Coverage of the death of Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, announced on Friday, is likely to push other news off the media’s agenda for at least a few days. While many of us will be saddened to hear of his passing, there has been criticism of the media’s wall to wall coverage to the exclusion of other important news, not to mention the sanctimonious tones struck by some contributors. While we might all have learned things about the Duke that we hadn’t known, it’s felt that some interviewees have been casting around for something to say. Journalist Charles Moore was keen to let us know that despite a lifetime of serving a woman, the Duke was still able to ‘be a man’.
A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘Is every single soul who is or was a public figure going to be asked for their reaction to the Duke of Edinburgh’s passing? Some unfortunately competing with each other to achieve heights of sanctimony of the sort the man himself could well have derided’. Another said: ‘MSM are now in a downward spiral of unbroken eulogy, the first to stop will seem traitorous’.
The week leading up to this has been no less eventful than others over the last year. On Monday evening, Boris Johnson bullishly confirmed the second step of lockdown release, the changes to take place from 12 April including the re-opening of non-essential shops, hairdressers, beauty salons, and outdoor sports. It’s common now to hear people talking excitedly not only about vaccination appointments but how they managed to bag a slot at the hairdresser’s. The PM is still between a rock and a hard place, vociferous backbenchers urging him to ease restrictions sooner on civil liberties grounds, yet some experts warning that the easing could result in a Third Wave in the summer. They say much more could be done to improve (or even introduce?) Covid safety measures in venues and workplaces.
Social psychologist Professor Stephen Reicher went to the heart of the matter, the need for an effective test and trace system: ‘As England opens up, it will be even more crucial for people to engage with the test and trace system and feel able to self-isolate if they test positive. My concern is there’s all this talk about the roadmap being irreversible, that we won’t go back into lockdown, but unless you put the measures in place, it’s just talk’. Immunologist Professor Peter Openshaw reinforced this, pointing up the prevalence of people evading Test and Trace: ‘It is so vital that it works, but lots of people are opting out because of the practical problems they encounter. In some countries really effective test and trace systems have been able to knock coronavirus on the head, practically, but for some reason we just don’t seem to be able to get that together’. ‘For some reason’? How diplomatic he is but we all know the reason for its ineffectiveness.
Besides the inefficiencies of Test and Trace, an ongoing risk is the UK’s leaky border policy, planes full of tourists (up to 8,000) arriving every day according to some sources, drawing concern from Labour that the quarantine system isn’t strict enough. ‘Yvette Cooper, the Labour MP and chair of the Commons home affairs select committee, said the findings raised ‘serious concerns’ and that the Home Office needs urgently to ‘respond, explain and publish these figures’. Needless to say, Immigration Minister Kevin Foster said the government didn’t ‘recognise these figures’ and that ‘tough health measures’ were in force even for those arriving in the UK ‘on a visitor visa for legitimate reasons’.
As restrictions ease, debate has intensified over vaccine passports and vaccine certificates, the PM now giving a go-ahead for a passport trial. Pilot venues are thought to include football cup finals, the World Snooker Championship, a comedy club and a cinema. At the same time, the NHS is planning a system that will allow people to use an app or a paper certificate to allow access to major events and reduce social distancing measures. Needless to say, though, these plans are attracting flak from those concerned about civil liberties and not just from the usual source of Covid Recovery Group backbenchers. Andrew Bud, founder of the biometrics company iProov, which has been involved in Covid certificate trials, stressed the need for a workable system that balanced convenience with privacy needs and which also guarded against criminal intervention. ‘Forgery I think is a real risk…If they were allowed to happen, I think it would fatally undermine public confidence in the scheme’.
The Times details the ethical arguments in the form of a Q&A, showing that so far 40 Tory MPs oppose the introduction of domestic certificates. It’s not yet definite that there will be a Parliamentary vote on this though there is firm pressure for one. These Tories believe that the measures will lead to a ‘two tier Britain’, but what seems puzzling is Small Business minister Paul Scully saying that certificates would not be required when pubs open up next week and on May 17 when further rules are relaxed. I suspect there will be many venues which will ask for proof of Covid status, opening up the field to umpteen different schemes and zero consistency.
