What a terrible news week it’s been. With COVID deaths moving towards the 40,000 which sounded horrific when first estimated months ago and still does, there’s been the Dominic Cummings debacle and further erosion of confidence in the PM on continuing to back him despite 44 of his own MPs including former ministers calling for Cummings’s resignation; 61 speaking up against his retention; the resignation of Under-Secretary of State for Scotland Douglas Ross; absurd defences of Cummings offered by numerous ministers and others; the removal of Emily Maitlis from BBC2’s Newsnight; Durham Police deciding, contrary to evidence, to take no action against Cummings and the PM insisting the matter is closed; Matt Hancock exhorting the public to do their “civic duty” and stay at home as he launched the new test and trace system despite local authorities lack of appropriate involvement and powers; continuing delays with the contact tracing app; the PM effectively silencing the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Officer at the daily press briefing; and eased lockdown rules which are riddled with inconsistencies, not least with the lockdown rules in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
It’s been shown that the already increasing breaches of lock down intensified after last week’s revelations that Cummings had so blatantly and unapologetically disregarded the ‘guidance’ everyone else was expected to follow, even if it meant not seeing loved ones at the end of their lives, attending funerals, seeing friends and family and numerous other sacrifices. Tory MPs have reported ‘bulging’ postbags and inboxes, complaints from aggrieved constituents askance at the apparent allowances being made, absurd accounts of events accepted and bending of the rules to suit this one adviser, when many have coped with far more challenging situations than those which faced Cummings.
The most worrying thing, though, has to be what’s emerged as the PM’s absolute dependence on Cummings, the one who clearly supplies the strategy and detail the PM clearly demonstrates he is incapable of. The PM was eviscerated by Guardian parliamentary sketch writer John Crace – ‘Clueless on health policy, clueless on benefits. No wonder Dom is still in a job – he runs the show’, while the New Statesman captures the PM’s dilemma: ‘Boris Johnson is in an awful bind. He can’t afford to sack Dominic Cummings, but nor can he afford to keep him’. The government is fast losing authority and credibility because of this saga, an embarrassment to the UK’s standing in the eyes of the world besides causing much anger and unhappiness here in the UK.
One poll suggested that Boris Johnson’s approval rating fell by 20 per cent in the space of four days. The whole debacle reveals the PM and ministers as inhabiting a strange kind of alternative reality, in denial about the damage it’s causing and caught up in an Emperor’s New Clothes scenario. This was exemplified by lockdown breaching minister Robert Jenrick defending Cummings’s inappropriate use of a childcare exception only intended for safeguarding in potential child abuse situations. What they don’t seem to yet realise is that the short-term saving of Cummings will cause much longer term damage – the matter is by no means ‘closed’.
This stance is also personally damaging for apologists. An Any Questions listener tweeted: ‘When will ministers realise what harm they are doing themselves through cognitive dissonance? At some level, however deeply buried, they know what they’re saying is wrong and the inconsistency between what they know and what they present will be unhelpful’.
The supreme irony has to be Matt Hancock stressing the importance of us doing our ‘civic duty’ regarding the track and trace strategy. This didn’t escape an incredulous Stephen Fry, who tweeted: ‘You. Are telling us our civic duty. You?’
Meanwhile, the controversy has spawned numerous social media spoofs, the humour perhaps helping us to cope with a situation we’re mostly powerless to change. Serious contenders for the best of these must be the Barnard Castle Specsavers ‘advert’ and the alternative version of the Proclaimers’ I’m gonna be (500 miles).
As if this wasn’t enough, ITV News announced that it had obtained evidence that it was always the plan to discharge Covid-19 patients into care homes. 1,800 beds were block booked in care homes by the NHS and councils for that exact purpose. …’And they’re still being discharged’. An article by an NHS consultant writing anonymously in the Guardian is sobering and worrying on various levels and they must be very unsettled by damaging policies imposed from above, like the care home discharges. He or she is particularly concerned about the possibility of a second wave, due to people feeling too relaxed about lockdown easing, about those who haven’t been to hospital with worrying symptoms now being found (for example) with only days to live due to undiagnosed cancer and about the ongoing lack of bedside testing. ‘This new phase is difficult, uncertain, draining. There are endless planning meetings and constantly changing advice. Many of us still struggle with insomnia and then there’s the toll on our mental health’. This toll is not only due to the challenging circumstances these clinicians have to navigate every day but also the lack of psychological ‘holding’ from policymakers above, not dissimilar to what the public is experiencing with our political leaders.
