During a week dominated by the Greater Manchester standoff, more local mayors giving the lie to the PM’s insistence that he’d had some ‘great’ conversations with them, COVID cases continue to rise at an alarming rate, with more and more areas of the UK going into Tier 3 or total lockdown. As if it needed stating, there’s growing consensus that what’s really needed to keep the virus in check is a properly functioning test, track and trace strategy, but this seems a fond hope given the government’s ongoing commitment to the Serco travesty. It felt the last straw for some Sevenoaks residents earlier this week to have been sent to a non-existent test centre there, some driving around for an hour trying to find the facility. Officials were investigating how this came to be listed on the government website when it had not yet been ‘signed off’. Not long after this came news of an £80 test to be offered at Heathrow, for those needing a test prior to flying to places like Italy and Hong Kong. Transport Minister Grant Shapps made no secret of yet again enabling the private sector (in this case Collinson Group and Swissport) to profit from this development. ‘Public Health England will set the quality for the test itself and then it will be up to the private sector to provide a test up to that quality’. A telling statement on Collinson’s website reads: ‘With over 25 years’ experience, Collinson Group is a global leader in shaping and influencing customer behaviour to drive revenue and add value for its clients’.
Brexit issues also continue to dominate the news agenda, one video clip illustrating Theresa May’s incredulity at Michael Gove’s ‘assurance’ that security would be more easily assured by leaving the EU. Increasingly, the government is getting flak from its own side and this week the Guardian’s John Crace turns the attention of his withering pen to Gove. ‘Gove appears to have no vestigial sense of shame. Politics for him is just a theatre in which truth and lies are interchangeable, and he retains an outward appearance where excessive politeness is merely a front for outright contempt. “I am not blithe or blase,” he said. Sometimes, a politician’s lack of self-awareness is breathtaking. According to the Govester, 10 weeks was more than enough time for all those businesses that were hopelessly unprepared for a no-deal Brexit to put in place all the systems they needed should the all too thinkable become a reality’.
Alluding to Opposition questions about Kent lorry parks and recruitment of new customs officials, ‘Mikey just blanked those questions. He wasn’t here to talk to problems, he was here to sound vaguely threatening to Johnny Foreigner. The whole play had merely been a charade. A piece of posturing….Because everyone knew how the comedy would end. The UK could not afford a no deal on top of the economic damage of the coronavirus pandemic. So the EU would give a little and the UK would give a lot and some sort of deal that Boris had always insisted he could never agree to would be negotiated. And the Govester would be first on his feet in the Commons to declare the deal that was noticeably worse than had been on offer under the Maybot a government triumph. What’s more, he might even believe it’.
Rarely idle, it seems, the same pen also slated Housing Minister Robert Jenrick and the PM, the former on the Greater Manchester support package wrangling, refusing to go above £60m: ‘You’d have thought that if anyone was capable of brokering a financial deal between central government and Greater Manchester it would have been the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick. After all, Honest Bob has a track record of magicking money out of thin air’. In the PM’s case there was slating of his Greater Manchester stance: (‘For the sake of £5m Boris Johnson was prepared to grind the least well-paid workers into poverty. All the talk of a levelling-up agenda had been just bullshit. The real agenda was levelling down. A government that had talked at the beginning of the pandemic about doing “whatever it takes” had switched to the punishment beating of whatever you get’).
This was followed up by deconstruction of his PMQs performance, the frequent lying and the blaming of London Mayor Sadiq Khan for the ‘need’ to make swingeing cuts to Transport for London. ‘It wouldn’t be prime minister’s questions without Boris Johnson being accused of telling at least one lie. Indeed, in recent months it has often felt as if Boris has taken a bet with Dominic Cummings to see if he can outdo himself on the lies of the week before. But normally Boris saves his biggest fibs for his exchanges with Keir Starmer. This time he reserved his top Trumps for London MPs concerned about planned changes to TfL and council tax’.
‘It was also telling just how personal Johnson’s hatred for Khan is. He can’t stand the fact that Sadiq is more popular in London than him, nor can he bear it that Khan has unarguably done a better job than he did as London mayor. So Boris went into hissy-fit overdrive where one lie was immediately topped by another. Sadiq had bankrupted the city, etc etc…..None of which was true. According to TfL’s accounts, since Khan took over from Johnson in 2016 he has reduced the deficit by 71% and increased cash reserves by 16%. That TfL is now in trouble is entirely down to the pandemic. Not even Johnson’s own MPs could stomach these lies. Asking for the country’s trust during a national crisis when you can’t even tell the truth about an audited balance sheet is an uphill struggle. If the prime minister will lie about this, what won’t he lie about?’
Once again the World Health Organisation has expressed extreme concern about the COVID situation and lamented the lack of cooperation between countries, so it seems helpful to be aware of how they’re experiencing the pandemic rather than focusing exclusively on the UK. This week there was a pictorial record of Paris before and after the curfew, the first conjuring a jolly scene of busy streets and bars, where little distancing seemed to be going on, and the second showing empty streets and grills pulled down over the previously lively venues. Many UK towns and cities can boast similar depressing backdrops, the likelihood being that some venues may never open their doors again.
