Here we are in the first few days of England’s second lockdown and some are already asking ‘what lockdown’? At least in London we’re still seeing heavy traffic on the roads, numerous people walking around and on public transport, non-essential shops open and not a single police officer in sight, let alone the COVID marshalls talked up a few weeks ago but never funded. In contrast, Greece, which entered lockdown today, requires that anyone wanting to go out has to text the authorities in advance.
Although it’s been another eventful week for the UK, no one could ignore what’s been going on across the Atlantic, where a highly fraught election campaign looks like ending in victory for Joe Biden. Not least because of Trump’s allegations of fraud and predictable threat to use the courts to challenge this and overturn that, it’s clear the US needs to improve its broken electoral system. They could start with a measure making it mandatory for candidates to stand by the results, any threat of disregarding them constituting grounds for immediate disqualification. Surely the most undignified and worrying development we’ve seen so far is the bellicose acting out on the part of Trump’s family and supporters, calling openly for ‘war’ on the grounds that the election has been ‘stolen’. Incredulous that the result could go the other way, they resort to denial and inciting hatred, further eroding America’s reputation on the world stage.
US broadcaster NBC said ‘Donald Trump’s speech Thursday showed if he can’t win, he’ll make sure all of America loses. The man who always has to be the alpha is about to be the biggest loser. It’ll likely leave him unhinged, uninhibited and more dangerous than ever before’. But yes! Biden has done it, we finally hear, and let’s hope Trump doesn’t dishonour his country further by sticking to his undignified ‘stolen election’ narrative. Hearty congratulations came flooding in from all over the world, but our PM’s typically delayed message sounded a little cool.
Back in the UK, strange to think a week has passed since the PM’s COVID Statement on 31st October, itself echoing the dither seen during the entire pandemic, via delays from 4 pm, 5 pm, 6 30 pm, finally taking place at 6.45 pm. There was widespread criticism of the misleadingly pessimistic graphs and data in that presentation, not to mention the delivery. As one commentator said, ‘The very small print at the bottom of the graphs presented by Sir Patrick described them as ‘scenarios’ and not predictions. Nevertheless, that is exactly how they will have been taken by many viewers’. People’s fears of a never-ending situation were not allayed by hints of an extension beyond 2 December, again reinforcing what seems to be government and media obsession with Christmas.
Before these could be shut down by the PM during his address to the House of Commons on Monday, there had been numerous pleas to allow golf and tennis to continue and for gyms, pools and places of worship to remain open. There were also robust debates about the wisdom of keeping schools and universities open. The PM didn’t get off lightly, with 98 MPs asking questions. Labour leader Keir Starmer said: ‘At every stage he’s over promised and under-delivered’.
Having been off for half-term, Guardian sketchwriter John Crace was back in the fray this week, having lost none of his gifts for scathing commentary on the PM’s performance. Johnson insisted the virus would be beaten by March. He didn’t say what year. It’s hard to know which is the more bewildering: the fact that we have a prime minister who is both incompetent and unable to distinguish between fact and fiction; or that there are so many Conservative MPs who are consistently taken aback by the failings of their leader. You would have thought by now it would have been 203 times bitten, 204 times shy. But no. This was a subdued Boris. Even by his own standards, this latest U-turn was a humiliation. An admission that he has not just lost control of the coronavirus, he’s lost control of the government. He’s just a piece of flotsam being buffeted around. Not that it stopped him lying, of course. Just that the lies have become progressively more feeble, as if even he has stopped the pretence of believing them’.
It was gratifying to see that a number of MPs’ questions were about the effects on people’s mental health. No surprise that the PM responded with bluster about ‘the millions’ being put in to support mental health charities and the NHS, when the situation ‘on the ground’, is dire, many unable to get help. Besides significant rises in anxiety and depression, exacerbated by diminished trust in our leaders, there’s been a marked rise in eating disorders, and the NHS seems to prioritise a biomedical approach which fails to take account of the patient as a whole. A primary focus on weight gain for anorexic patients means key factors in their condition are being overlooked and not addressed. The findings of one sad death in Cambridgeshire echoed those of four previous cases, the assistant coroner citing factors such as lack of weekend support from the medical team including the psychiatrist, being allocated an ‘inexperienced trainee psychologist’ and a ‘staffing crisis’ at the Eating Disorders Service. Crucially, he identified ‘an absence of a formally commissioned monitoring service in primary or secondary care is the context wherein a number of these deaths have arisen’ – all mental health patients need monitoring but it’s vital for many of those eating disorders.
The media are clearly fishing in an increasingly shallow pool for ministers to appear on programmes, evidenced in very weak performances by Culture Minister Oliver Dowden on Question Time, business minister Nadhim Zahawi on the Today programme and pensions minister Mims Davies on Any Questions. The number of times it’s been wheeled out, it’s clear the Cummings School of Media Training has instructed ministers to repeat the alleged compliment of the International Monetary Fund for the UK’s furlough scheme extension, even if it still omits millions from its net and came too late to prevent many losing their jobs. Dowden had to be challenged several times by Fiona Bruce and Labour’s Lisa Nandy, and when it came to the shambolic test, track and trace system (eg less than 60% contacts traced and flaunting test capacity instead of actual tests), all he could say was (yes, this again) they were ‘ramping up’ testing, citing the only mass testing pilot in Liverpool. Zahawi and Davies were challenged on the furlough extension and the plight of over 3m self-employed people, especially freelancers, who had received no support since March. The most inadequate response heard for some time must be Davies’s recommendation that those concerned should check the benefits calculator on the government’s website and approach their council (yes, those cash-strapped outfits) about ‘discretionary payments’. Someone who had just checked their council’s scheme tweeted that the scheme had ended – no surprise there.
