Not surprisingly, the Dominic Cummings revelations continue to dominate the media and infuriate many who have, despite considerable difficulties, mostly stuck to the rules which he chose to disregard and cover up. His actions further leach trust in the government, undermining authority and thereby its mandate to govern, although this doesn’t yet seem to have been grasped. Equally galling and painful is the way ministers and some others lined up to defend him, citing ‘circumstances’, as if these didn’t also apply to the millions who have adhered to the guidance. This kind of cognitive dissonance demonstrated by Grant Shapps and company is likely to backfire on them because of the psychological unease it gives rise to. At least it’s positive that backbenchers are opposing this stance and the first to do so, 1922 Committee member Steve Baker, got to the heart of the problem, warning that the strategist was “burning through Boris’s political capital at a rate that we just can ill afford in the midst of this crisis”. Piers Morgan didn’t hold back, tweeting: ‘Cabinet ministers rushing to publicly support Cummings breaking the Govt’s own lockdown rules just about sums up their collective moral bankruptcy & fridge-hiding, accountability-avoiding cowardice. The public won’t stand for this shameful hypocrisy, whoever they vote for’. Perhaps the most deadly rejoinder was J K Rowling’s to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden’s ‘move along, nothing to see here’ one, finishing with ‘End of story’. Rowling responded: ‘I know ending stories and this ain’t it, chief’.
The difficulty for the PM is that keeping Cummings in post will dent his credibility even further but sacking him will mean (unless the adviser continues to pull the strings behind the scenes) finally having, after all these years of avoidance, to engage with strategy and detail, buckling down to the work this involves. Bluffing and buffoonery are no longer enough, if they ever were. Whatever choice is made, a backbench rebellion will make it harder. Journalist Jonathan Freedland tweeted: ‘Dominic Cummings made his name denouncing what he regarded as a hypocritical Westminster elitism contemptuous of ordinary people. Now he is the face of it.’ The febrile atmosphere intensified as the PM, making a ‘last minute’ decision to head the Downing Street briefing, gave a series of poor excuses for Cummings’s conduct and seemed to think the rest of the briefing could be taken seriously when the key issue remained unresolved. The incredulous and exasperated expressions on the faces of journalists like Robert Peston said it all. Sidestepping this decision will not help the PM and this is unlikely to be the end of it, given the anger of many in the country and in Parliament. Adding to the drama was a ‘rogue’ tweet sent from the Twitter UK Civil Service account, reading “Arrogant and offensive. Can you imagine having to work with these truth twisters?” This was widely shared before being taken down but not before thousands had seen it.
Two other debates are rumbling on, continuing to illustrate worrying divisions, namely the reopening of schools and the return of MPs to Parliament. Besides the very real safety concerns, school heads are wrestling with the practicalities of reopening primary schools for some year groups in just a week’s time in England. An Opinium poll for the Observer found that 43 per cent of primary school parents and 54 per cent of secondary school parents feel anxious about the prospects of pupils returning. Getting on for half of those surveyed sounding reluctant to send their children back to school represents quite an obstacle for ministers to try to overcome in just one week, not looking good for getting parents back to work. Many are concerned that kick-starting the economy is being prioritised over the safety of pupils and teachers and the return policy is not being supported by SAGE.
Some parliamentarians are equally concerned about being expected to return to Westminster on 2 June, despite Jacob Rees-Mogg’s argument that it was necessary in order to progress badly needed legislation. He said that hybrid parliamentary proceedings (most MPs contributing via video-link) didn’t allow sufficient scrutiny of policy matters but some MPs are worried about their vulnerability and risk because of underlying health conditions. In both these controversies we can sense the government’s urge to get the economy moving, which is understandable but not at the expense of safety.