Meanwhile, an article by Karl Lauterbach (SPD member of the Bundestag and professor of health economics and clinical epidemiology at the University of Cologne) explores whether Germany’s first time COVID approach of politicians and scientists working together will work second time round. He describes three major factors of the initial strategy: ‘luck’ (but surely more good sense in reacting quickly to what was seen elsewhere) in that Germans seeing what happened in Italy immediately reduced their mobility; an immediate government decision to be straight and transparent with the public, with scientists enabled to contribute to the communication strategy; and the involvement by Berlin of local and municipal governments and of opposition parties, enabling consensus building. Contrast this with the UK. Lauterbach also cited other contributory factors, such as avoiding lockdowns and curfews, recommending mask wearing early on and having an effective testing strategy.
As to measures adopted for this second wave, unlike the UK the Germans have divided the country into zones with either more than 35 or more than 50 cases per week per 100,000 inhabitants. ‘These limits have proved to be useful for predicting the success of contact-tracing infected persons. The aim is to have as few areas as possible declared high risk’. Long-term, there’s recognition that this will be a difficult journey – there seems to be reliance on the development of a vaccine, but no expectation of significant improvement until May 2021. A key factor is the German government has taken the population with it. ‘Uncertainty and doubt are not a disgrace for scientists or politicians at this time. What is disgraceful is excessive self-confidence, self-righteousness or dishonesty towards fellow human beings’.
A reader highlighted the importance of effective communication: ‘When the pandemic started, virologists and epidemiologists together with federal and local governments informed and communicated with the German population via TV news and special TV reports and other media channels (print and online media). The same happened on district and municipal level. The information was so extensive that no one could claim to either no know or be confused. It was this clear and decisive stance that counted for a lesser expansion of the pandemic’.
Having been under the spotlight for some time, this week has seen significant mental health coverage by the media, including the difficulty of obtaining help for children and young people (‘Psychotherapist says accessing NHS is harder and most services offered only online or by phone’) and the ‘irreparable damage’ being done to prisoners’ mental health due to the imposition of solitary confinement during the pandemic. Yet again, we have evidence that NHS mental health services aren’t working effectively and are not coping. One parent of a disturbed teenager said ‘We have been directed to websites that don’t exist and, shockingly, advised to Google side-effects of an antidepressant medication when I called to say that my child’s mental state had significantly worsened since she started to take them’. This parent had been under the impression that child and adolescent mental health services were where to go for help. ‘This is not the case … It has been extremely stressful and I just want the best help for my daughter’.
A child and adolescent psychotherapist working in a school and interviewed anonymously reported that as the pandemic progressed, there had been around a fivefold increase in attendance, with a notable increase in eating disorders. ‘I think accessing the NHS is harder and all that is offered now is pretty much online. People want children to be seen, and the only way to do that at the moment is to pay for it’.
Departing Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales said ministers and officials should see the coronavirus crisis as a chance to ‘reset the aspirations for what prisons could be about. While agreeing it was right to focus on the pandemic, he was keen to emphasise that ‘the underlying systemic problems within the prison estate, including drug use, violence and self-harm, had not gone away’. Capturing the common syndrome of short-termism, Clarke said the impact of deteriorating mental health, as well as lack of access to rehab programmes and education, would be felt further down the line.
This is a key point, especially for those inclined not to take prisoners’ health and rights seriously. ‘There’s a risk that very little, if anything, is being done in terms of preventing reoffending. There’s an overriding public interest that people should emerge from prison less likely to reoffend and this is damaging that possibility’. The Prisons Service also came in for some (polite) flak for its defensiveness rather than a preparedness to admit and address the problems. It will be interesting to see what kind of job the next incumbent does. ‘The government adviser and former youth justice boss, Charlie Taylor, is taking over the £135,000-a-year chief inspector role next month and is expected to be in the post for three years’.
A charming and uplifting piece on BBC Woman’s Hour this week featured a community of nuns in Sussex called the Poor Clares of Arundel, who have just released an album called Light for the World, described as ‘traditional plainchant with added beats’. Sisters Leo & Sisters Aelread are interviewed at the end of the programme. ‘We do it as part of our normal living’…. the sisters admit that not all of them can sing but this Earthly Kingdoms excerpt sounds pretty celestial.
Finally, online clothing retailer ASOS, which has done much better during the pandemic than many of its competitors, reports a shortage of tracksuit bottoms. This isn’t surprising, since working from home and less socialising has increased the use of leisurewear. This begs the question of how many of the well-attired people we see on Zoom are only smart on the upper half, the lower half being encased in jogging bottoms. A second question poses itself: will we ever get used to non-elasticated waistbands again?