Last weekend ministers and other Johnson supporters queued up to congratulate the PM well on his ‘secret’ wedding to Carrie Symonds, a pretty clear and intended distraction from bad news since this event had originally been planned for 2022. Many were puzzled as to how Father Daniel Humphreys had deemed it acceptable to preside over such an event, since marrying divorcees is against Catholic doctrine, but it appears the previous two weren’t ‘recognised’ by the Catholic Church, prompting speculation as to the effects on previous wives and children of those unions (now considered illegitimate in this context). A sceptic tweeted: ‘If Boris marrying is Westminster Cathedral is true then, as a Catholic, I would like to know why a twice divorced adulterer was able to and my practising Catholic friend who divorced a husband who battered hell out of her had to re-marry in a registry office. ‘
Carrie Johnson, as she now is (interesting that she changed her name), has even been dubbed First Lady by some media sources, especially relevant prior to her anticipated public role at the imminent G7 meeting. The authors of such gushing and obsequious commentaries don’t seem to realise that First Lady is not a role we have in the UK. Meanwhile, irreverent ‘adverts’ immediately starting circulating on social media, purportedly for a replacement ‘mistress’, the qualities required including the capacity to work horizontally.
Bad news the nuptials were used to deflect from is legion, including the continuing aftermath of Dominic Cummings’s testimony, the very worrying rise of the strain known as the Indian Variant, the news that days after his elevation to the realm of crony peers, Tory donor Peter Cruddas had given a large sum to the Conservative Party and anger over the foreign travel amber list, especially the sudden inclusion of Portugal. Actual and would-be travellers were interviewed in the media, some saying they’d have to cancel, some deciding to go ahead anyway, leaving the travel industry and those already in Portugal in shock, some saying they had to return immediately to work and couldn’t quarantine. But in any case, who will check? We know the £37bn Track and Trace programme has been particularly weak on tracing and checking on those meant to be self-isolating. It’s estimated that fewer than 20% are fully isolating when required to.
As the Delta Variant is believed to be 40% more transmissible than the original strain of Covid, there’s certainly cause for concern and it’s highly likely the government will have to backpedal on its ‘irreversible’ stage 4 of lockdown easing on 21 June. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘There he goes again, Matt Hancock attributing spread of #IndianVariant to the unvaccinated. With all the government’s talk of ‘working 42/7’, ‘bending over backwards’, the hardest work it does is in thinking up new ways to deflect attention from their own errors’.
The Portuguese government can’t understand the UK government’s logic in coming to this decision. Many UK residents are equally baffled, but it’s pretty clear that it’s yet another projection of responsibility. The UK has a rapidly rising numbers of cases so the government tactic is to deflect attention by implying the problem lies elsewhere, and because it has to be seen to be taking action, however inappropriate, relegating Portugal to the amber list is the kneejerk result. A key issue will be how quickly the travel industry will issue refunds following the often disgraceful situation last year, many being kept waiting for months on end. And a big question mark hangs over other European destinations, though many are sticking to their plans regardless (tour operator Tui said 50% of their customers planning to visit Portugal still planned to do so).
Many commentators are united on condemning what they see as poor and cynical messaging behind the move: the very concept of an amber list is questionable when it causes confusion and when the EU itself has imminent reopening to vaccinated UK visitors. But it’s again the abdication of responsibility. The Times said:’ It seems ministers are unable to agree the limits of UK policy, so they’ve put the onus on the public to decide, but it’s neither fair nor sensible to outsource border policy during a pandemic to individual holidaymakers… both travellers and Britain’s beleaguered tourism and aviation industries deserve clarity’. If it wasn’t so serious, it would be almost amusing witnessing in the media one minister after another trying to defend such an absurd position, some even having the nerve to play the ‘all in this together’ card because they can’t visit their own second home.
Meanwhile, as more give up the idea of foreign holidays and opt for ‘staycations’ (yes, one dictionary definition at least includes remaining in the UK, as opposed to its original one of staying at home) those without their own transport will be at the mercy of what seems worsening public services. After a horrendous experience two weeks ago (a journey to Wales of 4 hours, with several changes, becoming 9, with the last connection missed altogether) this pattern continued for me, including a cancelled train from Sussex, which had cost implications for work commitments, and this last weekend a journey to Norfolk took 6 hours instead of 4, due to yet another broken down train. It also was far from plain sailing on the way back, the journey involving a rail replacement bus we had to wait 40 minutes for. Yet again there seems to be no contingency planning, staff either absent or running around like headless chickens, when surely we can assume that applications for franchises demand evidence of such a plan. In this case coaches were laid on to take passengers to the next major station down the line, but with no distancing: we were told, on boarding: ‘every seat to be used’. Such inconsistencies make a nonsense of distancing in stations and on trains.
