Another week into less than quasi-lockdown and, ahead of significant easing of restrictions, eg pubs, restaurants, museums and galleries allowed to open from Saturday (badged Independence Day in Cummingsese), government gaffes and errors of judgement continue to come thick and fast. The first of these is choosing Saturday as the day people can finally go to the pub, critics saying this will be much harder to police than a midweek day, not to mention the heightened risks of so many congregating in already crowded venues and the non-distancing effects of alcohol. After the chaotic scenes at some beaches and beauty spots last weekend, the police must be dreading the next spell of hot weather, with the pubs open to boot. Meanwhile, it will be humiliating for the government to have to impose a further lockdown on Leicester because of worrying evidence of a COVID19 spike there. It will be very interesting to see how things go at the weekend, especially as a number of venues (eg some major galleries and museums) have said that although they are allowed to open they won’t be opening due to safety concerns.
On Sunday’s the World This Weekend (Radio 4) philosophy academic Professor Angie Hobbs presented a short essay on the ethics of lockdown and exit from it, which captured the resulting dilemmas and different views adopted. She said ‘both raise some of the toughest ethical challenges I have ever wrestled with in 30 years’. There seems to be a spectrum with extremes at either end – those demonstrating a high degree of risk aversity and preparedness to accept ‘rules’ and those at the other end, possibly confused by and/or contemptuous of the illogical ‘guidance’, doing as they please, not distancing and not wearing masks on public transport. The majority of people will be around the middle of the spectrum or towards the rule-taking end but this still leaves a significant number quite sanguine at putting others’ lives at risk.
Former PM Theresa May is the latest to severely criticise the decisions made around the departure of Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill (certainly not voluntary, by the sound of it), a potentially damaging one being to separate his responsibilities (Cabinet Secretary and National Security Adviser), making the latter a political appointment, not accountable to the Civil Service – chief Brexit negotiator David Frost. This constellation of events sounds profoundly worrying for our democracy: as one observer commented, what we’re seeing is the ‘dismantling the machinery of democracy when it gets in the way’. This is the way dictatorships operate. Commentators pointed out how ‘furious’ Theresa May sounded about this and it must be worrying for the government when its own ‘side’ criticises their strategy.
It’s common knowledge that for some months Sir Mark had come into conflict Dominic Cummings over Brexit and Whitehall reform. The strategy seems to be ‘don’t bother to work things through with key figures in the ‘democracy machinery’, just get rid’. It’s all very well, after the resignation is safely in the bag, for the PM to be lavish in his praise of Sedwill: “Sir Mark has given incredible service to this country. He came in at a very difficult time. He has seen the government through all sorts of very tough stuff – changes in the premiership, an election, Brexit, dealing with the worst bits of the Covid crisis. He has got a lot more to offer and I am sure he will.”
It can’t be a coincidence that the macho-styled Project Speed, trailed over the preceding days, was announced just after the Sedwill resignation. The PM was interviewed on the new Times Radio, which describes itself as offering ‘balanced, thought-provoking debate with presenter-led, expert analysis of the stories that matter’. He grandiosely alluded to a “Rooseveltian moment” (has the identification with Churchill been relegated now?) of massively increased public spending on infrastructure, envisaging a Roosevelt style New Deal. “We had to put our arms around the UK economy, we had to do the coronavirus job retention scheme, the furlough scheme, all sorts of amazing loans, bounce-back loans and so on, to help businesses, we can’t just now step back.
“So what we’re going to be doing in the next few months is really doubling down on our initial agenda, which was all about investment, if you remember, in infrastructure, in education, in technology, to bring the country together.” There’s now quite a regular stringing together of soundbites like ‘doubling up’ and ‘levelling up’, and as for the ‘arms around the economy’, would these be the same ‘arms’ which flung ‘a protective ring around our care homes’?
With the PM’s emphasis on not going back to austerity and taking a different approach, we have to wonder how genuine and durable this is (will there not be huge tax rises in the future?) and how much can be attributed to an ego-driven signalling of dissociation from the Cameron/Osborne regime. “We really want to build back better, to do things differently, to invest in infrastructure, transport, broadband – you name it.”
