As we enter the second half of 2020 and the UK COVID 19 death toll passes 44,000, it’s been another busy and dispiriting news week, dominated by the dithering and lack of consultation experienced by the other three UK nations around the ‘air bridges’ and quarantine policy. It makes a nonsense of the alleged ‘four nations policy’ when the Westminster government goes right ahead with what it wants to do, forcing the others to play catch up or look to be dragging their feet. We might now be clearer which countries we’re ‘allowed’ to travel to, some of us missing out on a much-needed break because of widespread cancellations preceding the announcement, but travelling anywhere by plane is still regarded as a considerable health risk.
Competing for top news slot was so-called Super Saturday yesterday, the Treasury coming in for considerable flak for tweeting (later withdrawn) an exhortation to ‘raise a glass’ to celebrate pubs and restaurants reopening. This reinforced the message that, in government eyes, it really is the economy that matters, sadly ironic when media footage of revellers is directly followed by the updated death toll. Widespread anger and frustration have been expressed at the irresponsible trumpeting of venues reopening, ‘coming out of hibernation’, etc, coupled by the government’s lack of accountability for the possible outcome, not least due to such confusing guidance. Increasingly, we’re witnessing the emergence of a wide spectrum of belief and practice regarding risk: although many will occupy a midway position, at one end there are the very cautious, abiding by every piece of illogical guidance, some barely leaving the house and effectively existing rather than living, and at the other the least risk-averse, desperate to get to pubs and beaches, and careless of the risk this could expose themselves and others to. Some couple, family and friend relationships have been adversely affected by opposing positions taken in a scenario comparable with the Brexit and Scottish independence polarities.
Although there were some reports of rowdiness, it seems the general reaction to Super Saturday has been subdued, and at 11 am yesterday there was a fairly small and dismal-looking gathering outside the local Wetherspoons, the dull weather not helping. One journalist who went to see how things were going in central London’s Soho area reported: ‘…from the early drinkers I spoke to, there were far more expressions of the weariness I recognise in myself than any kind of cheery relief’. It sounds as if the pace quickened quite a bit later. Sunday reactions have been mixed, some revellers keen to justify, perhaps naively, what to some are reckless actions: one said ‘if the government tells us we can do this, then we’re not doing anything wrong’, and a jaundiced-sounding Southampton police officer observed that ‘drunk people can’t and won’t socially distance’ (no surprise there).
In what must have felt humiliating for the government (if they were capable of feeling it) the Super Saturday trumpeting was dampened somewhat by the need for the Leicester lockdown, increasing the likelihood that this is what we face for some time to come – going in and out of lockdown. But although we have to feel for Leicester folk, this proved helpful in an important way because it forced the government, contrary to its centralist stance on data sharing and control so far, to do what Independent SAGE and other experts have urged for some time: to involve local public health experts. In order for that to happen, the government was forced to share so-called Pillar 2 data (relating to drive-through and self-testing), the reason initially given for not doing so being ‘data protection’. (It’s now well-known that many organisations have misused ‘data protection’ as a tool to legitimise inappropriately asking for data or withholding it). So now it will be interesting to see how things go in Leicester and whether local health experts, deprived of key data until now, can get on top of the spike. They might have their work cut out as stories were circulating about minibuses being hired to drive people to pubs in adjoining areas to ‘celebrate’ Super Saturday, and the decimated police force will only be able to check a proportion of vehicles on major roads.
As if further embarrassment was needed, the PM’s father, Stanley Johnson, was widely lambasted for travelling to Greece, against all official advice, the excuse later wheeled out being to COVID-proof his villa ahead of guests going there. It’s surprising that media-savvy ministers appearing on political programmes seemed unprepared for this question, some sounding quite petulant at being invited to defend the indefensible. A good example of this was on Radio 4 Any Questions, the polite and incisive Green MP Caroline Lucas quizzing housing minister Chris Pincher about it and suggesting that Johnson Senior obviously had a different definition of ‘essential travel’. Maybe people wouldn’t be surprised by his actions, though, if they read his monthly column in Saga Magazine, the style of which smacks of arrogance, eg boasting about not being stopped from going to the pub and asserting ‘it should have been me’ (as PM). Even if intended as a joke, this could be seen as being in poor taste.
