For many the weekend marked a major change after months, as the warm weather and anticipation of Monday’s easing of lockdown restrictions tempted them to start early by inviting people round and meeting outside, often in quite large groups, not to mention flocking to beaches and beauty spots. What took us by surprise, including public health directors who hadn’t been consulted, was the sudden change of advice for those shielding. The PM told them on Thursday that he was ‘afraid’ they’d have to continue in lockdown, but the advice changed on Saturday night, allowing the ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ to go outside if they live alone and meet one friend from Monday. Nikki Kanani, NHS England’s primary care medical director, had also not been informed in advance and health professionals including Dame Donna Kinnair of the Royal College of Nursing are concerned generally about the easing but especially for this group. This lack of consultation is another worrying thing about the government’s strategy, as if it needs to pre-empt objections. Another example of an inadequate defence was Matt Hancock insisting it had been “very well received by those who are shielded”. Fears of a second wave continue.
Meanwhile, the Dominic Cummings controversy continues to dog the Prime Minister, despite his astonishingly naïve suggestion a week ago that a line had now been drawn under it. The #Borisvoteofnoconfidence and #DominicCummingsMustResign hashtags have been trending on Twitter, as has #NotmovingOnTillDomIsGone, and a petition for the vote of no confidence has nearly 90,000 signatures.
Besides the Cummings row, it does feel as if the government’s house of cards is gradually collapsing because of the number of damaging revelations emerging and problems with various aspects of the strategy. These include the increasing number of key scientists and health professionals speaking out against Cummings’s breach of lockdown restrictions, ‘a matter of personal and professional integrity’; the inadequacy of the test and trace system (leaked figures showed less than half of people in England with confirmed Covid-19 cases have been through the system) and so far no questioning of programme head Dido Harding; the rebuke of Matt Hancock by Sir David Norgrove, (chairman of the UK Statistics Authority) about misrepresenting numbers of tests via confusing presentation of the figures; the under-reporting of care home deaths; the exclusive focus on the NHS and little consideration of the vital social care sector, leading to an estimate of 22,000 care home deaths; the lack of regulatory oversight of the care home situation eg by the Care Quality Commission and the Health and Safety Executive; and illogical policies on quarantine for incoming air passengers.
With 40% of COVID19 deaths having taken place in care homes, the outgoing chair of Hourglass (formerly Action on Elder Abuse), John Beer, said that calls to their confidential helpline relating to concerns over neglect increased by more than 25% since the lockdown began. Before the pandemic around 2m people over 60 in the UK are thought to have experienced some kind of abuse, and the 25% increase relates to relatives’ concerns including knowing homes were taking in new residents without testing or observing isolation periods. So much for the recent statement that ‘from the start a protective ring was thrown around our care homes’.
It all adds up to a further plummeting of confidence and trust in the government, which is worrying both short-term and in the longer term, yet ministers don’t seem to grasp the damage being done by the lies, muddle and obfuscations. It’s striking that according to YouGov surveys conducted on behalf of the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute, less than half of Britons now trust the Westminster government to provide correct information on the pandemic – down from more than two-thirds of the public in mid-April. At Prime Minister’s Questions today Keir Starmer delivered a robust challenge to the PM regarding this collapse in public confidence over the government’s handling of the crisis, saying No 10 would be directly responsible if the infection rate starts to rise again. The Guardian commented: ‘In a significant hardening of his language, Starmer said Johnson had to “get a grip” of the crisis’.
Yet identical-sounding ministers continue to appear in the media, using the same predictable script and soundbites, which surely must convince very few. Asked three times on the Today programme if any European country had a worse death toll than the UK, health minister Edward Argar instead answered questions he hadn’t been asked. A listener tweeted: ‘Doesn’t the government yet realise that their soundbites trotted out at every opportunity about decisions being taken according to ‘the best scientific advice’ hasn’t cut ice for quite some time? Far too selective, politicised and muddied by controversy’.
Channel 4’s Dispatches sounds like essential listening tonight, at 9 pm. It asks: Britain’s Coronavirus Catastrophe – Did the Government Get it Wrong?
So has any country got things right? We often hear about much sharper and responsive track and trace systems operating in more authoritarian regimes like Taiwan, but Slovakia could be a new success story to us. The Week has coverage from The Atlantic (New York), which says the country had the lowest per capita death rate in Europe, due to prompt action, adopting key measures like sealing borders and closing schools and restaurants within days of cases being confirmed. Wearing face masks was made compulsory in public places and politicians led by example, wearing them in parliament. The key phrase must be: ‘Slovakia’s politicians made a point of leading from the front’, something which manifestly hasn’t happened here.
The easing of lockdown restrictions and more people meeting outside has focused attention on the dire state of many public toilets. Naturally, these have been closed for some time now but their numbers have markedly declined in recent years and how often do users find them in an unhygienic state, missing water, soap, towels or all three? Councils and other bodies responsible for public loos now need to consider how they can be adapted to require touching as few surfaces as possible, but ensuring the supply of water, soap and dryer would be a good start.
We don’t seem to have heard much in the media about this being Volunteers Week, but everyone will be aware of how the large number of regular volunteers has been augmented by thousands more volunteering during the pandemic. A total of 230 organisations from across the UK have been awarded the prestigious Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service this year – great that they’re being recognised as they make such a difference to people’s lives. Lady Diana Barran, Minister for Civil Society, wrote in the Guardian that the ‘British people and businesses have been incredibly generous: their contributions total over £800m through national fundraising campaigns alone. We’re determined to match that generosity which is why we’re pledging a multibillion-pound boost to bridge the gap and make sure help reaches those who need it most’. This sounds positive but let’s hope the various pledges and schemes come to fruition because there have been plenty of examples of pledges not being honoured and of announcements which are actually new promises of existing funds. It’s especially important because, for obvious reasons, charities have been finding it harder to raise funds during the pandemic.
On a positive note, and we certainly need it now, the Wildlife Trusts are encouraging us to sign up for their 30 Days Wild campaign, which encourages daily activities throughout June to enjoy and appreciate the nature around us. About half a million of us are expected to join in and there should be plenty to observe, especially as lockdown has resulted in more bird and animal sightings, not to mention numerous trees and plants blossoming. Interestingly, more participants are in urban rather than rural areas. It’s well known that close proximity to nature is good for our mental and physical wellbeing and the crisis has lent an additional dimension to the experience. Dom Higgins, the Trusts’ head of Health and Education, said: ‘Our lives have been changed by coronavirus and this is giving people a reason to reflect on our relationship with nature, the way we live our lives and how we spend our free time”.
‘We want you to do one wild thing a day throughout the whole month: for your health, wellbeing and for the planet’) but I think I’ll stick to baking banana bread rather than hedgehog cupcakes!