As more and more holes appear in the government’s strategy, despite attempts by ministers to suggest that everything’s gone according to plan, it’s emerged that at least 95,000 people entered the UK from overseas since lockdown imposition, with no attempt to ascertain how many had Covid-19. Keir Starmer’s forensic challenge to the PM yesterday on the policy of discharging untested patients to care homes has had wide coverage, yet this morning health minister Ed Argar still tried to defend it and deny that this had been the policy. A Today listener tweeted: ‘Health minister Ed Argar repeating line of “no evidence of community transmission” to justify lax care homes policy. Why is it so hard for Govt to understand you take action to PREVENT a problem arising? Shameful how they squandered the advance warning we had from Italy’. British exceptionalism again – other countries can’t teach us anything?? What’s astonishing is the revisionist verbal gymnastics performed by ministers in media interviews, aimed at convincing us that there was a plan all along rather than the chaos we’ve seen.
It seems that, despite having received advice over months to this effect from some scientists and experts including Independent Sage members, the government has finally realised it needs a decentralised approach to its test and trace strategy. It’s now appointed Head of NHS Improvement Dido Harding (formerly Talk Talk CEO) as chair, Tom Riordan (CEO of Leeds City Council) to lead on tracing and Sarah-Jane Marsh (Chief Executive of Birmingham Women’s and Children’s Hospital), to lead on testing. The Department of Health and Social Care press release promises a ‘rapid nationwide roll out’ of the programme. It will be interesting to see how this works out.
Another worrying source of inconsistency is the fissure in the four nations infrastructure, because the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland governments have been so alarmed by the Stay Alert policy they are going their own way. How will this work out given the five separate (!) taskforces being set up to plan the re-opening of various venues from July? What coordination will there be between them and can we expect different arrangements in the other three nations? We’re told business secretary Alok Sharma will lead on pubs, restaurants and shops, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden on recreation, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick on places of worship and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps on aviation.
Revelations about NHS staff being warned, threatened or disciplined for speaking up about unsafe practice or malpractice have been in the news for a while but have become more pronounced during the crisis, because of the lack of PPE and testing for coronavirus and similar worries raised in the care sector. It’s known that whistleblowers often have a very difficult time, but now there’s been a call for a change of attitude towards them, which needs underpinning by legislation to properly protect them. This is the stance of Elizabeth Gardiner, the new chief executive of whistleblowing charity Protect. “What we would like to see is a proactive duty on employers to protect whistleblowers from being victimised,” she says. “That would be the sort of cultural shift that we’re looking for.” Let’s hope this comes to pass. It’s shameful that, on top of their already demanding roles and the risks they take to care for their patients, NHS staff are being silenced by their employers in this way for voicing legitimate concerns about patient safety.
The Spectator (12 May) reports that when this crisis is over, reform of Whitehall will come to the fore again, driven by the Cabinet Office, which has announced ‘an intriguing set of new non-executive directors’. The four are Bernard Hogan-Howe, the former Metropolitan Police commissioner; Henry De Zoete, who worked with Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings at the Department for Education before winning Dragon’s Den and setting up an energy switching service; Gisela Stuart, the former Labour MP and co-chair of Vote Leave; and Simone Finn, a Tory peer who was the coalition’s adviser on trade union matters. All are said to be ‘impatient reformers’. Like the Dido Harding choice for heading up the refocused test and trace programme, it would be interesting to know the thinking behind these appointments, as it’s not always clear. Impatient they may be but changes need to be thought through and planned carefully, also addressing the bullying problem which has dogged the Civil Service for some time.
A recent ‘long read’ in The Week (2 May) discusses how architecture post-pandemic will be different, first referencing how diseases and pandemics throughout history have influenced street planning and building design. It asks whether homes will have to change to accommodate work, pavements have to widen (already planned) to allow distancing and workplaces have to develop alternatives to crowded open-plan working. An innovatory design agency (the Design Research Unit, founded in 1943) was credited with changing the appearance of postwar Britain and is now ‘thinking big’ yet again by reflecting on qualities and characteristics post-pandemic buildings will need. They see workplaces as likely to represent the biggest changes, moving from colleagues closely mingling in open-plan spaces to more partitioning and openable windows. An architect at Foster & Partners, responsible for the innovatory Apple and Bloomberg HQs, foresees wider corridors, more staircases (to prevent people having to cram into lifts), wider desks, safer surface coatings and increasingly functions from opening doors to calling lifts and ordering coffee being controlled by smartphone or sensors in conjunction with facial recognition. Called ‘contactless pathways’, infection control is built in by obviating the need to touch surfaces (‘With 80% of infectious diseases transmitted by touching contaminated surfaces, this hands-free future could well catch on’).
It’s also predicted that high-rise buildings will be more expensive to build and will therefore become less attractive to developers. Population density eg in New York has been placed firmly in the frame for spreading the virus, directing attention to ‘car-centric suburbs’, seen as detrimental for other reasons including being a factor in the climate change and obesity crises. Seeing the pandemic as a catalyst for decentralisation, Professor Wouter Vanstiphout, design as politics academic at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands said: ‘This is the best time ever to think of a walkable city’, based on smaller units of health and education services being situated in a greater number of localities.
The article rightly points out that with travel limited, ‘the local high street has come into its own and corner shops have often proved to be better stocked than supermarkets’. I’ve certainly made some interesting discoveries in smaller shops, which could start doing better because of the reluctance of some customers to enter big supermarkets which don’t enforce distancing in the aisles. Vanstiphout believes there is now ‘more of a sense of the city as a place of safety, of home and continuity. It’s a warning against tourism and the inequality that causes labour migration on a temporary basis; a warning against the gig economy and the devastation of public services. There is something really clarifying about a pandemic: you can see the absolute necessity of a public health service and a proper social welfare system. It creates a very clear picture of what is good’.
Although it’s positive that designers and policymakers are thinking about what kind of buildings and urban planning we need for the future, this will inevitably only apply to a small number of buildings and the cost could be prohibitive. While some will like the concrete and glass high tech environment, others will feel uncomfortable with it and their mental wellbeing could suffer in the same way as it already can do when people are made to work in a basement or somewhere else without natural light. Current homes and workplaces will have to be adapted very quickly and that task could prove more challenging.
Finally, the huge rise in the use of Zoom has sparked interest in backdrops and bookshelves which look suspiciously ‘curated’, conveying powerful messages about their owners. Not everyone realises that you can create a virtual background in Zoom, if there’s a particular need to neutralise your surroundings, as required by psychotherapists, for example. But these can look a bit boring and depersonalised, for example closed curtains or a bland piece of art on the wall. Michael Gove’s bookshelf has attracted comment for its inclusion of biographies of Napoleon and Hitler, Tony Blair’s memoirs and books on Europe and American presidents, possibly intending to convey power and determination. The Guardian’s fashion expert advises on how to ‘get this right’, an interesting concept in itself.
‘The pandemic has forced us to make our private spaces public. And what may have begun as a voyeuristic interest is morphing into something else as the potential “new normal” sees us spend much more time at home long term’. ‘Winners’ include Meryl Streep, complete with martini in the foreground and no Oscars in the background, whereas ‘loser’ Vogue doyenne Anna Wintour’s was found unexpectedly dull (closed curtains). ‘It’s all wrong. What I want from Anna is a crystal vase of peonies, a Smythson notebook with a silk ribbon and a Diptyque candle’. Err, right. As someone not impressed with consumerist focus on brands, I’d have to disagree. Perhaps this much is true, though: ‘The pandemic has forced us to make our private spaces public….’, so maybe the Englishman’s home is no longer his castle, if ‘he’ Zooms!