Speculation about today’s and Sunday’s announcements on lockdown strategy has led to #Keepthelockdown trending at no 1 on Twitter, while many media sources and politicians are calling for its end or phasing out, for the sake of the economy, mental health and so on. There’s concern that the government wanting to convey an impression (delusion?) of progress (via lockdown end) will undermine public safety, not to mention lead to mixed messages and confusion. One frustrated individual tweeted: “Lockdown” is expected to be extended today by another 3 weeks. But on Sunday, restrictions will be partly relaxed, apparently. Will we still be in “lockdown” after that? If so, what does “lockdown” even mean? If not, wtf does the government think it is doing?’ The key thing we need right now is clear messages based on scientific consensus, not vague statements allowing the government to abdicate responsibility further down the line. The ‘messages’ of the today’s Downing Street Briefing (minus the PM again) weren’t found clear, especially by Beth Rigby of Sky News, who suggested the public would be confused by not having firm guidance before the Bank Holiday weekend. The existing guidance is supposed to remain but suggestions of sunbathing and picnics being amongst Sunday’s possible lockdown relaxation measures, plus the fine weather, could result in confusion and people jumping the gun.
More than a fortnight after the Turkish supply of PPE debacle, it has emerged that all of the 400,000 protective gowns that eventually arrived were impounded after being found not to conform to UK standards. Despite official sources claiming that all clinical staff have the PPE they need, a British Medical Association survey revealed that almost half of England’s doctors have sourced their own PPE or relied on a donation when none was available through normal NHS channels. Niall Dickson of the NHS Confederation is one of (probably) many stressing that rhetoric must match reality, that it’s better to promise less and deliver more than make over-confident claims which then fail, because this undermines public confidence. That’s putting it mildly. Alluding to another kind of opacity, the often apoplectic but forensic Piers Morgan tweeted earlier: ‘The UK Govt has banned any ministers from appearing on GMB after a series of them made complete fools of themselves in the face of basic & important questions. This is a pathetic & cowardly response to THEIR shameful incompetence’.
There’s naturally a great deal of interest and speculation about what sort of world will emerge from this crisis and an interesting piece in the Guardian focuses on the work of Austrian economic historian Walter Scheidel. In his book The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, he suggests that throughout history, pandemic is one of the only four events capable of bringing about greater equality. (War, state collapse and revolution are the other three). Re pandemic, he showed how the Black Death in the 1300s killed a third of Europe’s population and massively reduced inequality by raising the price of labour.
We’ve already seen evidence of the clash he predicts: between those determined to go back to the status quo (‘normal’?) even at the price of making inequality worse and those who want a reset. Because human beings struggle with uncertainty and Not Knowing, leading to a desire for false reassurance, there’s a strong pressure to go back to business as usual. “There will be a strong push to go back to growth to finance the huge deficits that governments have been racking up, so, if anything, growth will be more important than before. At the same time, if the effects of the pandemic polarise societies even more, there will also be stronger agitation for more progressive or distributive policies. It will be very difficult to reconcile those two motivations.”
Looking at the more immediate aspects of recovery, Peter Molyneux (chair of Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust), whose blog appears on the NHS Confederation website, suggests a promising route based on mental health recovery principles. These are: connectedness, hope and optimism, identity, meaning and purpose, and empowerment. He makes a key point about trauma at both individual and societal levels, acknowledging the knock-on effects inherent in the overall system, and makes a compelling case for an overarching, systematic approach. (One of the most criticised aspects of government strategy so far has been its piecemeal and over-centralised nature).
‘We will need to understand the trauma that occurs in individuals and which affects populations, which will be experienced in different ways. The commitment in the Long Term Plan on population health will now need even greater focus on population mental health, both in terms of health and care and the economic and social impacts. Sussex is already being hit hard by the impact of the pandemic on Gatwick, as well as the cancellation of events which are the engine-room of the seasonal economy. This is affecting unemployment rates and will have a resulting economic and social impact on population health.
This implies discussing how we can achieve a more systematic approach to population mental health. There are some fantastic examples of places where this is happening, but it is patchy and fragmented. So across systems, we need to co-produce with communities and wider civil society ways in which we can support individuals but also reduce some of the underlying causes of mental distress – and the unequal way in which this is distributed across populations and communities.’
It’s common now to come across tips on surviving lockdown and most of these are actually based on the useful wellbeing principles developed some years ago by the New Economics Foundation, a British think-tank aiming to promote “social, economic and environmental justice”. The five principles are Connect (with the people around you: family, friends, colleagues and neighbours at home, work, school or in your local community – mostly online at present); Be active; Take notice (be observant, look at something beautiful eg in the natural world, meditate); Keep learning and Give (in the wider sense of the word). It’s really helpful to do one or two things every day for both our mental and physical health and a current example I’ve not tried yet (but will) is taking a virtual museum tour – you can even ‘visit’ the Vatican. For ‘taking notice’ I’ve been visiting local waterways and woodlands, most of them a 90 minute round trip so a decent walk on top of the Joe Wicks live ‘PE’ sessions. (Incidentally, I gather the Wicks workouts and baking banana bread are now regarded as lockdown clichés but they’re good to do so I won’t stop!) Today I took my binoculars to the viewing platforms over the reservoir local birdwatchers had alerted me to. Nothing that exciting came into view but I’m told there are swifts, swallows, egrets and cormorants to be seen, so maybe another day….
Finally, consumer goods giant Unilever reports that its sales of products like shampoo and deodorant are significantly down since the start of lockdown, whereas household cleaning products are ‘flying off the shelves’. This suggests that some of the care we were formerly lavishing on our personal grooming is being diverted to our perhaps neglected abodes – maybe now Quentin Crisp will finally be proved wrong!