Apart from the latest government U-turn, this time on facemasks in schools, the key news items generating much heat and some light continue to be the return to work debate and the series of departures following the A levels debacle. There seems to be a strange belief in government that throwing other key players under the bus, in this case Sally Collier of Ofqual and senior civil servant Jonathan Slater, is a reasonable substitute for the resignation which should actually take place, that of Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. Of course these departures were presented as the individuals’ choice but there’s little doubt they were ‘asked’ to fall on their swords. Williamson could then afford to be gracious in victory, paying tribute to Slater: “I would like to thank Jonathan Slater for his commitment to public service, including over four years spent as permanent secretary in the DfE. Like the prime minister, I appreciate the hard work of officials across government, particularly during this unprecedented time’.
Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA, the senior civil servants’ union, said Slater’s abrupt departure was proof that “ministerial accountability is dead and the message to civil servants is that they are expendable the moment life gets tough for a minister’. There’s something primitive and survivalist about this shameful strategy which I think marks another downward step in this government’s conduct. An Any Questions listener tweeted: ‘There was something very primal about the enforced ritual sacrifice of Sally Collier and Jonathan Slater, redolent of ancient Greek mythology but it doesn’t absolve Gavin Williamson from blame. The government is naive in believing it does’.
In the Guardian Gaby Hinsliff discusses the abdication of responsibility which characterises this government. ‘Whatever happens, it is never, ever their fault. Disasters may come and disasters may go, but the defining characteristic of this government is a cast-iron refusal to accept responsibility for any of them. If pushed, then deputy heads must roll. But in general the buck stops – well, anywhere but here…. If the purge of civil servants is intended to restore public confidence then it’s having exactly the opposite effect’. Slater’s departure takes to five the number of senior civil servants who’ve lost their jobs – no mean feat for a government only elected in December.
Besides the premature blame attributed to Collier and Slater, she also discusses the problematic abolition of Public Health England: it’s not only the dangerous timing, during a pandemic, but the organisational challenges of setting up a new organisation which, it appears, isn’t charged with the non-pandemic responsibilities PHE had, such as prevention, anti-smoking and obesity strategy work. Again, this smacks of an apparent conviction that being seen to take action and blame something or someone will convince the public that something useful is being done when this is not the case. ‘While neither Ofqual nor PHE have entirely covered themselves with glory this year, and any inquiry might well find reasons to criticise both, for now all we’re getting is one suspiciously flattering side of the story’.
The PHE blunder is discussed at some length in the Guardian: ‘…borne on the tidal wave of his self-confidence, Matt Hancock crashes from one unforced error to the next, never troubling himself to pause to count the financial and human cost. His latest masterstroke is to abolish the country’s public health agency in the middle of a pandemic… Everyone who works in the UK public sector knows that endlessly demolishing and rebuilding its structures undermines morale, wastes time and money, haemorrhages expertise and experience, and rarely solves problems’. The article points out that this not only leads to uncertainty and job insecurity for PHE’s 5,500 staff, but the approach of winter will intensify health challenges and lead to ‘a tug of war between local government and the NHS as the long-term solution is debated’.
Matt Hancock also managed to make another embarrassing howler when he suggested the government would change the law to allow nurses, pharmacists and technicians to administer flu jabs, when nurses and pharmacists already do. It’s quite something that the Health Secretary for England was unaware of this, further proof of the folly of giving politicians ministerial roles when most have never had ‘a proper job’ outside Westminster.
In a humorous analysis of the litany of government errors, Marina Hyde in the Guardian discusses what appears to be the PM’s new mantra: ‘Leave home. Forget the NHS. Save Pret’. No longer ‘stay at home, save lives, protect the NHS’ or even ‘Stay alert’, the key preoccupation now seems to be getting people back to the office (not work, as some have pointed out) in order to support city centre economies, despite the risks workers expose themselves to by commuting and mingling with others in what might not be ‘COVID safe’ places. The government is now hinting that people could be sacked for not returning (though this is for the employer, not them, to decide) and some ministers have even resorted to moral blackmail, implying that continuing to work from home will threaten the jobs and incomes of their neighbours, quite a guilt trip to lay.
Regarding the PM’s abdication of responsibility and slowness to act, Hyde’s ‘quote of last week came from a longtime ally of Boris Johnson, who told the FT: “At the beginning of every big job Boris takes over, he prefers to stand back and act as chairman … But there comes a point at which he gets fed up and personally intervenes. I think we’re quite near that now.” ‘What can you say? Other than: righto. In your own time, luv’. What an understatement.
Re the working from home debate, there are complex issues to balance here. There are indeed risks to returning, not to mention the amount of time spent commuting, but I think that despite his vested interests Pret owner Julian Metcalfe does have a point in saying how important it is for staff to get together (and Zoom’s not a substitute) for their own mental health and the health of the organisation. There are those not wishing to return because they don’t get on well with their colleagues and find the atmosphere stressful, and this needs to be considered, but an organisation has to be more than isolated units working individually and effective organisations will foster an inclusive esprit de corps or suffer the consequences.
