It seems the government’s house of cards is collapsing further, every day bringing more revelations of incompetence and delayed action, which will result in yet more anxiety for an already worried population. During the last 36 hours it emerged that the Westminster government suppressed a report on the Iris pandemic modelling exercise in Scotland in 2018. The report revealed frontline staff “unease” over personal protective equipment and inadequate contact tracing capability, stressing “the need for substantive progress”. This is on top of the 2016 Cygnus Exercise report also not being published, which also revealed significant lack of preparedness. The Iris findings have only come to light because of investigative journalism by the BBC and a Freedom of Information request, so it begs the question what else is being suppressed?
It also emerged that the so-called NHS (aka Serco) contact tracing app won’t be fully operational until the autumn, although on BBC Question Time Nadhim Zaharwi (known as the ‘sponge’ for his attempts to mop up after government mistakes) ‘would like to think’ it would be ready by the end of June. This casts further doubt over the entire test, track and trace strategy, since the various elements are interdependent, so it’s not surprising many have no confidence in it.
Meanwhile, the death toll continues to rise and it’s shocking it’s passed 40,000 when 20,000 at one time was regarded as a good outcome. But this number sidesteps the important issue of excess deaths. Former MP and chair of the Commons Health and Social Care Committee Sarah Wollaston tweeted: ‘The official UK coronavirus death toll has passed 40,000 but truth is that excess deaths above 5 year average reached that grim milestone some time ago & run at over 60,000 since the pandemic hit. Far many more bereaved families, both directly & indirectly, than being presented’. Palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke tweeted: ‘Yesterday the UK, population 66 million, had more deaths from COVID19 than the *entire* EU, population nearly 450 million. Not even 10 Downing Street can spin that away – it is utterly, irredeemably damning’.
On Any Questions last night smooth-talking Transport Minister Grant Shapps was challenged splendidly by former Speaker John Bercow on the illogicality of the quarantine policy and on the lack of action on BAME vulnerability to COVID19. Bercow was at least the second within 24 hours to suggest government policy was being made ‘on the hoof’, the other being Chris Hopson of NHS Providers, complaining about the sudden decision to make facemask wearing compulsory in hospitals from 15 June. Again, NHS policymakers weren’t warned or consulted, leaving them very little time to prepare for this.
As if we needed further proof that social care needs to be in the public sector in a properly funded national service, this must be it. Today it was revealed that some care home self-funders (who already substantially subsidise local authority funded residents) are being asked to pay more than £100 a week on top of their usual care home fees, to cover COVID19 costs such as PPE and staff absences. There’s very real concern about the affordability for families but also the possibility of residents becoming homeless if providers go bankrupt or decide their profit margins are too low to continue.
Reports suggested costs are more than 30% higher than usual, and that as many as 20,000 care homes may go out of business without urgent extra support. Judy Downey, chair of the Relatives & Residents Association, said: “The R&RA, like the Competition and Markets Authority, takes a very dim view of care providers who exploit the vulnerabilities of older people. This is particularly distressing at such a stressful time when most residents have little knowledge of their contractual rights. Contracts must not be unfair or misleading and must justify any new charge. Forcing residents with little or no alternative to accept unanticipated costs may be exploitative and unfair. It may also be unlawful. We urge all families in this position to contact us or the CMA urgently for further advice.” Although this is helpful advice, I wonder how many even know about this Association and if they do, would they have the energy to contact them if feeling very stressed about the situation they face? And what choice do they have if made to accept the charges? It’s not as if there’s a huge choice of care home accommodation available.
During the week The Guardian’s parliamentary sketch writer, John Crace, excoriated the PM in a witty and powerful piece about PMQs: ‘The truth is that Boris is a beaten man even before he stands up to speak at the dispatch box. He knows that. Keir knows that. Worst of all, the country knows that. The shouting is all just empty, white noise. A distraction from his own limitations. And at a time of national crisis you can’t get away with putting that on the side of a bus’.
More powerful and damaging, coming as it does from former Tory MP Matthew Parris, is his blistering attack on the PM in The Times today, with the headline ‘Johnson has been tested and found wanting’. Amongst many other things, Parris opined: ‘He never had any judgment or strategic vision. His powers of concentration have always been weak. There never was a golden age of Boris Johnson…Mr Johnson was only ever a shallow opportunist with a minor talent to amuse…Sadly though, he doesn’t have any other skills [than as a self-parodying light entertainer]. He broke into Downing Street by clambering up a drainpipe called Brexit and he never fully believed in that foolish endeavour, as the more deeply-rooted Brexiteers always knew.” Although The Times places its content behind a paywall, you can register to get two free articles a week and some tweeters at the #MatthewParris Twitter hashtag, including Anna Soubry, reproduced the whole thing.
This must be phrase of the week – ‘he broke into Downing Street by clambering up a drainpipe called Brexit’. Another competing for first place would be Crick Institute scientist Sir Paul Nurse’s observation on Channel 4’s Dispatches, that talking to ministers was ‘like talking to a blancmange – you poke them a bit, they wobble a bit, then go back to their original form’.
Amid ongoing complaints about BBC bias, it was announced that an internal candidate (no surprise there?) Tim Davie, 53, currently head of BBC Studios, will be the BBC’s new Director-General from September. Is the Beeb playing safe sticking with an internal candidate, one who’s not a broadcaster? He said the BBC needed to “accelerate change” to survive in a fast-moving world and that the corporation must “continue to reform, make clear choices and stay relevant”. It will be interesting to see how this works out as the BBC obviously has huge influence over the news agenda and must increasingly compete with streaming channels such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV and the Disney Channel. Surely, though, the salary is excessive, as so often in the public sector these days. We’re told Davie will be paid £525,000 a year – £75,000 more than Lord Hall, but £75,000 less than he was getting as head of BBC Studios.
Shout is described as a ‘free, 24/7 text messaging service, connecting people experiencing mental health crisis to trained volunteers who provide help at a time when it is most needed’. It’s good that Prince William is volunteering for this charity but very unfortunate that media organisations like the BBC and The Guardian refer to him being a ‘counsellor’. This unfortunately contributes to the misunderstandings already prevalent about counselling and psychotherapy, made easier because this profession is still statutorily unregulated. Becoming properly qualified as a counsellor or therapist (not just doing a quick weekend or online course) takes between three and five years, many more when practitioners undertake further qualifications offered by their professional body. For those serious about it, this work also involves a great deal of time and energy on CPD, reflection, supervision and personal therapy. So, great that William has been so committed to promoting mental health, but please don’t call him a ‘counsellor’.
Finally, on a positive note, the Guardian’s weekly Upside newsletter focuses on ‘stories of humanity and opportunities for change’. Recently they invited nominations for community heroes and this edition includes mine – scroll down towards the end. You might like to subscribe to Upside and think about who you would like to nominate in your community!