We’re now fast approaching the anniversary of the start of the first lockdown and what a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. Now that about 130,000 lives have been lost, it will be interesting to see how the public mourning day (National Day of Reflection) goes on Tuesday, to be marked by a minute’s silence at noon, bells tolling and landmarks lit up at 8 pm. I wonder how comforting the bereaved and everyone else will find this, given the number of missed opportunities and errors made in controlling the spread of the pandemic. It’s also grim news that a third wave is hanging over Europe, a number of countries experiencing rising cases and some re-imposing lockdown, more alarming given vaccine shortages and poor take-up of vaccine.
All this reinforces the fact that the UK can’t exist in isolation – what happens in Europe affects the situation here. We’re hearing again, from epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson and others, that it’s unwise to book foreign holidays this year, begging the question of what will happen to the thousands who have booked holidays and flights with Easyjet and the like. Easyjet reported a 330% rise in flight bookings and a 630% rise in holiday bookings to Mediterranean resorts, optimism perhaps prematurely born of the lockdown exit roadmap, progress with vaccination and work on vaccine passports. If flights and holidays have to be cancelled, let’s hope the situation doesn’t result in the same lengthy procedures to obtain refunds as last year.
The week began with continuing anger and debate about the ‘heavy-handed’ police handling of the Sarah Everard vigil last Saturday evening, prompting calls for the resignation of Met chief Dame Cressida Dick. She refused to resign but we have to ask, even if she did, would her replacement be any better and would it do anything to quell the expression of latent anger around male violence towards women? Probably not, as these issues have been building a head of steam for some years. The Times reports on policing minister Kit Malthouse calling Dick a ‘superlative officer’. He spoke after Sir Peter Fahy, a former chief constable, said that Dick’s job had been made impossible by the politics of being accountable to both the Home Secretary and the Mayor of London, diametrically opposed in their approaches. The number of people cited or quoted in the article demonstrates just how many have popped up to give their opinion on the debate.
Interest in the case was reinforced not only by the suspect having been a serving police officer but also by the Commons second reading of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the measures of which many find draconian. An example made much of is the possibility of a ten year custodial sentence for causing ‘annoyance’ to someone. The Bill is regarded in some quarters as a route to silencing legitimate protest, curbing civil liberties and undermining our democracy, measures set to continue after the pandemic as well as during it. Despite passing its second Commons reading by 359 votes to 263, though, it looked as if the government has listened for once, as the Committee stage has been delayed, suggesting a rethink on the government’s part. The parody ‘Boris Johnson’ Twitter account tweeted: ‘Not sure I’ve thought this through properly – if you can get ten years in prison for “causing serious annoyance” I think I might be in trouble’.
Guardian sketch writer John Crace offered a typically sarcastic deconstruction of Home Secretary Priti Patel’s role in the debate. Patel’s interventions often come across as rather feeble, such as describing things as ‘upsetting’ or calling for inquiries. ‘The right to protest is a fundamental liberty’, Patel insisted. Just so long as it wasn’t done in a way that was noisy or annoying to her. From now on, any protest must be done in a whisper – preferably between 11 and 11.15 in the morning – and only be on government-approved topics….the Home Secretary did her best to deflect accusations – from her own benches as well as the opposition – that the police response had been heavy-handed, lacking in empathy and disproportionate. She had been in discussions with the Met on the Friday and Saturday before the event, she admitted, though it had completely slipped her mind just what those conversations had been about’.
Thanks to a memo leaked to the Guardian days later, we now have a better idea just what those conversations consisted of, the mixed messages resulting in the police feeling hung out to dry. ‘One chief constable said the message from Patel and the government before the vigil had been clear, that a ban on gatherings had to be enforced’. Then, as we know, Patel weighed in to criticise the way the vigil had been handled, to give Cressida Dick ‘a dressing down’ and to order an inquiry. ‘Senior policing sources say there was no doubt of what the government wanted to be done as forces wrestled with how to act’. After all this, we have to question ‘a Whitehall source’ which suggested that Dame Cressida had a ‘good working relationship’ with the Home Secretary. One of the surprising things about such episodes is how often ministers complacently assume that the truth behind the media version won’t emerge.
Meanwhile, the Guardian published a useful discussion between men about violence against women. One contributor said: ‘But the thing is, learned behaviour is passive. These attitudes and beliefs about manhood, they’re actively taught. It’s media culture, sports culture, peer culture and porn culture. All these influences teach men certain lessons about manhood and social norms that are produced and reproduced at every level. The reason it’s so hard to deal with these issues is because we can’t just isolate individual perpetrators as pathological monsters. Because it is our society that’s producing these abusive men on a regular basis, generation after generation, across class, race and ethnicity.’ Another suggested: ‘They have to move past this idea that because they don’t go out and murder women or beat their girlfriends, they’re not part of the problem. Because they may still be perpetrating the norms of masculinity that contribute to this situation’.
Alarming headlines earlier this week revealed that the NHS will be at risk unless it gets an extra £8bn within days, a situation which stems from its budget still not being settled despite the new financial year rapidly approaching. Besides coping with Covid cases, the NHS has a huge backlog of surgery and other treatments to catch up on. As if the NHS needed anything else to be rightly dissatisfied about, this latest budgetary delay will be adding to the anger about the proposed 1% pay rise (which will rumble on until the Pay Review Body publishes its findings) and claims of unhelpful pressure from ministers regarding the vaccination programme.
Alongside trumpeting vaccination progress (despite recent concerns about vaccine shortages) the Prime Minister and ministers are thought to be creating false expectations in the public about how soon they can be vaccinated, putting unfair pressure on staff. One senior NHS staffer said: ‘There is frustration that the politicians are very focused on political boasting about the success of the vaccine rollout and who’s going to get jabbed when, without taking into account the operational complexity of what that means. The risk is that these political boasting messages will create undue expectation over who can get their jab when, which risks overwhelming NHS staff who are already going as fast as they can. Staff are annoyed that the government seems obsessed with how things will play politically and in the media, but has no sense of the public health impact of such statements’.
Despite the colossal bill for Test and Trace (£37bn) we know it’s still not working effectively, exemplified by it taking a week to discover the rogue Brazilian case in South London recently. Despite cases falling in most areas of the country, reports say they’re rising in the East Midlands, with other areas looking ‘uncertain’. An interesting report on Saturday’s Radio 4 Today programme reported how Suffolk was now mostly doing its own testing and tracing, the local public health route many believed was the best approach in the first place. It’s obtaining good outcomes by receiving results very quickly and phoning people, going door to door, and using translators where necessary, a better way of getting those to self-isolate who need to. Although some aspects of the national programme still have to be used, this proves the benefits of a local approach rather than over-reliance on a slower, centralised approach, especially one costing so much.
Meanwhile, the government is coming under increasing pressure to set up a public inquiry about its pandemic management. Public figures like Dame Joan Bakewell, author Michael Rosen, film director Stephen Frears, government scientific advisors Professor John Edmunds and Professor Andrew Hayward and former head of the Civil Service Lord Bob Kerslake have added their voices to those of the Covid 19 Bereaved Families for Justice, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing, the NHS Race and Health Observatory, the Care Campaign for the Vulnerable (representing carers of those who died in care homes), the Muslim Council of Britain, the Labour Party and Lib Dems. ‘The calls came at the end of a week in which a group representing more than 2,800 bereaved issued an ultimatum to Boris Johnson that they would start legal action within weeks unless he triggered a statutory public inquiry. They want it to have the power to subpoena witnesses and evidence and to examine the reasons the UK has the worst per capita death toll of any of the world’s largest economies’.
Rosen said he wanted the inquiry to focus in part on why the virus was allowed to take hold in the UK in February and March last year, saying that he suspected ‘the government were experimenting with herd immunity without vaccination’. He said he believed he was a victim of that experiment, as were the thousands who died or are still suffering from long Covid. Unfortunately (but how much longer can this defence be wheeled out?) the usual response is to kick the can down the road, meaning lessons won’t be learned and those responsible won’t be properly held to account. ‘We are focused on protecting the NHS and saving lives and now is not the right time to devote huge amounts of official time to an inquiry. There will be an appropriate time in the future to look back, analyse and reflect on all aspects of this global pandemic’.
But it’s not only these organisations and individuals. MPs on the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee issued a blistering report on the handling of the pandemic, including criticising Michael Gove for not appearing before them, regarding this as ‘contemptuous of Parliament’. ‘MPs examined the government’s levels of transparency and openness around the data underpinning key decisions, finding a lack of sufficient explanation that it says has placed needless strain on public confidence…. accountability for decisions and the data on which they are based must be clear to ensure the trust of the public’. The government maintained that it had been ‘guided by the latest scientific advice at every stage of the pandemic’ but we now know how selective this has been. This is such an important point because lack of trust in the government contributes massively to public anxiety.
Separately, the Times describes how a BBC documentary reiterated what we’ve already learned, about how our Prime Minister initially thought the best strategy was to ignore Covid, also ignoring medical advice to tell people not to shake hands with each other and treating the situation like ‘hysteria’. ‘A senior figure’ also confirmed to BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg that there was indeed ‘a genuine argument’ within government about pursing a policy of ‘herd immunity’, despite the later denials. Of course we have to make some allowances for some current observations being the wisdom of hindsight, but even so it’s clear there was significantly damaging complacency and delayed action.
A reader commented on this article: ‘What is crushing is knowing that Johnson did this not because he is a libertarian but because he is so horrifically over-promoted. A chaotic and mendacious journalist and a part-time city mayor is poorly positioned to be prime minister. On what basis would Johnson take any serious decision? He clearly could not imagine, for the first time in his life, taking responsibility. We are very badly served at the moment by our politicians, but Johnson is indubitably the worst. As with Trump (who only otherwise shares with Johnson a similarly painful lack of knowledge of what his job entailed) you can’t row back overnight from decades of self-indulgent parasitism’.
It must have been galling for some, especially Matt Hancock, having defended the former Downing Street fixer during the Barnard Castle pantomime, that Dominic Cummings didn’t hold back in his own criticisms of early pandemic policy. The Guardian’s John Crace details how Cummings described Hancock’s Department of Health and Social Care as having been ‘an absolute, total mess’, a ‘smoking ruin’ in the aftermath of its failure to provide enough PPE. He said this is why he and Patrick Vallance (no mention of the PM!) had insisted that the vaccine programme be taken out of Hancock’s hands. Heading up the Downing Street press briefing later, ‘Door Matt also did his best to swerve questions on Dom’s remarks about the Department of Health. ‘It’s a team effort….We have a positive mission, can-do spirit’. Except some parts of the team had been noticeably weaker than others. He looked miserable. All Tigger spent’.
This abject lack of preparedness is detailed in a new book, reviewed by former Labour Health Secretary Alan Johnson. He begins his review with an almost poignant anecdote from 2007, of how the then Chief Medical Officer, Liam Donaldson, had explained to him why a pandemic was due. ‘Liam had been instrumental in shaking politicians out of their torpor not only here but, through his role at the World Health Organization (WHO), around the globe. It had been his report on infectious diseases in 2002 that sparked Britain’s efforts to prepare properly for what was to come. That report led to a ministerial committee on pandemic planning and in turn to a national response framework approved by parliament. In January and February 2007, 5,000 doctors, nurses, police officers, soldiers and civil servants took part in Operation Winter Willow, a rigorous rehearsal for the real thing’.
Swine flu duly struck two years later, though its effects were milder than had been anticipated and it seems that this later led to some complacency, whereby the government was nowhere near prepared for what was to come. In Failures of State: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle With Coronavirus by journalists Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott (HarperCollins), the authors suggest that ‘a combination of austerity and “the government’s one-eyed obsession with Brexit” had eroded our defences. There had been another scaled-down rehearsal in 2016, codenamed Cygnus, after which the official verdict was that Britain’s preparations were by now inadequate for the “extreme demands” of a pandemic. It was a danger signal that seems to have been ignored’.
Although former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and others have suggested that flu (the focus of Cygnus) and Coronavirus are different, Johnson points out that ‘there are more similarities than differences between the two. Both are respiratory diseases emerging from a novel virus. Both require detailed plans for containment through isolation, quarantine and contact tracing. And, crucially, both require substantial stocks of personal protective equipment. In any case, given that it had been 16 years since Sars and 11 since swine flu, we should have been well prepared for both’. Johnson details the authors’ sources of evidence and the damning death toll, ending with the profoundly depressing evidence that the vaccination programme is being used to deflect attention from the colossal scale of this mismanagement. One of the best tweets I’ve seen for a long time reads: ‘Defending the government’s handling of the pandemic by saying “but the vaccine” is like telling someone whose arm’s been chopped off that they should be grateful for the antibiotics they’ve been given by the person wielding the rusty chainsaw’.
It’s usually assumed that everyone is champing at the bit to get out of lockdown and back out to social venues, meeting others and going on holiday, but the situation is more nuanced than that. There’s now awareness of what’s being called ‘reentry anxiety’ which could affect us in some ways after effectively a year of restrictions on our movements. ‘Alongside anxieties about returning to the office, or socialising with people one may not have seen for more than a year, the thought of an imminent return to busy streets and train carriages can be overwhelming – particularly for those with a history of mental health issues’. One interviewee said: ‘The mental strain of lockdown ending is the biggest source of stress. It’s been such a long time since we’ve all faced ‘normal life’ that I’ve honestly forgotten what it feels like. I’ve felt safe inside my house but the outside world is unfamiliar and frightening. Socially, how do we navigate this? Where’s the mental health support for those of us returning?’
The potential for anxiety isn’t just for those with mental health difficulties. Many have enjoyed a slower pace of life, not rushing from one thing to another, but normal activities returning could result in an unwelcome FOMO (fear of missing out) feelings. Whereas this last year there’s been no choice because venues and activities were closed down, opening them could present tricky dilemmas for those wanting to preserve their quieter lives but not at the expense of missing out on meeting friends and activities they used to enjoy. Linked to this is the fear that the disappointment would be worse if we got stuck in again, only for yet another lockdown to descend.
Long having felt deprived of access to nature, it’s pleasing to learn that today is World Rewilding Day, coinciding with the Spring equinox. ‘Backed by the Global Rewilding Alliance, an umbrella group for organisations in more than 70 countries that are looking to restore ecosystems by returning land to nature, the day will be celebrated with virtual events to share knowledge, skills and connections’. Richard Bunting, a spokesman for Rewilding Britain, suggested a definition very fitting for these times: ‘At its heart, it’s about hope. Rewilding offers a powerful way of tackling the overlapping nature, climate and health crises’. ‘The charity is calling for nature restoration across 30% of Britain’s land and sea by 2030, with 5% of this dedicated to core habitats, such as native forest, peat bogs, saltmarshes and kelp beds.’ The article concedes that rewilding can clash with other agendas in some communities but gives useful examples of projects which satisfy rewilding criteria as well meeting the needs of local populations.
A poignant piece of business news traces the ‘slow and painful death’ suffered by high street chocolate retailer Thorntons, which was founded in 1911. Apparently 61 shops will close, representing over 600 jobs, though an online presence will continue. Many will remember how popular this brand once was, queues down the street, but one aspect of their demise was the growing popularity of upmarket brands. ‘While fans of Thorntons recall smashing its toffee slabs with a hammer and shunning the coffee creams, today the conversation is more likely to be about the percentage of cocoa in a chocolate bar and the “origin story” of the beans’. Whereas high street bakery Greggs managed to innovate, analysts suggest ‘Thorntons found itself trapped between the old model of running lots of shops and a new order dominated by one-stop-shop supermarkets and internet brands selling direct to consumers’. One thing I’ll miss is being able to obtain unique Easter eggs because of the Thorntons custom of icing recipients’ names onto the eggs, something the posh brands didn’t do.
Finally, we regularly hear about purveyors of particular cuisines rising up in high dudgeon if they feel their creations have been misrepresented but now the normally tolerant Italians (when you think how pizza, for example, has been made in some places) have condemned a new version of its traditional carbonara pasta sauce. Or at least one has, according to Italian daily paper Corriere della Sera. Alessandro Pipero, a Michelin-starred chef from Rome, known as Rome’s ‘carbonara king’, faults a New York cookery column for suggesting a ‘smokey tomato carbonara’, when tomatoes are not one of the normal ingredients. The traditional version consists of egg yolks, pork cheek and pecorino cheese, prompting the indignant comment that this the tomato version was like ‘putting salami in a cappucino’. Social media users weighed in to urge ‘this madness’ to stop and Italy’s farmers association said this ‘falsification’ of traditional Italian dishes poses a threat to authentic producers. Just as well Chef Pipero isn’t checking out what passes for carbonara in some UK kitchens, professional or otherwise!