Not for the first time, I’m reminded of the Lenin quote which this blog began with in April: ‘There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen’. So much has occurred this week that recent events such as the 18th government U-turn (the third national lockdown announcement), and Trump’s shocking attack on American democracy dwarf other important development earlier in the week, such as the 17th U-turn, changing policy to not reopen schools after all. This, when some schools had already been made to admit pupils for one day, leading to anger and confusion for teachers, parents and children, not to mention a likely rise in cases.
Education Minister Gavin Williamson came in for much opprobrium, most eloquently and succinctly expressed by Rafael Behr in the Guardian. ‘Not much is constant about Britain’s handling of the pandemic, but one rule applies throughout: there is no scenario so bad that it cannot be made worse with Gavin Williamson in charge of schools. It is not the task itself that induces despair, but the identity of the man whose job it is to complete it. Williamson’s record allows only expectation of failure. The unknown element is whether he will inflict the damage by negligence or more assertive sabotage…..He is despised by teachers. He has alienated even the moderate wing of the trade unions. It is never easy for Tory ministers to win trust in the staffroom, but Williamson has fulfilled the caricature of ideological provocateur with spiteful relish, casting teachers as slackers and saboteurs…’
What’s particularly interesting, as some will recall hearing about from Williamson’s Chief Whip days and his sacking by Theresa May for leaking key information to the press, is the low esteem he is held in by colleagues. ‘The rebarbative side of his character is notorious in government. It is not unusual for advisers and MPs to whisper unkind things to journalists about ministers, but the acridity of what is poured on Williamson by his own party is unique and mostly unprintable. The kinder accounts dwell only on his abject ineptitude, but most include chapters on deviousness, duplicity and vindictiveness. It is said that he styles himself as a Machiavellian operator with an ostentatious immaturity that undermines any plot he might undertake – a homage to House of Cards in cruel, humourless slapstick’.
Widely predicted and delayed, the Prime Minister finally bowed to the inevitable and introduced a third lockdown, restrictions possibly lasting until April. Some will have been additionally alarmed by Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty’s suggestion that some restrictions may be necessary next winter, leading to visions of a never-ending cycles of lockdown and easing. It was astonishing that Boris Johnson still used the over-optimistic and credibility busting language of fantasy, a ‘final sprint’ towards the stage where the UK population will be vaccinated, clearly placing unrealistic expectations on the vaccine, especially given the incompetence of the current regime. Even more astonishing was his attempt to deflect blame from his own dithering complacency to the ‘new variant’ and again suggesting that the lockdown resulted from ‘the facts’ changing. ‘It is inescapable that the facts are changing, and we must change our response’.
What’s so alarming is that the Prime Minister’s narcissism regularly leads to self-deception and denial in order to abdicate responsibility, presenting major policy failures as bad luck. Some strange mental gymnastics are performed so it’s an almost unconscious conversion of the unacceptable into the simply regrettable. The Guardian’s John Crace calls it Boris’s boosterism. ‘Boris Johnson’s narcissism is an open secret. What’s less clear is whether he is at heart just deeply cynical: a politician who is aware of his own failings and goes out of his way to conceal them. Or whether he is a man who is merely the product of his own imagination: bending reality to suit his personality. It’s hard to know which is the more disturbing prospect. But then maybe it’s a bit of both…..
Boris likes to talk a lot about levelling up, but the one thing he appears unable to do is to level with himself and the country. So there was nothing on the delays, confusion and ignored advice over recent weeks. The past isn’t just another country for Johnson, it’s a different geological era. A place that does not bear scrutiny. And certainly one not worthy of apology. Not just because he doesn’t think the country can bear to hear the truth, but because he can’t either. All his life has been spent running from the horror of being Boris’.
