After another eventful week, it now seems a long time since Monday, when pubs, cafes and restaurants could open for hospitality outside, and, with the sunny though chilly weather, it does feel that there’s a spirit of renewal in the air. There’s been as much talk about getting a hairdresser or barber appointment as there has about jabs.
But it’s important not to get ahead of ourselves, as too much over-optimism and relaxation of restrictions could causes infection rates to rise again. There are concerns about ongoing Covid ‘hotspots’, residents of two South London boroughs urged to take a test, at least 77 cases here of the Indian variant, and the UK’s leaky border policy isn’t helping. It’s surely absurd that nine flights from India were expected on Friday into Heathrow alone. I think the real test as to whether the virus has been brought under control will be on May 17th and June 21st, if those milestones actually go ahead.
You have to smile or curse at the nerve of Boris Johnson warning people ‘not to relax too soon… people should enjoy new freedoms but remain wary of the risks’ etc when you think of the cavalier way he and his colleagues (not to mention his father) have behaved throughout.
Despite the media trumpeting our new freedoms, some businesses have sounded a note of caution, some not reopening till all the restrictions have been eased. A record shop manager said: ‘Record shops will always be about the charm and the cult of browsing in person. We are not an Argos. We need to be fully immersed in the tactile experience, or not bother doing it at all’. A Northern Ireland machinery manufacturer has been hit with severe trading problems following Brexit, caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol itself but also new tariff rules involving the payment of European duties despite components not even destined for Europe.
Last weekend the BBC flooded with an unprecedented number of complaints (110,000) over its wall-to-wall Duke of Edinburgh coverage, one caller to Any Answers even suggesting that staff including presenter Chris Mason should be sacked. Complainants seemed mainly exercised about the devotion of all its channels to the Duke of Edinburgh’s death but also about the sycophancy characterising many of the tributes, people including MPs seeming to bend over backwards to retrieve some memory of an interaction with the Duke or attribute to him some skill or achievement we’d never previously heard of. Such contributors couldn’t see the irony that the Duke himself, (‘a no fuss kind of man’, in the words of royal correspondent Jennie Bond) would probably have heartily disliked this kind of outpouring and would have urged them to ‘get on with it’. It’s worth noting, though, that 400 were about Prince Andrew appearing, 233 about BBC presenters’ disrespectful clothes and 116 suggesting that complaining was too easy! Some thought that allowing the Duke of York to speak on air represented an Establishment attempt to rehabilitate him, though it’s likely he will find himself on a stickier wicket in July with the start of the Ghislaine Maxwell trial.
It was disgraceful that for the second week running, the BBC refused to field someone to defend this coverage on its own Feedback programme so Feedback invited on a rather defensive theatre and tv director Richard Eyre, who had played a part some years ago in preparing the BBC’s coverage of such an event. So despite all the complaints of last week, will the BBC do the same today for the funeral? The Guardian opined that the BBC has been in a difficult position: ‘Although the BBC is used to finding itself in the middle of Britain’s culture wars, its handling of Philip’s death points to a deeper issue over the ability of a national broadcaster to force the country together to mourn a single individual in an era where audiences are fragmented and less deferential’. Although many will feel sympathy for the bereaved Queen and perhaps some admiration for the Duke of Edinburgh, it’s also possible that these positive feelings could be undermined by excessive obsequious and hyperbolic media coverage.
It must have been galling for the Queen, as she deals with her loss, to have to make difficult decisions about issues like the wearing of uniforms. As Harry would have been the only one not in military uniform and Andrew had wanted to wear an admiral’s uniform, she is understood to have ruled that no military uniforms should be worn at the funeral. The royals’ valets must have been relieved to hear that.
It was a relief to read two articles which offered an alternative to the hype, from the Guardian’s John Crace and Marina Hyde. Crace gets it in one here: ‘With only a few standard clips – “he leaves a huge void”, “he just slipped away” – on offer from members of the family who actually knew the Duke of Edinburgh, nearly all the eulogies elsewhere in the media have come from professional royal-watchers who have quickly mugged up on HRH’s Wikipedia page. Prince Philip would have been gratified that his real friends had kept their silence and astonished by the number of strangers who claimed to have some insight into his personality….’
As for the recalling of the House of Commons: ‘So as ever on these occasions, the interest was less in what MPs had to say about the duke and more in what their speeches said about themselves….Prince Philip was the polymath’s polymath, Boris insisted: scientist, engineer, artist and conservationist rolled into one. Though the evidence for this was rather thin on the ground. A long-wheelbase Land Rover to carry his coffin. A bespoke barbecue for use at Balmoral. A few unexceptional watercolours. His shooting of a tiger back in the early 60s was rather overlooked’.
