lockdown rules, while we were unable to be at our loved ones’ sides in their dying moments, or in miserable funerals with only a handful of people – because we were following the rules. The fact that the prime minister and his chancellor then lied about it and would have continued to do so if the police hadn’t intervened is truly shameless. They broke the law. But, even worse, they took us all for mugs. When we met the PM in the No 10 garden – the same one where they had these parties – he looked us in the eyes and said he had done everything he could to save our loved ones. We now know that that was a lie’.

What interesting timing, then, amid the Partygate fines scandal and before the local elections, is for the government to announce a new scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing, a piece of news you’d think was an April Fool had it been 1 April. Widely condemned for its breaching of the UN Convention of Human Rights, the  likely costs and impracticability, yet hotly defended by the PM’s colleagues, it’s been seen by many for what it is: a dystopian pretend solution to a broken asylum system timed to distract attention from Partygate and possible trouncing in the local elections. As one tweeter said: ‘Boris Johnson using the war in Ukraine to save his job by visiting Kyiv last week for photo op. Now it’s the old time favourite, Johnson is using xenophobia to divide us by announcing he’ll send refugees to Rwanda as a distraction for his Partygate.’ Another pointed out the dishonest description: ‘This is *not* offshore processing, it will *not* save money, nor stop asylum seekers, nor the boats. It will cost lives, money and our reputation’.

Again, John Crace wasted no time portraying his version of events at the press conference for the scheme, which, embarrassingly, new refugee minister Lord Harrington claimed to have not heard of 9 days previously. ‘Johnson started with the usual waffle. The stuff he needs to tell himself each morning so he can drag himself out of his bed and look in the mirror. Somehow he has to find a way of convincing himself he’s a decent man. Not some lying narcissist who will do and say anything to get him through the day relatively unscathed. So he mumbled something about Britain’s fine history of openness and generosity to refugees’. A paragraph was devoted to demolishing this myth (one of the many) put about that the UK has a generous record regarding refugees, summarising – ‘A quick reality check. The UK is the fifth or sixth largest economy and takes just 0.2% of the world’s refugees’.

Besides the obvious cruelty to vulnerable people underpinning such a scheme, possibly the most galling element of the presentation, in my view, has been the cynical attempt to portray it as ‘a world beating first’ (yes, that tautology was uttered by one media sap) which would avoid further ‘tragic loss of life’ and tackle ‘the business model of the criminal gangs’. This is obviously in the script they all have to trot out. Crace points out further irony: ‘Then things just turned surreal. First, the Convict tried to portray Rwanda as some kind of tropical human rights paradise. Regardless of the fact that it was a dictatorship that the UK had condemned for human rights violations. Then he tried to claim the programme would be a bargain. Ignoring the fact that some Tory MPs had estimated it would be cheaper to put all the refugees up at the Ritz. But he saved the best till last. This was necessary because he was a firm believer in the rule of law. From the man who has shown a spectacular disregard for it since he became prime minister’.

It’s been suggested the courts would rule against this scheme before it gets off the ground but, as we’ve already seen, this government has steadily worked to undermine the judiciary, with headlines in the right-wing press describing lawyers and judges as ‘enemies of the people’. Perhaps we need to have some hope in the fact that international law trumps national law.

For weeks now we’ve seen the Covid situation worsening, aggravated by the removal of all Covid safety measures and the withdrawal of free tests. Although some have chosen to contest the statistics, the shocking number of 651 deaths on Wednesday is seriously alarming and NHS chiefs are warning of ‘a brutal Easter’. They complain of the NHS being ‘abandoned’ and government complacency, one clinician tweeting: ‘We have a situation in our health service now which is **as bad as any winter**… we do not have a living with Covid plan, we have a living without restrictions ideology’.

Another reason not to get Covid is the significant risk of Long Covid, which has up to 200 symptoms under its ‘umbrella’ but also recent research by the UK Biobank Study which shows shrinkage of the brain in those who contracted Covid. Before and after scans revealed thinning of brain tissue, equating to 1-6 years of ageing, involving various areas of the brain such as those relating to memory, taste and smell. More research is needed to establish whether or not these changes were lasting but this news is surely alarming enough to make us less likely to be seduced by the ‘Covid is over’ pretence.

Professor and chair of global public health Devi Sridhar challenges the herd immunity mantra: ‘Covid-19 is not yet mild enough to be treated like the common cold because it makes people so ill that they cannot work. This has created widespread disruption for airlines, border control, supermarkets, schools, hospitals, police forces and even Apple stores. And it’s worth pointing out that while Omicron is milder than Delta, it is still hospitalising and killing people, especially those who are unvaccinated, the clinically vulnerable (including some for whom vaccines are ineffective), and elderly people. Waning immunity is also an ongoing concern, as is making sure boosters are provided at the right time’. She suggests governments ‘must use the triad of testing, therapeutics (in particular, rapid antiviral pills) and vaccines to manage Covid-19’. It will be interesting besides depressing to see what the statistics look like when the effects of Easter weekend travel have fed through.

Medics have already called out the withdrawal of funding for Covid studies and now they’ve spoken out about one the public may not have known about. ‘The React-1 study, which played a crucial role in detecting and tracking the spread of the Alpha variant in December 2020 ahead of the second lockdown, has been stopped as part of the government’s plan to cut its Covid costs. But in its last report, the study found 6.37 per cent of the population was infected between 8 and 31 March – the highest figure since it began in May 2020. More worryingly, the scientists behind the research said the prevalence rate has also reached new highs for people aged 55 and over, at 8.31 per cent’.

Meanwhile, exacerbated by Covid, the NHS continues to be under significant strain and it no longer seems cynical to see this as part of a strategy to undermine and underfund it to such an extent that it becomes unviable, opening the field up to further privatisation. We’re told at least 1 in 10 is having to wait more than 12 hours for treatment in A&E, very long waits for ambulances and, very risky, families are being asked to take in Covid-positive loved ones to help reduce the burden. But politicians continue with their Easter breaks, persisting in the narrative that the NHS can manage despite 20,000 people in England being hospitalised with Covid.

A senior A&E consultant, lamenting the crisis in urgent care, sounds despairing: ‘Staff now frequently start their shift with twice as many patients as they have cubicles, all waiting to go up to a ward bed. This shortage of beds, the shortage of staff, the social care crisis mean we end up practising emergency medicine in ambulances in car parks or any other space we can find. This is our reality – a world of constant apology, compromise, and frustration. A world of risk and worry when we know that long stays lead to patient harm and even death, emergency medicine teams stretched and working in corners and corridors so that patients can be treated, and teams with 10-20% of staff off sick as Covid circulates leaving an understaffed workforce further depleted’. Imagine having to face this every day at work, and worse.

 Of course it’s not just about funding – it’s about a range of factors including ensuring in advance effective workforce planning (it hasn’t happened for years, starting with Jeremy Hunt’s cuts years ago) and minimising the risks of burdens like Covid. But don’t expect change any time soon because apart from the funding element there’s a lack of preparedness to take account of and act on the bigger picture. ‘The true barrier to tackling this crisis is political unwillingness. Big problems require big solutions.’ Exactly, but this government is incapable of strategic and joined up nuanced thinking. Half measures just don’t do the business.

As if there wasn’t already enough to contend with, the cost of living crisis and inflation reaching 7% here have many in despair as to how they’re going to manage, following energy price and council tax hikes, the rise in national insurance and food price increases due to various factors including the Ukraine war and Brexit. Alarmingly, finance expert Martin Lewis and others have predicted civil unrest and a crime wave as a consequence. Commentators ‘hope’ for some help in the Autumn Statement but the situation for many sounds dire already – we can’t afford to wait that long. The Independent reported that staff at more than 550 food banks across Britain had warned Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak that they are close to ‘breaking point’ from an unsustainable surge in demand, some saying their shelves were empty, partly because those who were donating are less able to do so. One tweeter suggested ‘a magic solution’ but of course these are measures the government doesn’t wish to enact as they would target Conservative Party donors and those who have long not paid their dues: ‘Windfall tax on energy companies and a proper price cap. Make companies like Amazon, Starbucks, Vodafone pay the billions in tax they owe. And cancel non-dom status for corrupt wealthy kleptocrats’.

Yet another delayed government strategy is the one relating to energy and, again, with interesting timing this was launched last week, when the Prime Minister typically donned his hard hat for an appearance at Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant in Somerset. He had the nerve to say his government was the first for years that had not ‘dodged the big decisions on energy’ when we know his government has form for ‘dodging the big decisions’ on most things, social care being the most pressing one. The strategy prioritises atomic energy, ‘yet within hours, critics spoke of a lack of ambition, particularly around onshore wind and energy efficiency, avenues that experts say offer the best and quickest hope of bringing down bills and achieving energy self-sufficiency’.

As the war continues in Ukraine, the casualties mount and there has been evidence of appalling Russian atrocities such as massacres, mass graves and extensive rape in the areas the Russian forces withdrew from. Use of chemical weapons in Mariupol has also been suspected. Attention now seems to be turning to what Putin can try to present to his people as success on 9 May, the anniversary of the original 1945 Victory Day marking Russia’s defeat of Nazi Germany. There have been challenges to those surprised by what Putin has done, as he has ‘form’ and his actions have been described as ‘straight out of Stalin’s playbook’. First giving examples of Putin’s humiliation of others, Gideon Rachman goes on to criticise the West’s treatment of him as ‘a pantomime villain’ and how they underestimated what Putin is capable of. It’s now rather late to be catching up with this reality.

‘Even though western intelligence services had warned for months that Russia was poised to attack, many experienced Putin-watchers, both in Russia and the west, refused to believe it. After more than 20 years of his leadership, they felt that they understood Putin. He was ruthless and violent, no doubt, but he was also believed to be rational, calculating and committed to Russia’s integration into the world economy. Few believed he was capable of such a reckless gamble. Looking back, however, it is clear that the outside world has consistently misread him. From the moment he took power, outsiders too often saw what they wanted and played down the darkest sides of Putinism’. He describes the ‘Putin fan club’ as including such influential figures (whether you like them or not) as Rudy Giuliani, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini and China’s Xi Jinping.

Rachman describes how well Putin appeared to begin his administration, promising to ‘protect freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of the mass media, ownership rights, these fundamental elements of a civilised society’ but how, within a year, erosion of democratic standards set in. This intensified, with Russia’s few independent television networks being brought under government control at the same time as his PR people were hard at work portraying him as a strong and impressive figure, exemplified by the photos of  ‘Putin on horseback, Putin practising judo, Putin arm-wrestling or strolling bare-chested by a river in Siberia’.

The signs were there for us (or at least politicians and military experts) to see, but it seems the West has been too relaxed about this sinister trajectory. ‘In a speech in 2005, Putin labelled the collapse of the Soviet Union ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century’. As the years have passed, he has become increasingly preoccupied by Russian history. In the summer of 2021, he published a long essay entitled On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians – which, even at the time, some saw as a manifesto for invasion. Delving through centuries of history, Putin attempted to prove that Ukraine was an artificial state and that “Russia was robbed, indeed” when Ukraine gained independence in 1991’. In addition, he cites what sounds like a key speech Putin gave at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, suggesting that Putin’s ‘fury’ with the West amounted not only to ‘an angry reflection on the past’ but ‘also pointed the way to the future. The Russian president had put the west on notice that he intended to fight back against the US-led world order. It foreshadowed a lot of what was to come: Russia’s military intervention in Georgia in 2008, its annexation of Crimea in 2014, its dispatch of troops to Syria in 2015, its meddling in the US presidential election of 2016’. Much to reflect on here.

