Last week, which saw even more shocking daily Covid death totals (eg 1564 on Wednesday), started with Boris Johnson demonstrating his ‘one rule for us, another for them’ stance, being spotted riding his bike 7 miles from home. Seen and snapped by a journalist besides a number of passers by, we have to wonder whether he is naively assuming he won’t be discovered breaching lockdown (as suggested by the uncovering of so much cronyism during the last 9 months), or is almost provocatively flaunting his disregard of the law. It’s too early to call but such incidents are more than likely to reinforce the Cummings breach and to further undermine trust in the government, already at rock bottom. Environmentalist George Monbiot tweeted: ‘At every turn the government has undermined public trust and unity, by creating the impression that rules are for little people, while the elite can do what it wants’. People like Met Police Chief Cressida Dick have a tough job defending such blatant breaches when many forces have issued fines for far less.
As reports emerge that two-thirds of all NHS trusts across England were treating more Covid patients last week than they did at the peak of the first wave of the pandemic, that in 17 trusts Covid patients outnumbered all the other patients and that now over 100,000 have died, public health experts are describing the situation as a ‘phenomenal failure of policy and practice’. Yet the Prime Minister continues to present bullishly and optimistically in the House of Commons and at press conferences, sounding somewhat out of touch with reality, claiming that they’re doing a good job and are ‘world beating’ in the numbers being vaccinated. After hearing ‘People will see the government as having done a relatively good job’ from a minister, a sceptic tweeted: ‘Apart from the bereaved. And the many suffering long covid. And anyone who’s been paying attention’.
While the NHS buckles under the strain of Covid hospitalisations, we also continue to hear government insistence that ‘the NHS is doing a marvellous job, they can cope’, disgracefully taking NHS staff goodwill for granted when many are exhausted and experiencing significant mental distress. Around 46k are said to be off sick and nearly half of critical care staff are said to be affected by issues like anxiety, depression, PTSD and heavy alcohol consumption. So much for ‘coping’, when new Covid patients in London are having to be transported to ICUs in the north of England and over 4.5 million patients are having urgent procedures and treatments cancelled, leaving them to deal with the resulting pain, anxiety and uncertainty. Of course dealing with Covid has to be prioritised at this time, but it’s long term underinvestment in the NHS which has resulted in so much non-Covid work (now in GP surgeries as well because of the vaccination programme) being postponed.
Debate continues to intensify on lockdown measures, compliance and flouting and, as usual, inconsistent policing across the country. An interesting aspect of the debate has been what seems to be a growing awareness in some quarters, but unfortunately not in others, is the relationship between individual and collective responsibility. Some still don’t get that what they do affects others. Meanwhile, backbencher Steve Baker of the anti-lockdown Covid Recovery Group hinted at dislodging Boris Johnson if he doesn’t stop lockdowns. Since then he’s rowed back from that position but the CRG and others continue to rail against lockdowns and their extensions. It might not take Steve Baker to bring this about anyway, since the most recent poll on the Prime Minister’s performance indicates those wanting his resignation exceed those satisfied with it.
The Guardian’s Marina Hyde asks how many waves it will take for the lockdown sceptics to finally ‘call it a day’. She opines that, like the government, they have a hard time learning from their mistakes, singling out journalist Toby Young. ‘If I do have one question for the provisional wing of the lockdown sceptics – other than “Have you suffered a recent head trauma?” – it would only be a tiny one. But I can’t help wondering: how do they think the coronavirus is transmitted? Given that its transmission is not affected by lockdown measures (even though it patently and evidentially is), do they believe it spreads by some means other than respiratory droplets and contact? Do you catch it from self-reflection, perhaps, or not having a media platform? If not, could a sympathetic someone try to get the salient facts on Covid transmission inside Toby one way or another, even if they have to be written in crayons on sandpaper and administered as a suppository?’
As if this wasn’t enough, you’d think sceptics might take some notice of the increasingly high profile research on Long Covid: Office for National Statistics data found that five weeks after testing positive one in five patients continued to experience unwelcome symptoms including fatigue, coughs, headaches and loss of taste and smell. A Chinese study found that some patients were suffering from Long Covid 6 months and more after leaving hospital, including diminished lung function. It’s worth thinking about the additional effects this will have on mental health – someone I know who was very ill but not hospitalised is continuing to feel anxious because of the unpredictability of symptoms taking hold, which could lead to a stressful kind of hypervigilance.
It’s pretty clear that, like conspiracy theorists, lockdown sceptics lack psychological maturity, sticking rigidly to one version of reality, their former ‘normal’, staying in denial because it’s a kind of comfort zone – easier than understanding and coming to terms with the frightening reality which is COVID coupled with an incompetent government. Meanwhile, actor Laurence Fox has attracted more opprobrium by tweeting his boast about his facemask exemption lanyard obtained from Amazon. So now Amazon has jumped into another government vacuum (lack of certification or badges for those exempt, which can’t be enforced but many in this category might appreciate), profiting from government inaction but also opening the exemption to abuse. Such badges or lanyards should only be available for those entitled to have them but we can be sure Amazon won’t be monitoring this. In response to Fox’s tweet ‘Sleep well everyone. Every single human life is sacred’, a sceptic responded: ‘Amazon lanyards. Well considering he won’t wear a face mask, I’d argue Laurence Fox doesn’t think the lives of the NHS staff he’s endangering are sacred. Or his own family of friends for that matter’.
