On Sunday The Observer led with what some of us have believed for some time – we can’t leave a public inquiry on the government’s management of the crisis till after the pandemic (will there even be an after?) as numerous politicians want to do, kicking that hugely shaming can down the road with arguments that ‘there will come a time’ etc etc. In a damning assessment of the government’s record, we were reminded that the PM ‘has offered no apology for the serious mistakes the government has made so far: its haphazard procurement of protective equipment for frontline workers; the tragedy it did too little to prevent unfolding in Britain’s care homes; its unforgivably slow efforts to build up testing capacity. Last Wednesday, without a hint of contrition, he declared himself “very proud” of the government’s record on coronavirus, just the day before the chief operating officer of the NHS test-and-trace scheme told staff it would not be operating at full speed for another three or four months. All along, there have been worrying signs that this was a government prepared to put politics above pandemic management. We agree with the scientific and medical experts who wrote to the Guardian on Friday calling for a rapid public inquiry. Such an inquiry should be focused on producing practical recommendations for the autumn and could be conducted by a cross-party committee of senior parliamentary backbenchers’.
On several fronts Matt Hancock caused dismay on the Andrew Marr programme: Channel 4 journalist Krishnan Guru-Murthy tweeted: ‘Epidemiology Professor John Edmunds (on SAGE Govt advisory group) agrees with other top scientists and tells Marr UK should have gone into lockdown earlier and it cost a lot of lives. PPE graduate Matt Hancock (the Health Secretary) says he’s sure Govt took right decisions’. Yet The Independent presents statistics to show that confidence in UK government’s handling of the pandemic plummets almost to lowest in the world after the Cummings scandal, joint bottom place alongside the US, with only Mexico below them.
Meanwhile, Priti Patel had to witness thousands of Black Lives Matter demonstrators taking not a whit of notice of her pleading with them not to attend such demos. This can hardly be surprising for the government. There was certainly something symbolic, too, about the pulling down of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol on Sunday: although demonstrators feel strongly about historic racism and injustice, there does also seem some displacement afoot of more general anger and helplessness many are feeling at present.
This week is Carers Week and perhaps there was never a more appropriate celebration of it, since it has become clear even to those reluctant to hear that this work is crucially important yet pay and conditions are poor. It should highlight further the need for social care reform in the UK and much stronger support for carers, especially those unpaid ones, caring at home for elderly, chronically ill or disabled relatives.
Meanwhile, it’s not looking good for Prince Andrew again, when he might have thought recent events would have removed the spotlight from his alleged role in the Epstein scandal. But no – at the weekend The Sun published details of a leaked bilateral mutual assistance treaty, which seems to allow investigators much more leeway than what was originally thought to be the case. The Times includes this in its Q&A:
What are investigators allowed to do under the treaty?
’Quite a lot. They can take witness statements from individuals — in this case, Prince Andrew. They can also ask to see documents and for help from the authorities in the other jurisdiction in locating or identifying individuals. The treaty also provides for the transferring of those held in custody for testimony and for help in executing searches and seizures. It says that the authorities in both countries must assist each other with the identification, tracing, freezing, seizing, and forfeiting of the proceeds of crime’.
It also states that although Andrew can’t be forced to say anything if summoned, it would look suspicious if he remained silent, leading to the possibility of US prosecutors charging him. Apparently, the prince’s lawyers are ‘distressed’ that this has been leaked, but surely this is a good thing, as it is in the public interest. It will be interesting to see how Andrew’s ‘public fightback’ works out, based so far, it seems, on Andrew’s repeated statements about ‘assisting’ the US authorities with their enquiries. Framing it in this way conveniently preserves his lofty stance and avoids the possibility of compulsion, which may yet come to pass. It could be argued this is another example of those in privileged positions believing in their own invincibility, despite the growing power of social media and investigative journalism to ‘out’ what’s been hidden.
As the death toll rises above 40,000, The Guardian focuses on the psychological cost of the pandemic, which has still not received enough attention. ‘What will be the long-term emotional and psychological cost of such a sudden and seismic disruption of our way of life?’ Many of those experiencing mental ill-health will be struggling behind closed doors. Renowned psychotherapist and author, Susie Orbach, observes: “How the outside impacts on the inside is something that people like me think about all the time…But now we are seeing it on a grand scale. The pandemic has been a prolonged assault from outside on our community. The state of uncertainty and unsafety it has created is new and utterly unfamiliar. Unless you are a refugee who has risked their life to get here, or a survivor of childhood abuse that could not be escaped, there is simply nothing to compare it to.”
Even at the start of lockdown, the WHO predicted that this very extreme disruption to our lives and sense of connectedness would cause levels of loneliness, depression, harmful alcohol and drug use, and self-harm or suicidal behaviour to rise. Trauma specialist Jo Stubley, a consultant psychiatrist and clinical psychoanalyst at London’s Tavistock and Portman clinic, points out that a global pandemic cannot be compared with other kinds of trauma, which are limited in terms of timeframe and those affected. The potential scale of the effect is huge and damage likely to be exacerbated by the paucity of services to address it. ‘Given that mental health services have been starved of resources for years, one can only imagine the impact that a deep recession will have on an already beleaguered sector. So there is a lot of concern among health care professionals like myself about what will happen next.”
Besides large numbers of frontline NHS staff, the likelihood of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) is quite strong (studies have found increased risk in 20%) in patients who have spent time in intensive care. Current levels of need for trauma treatment are expected to significantly increase further down the line, when the immediate crisis has abated, as currently those involved are focused on getting through it, responding to immediate demands. One of the key points the article makes is the psychological damage done to those who have lost people close to them without being able to be with them at the end or even attend the funeral in many cases. This will lead to a great deal of ‘complicated grief’, whereby mourning cannot take place in the usual way, exacerbated by the culture of denial around death which still persists.
A big unknown is the damaging effect of the general prohibition on what human beings need – contact and touch. It’s not all doom and gloom, though, as the huge amount of community kindness demonstrates, and many have found some respite from not having their lives dictated by hectic schedules. There’s also the chance of a different kind of world emerging, which could build on the kindness, reduction in pollution and greater presence of wildlife. Writer Arundhati Roy suggests we could ‘walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it’. Susie Orbach said: ‘Part of me thinks that this is somehow a moment of possibility. Many of us who believe we need to work together to democratise our institutions saw that actually happen when the doctors and nurses took control on the ground, while management did not have a clue’. It remains to be seen whether we can grasp these opportunities (but it will take political leadership as well as individuals’ commitment) or whether we will just get caught up once more in daily practicalities without any genuine change taking place.
Finally, the Observer makes a well-timed plea for people to show their front gardens some love, stressing the importance of green spaces for our wellbeing and the capacity of these gardens to lift the spirits of passers by, especially in these strange times. It’s striking just how many gardens have been paved over to create parking spaces – unsightly but some may consider necessary, at a cost, though: ‘These grey areas are not just a depressing eyesore, they increase urban temperatures and diminish biodiversity by removing plants and habitat’. The Royal Horticultural Society reckons up to a quarter of British front gardens have been paved over for parking. Taking centre stage in the article is a beautiful collection of railway cottage gardens near here, usually open annually for the National Garden Scheme. The RHS’s Fiona Davison says: “The front garden was traditionally where you showed the world your best face, and our version of what a front garden should be is very coloured by the Victorian ideal of a romanticised cottage garden.” There are so many beautiful and interesting plants and trees to observe in people’s gardens during walks: note to self to walk past these particular gardens again soon for a bit of uplifting.