Yet again it’s been a very eventful week, the most arresting issues being the passing of the ghastly 100,000 Covid deaths milestone and EC/AstraZeneca row (see below). With a further 1725 deaths being recorded on Wednesday, taking just one day as an example, the situation is clearly improving only very slowly, in terms of numbers of new cases, pointing up yet again the flaws in the lockdown strategy. Many found galling the PM’s defensive reaction to the grim milestone, insisting his government had done ‘everything they could’ to limit the deaths, he was very sorry, couldn’t ‘compute the sorrow’ etc although he long ago proved himself incapable of genuine empathy. Confronted by questions as to why the UK had the world’s worst death count of the pandemic, the PM refused to be drawn, demonstrating yet again his lack of transparency and accountability. One tweeter challenged a BBC report alluding to Boris Johnson ‘bowing his head in sorrow’: ‘I watched the Downing Street Briefing – at no time did Johnson bow his head in sorrow. Papers have published stills of him looking down at his notes. We’re drowning in lies at the moment’.
So the Prime Minister refused to respond to questions as to how this dire situation had come about, instead falling back on one of the many politician’s ploys of deciding what they’re going to talk about, this one amounting to a convenient rewriting of history: ‘What I can tell you is that we truly did everything we could, and continue to do everything that we can, to minimise loss of life and to minimise suffering in what has been a very, very difficult stage, and a very, very difficult crisis for our country, and we will continue to do that’. You almost have to feel sorry for the lackey du jour invited onto the Today programme, except ministers tend to get a very easy ride there as opposed to the evisceration they get on Piers Morgan’s Good Morning Britain. On Wednesday the series of gigs fell to Housing Minister Robert Jenrick, who, knowing his job depends on defending the indefensible, insisted that ‘no one works harder than the Prime Minister’. I wonder how many frontline NHS staff would agree with that.
This denial and bluster gave rise to a volley of tweets from appalled commentators including journalist Paul Johnson: ‘As death totals pass 100k and Boris Johnson says they did everything they could. -Skip 5 Cobra meetings -Late lockdown -Care homes tragedy -PPE fiasco -Back Cummings -Sack civil servants -Exam confusion -Test trace farce -‘Have Merry Little Xmas’ -School confusion -Late lockdown -Vaccine hope -100k deaths -‘We did everything we could’. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘We did everything we could’ will go down in history as one of the most egregious statements made by a Prime Minister in many years’.
Of course, his PMQs performance didn’t escape the pen of Guardian sketchwriter, John Crace, who again stresses the inability of our PM to learn anything. ‘I take full responsibility’ said a downbeat, almost abject Johnson. The few MPs inside the chamber did a quick double take. Boris had never previously shown any signs of taking responsibility for anything in either his private or public life, so why the personality transplant? Was it really possible that the man whose life had been devoted to the pursuit of his own hedonistic ambition might finally come clean about his own failings? Er … no. There would be a time for a reckoning but that moment had not yet come. Just as it had not come after any number of mistakes over the past 10 months. Too late to implement a first lockdown. Too timid to sack Dominic Cummings for the Durham safari. Too slow to put a working track-and-trace system in place. Too late to impose a second…This was Johnson at his most churlish and defensive. A childish refusal to even engage with the questions, let alone answer them. But then that’s the place to which he always psychologically retreats when he’s up against it…. For a few minutes, at least, it seemed as if the enormity of his many failures had finally got to him. The narcissistic charlatan had temporarily been laid bare..
Johnson regards even the most gentle challenge as a life-threatening narcissistic wound. ‘The public just want us to come together’ Boris concluded. And in a way he was right. What the country really wants is for some Tory backbenchers to find a spine and admit that terrible mistakes have been made. That more than 100,000 dead is an unacceptable price to pay for a party leader whose entire life has just been a vanity project’.
Meanwhile, the Guardian’s Marina Hyde continues to attack the PM’s protracted delays on key measures like implementing lockdowns and quarantining overseas arrivals. And don’t even mention packed airports, clearly involving thousands of non-essential journeys of the kind Priti Patel now says will be clamped down on. ‘Boris Johnson’s government continues to make pandemic decisions with all the speed of the Supreme Soviet Secretariat. Don’t ask for agile turnarounds. It would honestly be quicker to get Brezhnev to greenlight a clean energy programme. This is great for people who really enjoy lockdowns, who ideally want to wear four masks at once, who enjoy unnecessarily deep economic collapse, and who believe that a generation of children getting thrown under the bus is the price you have to pay for whatever version of purity they prioritise. For everyone else, it’s the most giant, toxic, damaging, endlessly mishandled arseache’.
