Changes to lockdown restrictions dominate the news agenda, the main ones quite worrying. Many have returned to work today and Sky News showed footage of packed buses and tube trains in London, yet there is no plan to rely on anything more than people’s ‘common sense’ and public transport ‘marshalls’. The situation will need carefully controlling to avoid overcrowding and to allow distancing but the authority vested in these ‘marshalls’ is unlikely to be enough. Travelling on public transport at present could feel very frightening for commuters, who must go out to work to earn – a horrendous choice between risking their health and losing their jobs.
The other key change (for England) is the ability to drive (not sure about taking public transport) much further to take exercise and ‘care for emotional wellbeing’, so locals in beauty spots are bracing themselves for large numbers of visitors. ‘People should “stay local” and think twice before driving to parks, despite lockdown restrictions easing in England, said Kevin Bishop, the National Parks Officer and CEO of Dartmoor National Park. “We want people to be responsible and respectful. It’s a living, working landscape. How would you feel if you suddenly had lots of visitors suddenly descend on your home?” This is yet another policy that doesn’t hang together because the visitor infrastructure isn’t there and police insist they will only be relying on ‘guidelines’. This can be seen from both sides – sympathy with locals being confronted with hordes, but cabin fevered city dwellers, who may already have had several holidays cancelled, will be champing at the bit to get to the country or seaside. Maybe it’s time to resurrect that 1960s staple –the thermos flask… but beware of locals manning the barricades.
Also in the news is what’s widely seen as lack of preparation and poor performance by Boris Johnson at PMQs, exacerbated by the new Opposition leader and lack of braying colleagues to enable deflections. Tom Newton Dunn tweeted: ‘Another powerful forensic assault by Keir Starmer today. Had PM on the ropes on care home testing and unexplained deaths in them, as well as international death comparisons. Lesson for No10 is Boris Johnson can no longer wing it at PMQs’. So the question must now be – can the PM change the habit of a lifetime, since there’s plenty of evidence from former colleagues that ‘winging it’ was his habitual modus operandi? Politicians, policymakers and the public are entitled to expect a PM to be well-informed and well-prepared in ‘normal’ times, but we especially need that reassurance during this crisis.
Amongst other articles discussing COVID19 strategies adopted by other countries, online publishing platform Medium explores Sweden, widely associated with having decided not to shut down. It’s effectively a hybrid approach, designed to control the virus but not wreck the economy in the process. Although schools, businesses and parks remained open, it was recommended that people wash their hands frequently, maintain social distance, work from home if they can, and those who are elderly or more susceptible to Covid-19 stay home. Universities also switched to online teaching.
A name we’re now becoming familiar with – Anders Tegnell, the epidemiologist at Sweden’s Public Health Agency charged with recommending policy to the government – said: “Instead of saying ‘close down all of society,’ we have looked at society and closed down aspects of society where the disease is most likely to spread. I think that’s had a great effect.”
Although Sweden has a much higher death toll than other Nordic nations and its economy has been severely damaged, the author (Matthew Zeitlin) suggests ‘Sweden may not be so much an alternative, as a glimpse of the future’.
The two key factors here seem to be Swedes changing their behaviour (eg reducing travel, especially public transport use) and having more trust in their government and institutions – exactly what we don’t have in the UK. The historian Lars Trägårdh said:
“We have a lot of social trust and a lot of trust in the institutions, and the institutions have confidence in the citizens. That’s why we decided to have this voluntary approach as opposed to one that’s more hardcore.” This reminded me of the article about contact tracing strategy in Taiwan, citizens and government both playing a role and effectively entering into a partnership for the common good, as opposed to control and command structures, which could lead to non-compliance with sensible policies. There seems an implication behind several articles on COVID19 strategy that what we’re seeing right now will come to be seen differently over the longer term. Time will tell.
Meanwhile, Britain’s reputation for its handling the pandemic has taken another hit after newspapers in Europe and the US reported on the confusion and internal divisions of the government’s approach. These papers include German’s Die Zeit and Frankfurther Allgemeine Zeitung, France’s Le Monde, Spain’s El Pais, Italy’s Corriere della Serra, the Netherlands’s de Volkskrant, Sweden’s Svenska Dagbladet and the Wall Street Journal and New York Times in the US.
It’s rather shaming that Die Zeit puts the UK near the bottom of the league table and suggests ‘the government is now trying to pretend to the public that it has the situation under control”, whereas Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung identifies factors contributing to the poor management eg ‘Many Britons live in metropolitan areas where the virus spreads faster. With the state’s National Health Service, the nation has also given itself a health system that is cumbersome, bureaucratic and has been underfunded for some time.” Le Monde described the new Stay Alert slogan as ‘cringeworthy’ (anyone know the French for that?), suggested the UK itself was ‘fading’ and was mystified by the still high ratings the PM enjoys. You don’t need to know German to understand the Suddeutscher Zeitung’s headline: ‘Johnsons Fahrplan ins Chaos’. Although many would agree with the writers, there also seems a whiff of displaced Brexit antipathy in such reports.
Radio 4’s File on 4 Coronavirus – stories from behind the mask, is currently focusing on the experiences of frontline clinicians, powerful and poignant stories we wouldn’t normally hear. The series should be compulsory listening for the government. ‘In these recordings for File on 4, doctors and nurses take off their masks and reveal their private emotions and professional fears. They talk from the heart, sharing how they feel about their patients and the emotional toll on them and their families. For the diarists, it’s a rare moment to stop and reflect, to mourn the losses and hold on to the glimmers of hope.’
On a lighter note, it was Tate Modern’s 20th anniversary on Monday and we’re told that ‘Tate Modern has welcomed nearly 100 million visitors since it was first officially opened by Her Majesty The Queen on 11 May 2000, and it is now the world’s most visited museum of modern and contemporary art. From its long-term commitment to research, ground-breaking approach to collection displays and exhibitions to its unique commissions in the Turbine Hall and live programme in the Tanks, Tate Modern has transformed the British public’s relationship with contemporary art in the 21st century’. I remember what a splash it made and how it’s also been in the news for non-artistic reasons, eg the residents of adjacent luxury apartments taking the Tate to court for invasion of privacy enabled via its 10th floor viewing platform, and shockingly, the case of the French boy being pushed off the platform, sustaining life-threatening injuries.
The Tate’s email included links to pieces about their major exhibitions. I remember being introduced to Ai Wei Wei via his impacting sunflower seeds installation and accompanying film – rather sobering to be reminded that it was ten years ago. It was amazing to learn that each ‘seed’ was handcrafted and painted by scores of Chinese craftsmen. ‘Sunflower Seeds invites us to look more closely at the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon and the geo-politics of cultural and economic exchange today’, said the description. It was a bit depressing to see some visitors actually taking one or more ‘seeds’ but,surprisingly, there was no one around to stop them. I’m really missing visiting galleries, museums and heritage venues – who knows when we’ll be able to return and what these places will feel like when we do!