Friday’s announcement of 504 new deaths and 16,298 new COVID cases must make us wonder whether lockdown has worked, although many believe it’s never been a ‘proper’ lockdown. This week Boris Johnson had his work cut out trying to quell the threatened rebellion to the post-lockdown restrictions regulations, Tory rebels demanding to see the evidence for the revised tier system which now has only three areas in Tier 1. Predictably, they were disappointed, one saying the 48 page assessment was just data they’d seen before, and 55 of the original 70 complainants rebelled. The measures were passed but despite some ministers’ efforts to present this as a good result, a rebellion of that magnitude is a cause for concern for the government.
As restaurants, non-essential shops, hairdressers and nail bars sprang to life once more, Wales was again re-enters a period of restrictions and some in large Tier 3 locations like Kent were up in arms at being lumped together with far more seriously affected areas. ‘The assessment stated that it is “not possible to know with any degree of confidence” whether the economy will be better or worse off without the tiering restrictions’. Yet again, it captures the conflict between avoiding higher death statistics and intolerable pressure on the NHS and avoiding crippling the economy, already predicted by the Office for Budget Responsibility to be 11% smaller by the end of the year.
The news agenda was justifiably dominated by updates on the COVID 19 vaccines, primarily the German Pfizer/BioNTech one, which the UK medicines regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, approved for use ahead of the EU regulator, the European Medicines Agency. Meanwhile, the EMA said on Tuesday that it might not reach a decision until the end of December, which would make the start of vaccination programmes across Europe unlikely before 2021. Some are concerned that business minister Nadhim Zahawi has also been made a health minister with the responsibility of rolling out the vaccine, because a crucial aspect is logistics, leading to concerns that there could be further crony contracts in the pipeline. However the distribution and delivery operation is managed, it needs to be super-smart, as Interpol has warned that, based on evidence of behaviours demonstrated during the pandemic, organised crime gangs are likely to attempt infiltration of the supply chain. These gangs have apparently changed their strategy to address new ‘opportunities’, including targeting government loan schemes, selling fake testing kits and defrauding people via fake test and trace messages. It’s critical, then, that vaccine logistics must not be subjected to Chris Grayling style bungling or cronyism.
At least in more mature quarters, early jubilation regarding vaccines development has been tempered by the realisation that logistical issues, especially post-Brexit, could hinder progress and that there are still many unknowns, so we shouldn’t idealise the vaccine in the way many media channels seem to be encouraging. The UK’s chief medical officers have warned that the vaccine will have only a marginal impact on hospital admissions over the next three months and that the festive season is likely to put additional pressure on health services. NHS staff have been asked to brace themselves for an ‘especially hard’winter. As if they haven’t already had to brace themselves enough.
During a discussion about vaccine ‘hesitants’ and the plan to have politicians getting the vaccine live on tv, Professor Robert West of University College London came out with this classic understatement on Saturday’s Today programme: ‘…politicians aren’t always the most trusted of people’. Too right. A key point has again come up several times this week: that the government is now reaping what it has sewn all along via lack of transparency, as mistrust is contributing directly to vaccine hesitation. One example is a series of angry tweets and emails to BBC5 Live coverage about tackling conspiracy theories, clearly demonstrating the link between lack of trust in the government and vaccine scepticism. Another example was via Noreen Khan, director of Tweetneesie, a platform for enabling single mothers with information and resources in order to counter misinformation within communities. She highlighted the lack of trust in government, like others stating it like a matter of fact, no longer just of opinion. Unlike Germany, the government has kept people in the dark throughout, the only ‘levelling with the public’ being on hints of future tax hikes and the like.
The difficulties which could dog the vaccination programme haven’t yet filtered through to ministers, who have long been desperate to prove the UK is good at something and has done something first. That the UK has been the first to approve this vaccine (prematurely, according to some experts) has given rise to embarrassing triumphalism in government circles, revealing determination finally to be ‘world beating’ in something, taking credit for something not of the UK’s making. Cue a retinue of ministers then claiming that this approval could only have happened because of Brexit and having left the EU, starting with Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg and Health Secretary Matt Hancock, followed up by Alok Sharma and most embarrassingly, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. Sharma had grandiosely tweeted that ‘in years to come we will remember this moment as the day the UK led humanity’s charge against this disease’. Just when you thought government blunders couldn’t get any worse, Williamson carried on digging: ‘I just reckon we’ve got the very best people in this country and we’ve obviously got the best medical regulator, much better than the French have, much better than the Belgians have, much better than the Americans have. That doesn’t surprise me at all because we’re a much better country than every single one of them’.