Singled out for particular opprobrium are the ‘lockdown sceptics’ in Parliament, led by the leading lights of the ERG and inappropriately named Covid Recovery Group, who wield ‘power without responsibility’. ‘Has there ever been a misnomer like it? You might as well call the Luftwaffe the East End Recovery Group. These guys are the cowboy builders of the pandemic. They turn your leaking pipe into a collapsed central heating system, then tell you only they can fix it’.
Meanwhile, a very pertinent article with contributions from a virologist, a psychologist and a public health expert focuses on the role of personal responsibility in reducing transmission, pointing up some of the mistakes we are still making. These include doing what’s allowed instead of what’s safe; trusting friends who say they’ve ‘been careful’; not appreciating what ‘airborne’ really means; assuming doing anything outside is safe; inadequate face coverings and (very important now) believing vaccination makes you safe and you can relax. ‘A common problem is not connecting the dots between the people you see in one context, and those you see in another’, said the psychologist. ‘I’ve seen interviews with parents who are being really careful in many respects, but then allow their children to mix freely with friends for their mental health, and then also their children to bubble with their grandparents, for the mental health of both the children and the grandparents. I’m sure the parents aren’t wanting to infect the grandparents, but that’s the best way to do it’. Although some of these mistakes are partly attributable to failures in public health messaging, the article succeeds in challenging many assumptions which we see evidence of every day.
The latest example of prime ministerial tin ear comes in the form of Boris Johnson’s letter to parents, ‘in awe’ of what they’ve done with home schooling, just after he’s told them all schools won’t reopen after half-term. ‘While the past 12 months have been tough for all of us, the demands of this pandemic have also brought out the very best in a great many people…And I’m particularly in awe of the way the parents, carers and guardians of children have risen to the unique challenges with which you have been faced’. The government has used the same transparent and feeble tactic with the NHS, seeming to believe that praising and profusely thanking a body of beleaguered workers is a good substitute for actually doing something about their pay and challenges they face. Such a letter does nothing to address the strain many parents are under (and to some extent this can’t be helped) but in particular it doesn’t acknowledge the educational inequalities, bearing in mind many homes are without the kit and broadband they need for online learning. His promises about laptops being delivered and educational catch-up aren’t that convincing when we hear that there aren’t enough laptops, at least some have been found to have malware on them and the catch-up was first mooted last summer but didn’t happen.
Speaking of ministers’ media appearances, Work and Pensions minister Therese Coffey didn’t cover herself in glory on Tuesday, abruptly ending her GMB stint when (unlike Radio 4’s Today programme) she was robustly challenged about the death figures. She tried to attribute these mostly to old age and obesity and later explained that she’d had to leave for another interview, but the coincidence of her departure with the tough question can’t be easily dismissed. Given the amount of flak she attracted, especially about her age and obesity observations, Ms Coffey can maybe expect an immediate recall to the Cummings School of Media Training (still operating despite the apparent departure of its founder).
Another thing the government hasn’t learnt its lesson on is giving silly macho names to interventions which often lack substance even at inception and frequently come to nothing. The latest example is the government’s ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown, crucial because the longer the endless restrictions go on, the more people’s mental health will suffer and the more non-compliance there will be due to lockdown fatigue. There has been criticism of those including journalists constantly asking about the end of lockdown, but many aren’t necessarily asking when it will be but what the criteria will be (eg reduction in R rate, fewer new cases etc), as the government has never had an exit plan based on a well-considered rationale.
Stephen Reicher, a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science, adds to the voices of those critical of how lockdowns have not met expectations because the restrictions are unclear and ‘rules’ or ‘guidance’ have been flouted by their very architects. ‘So why are we in such a mess? Well certainly the new variant makes things worse, but that isn’t the whole story…. we don’t seem to be doing as much to limit spread as during the first lockdown. We see more people out and about and the roads seem far busier. Personal experience is backed up by data: footfall in shops fell to less than 20% of regular activity last March, and now it is around 35%; the number of cars on the road went down to approximately 30% of normal levels in the first lockdown and is currently hovering around or above 50%’.
One of the problems he cites is the loose definition of ‘key worker’ (one social media influencer recently describing themselves as such), with some schools seeing 50% of their normal intake in classrooms. Another measure he cites as not working is ensuring that workplaces are Covid safe. Many aren’t and despite 97,000 cases of unsafe practice since the start of the pandemic, there have been no prosecutions. ‘If the government were to take its responsibilities seriously, it would be in a far stronger position to ask the public to do likewise. In the end, we can only deal with this pandemic as a partnership, one in which both parties concentrate on playing their own part rather than whether the other is playing theirs’.