‘Had Prince Philip been there to hear any of it, you could be certain he would have zoned out long ago,’ said Marina Hyde. ‘This is the sort of pontification one formerly expected only from absurdly pompous people utterly devoid of self-awareness or public standing, such as newspaper columnists.,,,, My colleague Jonathan Freedland made me laugh recently when he noted how Twitter had turned everyone into the Archbishop of Canterbury, somehow feeling that every major news story requires them to issue an official statement. Huge numbers of people now regard themselves as bound to post the sort of formal reactions to Philip’s death that were once the preserve of former presidents of the United States or the queen of Denmark’. It seems that this need to voice opinions as to how the Royal Family should conduct themselves has been quite widespread, for example former PM John Major going on the airwaves to suggest that William and Harry should use this opportunity to heal their rift, not to mention the many who said the only speaking Andrew should be doing is to the FBI.
Much airtime this week has rightly been devoted to former Primer Minister David Cameron and his involvement in the Greensill scandal, an issue which continues to mushroom up, revealing how widely the ripples have spread. It seems our current Prime Minister is rather enjoying (handy deflection from his own shortcomings) hanging his former boss out to dry, with the announcement of not one but two inquiries, though these predictably look anything but ‘independent’.
This week Cameron ‘spoke out’ after a 30 day silence to defend himself from accusations of cronyism and corruption, stressing (as does the government) that he hadn’t ‘broken any rules’. Cameron had worked as an adviser to Greensill Capital since 2018, itself an example of the unhealthy revolving doors syndrome whereby former politicians accept roles in organisations whose activities they were once involved in overseeing. He admitted that there were ‘lessons to be learned’ and that he should have used the formal channels, when it’s clear that a former PM shouldn’t have to learn these ‘lessons’. Interestingly, the ministerial code doesn’t apply to former prime ministers, though we have several times seen the weakness of this code in recent times.
Astonishingly, Cameron tried to spin the narrative that it was necessary for him to speak as his actions could have been ‘misinterpreted’, ‘likely to raise eyebrows in Westminster. As a shareholder, Cameron stood to gain potentially millions from Greensill, but his shares are worthless after its collapse’. It’s clear, though, that the lobbying ‘rules’ are themselves highly inadequate, allowing a former PM, who had potentially valuable shares in Greensill Capital, to lobby ministers including Rishi Sunak and Matt Hancock for contracts to be awarded to the now bankrupt company. In 2018 the shares were estimated to be worth £60m. Unsavoury discoveries continue to emerge, such as Lex Greensill himself having served as an adviser in Cameron’s office and a trip by Cameron and Greensill to curry favour with Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman, months after MBS was widely believed to have been responsible for dissident journalist’s Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination.
Cameron’s heavy fall from grace is likely to feel more painful as Cameron himself, back in 2010, committed himself to regulating lobbying. You have to wonder whether the Greensill affair represents an egoistic attempt, not unprecedented in recent years, to keep one’s end up, not disappearing from public life. It’s certainly added to strong feelings in some quarters that this marks the return of ‘Tory sleaze’, though some might argue that it never went away, especially given the evidence of this last year.
Rachel Reeves, Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said: ‘This is a government mired in cronyism and scandal. It’s not good enough for the Conservatives to appoint an inquiry head from an organisation that lobbied to limit the scope of the register, then carry out an inquiry policing themselves and expect everyone to just look the other way’.
Ripples from Greensill also include how the inquiries will be conducted. The Times tells us that Boris Johnson ‘has commissioned an independent review by Nigel Boardman, a lawyer at Slaughter and May, into the way representations were made to the government and how contracts were awarded’. But Boardman’s role has itself been questioned as he serves on the board of the private Arbuthnot Banking Group which has links to the Conservative Party. How to set up an inquiry but hobble it at the same time? The PM’s spokesman expected the public to believe that the PM is committed to transparency, when we’ve seen anything but during the last year. ‘As you know, there is significant interest in this matter, so the Prime Minister has called for the review to ensure government is completely transparent about such activities and that the public can see for themselves if good value was secured for taxpayers’ money’.
A wag tweeted: ‘Hello Rishi Sunak, I’m one of the 3,000,000 people in the Excluded Ltd. Any chance I can have your personal mobile number so I can send you a text? I know I’m not a past PM, but surely you care as much about me as Greensill, right?’
This links to another emerging ripple, concerning the number of civil servants found to have also worked for Greensill and other private sector interests. Private sector executives, known as ‘the insurgents’, were parachuted in by the Cameron administration to shake up Whitehall. ‘It adds to the growing list of government officials facing scrutiny for straddling public and private sector interests’. Such an unhealthy lack of boundaries between the two is bound to lead to conflicts of interest. One example is the government’s former chief commercial officer Bill Crothers, having joined Greensill while still a civil servant (sanctioned by the Cabinet Office). The key issue is about the way private businesses are able to use former officials to try gain preferential access to government contracts. That Crothers has denied any wrongdoing and said such outside roles were ‘not uncommon’ reveals just how normalised this syndrome has become.