Much attention has been directed this week to the AstraZeneca vaccine and problems with blood clots in some cases, causing some European countries to halt its roll out in their vaccination programmes. Experts here have inclined to the view that the risk is small and the risks associated with contracting Covid are far greater, but fears have been exacerbated by the decision not to administer it to under 30s and by the amount of scaremongering the mainstream media continue to indulge in. The Guardian opined that ‘the course correction, as the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Prof Jonathan Van-Tam calls it, may be slight but it will probably have a disproportionate impact on confidence’. The blood clots side effect are said to be very rare, affecting four in a million people who have had the vaccine in the UK but this policy change could make some older people refuse their second dose.
Meanwhile, the effects of media scaremongering have resulted in further pressure on the NHS due to patients going to their local A&E on experiencing mild side-effects. A number of A&E consultants told the Health Service Journal that their department was “swamped” with patients with headaches who had been sent there by their GP. One said they were ‘scrabbling to cobble together some guidance so as to sensibly reduce the number needing investigation. I gather some units are really, really struggling with this’. This is clearly very difficult for patients, GPs and A&E departments but it’s a situation which could have been anticipated as a result of the relentless media coverage.
Very much in the news (although you might not know it from BBC News avoidance) is the worsening rioting in Northern Ireland, some trying to ascribe this to conflict over the over-attended IRA funeral which the police allowed to go ahead but which has got much more to do with the aftermath of Brexit. Those critical of the Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland protocol say a border is effectively in the Irish Sea, leaving unionists feeling betrayed. The alleged involvement of paramilitary groups can’t be used as an excuse to dismiss the very real concerns of unionists. The Loyalist Communities Council LCC said there had been a ‘spectacular collective failure’ to understand their anger over Brexit and other issues, and the border protocol must be renegotiated. ‘We have repeatedly urged HM Government, political leaders and institutions to take seriously our warnings of the dangerous consequences of imposing this hard border on us and the need for earnest dialogue to resolve matters. We reiterate that message now’.
Brexit is one of the main areas of our PM’s fibs and avoidances and there’s now growing pressure for these to be called out, though it doesn’t set an example that the Speaker doesn’t challenge Boris Johnson to account in the House of Commons. Journalist and author William Keegan dissects these economies with the truth in the Guardian. ‘…..usually, if one is conned, it is over some relatively minor matter in the great scheme of things, and one learns one’s lesson. But when a significant part of a country is taken for a ride, it cannot be dismissed as a trivial matter from which it can easily recover. Such, I believe, is the condition of the UK at the moment’. He suggests that Covid is preoccupying people to the extent that they don’t yet see the effects of Brexit and points up the doublespeak of the PM’s press secretary, who said he ‘does believe in the wider principles of integrity and honesty’. Right, that’s ok, then. Doesn’t this remind us of a similar example uttered by Brandon Lewis at the time of the threatened Internal Market Bill? (This was the implication that it wouldn’t really breach an international treaty because it would only involve departing from it ‘in a specific and limited way’).
‘In his novel The Three Clerks, Anthony Trollope wrote of the 19th-century prime minister Sir Robert Peel: ‘Posterity will point at him as a politician without a policy, as a statesman without a principle, as a worshipper at the altar of expediency, to whom neither vows sworn to friends nor declarations made to his country, were in any way binding.’ Remind you of anyone? But Peel conducted several spectacular U-turns, not least on the corn laws and Catholic emancipation. If only Johnson were to do a U-turn on Brexit and, like Peel, put country before party’.
Problems related to mental health have escalated during the pandemic, some seeking to alleviate their loneliness and anxiety in this way, for example enquiries to alcohol services are said to have doubled this year. As successive lockdowns have caused problem gambling to soar, NHS mental health head Claire Murdoch points out that gambling firms have hugely profited during the pandemic but have left the NHS to ‘pick up the pieces’ from the resulting addiction. She believes these companies should be paying a levy to fund treatment. During the last year 750 people have been referred to specialist clinics but there aren’t enough of these.
‘After seeing the destruction the gambling industry has caused to young people in this country, it is clear that firms are focused on profit at the expense of people’s health, while the NHS is increasingly left to pick up the pieces. In a year when the NHS has dealt with our biggest challenge yet in Covid-19, the health service’s psychologists and nurses have had to been treat hundreds of people with severe gambling addictions’. There’s currently a review of gambling being ‘overseen’ by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, which is apparently, for the first time, considering an industry levy. Let’s hope the review cuts some ice.