The vaccination programme continues to occupy centre stage, more experts now coming out to challenge the change of Pfizer vaccine dosing policy, delaying the second dose to 12 weeks. It has been shocking to see so many key figures allowing themselves to be drawn into the government narrative, one which supports the massage of statistics to suggest more have been vaccinated than have. (Remember the PPE stats scandal, eg a pair of gloves being counted as two items?) On Monday the British Medical Association caused a stir when the private letter thirty of its members wrote to Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, challenging the policy change, was leaked to the BBC. These doctors were later ‘warned’ about their opposition to this policy. Cue a number of ‘on message’ medics stepping forward to talk up the policy change. An MP tweeted: ‘Dear Prime Minister, the BMA say NO, Pfizer say NO, the World Health Organisation (WHO) say NO. We cannot play roulette with people’s lives. Second vaccine dose at 3 weeks, please – like scientists recommend’. Whatever you think about this debate, it does potentially raise another problem. Could Big Pharma be deterred in future from investing the huge amounts in research needed to develop new drugs if this precedent suggests that the normal approval policy could be so easily overturned?
The biggest vaccination programme problem to rear its head is the row between vaccine supplier AstraZeneca and the EU, which, having contracted with the company later than the UK, was trying to prevent exports of the vaccine now the company is experiencing ‘reduced yields’ at the Belgian plant. Amid fears of ‘vaccine nationalism’, the World Health Organisation and others are speaking out against countries appearing to put their own needs above those of others rather than taking a global perspective on vaccine supply. The International Chamber of Commerce, which represents 45m companies across the globe, said the plan by Brussels to allow export controls on vaccines risked sparking ‘retaliatory action’ from other countries which could ‘very rapidly erode essential supply chains’. Asked on GMB about what looks like the EU’s demands for supplies intended for the UK being diverted to compensate for the EU shortfall, Michael Gove offered reassurance, saying the programme of vaccination had been agreed and assured and the supplies were fixed some time ago’, but this was before an export ban was threatened.
AstraZeneca’s chief executive Pascal Soriot could be considered brave for standing up to the EU, insisting that the UK would come first regarding vaccine manufactured in the UK because it had signed a contract early on for 100m doses. He also explained that they created separate supply chains in every major market the vaccine will be available and whereas the UK one was already established, the EU one was not. Anger (and, no doubt, anxiety) within the EU and its members at the news of a 60% AstraZeneca vaccine shortfall, expected to affect deliveries during the first quarter of the year, seem to have led to a (perhaps Brexit-related) weaponising of this conundrum.
Some stalwarts have been helpfully analysing the contracts to get a better idea of what the contractual obligations were, work which surely the media should be doing. Leo Cendrowicz, a Brussels-based journalist who has covered Europe for more than twenty years, observed: ‘But for all the EU seething, its leverage may be constrained by the contracts themselves. While the commission has not published its advance purchase agreements (APAs), partly redacted details of its deal with CureVac say that ‘the delivery dates set out in this APA are the contractor’s current best estimates only and subject to change….. the parties acknowledge that there is a risk that … the timeline for scaling up the production of the product may be delayed’. The PM has usefully pronounced: ‘We expect and hope that our EU friends will honour all contracts’. Somehow I suspect resolution of this problem will take a bit more than Boris Johnson’s expectations and hopes of ‘our EU friends’.
Furious politicians and commentators were left reeling late last night as, having not even consulted Ireland about a measure which would have overridden a key part of the Brexit agreement, the Northern Ireland protocol, the importance of which they had spent years stressing, the European Commission abruptly backed down. The U-turn, badged ‘diplomacy by Twitter’, came after late night phone calls between EC President Ursula von der Leyen, Boris Johnson and the Taoiseach. Former NI Secretary Julian Smith, describing the EU’s strategy as ‘a Trumpian move’ which had ‘scant regard for the sensitivities of Northern Ireland, said the UK and the EU had a duty of care to preserve no hard border and the stability of NI. ‘It’s not just a back door for goods going to Britain’. Stormont First Minister Arleen Foster called the EU’s preparedness to trigger Article 16 of the NI Protocol ‘an incredible act of aggression’. Some Brexiters are clearly enjoying what they see as vindication of their views on the nature of the EU but EC preparedness to disregard a principle they argued so hard for over years must alert the government to the potential for similar attempts to overturn agreements. This episode will have done considerable damage to EU/Irish relations besides deepening what is becoming a vaccine supply war.
Another potential spanner in the works, one dismissed by some UK experts, is the suggestion by a German health committee that the AstraZeneca vaccine hasn’t been sufficiently tested for use on the over 65s. It certainly complicates matters further, for example by undermining public confidence, when heath organisations and regulatory authorities in different countries aren’t on the same page. This needs clarifying by UK authorities as a matter of urgency, as those already receiving this vaccine are worried about its efficacy in the wake of such reports. Some good news comes in the form of the new Novavax vaccine, which the UK has pre-ordered 60m doses of. Trialled and manufactured in the UK, it has the advantage of being effective against the UK variant and to some extent against the South African variant. More good news is that the company is working on a vaccine which will specifically protect against the South African variant.
