This week could prove memorable for many children and parents, as schools reopened but, having made this the first high profile milestone in his roadmap out of lockdown, only now does our Prime Minister state what we knew all along. Boris Johnson now says the reopening of schools will have an impact on infection rates that could affect the roadmap for lifting restrictions, and England’s deputy Chief Medical Adviser said it was too soon to rule out a fourth wave taking off. #Lockdown4 started trending on Twitter but the country is understandably weary and it’s likely a fourth lockdown would meet with some resistance. Independent SAGE gets next to no coverage in the media, despite coming out with much more sensible stuff than ‘official’ SAGE. During their weekly online conference (open to all to attend via Zoom) a member tweeted: ‘Finally schools are back, but a year into the pandemic, the failures of Test, Trace and Isolate are clear. Latest figures from Christina Pagel (professor at UCL’s Clinical Operational Research Unit) and questions from the public. Join us’.
The Test and Trace programme came in for more stick this week at Wednesday’s cross party Public Accounts Committee, MPs criticising its staggering expenditure (£37bn), excessive use of consultants at £6,600 a day in some cases and the system’s ongoing failures. Ministers remain defensive, Grant Shapps saying that coronavirus would have been ‘a heck of a lot worse’ without the programme, a facetious comment since having no system at all was never proposed. A former Treasury chief described it as ‘the most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time’. A Today programme listener tweeted: ‘The only thing world beating about the UK’s Serco Test and Trace system is the amount it has cost. £37 billion. With 68 million people in the UK, Test and Trace will cost each and every person £550’. Another said: ‘Chortling Grant Shapps gaslighting there over the failures of Test And Trace – he knows very well critics have never said there shouldn’t be a system. What they’ve said is not this particular corrupt and money-gobbling one’.
Meanwhile, as some estimates of UK Covid 19 deaths reach 130,000 (one figure suggests 143,000), those losses barely acknowledged by the government, politicians, including our PM and Keir Starmer, and charities have urged us to observe a minute’s silence on 23 March, the anniversary of lockdown imposition. This ‘national day of reflection’ is designed to enable mourning, the silence to be followed by bells tolling and landmarks lit up all over the country at 8 pm. Mourning these losses has been especially hard for the bereaved because of lack of political recognition, not being able to be with the deceased at the end and the restrictions imposed on funeral attendance numbers. This situation will have added to the already existing mental health burden many are experiencing, especially since lockdown 3. NHS England head Sir Simon Stevens said: ‘We need to reflect on the pandemic’s deep toll, mourn those we’ve lost, and mark the service and sacrifice of staff throughout the NHS. It’s also a moment to acknowledge how in adversity we saw strength, as friends, neighbours and communities have come together to help each other through the nation’s worst ordeal since the second world war. While we need continuing vigilance against this virus, the remarkable NHS vaccination programme now brings hope of better times to come’.
As the NHS pay rise debate rumbles on (the independent pay review body is not expected to publish its recommendations before May) and treating Long Covid is again identified as an overlooked aspect of underinvestment in the NHS, we learn of another example of government extravagance in the form of a proposed £9m ‘situation room’ (where on earth did that name come from?) within the Cabinet Office in Whitehall. Immediately, visions of Churchill’s war rooms came to mind and perhaps this is the comparison we’re invited to make. The idea is to ‘fit the room with interactive dashboards and heat maps so it can be used as a command centre during emergencies like terror attacks and epidemics’. We have to ask ourselves what this room could achieve which the existing structure cannot, since it’s surely dependent on the brain power of the individuals operating it.
The government must be feeling thankful that That Interview has so dominated the media this week that their own misdemeanours have sunk right down the agenda, not that they’re covered by the BBC anyway. Whatever one thinks about the disturbing revelations in the interview, it raises again some key questions, including the future of the monarchy in the 21st century and the nature of ‘public service’. The spiky exchanges between Harry and Meghan and the royals demonstrated different views of what ‘public service’ constitutes. For the royals (and I wonder how many of us see it this way) ‘public service’ has been seen in terms of heading up regiments, acting as patrons for numerous charities and appearing and speaking at events, whereas Harry and Meghan, with their statement that ‘public service is universal’ would be alluding to working for the advance of causes they espouse, such as mental health, the environment and animal welfare.
