Following hot on the heels of the school meals U-turn came the news that the centralised contact tracing app, trialled and then apparently muted in the Isle of Wight, has been abandoned in favour of the Apple/Google decentralised model. How many lives could have been saved if, rather than wasting time on the foolish, ideological pursuit of this home-grown piece of tech, the government had immediately followed the example set by other countries and advice of public health and Independent SAGE experts? Former Labour minister Andrew Adonis commented: ‘the collapse of the government’s whole test and trace strategy is a much bigger story than being reported. A catastrophic management failure by Johnson and his Health Department Lots of people will lose their lives, and have their lives blighted, as a result’.
The media don’t always help matters, alluding to the ‘NHS’ app when it was actually developed by the company headed by the brother of a Cummings colleague – more money going down the private sector drain. A hospital consultant tweeted : ‘Note to Radio 4 Today and other broadcasters. Please stop referring to the failed “NHS Track & Trace App”. The NHS has nothing to do with it. This was an un-tendered commercial app, endorsed by Matt Hancock and given to SERCO to deliver. SERCO and Hancock failed – not our NHS’.
Sky News and other sources reported that at least a quarter of people who test positive are missed by contact tracers, a very hit and miss strategy, yet economic drivers are prevailing in the decision to downgrade the COVID alert level from 4 to 3 and the announcement expected next week to reduce distancing to 1 metre. An Any Questions listener tweeted: ‘So cynical that Oliver Dowden and other ministers are talking up the success rates of the contact tracing work to legitimise easing of restrictions. It’s lulling the public into a false sense of security.
As restrictions are eased and more and more shops and venues reopen, there’s real concern about traffic volumes rising, with the commensurate rise in pollution levels, further endangering public health and the wellbeing of those with respiratory conditions. Many are deterred from using public transport because of close proximity to others, leading to increased car use, and YouGov figures showed that 28% of people planned to drive more than before lockdown and only 16% less. It’s been very noticeable for weeks how traffic is increasing – for example, at the start of lockdown seeing a car was a rare sight and you never needed to press the crossing lights button, but now you usually do. Let’s hope that the funds given to local authorities to encourage more walking and cycling will have some effect, though these activities could decline during the winter months.
The debate continues about schools reopening, children’s mental health and educational inequalities, which are surely likely to be exacerbated by the £600m fund going to schools for ‘catch up’ tuition, especially when schools have to find a quarter of the money themselves. Absurdly, there’s no provision for early years of 16-18 year olds and what about MP Robert Halfon’s idea for plan for an army of volunteers (eg graduates, retired teachers etc) to help children catch up over the summer? Not for the first time I’m wondering what on earth Ofsted and the Education Department are for if not setting and implementing standards for children’s education yet it’s just talk from people like Amanda Spearman (Chief Inspector of Schools), not addressing the inequality bound to arise. Why, for example, is there no national IT system and software provision for schools?
This week the Guardian’s John Crace (parliamentary sketch writer) excelled himself with his take on the government’s ‘world beating’ boasts, eg “Boris Johnson did his best to talk up the futility of the exercise (the departmental merger) by calling it Global Britain, but the longer he spoke the clearer the Britain he had in mind was Little Britain. Only without the jokes but keeping the casual racism….. it’s beginning to look more and more as if we are genuine world beaters: if only in total incompetence’.
It’s timely, then, in news you couldn’t make up, that we now hear there’s likely to be a government reshuffle in September, when the PM will dispense with the services of those regarded as ‘underperforming’ during COVID19, eg Gavin Williamson, Therese Coffey and Robert Jenrick. It seems a bit unfair on Jenrick, who has doggedly turned up as fall guy for media interviews when these should have been headed by his increasingly absent boss. Cabinet sources are said to believe this is necessary to ‘defuse mounting discontent on the Tory backbenches (and in Tory ranks at large) following a stream of U-turns and a fall in the party’s poll ratings’. The irony and scapegoating of alluding to ‘underperforming’ ministers, while leaving the key operators in place, is pretty breathtaking but on what planet can it be believed that rearranging the chairs on this Titanic will make any difference?