As the gift that keeps on giving, an additional thread, following his admission of having had a ‘private drink’ with Greensill-mired Cameron, is Health Secretary Matt Hancock being found to be a significant shareholder in a company, Topwood, which benefited from being awarded government contracts. Although this was entered in the Register of Members’ Interests, Hancock probably wasn’t expecting an investigative journalist to discover that the company is owned by Hancock’s sister, a conflict of interest kept under wraps. You couldn’t make it up that Topwood’s core business is document ‘shredding, storage and security systems’.
A not unrelated matter is that of privatisation by stealth of the NHS, which many patients won’t even be aware of as the process has been anything but transparent. A number of organisations including Keep Our NHS Public and We Own It, have been campaigning generally and a recent focus is the takeover (facilitated, astonishingly, by NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups) of scores of GP practices by Operose, a subsidiary of the American healthcare provider Centene. In London alone 49 GP practices have been taken over, with concerns, reinforced by evidence of inadequate services offered by Centene services in the States, about potential cost-cutting measures designed to maximise profit.
The government’s former Chief Scientist, Sir David King, has now taken up the cudgels. He set up Independent SAGE last year as a challenger to official SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), which advises government. There are some good people on Independent SAGE and it seems quite open and democratic as anyone can attend their meetings, which have run on Fridays online via Zoom. King has accused the government of corruption, privatising the NHS by stealth, operating a ‘chumocracy’ and mishandling the pandemic and climate crisis.
Alluding to this government’s longstanding ideological aim of privatising the NHS, King challenged the government’s argument that it had to act quickly during the pandemic so normal tendering procedures ‘couldn’t’ be followed, leading, as we know, to many inappropriate contracts being awarded for PPE, etc. ‘People say it’s a crisis – I say the government is using a crisis to privatise sections of the healthcare system in a way that is completely wrong. A fraction of this money going to public services would have been far better results…..I’m quite sure this has not been an accident, I’m quite sure this has been the plan, there has been clarity in this process. The audacity has been amazing’. It’s refreshing to hear the government’s conduct so clearly called out and it’s be hoped that campaigners, if they can’t stop the current round of GP practice sell-offs, can help prevent further inroads into the public NHS most of us are keen to preserve.
The last few weeks I’ve been writing here about ‘re-entry anxiety’. Now The Week has summarised an article by Simon Kuper in the Financial Times, alluding to a ‘guilty secret’ that we’ve rather enjoyed lockdown and don’t relish the thought of ‘normal life’ returning. He acknowledges how difficult lockdowns have been for many, but also for some ‘there’s been an upside… we’ve been able to lead a simpler life and reconnect with our families. We’ve saved money, been spared stressful commutes…’ and he doesn’t mention this aspect but some have been relieved to have a reason not to attend social events and activities they find stressful. He believes that life in society is ‘unnatural, complicated and overstimulating’ so it’s not surprising that we’ve enjoyed a break from it. He ‘dearly hopes’ to ‘retain some of the soothing routines and slower pace of the past year’ but fears that once again he will get caught up in the ‘pre-Covid whirl’.
Some positive news emerged this week in the form of 4,000 university students across the UK having volunteered to tutor children from disadvantaged backgrounds during the pandemic. Although the students themselves have missed out considerably, they have given 35,000 hours of their time to help these children. The Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative, set up last year by Oxford student Jacob Kelly, got to work as soon as school closures were announced by using social media to recruit tutors. Yet again, a private and voluntary initiative has achieved what the government hasn’t. Remember last summer MP Robert Halfon (Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee) calling for the government to organise ‘armies of volunteers’ (including retirees) to help children catch up? I suspect quite a few people would have stepped up but nothing happened and as far as I know it still hasn’t and of course this will increase inequalities further.
Finally, The Week discusses another example of pandemic related unforeseen consequences. As a result of so many hospitality venues having had to move their business online and for takeaway only, there has been an unexpected demand for condiment and sauce sachets, with supplies running low. Kraft Heinz, long associated with its famous tomato ketchup, has been caught on the hop and although it’s creating additional capacity to manufacture the sachets, it could be too late to meet demand. Restaurants are resorting to different suppliers, although that won’t be the same thing. The article thinks the situation could help ‘loosen Heinz’s magical grip on the US diet and upend the condiment world order’, seen as a Good Thing. Personally, I’ve never seen the appeal of ketchup, although I did always rather like those plastic ‘tomato’ dispensers I’m old enough to remember places having as a regular fixture years ago!