Well, here we are again, in a place many of us expected and dreaded for some time: a second national lockdown from Thursday (subject to parliamentary approval on Wednesday), naturally briefed to the press late on Friday evening. This is a habit which undermines trust in the government even more, ensuring its bombshells fall on ground which at least has been prepared. But it has a massive downside, which short-termism merchants fail to take account of: in the days to come people will taking the last chance to mingle, party and get out and about, contributing to the spread, and it also adds to the massive uncertainty underpinning the nation’s compromised mental health. How ironic it’s been, that the timing of the Downing Street Briefing, scheduled for 4 pm today, then delayed till 5, then 6 30, finally starting at 6.45, is echoing the dither and delay characterising the government’s strategy throughout the entire pandemic. Is this the poor 21st century equivalent of the 1939 gathering around their wirelesses to hear Churchill say that as no assurance had been received we were now at war with Germany? There were more debateable issues with the press briefing than you could shake a stick at (not least the claims of humility, morality and responsibility) and many on social media were annoyed by the data not being properly configured for tv transmission and the constant ‘next slide, please’ requests, asking why, by now, hadn’t they acquired a Powerpoint clicker. It’s clear the absence of one isn’t about tech: it must in part be to convey status and the message that Vallance and Whitty should be freed from the potential for technical hassles.
This move comes weeks after the warnings of SAGE and the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser and it seems unconscionable that the decision has only now been taken (hubristic government procrastinating on national lockdown in order to make the UK seem in a better position than other European countries) because advisers said imposing new national measures could “save Christmas from the coronavirus” and allow families to meet during the festive season. So Christmas (focus on family gatherings and retail opportunities) is now being made to drive government policy – marvellous. Novelist Jonathan Coe asked whether we can now expect a new government slogan – Save Our Christmas.
There’s still a failure to acknowledge what’s really missing – an effectively functioning test, track and trace system, its head, Dido Harding, seeming to have gone AWOL for weeks on end. As if we could be surprised by anything any more, George Monbiot’s piece in the Guardian (How teenagers ended up operating crucial parts of England’s test and trace system) is shocking. He describes and puts in context the £12bn spent on the system, which is still only reaching 60% of contacts when the critical threshold is 80%, to ensure real impact. This amount is equivalent to all the general practice budget, giving an idea just what a colossal sum has been wasted. ‘The government has created an opaque and unmanageable hybrid system of public and private provision, in which favoured corporations have received vast contracts without competition, advertising or even penalty clauses. Public health, reorganised in the midst of the pandemic to give even greater control to Harding and her chums, is in semi-privatised meltdown’.
Getting to the shocking revelation of the title, an anonymous (and ID checked) call centre worker informed Monbiot that the workers (supposed to be at least Clinician Band 6 NHS level) were mostly students and school leavers being paid the minimum wage, not the advertised rate of between £16.97 and £27.15 per hour. Not only that, they were recently ‘upskilled’ so their duties would include calling infected patients and discovering all their contacts over the previous fortnight. ‘To use the official terms, they have suddenly been promoted from level 3 call handlers to level 2 clinical contact caseworkers’.
The NHS defines the Band 6 role as ‘working as part of a team of experienced clinicians..must have a health or science degree or demonstrable equivalent experience or qualifications…experience in a field related to public health or health and social care services as a practitioner and registration with the relevant professional body’. This is a far cry from the level of these call centre workers, through no fault of their own, and it turns out the ‘upskilling’ consisted of 4 hours of online content, including a PowerPoint presentation, an online conversation, a quiz, some e-learning modules and some new call scripts. The worker told Monbiot: ‘We weren’t asked if we wanted to ‘upskill’: there was no consultation and no choice. We were just told. No one felt able to say no. After the announcement, I spent three hours crying about it. Other people in the team were crying and having panic attacks.’
Serco said and the Department of Health and Social Care confirmed that it had given these instructions, but insisted that those who’d accepted the roles had volunteered and that the role had been split in two so that each traced contact also gets a “qualified health professional”, who dispenses medical advice and decides whether or not to escalate complex cases. Monbiot’s informant categorically denied these two statements. The article paints a shocking and depressing picture of a situation which only came to light because of a leak: massive profits being channelled to inexperienced private providers, the NHS being privatised by stealth and underfunded to the extent of advertising for posts to be filled by volunteers (this has been happening in the talking therapies field for years) and minimal accountability for the money spent. ‘People ask me, “is this a cockup or a conspiracy?”. The correct answer is both. The government is using the pandemic to shift the boundaries between public and private provision, restructure public health and pass lucrative contracts to poorly qualified private companies. The inevitable result is a galactic cockup. This is what you get from a government that values money above human life’.