The Guardian’s weekly Upside feature asks if the pandemic has made us nicer, for example the focus on community and people helping each other. ‘The revival of community has been one of the more exciting upsides from Covid-19. Homo sapiens got where they did by being cooperative and collaborative, and we’ve seen that on a daily basis: the seed sharers, mask weavers, happy clappers, valiant volunteers, community choirs and online orchestras’. Implied but not specifically stated apart from seed sharing is the giving and receiving of small gifts (eg a plant, bottle of wine, a jar of jam, piece of homemade cake etc) which I hope continues. The article invites us to nominate our community heroes and also to take part in a live streamed discussion on 5 June (1-2 pm) about the rise of community. I’m nominating someone – might you?
Now that the woman who initiated the weekly clapping for NHS and frontline workers has said it should now stop, I wonder who will stop and who will want to keep on clapping. I suspect many will continue, despite Annemarie Plas, a Dutch national living in south London, saying she was “overwhelmed” by the support for the ritual Clap for Carers, but it was better to stop while it was ‘at its peak’. She’s concerned that, as we move into the 10th week of lockdown, it’s becoming ‘politicised’ but suggests we can show our appreciation ‘in other ways’ and we should resurrect it in a year’s time to mark the anniversary of the pandemic’s outbreak. Yes, it’s about appreciation but it’s also about community engagement and neighbourhood solidarity during lockdown, an opportunity for people to come out and have a chat.
But a doctor writing anonymously in The Guardian explains his dislike of the weekly custom. ‘I know many of my colleagues appreciate the clapping, saying that they feel moved and grateful, that the coming together of the community to support the NHS warms the heart. There are others, like me, whose response is that it is a sentimental distraction from the issues facing us. The NHS is not a charity and it isn’t staffed by heroes. It has been run into the ground by successive governments and now we are reaping the rewards of that neglect, on the background of the public health impact of years of rampant inequality in the UK’. This doctor won’t be only one who, rather than clapping, wants fair pay and conditions for NHS staff, to have their concerns listened to and for whistleblowers to be able to speak out without fear of retribution.
Zoom has quickly become a lifeline for many, a crucial tool for business and the closest we get to social life. Numbers of daily users have reportedly risen from 10 million in December to 200 million by March, many getting into this technology for the first time. But there are downsides, such as the system crashing, meeting time eroded by having to ensure participants are all tuned in with video and audio, and it’s been acknowledged this communication channel is more challenging and tiring: silences don’t work well in videoconferencing, body language demeanour and body language can’t be so easily picked up, we can be self-conscious about constantly seeing our own faces in a way we wouldn’t normally and there are the distractions of backgrounds including the contents of bookcases. The ‘Zoom boom’ has also shone more of a light on the digital divide, as numerous people don’t have the kit or broadband access.
The internet, including Zoom itself, offers examples of Zoom etiquette and it’s to be hoped such guides become better known as time goes on. The second tip on one list said ‘don’t wear your pyjamas’, though one meeting participant proudly tweeted that he wore a smart shirt on the top half and pyjama bottoms on the other. I asked him what if he had to get up but didn’t get an answer. Seriously, it would be good if there was more awareness of the irritations of people fidgeting, getting up and down, taking phone calls, holding pets on their laps, talking to others in the background and worst – eating/drinking/clattering around with utensils and what one list calls ‘doing private things while on a meeting’.
Finally, the growth of ‘slow’ this and that (having started in Italy with slow food) has seen a rise in slow radio and podcasts in recent years. Listeners to BBC Broadcasting House on Sunday mornings are regularly treated to calming sounds like birdsong, creaking trees in a forest and rain on a tin roof, surprisingly nourishing for the senses and an aid to mindfulness and meditation. Alan Davey, the controller of BBC Radio 3, which has made slow radio a speciality, says: ‘Radio is a very intimate medium. It’s a very close relationship between what’s being broadcast and the listener. And, especially if you listen on headphones, you can really immerse yourself in it and get lost in it.” I suspect there’s something about this kind of material which accesses a certain part of our brains, perhaps the limbic system, which isn’t always discernable to us, the territory of neuroscientists and trauma specialists. Anyone interested can check out some ‘slow’ offerings here – the kind of thing that’s going to be helpful during lockdown.