What’s geopolitics got to do with language learning, some may ask….. quite a lot, it seems. The Financial Times reports on the increase in Russian and Chinese learning following the collapse of the Soviet Union, iron Curtain etc and recognition of China as a major world power. Last year Chinese apparently overtook Russian on the Duolingo language app, becoming the 8th most popular but recent events mean both could plummet somewhat. ‘If Western businesses there are forced to make the sort of tough ethical decisions they’re making in Russia, spurning Chinese may turn out to be an educated bet’. This will be rather galling for those who’ve invested a lot of time and energy in learning these languages in the hope of putting them to use in a professional context.  

Those of us old enough to remember dessert trolleys in restaurants will recall them being wheeled out after the main course, bearing a variety of classic puds and the cheeseboard. It’s not clear what exactly led to their demise, unless it just fashion, but now apparently they are back, and not just about puddings. The Times gives examples of trolleys being pressed into service to showcase smoked and cured fish and one venue has several, one of which carries baked Alaska. But apparently they never went away altogether – Piccadilly bistro Maison Francais uses their multi-storey trolley for creations which need slicing, individual desserts and petit fours. It would almost be worth going there to see it in action despite the breathtaking prices!

Finally, on a seasonal point, it’s today, Good Friday, when hot cross buns are supposed to feature (in the Christian tradition anyway) and I admit to disapproving of seasonal items being available all the year round, even months in advance, like these buns, crème eggs and mince pies. But another development which could attract condemnation in some quarters is the introduction of different flavours and types, eg chocolate, triple berry and cheddar and caramelised onion chutney (Sainsburys) which obscure the meaning of the original recipe. Wales Online reminds us: ‘The buns were originally baked to mark the end of the Christian season of Lent and different parts of the delicacy have a certain meaning, including the cross representing the crucifixion of Jesus, and the spices inside signifying the spices used to embalm him at his burial and may also include orange peel to reflect the bitterness of his time on the Cross’. But ye gods, different flavours are one thing but now we apparently have hot cross bangers and smash, hot cross bun steak tartare and a new cocktail – hot cross bun espresso martini! It would be interesting to know how these innovations fare. Whatever you choose to eat and drink, a happy Easter to all!

Saturday 2 April

At the start of April, a quarter of the year having already gone, we find ourselves here in a wintry chill, the war still raging in Ukraine with not much sign of progress, the UK besmirched by further political scandals and a cost of living crisis unprecedented in recent years. Marvellous. T S Eliot, whose famous poem The Waste Land sees its centenary very soon, wasn’t joking when he penned that famous opening line – April is the cruellest month. 1 April marked the day energy prices doubled for many, throwing millions into poverty, adding to steadily growing inflation, and the ending of free Covid tests, regarded as reckless by many medics. The Tory script trotted out to ‘justify’ this and the lifting of other related Covid safety measures rests on three myths, excellently explained and demolished by well-known commentator Christina Pagel, a professor at University College London and member of Independent Sage.

These are that the use of the word ‘endemic’ (meaning predictable, therefore implying a capacity to control it) is inaccurate as there’s nothing predictable about Covid. The second is that Covid is evolving to become milder, each variant emerging logically from the previous one, as if in a logical sequence, whereas there’s been no progression through successive variants, and no building towards “mildness”. The third is that we’ve somehow ‘finished’ our vaccination programme, so we don’t need to wait to return to normal when actually immunity wanes after several months so we continue to be at risk. ‘We’re living in two realities: one in which people have returned to living life as if Covid is over, and the other in which we are approaching record levels of infections, with an estimated 4.26m cases last week’. Deaths range from 190-230 per day – that is a lot and it’s alarming to see how such numbers have been almost normalised.

‘Returning to normal behaviour does not return us to normal life. It returns us to a life with more disruption, more sickness and more strain on the NHS. But we can certainly learn to live with Covid better’. What Pagel sees as the partial answer is better public health measures to reduce transmissibility in the first place, such as ventilation, less crowding and tackling economic inequalities – all of which the government has shirked as clearly being too difficult and/or expensive for them. The very first thing that’s needed is for the media to properly challenge ministers and others when they attempt to peddle these myths.

A GP, well qualified to see what’s going on ‘on the ground’, tweeted: ‘It’s over. Any control over Covid we had is over. Duty doctor today. I’ve lost count of the number of patients I’ve seen with classic Covid symptoms NOT A SINGLE PERSON has isolated or done a PCR test. Everyone’s mixing & infecting each other. There is no control. It’s over’.

One in 13 are now said to have Covid and it’s interesting to note that quite a few are those who have been most risk averse and careful throughout. Some will have effectively closed down their lives for no purpose, since Covid got them in the end, proof of increased transmissibility, though it could be argued at least they avoided getting it twice or three times, as many have. A concerned Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘Jenny Harries [chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency and, some would say, Boris Johnson loyalist] told Mishal Husain there’s been a small increase in the number of Covid deaths, as cases surge. Stats show a 26% increase on the 28 days deaths number. I wonder how high the % needs to be for Harries to call it a big increase?’ Another tweeted about the shaming decision to remove free parking for NHS staff: ‘Javid thanks NHS staff for their hard work throughout the pandemic (it’s still a pandemic) then imposes a parking tax on them to help support the NHS, whilst getting a free parking space himself.’

1 April also being April Fool’s Day prompted some good tweets from wags – if only some could be true, eg‘Carrie Symonds files for Divorce. Nadine Dorries implicated. No.10 declines to comment’; ‘BREAKING News – Boris Johnson admits he lied to the British people and Parliament over Partygate & in a tearful statement resigns as PM!’

The news that the Met has (after all this time!) decided to issue only 20 fines so far (and we may well never get to know to whom unless they choose to go public themselves) has brought Partygate centre stage again. For many, though, it never went away, despite the government’s fervent hope that the Ukraine crisis and myth that the UK was ‘leading the world’ on diplomacy and military support would somehow erase it all from our memories. (That particular myth should have been well and truly demolished by the dismal footage of a scruffy Boris Johnson at the NATO Summit being completely ignored as other leaders went around the room exchanging greetings and handshakes.  Also by what the former Finnish Prime Minister, Alexander Stubb, said: ‘This idea about ‘Global Britain’ is as true as ‘peaceful Russia’. Simply utter rubbish, to put it diplomatically. To claim that ⁦Boris Johnson ‘has taken a lead globally in standing up to Putin’ is an illusion only possible in Brexit La La Land’).

Infuriatingly and unjustifiably, Boris Johnson and ministers in the Commons and the media refuse to be drawn on whether the PM or others would resign if issued with a fine, even though Dominic Raab admitted on the Today programme that the PM had lied and misled Parliament and this is a condition of the ministerial code. There’s long been government contempt for this code but now it seems they are barely even bothering to cover things up now – brazen, suggesting a total absence of moral compass, respect for the law and accountability. But this conduct reached a new low this week:  the PM treating his MPs to a slap up dinner at a posh London hotel (nothing to do with needing their support, of course), the attendees walking past Covid19 Bereaved Families for Justice protesters and telling journalists that the events under investigation weren’t parties but ‘gatherings of colleagues’.

The protesters tweeted their disgust: ‘Last night, (29 March) Conservative MPs couldn’t even look bereaved families in the eye as they held yet another party on the day of the first partygate fines and anniversary of the National Memorial Wall’. It was also coincided with the Duke of Edinburgh’s memorial service. It has emerged (how unhelpful is this, smacking of turf wars?) that the Met is refusing to reveal which parties have attracted fines, keeping Sue Gray in the dark. ‘She is due to update and publish her report when the police investigation is complete, but is not expecting to receive full information on which of 12 parties under investigation and which officials, aides and potentially politicians have been fined’. What a way to hobble an investigation and why should those fined be granted anonymity, so that even the Cabinet Office and No 10 don’t know which of their staff are implicated? Meanwhile, in contrast to several ministers (they can’t even sing from the same song sheet on this vital issue), the PM is refusing to accept that a fine would mean he has broken the law, his allies suggested he would not resign if he were issued with a penalty. This is a complete twisting of the truth, a key concept explored by Stephen Reicher.

Professor Stephen Reicher says: ‘The PM’s actions are a resigning matter: democracy is in peril when our leaders no longer care about being seen to lie’. He’s well qualified to opine, being a frequent commentator since the start of the pandemic, a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science, professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews, a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and an authority on crowd psychology. For those who still misrepresent and trivialize Partygate as ‘about cake’, who can’t see the much deeper significance: ‘This matters, not just because it harms trust in this government, and therefore its ability to effectively govern. It’s also harmful because it makes the formation of consensus about what is “true” almost impossible. In Hannah Arendt’s seminal text The Origins of Totalitarianism, she argued that the dying of democracy is marked by a progressive contempt for facts and for those who study them, and a growing belief that truth derives from the power of those who fabricate it. If there is no independent validation of reality, what is permissible – and what counts as “true” – comes down to who is most shameless and shouts the loudest’.

He points up Arendt’s theory that such survival depends on the individual surrounding themselves with talentless acolytes who can be relied upon to fawn and warns us not to be seduced by specious arguments which erroneously claim to be taking account of the bigger picture. ‘Some people may now argue things such as “despite Partygate, Johnson got the big calls right” or “we can’t remove him in the midst of a war” – so called “greater good” arguments, which have always served as cover for the most toxic abuses’.

The PM cut a pathetic figure at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, (the morning after the night before), one commentator suggesting he was incoherent ‘and gave the appearance of being desperately hungover’. The lies continue, unchallenged by the Speaker, backbenchers apparently cheering ‘whatever lies Boris chose to tell. And there were plenty of them; from the Tories having reduced the tax burden to Labour being hellbent on taking the UK back into both lockdown and the EU’. In theory the PM had an even harder time of it at the afternoon’s Parliamentary Liaison Committee (the parliamentary group of select committee chairs), where some tough questions were asked but the challengers seemed to come up hard against the PM’s party-induced soporific state and stonewalling.

SNP MP Pete Wishart bombarded the PM with a series of questions: ‘Could any prime minister survive being busted and found guilty? Was breaking the ministerial code a resigning matter? Would he accept that issuing FPNs was proof that criminality had taken place? Could he explain why his answers on parties had changed from “They never took place” to “I was outraged that other people had been to lockdown parties” to “I didn’t realise I was breaking the law”?

We have to wonder what the point of these Commons committees is, since so many feature good, solid work by their chairs and others but nothing seems to result from them.

Despite, predictably, presenting his Spring Statement as a progressive budget (worrying that so many will just be taken in by this, not looking for the omissions and misrepresentations) the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, came in for a great deal of flak, especially for its transparent mechanism to allow a tax cut just before the next General Election. Some of the most polite yet firm of the challenges came from Labour’s Angela Eagle and Siobhain McDonagh, the latter asking him, incredulously: ‘Do you think people are stupid?’ Many were shocked by Sunak declaring that he was ‘comfortable’ with the choices he’d made, when the energy price cap went up 54% , putting millions at risk.