Less good news for the government, always determined to demonstrate amid the chaos it’s created that the UK is ‘world beating’ at something, is that rather than being at the top of the global vaccination chart, the UK is fifth using the measure of proportion of population vaccinated rather than numbers vaccinated.
Meanwhile, debate continues as to whether certain occupations should be prioritised in the vaccination queue, including teachers, supermarket staff, police officers and carers. It does seem a weakness that priorities were only decided using age criteria when surely other criteria need to be taken account of, the main one being protecting those in public-facing roles.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has again weighed into the conversation on how the economy can be restarted, given the enormous pressures it’s been under during the last year. (How it must irritate ministers when former PMs and ministers do this but ‘the reality is’ that they often come across as so much better informed and sensible that the present incumbents). Declaring that ‘governments cannot afford to be behind the curve – especially in a crisis…they have to be at least two steps ahead’, Brown has called for emergency measures to support businesses in the Budget, citing new research by the London School of Economics showing that one in seven businesses (representing 2.5m employees) might be forced into closure by the Spring. The LSE work suggests almost 1m UK companies are at risk and that the Chancellor ‘needed to extend the scale and duration of government support, proposing a continuation of loan subsidies and debt restructuring during the UK’s eventual recovery that would involve exchanging government loans for government equity stakes’. One of the report’s authors, Professor John Van Reenen, said ‘Without further policy action, businesses face a cruel spring of bankruptcy’.
Still on business matters, we have to wonder about the prospects are for the government’s economic strategy with the new Department for Business incumbent at the helm, the fourth in less than two years. The Week quotes a Sunday Times article describing Kwasi Kwarteng as an ‘ardent Brexiteer’ (of course, this is why he’s in the cabinet) who has a ‘challenging brief’ (not half) including the immediate problem of plans to abolish EU regulations on workers’ rights, eg the 48 hour working week limit. Another key challenge is the dire straits some companies are in trying to get to grips with post-Brexit trading paperwork. Kwarteng was described as ‘essentially an academic’ by Sasha Swire in her very frank book Diary of an MP’s Wife but maybe we should reserve judgement since he has already taken steps to prevent directors of former outsourcing company Carillon from taking positions in UK boardrooms for fifteen years. He’s the subject of Nick Robinson’s Political Thinking feature on Radio 4 today, though I’ve found these aren’t available later for catch-up.
Earlier this week author and broadcaster Michael Rosen, who spent weeks in hospital with Covid, stepped up to back a campaign for a significant rise in NHS and social care spending. ‘The New Deal for the NHS, organised by the patient-led pressure group Just Treatment, says the pandemic has exposed the need for “transformative investment” of £33bn a year in the NHS or 1.5% of GDP’. In a move which would counter suggestions that such a rise would be unmanageable, Rosen cited the creation of government bonds and gave examples of the large amounts suddenly made available for other purposes during 2020. ‘If we’ve learned anything from the last year, it’s that the government has levers which can literally ‘create money’….. If you can raise cash like that for an emergency, why not raise it for the service that looks after us from cradle to the grave. We are the country. Without us, there is no country. What could be more important?’
Since the start of the pandemic there have been reports of what some might consider a decline in sartorial standards, since people can work from home in their pyjamas, just donning a smart top for their Zoom meetings and there are no venues open for us to dress up for, Now we hear that top designer Kurt Geiger has, for the first time, not included a single pair of high heels in its new collection. This upmarket designer has long been associated with four inch stilettos but now the collection features only flats and trainers. It will be interesting to see if such trends continue if lockdowns ever come to an end – at least podiatrists will be pleased at this news. Similar trends were in evidence chez designer Fendi, which has included in its new men’s line an ‘outdoor pyjama’ two piece, coats resembling dressing gowns and boots with soft linings which can also be taken out and used as slippers.
Finally, there’s news that an 11 year old Dutch Japanese boy has won a competition organised by Japan’s Patent Office for his ‘future backpack’. Not all schoolchildren will be overjoyed by the news, because the backpack’s technology is designed to ensure that children will never again ‘forget’ their homework or gym kit. It apparently does this via a tiny computer connected to a scanner, which ‘reads’ tags attached to items as they’re placed in the bag and it issues a warning if an item is missing. Presumably the technology includes the means for the backpack to know on which days a certain item is needed. Liam Vijfwinkel from Kashiwa, near Tokyo, is obviously a boy with a great future ahead of him.