As bad news and government blunders continue to come thick and fast, the Office for National Statistics tells us that the latest weekly count of COVID deaths in England and Wales (week ending 6 November) showed a rise of 40%, the highest since May. Taking just one day as an example, Thursday saw 22,915 new cases and 501 deaths and now, shockingly, such figures are almost normalised because we’re so used to hearing them. So called ‘excess deaths’ were shown to be 14.3% higher than the 5 year average for this month, and deaths in hospitals, private homes and care homes were all, predictably, above normal levels. The Times estimates that there have been 74,000 excess deaths across the UK since early March. [‘Excess deaths are considered one of the best measures of the impact of the pandemic, because they will capture deaths that were due to coronavirus but not recognised as such, and deaths indirectly caused by disruption to other healthcare’].
As the fallout from last weekend’s no 10 turmoil continues to make itself felt, the supreme yet highly damaging irony of the PM having to self-isolate because of what was clearly insufficient observance of COVID safety procedures inside Downing Street ensured that, once again, Boris Johnson had a temporary reprieve from his grand ‘reset’ plan and from having to appear in person at Prime Minister’s Questions. His conviction of ‘being as fit as a butcher’s dog’ came in for some derision on social media: one wag tweeting: ‘My local butcher has a cat. Had to get rid of the dog as it kept stealing sausages and disappearing for days’. In the wake of the Scottish devolution blunder, another said: ‘Boris Johnson may be isolating but he can still use Zoom. Instead, he sends out Robert Jenrick, a minister reeking of corruption, to defend his appallingly stupid remarks on devolution. If Johnson is a “butcher’s dog” he’s one that prefers to cower in his kennel’.
The BBC seems to be colluding with the government on shielding Test and Trace head Dido Harding from scrutiny and also avoiding coverage of the staggering £12bn spent on private sector pandemic-related contracts, underpinned by the worst examples of cronyism. Fortunately for us, Channel 4 is made of stronger stuff and its Dispatches revealed (news to some, who maybe don’t read newspapers or follow politics) how extensive and damaging this cronyism has been. Viewers were told of the findings of the parliamentary spending monitor (the National Audit Office): ‘PPE suppliers with political connections were directed to a “high-priority” channel for UK government contracts where bids were 10 times more likely to be successful…More than half (£10.5bn) of contracts relating to the pandemic were awarded without competitive tender…’. The NAO also found that some paperwork documenting why suppliers had been selected was missing, and that in some examples, contracts had only been drawn up after the companies had already started the work.
Having discovered that the main contractor, Serco, had sub-contracted testing to a number of other companies, the presenter was unable to find out from them which companies were involved. So much for transparency when this is public money. Perhaps the most alarming discoveries, though, were made by the undercover reporter at one of the testing labs, Randox, who found very lax procedures in operation, including faulty testing kits and leaking samples, besides evidence (strongly denied by Serco) of private samples being prioritised. An expert biologist invited to comment on operations at the Randox Lab said: ‘The potential for contamination here is quite significant….it’s a shocking failure’.
As one viewer tweeted: ‘We paid a world beating price for a barely functioning Track and Trace. The only thing “world – beating” about this government is the breathtaking corruption and cronyism’. Independent SAGE’s Professor Anthony Costello said : ‘The revelations from C4 Dispatches about failings in test and trace by Randox, Serco, sub-contracted companies and the role played by Harding, Hancock, and the PM are breath-taking. It amounts to criminal negligence, pure and simple’. It therefore beggars belief that Randox was given a further 6 month £347m contract despite some of its failings having come to light. As the days pass, it really does seem that, as far as the government is concerned, anything goes. An example of the seeming obliviousness to standards of conduct in public life was the revelation that the Conservative MP Owen Paterson, paid £100,000 a year to act as a consultant for Randox, was involved in a call between the company and James Bethell, the health minister responsible for COVID testing supplies.
Meanwhile, Brexit negotiations continue to rumble on, neither side seeming to acknowledge that if anyone involved tests positive, as they now have, the negotiations will need to be extended. Likely to rumble on into January and beyond is President Trump’s continuing refusal to concede, an embarrassment not only for him but the entire country. Yet some are seeing signs of concession in Trump’s newly silvery locks – gone is the blond quiff. As widely predicted, Trump seems determined to cause as much disruption as he possibly can before 20 January, still contesting the election result and inciting others to do the same, firing his defence secretary, Mark Esper, and even considering a missile strike on Iran which he had to be ‘talked out of’. No wonder House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said: ‘The abrupt firing of Secretary Esper is disturbing evidence that President Trump is intent on using his final days in office to sow chaos in our American Democracy and around the world’.
