During a week when the Support for Jobs scheme pushed the descriptors ‘viable’ and ‘non-viable’ to the fore, with robust debates about how ‘viable’ jobs should be defined, using the terms in other contexts has been too tempting for some to resist. John Crace has written about ‘our semi-viable leader’, whose position is looking increasingly uncertain given his own poor performance, the rise of Young Pretender Rishi Sunak and demands for cross-party consultation on restrictions and lockdowns. ‘Sunak did get a slightly harder ride from journalists at the Downing Street press conference. He couldn’t totally explain what was and was not a viable job – some jobs that are not viable now may be so again in a year’s time- – the latter being a key argument not yet responded to by the government’. Of Sunak, he observed: ‘For an hour or so it felt like there was an adult running the country. Or as close as we’re likely to get to one in the Conservative government during the coronavirus pandemic. It might still all be an illusion, of course…’
Being PM is proving a lot harder than Boris ever expected – he has no desire and no idea how to build cross-party consensus at a time of crisis and the chickens of his erosion of democracy over the last few months are coming home to roost, eg suspension of normal tendering procedures, handing £m to private providers, and not consulting Parliament or local government about restrictions and lockdowns. ‘An extraordinary cross-party backlash against Johnson’s “rule by diktat” from Downing Street was taking shape on Saturday – ahead of a key vote on Wednesday – as a new poll for the Observer showed Labour has overtaken the Tories for the first time since Keir Starmer became leader in April’. 50 Tory MPs have apparently written to the PM to ask for a vote on COVID restrictions prior to their imposition: if this had been purely opposition parties it could be ignored but the fact that it’s the PM’s own party spearheading it should give him pause for thought. (Correction – give Cummings pause for thought).
Meanwhile, still taking centre stage is the very worrying situation about the testing and track and trace programmes, which, despite ministerial bluster, continue to underperform in the numbers of tests actually carried (not ‘capacity’!) and contacts traced. The new COVID19 app everyone’s been urged to download has come under fire for not working on some phones (and what about people with dumb phones or no mobile at all?) but, most scandalously, not being enabled to use NHS data – only Serco programme data can be processed. Since it’s supposed to be an NHS app (and media people continue to misrepresent it as such), this would be risible if it wasn’t so concerning. There’s also a significant body of people not planning to download it because they don’t trust its data gathering properties or don’t want to risk being asked to self-isolate.
Thanks to Emma for the heads-up on this useful article in Wired: it’s very informative and also states that ‘from September 28 it will be illegal for people not to self-isolate once they been contacted by Test and Trace and the government can issue £10,000 fines to people who break the rules’. We already know, though, that 20% of those asked to self-isolate have either not done so or have reneged on the conditions so it will be interesting to see if the threat of such a fine makes a difference. The article is quite reassuring on the issue of use of personal data, but it does discuss risks eg the possibility of false positives. Crucially, it reminds us that its success will depend on large numbers of people using it, but a key issue is surely around confidence in the government, which seems at an all time low. ‘Trust in the government will play a big part in this’. Interestingly, whereas the failed app was said to need 80% to sign up, it’s thought 60% will be enough this time to rein in the virus. Even more important is an understanding that an app alone isn’t going to do the business. ‘Contact tracing apps may be one small way of reducing Covid-19 spread. Equally important are robust testing and human-led contact tracing systems. All of these elements need to be functioning correctly to control the spread of the virus’.
There’s an obvious interest in how other countries are coping. This is quite a lengthy read but a very useful listing of what different countries are doing in essential areas, such as mask wearing, opening schools and leisure venues, limits on gatherings and so on. Some surprising facts are that in Sweden masks are not recommended and in Croatia bars and clubs don’t have to close before midnight (not much of a hardship), although restaurants can only serve people outside. More use of outside space has an environmental downside, in that it’s bound to increase the installation of patio heaters, unless the Croatians are a much hardier lot than Brits.
This week’s Briefing Room on Radio 4 usefully looked at Sweden, criticised for its strategy of not locking down but perhaps with some benefits to that approach which weren’t apparent at the start. Sweden was described as a compliant society, and presenter David Aaronovitch explored the Swedish experience of the pandemic, which eschewed lockdown but which still instituted ‘significant changes to everyday life, from school closures to social distancing and the cancellation of theatre shows and concerts’.