I’ve heard similar stories from others and can only conclude that these stressful problems are due to the haphazard operation of privatised services, staffing pared to the bone, and services struggling to ‘get back to normal’ following the last 14 months. Although some commentators sound positive about the Great British Railways plan, others say it won’t remove the problems caused by both private and state involvement and unclear division of responsibilities. Although GBR will own the network, collect fare revenues and set most fares and timetables, the private sector will still be active in the form of contractual agreements given by GBR to run lines for a fixed fee. Commentator Simon Jenkins believes the plan is problematic because it still divides responsibility but the outlook generally also isn’t positive because of declining passenger numbers and the ‘exorbitant’ HS2 absorbing most investment.
As aspect of the plan which might well alarm many, is the likely undermining of Trainline, the popular online ticketing system, shares in which fell markedly when GBR was announced. At present Trainline sells around 70% of digital tickets but GBR’s own platform could well eat into this. One commentator thought the smartest move would be for GBR to ‘snap up’ Trainline for its ‘brilliant’ technology.
Cronyism reared its head again last week, relating to ‘disgraced’ Conservative Peter Cruddas, who’d had to resign as party co-treasurer in 2012 after offering undercover journalists access to PM David Cameron in return for £250,000 in donations. It emerged that he gave more than £500,000 to the Conservative Party after becoming a peer, an appointment advised against by the House of Lords Appointments Commission but overruled by Boris Johnson.
Yet another embarrassment for the government this week, which brought Education Minister Gavin Williamson even further into disrepute, if that was possible, was the resignation of schools tsar Sir Kevan Collins due to insufficient amounts earmarked for education catch up. ‘Sir Kevan took on the role as catch-up tsar in February to develop a long-term plan to help pupils make up for lost learning during the pandemic. But on Wednesday he stepped down saying the government’s funding for the plan ‘falls far short of what is needed’. Head teachers labelled the £1.4bn cash over three years as a ‘damp squib’. The Education Policy Institute had calculated that a catch-up funding recovery would need £13.5bn – and Sir Kevan was reported as having put forward plans costing £15bn’. What a colossal contrast to the £1.4bn actually offered, attributed by some to Gavin Williamson’s poor performance in making the case for more.
‘…Sir Kevan’s resignation has fired a torpedo at the government’s contention that school recovery is one of its top priorities’. Quite, but I wonder what on earth happened to the idea floated last summer to recruit thousands of volunteers, including retired teachers, to help children catch up. Although this important work should be adequately funded, I suspect quite a few volunteers would have stepped up to help but it came to nothing back then, so now there’s much more catching up to do.
Meanwhile, ByLine Times spells out why the ‘we did everything we could’ narrative is false. ‘This mantra – ‘we did everything we could’ – has been repeated by the Government endlessly during the past 12 months… about the goods and services that it has procured. A Coronavirus death toll of 150,000 people – the highest in Europe – is a glaring and unavoidable fact that obstructs any claim that the Government excelled during this crisis. But, on so many levels, aside from its basic (mis)management of the disease through delayed lockdowns and botched, epidemiologically illiterate relaxations, the Government has failed Britain at a time of desperate need. The author outlines the key areas in which what he calls an ‘unparalleled national calamity’ have been manifested: PPE procurement, Test and Trace, Nightingale hospitals and ventilators. ‘These four crucial areas of Government policy in response to the Coronavirus pandemic have been marked by inconsistency. There has been a haphazard blend of over-compensation, negligence, overspending, secrecy and cronyism’ but it’s all been made light of, presented as ministers and officials perhaps spending too much or acting precipitately, ‘but they only did so to protect the nation at a time of crisis’. The dangerous thing about this, of course, is that, repeated often enough, more will be taken in by this false narrative rather than supporting the scrutiny these actions justify.
We’ve often seen governments bury bad news or green light a controversial measure when attention is taken elsewhere, and one now gaining traction is what’s happening in primary care. Thanks to campaign groups like Keep Our NHS Public, it’s now more commonly known how efforts to privatise by stealth have been passed by local Clinical Commissioning Groups, including the sale of over 50 London GP practices to an American company (previously covered by this blog). The media have mostly colluded with this by failing to report it, though it was well covered by BBC Radio London once they were alerted to it. Now, unless we opt out in a particular way (not the way most publicised) our NHS records are in danger of being sold under our noses.
The Full Fact website spells out what’s being planned and the details of the two kinds of opt-out, the deadline for the first being 23 June, not far off. The plan is that from July, NHS Digital NHS Digital ‘will start collecting patient data from GP medical records in England about any living patient, including children, and any data about patients who died after the collection started. This is called the General Practice Data for Planning and Research data collection, and NHS Digital says it will be used to help the NHS improve health and care services by allowing it to plan better, prevent the spread of infectious diseases, help with research and monitor the long-term safety and effectiveness of care’.
