With 586 Covid deaths registered on Friday and dire warnings of a new and highly contagious strain of the virus wreaking havoc in London and the South East (thought to be 62% of cases in London), the Prime Minister has now, after weeks of dithering, restricted Christmas relaxation of restrictions to one day in England and done away with it altogether in large part of the South East. This is the14th U-turn, on a situation which could have been predicted and planned for some weeks ago, some European countries having made similarly stark decisions much sooner. This latest press conference nevertheless still comes as a shock, not only for those who have to cancel their plans but also for those only allowed now to meet one other person outside. And for how long will this continue? The review scheduled for 30 December may well just keep things the same. Social media were on fire after this press conference, Alastair Campbell capturing the mood and tweeting: ‘Worst possible Prime Minister and worst possible government at the worst possible time?’ Some commented on how again Keir Starmer’s predictions had come to pass: ‘Starmer’s proved to be Captain Foresight, not Hindsight. Again’. Some picked up on the illogical elements of this scenario: ‘Long, long overdue, but at least the 5-day madness of relaxation is binned. Effectively it’s lockdown for the new tier 4. However, to allow Midnight Mass and other communal services when all other gatherings are outlawed is totally stupid. Hopefully, churchgoers won’t go’.
We shouldn’t be surprised at these last minute developments, though. Statistics for England show there are now 15,465 patients in hospital with Covid – more than at any other time during the second wave that began in September. The most alarming thing is that this exceeds the previous second wave peak, recorded prior to the current surge, of 14,712 patients recorded on 23 November, but is less than the record 18,974 seen on 12 April. There is some debate about this as one source last night said the current rate was higher than April’s. Whichever, a most concerning situation, yet there are still Covid deniers in evidence and quite a number not wearing a mask on public transport and in shops.
Immediately after the announcement the Guardian starkly outlined the Tier 4 restrictions – more than some of us might have expected. Later on the media showed footage of hundreds of people crowding into mainline railway stations in an effort to beat the deadline- this alone will obviously cause some spreading. Yet another thing that’s not been thought about – when asked where the police are in all this a Police Federation spokesman on Radio 4 said they didn’t have powers to enter people’s homes and why had nothing been said about police officers being amongst the first to be vaccinated? A good point, as high numbers are already on sick leave and their work does bring them into contact with the public.
This Christmas conundrum raises a number of issues and questions, including whether ministers and public figures, having exhorted the public not to travel, will themselves be travelling to their second homes more than likely in a lower tier. An article in the Guardian featured the Christmas plans of various experts, which mostly can still stand despite the Tier 4 shock. Professor Danny Altmann, Professor of Immunobiology at Imperial College London, captured the mood of all contributors regarding minimising the risk: ‘So we’ll be doing anything that’s compatible with a safe, socially distanced Xmas: no mixing of bubbles with other households, and all socialising beyond our immediate family will be by Zoom’. Professor Stephen Griffin, Associate professor at Leeds University’s School of Medicine, didn’t mince his words: ‘Just because you can do something it doesn’t mean you need to. Frankly, five days of mixing indoors with multiple households is bonkers’.
Another question raised by 2020 Christmas is how much the reluctance to change plans reflects an inability or unpreparedness of some to be alone? Solitude and learning to be alone are important skills to acquire on the route to mature adulthood and not to be conflated with loneliness. That said, the latest restrictions will be a tall order for many, as the ‘Christmas is only a day’ mantra is no longer the case – this could go on and on. An interesting newspaper review has a classic quote from an Observer columnist: ‘The right decision – made at the wrong time and in the wrong way’. Instead of headlines screaming ‘Christmas is cancelled’ there could be an acknowledgement and encouragement to seek a different kind of Christmas, so I hope there’s some content to this effect in the press. It seems right, though, that the Mail asks ‘Will this nightmare ever end?’ No wonder Nicola Sturgeon feels ‘like crying’ as she imposes yet another set of restrictions.
Two fifths of doctors surveyed by the British Medical Association said they were not confident about their department’s ability to cope with Covid patients this winter. Amid NHS warnings about the service’s ability to cope with demand this winter, exacerbated by Christmas, head of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson, said: ‘We’ve talked about a perfect storm… I certainly feel that we’re probably headed towards that – and in many places we’ve now reached the leading edge of that storm’. I don’t quite see how the ‘stay-at-home message will be enshrined in law’, though, as Parliament is now in recess.
The latter part of the week was marked by the government’s sudden decision, after schools had already broken up, for all secondary school children to be tested during the first week of January. This caused extreme consternation amongst teachers and others, as the guidance won’t even be issued till next week and the infrastructure will have to be supplied by the schools themselves, meaning many heads and others will have to work over Christmas. Schools Minister, a rather glib Nick Gibb, took a leaf out of Matt Hancock’s book on the Today programme during a spiky interview by presenter Mishal Husain, becoming indignant when questioned on details not addressed, for example the DBS procedure for vaccination volunteers. ‘This is a national effort’, he kept repeating, omitting to say whether ministers would also be working over Christmas. There’s an attitude with such ministers that despite all their bungling incompetence of the last year they somehow expect the public to be grateful to them and are miffed when instead they’re asked challenging questions. Teachers are said to be exhausted and desperately need a break, yet this looks unlikely at least for school heads.
