As the death toll was just announced as 42,153, it’s sobering to realise we’re nearly halfway through the year, the pandemic and lockdown potentially making us feel a lot of life has been lost. For many, though, there have been some notable and unexpected gains as well, such as cheering examples of community engagement, perhaps getting to know neighbours better and exploring other ways of doing things and thinking about things, not to mention the creativity it’s unleashed in some quarters. Nevertheless, concerns persist that the government is opening up the UK prematurely and the World Health Organisation certainly thinks so: unlike other countries, we haven’t yet done the hard work which would justify safe easing of restrictions and it seems typical of this government that they want results without the right inputs. This particularly applies to the reopening this week of ‘non-essential’ shops (rather depressing to see the long queues outside Primark) although a YouGov survey showed 40% don’t feel comfortable about going shopping, and proposed reduction of the 2-metre distancing rule. Numerous people are sticking to their original stance, not flocking to shops and onto public transport, as it’s pretty clear that economic drivers are being allowed to take precedence over safety concerns. WHO pointed out that the UK doesn’t yet have a reliable test, track and trace system and this, coupled with lack of a COVID19 vaccine, should indicate the need for continued caution. Challenging, because at the same time life is a risk and we will have to take risks at some point in order to live rather than merely exist.
This scenario leads to heightened anxiety, when it’s clear we can’t trust our leaders to issue appropriate advice because economic considerations are being prioritised over safety. Guardian Membership Editor Mark Rice-Oxley has written succinctly this week about lack of genuine authority:
‘Leadership, it has been said, is a bit like beauty. Tricky to define, hard to break down into component parts – but you know it when you see it. I don’t know about you, but I’m just not seeing it at the moment. From the pandemic and policing to racism and the lethal unfairness that blights so many marginalised lives, leadership seems to be broken. Where we need humility, we have hubris. Instead of inclusivity – division. Where we need magnanimity, we have narcissism. Instead of vision – vitriol. A good leader should inspire, enthuse and unite, should manage and direct with courage, compassion and a thick skin. The very best make us greater than the sum of the parts, like an orchestra conductor or a football manager’.
It’s only Wednesday but, like previous weeks, events and damaging revelations continue to come thick and fast, including Labour MP David Lammy’s excoriation of the PM for setting up yet another review of racial inequality, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, when two previous reviews including his own had not had their recommendations implemented.
“It feels like yet again in the UK we want figures, data, but we don’t want action,” Lammy told Today on Radio 4. “Black people aren’t playing victim as Boris indicates. They’re protesting precisely because the time for review is over and the time for action is now. It’s because this was written on the back of a fag packet yesterday to assuage the Black Lives Matter protests. Get on with the action, legislate, move, you’re in government, do something!”
There was also criticism of the choice of review chair, and former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, said: “A new race equalities commission led by Munira Mirza is dead on arrival. She has never believed in institutional racism.” This new review looks too much like another attempt to kick the can down the road.
A good example of where the public could be taken in is through the hyperbole of government and media trumpeting about the Dexamethasone COVID treatment ‘breakthrough’. Some medics have been clarifying that it didn’t need to be ‘approved’, it’s been used for years (though obviously not in this context) so therefore not ‘discovered’ and not an innovation. Whether or not this was being used as yet another distraction from government incompetence, it’s positive because the Recovery Trial found that the drug was responsible for the survival of one in eight of the sickest patients (those on ventilators). What’s been described as ‘the biggest randomised, controlled trial of coronavirus treatments in the world’ found that Dexamethasone reduced deaths by one-third in ventilated patients and by one-fifth in patients receiving oxygen only, although no benefit accrued to patients not needing help to breathe.
Radio 4’s More or Less should be compulsory listening for all politicians, especially this PM and set of ministers, today’s focusing on misconceptions around ‘excess deaths’ statistics, for example the idea that many of those who died would shortly have died of other conditions anyway.