Our Prime Minister’s most recent challenge, though, which he has predictably bottled with damaging and seemingly unconsidered consequences, is dealing with the delayed report of the Cabinet Office inquiry into bullying allegations made against Home Secretary Priti Patel. It’s scarcely credible, that having sat on this report for months, the PM has chosen to reject the findings (of evidence she had broken the ministerial code), instead giving her his ‘full support’. What does this remind you of? Such short-termism, aiming for some temporary relief at not having to replace her, is surely likely to have a marked downside: the inquiry head, Sir Alex Allan, immediately resigned; like the Cummings Barnard Castle fiasco it will further reduce compliance with government ‘rules’; and it will convey the message that bullying, which can have catastrophic effects on victims’ mental health, is somehow ok, especially if it’s perceived to ‘get results’. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: ‘Yet again, the prime minister has been found wanting when his leadership has been tested’. As for the suggestion that no official complaints had been made so Patel wasn’t aware she had anything to address, this was scotched by former top civil servant Sir Philip Rutnam, who said he had repeatedly advised her that she must not shout or swear at staff and that she must treat them with respect.
By giving Patel his ‘full support’, the PM has clearly learnt nothing from the Barnard Castle backlash, and his role as ‘sole arbiter’ of the ministerial code is like putting Saddam Hussein in charge of the Nobel Peace Prize. As for Patel’s ‘apology’, the wording was extraordinary, indicating no understanding of bullying. It’s about much more than ‘upsetting people’ – it can affect their mental health to such an extent that suicides have resulted from it. We understand that Conservatives were instructed to rally around the Home Secretary and many have predictably stepped up to that plate, tweeting one after another. This won’t be easy for them, as former Conservative Party co-chair James Cleverly found on Question Time, suggesting that Patel expected people to ‘work hard’, again indicating poor understanding of what bullying actually is. Excusing an act described as ‘unintentional’ flies in the face of recognised criteria, which make clear that the perception of the victim is the crucial factor, not that of the perpetrator. So now the PM ‘considers the matter closed’? Good luck with that.
There’s naturally been much debate in the media about this, some contributors demonstrating further misunderstandings about bullying, excuses including expressing ‘frustration’ is ok because it’s a tough job (no – it’s up to individuals, especially in managerial positions, to self-regulate and not immediately project their anger externally); people need to ‘toughen up’ (ditto, and why should people accept disrespectful treatment?); people are lucky to have a job (implying this means preparedness to put up with anything) and a common one, ‘they’ve always been alright with me’ (no grasp of the specific relational dynamics and power balance, big difference between being an employee, which encourages dependency and a constituent, for example). A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘It’s barely credible that during AntiBullying Week 2020 Boris Johnson has put back by years progress on tackling bullying – by not sacking Priti Patel he’s effectively legitimised workplace bullying’.
The Guardian’s Marina Hyde, in an article trending on Twitter, succinctly calls out some of the discrepancies and disconnects in the Home Secretary’s conduct. ‘While Priti Patel would snitch on you for having seven people in your back garden, we do know she wouldn’t call the police if she saw her neighbours breaking international law – in fact she’d vote for it in the House of Commons…..And she certainly wouldn’t “take personal responsibility” for behaviour for which she was personally responsible. Why bother? It’s certainly not required by her boss, who doesn’t even take personal responsibility for an unspecified number of his own children’.
On the principle of this blog, that this decline in trust leads to further anxiety and the mental health burden, ‘Every case like this chips away at the remaining vestiges of respect people have for politicians…..Priti Patel is, in many ways, the perfect politician for an age when “taking responsibility” means precisely the opposite. It is a great mantra of the right that individuals need to take responsibility for their lives, but this is a government of people who steadfastly refuse to’. Warner also makes the key point that discounting bullying by describing it as ‘unintentional’ has serious consequences for the wider justice system. And the coup de grace: ‘Political public life has become so unmoored from the earthly sphere that ministers need no longer fear the same consequences as the people they are elected to serve. Or, to put it another way: shame is for little people’.
It wouldn’t have come as a surprise to many that amid one U-turn and blunder after another, the government sought to shore up its irreparably damaged image by announcing a massive uplift in defence spending, a four year £16.5bn increase. Such a macho gesture is undermined by the extreme strains on public finances due to the pandemic, the likelihood of billions to be cut from the foreign aid budget, freeze on public sector pay and deciding not to extend the £20-a-week increase to universal credit payments beyond April, despite the pandemic and rising child poverty. The old adage ‘all fur coat and no knickers’ comes to mind. One of the interesting, if strikingly hypocritical, aspects to emerge (pots and kettles?) was Cummings (apparently pro defence spending but anti MOD waste) writing in his blog that the procurement process ‘has continued to squander billions of pounds, enriching some of the worst corporate looters and corrupting public life via the revolving door of officials/lobbyists’.