Added to this is the apparent collusion between government and the media to avoid the elephant in the room, the continuing absence of programme head Dido Harding, who now hasn’t been seen for weeks. Instead of going AWOL, she should be out there defending her record. It comes to something when even Conservatives are critical of such records, as exemplified by veteran MP Sir Bernard Jenkin, Chairman of the Commons Liaison Committee, who opined strongly last week that she needs to go. The coup de grace must be today’s Sunday Times revelation that the COVID 19 app, downloaded by 19m people, has been subject to a ‘software bungle’ and has consistently failed to send alerts telling people to self-isolate after they came into contact with infected people. A government source admitted that Android device owners were among the worst hit. This is also an equalities issue: ‘the mobile operating system (Android) accounts for more than half of UK phone users and is also disproportionately used by the less well-off, who are most at risk from the virus’. The problem has now been rectified, apparently, but many will not be comforted by the knowledge that the app was so ineffective for so long. And what about those who can’t or won’t download the app?
Anti-corruption campaigner, barrister Jolyon Maugham, who runs the Good Law Project, is also on Harding’s case. ‘Appointing your mates to top jobs isn’t new or the preserve of the Conservative Party: we all remember “Tony’s Cronies” too. But it’s high time we put a stop to it. That’s why, along with the Runnymede Trust, Good Law Project is challenging the appointment of Dido Harding, as well as a string of other appointments which were made with seemingly no advertisement or fair recruitment process’. It will be interesting to see if this campaign makes any headway.
An article in The Times could make us wonder if the government has taken its foot off the complex track and trace gas, because of an unrealistic idea that we will have less need of it. In news that sounds a little far-fetched, the government is said to have purchased from Big Pharma Pfizer sufficient vaccine doses for 20 million people, ‘….. ready to distribute before Christmas, with the first doses earmarked for the elderly and vulnerable’. But since when has the government shown genuine concern for ‘the elderly and vulnerable’? The government’s move sounds rather risky, since the vaccine has not yet been approved for use. Just as well, then, that the UK has also secured early access to five other vaccines currently in development.
A useful reality check comes from Kate Bingham, leader of Britain’s vaccine task force. Writing in the medical journal The Lancet, she said it was likely that we would need several vaccines to end the pandemic. “There will not be one successful vaccine, or one single country, that is able to supply the world. And crucially, ‘It is important to guard against complacency and over-optimism’.
Speaking of ‘complacency and over-optimism’, it’s ironic that this article was only published on Thursday, quoting Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick still resisting the need for a national lockdown. He told Sky News: ‘We don’t want to create a second national lockdown. We know that has some effect on bearing down on the virus but we also know it’s immensely disruptive in other regards to people’s lives and livelihoods and broader health and wellbeing, so we will do everything we can to avoid that situation’.
All of this will leave such a bad taste in people’s mouths that we can surely expect the cosy Boris and Carrie Sunday evening broadcast, part of the Pride of Britain awards, (ironically, praising the NHS) to be postponed. Cartoonist Martin Shovel tweeted: ‘The toxic combination of libertarianism, neoliberalism and incompetence at the heart of this government guarantees that the handling of the second wave will be a disaster for our country!’
As the total in England living under Tier 3 topped 8 million last week, 50 Northern MPs, including the ‘red wall’ ones, wrote to the PM demanding ‘a roadmap for the way out of lockdown’. Many of them must feel on a sticky wicket, having been victoriously elected to longstanding Labour seats, and now no doubt confronted by angry constituents chafing against restrictions and seeing their businesses going down the drain. How cowardly, then, that 14 of the 50 signed anonymously, some saying they didn’t mean it to be a demand, etc. Will they now be relieved they’re about to be overtaken by events?
Meanwhile, former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption, long having opposed lockdown policy, is once again apoplectic about what he sees as the threat to our liberty we are sleepwalking into. “The British public has not even begun to understand the seriousness of what is happening to our country. Many, perhaps most of them don’t care, and won’t care until it is too late. They instinctively feel that the end justifies the means, the motto of every totalitarian government which has ever been … The government has discovered the power of public fear to let it get its way…’. Sumption bases his arguments on the evidence of government by-passing of the legislature, starting with the proroguing of Parliament (later ruled unlawful) and continuing with the suspension of many normal procedures during the pandemic, all constituting an avoidance of scrutiny. ‘Governments hold power in Britain on the sufferance of the elected chamber of the legislature. Without that we are no democracy. The present government has a different approach. It seeks to derive its legitimacy directly from the people, bypassing their elected representatives.’
Having special relevance to the imminent second lockdown (have the appropriate regulations been prepared this time?) he exposed what he sees as the illegitimacy of giving lockdown orders without making statutory regulations. ‘Even on the widest view of the legislation the government had no power to give such orders without making statutory regulations. No such regulations existed until 1 pm on 26 March, three days after the announcement… I do not doubt the seriousness of the epidemic, but I believe that history will look back on the measures taken to contain it as a monument of collective hysteria and governmental folly.’
