This last week has seen yet another U-turn (the PM now refusing to meet COVID 19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK), the return of Parliament from its summer recess, the return of Dominic Cummings from surgery and growing disillusionment with the government on the part of senior Tories, including Sir Charles Walker and Huw Merriman. You could wonder how it’s taken them so long to see the light. On Wednesday the PM gave what some commentators have called his worst ever performance at Prime Minister’s Questions, and was effectively skewered by Keir Starmer, who began by describing the series of U-turns over the summer as ‘serial incompetence’. Disgracefully (to the extent he was even reprimanded by the Speaker), Boris Johnson tried to counter this by several untruths, such as Labour had never wanted children to go back to school and the Labour leader was an IRA supporter. There was no apology.
‘After that, Johnson had a full-on meltdown’, said John Crace in the Guardian ‘Even the few Tories in the chamber had the grace to look embarrassed. Many prime ministers have discovered that being in the top job requires a different skill and mindset to that of getting the top job. The difference with Boris is that he shows no signs of being willing to learn how to adapt to the change. Rather, he appears to be getting worse and worse at being prime minister. Limitations that are increasingly being exposed in laziness, short-temperedness and forgetfulness’.
We now learn via The Observerthat Johnson was so furious after last Wednesday’s prime minister’s questions, having been told by the Speaker to withdraw his comments about the Labour leader, that ‘he turned on his staff for leaving him under-prepared, and asked them to come up with more attack lines on the Labour leader’s career as a lawyer’. Let’s hope the Speaker is ready to do some more reprimanding.
Perhaps the main concern has been the rising rate of new COVID cases, highlighted by the return of children and young people to schools and universities. Some areas in the north of England won’t know whether they’re coming or going, given the hokey-cokey of restriction imposition and easing (in, out, shake it all about), in some cases within a matter of hours. Around here the director of public health felt compelled to issue a statement of concern about the rising number of infections, linked to the oblivious behaviour on high streets including lack of distancing. Unfortunately, there’s never enough effort to get messages across to different sections of the community: how many are going to see the local government website unless they have a specific reason to consult it?
The abolition of Public Health England at such a vital time is seriously worrying clinicians and health organisations, 70 having written to Boris Johnson about their concerns, including the important question of where key work areas like obesity, smoking and alcohol misuse will go since the replacement will only be focusing on pandemic prevention. Signatories include the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, which represents the UK’s 240,000 doctors, the UK Faculty of Public Health and the Richmond Group of health and care charities.
Quarantine policy on returning air passengers continues to be awkward for the government and infuriating to tourists when the countries they’re visiting are suddenly taken off the ‘safe’ list, leading to last minute scrambles to book replacement flights and ferries before the deadline. This has shone a light on devolution, as the latest example of Portugal has shown the four nations at odds, on England’s safe list but Welsh and Scottish governments insisting passengers quarantine for 14 days. Public Health Wales, with its own track and trace system sounds better at checking up on returners than England, where it’s the task of the discredited Serco scheme. Only one in four are allegedly followed up and now Border Force officials are asking for ‘further action’. In the context of the number of new infections being at its highest since May, the Guardian tells us that ‘leading scientists are warning that the UK is fast approaching a pivotal moment. With another surge in the number of positive cases recorded on Friday, they urged people to keep following the rules or risk the return of widespread lockdown across the UK’.
Quarantine rule breakers may be unconcerned for various reasons, not least because despite the government’s bullish ‘instructions’, fewer than ten fines have been issued since June. Another reason for non-compliance is that many cannot afford to miss work, especially if self-employed and not eligible for financial help. Others simply don’t see themselves as a risk or think the rules don’t apply to them, like the man interviewed on R4 Broadcasting House, who spoke about his own safety, seemingly oblivious of the risk he could pose to others.
Meanwhile, the debate about returning to the office versus working from home rumbles on, some workers determined to stick with WFH, without the stress of commuting and uncertainty over how COVID secure workplaces are, and others keen to return as their mental health may have suffered through lack of interaction with colleagues. The government, retail and catering lobbies are very keen for people to go back because of the effect on city centre economies, with shops and cafes taking a hit, but there’s a powerful argument for instead boosting local economies enabled by WFH. The government also doesn’t seem to realise that, having scared people half to death for months on end (‘Stay at home’, ‘Protect the NHS’ etc) it now can’t expect to turn the tanker around mid-ocean overnight. It will take time for people to get used to using public transport and getting out more. A more sensible approach emerging is not the polarity of one of the other but a hybrid solution, people working at home some days and going into the office on others.
Given the departure of five senior civil servants this year, including the Service’s head, Sir Mark Sedwill, you may be interested in this succinct profile of his replacement, Simon Case. At only 41, and a CV which includes GCHQ, Kensington Palace and the role of PPS to Theresa May, he’ll nevertheless have his work cut out to steer an effective path between the demands of an erratic government directed by Dominic Cummings and the needs of his staff, some of whom are now threatening to go on strike if they’re forced to return to their offices. Case is said to have ‘a muscularity of mind’ – he’ll need it.