What caused some amusement at the start of the week, though it’s a serious issue as it constitutes yet another avoidance of scrutiny, was the ending of ministers’ 201 day boycott of Piers Morgan’s Good Morning Britain programme. ‘Where have you been?’ Piers began. Matt Hancock was said to be ‘left squirming’ when Morgan demanded that he resign because of the government’s response to the pandemic. We’re told that Morgan’s lambasting of Hancock generated 84 complaints to media regulator Ofcom. ‘Given that we now have over 50,000 deaths in this country, which is the worst death toll in Europe, why are you still Health Secretary? Why haven’t you handed in your resignation?’ We could well wonder how many more viewers were happy with this interview, since ministers often get such an easy ride on the BBC.
Guardian sketchwriter John Crace laid into Hancock, initially for the GMB interview and not grasping the magnitude of the mismanagement. ‘The health secretary is Boris Johnson’s go-to Door Matt. A person who commands almost as little authority inside the cabinet as he does outside. The harder he tries to become one of the in-crowd, the less respect he gets from his colleagues. The pathos is almost unbearable. He is the loser’s loser. …..With the UK having locked down too late, old people kicked into care homes without a coronavirus test and the UK having the highest death rate in Europe, the health secretary’s one regret was that he hadn’t allowed more people to attend funerals?’ But steady on, John. Matt Hancock had done three interviews before 9 am that day, so perhaps was feeling a bit overwhelmed.
On Hancock’s heading up the press conference later the same day, talking up the recently publicised Moderna vaccine: ‘We have today secured 5m doses’ he said proudly, as the rest of us wondered why Kate Bingham, the head of the vaccine taskforce, had failed to spot Moderna as one of the six most promising drug trials. Presumably, one day we will get an answer from the PR consultants to whom she awarded a £670k contract. These were still early days, Door Matt murmured. But we must nurture the candle of hope, he said, sounding like an Elton John tribute act. The Prime Minister self-isolating was a sign that the rules applied to everyone, he said, overlooking that if Boris had obeyed the face mask and 2-metre rules when meeting Conservative MPs then he almost certainly wouldn’t have needed to self-isolate in the first place’.
Not content with this, Crace then turned his attention to his other favourite target, the Prime Minister and his debut PMQs performance delivered via Zoom. ‘Boris appeared in front of a hastily erected Downing Street backdrop in what sounded like an echoey basement – either that or no one had thought to provide the crumpled Boris with a microphone and he had had to make do with his infant son Wilf’s baby alarm. Whichever it was, I’ve seen more professionally shot hostage videos’. Prime Minister’s Questions sounded to have been rather lacklustre on both sides, Keir Starmer preoccupied by the ongoing Jeremy Corbyn issues. Crace thought it only really came to life when the questions about PPE contract cronyism visibly rattled the PM. ‘So it had only been thanks to Tory ministers and MPs coming through with names of friends of friends who might be able to help out for a sweetener of a few million that the country had been saved. If only Labour MPs had shown an equal willingness to compromise their ethics and come up with some suppliers who would fail to supply usable equipment then the UK might have survived the pandemic even more successfully’.
Debate on the plight of people unable to visit residents in care homes continues, especially given the approach of Christmas and with many unable to visit since March. The government guidance is regarded by many as inhumane and impracticable, those distressed residents with dementia unable to understand why their families aren’t visiting them. What’s been particularly highlighted is the effects on the mental health both of residents and their families, many having seen the resident deteriorate considerably between visits, if these are allowed at all. Radio 4’s You and Yours consumer programme has regularly featured heartrending interviews with family members and there’s also been the high profile case of police involvement where a woman removed her mother from a care home. Of course the government should be concerned about spreading the virus if visits are freely allowed, but this is an overreaction from their declared stance of having thrown ‘a protective ring around our care homes’ early in the pandemic when potentially COVID infected patients were being discharged from hospital into those homes.
This once again raises the problems associated with many of these homes being in the private sector and not being indemnified (unlike NHS services) by their insurance policies should a COVID outbreak occur. Fortunately, the government finally seems to be planning how visits could take place by Christmas by facilitating visitor testing. Let’s hope this actually happens generally, not just in pilot areas. Fiona Carragher, research officer at the Alzheimer’s Society, said: ‘…But we worry it is too little too late for the desperate families who have been waiting eight months to visit their loved ones. The promise of care home visitors being at the front of the line to get more ring-fenced tests as the new ones become available must fast become reality. We can’t afford for the heartache and deaths to continue’.
