As ever, several key issues have been jostling with each other for media coverage, all of them with very unsettling potential, including the quality of BBC journalism and position of the BBC in the wake of the Martin Bashir scandal, continuing confusion over the Amber List of countries, the rapid rise of the Indian Variant and the damaging Dominic Cummings allegations. A difficult week for the Prime Minister, but news of his ‘secret’ nuptials yesterday, when previously the wedding was planned for 2022, was clearly another attempt to deflect attention.
With 5 million bookings to currently Amber List countries, there’s a great deal at stake regarding the government’s unclear guidance, legally permitting travel to these countries but advising strongly against it. I also heard that there’s little checking at ferry ports – so much for a consistent borders policy, and we know passengers from countries on different lists are mingling in crowded airports. And has the refunds situation improved since last year? Many travellers had to wait months for refunds last year and some are still waiting, faced with closed phone lines and unanswered emails, some companies effectively closing down customer communication channels. I think I only had a £360 refund eight months later not because the airlines had just repaid the company, as stated, but because I’d repeatedly raised it on Twitter and companies don’t like the bad publicity.
There’s also little emphasis in the UK about what the destination countries require (eg locator forms to be completed) and France has prevented entry to Britons because of the Indian Variant, which will not please those with second homes there. The government struggled to even sing from the same song sheet on travel policy, Lord Bethell in the Lords and Peter Bone MP saying travel is ‘dangerous and not for this year’, causing uproar in the travel industry. On the other hand Environment Secretary George Eustice was slapped down by Boris Johnson for saying people could visit these countries if they were visiting friends. Skills Minister Gillian Keegan didn’t endear herself to Radio 4 listeners when she played the ‘we’re all in this together’ card, a typical politician’s ploy. She said although she was ‘desperate’ to visit her second home now is not the time to book a holiday to Spain, telling people to stick to the slim list of 12 destinations on the government’s Green List if they want a foreign holiday. St Helena, anyone?
Equally embarrassing last week was Transport Minister’s talking up of the Great British Railways plan, not only for its jingoistic branding but also because it apparently amounts to yet more cosmetic tinkering and retains the private ownership at the root of longstanding rail transport failures. I experienced the worst journey of my life last weekend, a journey of 4 hours actually taking 9, due to breakdowns, 50 minutes waiting for drivers and several missed connections, necessitating a bus for the last ‘leg’ in the pouring rain. The worst thing was that when passengers were turfed off the first train at Milton Keynes, there was no evidence of any contingency planning or customer communication system to take account of such breakdowns. Surely such planning is a crucial requirement when bidding for a rail franchise. Apart from one or two beleaguered staff on the platform, passengers were on their own without advice to decide how best to continue their journeys – or not.
It looks like we’ll have to wait till 2023 to see if any of the planned benefits actually materialise, such as simpler ticket purchasing systems, easier routes to compensation and more flexible season tickets.
With 4,182 new Covid cases reported on Friday (over 7,000 altogether according to some sources) and 27 more deaths, there’s further pressure on the government, including from Independent Sage’s Professor Anthony Costello, to consider delaying the lifting of remaining restrictions in June. Costello tweeted: ‘New data is very worrying. Cases and hospital admissions up 25% and deaths up 38%. June 21 step 4 looks very unlikely. The govt should be pouring resources and trace/isolate teams into hotspots. Why aren’t they doing it? Third Wave on the way?’
While the atmosphere on high streets seems mostly buoyant, cafes and restaurants full to bursting in some places, this could shortly prove a damp squib if it all has to be reined in. Even at the third step of lockdown easing roadmap on 17th May, some commentators were advising against inside mixing and there was talk of ‘hugging with caution’, rather a contradiction in terms. When the variant was discovered in at least 86 council areas, the government was lambasted for seeming to imply local lockdowns in the worst affected northern towns, like Bolton and Blackburn, in anything but name.
With no official announcement, advice on the government’s website was changed overnight to suggest there should be no travelling in and out of those areas, a position they shortly had to clarify and roll back on. This proved a humiliating and cowardly strategy, infuriating those local mayors and council leaders – let’s hope it’s not repeated. Such important changes need to be communicated very clearly, not buried on a website which only a few are likely to see. While it’s pretty clear that the Indian Variant was allowed to take hold because of the delay in banning flights from India, Matt Hancock, in media interviews, continued to attribute the rise to those hospitalised having refused vaccination, when it was later shown that some of those patients had been vaccinated once and some twice.