Commentators have suggested that the debate is mostly polarised between older people, who defend the royals and see Harry and Meghan as audacious upstarts who believe they can cherry pick the duties they like while discarding the rest, and younger people, who believe the opaque and traditional ways of the ‘institution’ need to be brought into the 21st century and that coming into the Royal Family shouldn’t mean being silenced and being denied all independence. (Meghan said her driving licence and passport were taken away and that she wasn’t allowed to go out to meet friends).
I wondered what the royals made of Meghan calling the Royal Family ‘a construct’ and whether they heard journalist and author Simon Jenkins on Radio 4 calling them a secret society, akin to the mafia, which Harry and Meghan wouldn’t be able to change. I suspect the royals were taken aback and shocked at what emerged, particularly about the alleged racism underpinning the curiosity about the likely colour of the forthcoming baby’s skin. A listener tweeted: ‘Like some governments and some powerful individuals, it seems the Royal Family have long assumed secrecy about how they conduct themselves but this is outdated now, given social media, investigative journalism and the marked decline in obeisance to authority’.
We heard that the Queen expressed ‘concern’ over allegations of racism, sadness on learning exactly how challenging the couple had found life as working royals, but also some doubts about this, as she said ‘some recollections of events differed’. Some may find it strange that this came as a surprise to the Queen, as if she didn’t know what was happening on her watch, even though the implication in the interview was that the difficulties arose via ‘the institution’ or ‘Firm’, rather than the Queen herself. To me one of the most striking bits of the interview was when Meghan was talking about lack of support for her mental health difficulties and Oprah Winfrey asked whether she couldn’t have got herself ‘checked in somewhere’, Meghan having to point out that this wasn’t like ‘calling an Uber’.
In ‘Beyond the Masquerade’, Byline Times editor Hardeep Mataru writes about how the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have exposed ‘the real power structures in Britain – now in full destructive, neo-imperial retreat….. Meghan and Harry may be symbols, but they are not just that. Together, their very human experiences are revealing about British society and how it will protect its own in a clash of class and race with white supremacy, unearned privilege and unyielding power’. Instead of dismissing the interview and aftermath as another piece of royal melodrama perpetuated by the press, she believes we need to listen because the systems the institution upholds are those which ‘set the temperature of the water the rest of us are having to swim in’.
There’s also been concern at the Queen’s declaration that this would be dealt with by the family, when they have no objectivity in this, not to mention William’s strange form of words when responding to a journalist’s question – ‘We’re very much not a racist family’ when it’s been argued that many don’t actually understand what racism is. Whatever the outcome is, let’s hope we don’t have to put up with many more sanctimonious and sycophantic ‘royal correspondents’ on the airwaves, and politicians like Jacob Rees-Mogg, who said, before reciting the first two verses of the national anthem, ‘Were we to have a debate to praise our sovereign lady, it would take up all the legislative time available in this house’.
In recent days the news has been dominated by the shocking abduction and murder of Sarah Everard and that the suspect is a serving police officer. As if the police needed anything to further reduce public trust in them. The murder has given rise to a huge outpouring of feeling for the victim, her parents and family, but also anger at the way (unchanged, it seems, from the original Reclaim the Streets campaign years ago) some men feel entitled to get away with harassing and abusing women. This has long been dismissed in some quarters as ‘banter’ and it’s become normalised but it’s much more serious than that – it goes back to the way men are socialised, beliefs about constitutes masculinity and peer group pressure. Over the years women have repeatedly been advised not to go out in the dark, not to wear this or that, go to this or that place, when it’s actually the freedom of male abusers which needs curtailing. Labour’s Harriet Harman believes one part of the solution lies in legislating that anyone caught kerb crawling in order to harass women would have their licence removed.