Occupying a lot of airtime earlier in the week but now somewhat pushed down the news agenda were the ongoing debates about free school meals and the deaths of migrants, but these will continue to rumble on until they’re resolved, the latter being much trickier than the former.
Despite the doom and gloom, some benefits of the pandemic have been identified and now the Guardian’s European edition reports on research suggesting that the pandemic has resulted in a reduction in populist tendencies in the eight countries surveyed. The good news is that the YouGov/Cambridge Globalism Project (surveying 26,000 people in 25 countries, eight the same as last year’s survey) showed a ‘steep decline’ in the eight, but the bad news is that political scientists thought populism could recover when the economy becomes the main focus of the crisis. The eight countries cited are Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and Sweden.
In his new book, Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life, philosopher John Gray makes a case for learning the wisdom of cats: it’s not such a bad idea, reflected by the meme of Larry, the No 10 cat, sitting at the PM’s lectern appearing over and over on social media. Larry for PM – he couldn’t do a worse job. Gray believes that humans turned to philosophy principally out of anxiety, looking for some tranquillity in a chaotic and frightening world, telling themselves stories that might provide the illusion of calm. He says cats wouldn’t recognise that need because they naturally revert to equilibrium whenever they’re not hungry or threatened. The article alludes to Gray’s 2002 book (Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals), in which he was thought to have dismantled the history of western philosophy. It particularly attacked the prevalent belief in the steady forward progress of humankind brought about by liberal democracy. ‘I would say that a lot of torment in our lives comes from that pressure for finding meaning…. We struggle with the idea that there is no hidden meaning to find. We can’t become cats in that sense – we probably will need to always have the disposition to tell ourselves stories about our lives – but I would suggest a library of short stories is better than a novel’. Demonstrating that major events were not predicted by experts eg the banking/finance crisis, he believes that ‘politics is a succession of temporary and partial remedies for permanent and recurring human evil’ and ‘baser tribal instincts’ and ‘human folly’ won’t be prevented by the advance of enlightened thought. Coming back to cats and their relevance, ‘Cats live for the sensation of life, not for something they might achieve or not achieve… If we attach ourselves too heavily to some overarching purpose we’re losing the joy of life’. Sobering stuff.
A Guardian article further highlights what seems quite a contrast regarding people’s commitment to health and fitness during the pandemic, some reporting greater takeaway and alcohol consumption, others less and likewise with exercise, some taking next to no exercise and others using the lockdown to get fit. ‘Chocolate sales soar as UK shoppers comfort eat at home amid Covid’ begs the question what happened about the government’s anti-obesity strategy, which would already have taken a hit from the Eat Out to Help Out campaign, since many of the restaurants featured were purveyors of fast food. ‘While the £50m sales increase is only 3% up on the total value of chocolate sales, the amount of chocolate eaten is likely to have risen by two or three times that level because the kind of chocolate bought in supermarkets is so much cheaper’.
While a survey found that half the UK population found their weight more difficult to manage since the start of the crisis, retail analysts attributed the rise in chocolate sales down to the ‘lipstick effect’– a spending pattern where cheap treats sell especially well during tough economic times. (Interestingly, the online survey focused on both Slimming World members and what they term ‘a representative sample of 637 adults in the general population’ and asked respondents their opinions about their general health, mood, diet, alcohol intake, physical activity, and weight management.
Finally, an article which attracted much comment in The Times this week (Your get up and go will have gone by 54) reported on research in Norway which concluded that ‘Fifty, it turns out, may not be the new thirty after all….. people lose their spark and the “get up and go” to try new things when they hit 54’. The Norwegian psychologist explored, across different age groups, the links between ‘passion, grit and a positive mindset’, the results suggesting that ‘from the age of 53 this drive fades and more is needed to motivate people in middle age’. The correlation between passion and grit was found weaker in those over 50, but both traits were needed for ‘get up and go’. ‘The study also found that across the age groups males had significantly more passion than females, scoring an average of 4.12 compared to 3.85. For grit and mindset the differences between genders were not significant’.
The study’s lead author, Hermundur Sigmundsson of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (Trondheim), said: ‘It’s more difficult to mobilise our grit and willpower, even if we have the passion. Or we may have the grit and willpower but aren’t quite as fired up about it. The correlation between grit and the right mindset diminishes with increasing age. The willpower and belief that we’re getting better aren’t as closely linked any more.’ He then urges people to identify meaningful activities and interests they can bring grit and willpower to and stresses how important it is to ‘ignite the spark, whatever your age’. I couldn’t agree more: lack of spark seems very common but in my view represents more than a step down the road to a geriatric mindset. The article attracted 453 comments, a good number contradicting these findings, eg ‘I am sixty nine and set up my business when I was fifty four, and made a success of what I do. This was after a relatively successful corporate career. I am still working and passionate about what I do, positive and determined’.