One Bolton couple told the local press they were being treated ‘like lepers’ after a hotel on the Isle of Wight cancelled their reservation and many could have had a similar experience. What’s the betting that despite the government rolling back on the initial ‘advice’, people from these areas might still struggle to make holiday bookings and could well lose their deposits. Commenting on the Radio 4 interview with Grant Shapps, who demonstrated the increasing tendency of the government to abdicate responsibility, one tweeter observed: ‘Common sense is an incredibly amorphous concept which displaces responsibility onto individuals. It allows the govt to stealthily remove itself from the picture and shifts the responsibility of managing risks during a **global pandemic** entirely on to the public’.
The Guardian’s John Crace wasted no time in demolishing Matt Hancock’s particular deflections. ‘It was more a question of do as I say, not as I do. “We must be humble,” said Matt Hancock. Not something that comes naturally to Matt, despite him having a lot to be humble about. Matt talks a great deal about levelling with the country but he can’t even level with himself. The reality is that the government doesn’t learn from its own mistakes as it is unable to admit it has made them. So it is destined to endlessly repeat them. The dead are just collateral damage…. Though Door Matt was at pains to point out it wasn’t really the government’s fault. Those who had got ill had no one to blame but themselves, as almost all the people in hospital had failed to get themselves vaccinated’.
Meanwhile, as yet another anti-lockdown protest gets underway in London, Dr Helen Salisbury, GP and NHS campaigner, tweeted: ‘I hate to be gloomy but cases are up by 25% and deaths within 28 days are up by 38% this week compared to last week. We are not over this pandemic yet – but it won’t go away just because we are all so bored of masks and restrictions’. We really can’t expect overworked and underpaid NHS staff to cope with a third wave of the virus without the government properly addressing their concerns. Although the ministers and the PM in particular seem immune to shame, it must have been a blow to hear that one of the nurses who cared for the PM 24/7 when he was in intensive care has resigned over the ‘lack of respect’ shown for NHS workers. All the time we see evidence of the NHS being taken for granted (eg ‘I know they can do it’, says Matt Hancock frequently, without acknowledging that they are often ‘doing it’ at considerable cost to their own wellbeing). Describing the proposed 1% pay rise as ‘a kick in the teeth’, nurse Jenny McGee also revealed that the PM’s staff had later attempted to co-opt her into a “clap for the NHS” photo opportunity with him during what she thought would be a discreet thank you visit to Downing Street. How cynical is that?
With a full pandemic inquiry delayed till 2022, we have to make do with other inquiries and investigations, some of which are purely or mostly whitewash. One of these is Lord Geidt’s inquiry into the issue of payments for the Downing Street flat refurbishment, which has unsurprisingly cleared Boris Johnson of misconduct. ‘Lord Geidt, the PM’s adviser on standards, said a Tory donor had paid an invoice for some of the costs. But he cleared Mr Johnson – who was seemingly unaware of the arrangement – of breaking ministerial conduct rules’. The whole refurb was thought to have cost about £90,000 and the report didn’t state how much Tory vice-chair Lord Brownlow contributed, although it’s reckoned to be around £58,000. The report will still make for uncomfortable reading, though, coinciding with the Cummings allegations. ‘Lord Geidt questions why Boris Johnson didn’t pay more attention to who was paying for the work in his flat. Why wasn’t the prime minister more curious, he wonders? It is also critical of officials – saying the prime minister was “ill-served” by those around him when it came to this project’.
On the other hand, the National Audit Office’s recent report, which looked into ‘more than a dozen’ areas of government performance, was fairly damning, saying the virus ‘laid bare existing fault lines within society, such as the risk of widening inequalities, and within public service delivery and government itself…. Amid renewed questions over the reopening timetable, the National Audit Office (NAO) warned that from the very start of the pandemic a lack of planning had left ministers without a “playbook” on how to respond’. It’s exactly this kind of thing which is bad for our mental wellbeing, because we rightly look to our elected representatives to take care of situations, or at least address them effectively, however challenging, but time and time again we’ve seen failure and misdirection of resources. Our mental health can suffer when these scenarios occur and persist and there’s ample evidence of how mental health has been affected during the pandemic.
‘The NAO report highlighted the need for long-term solutions across areas including the disconnect between adult social care and the NHS, failings in data and IT systems, workforce shortages and ongoing monetary shortfalls, with a warning that already-struggling local government finances had been ‘scarred by the pandemic’. The report also collated the total government extra spend on Covid-related measures, putting it at an estimated £372bn by the end of this March, taking in the full lifetime of all policies’.
