As the COVID 19 death toll in the UK exceeds 43,000, several issues jostle for the top news slot, one being the further easing of restrictions scheduled for 4 July, enabling pubs, restaurants, museums, galleries and hairdressers etc to reopen. While some consumers and business owners will be jubilant about this, many remain very concerned at the danger. It was clear that Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty was expressing himself very guardedly, warning that we can’t now behave as if the pandemic was over. ‘If people hear a distorted version of what’s being said, that says ‘this is all fine now, it’s gone away’ and start behaving in ways that they normally would have before this virus happened, yes, we will get an uptick for sure’.
Evidence from packed high streets, beaches and lack of distancing suggests some do feel this way, exacerbated by the gung-ho trumpeting about what a success it all is and how we’re coming ‘out of hibernation’. To others this strategy will seem nonsensical, especially as we still have no vaccine or effectively functioning track and trace system. In addition, a leaked Public Health England report revealed that the R rate was above 1 in some areas and rather than the 1,346 new cases reported for one day, the estimate was actually 7,000. Cynics would be well justified in suggesting that the exhortations for the public to practice ‘self-responsibility’, use their ‘common sense’ and make their own judgements are all a way of enabling the government at a later stage to abdicate responsibility for a sharp rise in those testing positive.
Epidemiologist Professor John Edmunds pointed out the double risk involved in visiting crowded venues – the large increase in the numbers of people we come into contact with and the inevitable reduction in distancing. When Business Secretary Alok Sharma was questioned about this on the Today programme, his response about Health and Safety Executive and local authority checks on premises and fines for landlords disregarding the rules didn’t sound convincing. The resources for this kind of monitoring simply aren’t there. Another warning came in the form of a letter to the British Medical Journal from the presidents of Royal Colleges of Surgeons, Nursing, Physicians, and GPs, asking for ‘an urgent review to determine whether the UK is properly prepared for the real risk of a second wave of coronavirus. A listener tweeted: ‘Is lockdown demob happiness preventing people seeing the disconnect between relaxing the guidelines and all the warnings of a second spike? Large gatherings will surely lead to this and government mixed messages are dangerous’.
As easing of restrictions on shielders were also announced, some made clear that they didn’t trust the new arrangements and they would be sticking to their current regime for the foreseeable future. During the debate on the easing of restrictions in the House of Commons, acting Lib Dem leader Ed Davey demanded an urgent independent inquiry into the government’s handling of the crisis. Needless to say, this was batted away by the PM, who said it would not currently be “a good use of official time”.
Another issue jostling for top place is the latest probity scandal – what on earth happened to Nolan’s 1995 The Seven Principles of Public Life: honesty, integrity, accountability, selflessness, objectivity, openness and leadership? Numerous failures on all counts. Housing secretary Robert Jenrick is now under pressure to resign after it was revealed that he “insisted” a planning decision for a £1bn property development should be rushed through so a Tory donor’s company could reduce costs by £45m. The astonishing thing surely is that, having sat next to developer Richard Desmond at a fundraising dinner (coincidence, that) and discussed this development, agreeing to visit the site, Jenrick only withdrew consent when a Tower Hamlets councillor alerted him to his bias. But cabinet colleague Nadhim Zaharwi on the Today programme insisted there had been no wrongdoing and that (remind you of anything?) ‘the matter is now closed’. I doubt it. Even more astonishing is that when questioned about privileged access to ministers not being available to all Tory voters, for example in the north of England, Zaharwi responded that they could attend a fundraising dinner.
The Guardian’s John Crace excels himself again in his regular analysis of the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions ritual and increasingly it seems we are seeing not just the bumbling Boris but the Bullingdon face – aggressive and threatening (see the article’s photo). ‘The trouble is that Boris can dump wives, mistresses, ministers and friends but he just can’t get rid of Keir Starmer. For the first time in his life, Johnson has come up against an immovable object. And rather than accept the inevitable, Boris has merely allowed himself to regress’.
On 23rd Radio 4’s You and Yours phone in was about our mental health during the pandemic and what we do to take care of it. Some poignant accounts were given but it was lovely nevertheless that one man having a difficult experience was making striking music and nature recordings. The programme reported that, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the nation’s mental health has declined overall by 8.1% and by more in certain groups of the population. ‘A survey from Nuffield Health suggests around 80% of British people working from home feel lockdown has had a negative impact on their mental health, while a study from the Office of National Statistics showed 39% of people who are married or in a civil partnership now reporting high levels of anxiety, compared with 19% before the pandemic’. We already know how very impacted children’s mental health has been. One of the main contributors to this, besides the obvious uncertainty of the surreal situation we’re living through, is that we cannot feel psychologically ‘held’ and supported to survive this by leaders who have so consistently delayed action, missed opportunities, made numerous mistakes and been economical with the truth.
Now the solstice is behind us and we approach the half way point of 2020, it could be time, if we haven’t already, to take stock and thinking about the future, and many are apparently already doing this during lockdown. New programming for Radios 4, 5Live and the World Service, entitled Rethink, is doing this in terms of public life. It consists of both standalone programmes and pieces forming part of others. It aims to discuss how we develop a new kind of society post-pandemic, for example how key areas like social care and technical education should be reconfigured. It’s about a new social contract, defined as ‘an implicit agreement among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits, for example by sacrificing some individual freedom for state protection’. We’re reminded (or told!) that ‘theories of a social contract became popular in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries among theorists such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as a means of explaining the origin of government and the obligations of subjects’. It will certainly be a wasted opportunity if we don’t step up to this.
Of course the BBC isn’t the only organisation looking into scenarios for the future, and one journalist, Jonathan Watts, has been looking at what’s going in Hartlepool, a poor and longstanding disadvantaged area, and the possibilities for ‘green recovery’ and levelling up. One interviewee, who’s been delivering food parcels and medicines to those in need during lockdown, tells him: ‘We try to reinvent ourselves, but we always seem to be one step behind because we don’t address deep structural changes…..If we are not careful, I worry the country will level down rather than level up’. He feels ‘people in the north-east have been ignored, scorned as “scroungers” or derided as racist throwbacks who failed to adjust to a globalised post-industrial world’. But the election of more conservative politicians in the area has shifted the power balance.
Locals are clear that ‘recovery’ jobs aren’t minimum wage, or zero-hours contracts, which barely pay more than benefits and that those working in the care, health and retail sectors should be valued as the “essential workers” they were designated as during lockdown. This seems absolutely key and long overdue – that no longer should such jobs be demeaned and the workers subjected to poor pay and conditions. Some want ‘a more caring economy’, an example being the owners of an independent coffee bar, who used their £10,000 Covid-19 support grant to expand the cafe to provide a “gentle space” to help socially isolated residents to reintegrate. “Covid has heightened anxieties among many people. There will be a big mental health impact.” This sounds an excellent development which other business owners would do well to replicate, since many have self-isolated from necessity or fear and going out anywhere could feel very difficult at first.
Finally, here’s a chance to showcase your best and worst lockdown bakes – it will be interesting to see if anyone posts a bad one, like the one pictured here. Should special dispensations be made for those who couldn’t get hold of flour, I wonder. So, come on, you bakers – get snapping and submitting!