The latest restriction, causing Transport Minister Grant Shapps to tweet in capitals, is the decision (only 10 months too late) to close all air corridors with the UK, primarily to keep out new further variants of the virus. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘Of course it’s 10 months too late. Science advised it last year. Many countries closed down travel and introduced quarantines last March. Today Johnson called it “swift and decisive action”. Seriously?’ The absurd disconnect is the instruction to those entering the UK to quarantine, yet there’s no effective checking to ensure that this is being complied with and poor ministerial defences of the system.
The PM this week was grilled by Labour’s Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, which has repeatedly pointed out the weaknesses of the government’s strategy on enforcing travel restrictions. Unlike other countries, there’s very little checking and temperature taking at UK airports, no requirement to isolate in a quarantine hotel and little monitoring of whether or not those people are self-isolating. So the PM’s bullish statement that ‘all foreign arrivals will also have to quarantine in toughening of measures in response to new strains’ is a bit of a nonsense.
This latest move has given rise to a further call for government support, from the travel industry. Joss Croft, the Chief Executive of UKinbound, the trade body for the overseas tourism industry, said: ‘Consumer safety is paramount and although the removal of all travel corridors is regrettable, given the current trajectory of the virus it’s an understandable decision. With our borders effectively closed, the government needs to provide urgent, tailored support for the inbound tourism industry’. This raises questions as to how many industries and workers the government can support, especially as there’s still no support for the 3m freelancers.
Presenter Mishal Husain grilled aviation minister Robert Courts on Saturday’s Today programme, during which he struggled to defend this inadequate approach. One listener tweeted: ‘Car crash interview with cardboard cut out minister Robert Courts, aviation minister – uses ‘robust’ about 5 times to describe the UK policy with more holes than substance. Police had hundreds of cases with quarantine folk absent from stated addresses’. Another said: ‘Courts was abysmal. Weapons grade blather and guff’.
What this raises, not the first time, is that these identikit ministers (given ministerial posts for their Vote Leave loyalty or opportunism) are facing very complex issues on which they’re way out of their depth and for which the early pre-pandemic period didn’t equip them. As an Any Questions listener asked: ‘When ministers have graduated from the Cummings School of Media Training, do they then have to practice in front of a mirror wheeling out soundbites, quoting sums of money allegedly spent on this or that and making evidence-free claims for government achievements?’ Again, to reiterate the principle of this blog, if people can’t trust their leaders and cannot have confidence in them, it’s likely to increase their anxiety about what they’re not being helped to contain and manage.
Meanwhile, it’s emerged that new Business Minister, Kwasi Kwarteng, during the 2019 election campaign accepted £16,000 from companies and individuals with a direct interest in fossil fuels, plus £4,500 from companies that advise on or facilitate trading in fossil fuels, despite the Government’s green policy and goal of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions. His spokesman said there was no conflict of interest and that all donations were in line with the ministerial code. ‘For the past 18 months, as energy minister, Mr Kwarteng led work to develop the energy White Paper – this government’s plan to fully decarbonise our energy system, phase out fossil fuels and end the UK’s contribution to climate change. Any suggestion Mr Kwarteng is somehow not committed to the green agenda is manifestly false’.
The highly transmissible new Covid variants have clearly changed the situation and attitudes, many more fearful than before and now there are at least three: B117 is known as the UK variant but is now known to be present in 33 countries; 501.V, which originated in South Africa, is more alarming because it’s said to render the body unable to detect the virus; and now a Brazilian variant, which clinicians believe is less worrying than the others. The inroads made by these variants have prompted the question, especially regarding 501.V, as to whether the vaccine will afford the necessary protection. Scientists seem to believe they can ‘tweak’ the vaccines to ensure adequate protection, but the much-flaunted (‘world beating’) vaccination programme has run into other problems this week, besides the ongoing one of recruiting vaccinators, who are then expected to undergo hours and hours of irrelevant online training. It also doesn’t help that organisations like the BBC are colluding with the government narrative in talking up and idealising the vaccine: of course it’s a great thing but it can’t be a panacea many want to believe.
First, the UK besides other countries are concerned that deliveries of the Pfizer/BionTech vaccine are being delayed because of upgrades the company is making to its production facility. Second, it emerged that some NHS trusts were instructed to throw leftover vaccine away at the end of the day when these doses could have been used for NHS staff. Third, the Prime Minister admitted that postcode lotteries were occurring throughout the country and that no regional statistical breakdowns had yet been produced. Fourth, when the idea of 24/7 services was raised, the government very publicly said there was ‘no clamour’ for 24 hour vaccinations, yet many have indicated the opposite in polls – taking a slot during unsocial hours would free up more day time slots for elderly and vulnerable people.