In the media there has been no end of hand-wringing and condemnation regarding the Martin Bashir scandal and how his deceitful tactics regarding the Princess Diana interview had been covered up by the management at that time and Bashir himself was re-hired in 2016. BBC Director General, Tim Davie, rather struggled in an interview on Tuesday and it can’t have pleased the Corporation that media mogul Lord Grade criticised the ‘culture of arrogance at the BBC’. But it also beggars belief that the interviews on Radio 4, for example, discussing ‘the quality of journalism at the BBC’, seemed to be unaware of how a powerful right-wing bias has increasingly intruded and news not consistent with the government’s narrative often goes unreported. ‘There is no problem with journalism at the BBC… it’s a non-story’, said one contributor on Radio 4’s Media Show. A view many would not share.
Not surprisingly, though, most media attention this week has been taken up with the allegations of Dominic Cummings, giving damning evidence to MPs on the trajectory of the pandemic. It’s long been clear that Cummings is a vengeful individual, but his evidence is convincing, and besides declaring that Boris Johnson wasn’t fit to be PM (a conclusion many reached quite some time ago), I do wonder whether Matt Hancock had any idea in advance the extent to which he would be attacked. Cummings didn’t hold back, detailing Hancock’s multiple ‘lies’ and saying there were 15-20 occasions on which he deserved to be sacked. One of the key lies, for which there is clear evidence despite Hancock’s denial, is that despite the declaration that the government had ‘thrown a protective ring around our care homes’ and the commitment to test discharged hospital patients, this had been far from the truth because elderly patients were discharged into care homes untested, causing multiple deaths. One care home manager interviewed on Radio 4 said over 65% of her residents had lost their lives.
The Times detailed Cummings’s allegations and attempts to respond to them. One of the most severe was Boris Johnson’s holiday at Chequers and failure to attend COBRA meetings and about how government operated: ‘The government’s pandemic preparations were ‘basically completely hollow’ despite Matt Hancock’s claims. The Cabinet Office was ‘terrifyingly shit’…..Cummings’s judgment on Hancock is brutal: “I think the Secretary of State for Health should’ve been fired for at least 15, 20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions in meeting after meeting in the Cabinet room and publicly.” Hancock has “performed far, far disastrously below the standards which the country has a right to expect’.
The charge sheet continues, including the failure to lock down because ‘there was no plan on how to do it’, the accusation that Downing Street attention was diverted by a negative story in the press about the Boris and Carrie dog (Dilyn),that herd immunity was indeed the strategy in March 2020 and that the failure to close borders was due to concerns that such a policy would be ‘racist’. No wonder mental wellbeing generally has been affected by the climate generated by such colossal incompetence. Needless to say, ministers have been wheeled out to be interviewed in the media and have been predictably exhibiting via bluster and denial their occupation of a parallel universe, especially Robert Jenrick on the Today programme and David Davis on Any Questions. But another reason the testimony has to be taken seriously is Cummings’s admission of fault regarding the Barnard Castle saga. Some may consider this a cynical ploy, but overall, the evidence presented does present a serious challenge to the government and ministers will struggle to dismiss Cummings when they previously commended him because of his Brexit ‘achievements’.
In defence Boris Johnson said: ‘We put £1.4 billion extra into infection control within care homes, we established a care homes action plan, I remember very clearly, to ensure that we tried to stop infection between care homes’, carefully omitting the key issue of what happened between hospitals and care homes. Again, he presumed to state what he believes the public wants when he actually has no idea: ‘What people want us to get on with is delivering the road map and trying – cautiously – to take our country forward through what has been one of the most difficult periods that I think anybody can remember’.
For his part, Hancock typically defended himself with denial: ‘These unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true, and I’ve been straight with people in public and in private throughout…..Every day since I began working on the response to this pandemic last January, I’ve got up each morning and asked ‘what must I do to protect life?’ A sceptical tweeter opined: ‘Hancock: ‘I’ve been straight with people in public and in private throughout..Every day since I began working on the response to this pandemic last January, I’ve got up each morning and asked ‘what must I do to protect life?’ Then didn’t do it??’
Meanwhile, one article seems designed to make us question whether Matt Hancock is an over promoted incompetent or a dastardly strategist who ‘knows which levers to pull’. ‘Hancock has managed to cling on to frontbench positions during the No 10 tenures of David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson through a mixture of political skill and overriding ambition…… His success in clawing his way back into the cabinet was a result of hard work, one former cabinet colleague said. “He is enthusiastic – Tiggerish is the right word – and is absolutely focused on doing the job.” Another said he understands the workings of Whitehall better than anyone in the cabinet other than Michael Gove. “It would be wrong to underestimate him, just because he comes across as irritating. He knows which levers to pull,” he said’. Despite ‘numerous calls for his sacking’, though, Boris Johnson has always stood by him, for a good reason, some may think: he will be the fall guy and scapegoat when this administration is properly called to account.