This tragic event has brought three related issues to the fore, one being, as some see it, the curtailment of freedom to protest, using lockdown as a back door. Surprisingly, the judge in the court hearing to assess the legality of the Clapham Common protest copped out of making a definitive judgement, leaving it to the organisers and police to discuss and come to some arrangement. Meanwhile, as the #Reclaimthestreets hashtag on Twitter demonstrates, many more protests have been organised all over the country: are the police going to stop these going ahead as well? The protest was cancelled because of the difficulty of negotiating with the police but, in the event, many women turned up anyway, thousands of bouquets were deposited and there was some heavy handed policing of the vigil. This will bring the police even more into disrepute. This debate won’t go away – Harriet Harman pointed out that the police can’t keep resorting to the courts: there must be a recognised system for balancing the right to protest with the public health necessities of the pandemic.
The second issue is that the domestic abuse bill is another can the government has kicked down the road, having been in preparation for four years. The government was also challenged by the Lib Dems’ Wendy Chamberlain to incorporate misogyny as a hate crime into this legislation. ‘A cross-party amendment supported by a string of charities, including the Fawcett Society and the Jo Cox Foundation, would make all police forces in England and Wales record misogynistic crimes as hate crime, a campaign started by the Labour MP Stella Creasy. The amendment will be voted on in the House of Lords next Monday’.
The third issue relates to how this has proved such a high profile case (of course the police involvement is one factor) when so many other murders take place each week, with no media coverage. At the annual International Women’s Day debate in the House of Commons, female MPs related their own experiences of sexual harassment and a regular fixture of this debate is Labour’s Jess Phillips reading out a list of names of women killed by men since the previous year’s debate (this time 118). Besides the imminent bill on police, crime, sentencing and courts, critics slated the government for not yet attempting to produce a long-term strategy on tackling violence against women and girls. ‘A statement’ is expected by December. What’s more shocking, though, is the lack of attention to the numbers of older women killed by men (278 over 60s between 2008 and 2018 according to the Femicide Census), statistics and circumstances of which have gone under the radar. This is partly because the upper age limit for criminal investigation has been too low and partly because cases have been dismissed as being due to ‘accidents’ or dementia rather than the coercive control and abuse which underlie a significant number of long term relationships.
In just one case, a 67 year old’s husband strangled her at the beginning of lockdown, citing the ‘hardness’ of lockdown, anxiety about the virus and that he had ‘just snapped’. He received only a five year sentence for manslaughter because of diminished responsibility and could be out after a year. Several women’s and domestic abuse organisations have been involved in collating these statistics and bringing them to public attention in order to obtain proper scrutiny, effective investigation and action. It’s seen as indication of both misogyny and ageism that it’s often been assumed that when an older woman is found at the bottom of the stairs, say, it’s an accident, a fall, whereas such an assumption wouldn’t be made in the case of a 40 year old. The charity Hourglass (formerly Action on Elder Abuse) conducted a survey which indicated that despite one in six older people suffering abuse every year, 30% of respondents didn’t view harmful behaviour towards older people as abuse. The perpetrators of these crimes have often been husbands and sons, some claiming that they were ‘mercy killings’.
An important factor is the normalisation of coercive behaviour over the years, though it’s still insufficiently recognised as such by people of any age. (The story of Helen Archer and her controlling husband, Rob, in the Radio 4 series The Archers, did much to publicise this distressing phenomenon, the publicity penetrating well beyond The Archers listeners). One 67 year old said: ‘I met him when I was 16….He let me have a dog so I could have a friend’. There’s obviously a huge distance for society to travel in exposing and addressing these crimes and their causes. ‘Older women are not counted in statistics, overlooked by the police, marginalised by services and many are left dangerously at risk in a relationship because the few exits available to them are barred by ageism, stereotyping, underfunding and ignorance’.