On MP Paul Goodman’s planet, apparently: the editor of grassroots Tory website Conservative Home thought it would help resolve what he sees as a ‘decision-making bottleneck’ (it’s a bit more than that). ‘It isn’t terminal, but it’s problematic. What would help would be bigger, braver cabinet ministers and a more relaxed, collegiate central operation. No one seriously thinks that this cabinet is the Conservative first 11’. No, because a substantial number of big hitters were sacked by Boris Johnson for not supporting Brexit, yet he clearly didn’t anticipate what the cost of this petulant and vengeful decision would be.
Radio 4’s All in the Mind this week discussed mental health during lockdown, even more difficult for those already experiencing mental ill-health. Some are actually finding things more challenging now that restrictions are easing as it makes them more aware of things they struggle with eg going out, meeting others etc and this can lead to feelings of exclusion. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000k2mn
As Loneliness Awareness Week (hosted by the Marmalade Trust) draws to a close, let’s hope this initiative has boosted awareness, as it’s definitely an area the government has sidestepped during the lockdown. The effects of loneliness on mental health are well documented. The Red Cross has done a considerable amount on exploring and addressing loneliness and one of the key points is that it’s not, as often portrayed, just older people who are vulnerable to it – it affects every age group. Nevertheless, it’s likely to be older people living alone who could feel the effects most acutely. The Red Cross survey of 2000 people showed that 2 out of 5 adults felt lonely during lockdown because of the tight restrictions on physical contact, substantial numbers feel alone and uncared for and 33% thought their feelings of loneliness would get worse in the years ahead. Professor Martin Marshall, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, described this situation as “an epidemic of loneliness” in Britain.
Ipsos Mori surveyed 1,000 50-70 year olds in England, to ascertain the impact of lockdown on them in key areas such as having: fulfilling work; safe and accessible homes; healthy ageing and connected communities. The findings showed that 23% have seen their physical health deteriorate, 40% mental health deterioration, 37% have been drinking more alcohol and 39% have been smoking more.
Only now, after months, has the government created a £5m fund to award grants to charities and local groups to tackle the problem but all this takes time and it’s only one way of tackling it: personal interactions are often best and this involves preparedness of those affected to step out of their comfort zones as it can’t be just one-way. It will be interesting to see how this £5m fund will be distributed (often small but effective organisations find themselves ineligible) and how much it helps reduce loneliness, a difficult thing to measure.
Amid discussions about the plight of the arts at this time and the perception that theatres aren’t being supported by the government, it’s interesting to read about how other countries are supporting their culture sectors. It’s quite a mixed picture, France and New Zealand seeming to come out best. In some countries, like Germany, the support looks good on the surface but some feel it doesn’t go far enough, especially as in this case, the amount pledged is 1m euros when national airline, Lufthansa, will get €9bn in state support despite its decision to cut 22,000 jobs. This could be a good time to revisit the theatre business model, since prohibitive seat prices place this cultural experience beyond the reach of many, not to mention the discomfort of being crushed into seats in close proximity to others for hours on end.
Finally, here’s an interesting article for wordsmiths on words which don’t lend themselves to translation into English. One of the best has to be ‘sisu’ – ‘an untranslatable Finnish term that blends resilience, tenacity, persistence, determination, perseverance and sustained, rather than momentary, courage: the psychological strength to ensure that regardless of the cost or the consequences, what has to be done will be done’. As well as helping Finns get through the dark winters, it’s said to be the quality which helped them, in 1939-40, ‘to twice fight off Soviet forces three times their number, inflicting losses five times heavier than those they sustained’.
Another is the Russian ‘tocka’ (tosca), the closest (except it doesn’t really capture the sense) being yearning or ennui. ‘What can toska (pronounced tahs-kah) mean? Spiritual anguish, a deep pining, perhaps the product of nostalgia or love-sickness, toskais depression plus longing, an unbearable feeling that you need to escape but lack the hope or energy to do so’.