Depressing but predictable is news about how the UK is seen abroad, one headline reading: ‘Mr Brexit to Mr U-turn: German commentators befuddled by Johnson’s zig-zagging’. We learn that an editorial in the Süddeutsche Zeitung was titled: ‘Johnson’s skittishness endangers his country’; Wirtschaftswoche weekly business magazine said “one of the main reasons for the ongoing coronavirus chaos” in Britain was Johnson’s decision ‘to occupy lots of ministerial posts with Brexit hardliners’, and perhaps most impacting, given his experience and conservative stance, the ‘veteran Britain watcher’ for Die Welt, Thomas Kielinger, observed: ‘The perplexity of the British public is rising ….Its government appears to be stumbling through a forest of lunacy … and it’s dawning on many that Boris Johnson is the wrong man to cope with an emergency’. He also points up the irony of a Brexit-committed government in copying a longstanding (since the early 1900s) German approach – Kurzarbeit (short work), whereby ‘workers can be sent home or their hours significantly reduced, and the state will pick up a large portion of their lost income’.
Not surprisingly, there seems to be an increasingly febrile and anxious atmosphere at the rapid rise in COVID cases and fears of another general lockdown, since some experts believe the current restrictions don’t go nearly far enough. Yvonne Doyle, Public Health England Medical Director, said the number of new cases was “a stark warning for us all…The signals are clear. Positivity rates are rising across all age groups and we’re continuing to see spikes in rates of admission to hospital and critical care’. We’d better do what we want to do and go where we want to go within the next fortnight, because after that we can’t be certain we will have that freedom.
As featured in previous posts, the mental health ‘pandemic’ is growing, with need manifestly not being met by the inadequate NHS primary care services and many unable to afford private help. Many are just trying to manage on their own and being encouraged by various articles and pundits to reframe and develop a positive mindset. While a certain amount of mental wellbeing work and self-talk is helpful, it’s not sufficient for those with longstanding conditions and a level of anxiety which needs much more than this. There’s also a strong argument that the emphasis on ‘wellbeing’ is used cynically by policymakers responsible for reducing and underfunding mental health services in order to shift the entire responsibility from the state to the individual.
Besides the rise in anxiety and depression, there’s the obvious trauma resulting from all the COVID-related deaths which have occurred this year, when those bereaved could not even hold the usual kind of funeral or be with the dying at the end. Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, together with organisations, including the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) and the National Bereavement Partnership, are pressing the government to use the comprehensive spending review to fund ‘culturally specific’ measures addressing particularly traumatic forms of grief. Psychotherapist Kathryn de Prudhoe, a representative of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice who co-wrote the submission to the Treasury, lost her 60-year-old father in April. She said: ‘The majority of people are floundering and don’t really know where to go or what to access…There is the constant reminder of the virus, the anxiety that people have that they’re going to fall ill, or that another family member is going to die. If we don’t act now, in six months’ time we’re going to have a mental health crisis on our hands as well as well as a viral one’.
At the risk of verging on ‘wellbeing’ territory it’s quite interesting and useful to read about how the Norwegians approach the lengthy winter, by developing a mindset which helps cope with the ‘long polar nights’. A psychologist studied what gave rise to the Norwegians’ resilience and concluded that much was due to what we’d call reframing but it sounds more like ‘framing’, because of it being so embedded in the psyche, not requiring the conscious process of mindset change. The psychologist designed a ‘winter mindset scale’, which requested agreement or disagreement with statements such as ‘there are many things to enjoy about winter’ or ‘there are many things to dislike about winter’. Confirming longstanding evidence that experience can follow the attitude adopted, she found that participants’ responses determined their wellbeing over the coming months; ‘the more they saw the winter as an exciting opportunity to enjoy a glacial climate, the better they fared, with high levels of life satisfaction and overall mental health’. It’s quite a cognitive approach, acknowledging the role of choice in how we experience things, not just believing our mindset is set in stone. People ‘feel like they’re just someone who hates the winter and there’s nothing they can do about it… But once you put it in people’s heads that mindsets exist, and that you have control over your mindset – I think that that’s tremendously powerful’. Hmmm – it might take more than this to persuade some of us that there’s ‘much to enjoy’ about winter.
As a bit of an antidote to what the BBC’s Paddy O’Connell this morning called a ‘diet of doom’, the Guardian predicts that during the next lockdown the last one’s focus on sourdough and banana bread (guilty here) will move to much more exotic creations. With the headline ‘Let us eat cake: Britain turns to baking to banish the blues… As nights draw in and months of uncertainty loom, many are seeking the therapeutic benefits of creating elaborate treats’, it describes the therapeutic process of baking, the grounding effect of using family recipes, the role of this sharing and kindness and the Instagram effect of constructing increasingly elaborate cakes. Waitrose has reported huge rises in sales of both cakes and baking ingredients: does this mean that the flour shortages experienced months ago are now a thing of the past? Two of the photos in the article feature the bakers’ ‘sculpted’ heads – great for social media pics but I wonder how many would feel comfortable consuming such a thing!