Many would agree it’s nothing short of shocking the way care home residents have been treated since the start of lockdown. Contrary to the narrative of having from the start thrown ‘a protective ring around our care homes’, we learn that care homes have only just received testing kits, much later than promised. We regularly hear heartrending accounts of those unable to visit residents, being urged to stay away and about the limited care residents receive. This was always the trouble with opening up social care to the private sector, where profit is the bottom line. An article in the Guardian rightly argues for much more attention to the care sector, how visits can be managed and how residents can be kept occupied and cared for in such a way which enables them to live, not just be kept alive. ‘We need to find better ways of protecting the people who live in our care homes without isolating them, or we risk forcing vulnerable people, and their families, to choose between their physical needs and their emotional ones’.
The way care homes have been left to cope on their own, with no real support, has been appalling and an undeniable argument for the long-awaited overhaul of the entire social care sector. ‘Nobody realistically thinks we can be back to normal by Christmas, and care home managers, already exhausted by the outbreak and still grappling with the day-to-day challenges of sourcing PPE and testing kits, need help and support with these questions that are not even acknowledged in the national guidance’.
Last week also saw the resurgence of Extinction Rebellion, in the news for protests against Murdoch newspapers, demonstrators blocking access to two print works in Hertfordshire and Merseyside, causing delays to newspaper deliveries. Some news media have portrayed this as ‘censorship’, rather than drawing attention to what the protesters see as Murdoch newspapers’ ignoring of climate change issues.ER activist Gully Bujak, 27, said: “You cannot have a functioning democracy with a mainstream media that is ruled by a small, unrepresentative sect of society, who are in bed with politicians and the fossil fuel industry. The climate emergency is an existential threat to humanity. Instead of publishing this on the front page every day as it deserves, much of our media ignores the issue and some actively sow seeds of climate denial’. And you couldn’t make it up: the PM has now has accused XR of trying “to limit the public’s access to news” and Matt Hancock was pictured in weekend mufti, without his regulation pink tie, saying how ‘outrageous’ the protests are. What’s surely very worrying is news that ministers are now considering designating ER ‘an organised crime group’: this is how police states start.
Mental health has been a key concern in the wake of lockdown and as further uncertainty continues, seriously aggravated by the lack of trust in our politicians. It’s doubtful that already struggling NHS services will be able to cope with the predicted mental health ‘pandemic’ and not everyone can afford to seek help privately. While not a panacea, a number of activities like gardening and being close to nature are well known to contribute to mental wellbeing. Recently it was National Allotments Week and, having requested people’s personal stories, the Guardian featured the lockdown experiences of allotment holders and community gardeners. ‘…many found new solace, sanctuary and community spirit over the course of the summer. Those working from home found extra time to spend at their plots, while key workers gained particular pleasure from the quiet after exhausting shifts’. Some used their space for outdoor meetings and to run classes, facilitating community engagement, many spoke of the joy of seeing things grow, others said it was the only place they felt safe, and one took comfort from having been offered an allotment just after her wedding had been cancelled. This comment seems to capture what’s important about this activity and how it can enhance mental wellbeing. ‘Whenever I got to my allotment, I was able to focus on repetitive tasks and stop worrying about the pandemics and what ifs. I found great comfort in the predictability of nature and the changing seasons. The great wheel was still turning, despite us being in a scary and strange limbo’.
Still on the subject of the importance of nature and the environment, a YouGov survey for the National Trust found that for 38% of adults spending time in nature was the moment they looked forward to most each day during lockdown. A third said their interest in nature had increased since they were confined to their homes. The Trust is said to have lost up to £200m this year due to the pandemic and has now launched an appeal for funds to continue projects which had to be cancelled. These include restoring and creating new species-rich grasslands to conserve more than 50 threatened species, such as the Glanville fritillary and Duke of Burgundy butterflies and flowers like early gentian and ground-pine. It will be interesting to see how the appeal goes, as many are finding their incomes reduced and there seems to be an ever-increasing list of organisations asking for donations. This is such an important one, though, because of the need to counter the damage of climate change besides enabling beautiful places for people to visit.
Not least because of our experience of lockdown, you might be interested to catch up with a new series about the important but often overlooked topic of solitude (not to be conflated with loneliness, as many mistakenly do). This first episode, accompanied by appropriate poetry and music, examines extreme forms of solitude eg the closed religious order or living as a hermit, and also reveals how, partly due to the lack of domestic privacy at the time, being alone was regarded as terrifying in the 17th century. This topic has strong mental and emotional health dimensions, because the capacity to be alone, besides the capacity to be with others and form relationships, is important for psychological development
Finally, a news item which has deeper implications than initially apparent relates to a German university’s scheme to issue grants for successful applicants to study ‘active inactivity’, jokily alluded to as ‘idleness grants’ by some news sources. ‘Applicants for the €1,600 grant have been set four questions to answer: What do you not want to do? For how long do you not want to do it? Why is it important not to do this thing in particular? And finally, cutting to the chase, why are you the right person not to do it?’ It may sound comical or downright weird at first, but it’s not such a bad idea, given recent dissatisfaction across the board with target-driven cultures, recognition of the need for more mindful lifestyles, concern about climate change, the likelihood of mass unemployment and discussions in the UK about a Universal Basic Income. Designed by prominent architect and design theorist Friedrich von Borries, the project is predicated on the conviction that “inconsequential” is not a synonym for “unimportant”. ‘Doing nothing, properly understood, can be an enriching way of experiencing the world without needing to extract something from it or do something to it’. It will be very interesting to find out who gets the grants and (if they’re in the public domain) perhaps read some of the reports when they emerge in January.