Crace gets some serious competition from his Guardian colleague, Marina Hyde, in lambasting the Prime Minister’s lamentable performance. ‘Yet again, we are doing something entirely inevitable entirely too late, meaning it will have to be done much longer and much harder than it would have had Johnson showed some leadership and grasped the nettle. No one should be in any doubt that we are paying for his weakness and vacillation in lives, in the bitterest economic terms, and in vital freedoms that will end up being lost for greater stretches. It’s not that Boris Johnson can’t see round corners – it’s that he can’t see two steps straight ahead of him…But listen, it’s not the prime minister’s fault, he explained to the nation last night – it’s all down to this guy New Variant, who got repeated name checks throughout his sober speech…..
‘Anyway, as Johnson literally pointed out, he would have got away with it if it hadn’t been for pesky New Variant. In his words: “Our collective efforts were working and would have continued to work.” Johnson assured the nation that there was “no doubt” about this. Which is a complete lie, and a useless one. So yet again, “we are where we are”, as the oddly blame-free motto of the times runs. And we are, for the third/fourth/twelfth time, where we were. The person who really needs to go back to pandemic school is, of course, Boris Johnson. Has anyone ever learned less from a situation that keeps repeating itself?’ And now, as even ‘lockdown 3’ isn’t working well, stricter measures are being called for.
According to a Guardian analysis, there have been 91,453 deaths in the UK with Covid-19 on the death certificate or within 28 days of a positive test. The analysts warned that, given the current trajectory, the UK could reach the grim milestone of 100,000 deaths before the end of the month, experts. There must be few who weren’t shocked at the daily death figures going above 1,000 this week, which are now almost being normalised: 1162 deaths on Thursday and 1325 on Friday, London Mayor Sadiq Khan declaring a ‘major incident’ there, a major statement on the NHS’s ability to cope. What’s even more alarming is that we now have 46,000 NHS staff off sick with Covid, so rapidly rising case numbers meet far fewer resources to deal with them. A tweeter said: ‘This is without doubt the most deeply worrying day of the pandemic so far. Major incident declared in London, the NHS on its knees and the tragedy of so many deaths. This is not a political tweet, it’s a moral one. Where is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson’?
Alastair Campbell tweeted: ‘And all the more mindblowing that when they knew for weeks of a dangerous new variant Boris Johnson continued to be led by populist bullshit to do with turkey and Brussels sprouts and everyone having a ‘real Xmas.’ The messaging pre Christmas amounts to a form of corporate manslaughter’. Keir Starmer tweeted on Saturday: ‘To pass 80,000 deaths in the UK is a tragedy — it did not have to be this way. It’s absolutely critical that we all follow the guidance. Please, stay at home’. The latest Observer Opinium poll shows that people are now more scared of the virus than at any time since last June. More than three quarters (79%) of respondents said they were worried about the virus, including 36% who were very worried.
Instead of sensibly relying on a number of crucial measures to tackle the virus, like mask wearing, distancing, reducing contacts, an effective test, track and trace system and testing and isolating incoming air passengers (it beggars belief that the UK is only just adopting the latter measure), it’s clear that our PM and his ministers are over-relying on the vaccine. They’re idealising it as a solution (‘the cavalry’) despite a number of problems hindering its rollout and seem, as ever, to be setting unrealistic targets. The Times tells us that Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccine minister, insisted that the nine at-risk groups that together make up 99 per cent of deaths would be vaccinated in time for the scheduled end of lockdown. He said that the top four most vulnerable groups – 14 million people – would be vaccinated by the middle of February and the immediate threat would be over.
He told Sky News: ‘I’m confident that as we begin to deploy and get more sites operational — I talked about the hospitals, the GPs, the community pharmacies and the national vaccination centres — we will be at over 1,000 sites vaccinating’. But YouTube footage shown today of one busy vaccination centre, with non-distanced queuing, is concerning. It stopped at least one shielding couple from staying for their vaccine. These centres, not being medical settings, will also be without the facilities to deal with adverse reactions or other medical emergencies.