Fifth, ministers are now being called out on counting an appointment as a vaccination – more statistical gymnastics reminiscent of the testing ‘capacity’ fib of last year. A similar ploy is also being used to conflate one dose with being vaccinated: Health Secretary Matt Hancock tweeted: ‘Fantastic that over 3.2 million people have now been vaccinated across the UK, including almost 45% of over 80s & almost 40% of care home residents. THANK YOU to everyone playing your part in our national effort to stay at home as we accelerate the COVID vaccine roll-out’. This was called out by palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke: ‘It is genuinely brilliant that so many people have received their first dose. Absolutely wonderful. But you have not “been vaccinated” until you’ve received *both* doses. 400k people have done so to date. This is the number that has “been vaccinated”. Transparency matters’.
Sixth, there’s concern that there are plans in some services to mix and match the vaccines, so someone may not receive the same type in doses one and two. Seventh and possibly most importantly, disquiet continues on the government’s policy to delay by 12 weeks the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, contrary to World Health Organisation advice. There’s a petition about this on the Change.org website and, interestingly, veteran broadcaster Dame Joan Bakewell is preparing a legal challenge. One concerned individual said: ‘I don’t doubt that one vaccine dose will offer some protection against Covid-19 infection. But by agreeing to receive one dose and then the second dose later than the manufacturer’s recommendations you are consenting to participate in an ‘off label usage’ unregistered trial’.
Meanwhile, despite the government’s avowed intention to tackle misinformation, antivaxxer arguments continue, said to be strong in certain groups including some Asian communities and some pregnant women/those trying to conceive. One caller to BBC Woman’s Hour this week said her antenatal teacher had warned all her students not to take the vaccine and this could be the tip of an iceberg. It’s timely that this evening’s Profile programme on Radio 4 features vaccination minister Nadhim Zahawi – interesting to learn that his mentor is one Jeffrey Archer.
After a review was undertaken in 2018, headed by leading psychiatrist Professor Sir Simon Wesseley, new mental health legislation finally appears on the horizon. The current Mental Health Act, now forty years old, has long been criticised for its inclusion of autism and learning disability as grounds for detention and also leading to a disproportionate number of black and ethnic minority people being sectioned. ‘The package of reforms includes piloting culturally appropriate advocates so patients from all minority ethnic backgrounds can be better supported to voice their individual needs and allow sectioned people to nominate family members to represent their best interests if they are unable to do so themselves’. So far mental health organisations and advocates seem supportive of the changes. It will be interesting to learn more about the contents and timescale for the legislation.
If it wasn’t so dangerous, dishonest and undermining for the start of Joe Biden’s presidency, Donald Trump’s conduct this last week would be almost laughable. Having incited his supporters to riot, he then turns his back on them so now some are asking him for a pardon and now we learn that his disrespect for the archival function of documents meant many have been lost and others were being taped together by his staff. ‘In the Trump White House “not only has record-keeping not been a priority, but we have multiple examples of it seeking to conceal or destroy that record”, said Richard Immerman, from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations’. But although these records are very important, including the all-pervasive electronic ones, it sounds as if the US has a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards them. The Presidential Records Act states ‘that a president cannot destroy records until he seeks the advice of the national archivist and notifies Congress. But the law does not require him to heed the archivist’s advice. It does not prevent the president from going ahead and destroying records’.
So the Act would imply such records are crucial for the historical record, yet we hear there are no real consequences for non-compliance. Last year the judge throwing out one legal suit last year said that courts cannot ‘micromanage the president’s day-to-day compliance’. A lawyer representing a number of archiving and historical organisations trying to prevent the Trump administration from destroying electronic records said: ‘I believe we will find that there’s going to be a huge hole in the historical record of this president because I think there’s probably been serious noncompliance of the Presidential Records Act…I don’t think president Trump cares about his record and what it says. I think he probably cares, though, about what it might say about his criminal culpability’.
Meanwhile, as public attention focuses on Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday, how typical that Trump will be the first president in recent history not to attend his successor’s inauguration and instead will be at a departure ceremony held in a Maryland military base. Shame he’s ‘seeing himself out’, as one news source put it, as I can’t be the only one thinking of the widely circulated video featuring Trump continuing to sit at his desk and talk on, while security moved him and his desk down corridors to the removal van, from which a hand emerged, grabbed his chair and dragged him inside, still talking.
Finally, with all the media coverage we’ve seen for months about how sartorial standards have eased (or plummeted) due to lockdowns, it struck me that, because we can’t have people round and offer hospitality, we may be feeling less inclined to keep our homes clean and tidy. Assuming they were clean and tidy in the first place. I suggested this to the consumer programme You and Yours and presenter Winifred Robinson thought it was a good idea, so if you catch coverage of this over the next few months you’ll know where the idea came from! Of course, lockdowns could incline some to more housework: either way I think it would make a good programme!