The already ‘Cinderella’ mental health service has had a boost recently with the announcement of new perinatal health units. The mental health of new and expectant mothers has long been poorly provided for, for example five years ago 40% of areas in England had no dedicated maternal mental health services. There has been improvement since then, with ‘some specialist services’ in all the 44 local NHS England areas. But it hasn’t been sufficient and contributions to programmes like BBC Woman’s Hour would suggest that some of these women have felt abandoned during the pandemic due to few in person services and pressures on the NHS.
Now 26 sites, to cater for about 6,000 new parents by next April, will offer physical health checks and psychological therapy in one building. This is a very positive development which should perhaps be exported to all area of health, because the longstanding separation of mental and physical health services has encouraged silo thinking, which is unhelpful and another example of the Cartesian divide. Emily Slater, CEO of the Maternal Mental Health Alliance, said: ‘For the more than one in 10 expectant and new mothers experiencing mental health problems, and the increased numbers as a result of the pandemic, there needs to be a system of care available to support them. These new services will enable more women than ever to access vital perinatal mental health care’.
The New Statesman carries an interesting article again linked to mental health and wellbeing, hinging on how we perceive the last year. For you has this been a waste of time, an opportunity for development or something in between? ‘…so many people have told me that, for them, the past 12 months do feel like a wasted year. I’ve heard them describe how they feel a form of mourning – not for a person, but for the time that has been lost. In England, more than half of the last year has been spent in lockdown, with the rest marked by severe restrictions on what we can do, where we can go, who we can see. We have primarily been confined to our homes, instructed to “wait out” the pandemic with Netflix, Zoom, online learning and Joe Wicks fitness classes. But while we have waited, time has kept passing. Babies have been born who have never met their grandparents or known a world without masks. Children have left school without getting the chance to say goodbye to their friends and teachers’. The author feels it’s no wonder our perceptions of time and ageing have become ‘skewed’.
Many, whether younger or older, feel they have been robbed of time, unable to ‘move on’. Many are quoted on a similar theme, but the author cites a man diagnosed at 24 with an aggressive form of cancer, Luke Grenfell-Shaw, who has taken a different view. Having last year planned a charity bike ride from Bristol to Beijing, this was prevented by Covid, so instead he instead turned to other outlets like producing a podcast. Now back on course with the bike ride, he responded to the author’s having put to him these common reactions about wasted time.
‘Out of all people, maybe I have a really strong reason to be angry and resentful and upset [about the past year]. But ultimately I realised that’s an unhelpful way to think. The question really is: how can I make the most of this time? My attitude, and it’s something I learned through having cancer, is that, in life, there are often situations that we cannot control, things just happen – like cancer, like Covid. What we’re left with is a choice of how we deal with them. I believe we’ve always got that choice’.
I don’t think these stances are mutually exclusive – it’s possible both to mourn the loss of time and opportunities characterising the last year but also to acknowledge some benefits which may have emerged and to harness our energies as far as possible on achieving our desires as we move on from this experience.
We’re rightly hearing more and more about the mental health benefits of being close to nature and appreciating the passing seasons. I had a good reminder of this last week, an intended one, by way of the first visit for eight months to a National Trust property. You usually have to book a slot in advance and although the last one of the day wasn’t ideal, or so I thought, it turned out well because I had the enormous garden almost to myself. There’s something very special about being able to commune with nature without the impingement of others in the vicinity. There was a splendid display along all the walks and paths of blossoming trees, camellias and tulips, with the best to come – carpets of bluebells preparing to burst forth. I can’t wait for that towards the end of this month.
The Week summarises a piece in the Daily Telegraph lamenting the rise of ‘woke’ job titles, prompted by the appointment of Prince Harry as Chief Impact Officer at BetterUp, a Silicon Valley mental health coaching company. The author finds it ‘reassuring’ that royalty has some currency in California but finds the strange title ‘jarring’, citing similar examples, such as ‘Dream Alchemist’, ‘Happiness Engineer’ and ‘Brand Warrior’. (Imagine responding to that common question ‘What do you do?’ with ‘I’m Brand Warrior for xyz’). The author worries that these are ‘non-jobs, propped up by easy money’ and that it will take a crash and serious recession to ‘clear them out’, ‘one so serious that even a Chief Impact Officer might notice’.
Finally, I realised that this blog is now a year old, so on this anniversary just to say thanks again to all followers and readers!