Meanwhile, Brexit negotiations rumble on and no one can be surprised that last Sunday wasn’t the deadline after all. It’s becoming increasingly clear that our PM doesn’t actually want a deal, despite professing the opposite. Despite being in between another rock and hard place regarding his party’s views on the subject, he could well pull something out of the hat at the midnight hour, a poor deal dressed up to look good to the gullible. Lord Heseltine castigated the government’s stance. ‘Sovereign, in charge, control regained. None of that creates a single job, one pound’s worth of investment or any rise in living standards. We will have risked our trading relationship with the world’s largest market on our doorstep, which accounts for nearly half our imports and exports….Yet we are constantly told of a glorious tomorrow. All that is missing is a shred of evidence or a single fact’.
He calls out the ‘Australia type deal ‘propaganda, aka World Trade Organisation terms and for the sheer lack of principle and preparation. ‘No one can blame the government for the Covid crisis, which, in any case, may be at last seriously diminished by the vaccine. But Covid has acted as a curtain behind which, unseen, Brexit has crept closer. The government has greeted this crisis in the traditional Whitehall-knows-best way, underpinned by vast quantities of borrowing money’. Heseltine doesn’t blame the government for making mistakes, as all of them will, he says, but he finds unforgivable that ‘they are guilty of something worse: knowingly taking their country down a rocky road’. And his coup de grace: ‘My hope is that, by the time you read this, common sense will have prevailed and both sides will have drawn back from the abyss. But if the prime minister has been forced to remain inflexible by hardliners at his shoulder, then he will have failed his test of leadership. We will pay the price’. Oof!
As usual, Guardian sketch writer John Crace has worked hard this week, deconstructing the performances of his regular targets, the PM and Matt Hancock (‘Door Matt’). He seems to have a particular preoccupation with Hancock’s cognitive dissonance. Having initially seen him as a politician with integrity, now shot to hell following his submission to the Johnson regime, career opportunism has been seen to triumph over the principles of the former Remainer. ‘There was a time early in the pandemic when Matt appeared to be one of the few members of the cabinet to act with integrity. Someone who was prepared to call out the prime minister’s rubbish about the coronavirus being all over in three months’….. But sometime around the summer, Hancock’s nerve failed him. Though never sinking to the level of Jacob Rees-Mogg, who had earlier today criticised Unicef for feeding hungry British children, maintaining his job became more important than telling the truth. Matt became Door Matt. Another piece of Westminster flotsam. He didn’t stand up for the Sage advice recommending a circuit breaker in September. And he allowed himself to stand by an initial tiering system that he knew would be inadequate. And now it seems as if he’s managed to convince himself of the virtues of the new improved tiering system….Because if there were delays in the vaccine and people’s personal responsibility couldn’t fill the vacuum in the government’s own regulatory system, then there was sure to be hell to pay in January and February’.
Crace’s piece on the Prime Minister will seem more ironic now, given the announcements, devastating for many, about Christmas and Tier 4 at his Saturday press conference. Describing his performance at the last Prime Minster’s Questions of the year, he observed: ‘A narcissistic opportunist chancer, who is only on nodding terms with reality and has been sacked at least twice for lying. Even as Johnson was speaking, Wales was upgrading its Christmas guidance into law. Yet the prime minister has so little sense of personal responsibility either to himself or the nation that he is incapable of reviewing a promise he made last month in the light of new scientific evidence. He knows what the right thing to do is, but is incapable of doing it. We now have Pontius Boris. A leader who has washed his hands of the difficult decisions. He had told people to have a shorter, safer “merry little Christmas” and he believed his job was done. If more people died, then it was their own stupid fault. Come January and February, there may well be a reckoning’. Alarmingly, there will still be a reckoning despite the latest U-turn, as there’s plenty of evidence of people not intending compliance with the latest diktats. One tweet which said ‘If you want to see your family on Xmas day just bloody go. Life is too short to let this clown tell you how to live’ got 1.9k likes. Will there be road blocks set up to interrogate travellers? And officialdom at railway stations and coach stations?
Crace goes on to tell us: ‘Then Johnson went completely rogue. “We have always followed the science,” he insisted. Apart from the times when he hasn’t. Most scientists wanted to go into lockdown sooner in March. They also wanted a further short lockdown in September. And they sure as hell don’t want the five-day Christmas killing zone that the government has set its heart upon. Even more bizarrely, Boris acted as if both the lockdowns the country has been put in were nothing to do with him, and were all the fault of the namby pamby Labour leader. I guess Johnson is often as surprised as the rest of us that he is actually in charge of the country’.