Back in March University College London UCL launched a study into the psychological and social effects of Covid-19 in the UK. Researchers recruited a large sample of UK adults to help understand the effects of coronavirus and social distancing measures. Those of us participating had to fill in a detailed survey each week about our activities, experiences and concerns, one aim being to track changes over the course of the study. It felt almost emotional to read this at the start of their last email. ‘It is now 12 weeks since you first joined this study. Your participation has been incredibly valuable in helping us to understand the impact of the pandemic and has already led to dozens of reports and scientific papers’. One of the interesting things is seeing how research is fed into media reports, eg this article asking on whether England has learned lessons from the first wave of coronavirus has input from UCL’s Professor Susan Michie, on the ‘weak link’ regarding contact tracing in the UK.
The UCL website tells us: ‘As coronavirus spreads around the world, UCL experts are taking a prominent role in advancing public knowledge about the virus by advising world leaders, providing expert comment in the media and urgently researching new ways of tackling COVID-19’. UCL has a multidisciplinary research team studying these issues so let’s hope the experts manage to make some impact in government circles. I think at least one UCL expert is on Independent SAGE, the body the government and BBC often seem to ignore, which has often advised strategies differing markedly from those advocated by official SAGE.
Mental health has naturally been an important focus for researchers during the pandemic as a whole and lockdown in particular. One survey, perhaps not surprisingly, found that the mental health of the LGBTQ community worsened considerably, partly due to people being cut off from their normal networks and being in close proximity to ‘bigoted relatives’. 69% of survey respondents reported suffering depressive symptoms, rising to about 90% of those who had experienced homophobia or transphobia. ‘Many younger people said they had been unable to access the support of LGBTQ peers or allies while with their families, and those who had moved in with relatives during lockdown felt they were being pushed back into the closet’. That closet could feel especially suffocating if that individual hadn’t come out to their family at all or perhaps had to only one family member. It would be impossible to live authentically in such a situation. Two LGBTQ helplines reported receiving many more calls than usual during lockdown, up from between 25% and 33%, giving rise to requests for more government support for the charities running these helplines. We’d better not hold our breath for any response to this.
This week there was news that the attorney general for England and Wales, Suella Braverman, is considering trying the wife of a US intelligence officer in absentia on a charge of causing the death by dangerous driving of the teenager Harry Dunn. This ‘consideration’ was facilitated by the family’s MP, Andrea Leadsom. The Dunn family and their representatives have done well to get this far, it seems, as diplomatic attempts to get Anne Sacoolas extradited didn’t get far, partly due to the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s reluctance to sufficiently challenge the American authorities on the extradition refusal. Although crown court trials in absentia are rare, we learn that a landmark ruling by Lord Bingham (House of Lords, 2002) supported the principle that they can be conducted where a defendant will not participate. It seems the family’s lawyers are envisaging Sacoolas attending virtually but what is the law if she still refuses to take part? Could some kind of trial still go ahead if she refuses, based on statements and evidence previously submitted? That could constitute one form of trial in absentia, but lawyers would obviously have to decide on such a possibility.
One aspect of this which doesn’t seem to have received any attention is the mental health effect, the corrosive effect this continuing situation will be having on Sacoolas herself, her family and friends. The fact that it’s been so widely reported and commented on means that whatever she does, wherever she goes, there can be no escape from it. One thing’s for sure, this isn’t going away any time soon.
On a lighter note but still an important one, as it concerns our heritage, is a competition urging us to bring to light overlooked or forgotten follies, castles and monuments. ‘Few things are more atmospheric than an ancient stone circle, the overgrown remains of a hill fort, or centuries-old chapel left to return to the wild. The UK is scattered with such ruins, telling tales of the past – and we’d love to hear about a favourite you have discovered. We’re looking for lesser-known suggestions, please. So, tell us about a wild folly, an abandoned castle or remote sacred site – and why (or how) it became special to you’. It should be interesting to see what emerges, though I’d personally pass on the prize of a glamping voucher!
An under-recognised aspect of the working from home debate has been the effect on clothing manufacturers, since the need for smart clothes has declined dramatically. The Financial Times carries an article about the death of the middle market in menswear (‘the toughest part of every industry’, since ‘most men today’ have their best stuff and jeans and tshirts (what about the track suit bottoms?) but nothing much in between. The author worries that those who enjoy ‘variations in sartorial tone have become oddball hobbyists, like birdwatchers or opera buffs’. Something similar is probably happening with womenswear as well, since many women won’t have had the opportunity to wear smart stuff in recent times, so this could signal yet more job losses as these manufacturers and retailers are threatened with bankruptcy.
Finally, remember turkey twizzlers, which became a byword for junk food 15 years ago due to celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s campaigning? They’re making a comeback. Bernard Matthews will now produce a healthier version, with less fat, at least 67% meat and no E-numbers. It will be interesting to see Oliver’s reaction to this and how the take-up goes. A key question surely is, will they pass muster with the government’s anti-obesity strategy?