In contrast, some may have welcomed the presence of former PM Tony Blair on the Today programme this week talking about vaccine policy, though he divided opinion – some commending his good sense, articulacy and compelling arguments on policy but others questioning when he became an epidemiologist.
As the mass testing pilot gets underway in Liverpool, pressure continues on the government to remove from Serco the test, track and trace programme, whose head, Dido Harding, is still AWOL and being protected from scrutiny by both government and media. How shaming for the UK that Slovakia’s decision to test its entire population of 5.4 million was considered hugely ambitious but on Monday it was reported that two-thirds had been tested, with 38,359 people, or 1.06%, found to be Covid-positive. Journalist Paul Johnson tweeted: ‘How effective has test and trace been in stopping spread of COVID? ‘It’s not been effective at all. It hasn’t made any difference’ (James Naismith, Professor Structural Biology, Oxford University) -‘We asked to speak to Dido Harding. She was unwilling’. Cost: £12billion’.
Meanwhile, despite ministers’ protestations to the contrary, reports continue of hospitals cancelling or postponing vital surgery and treatment for life-threatening conditions such as cancer because of COVID pressures on their services. New research has shown that delaying cancer treatment by four weeks (and extending the lockdown could make this worse) increases the risk of death by up to 10%. Cancer Research UK estimated that about 12,750 fewer cancer patients had had surgery, 6,000 fewer had received chemotherapy and 2,800 fewer had had radiotherapy due to the postponement of routine NHS care during the pandemic. Last time, people feared catching the virus if they went to hospital and were made to feel they couldn’t call on the NHS. This time, let’s hope the message many will have received from their GP practice is borne out and people get the help they need. ‘Don’t ignore new symptoms. Your GP is here during lockdown to help and can offer telephone, video consultations and at the practice if required’.
This week there’s been yet more focus on the plight of those in case homes and their families, who’ve not been able to visit these residents for months on end, in many instances. Radio 4’s You and Yours featured a heartrending example of Maureen, unable to see her husband, Harry, since even before March, and even window visits were stopped. Many of these residents have dementia and simply cannot understand what’s going on or why their families have stopped visiting. The government cites the risk to residents of people going into homes, yet their own flaunted ‘protective ring’ had COVID patients discharged into these very care homes. As Maureen pointed out, the visitors are likely to be extremely conscientious themselves about avoiding risk, so as not to endanger themselves or residents. Some aspects of the government’s ‘advice’ as to how to deal with this impasse, such as floor to ceiling screens, were dismissed by some as inhumane and unworkable. The daughter of one resident, unable to hold her father for 8 months, said: ‘The care home offers a Zoom call once a week for 20 minutes, but all my dad does is cry… He says: ‘I’m finished here, I want to die.’ Since 12 March, I’ve had two garden visits, one raining the whole time, and two window visits, which were horrendous. All my dad was doing was crying and asking me to come in’.
A senior judge has now challenged government policy and said friends and family can legally visit their loved ones in care homes. Mr Justice Hayden, vice-president of the Court of Protection which makes decisions for people who lack mental capacity, said courts are concerned about the impact on elderly people of lockdowns, setting out an analysis that regulations do “permit contact with relatives” and friends and visits are “lawful”. Politicians and care home managers often seem to wilfully misunderstand media questioning about government policy and cite permission for end of life visits. It’s not enough to only focus on end of life situations –many would regard as unacceptable the failure to properly address the emotional and mental health needs of both families and care home residents, which are aggravated by the current policy. ‘Relatives and residents have become increasingly despairing at a lack of access, with some feeling their loved ones are in effect “imprisoned”. A promise by the care minister Helen Whately on 13 October to start testing relatives to allow them to visit has not been fulfilled’.
Good news for lovers of nature, walking and the environment came this week in the form of the Ramblers Lost Paths project. Shockingly, one enthusiast has identified around 500 paths not on official Ordnance Survey maps, which are in danger of being lost. He and thousands of other volunteers have between them identified almost 49,000 miles of lost paths in England and Wales in the most comprehensive survey to date. ‘These paths are a vital part of our heritage, describing how people have travelled over the centuries within their communities and beyond, yet if they are not claimed for inclusion on the definitive map (the legal record of rights of way) by January 2026, we risk losing them forever. At a time when more than ever, we recognise the importance of being able to easily access green space and connect with nature, it is vital that we create better walking routes to enable everyone to explore the countryside and our towns and cities on foot’. Of course, this is even more important during lockdowns, when gyms, pools and other exercise venues are closed. The Don’t Lose Your Way campaign has drawn in thousands of volunteers and crowdfunding is contributing to its progress, kickstarted by Cotswold Outdoor.
The Guardian’s Upside (which collates examples of cheerful developments during these strange times) reports on a generous project by financial journalist George Nixon, distributing the books he’s finished with, only asking recipients for half the cost of the postage. ‘During the first lockdown I posted pictures of my bookshelves on Twitter and Facebook in case anyone was interested in borrowing any of them, as they don’t do much after I’ve finished reading them. I’ve reposted the original posts from March (I’ve also bought plenty more books since then naturally…) and wondered if you wouldn’t mind helping me get the word out please? They’re all free, I just split the cost of postage with people, and it’d be great to spread the word as far as possible’. As bookshops are closed and libraries may be harder to get to, it’s good to have an alternative to Amazon: George.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, you might like to nominate your heroes of 2020. ‘Some people have led the way, from Marcus Rashford to NHS key workers. But we’d like to hear about the people in your everyday life, whose acts of kindness, or quiet heroism have brought you hope in 2020’ (nomination form in the link below). On this theme, it was pleasing today, having nominated him months ago, to find that our local café owner finally received his community hero certificate from the Council.