Unfortunately, what we’re seeing now from this government is an increasing amount of cynical gaslighting and victim card playing as defensive strategies.  For example, on coming under fire because his wife is said to be collecting “blood money” in dividends from a family company continuing to operate in Russia despite the invasion of Ukraine, Sunak made a specious comparison with Jada Pinkett Smith in the recent Oscars row, saying it was ‘very upsetting and … wrong for people to try and come at my wife’. Ahem, the difference is, Chancellor, that your wife (who holds a stake in her billionaire father’s firm worth approximately £690m, and which yielded her £11.5m in dividend payments over the past year) is a legitimate target whereas Pinkett Smith was not.

But this isn’t the end of it….. inflation continues to climb (the Office for Budget Responsibility says it will average 7.4% during 2022) and it’s thought the price cap will rise again later this year. The Resolution Foundation think tank suggests that it could push an additional 2.5m households into ‘fuel stress’ (those spending 10 per cent or more of their income after housing costs on energy bills) – culminating in a total of 7.5m households.

It looks as if, yet again, the government has used the domination of the news agenda by the Ukraine war, Spring Statement and Oscars to slip out news which could prove most unwelcome. It seems Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has ignored the advice of the scrutiny committee of MPs and gone ahead with appointing former Tory candidate Orlando Fraser to chair the Charity Commission. ‘The select committee said in its pre-appointment scrutiny report this week it could not endorse ministers’ “slapdash and unimaginative choice” of Fraser for the £62,000 a year job as head of the charities regulator in England’. Questions have been raised about this and other appointments, eg the one of Lord Grade as Ofcom chair. Fraser’s name and appearance would partly reinforce what we’re told about him: ‘Educated at a private school and Cambridge University, Fraser is a white, upper middle-class barrister. He is the son of the late Tory MP Sir Hugh Fraser and the writer Lady Antonia Fraser. His grandfather was the Labour peer Lord Longford’.

So, ‘one of us’, as Mrs Thatcher might have said, though, to be fair, Fraser himself insisted the Commission under his watch would be independent of government and not allow itself to be ‘dragged into culture wars’. It will be interesting to see how far he maintains this independence, though, as previous culture secretary Oliver Dowden said the regulator’s next chair should be prepared to pursue charities which stray into so-called “woke” and “political” activities. That cynical agenda strikes again.

More than a month after the Ukraine invasion (we have to wonder about those calling it a ‘conflict’), other very damaging consequences are being felt besides the tragic loss of life and displacement of over 10m Ukrainians. It’s reckoned over 160,000 people are trapped in the besieged port city of Mariupol, 7000 Russian soldiers have been killed and that some, experiencing at first hand the lack of food, fuel and effective strategy, have defected to the Ukraine side. We’re told that no one can stand up to Putin and besides several generals being killed, others have been sacked or put under house arrest. Extensive consequences are being felt regarding fuel prices and wheat supplies, Ukraineno longer able to be ‘the bread basket of the world’, thought likely to lead to starvation in some countries heavily dependent on this supply.

The ‘peace talks’ just seem like window dressing and why should Ukraine have to make any concessions when the invasion was unprovoked? It’s as if we were all supposedto feel grateful to Russia for promising a significant withdrawal of forces from outside Kiev, but not only has this not happened, war crimes like the shelling of hospitals and humanitarian pathways and forcibly taking Ukrainians to Russia persist. Then we have to contend with the endless pontificating of ministers lambasting Putin – the irony. One tweeter observed:  ‘Keep hearing commentators say “Nothing Vladimir Putin says can be trusted or taken at face value.” And they’re absolutely right. The problem is that precisely the same words can be uttered about Boris Johnson’. There’s one thing to be grateful for, though: advisers must have managed to nip in the bud the appalling suggestion a fortnight ago that Boris Johnson was ‘desperate’ to visit Ukraine. According to that fount of all wisdom, Oliver Dowden, the PM ‘feels a real emotional connection with the Ukrainian people’ when it’s clear to most of us that he is incapable of such a connection with anyone.

The Prime Minister’s ‘journalist’ sister, Rachel Johnson, was excoriated for blithely suggesting on LBC that she was ok with Putin taking some territory (presumably the parts already occupied by Russian forces) if this would then keep him at bay. Besides being outrageously presumptuous, we know such placatory strategy doesn’t work, along the lines of the old English expression ‘give them an inch and they’ll take an ell’. Many, not least Putin and colleagues, have been clearly taken aback by the strength, persistence and determination of the Ukrainian resistance and how they came from a low base to quickly develop an effective cyber strategy.

Initially it was said that they were winning the cyber war but now others seem to imply Putin is winning but just playing a longer game, helped by China, accused of mounting cyber attacks against Ukraine. ‘UK intelligence officers warned on Thursday that Russia is increasingly seeking out cyber targets as its ground military campaign in Ukraine stalls. Additional reports on Wednesday revealed Russian hackers recently attempted to penetrate the networks of Nato and the militaries of some eastern European countries. These developments showed that “things are heating up” on the cyber front, said Theresa Payton, cybersecurity expert and former White House chief information officer. “We should prepare for the worst and operate at our best,” she said….. Putin might also be “playing a long game” and having his cyber operatives infiltrate various adversaries and gain footholds, then wait until he decides to launch a cyber-attack’.

Closer to home, there’s been much criticism of the Homes for Ukraine scheme for simply not working and giving people ‘false hope’ – it’s about cynically giving the appearance of taking action but actually making it too bureaucratic to be workable, also abdicating responsibility from central government onto the public. A fortnight after the scheme began, we were told no visas had been granted and the PM still refuses to answer questions in the Commons as to how many Ukrainians have obtained visas and have actually got here. The UK’s scheme is ‘a calculated pretence’, confirmed a Russian-speaking teacher (currently in Warsaw helping families with their paperwork) on Radio 4’s Any Answers today, also telling us that the Spanish had already processed 2000 who were already in Spain. It was reported elsewhere that at least one family (how many more??) had given up on the UK’s bureaucracy and gone to Germany instead.

It comes to something when even those on the government side find fault with the system but perhaps not all in the most savoury of ways. Another challenge Boris Johnson got at the Parliamentary Liaison Committee was from North Herefordshire MP Sir Bill Wiggin, who said:  ‘I am really worried, Prime Minister, that everything you have said to us today I actually want to happen. But it isn’t happening, and the only people who are turning up turned up in rubber boats. Why can’t we get the right people through our immigration system instead of the wrong ones?’ Isn’t it surprising that an MP is comfortable with expressing such a view, knowing that this forum was covered by the media? Meanwhile, numerous ‘wrong ones’ such as Syrians and Afghans remain holed up in hotels and there’s little reporting in the media about their plight.

Amid the war reporting and visa shenanigans there’s been insufficient attention paid to the trauma being experienced by Ukrainians so it’s good to see experts acknowledging this. (The same applied to Syrians and Afghans, of course). ‘Civilians fleeing conflict in Ukraine must be given immediate access to mental health support when they reach the UK, experts have said, adding there is an urgent need for more investment in such services. Jonathan Bisson, professor in psychiatry at Cardiff University and director of Traumatic Stress Wales, said many people remaining in Ukraine would be experiencing uncertainty, anxiety and fear and some were likely develop mental health problems’. But for years there’s been significant under-investment in mental health services in this country, many UK residents unable to obtain NHS help so there’s almost bound to be a severe shortfall where help for Ukrainians is concerned.

Typically, a government spokesman trotted out the usual empty promises, without, of course, mentioning the long waiting lists for help and limited choice of therapy and face-to-face therapy. ‘Ukrainians fleeing their home country will be guaranteed free access to NHS healthcare, including mental health care services and registration with a GP. Arrivals will be signposted to services including 24/7 mental health helplines available in every area, and information on accessing NHS services including talking therapies’.

In other news, many were dismayed this week to see the Queen, at the Duke of Edinburgh’s memorial service, so publicly accept Prince Andrew’s assistance as she made her way to her seat, potentially signalling some kind of rehabilitation. The rather feeble justification was that it was seen as ‘a family occasion’ rather than a state one but it’s doubtful this would cut much ice with those who were angered by the prince’s conduct and his longstanding avoidance of legal proceedings. Meanwhile, he seems to have been embroiled in another scandal. Although (concerned about litigation?) the article stated that ‘there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by the prince or Ferguson’ it describes a convoluted situation which makes it clear that there was some involvement.

Some may be pleased to learn that our apparent love affair (not in all quarters) with the ‘small plates’ in restaurants (aka stingy portions costing quite a bit) could be over, since more customers are tiring of  it. Imogen West-Knights describes an experience of actually feeling full after a restaurant meal: ‘I realised that I hadn’t eaten this way in a restaurant in a long time. Without noticing it I had, for a good decade, been in thrall to small plates. And I was not alone. All over the country, small plates restaurants (often with short names to match) have proliferated, from Noto in Edinburgh to Poco in Bristol, Belfast’s Ora to Manchester’s Erst, and through almost every city in between’. This must be the quote of the week, one of her friends describing small plates as ‘the Tinder of eating – loads of choice, but satisfaction by no means guaranteed’.

Opinions are divided: ‘Those who loved them, loved them for their variety, but the naysayers had a litany of objections, associating them with pretentiousness and feeling confused, ripped off, overwhelmed by choice and often still hungry at the end of a meal’. The author describes restaurant managers being worn down trying to explain the concept of small plates to older people – perhaps this demographic is more sceptical and less taken in by urban cool. There are numerous suggestions in this article, for example that Brits aren’t regarded as keen on sharing, the absurdity of sharing 6 beans between 8 diners, say, and food critic Jay Rayner saying we don’t go out to eat because we’re hungry – what nonsense and arguably an insensitive comment to make given the cost of living increase and what many fear is semi-starvation to come in some sections of society. An amusing and worthwhile article and good that there are decent places mid spectrum serving proper adult portions, neither overpriced ‘small plates’ nor large portions of variable quality.

Finally, continuing the gastronomy theme, the Daily Telegraph discussed an interesting survey in which Italians were asked how they felt about 19 different ‘abuses’ of their cuisine (what about those who wouldn’t even recognise the ‘abuses’?!). Apparently, they were ‘remarkably relaxed’ about some, like pairing meatballs with spaghetti (many restaurants serve this dish!) but were ‘considerably less tolerant’ of other crimes like putting pineapple on pizzas and rinsing pasta under cold water. The surveyors found that Britons and Americans, like Italians, disapproved of putting ketchup on pasta, whereas Chinese and Indonesian respondents thought it was fine. Fascinating stuff!

Sunday 20 March

As Putin presses on with his ghastly ‘special operation’ in Ukraine (day 24 of the invasion today), it’s increasingly clear that the West is between a rock and hard place regarding intervention – Ukrainians and others are saying WW3 has already broken out and it’s only a matter of time before other countries get involved or are drawn in against their will. Other commentators stick firmly to NATO protocol regarding which activities would constitute declaring war. Parallels have been drawn with Pearl Harbour during WW2. The Russia-Ukraine talks are surely just window dressing, allowing Putin to buy more time while appearing to be open to negotiation. We have to wonder whether Putin has been surprised by the weaknesses revealed in the Russian military and by the strength and determination of Ukrainian resistance. Or whether he’s considered that if taking Ukraine is proving more of a challenge than he anticipated, how much more challenging it could be to hold onto the territory seized. Some commentators say the only way to defeat this lawless despot is via an economic war, targeting Russian foreign reserves so that propping up the rouble becomes prohibitively expensive. Another major concern is the role of China in aiding Putin – President Biden’s threat of ‘consequences’ if this happens isn’t likely to cut much ice with them.