Another result of government short termism continues to rear its ugly head: Brexit and its effects in Northern Ireland, the consequences of which can no longer (if they ever could) be dismissed as ‘teething problems’. The stance of ‘Lord’ Frost, now responsible in the Cabinet for post-Brexit policy, is quite extraordinary. Writing in last week’s Sunday Telegraph, he quite unselfconsciously, it seems, complained about how the EU were ‘sulking’ at the UK leaving the EU bloc because they objected to the breaches of the treaty and Northern Ireland protocol, initiated by Frost and euphemistically called ‘grace periods’ and ‘temporary easements’ to relieve the trade blockages resulting in shortages of goods. Once again, the EU and rest of the world will see the UK as not to be trusted, reneging on treaty obligations which it had signed up to only very recently. The article and its implications are, as usual, expertly dissected by Chris Grey (Emeritus Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London) in his blog post, ‘Brexit and beyond’.
Again, we see in this section called ‘dangerous delusions’, evidence of the government occupying a parallel universe. How easy and comforting but deluded for such individuals to see themselves as ‘skilful’ and courageous when many will instead see them as embarrassingly foolish. ‘In particular, he undoubtedly believes that his ‘hardball’ negotiating approach was highly skilled and the only way in which the EU was ‘forced to accept the UK’s terms’. Included in that supposed skilfulness was the ever-present threat of no deal (in relation to both agreements) and the threat to break international law with the Internal Market Bill (in relation to the TCA). This has been an article of faith amongst Brexiters, and they think it was lacking in Theresa May’s approach but demonstrated in Johnson’s. It is nonsense, of course. Both the deals Johnson and Frost struck were substantially on terms set by the EU in the light of the UK’s – originally Theresa May’s – red lines. And so skilled were Frost and Johnson in making these deals that they had no idea of the consequences for Northern Ireland or for trade generally.….’. Besides the pandemic and lockdown, the mental health burden many experience is reinforced by extreme concern about the effects of Brexit. Exports to the EU have dropped by 40% and we haven’t yet seen the full extent of the aftermath on the mainland.
We’ve long known, highlighted by the pandemic, that many young people from deprived households are unable to access the internet, which in turn has seriously affected their access to education during lockdowns. It’s also clear how much more dependent we are on the internet, even more than previously. Now, Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web, has published a letter on the web’s 32nd birthday, arguing for post-pandemic ‘reimagining’ of our world to include ensuring internet access for the many young people currently excluded from it. As we know, one problem is the lack of kit, but the other is lack of broadband access. Not for the first time, I’ve thought this should be a public resource, not treated as an optional extra. Jeremy Corbyn’s idea at the last election of providing free broadband for all was ridiculed in some quarters but many of those who dismissed his plan will have had to rethink it. ‘A third of young people have no internet access at all. Many more lack the data, devices and reliable connection they need to make the most of the web. In fact, only the top third of under-25s have a home internet connection, according to Unicef, leaving 2.2 billion young people without the stable access they need to learn online, which has helped so many others continue their education during the pandemic’.
At the opposite end of the age spectrum, reports have emerged of some older people who have made huge strides with the internet when some had previously had nothing to do with it. One such 79 year old has even created his own website. ‘Learning about the endless possibilities of the online world has been a lifesaver to me. I have learned so much about the modern world just in the past year. It’s opened the UK up to me: I can now give talks via Zoom to groups in Scotland, whereas before I was limited to the 15 miles around where I live because that’s where I could drive to, to give the talk in person’. An 85 year old is now reportedly ‘enthralled’ by the internet, whereas before the pandemic he had to ask his children how to turn his computer on. All of this is encouraging but the same issues apply to many in the older age groups as to younger people from deprived communities – not everyone has the wherewithal to afford the kit and broadband access and there are more psychological barriers to overcome.
Finally, on a positive note, joint working between the National Trust, Historic England and local councils is aiming to reproduce Japan’s hanami tradition of celebrating the cherry blossom each spring by planting dozens of circles and avenues of trees. The sites are in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the first being London’s Olympic Park, with other cities to follow. One of the best things at this time of year is seeing so much beautiful blossom around in parks, streets and gardens, and the intention of this project is to create ‘green, nature-rich havens in the very heart of urban areas’. It brings back a poignant memory, as this time last year I was just planning a group visit to Brogdale, home of the National Fruit Collection, which runs such a hanami festival, when it was guillotined by lockdown. Another time!