During the week there was marked appreciation of the sense, knowledge and measured tones of Dr Anthony Fauci, the American physician and immunologist who has served as the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. Apparently his long tenure is partly due to his way of plugging away patiently and politely and the fact that he’s managed, unlike so many, to survive the Trump regime, is testament to this. Interviewed on the Today programme, he spoke about the important issue of social responsibility, an alien concept to some and not (as far as I know) taught in schools or universities, let alone consistently nurtured in the home environment. A listener tweeted:
“We need to engender social responsibility in people – particularly young people.” Well said, Dr Anthony Fauci. Not only now, in a time of deadly pandemic. We all need to show social responsibility and social intelligence, all of the time. We need to teach it and learn it’. Along with personal risk management, it could be argued.
The Guardian’s John Crace (parliamentary sketch writer) yet again excelled himself with this piece about the PM’s increasingly poor performance at Prime Minister’s Questions, describing it as the authentic ‘whack a mole’ rather than the inappropriate use of this term for local lockdowns. ‘Every time PM put his head above the parapet in the Commons Keir Starmer clobbered him….. Six times he put his head above the parapet and six times he got clobbered. It was going to take more than a couple of paracetamols to deal with the headache. He was facing an entire afternoon on a morphine drip… There will be plenty of wonderful things,” he said, with characteristic penetration. Boris was left to mouth empty, three-word Classic Dom slogans. And Tory MPs were left to wonder why they had never previously noticed that their emperor had no clothes’.
At least one thing the beleaguered Prince Andrew has in common with the government is the hope and belief (delusion?) that damaging revelations can be made to go away and stay away. The latest blow to his hope, as he continues in a strange state of royal limbo, is the news of the arrest of former friend Ghislaine Maxwell. US authorities, who arrested her at a ‘luxury hideaway in a small town in New Hampshire’, had her under surveillance for some time. She appeared via video in a US court, charged with alleged sex crimes, conspiracy and perjury involving her late close friend and convicted sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein. Now in custody in New York, she has apparently made it known that she won’t ‘say anything’ about Prince Andrew, but this arrest undoubtedly puts him further in the spotlight. Whereas Andrew and his ‘team’ (who is paying for them, it’s been asked) have said they have regularly agreed to help the US authorities with their enquiries, Geoffrey Berman, the US attorney for the southern district of New York, maintains that Andrew is trying to “falsely portray himself to the public as eager and willing to cooperate” and said that a request to schedule an interview had been ‘repeatedly declined’. So which is it? One very striking thing is surely the imperious way Prince Andrew suggests he’s willing ‘to help’, perpetuating a sense of innocence and cooperation, rather than the possibility that he may be forced to testify and defend himself against powerful allegations relating to his own conduct besides that of his erstwhile friends.
It’s good news that libraries are finally opening again, but not as we know them, warns The Guardian, in a piece alerting us to ‘space marshalls at the door and librarians behind perspex screens … ‘. Surely the term ‘space marshall’ makes it sound even more Brave New World than it has to. Although online services have continued throughout, librarians interviewed were very clear that they wanted people through the door and it’s long been the case that libraries function as valuable hubs of community engagement. In a South London library, likely to be replicated elsewhere, ‘returned books will be put into crates and quarantined for 72 hours. As for browsing, there may be a system whereby any books that have been touched and not borrowed have to go into quarantine; it’s still to be decided…’. A key underlying issue is that for many years library services have been subjected to damaging cuts, (26.9% in 10 years), partly seen as an easy target for councils themselves being starved of cash by central government. Unfortunately, the short-termism underlying such cuts is rarely understood by politicians, as in the closure of Sure Start centres. In the longer term such services more than pay for themselves because their benefits have a preventative effect and form part of the social fabric, supporting people and helping to prevent them falling through the cracks.
Finally, in contrast to the annoyance and frustration of those struggling to obtain refunds for cancelled flights and holidays, there’s welcome and possibly unprecedented news from another quarter altogether. The Sicilian government is offering subsidies amounting to over £68m to tempt visitors to the beautiful and baroque stamping ground (south-east Sicily) of Inspector Montalbano, the detective series penned by Andrea Camilleri. Regarding COVID 19, Sicily has got off fairly lightly, with 281 deaths, yet its economy has been badly hit. The Sicilians are especially keen to attract British tourists (there can’t be many countries feeling the same way), possibly because there’s a substantial fan base here for the BBC4 drama series, currently showing Young Montalbano. Travel companies have responded to this interest by offering Montalbano-themed holidays and it was marvellous, last September, to visit all the filming sites, especially Salvo’s house and Enzo’s restaurant in seaside Punta Secca, besides important towns in the area such as Noto and Modica, famous for its chocolate. It will be interesting to see how this offer is implemented and what the take-up will be. Perhaps one place they won’t need to subsidise is the Montalbano house itself, which can be rented via Airbandb, likely to be heavily in demand by Instagrammers and others as the ultimate show-off destination.