The blistering pen of Guardian sketch writer John Crace hasn’t rested this week, focusing on his regular targets, the PM and Matt Hancock, but also this week adding Gavin Williamson to the mix. On Thursday Williamson was doing the media rounds, starting with a feeble interview on Radio 4’sToday programme, talking for some time about the strategy on exams without saying anything of substance. Leading up to coverage of the disastrous vaccine comments on LBC’s Nick Ferrari show, Crace described him as ‘a manchild who has yet to move up to secondary school level and whose career since winning Fireplace Salesman of the Year two years running in 2006 and 2007 has been a mystery to us all….Just think about the level of stupidity for a moment. Not only does Williamson have no firsthand knowledge of other country’s medical regulators – don’t forget he is also the education secretary who failed to spot in March that the coronavirus pandemic would have knock on consequences with the cancellation of school exams – he is seemingly unaware that Pfizer is a US company and that the vaccine is being produced in Belgium’.
Pressed again by Ferrari if he was actually saying that Brexit had given the UK an advantage, he didn’t take the opportunity to row back, seemingly unable to resist the temptation to position his government above others implied to be slacking. ‘I think just being able to get on with things, deliver it and the brilliant people in our medical regulator making it happen means that people in this country are going to be the first in the western world – in the world – to get that Pfizer vaccine’. You have to wonder at his level of political nous in making such assertions, oblivious to the embarrassment he was causing this country. England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, ‘seen as just about the only person in the country the public trusts for independent advice’ was then seen as conducting a damage limitation exercise. ‘He immediately trashed Williamson by saying no one should read anything much into the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency being the first to license the vaccine. Other countries were also working round the clock and he expected some of them to give their approval long before a needle had been jabbed into any Brit’s arm’.
Crace then turns to his regular target, the Health Secretary, who he sees as one of the few now prepared to be wheeled out to front press conferences and the like. ‘Inevitably it was Matt Hancock who was yet again delegated to do the front-of-house gig at No 10 [Monday]. The Health Secretary has long since resigned himself to doing all the jobs that no one else will. That’s why he’s the Door Matt; the ideal fall guy for a press conference at which the government has almost nothing much to say. And what he did have to say didn’t really stand up to much scrutiny….. But Door Matt is nothing if not willing and he’s never been afraid to fill 10 minutes of dead air with 10 minutes of dead words…… “Hope is on the horizon,” he concluded. As was the light of dawn. It’s going to be one hell of a horizon when it finally appears. Our sacrifices would not be for nothing. If it’s any consolation to the Health Secretary, Boris Johnson is no more convincing when he’s going through his own repertoire of sub-Churchillian bollocks. It would be nice for once to have a politician who just radiated honesty, rather than ones that substituted grandstanding for sincerity…. You could tell he was floundering because he lapsed into his default management consultancy speak. The type of language for which you get paid £600 per hour for saying precisely nothing at all’.
The week couldn’t go by, though, without covering his main target, the PM, who he’s now christened ‘Major Sulk’. What with ‘Door Matt’ and ‘Major Sulk’ you have to wonder if the targets’ ‘people’ are keeping an eye on the critics and either shielding them from the opprobrium or ensuring they know about it. In a piece titled ‘Boris misjudges the mood as mind wanders to petty point scoring’, Crace describes how relatively ‘cautious’ the PM initially was at Prime Minister’s Questions: ‘And at first it seemed – unusual, I know – that Johnson was taking a serious question seriously’. But this couldn’t last. ‘Instead, he went on the attack by accusing Keir of having failed to support the government in its new coronavirus measures the previous day. This was the real Boris. Major Sulk unable to let go of any resentment. He’d gone through the charade of doing the statesman bit and wanted to squeeze in the few third-rate gags he had prepared that morning….. He used to be Captain Hindsight,” Johnson blundered on. “Now he’s General Indecision.” If nothing else it was an act of insubordination coming from Major Sulk’. Such a lack of dignity and gravitas is truly embarrassing in any minister, let alone the Prime Minister. Again, some will shudder, wondering again what the foreign media are making of it. So much for our oft-vaunted position on the world stage.
If anyone thought all the examples of cronyism had now been identified and called out, they were premature, since today it’s emerged that Carrie Symonds’s close friend, Nimco Ali, was given a £350 a day government contract which wasn’t openly advertised. We can surmise that the role of adviser on tackling violence against women and girls would have attracted a good pool of potential candidates who weren’t given the chance to apply. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘Surely the strangest thing about cronyism is the government’s assumption, despite social media and investigative journalism, that it won’t be found out. Now Carrie Symonds in the frame, which will put Boris Johnson on an even more sticky wicket’. Another case for Jolyon Maugham’s Good Law Project to get stuck into? Meanwhile, Sophie E Hill, a Harvard University PhD student of government, has produced a visualisation of the connections between those awarded contracts and Tory politicians and donors. It packs quite a punch seeing it in this format. Take a look at https://bit.ly/2VFKw7x
And there’s further coverage of this issue below.
Other important news will increase public anxiety further: the prospect of thousands more job losses as the Arcadia empire falls into administration and huge uncertainty caused by the absence so far of any Brexit deal. Arcadia boss Sir Philip Green (called an ‘asset stripper, not a retailer’ by a former employee) came under fire once more, especially since it doesn’t look as if he will use his considerable wealth to honour the company’s pension liabilities. With the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier in London again, talks on a post-Brexit trade deal are said to be ‘at a very difficult stage’ (so what’s new?), the sticking points continuing to be fishing rights and sovereignty.
I recently came across a blog by Chris Grey, Emeritus Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, who has won plaudits from commentators and journalists, such as ‘Best guy to follow on Brexit for intelligent analysis’ and ‘By far one of the best analysts of Brexit’. His latest post starts with the observation: ‘It’s now less than a month, and less than 20 working days, until a massive change in the way that the UK trades with and relates to its own continent, and in many ways to the rest of the world as well. It is truly remarkable how little public discussion of that there has been, and what there has been has almost entirely focused on the ongoing ‘deal or no deal’ question largely ignoring just how much will change in either scenario and what either scenario will cost (£)’. Although someone took issue about this today, I absolutely agree with Chris as there seems to have been very little public education about the issues, hence the number of ill-informed people calling into phone-ins, irate about either the EU’s or the UK’s intransigence.
‘As for relative lack of discussion of what the end of the transition will mean, the Covid crisis has obviously been a big reason for that, but there’s more to it than that. Some people actually believed that the UK left the EU immediately after the referendum. Many more will not have understood that when the UK did leave, at the end of last January, the transition period masked most of the practical effects of doing so’. Grey goes on to analyse the various lies politicians purveyed, for example suggesting that despite such a massive change inherent in Brexit, everything would somehow remain the same, such as a ‘free trade zone’ and Freedom of Movement ending for some but not others. He takes the words out of my mouth on the issue of how the EU wasn’t ‘sold’ to us, so perhaps it’s hardly surprising that the Leave Campaign had such a fertile ground for their exhortations and fibs. ‘To put all this another way, it is a very legitimate criticism of pro-EU British politicians and commentators that they did virtually nothing to promote and build consensus for it in the decades of UK membership’.
On a lighter note, it’s clear just how much many enjoyed and benefited from artist Grayson Perry’s Channel 4 series earlier this year – Grayson’s Art Club – which saw thousands of people getting creative during lockdown and producing all manner of quirky works of art. It was all very heart-warming and inspiring and you didn’t need to be artistic to appreciate it. What a long time it feels since then. This week many enjoyed the follow-up, showing preparations for the exhibition based on Grayson’s pick of the pieces. Unfortunately, the opening at Manchester Art Gallery coincided with the second lockdown, but no doubt many will be getting along to see it when the time feels right. One viewer tweeted: ‘Thanks to Grayson and all who contributed to Grayson’s Art Club – I think it’s really connected people (within themselves & with each other) through difficult times (& has been great TV). Can’t wait to see the exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery’. Another said: ‘What an utter joy Grayson’s Art Club is – so moving, inspiring & life affirming. Thank you.’ Yet another flagged up the importance of art, whether or not we’ve had a hand in it ourselves. ‘What an exceptional exhibition. Everyone should be so proud. What a wonderful display of talent, passion and commitment. Really moving to see it. Art restores us whether you create or experience it’. The link’s below in case you missed it.
On an amusing but also serious note, as Christmas fever starts to gain a foothold in some quarters, we learn that Santas might be in short supply this year. The reason? Characteristics associated with Santa include being an older man and overweight, perhaps with underlying health conditions, all high COVID risk factors and some of the regulars have decided to hang up their sleighs this year. Others, who usually make between 75 and 100 ‘appearances’ every Christmas, have only agreed to two this year. ‘And while Santas, like drug dealers, tend to have a loyal and delighted fanbase, they still need to look out for number one’. Some are migrating to virtual appearances, one observing: “I’m more likely to be alive in January’. If I wasn’t approaching the high risk age group myself I’d be tempted to offer my services (I’d have to attach some padding) as I’ve always fancied myself as a Father Christmas – ho ho ho!
Based on recent analysis of food habits during the pandemic, it sounds as if Santas aren’t the only ones needing to be concerned about expansion. The Guardian’s consumer affairs correspondent tells us that although consumption of fruit and vegetables rose across Europe, ‘comfort-seeking Britons have eaten and drunk their way through more unhealthy snacks, alcohol and ‘tasty treats’ than their peers elsewhere in Europe’. The findings emerged from a study carried out by a consortium of leading European universities, led by Aarhus University in Denmark and ten countries were surveyed: Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Romania, Spain, Sweden and the UK. There were several very positive findings, though, such as more than a third (35%) saying buying locally produced food had become more important to them during the pandemic and 87% reporting that they were very likely to continue supporting local shops.
Finally, on its consumer page, The Week tells us where to find ‘unusual online courses’, including a wilderness bushcraft course, two hour sessions on clowning skills from the Online Clown Academy (tutor one B Johnson?), learning how to whistle with your fingers (always wanted to do that) and YouTube’s LockPickingLawyer, comprising hundreds of videos explaining ‘how to open all sorts of locks, including padlocks and even safes’. Plenty to keep us occupied for months on end, unless the police find a way of taking the lock picking channel down first! The US-based ‘lawyer’ cautions: It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: do not use any of the information presented in my videos for illegal purposes’.