Several other constituents of the invasion have also become clear: the bravery of the Ukrainian people, the positive qualities of former comedian President Zelensky (makes our shameless and lightweight politicians look even weaker) and the over-dependence of the West on Russian oil and gas. Meanwhile, this government’s position on visas for Ukrainians, compared with those of other countries, has caused a great deal of anger here because of the cynical appearance of doing something at the same time as making the process exceedingly difficult. The pathetic arguments of Priti Patel and others about the need to security check those entering the UK and this takes time etc don’t hold water (who do they expect to be convinced apart from xenophobic backbenchers and others?) because no such checks were carried out on the many oligarchs and other Russians entering.

Ministers including Michael Gove pontificate about the ‘generosity of the British people’, failing to see that yes, we, the people, are generous but our government manifestly is not. By last weekend more than 43,000 UK citizens had registered their interest in sponsoring Ukrainian refugees to stay in their homes – just hours after the government website went live, then the website crashed. What an embarrassing IT fail. Welsh MP Delyth Jewell tweeted about the government’s cynical strategy: ‘Whilst we can be proud of all the families stepping up to help refugees, it seems the Home Office is ‘outsourcing’ its responsibility to households up and down the country!’ A wag tweeted: ‘There were more people invited to a Downing Street party during lockdown than Ukrainian refugees invited to the UK during a war.’

Comments have also rightly been made, for example about the race and religion aspect, about this massive effort when many Afghan and Syrian refugees have not yet been housed. A letter to the Times suggested that as the number of offers exceeds the likely number of Ukrainians wishing to come here, the scheme should be extended to the unhoused Afghans and Syrians. But how realistic is the government’s idea (bound to be half-baked, like everything else it touches?) that councils can administer the funds and ‘vet’ those offering when local government has long been stretched to the limit? Well beyond limits in some cases. An almost amusing irony is the government ‘looking at’ (this is often as far as they ever get) the possibility of legislating to allow the London homes of sanctioned Russian oligarchs to be used to house the refugees.  

Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy is amongst critics of the bureaucracy dogging the Homes for Ukraine scheme, saying that councils and charities should have been consulted before setting up the scheme. But we well know (remember what the sidelining of local public health experts during the initial stages of the pandemic?) how the over-centralised government likes to control processes and deny the need of help from elsewhere. Nandy pointed out that despite there being 150,000 expressions of interest in assisting those fleeing Ukraine with no family links to the UK, there was no formal central system of matching the people on the register to those in need, ‘which is pretty extraordinary’. Isn’t this exactly what the government wants? ‘When you add in the excessive layers of bureaucracy – the lengthy forms and the documents you need to prove your identity and residency – the barriers make this scheme completely unworkable. Unless urgent steps are taken to address this, we will see very small numbers of people taking up this offer and a lot of the public’s generosity squandered’.

 It’s thought the government hasn’t (yet) involved the refugee and child protection sectors sufficiently but householders offering help will need DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) checks. Since this costs money and take time, will the government be footing the bill? Although local authorities will be expected to take on the role of vetting sponsors and inspecting accommodation, it turns out (no surprise) that before Gove came to speak to the Commons about the scheme not a single council had been contacted. Remind you of anything? It’s as if the government doesn’t think anyone will check so time and time again gets caught out, like the start of the pandemic when there was panic buying and it turned out that despite Matt Hancock’s saying he’d been liaising with the supermarkets they said he had not made contact.

A perennial theme of this blog is the worsening state of our mental health due not only to personal and world events (Covid, climate change, poverty, inflation and war) but also the lack of psychological ‘holding’ we are entitled to expect from an honest and competent government. It’s also hard for people to get support in the much more helpful form of talking therapies (rather than medication) when NHS services have been severely underfunded for years. Now there will be an additional workload because of the mental health support needed by the Ukrainians managing to get here despite the obstacles put in their way. Unfortunately, what often seems to happen is that rather than seek advice from counselling and therapy professional bodies, the government puts out to tender various packages of work, tempted to take the providers offering the lowest price, with lack of clarity over the qualifications and experience of those actually undertaking the work. It will be interesting to see over the coming weeks just what ‘support’ is put in place and at what cost – that is, if this information is made sufficiently transparent.

 An interesting briefing in The Week on ‘Londongrad’ details what many of us won’t have known the extent of: just how pervasive Russian presence and money has become here in recent years and how intertwined the Conservative Party is with it. It’s thought there are about 150,000 Russians living in London, and while most won’t be connected to the Kremlin ‘it’s widely accepted that the UK was far too welcoming’ when it introduced its UK investor visa scheme in 1994. We’re told that in seven years from 2008, 700 Russians and their families invested more than £1m each in the UK in order to fast track British citizenship. This year it’s been estimated there’s £27bn of Russian investment in the UK. Of this, £1.5bn worth of British property has been bought by Russians accused of corruption or linked to the Kremlin. It’s not surprising that London has become known as the money laundering capital of the world. Even more dangerous is that numerous politicians have accepted Russian donations and the Conservative Party has received £2m since Boris Johnson became party leader. It’s both frightening and unacceptable that ordinary people here are powerless to challenge this sinister dynamic, since the government will be reluctant to bite too hard the numerous hands which feed them.

Yes, steps have and are being taken to close down the ‘London laundromat’ but these have proved slow enough for canny operators to move or hide their assets. Whereas some countries like Germany have seized oligarch yachts speeding away from European waters, the UK has allowed them to sail away.  If it wasn’t so serious it would be almost amusing that some entrepreneurial anti-corruption campaigners have been running ‘kleptocracy tours’ of London, featuring numerous properties owned by high profile Russians in smart areas like Highgate and Belgravia. Belgrave Square is apparently known jokingly known as Red Square because of its association with these property owners.

It’s at least encouraging that some Russians at least can see beyond the propaganda they’re fed with (eg the deluded narrative that Russia and Ukraine are really one country) and have been protesting. Dmitry Glukhovsky, Russian author and journalist, explains in the Guardian how ordinary Russians did not want this war but Putin is trying to make them all complicit. He suggests that ‘Putin tells lie after lie to justify the horror he has unleashed, and to convince Russians this war is being waged for their survival….. This war was not wanted by the ordinary people who are going to pay for it. Nor by the businesses that will collapse as a result, nor the so-called elites who will be cut off from the world and deprived of their usual feeding troughs. Since the war began, normal life ended for everyone in Russia, and life under martial law began’. He describes how Putin doesn’t shoulder responsibility for this but forcibly gets the Russian Security Council (which had not even known about the invasion plan before members were summoned) to share it, followed by the MPs.

‘Those who believe this propaganda must remember that the rest of the world now sees Russians as invaders. Before too long, they will see us as war criminals. And this will become a part of our history for ever. We are all being smeared – smeared with the blood of peaceful Ukrainians and our conscripts, who were sent into hell “for training exercises”. This is not our war, and we must remember that. We must talk about that. We cannot let them speak for us’.

What’s painful to consider, too, when we recall what happened in Iraq and elsewhere, is the morale undermining tactic of attacking a target’s cultural history. (Some may recall that back in 2019 the Imperial War Museum in London mounted a fascinating exhibition, with accompanying events, of how the opposition to the regimes in Nazi Germany, Mali and the Balkans resisted attempts to marginalise or eliminate their culture). Now some believe that the same kind of symbolic annihilation is being practised in Ukraine. In the city of Lviv, local officials were overseeing the boarding up of the cathedral’s stained glass windows and the erecting of scaffolding around priceless friezes.

‘If we lose our culture we lose our identity,” said Lilya Onyschenko, the head of Lviv’s city council heritage protection office. “Lviv has always been multicultural. Poles, Germans, Jews, Armenians and Hungarians built it. It’s Unesco listed.” She said she and her colleagues were working their way through a long list of objects that needed to be protected’. This article is now a week old so more damage has probably occurred but as Lviv was taking its precautions, several cultural items across Ukraine had already been attacked and damaged, including a museum in the city of Ivankiv, north-west of Kyiv, which housed dozens of works by the Ukrainian folk artist Maria Prymachenko, and the assumption cathedral in Kharkiv,  

‘Many Ukrainians believe this vandalism is no accident. In an essay last summer Putin claimed Ukraine and Russia were “one people” and Zelensky has argued the Kremlin’s ultimate goal is the “erasure” of Ukraine as an independent sovereign state. That includes its language, people and culture, suppressed during previous eras of Russification’. Let’s hope the Ukrainians prove able to keep at bay this sinister kind of destruction.

Meanwhile, some of us have complained about BBC presenters being sent to the war zone when excellent reporting was already underway from stalwarts like Lyse Doucet. Nick Robinson, Clive Myrie and Mishal Husain are amongst presenters broadcasting there in recent weeks but on Radio 4’s Feedback programme the policy was predictably defended by a senior controller. This not only seems like a waste of resources for the cash-strapped BBC but also a slap in the face for those already doing a splendid job there. I was personally sickened by the inclusion in one Today programme of a piece between Nick Robinson and Clive Myrie chummily swapping stories of their experiences in the bunker – this struck a sour note considering what’s going on outside the bunker.

Amidst all this, however, never underestimate our Prime Minister’s preparedness to make political capital, the stage this time being the Conservative Party’s spring conference. Brexit Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg had already covered himself in glory by saying that the Ukraine war had illustrated how the Partygate scandal was just ‘disproportionate fluff’. Boris Johnson shocked even some on his own side as he attempted to liken the Ukrainians’ struggle for freedom with that of Brexiteers. A disgusted viewer tweeted:  ‘At a speech he made in Blackpool Johnson has superseded his own levels of loathsomeness today by contrasting the fight for freedom by the Ukrainians as the same for those who voted for Brexit. Let that sink in’. Another said:  ‘Donald Tusk was bang on with this summary of Boris Johnson’s comparison of Ukraine to Brexit, “Your words offend Ukrainians, the British and common sense.” Every single day that he remains in office offends our country, our position in the world and our democracy’. Needless to say, senior Tories interviewed in the media were called upon to defend the indefensible, Theresa Villiers making a poor fist of it on Radio 4.

Amidst the gloom some excellent news this week – the release of two high profile detainees imprisoned in Iran, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, predictably accompanied by a media circus and, distastefully, politicians queuing up to link themselves to the release. (An exception can be made for the couple’s MP, Tulip Siddiq, who seems to have been genuinely helpful throughout). Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and others were among those present at RAF Brize Norton as the plane carrying the detainees touched down at 1 am on Thursday morning. Wonderful as this is for the detainees’ families and friends, there have obviously been questions as to why now? The government had finally paid the £400m debt owed for years to Iran but it’s been widely suggested that the Ukraine war and the pressure on energy prices and supplies has been a key factor. ‘Following the Ukraine invasion and subsequent western action to curb Russian energy imports, the US and Europe suddenly have a powerful incentive to lift sanctions and allow Iranian oil and gas back into a damagingly overpriced market’.

The media have been careful not to mention Boris Johnson’s disastrous intervention as former Foreign Secretary, misrepresenting her holiday in Iran as ‘teaching people journalism’ and setting back progress for years. The real hero has to be Richard Ratcliffe, who kept going, campaigning and even going on hunger strike to keep the case alive in people’s minds. This couple throughout has demonstrated such impressive courage and determination that it’s to be hoped they can enjoy some peace and quality family time without too much media intrusion.