In charge? This reminds me of the old expression ‘You’ve got to laugh, or you’d cry…’. Some of us have been having a bit of fun on Twitter, along the lines of Larry the 10 Downing Street cat, often ‘pictured’ behind the lectern, taking charge of government and doing a better job than the present incumbents. Not for nothing has the philosopher John Gray recently written about the wisdom of cats. People often tweet pictures of their cats, doing something clever or mischievous, meanwhile affecting an appearance of supreme innocence, although some don’t look beneath serious skulduggery. So I’ve tagged suitable cat owners with the suggestion that their cat might be candidate for an alternative government. I can just see the headlines now: ‘Cabinet of cats – while Boris Johnson’s beleaguered and discredited government slumbers over Christmas an alternative cabinet has been quietly working behind the scenes in preparations for a New Year coup’. Stranger things have happened…..
Numerous public figures have died recently, mostly of natural causes, this week the esteemed writer John le Carre. Journalist Jonathan Freedland captured why this feels important, suggesting that it’s not only related to his status as a major literary figure but because when we mourn the loss of public figures we mourn our own loved ones too. This is relevant for all times but especially now, after so many thousands have died from the virus this year without public acknowledgement and only limited private marking of their passing. Freedland read every obituary he could and describes a lunch with le Carre which he was summoned to some years ago without knowing the reason why. ‘Writer of spy novels doesn’t capture it: Le Carré was one of the giants of postwar English literature, a master of his chosen form and an exceptional prose stylist. He had an ear for the dialect of the governing classes of this country, perfectly tuned to their evasions, their deceits, their melancholy…..’. Freedland also commends his ‘deep moral sense’, antipathy to Brexit and ‘ability to walk moral high wires…without losing balance’, giving as examples condemnation of Israeli militarism at the same time as denouncing Labour’s anti-Semitism and exposing ‘the hypocrisies of the West whilst not overlooking the cruelties of the Soviet East’. I’ve personally never been attracted to espionage literature but perhaps I will try a Le Carre at some point, having read this powerful description of his place in our literary canon.
Media interviews this week with Sir Michael Marmot, (Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London and Director of The UCL Institute of Health Equity) have been very timely. His recent work, Build Back Fairer, focuses on what needs to happen in the wake of the pandemic. Taking the lead from the government’s mantra of Build Back Better, this report, following up earlier work, stresses the need for fairness: ‘The levels of social, environmental and economic inequality in society are damaging health and wellbeing’. The report seeks to explore social and mortality inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic and to urge the government to address these and their deleterious effects on our physical and mental health. Earlier Marmot reports had recommended six major interventions: Give every child the best start in life; enable all children, young people and adults to maximise their capabilities and have control over their lives; create fair employment and good work for all; ensure a healthy standard of living for all; create and develop healthy and sustainable places and communities; and strengthen the role and impact of ill health prevention. We have to wonder what progress has even been made on these recommendations, let alone new ones, but let’s hope this latest work is able to make some headway with policymakers.
Since the pandemic started the Guardian has been publishing its Upside weekly supplement, focusing on positive experiences and initiatives and now we’re given an overview of 2020, with some quite inspiring stories from all over the world. At a time when so much has been lost, these stories tell us what’s been gained, including a newly found pleasure in nature, changing relationships, more enjoyment of solitude and quiet, benefits gained via Zoom and one was thankful for the time to ‘plumb’ his ‘spiritual depths’. A correspondent from South Africa offered the following sobering lessons, as ‘our global and local society is unjust and broken and must be fixed.
• Each one of us has a (small) part to play to help heal our nations
• People do really care and want to share and support each other
• Greed is wasteful and over-consumption is ugly – less is definitely more
• Truthful leadership is in short supply and much of political power is misplaced
• The media feeds diversity and confrontation through fake noise created
• Being “isolated” calms and rewards
• Family and friends are what truly matters
• This is an excellent time to reset oneself
Finally, I want to recommend a series in the World Drama section of All 4’s (accessible via Channel 4) Walter Presents channel. Excellent though many are, it’s sometimes good to get away from crime series and Seaside Hotel is described as ‘a richly detailed period Danish drama from Walter Presents – a hotel is hotbed of intrigue’. It shows the interactions and machinations of a group of well off holiday makers who visit this hotel year after year, and the often charming relationships between the staff, apart from the unsavoury owner, who runs the place in a tyrannical way. What’s a tonic in itself is the summer setting and the marvellous scenery, sand dunes and miles of deserted beach just yards from the hotel (well, it is supposed to be 1928). Dark undertones are felt almost immediately, as one eccentric guest, who has brought his radio with him, mutters ominously after news bulletins about some banks’ finances being in a precarious state, perhaps foreshadowing the Wall Street crash. Watching these summery scenes when it’s dark and rainy outside has proved a bit of a much-needed tonic.
Festive greetings to all, thanks for reading and this blog will be back in the New Year, when I hope we will get some better news!