We hear that some GPs are having trouble obtaining supplies, postcode lotteries persist (some over 80s in some areas of the country vaccinated and others not and not kept informed) and some staffing issues. What seems strange is that no media channel to my knowledge has yet tackled the minister on his setting up, with his family, a medical company, which would be a conflict of interest and therefore a breach of the ministerial code.
Another persistent issue is the disquiet caused by the government’s decision to delay the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine for three months, when this is not the use the vaccine was approved for and is contrary to World Health Organisation policy. It#s been suggested that this amounts to an unregulated trial. It’s concerning that the BBC at least only has media doctors being positive and reassuring about this change of policy, when this could be false reassurance. Change.org has a petition running to get this policy reversed so it will be interesting to see if it bears fruit. A third problem is vaccination strategy: leading immunologist Sir John Bell, Regius Chair of Medicine at the University of Oxford, said NHS bureaucracy was preventing a high-speed mass inoculation programme that could prevent many further deaths. He claims the NHS has the capacity to vaccinate the entire population within five days but this currently can’t be done because of the hours of online training vaccinators are being asked to do in preparation, some of which are absurd, like anti-radicalisation training. Matt Hancock, in one interview, said he would ‘get rid’ of this but this doesn’t seem to have happened yet. Needless to say, there was the usual defensive response to this idea. An NHS England spokesman said: ‘Professor Bell’s reported comments suggest he may not know that at the current time there are not actually that number of vaccines available to the NHS to deploy. It’s best to stick to the facts, and they are that vaccine supply will be progressively increasing over the coming weeks, allowing rapidly expanding vaccinations’.
Meanwhile, you couldn’t make up the latest example of tasteless triumphalism, Nadhim Zahawi tweeting: ‘The Royal Family has been vaccinated. A good day becomes a great day’. Not to mention Stanley Johnson. The tone seems to communicate ‘job done’ but this is going to take a lot more than vaccinating public figures and some over 80s who then become part of a PR exercise.
On the microcosmic side, having isolated for 3 days before receiving a negative test result, three days later the NHS Covid app told me I’d been in contact (despite hardly going anywhere) with a positive individual and to isolate for another 5 days. It was strange but almost a relief given the terrible situation out there and I’m very aware I had it easy compared with many, especially because some lovely local friends brought things round. With the rampant new variants apparently responsible for 80% of new cases in London, it seems almost dangerous going outside, and supermarkets, which many have to use, have been criticised for not enforcing mask wearing and distancing. One large chain now says they will check, when I told them our local branch is a prime example, security staff on their phones and staff inside not wearing masks or doing so incorrectly. And still no sign of Covid marshalls despite finding out that my local council has recruited them. What’s desperately needed is robust enforcement because this simply isn’t happening – the evidence from streets and busy roads is inescapable.
What comes up repeatedly during the pandemic is government lack of preparedness and slowness to act. I suspect this isn’t only due to lack of intelligence and planning but also reluctance to commit funding and an enduring fantasy that we can go back to ‘normal’ when societies will actually need reconfiguring. Radio 4’s series of Rethink programmes this week, focusing on fairness, has recently covered major areas like health and education and the report cited here a few weeks ago is also highly relevant – Professor Sir Michael Marmot’s Building Back Fairer. The health Rethink, to which Marmot also contributed, laid bare the faulty government strategy of underinvesting in the NHS because it’s seen as an overhead instead of an investment in our health care. The programme examined how Covid has increased health inequalities and also faulted the separation of health and social care. It’s even more disastrous that the government has used the pandemic to kick the social care can down the road once more, when the pandemic itself is increasing the demand for it.
The world was stunned on Wednesday evening by the dramatic and unprecedented events unfolding in Washington, President Trump having incited his supporters to march on the Capitol to disrupt the vital electoral vote count which would confirm Biden’s victory. It was astonishing that rioters disputing the election result managed so easily to breach security to enter and rampage around the building, even mounting a Confederate flag at one point, demonstrations which resulted in five deaths and many terrified some politicians and staff. The media wasted no time in calling this a siege, a riot, a coup and attack on American democracy. Some commentators also pointed out the lack of effective police presence, when Black Lives Matter protests have resulted in massive police involvement.