Meanwhile, despite the government’s pretence that Covid has gone away, it seems to have made significant advances, with a new variant (Deltacron, containing elements of Delta and Omicron) starting to take hold. In the past week, 444,201 positive cases have been recorded – an increase of 48.1%. The number of patients admitted to hospital has also risen steeply to 10,576 in England as of 8am on 14 March – 19% up on the previous week. This makes the cessation of all precautions look very reckless and where have we heard this before, a health minister conceding that yes, there is some concern, but the UK is ‘in a good position’ so effectively will carry on regardless. ‘Boris Johnson’s spokesperson on Monday insisted there was no need for any fresh restrictions to help curb the spread of the virus’. Look out for another U-turn at some point?

Scientists and others are also concerned about the withdrawal of funding for Covid surveys and tracking studies. Ministers have been accused of “turning off the headlights at the first sign of dawn” after doing away nationwide Covid surveillance programmes, scientists saying it will almost certainly end up costing more money in the long run. So what’s new, another false economy? Although an Office for National Statistics survey, regularly checking 180,000 people will continue, we’re told the React study (randomly testing about 150,000 people across England each month to see how many are infected with Covid) will cease at the end of March, with no further data being collected. Funding is also being stopped for the Zoe Covid symptom study, the Siren and Vivaldi studies (which monitor infections in health workers and care homes) and the CoMix social contacts survey. Perhaps the most worrying thing is the cessation of free testing from 1 April, especially given the cost of tests – a YouGov poll also showed that fewer than one in four people are prepared to pay for a test if they have Covid symptoms. Stopping data tracking and free testing is such a cynical way of suppressing key statistics: it won’t be at all surprising if some systems and precautions have to be reinstated.

Given these inflationary times, it’s interesting (though it was probably planned long ago) that an entrepreneur water enthusiast has opened a bottled water shop in London, with products ranging from £2.50 to £120 per 750ml bottle. We’re told that Fine Liquids stocks 100 types of water from springs and rain pools all over the world. It’s not surprising to find that the shop is in Fulham, quite a wealthy area.

Finally, intriguing news from the retail sector is the teaming up of bakery chain Greggs and budget clothing company Primark to launch an 11-piece clothing range. Launched in February, this ‘limited-edition range of Sausage roll-adorned pants, socks, T-shirts, bucket hats and more’ has apparently proved a big hit and some items have already been sold on E-Bay at quite some mark-up. If this was around 1 April I would have assumed it to be an April Fool’s Day prank! Sausage roll pants, anyone?

Sunday 6 March

Since Russia invaded Ukraine over a week ago, a shocking but not surprising development, the news has been wall to wall Ukraine. Two million people have reportedly already been displaced by the invasion, an extremely worrying incursion being the capture of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant by Russian military officials. Putin is gaslighting Ukraine and the West by telling the latter its sanctions are akin to an act of war and telling Ukraine’s leaders that their nation risks being dismantled as an independent sovereign state if they continue to resist Russia’s invasion. It’s already been confirmed that the Russian military has been less capable than expected and now 66,000 Ukrainians are returning from overseas to help defend their country. It’s encouraging that British intelligence reports confirm that the strength of Ukraine’s resistance “continues to surpriseRussia,” despite attempts by invading troops to break Ukrainian morale by targeting populated areas.

As Ukraine President Zelensky’s request to fast track their joining the EU is considered this week, the US is considering offering Putin a so-called “golden bridge” – blocking all his avenues of advance while making retreat as attractive as possible. Some commentators doubt Putin is in any mood to negotiate, though.

 It’s been appalling but again not surprising that the UK government has used the invasion for further meaningless grandstanding, suggesting the UK is ‘leading the world’ in support for Ukraine, for example Defence Minister Ben Wallace boasting about chairing a conference of Western leaders. In fact, unlike the EU (490 entities sanctioned), the UK has so far only sanctioned 16 oligarchs (the situation has shown the concerning degree to which the Conservative Party is dependent on Russian donations), giving many the opportunity the time to hide or remove their assets.

The terrible news and fear of what Putin might do are having a marked effect on the already damaged mental health people here have experienced since the start of the pandemic. It’s not only the situations themselves (Covid, lockdowns, rising energy prices, climbing inflation and now war) but the fact that the public’s anxiety is not being ‘contained’ (ie psychologically ‘held’) by the authority figures we elect to perform this task, amongst others. We have a government in office but not in charge, their corruption and incompetence on full view every single day. No wonder some are saying their anxiety is through the roof.

Alone amongst European countries, the UK has also failed to provide a safe refugee route for fleeing Ukrainians, citing the risks of a terrorist threat. This, when Germans and Poles have been converging on railway stations and on the Polish/Ukraine border to greet and take in refugees. In the House of Commons and elsewhere, Boris Johnson and his supporters continue, unchallenged, to perpetuate the defence that the UK has taken in more refugees since 2015 than any other European country, when actually we are way down the list. It’s also shameful (and again, once called out, a new line has been made available) that the visa/immigration helpline was not free to call – it was also reported that the helpline wasn’t even functioning when lawyers and others first tried to call it (delayed by three days).

The government’s hesitant and softly softly approach to sanctioning oligarchs makes predictable today’s revelation in the Times, that ‘the government has cut the budget of the anti-corruption unit tasked with investigating dirty Russian money in “Londongrad”. Ministers have slashed spending on the International Corruption Unit (ICU) by 13.5 per cent this year after Boris Johnson’s decision to reduce the aid budget by more than £3 billion. Defence experts said the resources allocated by the government to fighting kleptocrats were “embarrassing”. Conservative MPs said that enforcement agencies were “massively outgunned” by oligarchs with expensive lawyers’.

As ever the government only steps up when it’s called out and pushed into a policy it should have had all along – the BBC reports that ‘The government is to change the law to make it easier to introduce sanctions against Russian oligarchs, after criticism the UK is acting too slowly. Ministers are tabling amendments to the Economic Crime Bill which are designed to allow the UK to align with penalties imposed by allies in the EU and US’. It beggars belief that Boris Johnson, who has presided over and colluded with the set-up which allowed the laundering of Russian money (leading to Party donations, of course) said: ‘….foreigners trying to launder money in the UK would have nowhere to hide’. These amendments should be tabled on Monday in order to fast track this vital change. Food for thought, though, is a QC’s view (this chimes with evidence of other existing laws not being effectively implemented): ‘I do not understand why any new legislation is needed to impose sanctions or freeze assets. The 2018 Sanctions and Money Laundering Act is recent and provides all the powers necessary; enabling immediate action’.

As usual, Home Secretary Priti Patel has been conspicuous by her absence, never stepping forward to be interviewed on the media and shamefully having to be forced by the Speaker to make a statement in the Commons. The lead provided by the EU has obviously discomfited the government, several ministers alluding to ‘working together’ on sanctions and waiting to see what the EU does – funny how the EU has suddenly become useful rather than the foe of post-Brexit negotiations.

Amidst the gloom and fear it’s been encouraging to see many Russians risking arrest and worse to protest against the invasion, not to mention tens of thousands all over the world joining demonstrations. Some have rightly criticised the new Russian law under which criticising the invasion now carries a 15 year prison sentence, but it’s important to remember that something not dissimilar is what this government is aiming for here. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill currently going through Parliament had a clause recommending a ten year sentence for ‘noisy protests’, taken out by the Lords but this could be reinstated by the Commons.

There’s obviously been plenty of speculation as to what Putin’s real aims are although we’re supposed to believe it’s to do with ‘protecting’ Russia from the growing proximity of NATO forces. Putin himself wants us to believe it’s about ‘denazification’ of Ukraine.  Said one commentator: ‘I don’t understand why experts think Putin wants to take over all Ukraine. He is ethnically cleansing the territory east of the Dneiper, presumably with a view to creating a new, pro-Russian buffer state there. He gambles that, in the end, the west will accept that.’ Quite likely. Meanwhile, the Ukraine government sees the West as weak for NATO not imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Amid the gloom there have been some flashes of irreverent humour – a wag tweeted: ‘Can we pay the Taliban to fight the Russkies? They could do with the cash – and it worked in Afghanistan’.

Despite its rapid advance, though, the column of Russian tanks is still stuck somewhere outside Kyiv and Putin is clearly rattled, curtailing news sources and blocking access to Facebook and Twitter. It beggars belief that Nick Clegg, President of Global Affairs at Facebook’s parent, Meta, said blocking the platform would cut off ‘millions of ordinary Russians from reliable information’. Putin has now taken a leaf out of Trump’s book, referring to accurate reporting as ‘fake news’. ‘The move comes as Russia on Friday passed a bill that criminalizes the intentional spreading of what Moscow deems to be “fake” reports’.

On the subject of the media, we have to wonder why the BBC has so many people in the war zone – the Today programme’s Nick Robinson all last week and now Mishal Husain, besides all the BBC journalists already reporting from there. This doesn’t seem like the best use of public money.

It’s been noticeable this last week that various institutions, retailers and service providers have issued statements to the effect that they stand with Ukraine, mostly saying absolutely nothing of substance, the worst ones clumsily segueing to how their organization is supporting people. This cynical use of the Ukraine crisis for PR purposes could well be seen as vacuous virtue signaling. 

Consumers could be reassured to know that some retailers are also doing their bit, for example by removing Russian products from stock – we hear that Sainsburys has renamed the retro dish chicken Kiev as chicken kyiv and has pulled Russian made vodka off the shelves. Waitrose, Aldi, the Coop, M&S and Morrisons are also taking action and we hear that other retailers including Ikea have temporarily ceased their operations in Russia. In related news, business leader Deborah Meaden of Dragon’s Den fame, amongst others, pleaded for a boycott on Coca Cola and this has now had effect. She tweeted: ‘Coca Cola and Danone shutting down its Russian Operations. When your single voice turns into millions. You have People Power.’

Concerning support for Ukraine, the BBC has been regularly broadcasting the DEC (Disasters Emergency Committee) appeal prompting some cynical tweets, eg ‘Calling all the little people… Give a tenner to an appeal for Ukraine disaster relief because the government can’t or won’t do the necessary.’ The government has pledged to match donations but I can’t be only one sceptical about this and perhaps also the proportion of funds raised which actually goes to the cause rather than being swallowed up by administration costs. I have donated and publicised a Just Giving fund started by Ukrainians in London, one of their group currently in Poland helping to organise refugee assistance efforts.

Meanwhile, despite what the Prime Minister might think, Partygate and Covid have not gone away. The effects of his reckless lifting of ‘restrictions’, the most risky being the requirement for those testing positive to self-isolate, have yet to be feed through to statistics but there are still around 200 deaths a day and Long Covid makes steady inroads into the lives of formerly healthy people. ‘More than a third of working-age people in the UK now suffer from a long-term illness, with new figures showing a dramatic rise since the pandemic began. Post-Covid conditions, including long Covid, breathing difficulties and mental-health problems, are among the causes, according to disability charities and health campaigners’. One tweeter said, following Boris Johnson’s poor media performance on 21st February (during which Sirs Whitty and Vallance markedly struggled not to contradict the PM but were clearly uncomfortable about the move) – ‘End of restrictions – this reckless policy also removes our choice as to who we mix with eg those who’ve not been able to test and/or those who’ve tested positive but don’t self-isolate’.

Statistician Professor David Spiegelhalter admitted there was significant uncertainty about the impact of the plans. The PM’s self-declared ‘moment of pride’ was more like a moment of shame, a risky policy pursued for political reasons, flying in the face of public health precautions. As usual, the media is mostly colluding with lack of reporting on this, increasingly alluding to the pandemic in the past tense. Yes, Ukraine is of vital importance, but the media should be reporting other important news as well.

 Attracting widespread derision (besides puzzlement) is the news (and amid the Ukraine crisis is strange timing) that former minister Gavin Williamson, who failed in every role he took on, has been given a knighthood, prompting speculation that he has as yet undisclosed ‘kompromat’ on Partygate. Various wags on Twitter had some fun, though this is a serious issue, the Times saying Downing Street privately admitted that it’s difficult to justify and that it looks like corruption. ‘Arise, Sir Useless’, said one tweeter. Another suggested ‘If you’ve recently donated to the Conservative party and not received a knighthood you could be entitled to compensation’ and author and broadcaster Michael Rosen said: ‘Step forward all those knights of the realm who today feel that the acknowledgement of their worth has been enhanced by the elevation of Gavin Williamson to their level of honour’.

The Guardian’s John Crace reports on how the temporarily more dignified Boris Johnson (taking himself seriously on the Ukraine crisis world stage despite his lack of credibility) allowed his mask to slip at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday. ‘The Suspect was no longer being asked to just Talk the Talk. He was also being asked to Walk the Walk. And he just couldn’t do it. This isn’t a leader likely to follow the Taiwan president’s example of giving one month of his salary to Ukrainian humanitarian causes. Well, not unless he could get Lord Brownlow to cough up again on his behalf. Dear, dear David. One more time, old chap. Back came the bluster and the shiftiness. The tugging on his Toddlers ’R Us haircut. The childish outbursts of narcissistic rage that he can’t control when challenged. Anything that is not on his terms cannot be tolerated. Come the end of PMQs the new, not entirely convincing, statesmanlike Boris was beginning to look very much like the old, self-centred Boris’.

Challenged by Keir Starmer about insufficiently sanctioning Russian oligarchs, the PM said (manifestly untrue) that it wasn’t for him ‘to comment on individual cases’ and continued to mumble and stonewall on Starmer’s further questions, trotting out the fib that ‘We’re leading Europe’….Except we’re not. At a time when we’re looking for heroes – and who better fits the bill than Volodymyr Zelenskiy? – the UK government looks as if it is running scared. If the Suspect wanted to prove many people’s suspicions that the Tory party is in hock to Russian money, he couldn’t have made a better job of it. At the very least he made it look as if he wasn’t that bothered about London’s status as the world’s laundromat. Or about the extent of Russian influence in British politics’.

Despite the denial of some monarchists and the dreaded royal correspondents, it certainly seems as if the Queen is having another annus horribilis, at one of the worst times, as her Platinum Jubilee approaches. As if the recently settled Prince Andrew civil case wasn’t enough, there was also the news of possible concerns over Prince Charles’s conduct regarding his charity and Prince Harry’s forthcoming memoir, an allegedly ‘explosive’ tome to be published in the autumn. It would be interesting to know what level of support there is in the UK for preserving the monarchy although our opinions won’t be invited. We’re told Harry now ‘faces the ultimate dilemma’ this year, as he must decide whether to make the trip to visit his beloved grandmother knowing that this memoir could further harm this relationship. There’s also the matter of Harry taking legal action against the government to allow him to pay for Metropolitan police security for him and his family when they visit the UK, as his protection was withdrawn when he stepped down from royal duties and he feels his private security arrangements would not suffice. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex no doubt feel they have legitimate concerns but it seems they have become so litigious in recent times that they may have become overly attached to publicity-fuelling legal action.

Twice this last week London commuters and others suffered the effects of a total shutdown of the London Underground, unusual in recent times, when it’s usually been one or two tube lines and often cancelled at the last minute. Central London was gridlocked and, having walked one day from King’s Cross to the Strand without being passed by any buses, I was struck by the hopelessness of people waiting for them in massive queues. Although some may have struggled to walk, many of those waiting were young people who could have walked at least some of the required distance. It will be interesting to see if anything changes if these strikes persist, quite likely as the RMT union’s concerns over pensions and potential job losses continue.

Further afield (though this has links to the UK’s ‘levelling up’ agenda), it seems that Covid recovery funds to revitalise ‘dying Italian towns’ have proved unhelpful in some quarters because of prompting envy on the part of unsuccessful bidders. ‘The hilltop hamlet of Trevinano sent tremors across the Lazio region when it was announced this month that it and its 142 residents were in line for €20m (£16.73m) from a Covid recovery fund to save small villages on the verge of extinction – equal to a whopping €140,845 per resident’. Trevinano’s mayor explained how the award had caused envy and bad feeling amongst those villages which lost out, some critics asking if €20m is just too much money for one small village. The plans to reverse this town’s decline sound ambitious, including a student training hub and increasing agricultural initiatives (there’s already a vineyard here). The mayor of a town an hour’s drive away objects to so much money being given to a single village, believing it should be more evenly shared out.

While ‘Italy is the biggest beneficiary of the EU’s recovery fund, and a significant chunk of the grants and loans will need to be repaid by taxpayers’, some feel strongly that the sums are too much for small administrations to be able to handle effectively. And a key question: ‘One thing is revitalising places which have links to big cities, the other is trying to repopulate remote areas – my question is: would it be sustainable?’ A good question and although the UK’s levelling up agenda (which has already attracted a great deal of scepticism) is different in mostly not targeting similar remote hamlets, there are some parallels so  it will be interesting to find out how this EU/Italy project progresses.

Finally, you may be reassured (or not) by a predicted major ‘vibe shift’ which will apparently ‘change the dominant social wavelength’. American trend forecaster Sean Monahan predicts that ‘hedonism, irony, wide jeans and messy hair’ may be on the way up but on the way out list are flat whites, earnestness, avocados, fairy lights, cocktails in jam jars, cancel culture, filtered selfies, facial hair and having babies. Such a wide spectrum many will be caught in the net!

Saturday 19 February

The dramatic weather conditions have temporarily pushed the Ukraine crisis and this government’s self-inflicted and worsening travails down the news agenda – it’s been quite alarming (much more for those nearby, of course!) seeing footage of London’s O2 arena’s roof being shredded, an enormous tree toppling over in Devon and the top of a Somerset church spire flying off.

As we step out in the wake of Storm Eunice, it might prompt memories of the Great Storm of 1987 for those of us old enough to remember. I had been appalled to find that some colleagues had used it as an excuse not to come into work, that they’d taken the ‘advice’ to stay at home so seriously when I’d simply stepped over a few branches in the street but found the trains working normally. Later, though, the extent of the damage became clearer and organizations like the National Trust lost scores of trees in their south-east England properties particularly. (They weren’t literally lost, though, as their horticultural experts created mini-ecosystems from the trunks). I feel so sorry for those left without power due to storms Dudley, Eunice and others, but wonder to what extent the problems are caused by the privatized utilities market being insufficiently robust to handle them.

Meanwhile, the government (with media colluding) continues to act as if Covid has gone away, when there were 322 deaths on Wednesday, to give just one example, and surely there’s a chance of these numbers increasing due to half term travel. On the subject of half term, I wonder why Parliament has a two week recess when this break only lasts a week – so far I’ve not had any answers to this question. It’s yet another way our Prime Minister and his government attempt to avoid scrutiny, but the Johnson Out movement is gaining traction, one campaigner tweeting: ‘United by sensible ideals, the Johnson Out movement grows daily. Connecting people all over the UK still hurting by all the lies from No 10, still hurting from losing family, hungry, cold and still in the darkness with depression, Johnson Out speaks as one’. Typically, a major demo in London today (Saturday) has not been reported by the BBC.

The latest cynical plan is the threat to end free Covid tests, presented as a step towards ‘living with Covid’: what a reckless way to artificially suppress case numbers. Independent SAGE has called on the Government to immediately publish the scientific evidence and risk assessments on which it has based this decision.

This and the likely lifting of ‘protections’ must be one reason why Sirs Vallance and Whitty have been conspicuous by their absence, no longer flanking Boris Johnson during briefings or making any comment. We can speculate as to what else they may know that we don’t (yet). It’s interesting but so transparent that on 9th February, just when the news of yet another party had emerged, Johnson made the announcement about possibly removing the need for those testing positive to self-isolate from 21st February. But an NHS Confederation survey showed that 94% of the 307 NHS leaders polled said testing for health staff and other key workers must also continue. At present, NHS staff are asked to test at home twice a week….. 79% disagreed or strongly disagreed with the plan to stop free access to Covid-19 tests for the public….. The survey also found that more than three-quarters would disagree with any axing of the legal requirement to self-isolate following a positive Covid result in favour of it being advisory only’.

Besides the ‘gift’ of Ukraine, enabling our Prime Minister to look even more ridiculous in full sabre rattling mode in a desperate bid to save his own skin from Partygate fallout, we learn that he’s resorting to lawyers to get him off on a technicality, the absurd suggestion that only staying ten minutes at a party somehow deletes breaking the law. (On this point, have we ever heard anything so absurd in policing as partygoers being issued with a questionnaire? Not only that but that they will be facilitated in conferring with others to tailor their responses and they can see what Sue Gray has reported on them to the Met to help them not be caught committing perjury). What a farce.

 It seems there is genuinely nothing Johnson won’t resort to in order to cling to power. He continues in his attempts to distract us, for example resorting to ridiculous grandstanding over Ukraine, this morning broadcasting from the plane taking him to the Munich Security Conference. A Radio 4 listener captured what must be the mood of many: ‘Am I the only one to feel acute embarrassment hearing the BBC News headline “Boris Johnson to address World Leaders”?’ Another expressed a saltier view: ‘The idea that “Boris Johnson will rally Western leaders” is preposterous. He isn’t Churchill. He’s a globally marginalised bullshit fountain and a national embarrassment’.

Meanwhile, the country continues in a mental wellbeing busting limbo, the government in office but not in charge, unable to act effectively to tackle the serious challenges of Covid, Brexit, cost of living rises, inequality, the NHS waiting list and social care shortfalls. It’s strikingly but typically patronizing that the PM believes that his number 10 ‘reset’, including ‘three jobs’ Steve Barclay as Chief of Staff, longtime ally Guto Harri as Director of Communications and Rees-Mogg risibly as Minister for Brexit Opportunities, will do more than simply shift the deckchairs on his version of the Titanic. Commentators (at least one saying ‘Johnson is finished’) have rightly said that the lax culture and wrongdoing come from him and while he clings to his position nothing will change.

It must be galling for Boris Johnson when he’s challenged or attacked by one of his own side. The latest silo is from veteran Tory Michael Heseltine, who suggests unease amongst the Leave faction because of a fear that if/when Johnson goes the whole Brexit house of cards will go too. ‘There is an air of desperation in attacks from those on the right and their supporters in the press. They fear if Johnson falls, the Brexit deception will crumble too’. Heseltine aims to expose the vacuity at the heart of the Brexit campaign, claims of its alleged benefits not having been realised because they were impossible, eg ‘that we could keep all the benefits of the single market and customs union, while negotiating trade deals with faster-growing countries in a world that was shifting east’. Perhaps the most embarrassing example of this vacuity is Jacob Rees Mogg, as Minister for Brexit Opportunities, inviting Sun readers to tell him what these were or what they could be. A number of Twitter users have also publicized that they’ve been blocked by their Vote Leave MP for regularly asking what the benefits are and getting no response. Heseltine thinks that the light is now dawning, hence the attacks on Andrew Adonis and himself (respectively, Chair and President of The European Movement). The next few weeks could prove interesting.