The PM also seemed to say some rather tactless and ironic things eg alluding to how ‘lucky’ he was to recover from COVID, ‘thousands of people tragically weren’t so lucky’ (as if about ‘luck’ rather than people dying through mismanaged pandemic strategy) and about ‘the need to tackle the UK’s obesity problem (when he’s admitted his own problems with weight gain)….. ‘We certainly must have a care for the health of our population and we will be happier and fitter and more resistant to diseases like Covid if we can tackle obesity.”
In The Observer, former Labour prime minister and chancellor slated the government’s economic response to Covid-19, accusing it of “dither and delay” and betraying those most in need. He thought there should be a July budget, focusing on “the support and, if necessary, the re-capitalisation of viable British businesses and the prevention of mass unemployment.” Citing various essential items for this budget, such as retraining grants for those forced to change jobs and a speedy and comprehensive employment and training programme for school leavers and graduates, he showed how unlikely he thought such provision would be. ‘….. instead, the Treasury – panicked by the likely scale of the debt and deficit and now politically micromanaged from No10 – seems to be in virtual lockdown. Having acted as the generous economic dove of spring, it is now, sadly, on course to be the tax-raising fiscal hawk of autumn.’
Not for the first time, Big Pharma comes in for some flak for excessive profit making when they receive very generous funds for research and development from a number of public and private organisations, including the World Health Organisation, Gates Foundation and CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations). The Observer tells us that these organisations have given pharmaceutical companies over $4.4bn to develop a COVID19 vaccine, but the Big Pharma norm is, despite the subsidies they’ve received, to price the resulting drugs way well beyond what low-income can afford. The article is a plea for more state control of the pharmaceutical industry, exemplified by the shocking example of AstraZeneca getting £84m in government funds towards the costs of developing a COVID vaccine, yet AZ retains the intellectual property rights, dictates the price and refuses to share research data in a WHO project aimed at pooling COVID learning and expertise. What a very unequal relationship this is, given the urgent need worldwide for this vaccine, but perhaps the crisis will train more of a spotlight on Big Pharma generally and the degree of influence it exerts on the medical profession.
A very interesting and illuminating Long Read in The Week traces the trajectory of the office, from its beginnings in the era of the East India Company in the 18th century and its likely demise in the wake of COVID19, now people are increasingly working from home. The article makes clear how central the office has been in architectural design (London’s The Shard, the ‘Cheesegrater’, the ‘Walkie-Talkie’ etc), daily life and culture, for example as portrayed in classic films and tv (The Apartment, The Office etc). Yet the convergence of various events and influences in the 21st century, like the rise of the internet, the decline in importance of status as a defining factor in design (office size related to seniority etc) and increasing use of IT resulting in far less clerical work, have led to greatly reduced need for offices. The author (Henry Mance) writes: ‘We questioned their heights and shapes, the number of shower cubicles they contained and their proximity to Pret a Manger. But rarely did we question their existence’.
Until now, maybe. The post-pandemic conundrum many are now facing is that perhaps economically, the office is done for, ditto for safety because of distancing needs, but individuals’ mental wellbeing is not generally well-served by spending so long away from colleagues and only interacting with them remotely. ‘The key space where white collar workers interact will no longer be the four walls of an office; it will be the four sides of a screen’. Time will tell but all of this begs the question: what will happen to the vast amount of unused office space and that in central London alone, more than 15m square feet of office space is currently under construction? Mance doesn’t predict the end of the office: rather that the home/office balance will change, tipping much more towards home. ‘Those with most to mourn might be the young, who have the least space at home and the most to learn in the office’.
Finally, thousands of Zoom users might soon find themselves staring even more intently at the contents of their colleagues’ bookshelves, with the news that West Sussex company Décor Books is benefiting from an increase in private clients. The company normally sells books in bulk to venues like pubs and hotels, but now individuals are buying about 6 metres worth in order to furnish their Zoom backgrounds. Surely it can only be a matter of time before social media savvy observers are able to identify the sudden acquisition of titles not normally associated with those individuals. Perhaps some public figures are already doing this (there’s been talk on social media during tv programmes about the contents of certain politicians’ bookshelves), in which case yet another new term could enter the popular lexicon – zoomshaming.