As #NotmovingontillDomisgone continues to trend on Twitter and there are clear indications that the Cummings controversy hasn’t gone away, it emerged that a former regional chief prosecutor, Nazir Afzal, has joined a legal campaign for a new investigation into Cummings for his alleged lockdown breaches. Afzal said that if the Crown Prosecution Service and the police didn’t take this up he would consider launching a private prosecution on “behalf of every citizen whose goodwill and generosity led them to make painful sacrifices in order to comply with the law and protect their fellow citizens”. It seems shocking that such a private prosecution would have to be crowd funded when taking action should not have been bottled by Durham Police in the first place, but good for this former prosecutor for taking up the cudgels. He’s likely to get a lot of support.
As the reopening of schools debate rumbles on, what’s emerged is a shocking lack of consistency across the education sector, with seemingly no agreed standards and certainly no access to standardized software or IT infrastructure for schools. A report for the National Foundation for Educational Research found that 4 in 10 pupils in England are not in regular contact with their teachers, third of pupils were not engaged with their lessons, fewer than half (42%) had bothered to return their work, and, not surprisingly, pupils in the most disadvantaged schools were the least likely to be engaged with remote learning. This scenario will surely lead to worrying disparity in achievement levels. It will be interesting to see what will happen to MP Robert Halfon’s proposal that an ‘army’ of graduates, retired teachers and others be recruited to help these children catch up over the summer: there probably wouldn’t be a shortage of volunteers.
The event of the week (so far) must be footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign, succeeding in getting the government (which seems to listen to no one) to U-turn on the free school meals issue. This is an undignified wake-up call for the PM and ministers, apparently believing they can choose whether or not to listen to the public, other politicians and scientists: now it’s been shown there are some who can, based on their own life experience and public profile, make their case so well that they can’t be ignored. Now a foot has been put in this apparently closed door, it will be interesting to see what the same and other ‘feet’ can do. A particularly galling statement about this was, when interviewed this morning on Radio 4’s Today, Matt Hancock twice saying he was ‘proud’ of Rashford. What a patronising, proprietorial and pathetic way of trying to claw back some dignity. I don’t blame presenter Nick Robinson for being rather pleased with himself for asking Hancock ‘Why did it take Manchester United’s number 10 to tell Downing St’s number 10 what to do?’
The Guardian’s John Crace (parliamentary sketch writer) isn’t the only one to suggest that the announcement about merging the Foreign Office with the Department for International Development was timed to deflect attention from the free meals indignity, the headline reading Johnson’s global Britain fantasies offer little distraction from school meals own goal. It’s quite funny so worth reading, eg ‘…..The Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford has just skipped past the defence of Grant Shapps and Thérèse Coffey to set up the prime minister with a tap-in own goal on free school meals. You’re also worried that Harry Kane will now enter the Brexit talks and nutmeg you with an extension to the transition period’.
While aid organisations accused the PM of tying aid to security and diplomatic aims, the official argument is that the new ‘super-department’ (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) would be ‘more joined up, focused and coherent’. This didn’t cut any ice with three former Primer Ministers (David Cameron, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown) who all came out firmly against such a move, Cameron saying it would mean “less respect for the UK overseas”. Meanwhile, it’s just been announced that £900,000 will be spent on rebranding the PM’s plane, repainting it with Union Jack colours. You really couldn’t make it up.
On things that matter to people at the everyday level, this article about some barbers and hairdressers working secretly during lockdown is worth a glance if only for the lovely illustrations, which convey very well the clandestine nature of the activity. If you see someone looking well coloured and coiffed, it’s highly likely they’ve taken advantage of these services and the article reveals that a good number of those are people whose work involves enforcing the lockdown. I thought this would make a good documentary and suggested it to Channel 4 – it will all out at some point anyway!
Finally, although we ‘only’ have Young Montalbano on BBC4 at present, fans might be interested to know about this YouTube film about the making of the entire series – not only does it take you right back to those beautiful places in baroque South-east Sicily (strange to think I was there last September, feels like 100 years ago) but it’s also good for Italian comprehension and learning about Zingarella as an actor. It’s also rather poignant in prominently featuring the recently deceased pathologist, Pasquale (aficionado of the Sicilian cannoli pastries). But even those who aren’t Montalbano fans can’t fail to have their spirits lifted by the marvellous intro, with its swooping music and glorious scenery.