Boris Johnson isn’t the only one coming under scrutiny, though: it’s encouraging for democracy that some lively locals in European Research Group chair Steve Baker’s constituency have got a watch on him because of fears that he’s trying to water down commitments to environmental measures. ‘Constituents of Steve Baker MP who are concerned about his environmental position have set up a “Steve Baker Watch” group and are launching a crowdfunding page to raise money. The constituents in Baker’s constituency of Wycombe in the rolling Chiltern Hills believe that Baker is trying to “wreck the government plans to improve the environment”…. Baker, who as chair of the European Research Group was instrumental in pressing for a hard Brexit, helped set up the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG), which has close links to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a lobbyist group that has been accused of denying climate science’.

One campaigner said : ‘Steve’s Net Zero Watch campaign will make people’s lives in Wycombe miserable. He wants to stop us getting cheaper clean energy, insulating our homes and creating a better future for our children. We’ve had enough!’ So they are raising awareness within the constituency about what they see as a derailing of the green agenda.

How many other MPs need to be ‘watched’ by their constituents? It might make them a lot more accountable.

On the Covid front, let’s hope that the plan to ‘offer’ (that weasel word again) to vaccinate for 5-11 year olds and the new antiviral treatment (Pfizer’s Paxlovid) targeting the clinically vulnerable will be helpful, though the rapid lifting of restrictions and increased air travel cast some  doubt on this.

Meanwhile, QualityWatch, a joint programme between the Nuffield Trust and the Health Foundation, reports on the health of children and young people during the pandemic. The report features numerous useful statistics but of most interest to me, confirming what other sources have been finding, is the 81% increase in demand for mental health services. These have long been underfunded but the funds available have not been used wisely in my view and those of many. It’s too often wrongly assumed that children and young people are sufficiently ‘resilient’ (a faulty concept from the start) to avoid the worst effects of the pandemic and that they have a preference for online interventions. Although online consultations were inevitable during the worst of the pandemic, what many need and want is relational therapy delivered in person.

Eating disorders have been a particular concern and 2021 statistics showed four times as many children waiting for treatment than in 2020. A&E attendances for children and young people doubled during the pandemic, we’re told, with much longer waits than for other issues – this when it’s well-known that A&E is profoundly unsuited for addressing mental health crises.

Still on mental health, it’s taken a while but the NHS now has several clinics to deal with gambling addiction, but of course these cannot meet all the need. Not before time (and some may be surprised that this had even been allowed to happen) the NHS has decided it must sever its ties with a charity connected to the gambling industry. ‘GambleAware, which describes itself as “an independent, grant-making charity commissioning prevention and treatment services” is funded almost entirely by donations from the gambling industry. Last year it announced a three-year funding arrangement with the UK’s four biggest gambling companies totalling £100m. It has previously been criticised for having too big an influence on the funding of research into and treatment of gambling addiction. NHS England has had a “dual commissioning and funding” arrangement with GambleAware since 2019, with £1.2m a year going into the National Gambling Treatment Service, which currently operates five clinics in London, Leeds, Manchester and Sunderland as well as a national telephone helpline’.

Of course, we know why this was allowed to happen in the first place – underinvestment in the NHS and in mental health services in particular, leading to commissioners casting around for alternative sources of funding. But ‘supping with the devil’ will always be a risky strategy, as it’s now proved in this case.  It’s good that two new clinics, set to open in Southampton and Stoke-on-Trent, are now to be funded entirely by the health service, ‘as part of a £2.3bn increase in mental health spending authorised by the government’. While it’s helpful for mental health service spending to receive this £2.3bn, you can bet it won’t be nearly enough.

This week we had the interesting news (given his apparent commitment to stick it out regardless) that Prince Andrew had decided to settle out of court for an ‘undisclosed sum’, which some may consider a rather cowardly avoidance. It’s widely thought the timing was inevitable due to pressure from key Royal Family members in the lead-up to the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. His statement notably didn’t contain an apology or admit any personal culpability and now there’s feverish speculation (and demands for us to be informed) as to where the money is coming from. Various amounts have been suggested for the settlement, ranging from £5m to £14m, but even if he sells the Verbier skiing lodge it’s likely to leave a significant shortfall. As with the lawyer fees, this is likely to be paid by the Queen but the particular pot of money the Queen apparently regards as hers comes from a source stemming from public funds. This is when many have demanded that no public money goes towards paying off Andrew’s liabilities.

Having already been stripped of most of his titles and royal duties, there’s now been a call to remove his Duke of York title. Radio 4’s Any Questions discussed this issue and what becomes so wearing about such exchanges is when respondents say ‘It’s a matter for the Queen’, in order to avoid committing themselves to an opinion. Another very wearing thing whenever anything related to the monarchy hits the airwaves is the endless opining and wittering of sanctimonious royal correspondents, the media being complicit in encouraging them, of course. A wider question, though some will have no sympathy, is what kind of life he can have now. One lived in semi-exile, in the shadow of shame, perhaps.

There’s a nifty rhyme doing the rounds on social media, the last bit of which also smacks of the Johnsonian defence:

The grand old Duke of York, he had 12 million quid. He gave it to someone he never met, for something he never did.

One of the most extraordinary scandals of recent times must be the prosecution for fraud and false accounting by the Post Office of hundreds of their workers when the fault was all the time with the Horizon computer system. It led to terrible experiences for these victims of injustice, including prison sentences, homelessness, relationship breakdown and extreme stress, some even dying before their convictions could be quashed. ‘Former Post Office workers who were among those wrongfully convicted for theft, fraud and false accounting have called for the company’s former management to go to jail for their part in the long-running scandal.

More than 700 Post Office operators were prosecuted between 2000 and 2014, based on evidence from the Horizon IT system, which was installed and maintained by Fujitsu’. It’s hard to know what’s the most scandalous element of this affair: that the public inquiry is only just getting underway; that the Post Office didn’t wonder why as many as 700 employees could be at fault; that even when managers did realise it was Horizon at fault they didn’t change tack on the prosecution strategy; that managers told the victims they were the only ones ‘making these mistakes’, hence preventing any security of numbers; that no senior staff were called to account; or that the first many of us properly heard about it was via the excellent Radio 4 podcast rather than robust investigative journalism.

It’s simply heartbreaking to learn what these victims went through following their convictions, for example, a Lucy Brennan from Liverpool, whose marriage broke down, who was declared bankrupt and attempted to take her own life. ‘I had no job and I couldn’t afford the mortgage. I had to sofa surf…. It was the end of the world to me…That was my life, all I had known was the Post Office from 16, and just to be told: ‘You’re a thief’ is horrible. I wasn’t, and hadn’t taken anything…I used to drink a lot, vodka, wine, anything just to numb it.” Her scandalous ‘ordeal’ has lasted twenty years. MPs from parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) committee have expressed concerns about the time taken to make settlements to the victims and have called for full compensation to be made. But what can compensate for the level of distress and loss these people have been subjected to? Let’s hope the inquiry proceeds without delay and finally sees justice being done in this shaming case.

In more cheerful news (yes, there is some!) we learn that Morecambe is to be the site of the Eden Project North, anticipated to bring ‘huge benefits’ to the local economy. It will be linked to the original Eden Project in Cornwall but its focus will be on marine life in Morecambe Bay. This should be a timely boost to this Lancashire town, which suffered a disaster in 2004 with the death of least 21 Chinese illegal immigrant labourers, trapped by the incoming tide after picking cockles.

Good news for birdwatchers and conservationists is that last year was apparently the best breeding year for cranes in the UK since the 17th century. Described as ‘Britain’s tallest bird’ (reaching up to 4ft), the birds became extinct here about 400 years ago because of loss of habitat and hunting. In 1979 some returned to the Norfolk Broads from continental Europe and in 2010 serious conservation work began. Of the 72 pairs seen last year, 65 bred, producing 40 chicks. Let’s hope they will distribute themselves more widely, enabling more of us to see them. I’ve only seen them once, in captivity – seeing them in the wild must be a great experience.

Finally, it was great news this week to hear that the third ‘season’ of the Danish series Seaside Hotel is now available on Walter Presents, the streaming service hosted by Channel 4. Some may recall I raved about this last year, such an absorbing series set in a delightfully unpopulated sand dune surrounded beach location and with strong characters and story lines. I think one of its strengths is the dual threading of the plot, focusing on the serious challenges faced by the hotel owner and her staff and on the fascinating interactions of the guests who return year after year. The new series starts in 1930, against the background of the world economic crisis. Highly recommended!

Sunday 6 February

There are almost no words for the shaming debacle currently dominating Downing Street and our politics. There’s no doubt this is having a bad effect on the public’s mental health (more below), some saying publicly that they don’t know what to do with their rage. This rage is exacerbated by the feeling of helplessness arising from the fact that only the Conservative Party can offload this Prime Minister when it’s high time there was a way for the electorate to change the situation in times of crisis. We need a written constitution rather than the unwritten ‘gentleman’s agreement’ which has prevailed for so long.

Presenter Evan Davies’s Freudian slip (‘Drowning Street’) during Thursday’s Radio 4 PM programme was most timely.  Every time you think it can’t get worse, it does, the most recent revelations and errors of judgement such as ‘BirthdayCakeGate’ and the unforgiveable ‘Jimmy Savile’ slur on Kier Starmer culminating in an irreversible slide into chaos and limbo. The government is technically in office but not in charge and the five Downing Street resignations in recent days could lead to what many have pleaded for and demanded for weeks – the resignation of the author of it all, Boris Johnson. But our Prime Minister and supporters nevertheless continue in their deluded attempts to persuade us that they are ‘getting on with the job’, the departures desperately presented as a ‘clearing out’ of Downing Street. We have to wonder how many self-respecting countries would operate with their head of government the subject of police investigation.

Besides the shocking attack on Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions, revelations of the parties in the Downing Street flat seem to have been the final straw for some Tory MPs, who very publicly withdrew their support from the PM. What’s striking, though, is the cowardice of so many of them, still dithering over writing letters  to the 1922 Committee when the evidence of wrongdoing is overwhelming and the position of their boss untenable. Adding to those who have gone public, two more (former education minister Nick Gibb and Newcastle-under-Lyme MP Aaron Bell) have now posted letters on Twitter. This in itself must be galling for the Tory leadership, which would prefer to keep all this dissent under wraps and which treats letters to the 1922 as a state secret. Johnson has now written to all Tory MPs saying he is committed to improving the way 10 Downing Street works. But this doesn’t commit him to what’s really needed, improving the way he works, though it’s far too late for that.

It’s a surefire sign of desperation that several days ago the PM made a rare address to all his MPs, announcing imminent changes to his No 10 staff in the coming days, a flurry of (distracting) policies, visit to Ukraine, the manipulatively named ‘Brexit freedoms bill’ and also implied that his former election guru, Sir Lynton Crosby, would be returning to help in an unofficial role. Such determination to hang on in the face of rapidly leaching support isn’t clever, as Johnson probably imagines, but hugely damaging and in denial of the seriousness of the situation. The drinking and partying culture, besides the lazy and dishonest modus operandi come from the top so it’s for him to go – even better if he could take his incompetent and sycophantic Cabinet with him. It’s no surprise that #Carcrash is currently trending on Twitter following Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries’s terrible media interviews today – in denial, question dodging and alluding to the terrific ‘amount of change underway including at no 10’ without stating that the ‘change’ is due to staff resigning on principle.