Meanwhile, there’s been a great deal happening on the vaccines front, the Moderna one sounding a bit more promising in some ways a it doesn’t need keeping at such low temperatures. But it sounds likely, as the government has only secured a proportion of the doses needed, that we will be relying on a portfolio of vaccines, all with pros and cons. Bringing up the rear very quickly, by the sound of it, is the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine, which could also be available ‘in limited quantities’ before the end of this year. But, despite the Health Secretary’s bullish confidence that he’s ‘tasked’ the NHS with devising an implementation strategy within the next three weeks, there’s the usual hallmark of ministers’ assumptions and a number of GPs have voiced serious concerns about their capacity to roll out the vaccine as well as keeping up with their other NHS work. A Bristol GP, Zara Aziz, said: ‘And if we start inoculating patients as early as next month, we GPs will be busier than ever. As we navigate uncharted waters, the government needs to take a proactive approach alongside NHS staff for this to work and end the pandemic’. This gets the message across: it’s not enough for Matt Hancock to say ‘I’ve tasked the NHS….I know they can do it’, etc: GPs need government help to achieve this, not just a arm’s length approach which can later lend itself to blaming NHS staff if it doesn’t go according to plan.
Christmas and what to do about restrictions continue to divide opinion, some focusing on the mental health effects of lockdown and that older relatives could suffer much from not seeing their families, and others seeing this as folly, Christmas doesn’t matter that much and we should postpone celebrations till the pandemic is more under control. Now an Opinium poll for the Observer has found that the pro-lockdown argument is prevailing, 54% over 33%. The same poll suggests another split, this one on whether COVID vaccinations should be compulsory: 42% for and 45% against, Two thirds (66%) of adults in the UK would take a vaccine if it became available and were recommended by the government for people like them.
We’re told that 42 vaccination centres will be opening and that the government is actively working to tackle antivax misinformation, but it seems they are stopping short of taking down offending websites. It’s alarming the number of people who subscribe to conspiracy theories about these vaccines: on Radio 5 Live this week there was a useful programme featuring clinicians who debunked one after another, several callers having been convinced that the vaccine ‘changes your DNA’. But the main concern isn’t primarily these people, according to one article, but the one in 5 who are naturally cautious, ‘women more likely than men to believe it hasn’t been tested thoroughly enough’. ‘What really keeps public health experts awake at night isn’t a handful of people convinced that Bill Gates wants to inject them with invisible microchips, nor the Russian bots now amplifying their loopy theories. It’s the ‘vaccine hesitants’…’
Let’s hope some of the vast sums spent on tackling the pandemic can allocated to producing high quality patient information which does what it should – explaining in Plain English the benefits, risks and side effects so that patients are enabled to make an informed choice.
If you haven’t heard it you might be interested that there’s another succinct and timely profile of a public figure on Radio 4 – the Prime Minister’s new Press Secretary, Allegra Stratton, who’s been one of the victors of the recent number 10 turmoil. She does indeed sound very able but yet again this demonstrates the intertwined nature of political alliances, eg married to the political editor of the Spectator, their best man was Rishi Sunak and they’re godparents to each other’s children.
On a lighter note, The Week references an article in The Economist about the slowing down of the traditional brand globalisation, one bellwether being that ‘no new country has welcomed McDonald’s in four years’. Now apparently there’s a new form of globalisation, the ‘hipster index’, produced by the shipping company MoveHub. Based on ‘design aesthetic’ such as ‘exposed wood and vintage light bulbs’, it’s often manifested in coffee shops, vegan restaurants and independent boutiques. The article points up predictable locations like Brighton, ‘but, judging by the rise of hip coffee shops in places like Kabul, it may only be a matter of time before even ‘conflict-ridden’ cities make the grade’.
Finally, in January an intriguing project will get underway, in which research centres across Europe will collaborate to ‘develop an online encyclopaedia of European smells, including potted biographies of particular odours, together with insights into the emotions and places associated with certain scents’. Many of us will have had the Proustian experience of suddenly being transported back in time because of associations with that time being catalysed by something we’re smelling or sensing in the present. The project recognises how many smells alluded to in literature accrue to items no longer available to us. ‘A key part of the project is to highlight how the meanings and uses of different smells have changed over time, something that shows in the history of tobacco’. ‘Odeuropa’, to cost E2.8m, aims ‘to identify and even recreate the aromas that would have assailed noses between the 16th and early 20th centuries. That information will be used to develop an online encyclopaedia of European smells, including potted biographies of particular odours, together with insights into the emotions and places associated with certain scents. It will [also] include discussions of particular types of noses from the past – the kinds of people for whom smell was significant and what smell meant to them’. Fascinating stuff and two which immediately come to mind are the smell of old books and decaying paper, as witnessed in traditional libraries, these days a rarity, and the whiff of French cigarettes on the Paris Metro.