It might reassure some that Trump has been permanently suspended from Twitter, but although he will be deprived of that oxygen source, there will be others and some commentators fear he will find a place for his dangerous rhetoric in the ‘dark web’. Despite instructing his supporters to go home and later appearing to retract his inciting of violence, few will be deceived by this. Despite impeachment efforts we have to wonder what further damage he can wreak over the next fortnight and he still has access to the nuclear codes. Vice President Pence and other senior Republicans defied Trump and have broken with him but he can still count on the support of many. It was notable that whereas many world leaders condemned him unequivocally, Boris Johnson failed to mention role of Donald Trump. Still hoping for that trade deal?
News that former Trump allies were distancing themselves from him as his ex-chief of staff declared Trump’s political career ‘is over’, it reminds us of who in the UK (lambasted at the time in some quarters) refused to attend the official dinner during Trump’s UK visit, including Jeremy Corbyn and the SNP’s Ian Blackford. Those refuseniks could be feeling a sense of redemption now. The Guardian’s Marina Hyde analyses the situation as it applies to the UK – alternative media channels being set up to reflect the tactics of Fox News. ‘And here we are. The import of events in Washington this week is many things, but one of those is a cautionary tale about what happens when “news” is entirely unmoored from facts… In the coming months, not one but two anti-impartiality news channels will launch in the UK – GB News, backed by Discovery, and News UK, courtesy of that aforementioned adornment to international life, Rupert Murdoch….The Trump presidency was arguably the logical result of the type of hyper-partisan disinformation first fostered by Fox News, and the grotesque events of Wednesday were the logical result of a Trump presidency…’
It’s no excuse for non-thinking lawbreakers and conspiracy theorists but I think it’s important to recognise how public anxiety over Covid and the appalling death toll in the US will be contributing to these heightened emotions. Nevertheless, it’s astonishing that Trump allowed his narcissism to take precedence over democracy, the rule of law and America’s reputation as world leader. It’s been said Trump’s mental health is in a fragile state – no surprise there: when narcissists’ edifices collapse and their carapaces dissolve, it inevitably leads their fragile egos towards what they see as damage limitation. If there’s any amusing side to this it must be the widely circulating meme of a grinning Kim Jong-un saying ‘I no longer craziest leader, lol’.
Recently, the BBC has come in for some flak (at least regarding news reporting) for its right-wing bias and refusal to challenge the government narrative. Now it’s surprising that the Corporation has so transparently appointed Tory party donor and former Rishi Sunak boss Richard Sharp to the role of Chair. We also learn that ‘He has recently been acting as an unpaid economic adviser to Mr Sunak during the coronavirus pandemic…His new role will see him lead negotiations with the government over the future of the licence fee. The licence fee is due to stay in place until at least 2027, when the BBC’s Royal Charter ends, with a debate about how the broadcaster should be funded after that’. It’s interesting to note that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport Committee has expressed some concern about this appointment. ‘Julian Knight, the chair of the DCMS Committee, said in a statement: “It is disappointing to see this news about the next BBC chairman has leaked out ahead of a formal announcement from the DCMS’. The Committee previously expressed some concerns over the appointments process, calling for it to be fair and transparent.
Finally, there’s news of an ambitious archiving project designed as ‘an insurance policy against human disaster’. An abandoned coal mine on the Arctic’s Svalbard archipelago is being used to preserve items of cultural heritage including a perfect copy of Munch’s The Scream. The Arctic World Archive, on the island of Spitsbergen, involves burying digitised versions of key works 300 metres beneath the earth, 15 countries coming on board since the project began in 2017. The founders believe these digitised versions will last at least a millennium in these conditions. It sounds like future archaeologists could be making some spectacular discoveries, one of them being a Vatican manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy.