A happy Easter to everyone! Whether or not you’re religious, this time of year is associated with a spirit of renewal, even more so this time as Monday signalled the easing of restrictions in England. Although ministers have long erroneously maintained that ‘most people are obeying the rules’ when sights on local high streets tell another story, it does make a big difference now officially being able to meet outside with five others. Another key difference for many will be the measures applied to care home visits, enabling residents and more family members to see each other. The terrible effects of this last year on many care home residents could have been addressed much sooner if the government had indemnified homes from potential litigation. The hollow and oft-repeated statement that a ‘protective ring’ had been ‘thrown around our care homes’ has long been shown as the fib it is, given the numbers of avoidable deaths and continued dithering over compulsory vaccinations for care home workers. But we are where we are, to quote a cliché, and we have to hope that residents and their families will be able to make up some of the ground they’ve lost this year. It would be interesting to know to what extent the government’s urge to resist the temptation to hug others is being heeded now.
Meanwhile, two news items won’t be great for confidence in the beleaguered NHS: 40,600 people in England are reckoned to have contracted the virus while they were inpatients. This isn’t to unfairly blame hardworking staff but another indication of underinvestment in the service and a contradiction of the belief that you go into hospital to be made better.
The other concerning item is the estimate that 122,000 health workers now have Long Covid, when, despite better awareness recently, there’s still a belief in some quarters that this only affects a very small number of people. The Office for National Statistics reports that 1.1 million people in the UK were affected, including 114,000 teachers. This was the first time I’d heard about effects on the teaching profession, when ministers have long insisted that teachers were no more at risk than anyone else, that schools were safe environments to work in and that teachers would not be prioritised for vaccination. The ONS found about 30,000 social care workers also had long Covid, which would be having a significant effect on those receiving care in homes and in the community.
At issue are not only the dire effects on those experiencing it but also the impact of sick leave putting even more strain on the workforce. Even within medical circles, it seems, there’s a lack of understanding. One senior medic said: ‘It is worrying that doctors with long Covid have described their condition as not understood by their colleagues’. Dr Helena McKeown, the workforce lead at the British Medical Association, commented: ‘With around 30,000 sickness absences currently linked to Covid in the NHS in England, we cannot afford to let any more staff become ill. Simply put, if they are off sick, they’re unable to provide care and patients will not get the care and treatment they need’.
Needless to say, an NHS spokesman attempted to suggest that the condition is well catered for, when it’s known that clinics and their services are still in short supply. ‘Our network of long Covid clinics is already supporting healthcare staff who are experiencing ongoing coronavirus symptoms, to make sure they get the right support’.
Although we’ve long known that significant numbers of people weren’t self-isolating after having tested positive for Covid, thereby contributing to infection rates, it’s still a further indictment of £37bn Track and Trace that yet again the isolation part has been operating so badly. Recent findings from a study conducted by researchers from institutions including King’s College London, Public Health England and University College London shows that fewer than a quarter of people in the UK with Covid symptoms are requesting a test, while only half say they are fully self-isolating after symptoms develop. ‘Our data suggest that self-reported rates of full adherence to isolating and testing are low, as are rates of recognition of the main symptoms of Covid-19’. The researchers say the effectiveness of the UK’s test, trace and isolate system is limited. You can say that again. The results are a sharp contrast with Office for National Statistics data for the previous month, which suggest an 86% compliance rate, but the difference has been partly attributed to the ONS data being based solely on cases already in the Test and Trace system.
One of the authors, James Rubin, a professor of psychology of emerging health risks at King’s College London, said there had been improvement in adherence rates but there’s much more to be done. ‘We need to get more people to engage with the system, to recognise the symptoms, to get a test, and then to self-isolate and follow it through,” Rubin said. “We need to be getting people into the mindset of as soon as you’ve got one of these symptoms coming on, get a test. Don’t leave it a few days. Don’t wait until it resolves’. We have to ask what the government and Track and Trace are actually doing about this – like our leaky borders policy, it’s another key risk likely to impact on lockdown exit.
It’s been notable this week that within days there were attempts to exonerate events in key areas of government policy, leading us to wonder who on earth would be taken in by such transparent whitewashes. The first was exoneration of the police for their conduct at the Sarah Everard vigil, although it’s fair to say the police had damaging mixed messages from the Home Secretary, who had made clear her expectation that the law should be enforced but who then distanced herself from this, condemning the heavy handed approach. But it’s not only policing of protests and the like – it’s also the discovery that the police have harboured some found guilty of misconduct and criminality.
‘Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services found that police ‘did their best’ to peacefully disperse the crowd at Clapham Common in south London, remained professional when subjected to abuse and were not heavy-handed’. This is the result of Priti Patel’s ‘independent inquiry’ into the events of March 18th. We have to seriously ask how independent these so called ‘independent’ bodies are – they certainly seem to be in the government’s pocket.
The second example is the exoneration, by colleagues including Business Minister Kwasi Kwarteng, of former PM David Cameron in the Greensill lobbying issue. ‘Of course He has not broken any rules’. A tweeter got it in one: ‘Of course he hasn’t. The rules are deliberately full of holes because dodgy behaviour is a big earner for former ministers’.
The third and most serious example is the recent finding that British society ‘isn’t institutionally racist’, a report which Doreen Lawrence (mother of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence) said gave a ‘green light to racists’ and set back race relations in this country by 20 years. The 264-page report has 24 recommendations, but on Tuesday only headlines were released by the Government Equalities Office, an approach questionable in itself. ‘The much-delayed report by No 10’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities is likely to spark an angry response from activist groups, with race equality experts describing it as “extremely disturbing” and offensive to black and minority ethnic key workers who have died in disproportionate numbers during the pandemic. The commission’s chairman, Dr Tony Sewell, said the report did not deny that racism exists in Britain, but there was no evidence of actual institutional racism’.
A Black Lives Matter UK spokesman drew attention to other key omissions: “It fails to explore disproportionality in school exclusion, eurocentrism and censorship in the curriculum, or the ongoing attainment gap in higher education. We are also disappointed to learn that the report overlooks disproportionality in the criminal justice system – particularly as police racism served as the catalyst for last summer’s protests’.
Even more doubt was cast on this report when it emerged (did the authors think this wouldn’t be checked?) that several high profile individuals cited in it had actually not been consulted, suggesting the authors’ need to boost the report’s authority. As for the government’s official response, that the UK should be ‘seen as an international exemplar of racial equality’, there are almost no words. This surely has to be one of the worst examples of government gaslighting.
Historian and broadcaster David Olusoga, Professor of Public History at Manchester University, is one of the latest to weigh into the debate. ‘…..hundreds of experts on race, education, health and economics joined the criticism of the report for brazenly misrepresenting evidence of racism’. Olusoga picked out what was for some one of the most astonishing statements in it. ‘Shockingly, the authors – perhaps unwittingly – deploy a version of an argument that was used by the slave owners themselves in defence of slavery 200 years ago: the idea that by becoming culturally British, black people were somehow beneficiaries of the system’. The report’s defenders have hit out at the amount of abuse Commissioners have been subjected to, but although this isn’t ideal, it’s perhaps strange that they’ve been surprised by this.
It will further undermine public trust in the government and raise public anxiety that so many highly questionable areas of policy are found to be acceptable. It seems to follow a pattern that in all these examples the reports criticise the critics, as if somehow their well-founded reactions were not valid, a kind of silencing.
But despite the denial regularly meted out by sycophantic supporters, the PM’s errors and blunders are recognised in some Tory quarters. Sir Alan Duncan, who had been the PM’s deputy at the Foreign Office, has, in diaries serialised in the Daily Mail, called Boris Johnson ‘a clown, a self-centred ego, an embarrassing buffoon, with an untidy mind and sub-zero diplomatic judgment’ and ‘an international stain on our reputation’. Oof.
Other key figures don’t get off lightly, either. Theresa May is said to have ‘an apparent lack of personality on the campaign trail…a frightened rabbit, a cardboard cut-out, her social skills are sub-zero’. Home Secretary Priti Patel is seen as ‘a nothing person, a complete and utter nightmare, the Wicked Witch of Witham’. Oof, again.
An item of news covered only selectively by the media has been the detailed revelations by Jennifer Arcuri about her four year affair with Boris Johnson, politically important because of the amount of public money allegedly directed her way. ‘Boris Johnson faces an inquiry by the Greater London Authority – responsible for the mayor’s office – over claims his failure to declare his relationship with Arcuri may have been a breach of the Nolan Principles of Public Life, which are contained in the Mayor of London’s code of conduct. Arcuri was granted access to events at three top level trade missions, despite her businesses not meeting the criteria for the trips’. Expect this to be another example of media collusion in government cover-ups and for our PM more water off a duck’s back.
Meanwhile, it’s almost amusing to know how much the Get Brexit Done obsessed Boris Johnson wanted the EU off his back, but how such a stance is antithetical to his ‘global Britain’ aims, as evidenced by the ongoing disputes over vaccine shortages and the Northern Ireland protocol. But isn’t it strange the government hadn’t grasped before that the EU will still be very important for UK foreign policy?
‘For this government, the EU is not a priority. It wants to focus on other parts of the world, not least the US and Indo-Pacific, as the recent integrated review made clear. Its other priority is domestic, on the post-pandemic recovery and “levelling up”. Yet across the two days we convened, it became clear that the success and impact of ‘global Britain’, as the government has pitched it, very much depends on a more productive relationship with the EU’. This article makes the clear the need for joint working through of post-Brexit difficulties rather than resorting to unilateral decisions. It remains to be seen whether our lazy, detail-allergic PM and his hardball playing Brexit minister ‘Lord’ Frost can change their longstanding habits and step up to this crucial ‘plate’. This is ‘water’ that won’t be so easily flicked off the duck’s back.
It’s ironic, then, that our PM is positioning himself, along with other world leaders like Merkel and Macron, in calling for a global approach to the pandemic. Twenty-four world leaders are calling for a treaty in response to the understanding that ‘a future global pandemic is an inevitability and that Covid has served as ‘a stark and painful reminder that nobody is safe until everyone is safe’. Escalating international tensions over vaccine supplies have led to calls for countries to abandon isolationism and nationalism, and come together to make way for a new era founded on principles like solidarity and cooperation’. We have to wonder if this is another example of ‘cakeism’: the UK positions itself as a global leader, calling for international cooperation, but still wants to cling to British exceptionalism and isolationism in some areas.
Having written about this previously, it’s been interesting to see more speaking up about ‘re-entry anxiety’, anxiety associated with coming out of lockdown.Former Woman’s Hour presenter Jenni Murray wrote about this in Saga Magazine and many others have expressed disquiet about lack of confidence in going out and about again, using public transport and even talking to others ‘in the flesh’. It represents a massive emergence from a kind of comfort zone many have occupied for most of the last year. A key aspect is how we dress ‘for society instead of the sofa’, but who’d have thought we’d need articles on ‘How to dress up after a year in leggings and loungewear’? It would be interesting to know how many did and will again make such preparations – not everyone, for sure. Rather than being at home most of the time, ‘getting dressed is a whole different ballgame from just wearing clothes. It’s when you plan an outfit; when you think about the optics first, and just make the practicalities work.’
This article’s author found that some dressing up really helped her mood, helping with the ‘groundhog’ days. ‘But this is not really about clothes. It is about relearning how to operate in polite society after a period in which we have gone a bit feral. Feeling self-conscious about putting on a party dress and worrying that you have forgotten how to make small talk are expressions of the same core anxiety. There is no getting away from the fact that re-engagement with the world is going to require energy’.
Communities and their resilience – what have we learned? This is the subject of the third of a three part series, Lessons on a Crisis, presented by the BBC’s Evan Davis, focusing on different aspects of the pandemic. He opened by saying ‘community is the most nebulous but the most important’ of the subjects covered. Several examples of ‘civic activism’ are described, including a Sikh food bank in Glasgow. One contributor quite rightly said how the pandemic had greatly increased awareness of our immediate environment, both the wider neighbourhood, such as the park, and your own road and home and how these can be enhanced. Davis usefully asked contributors how we can hang onto the good things communities have been doing, whether it’s Whatsapp groups or local church activities. Dame Louise Casey, known for her longstanding career in social policy and homelessness, highlighted how the pandemic had increased frailty and inequalities, including the digital divide. I think this programme clearly illustrates that while community can be a massive influence and force for good, this doesn’t reduce the need for government policy and statutory services. We can’t solely rely on what David Cameron called ‘the Big Society’.
It’s consistent with this programme’s content that, according to Ipsos MORI and BBC polling, 40% of Britons expect to do more walking after the pandemic than before and 31% plan to do more of their shopping locally.
Finally, The Week, in its ‘Spirit of the Age’ section, tells of New Yorkers hiring ‘healers’ to ‘spiritually clear’ their homes after a year stuck mostly inside. One of these ‘healers’, who boasts Wall Street bankers and celebrities as her clients, is charging $700 for a small flat, during which she will spray possessions with ‘positive energy’ infused water. Others offering this service ‘roam apartments ringing a bell or chanting’. This could be thought an easy way to make money. How long before some spot this business opportunity here, or maybe they already have?