The most recent bombshell outed by the Mirror’s political editor Pippa Crerar shows Boris Johnson raising a glass of beer at his lockdown birthday party in June 2020 – taken by his taxpayer funded official photographer. ‘Multiple images taken by the official No 10 photographer, Andrew Parsons, are also believed to have been handed over to Scotland Yard. Downing Street has admitted staff “gathered briefly” at a surprise birthday celebration organised by Carrie Johnson – but said the PM only stayed 10 minutes’. It’s strange that neither the PM nor his acolytes seem to have considered that this photographic evidence of parties he initially denied had taken place and subsequently denied being present at would eventually emerge. Far from quelling Sue Gray’s condemnation of ‘failures of leadership and judgment’ in No 10 and the Cabinet Office, Johnson’s clumsy and transparent efforts to claw back support seem to have only succeeded in precipitating a domino effect of revelations and rebukes from senior Conservatives, not to mention the ongoing defenestrating bullets from nemesis Dominic Cummings. As journalist Jonathan Freedland observed: ‘The PM’s behaviour this week was a reminder he will do and say anything to cling to power – no matter the cost to Britain’.

And does Boris Johnson seriously imagine that the Downing Street staff changes (Steve Barclay Chief of Staff and Guto Harri Director of Communications) will effect serious change when the problems stem from him? It sounds like more of the same: people are already asking how Steve Barclay can combine his roles (yet another MP who will be sidelining the needs of his consituents?) and Harri recently said on BBC5Live that he thought a change of staff would convey integrity. What planet?? But perhaps we can take cynicism too far – some have suggested that the Queen’s announcement regarding Camilla’s future role was timed to take the pressure off the PM. Whether it does or not, prepare for a slew of tedious and sanctimonious royal correspondents opining on the airwaves, one today even alluding to the Prince Andrew debacle as ‘difficulties across the pond’.

One Tory MP said Johnson’s determination to keep fighting meant removing him would be “extremely painful”, and veteran MP Charles Walker has ‘implored the prime minister to go of his own accord in the national interest, and likened events in the Tory party to a Greek tragedy’. Another said it was clear Tory MPs would at some point need to “get the screwdrivers out to prise his hands off the doors of Downing Street”. Perhaps it would take even more to remove the unelected Carrie Johnson, whose inappropriate and intrusive role seems to have been largely overlooked. Except for Woman’s Hour this week, during which two interviewees spelt out the difference between Mrs Johnson and other PMs’ spouses who have not been political operators in their own right. Unfortunately, both her marital status and her previous role in the Conservative Party seem to have led to an absence of and contempt for proper boundaries, feeling free to come and go in the kernel of government which is the Cabinet Room and her apparently active participation in the garden ‘work meetings’. And what else? Mrs Johnson, we’re told, was invited onto this Woman’s Hour discussion but demurred, citing the ongoing police investigation. A piece in the Guardian asks whether she’s the puppet master of Downing Street or an easy target. ‘…multiple sources from Downing Street past and present say her influence on the prime minister’s operation is undeniable’, exemplified by her initiation of some parties, the flat redecoration project, the departure of Dominic Cummings and retention of some of her allies in the staff ‘clearout’.

‘Former Downing Street insiders report feeling Carrie could make her husband change his mind, sometimes overnight, on an issue they thought was already agreed. The prime minister would also tell aides that if he didn’t take a particular course of action, it would anger his wife. They also reported Johnson himself receiving scores of messages from her during the working day – and Carrie Johnson repeatedly calling his staff, insisting the prime minister be hauled out of meetings to talk to her’. On the other hand, friends have described her as honourable and ‘tremendously fun and entertaining’, suggesting that critics are guilty of sexism and that there’s been an orchestrated campaign against her. Perhaps time will tell, especially as she besides her spouse will be giving evidence to the police investigation.

It was interesting timing that the long delayed (and rather threadbare, it seems) levelling up paper was delivered in just the week the PM has been in unprecedented trouble. Interviewed in the media, minister Michael Gove agreed with presenters that the levelling up agenda cannot be just a ‘cobbling together’ of disjointed measures but this is how many commentators have seen it. Not only that, they’ve suggested that one of the disingenuous aspects is the mainly lack of new money – much of the expenditure cited is that which has been announced previously. This certainly suggests some ‘cobbling together’.

Needless to say, Gove rejected suggestions that there was no new money and also failed to see the irony in the statement that ‘people in the north of England and Midlands have been overlooked and undervalued for years by politicians’. It’s his government that has been in office for ‘years’ and led on this overlooking and undervaluing. Gove must have felt too challenged in the earlier interviews as he declined an invitation to appear on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, the presenters then empty chairing him. This kind of cowardice is only too evident these days, ministers and others refusing the scrutiny which is a key part of democracy. It’s more than unfortunate that Gove seems to believe that opening government offices in Northern cities is proof of levelling up, but of course the real problem is that this is a vacuous concept in the first place.

The latest government misleading use of language has been demonstrated in the energy bills debate. Many are genuinely fearful of what these rising energy prices are going to lead to after April, never mind overarching general inflation, and are already having to make hard choices. Pathetic ‘advice’ to consumers like ‘speak to your energy provider’ about difficulty in paying bills and fuel poverty just doesn’t cut it. The government’s latest short-term and lazy solution is to force all of us to take a ‘discount’, which we will then have to repay. ‘As British households face a record 54% rise in energy bills from April, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has announced a £9bn plan intended to mitigate the cost-of-living crisis facing the nation. All households will receive a one-off £200 upfront discount on their energy bills this year, which, however, will be automatically recovered from people’s bills in £40 instalments over the five years from 2023’. The manipulative narrative lies in the Chancellor and ministers repeatedly referring to it as a ‘rebate’ when it’s actually a loan. We are not actually being given anything, although some households will quality for an extra council tax discount or warm homes discount. The hit people people will have to take is also aggravated by the National Insurance hike, leading to extreme concern about the rise in living costs.

Lest we forget amid the Downing Street antics, the Covid situation is still very serious but you wouldn’t think so to listen to the media, who repeatedly talk about ‘living with Covid’, ‘things opening up again’ and the hospitality and travel industries talking up increased bookings. There’s a second wave of Omicron, a new variant to contend with, and on Friday there were 84,053 new cases and 254 deaths. A doctor tweeted: ‘There have been about 7000 COVID deaths just in January. Government want you to think the pandemic is over. The pandemic isn’t over. Approximately 1800 people died in the last 7 days. We have the latest COVID Omicron BA.2 variant growing in numbers in the UK. It’s not over.’ On the other hand, it’s clear many are feeling a kind of ‘pandemic fatigue’ and some clinicians are more or less saying we should learn to accommodate it. ‘Covid should be treated as an endemic virus similar to flu, and ministers should end mass-vaccination after the booster campaign, Dr Clive Dix (former chairman of the UK’s vaccine taskforce). With health chiefs and senior Tories also lobbying for a post-pandemic plan for a straining NHS, Dix called for a major rethink of the UK’s Covid strategy, in effect reversing the approach of the past two years and returning to a “new normality”….’ It’s good, though, that he has urged the production of vaccines which would tackle new variants.

We all know that the NHS has been under significant strain for some time, well before the pandemic, but what’s not commonly known (partly as the media have mostly chosen not to report it) is the takeover of GP practices by a subsidiary of a large American private health provider. This is nothing short of privatization by stealth and a number of campaigners including Keep our NHS Public have been keeping up the momentum to raise awareness and challenge these decisions. On February 1 and 2nd there was a judicial review held at the High Court, thanks to a brave Islington (North London) councillor Anjna Khurana. The review challenged NHS commissioners’ decision to allow Centene Corporation’s take-over of dozens of London GP Surgeries, via its UK subsidiaries MH Services International Holdings (UK) and Operose Health Ltd. It’s disgraceful that Ms Khurana is one of around 375,000 patients across London who were told nothing about this takeover of their GP surgeries until after the event. And many will still have no idea. Campaigners are planning a day of action and awareness raising on 26th February so let’s hope it cuts some ice with NHS commissioners and the media who should be covering these issues.

The BBC has reported a significant rise in mental ill health in children and young people – hardly surprising given the last two years but much to do with inadequate NHS services due to underfunding and poor use of those funds in primary care. This is very serious and very worrying, partly because it’s in addition to the many with less severe conditions which would be dealt with in primary rather than secondary care settings. The ‘most serious’ include eating disorders and suicidality. ‘Last year saw a 77% rise in psychiatric service referrals for young people… ‘Only those with the most serious mental health problems are referred for specialist care. But schools are reporting a surge in mental health problems below this high threshold, with pupils needing extra support such as counselling’.

‘Almost 1,000 teaching and support staff who responded to a survey from the children’s mental health charity, Place2Be, and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), described seeing an increase in emotional and mental health issues among pupils since the pandemic, including anxiety’. We’re told the government has planned 400 mental health ‘support teams’ for schools by 2023 but, as ever, this is too late, 400 won’t cover all schools and how of this ‘support’ will be professional counselling rather than the cheaper interventions? Indeed, the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition warn that these teams will only cover about a third of England’s pupils. For years professional bodies like BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) have pressed for counsellors to be in every school, but there’s a patchy situation across the UK and this has not yet been mandated for England.

The Telegraph recently published an interesting article about the ‘rise and rise’ of HR departments since the pandemic. This isn’t surprising given the number of additional issues and challenges they’ve had to conjure with , especially given workers’ rights, the wisdom (or not) of employers compelling their staff to return to the office and so on. The article contends that there’s a conflict of interest as these departments have moved on from mainly ‘hiring and firing’ to having to act as ‘union, mentor and doctor’, leading to a loss of clarity to whether they can be allied to both employer and worker. Quoting some bosses who have ‘had enough’, one said: ‘Never before has so much money been thrown at a department to do so many things they are unqualified for’. Some believe, with some justification, that these departments are unnecessary ballast, allowing employers and managers to duck their management responsibilities and that they should be ‘managing their people directly’. It will be interesting to see whether this debate gains traction but what I and others have often found is how inadequate these departments have been when we’ve needed their help or input. Something for those teaching human resources to reflect upon, besides bosses, perhaps.

On similar territory (or perhaps not!) many viewers are, after a year’s absence, glued to the new series of The Apprentice, in which Lord Alan Sugar submits a series of potential young business partners to some rigorous tests, many of which feature dismal failures. The egos of some of the candidates and of Lord Sugar himself have to be seen to be believed at times but there’s much to amuse viewers as well as irritate them. The best moments must be when Sugar comes out with his well-worn phrase ‘It’s a bladdy shambles’, not to mention ‘You’re fired’,  and when his two sidekicks give their withering comments on the candidates’ performances.

Finally, a very welcome bit of light relief, benefitting our mental health, are the annual displays of seasonal plants and flowers, at this time of year snowdrops taking centre stage. The National Trust and other organizations have lists of places you can see good displays (I envy those living near the most striking ones such as Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire) and it’s amazing just how many varieties there are. It’s great to have them in your own garden if you have one but much better, in my view, to see them in profusion. Just a shame some are quite difficult to get to on public transport. One which sounds great is this Devonian manifestation, a festival which has returned after last year’s online only version due to lockdown. A staggering 375 varieties are on display, attracting ‘hordes of galanthophiles – snowdrop lovers’. One visitor summed up the experience pretty well, I thought. “It’s wonderful to be here. The snowdrops are a sign that spring is on the way, that new life is with us. This is such a natural place, so restful. After the couple of years we’ve had, the sight of the snowdrops lights up the soul.”