Many are concerned that the government is rushing ahead with reopening shops, businesses and schools when it’s not safe to detract from their ongoing series of errors and to suggest we’ve made more ‘progress’s than we have. Other countries like France and Italy undertook the hard work of complete lockdowns, with exceptions documented and policed, so were able to reap the benefits of lockdown easing. It could be argued that the only partially locked down UK is trying to prematurely get to easing without having invested initially in the appropriate measures.
It won’t please the government that some SAGE members have publicly expressed unease over lockdown easing new lockdown rules while there are 8,000 new infections every day in England, excluding those in hospitals and care homes. “We cannot relax our guard by very much at all,” said John Edmunds, a professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who attends meetings of SAGE.
But this debate increasingly focuses our attention on risk – some are more naturally risk averse than others but others are deciding they’d rather live fully than spend the rest of their lives in a very restricted lifestyle. Life is a risk and being unprepared to accept any leads to existing rather than living. Some shielding and clinically vulnerable people expected to continue in lockdown feel aggrieved that they’ve not been considered sufficiently and have decided in some cases to ignore the advice. It’s possible to do this without endangering others, as described by a man with a terminal diagnosis interviewed on the Today programme. It was promising to hear statistician Professor David Spiegelhalter talk about the UK leading on the development of a risk assessment tool, which may in future help individuals to accurately gauge their risk but in the meantime we have to decide ourselves. The Professor was worth listening to on Today for another reason, surely the quote of the week: invited by Nick Robinson to state his views on SAGE issues, Spiegelhalter wouldn’t be drawn and said his approach is to ‘’focus on the things you do know about and shut up about those you don’t’. Politicians and media, take note?
Concern continues about the track and trace strategy and how effective this can be without the once much trumpeted app and without the local public health infrastructure in place. Many have also wondered why former TalkTalk CEO Dido Harding was brought in to chair this strategy rollout. Now an anonymous former call centre recruit writing in the Guardian reveals a shambolic picture behind the scenes. The advert had read ‘You must have your own computer and high-speed internet to download our software and communicate with our customers … Don’t let lockdown stop you getting your dream job.” The ‘dream job’ began with what sounds a fiasco of a training, which took two hours to start and which was ‘very basic’, with little support from the trainer or afterwards from a supervisor. Having been thrown in at the deep end, trainees then found that they were kept waiting for days without work, despite being assured they’d be paid. ‘Two days later I logged in for my weekend shift and discovered nothing had changed – and that I had clocked up 40 hours of key worker pay for doing absolutely nothing. After the Dominic Cummings story broke I started hearing more media stories about the track-and-trace programme. Health secretary Matt Hancock claimed that “highly trained track-and-trace staff” were in place. I still had not seen the government system we were supposed to use.’ This ‘key worker’ quit shortly afterwards but observed: ‘Despite what the government is saying, it seems the relentless problem “with the system” is another pandemic without a cure’. Many of those recruited felt angry and confused and ‘none of them have any faith that we’re properly set up to fight any increase in infection rate from this pandemic’.
You might be interested in a few tv and radio offerings later today (and afterwards available on Iplayer or BBC Sounds). At 9.30 pm on BBC2 there’s a documentary about renowned jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. It ‘traces Fitzgerald’s life from appearing at 16 in a talent contest at the Harlem Apollo while she was homeless to facing horrific racism as a singer in the 1940s before becoming one of the leading voices in the civil rights movement’.
Political Thinking with Nick Robinson at 5.30 today features former Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption, a former Reith lecturer but now perhaps better known for his anti-lockdown stance.
Archive on 4 explores the wellness industry, said to be worth over $4 trillion a year despite no published research proving the benefits quoted for some of these products. ‘Online at least, self-care seems to revolve around buying stuff – luxury oils, face creams, scented candles, face rollers, bath bombs, silk pillows, cleansing soaps and stress-relieving teas. Or we can cherish ourselves by paying someone else for a service, from a yoga session to a delivery of artisan chocolates. Some doctors offer complementary therapies alongside conventional medicine’. This should be an interesting listen as it’s so common to hear people extolling the benefit of some product or diet, which often, unfortunately, are used as substitutes for healthy diet or exercise.
Finally, here’s your chance if you ever fancied yourself on Desert Island Discs. I can’t remember which one it was but a 1970s play featured a character endlessly obsessing about what they would choose, those choices clearly being governed more by what impression they’d make than how meaningful they were to him. But now the BBC wants us to submit our lists and get others to join in. They recognise that narrowing down your choices to 8 has long proved difficult so the website gives tips on how to do that and also provides templates. ‘Be yourself’, says the Beeb: ‘choose the music that matters most to you, rather than worrying about what others might think’. A friend says she’s listening to my choices and wants me to tell her why I’ve chosen them and what they bring up for me – as close to the real thing I’ll get and I will do the same with hers!