But any ideas of proper scrutiny and accountability can be dismissed for the present because many are still, despite the events of the last year, taken in by Boris Johnson. The right wing press and woeful lack of political awareness in this country mean that many voters still see our PM as a bit of a rogue but all the better for it. The Guardian’s Marina Hyde analyses the ‘dangerous cult that now runs Britain’ – ‘no matter what the prime minister does, no matter the consequences, his devotees line up to heatedly excuse it….. you’ve heard a lot of denials over the past 24 hours. But the biggest UK repository of denial remains the polls, where no revelation of incompetence or failure impacts other than positively for the government…. The thing about cult leaders, typically, is that they’re charismatic, male and able to persuade people of the wisdom of things very much not in their best interests. There is simply no moral failing of theirs that could be placed in front of their followers that would not cause those same followers to passionately excuse it or love them more for it’. This all makes us sound rather doomed.
Given the nature of the last year, it’s not surprising to learn that alcohol-related deaths in England and Wales have risen 20% from 2019 to 7,423 (Office for National Statistics), the figures representing more men than women and many more living in the poorer areas of the countries. The deaths are thought to be caused by people drinking more during lockdowns, a common response to fear and uncertainty, especially when there’s been little psychological support, but also reluctance to seek medical help. A key reason, though, has to be the cuts to drug and alcohol services over the last ten years, with some mental health services refusing to take patients with alcohol issues. It was always a mistake to separate drug and alcohol services from mental health services, when the issues are often intertwined but services do need to be available in the first place if we’re not to see rising figures year on year.
With the spotlight on the hospitality industry since the lockdown exit roadmap opened venues first to outside service, then inside, The Economist reports on a ‘headache’ which has gone under the radar in some quarters, that of staff shortages. The situation is said to be worst in London and South East and has been attributed to Brexit, students being less available and workers moving into other sectors such as retail and logistics, which opened earlier. The article suggests that the industry needs to raise wages, which have remained low, to ease recruitment. That sounds a no-brainer but it must be difficult for the owners of venues which had to close for months on end and may themselves be on their uppers.
Another article analyses some likely future scenarios for restaurants, interviewing a top chef, a restaurateur and a street food team. The chef, Tom Kerridge, said of the last 14 months: ‘I’ve tried to take all fear away from the staff….Filtered all the way through, it’s been, ‘Don’t worry, you’re all safe.’ I’ll be honest, it’s been absolutely exhausting. I’m more tired than if the restaurants are open’. Hmmm…. he’s carrying out the psychological containment role for his staff which the government should be doing for the whole population. There’s concern that social distancing measures continuing beyond June will affect business and ‘diners should not expect deals’ – interesting given reports last year of rude and demanding customers expecting just that. Although Kerridge predicts more closures, especially ‘wet-led pubs’, where profit margins are low, he sees opportunities for entrepreneurs due to yet unexploited sites and good deals negotiable on rents, so ‘it’s not all gloom’.
The others interviewed cite other key factors, like people holidaying in the UK boosting trade but the real reckoning point coming in 2022, following a tough winter and VAT and rent rates returning to normal. What emerges forcibly from this very interesting article is the amount of strength and optimism needed in this business within a climate of extreme uncertainty: it’s a salutary lesson for those of us who use restaurants but know little about what they’re up against.
Finally, it’s encouraging to read a positive story about this business, about a Syrian man who fled with only £12 to his name and now has his own restaurant in London’s Soho. ‘When Imad Alarnab, a Syrian chef, arrived in the UK as a refugee five years ago, he could barely afford to eat. Meals were regularly skipped and a Snickers bar could be eked out over a whole day to help him survive’. The article describes how this massive achievement came about, first partnering with a charity in 2017 to host a pop up kitchen in East London, word of mouth success then leading to many more customers. One thing led to another and ‘Alarnab crowdfunded £50,000 last autumn to help secure the 60-cover restaurant on Carnaby Street, Soho’.
‘This is not because I am strong or brave,” says Alarnab, who begins to well up as staff scurry through the restaurant, prepping for their first service. “I am proof that if you try to do something good for people, something good will happen to you. This is a fact.” Back in Syria, he had lived a comfortably affluent life as the owner of three restaurants and several juice bars and coffee shops’. He lost everything during severe bombing over 6 days in 2012, then was forced to move from place to place with his wife and three daughters, before attempting the perilous journey to the UK over three months in 2015. ‘Almost 10,000 licensed premises – including restaurants, pubs and clubs – closed permanently in 2020 and an estimated 640,000 jobs were lost from the hospitality sector in the last 12 months’. Despite such a difficult operating environment, let’s hope Imad Alarnab survives and thrives.