Sounds very reasonable, doesn’t it? But although NHS Digital says people can’t be identified from the data collected, there are other identifiers besides name, eg postcodes and the like, which could be unique in some areas. It also says the data won’t be sold, ‘but there is a price list on the organisation’s website listing charges for its Data Access Request Service’ and it’s possible organisations wishing to purchase such data could construct a ‘legal’ reason why they needed it. I don’t think everyone will be reassured by the NHS Digital statement: ‘Any data that NHS Digital collects will only be used for health and care purposes. It is never shared with marketing or insurance companies’.
Several interesting articles discuss different aspects of Covid ‘recovery’, the first consisting of contributions from experts in the key areas of education, physical health, mental health and the justice system. Professor of clinical psychology at the Institute of Mental Health, Roshan das Nair, was interviewed regarding mental health and he’s never been so concerned at the ‘mounting crisis’ in this area. “The challenges presented by the pandemic are so complex and wide-ranging, they cannot be solved by health and social care professionals alone’. It’s helpful to recognise in this way the need for joined up thinking and working and he also emphasises the need for preventative work, not just addressing issues when they manifest, as often they’ve taken some time to develop, with no help. ‘He calls for a public health response that doesn’t just see money urgently put into the NHS, but seeks solutions that compel schools and employers to take more responsibility in helping people stay well. ‘For instance, there is a role for the education sector to monitor how pupils are faring, and we can train young people to be better at looking after their mental health’. But we know mental health services have been underfunded for years and it’s been a serious misdirection of resources, in my view and those of many, to privilege Cognitive Behaviour Therapy at the expense of the relational therapy many people need. Quite apart from unacceptably long NHS waiting lists, for years the NHS has ignored the availability of thousands of qualified and experienced counsellors and psychotherapists in order to train its own workforce in CBT. This often proves unhelpful for patients, who then have to seek help privately.
‘In the spring the government announced a £500m mental health recovery action plan to ‘level up mental health and wellbeing across the country’ by targeting groups most affected, including young people and frontline staff. Leading medical organisations including the BMA and the Royal College of Psychiatrists have said more is needed and have lobbied for NHS staff to have access to mental health support similar to that available to war veterans’. These organisations make good points and I would add that mental health is the least appropriate place for use of the meaningless and over-used ‘levelling up’ descriptor.
Another article analyses how the government’s rhetoric on Covid recovery has been constrained by the Treasury, the PM and Chancellor Rishi Sunak at odds on the key issue of recovery spending. The ‘levelling up’ and ‘building back better’ schtick has had to be modified by reality, leading to tensions between these two stances. ‘The Treasury’s spending plans, which were settled before the pandemic, allow only for small rises in day-to-day spending of 2.1% each year in real terms between 2020-21 and 2025-26 and much of that money has already been handed to the NHS, schools, international aid and defence. So where will the extra funds for day-to-day spending on schools and hospitals and courts and other services come from?’ The article predicts that last week’s upheaval over education spending is just the tip of a large iceberg, surely one which might make Red Wall voters start to see the ‘levelling up’ for what it actually is, the Emperor wearing no clothes.
The third article by Eva Wiseman on the theme of Covid ‘recovery’ focuses on the individual and the need to adjust to life meaning ‘living on constant alert’. Very tiring. ‘It has become boggling to me, the idea that, once, I was able to simply plan a break. That our lives have now been so neatly delineated it’s possible to mark time as BC or AC, the before Covid period now remembered as a simple cruise through tree-lined boulevards, caressing strangers (consensually), laughing in offices, high-fiving (constantly). And now, well. Even the things that haven’t changed have changed, our own new, raw eyes seeing them in ungenerous and terrible lights’.
I think this article brings out the exhausting need to be so careful and the virtual impossibility of spontaneity as nearly everything has to be booked in advance, not to mention the need to mourn these losses. ‘Life AC (After Covid) is stained with anxiety, some of it acceptable, much not. I watch the world open up with sharpened teeth and feet in concrete and I think about going away. Would it be selfish? Would it be the thing to fix us? Would we simply be decanting our domestic moaning to another town, without our lovely stuff there to soothe us? Would the thrill of travelling outweigh the worry of returning?’
In this context it’s very fitting that Radio 4’s Moral Maze last week focused on happiness and one of its dichotomies – hedonism versus an interpretation predicated on contentment arising from a life well lived. The programme description is interesting, summarising some of the dilemmas around its definition. ‘Philosophers and artists, from Epicurus to Ken Dodd, have grappled with the secret to happiness…. a team of neuroscientists suggest we ‘should lower our expectations to be happy….. this appears to fly in the face of a celebrity culture that chases fame, status and success as ends in themselves’. One of the ‘witnesses’ grilled by the panel targeted the ‘wellness industry’, which has been seen in some quarters to unfairly place responsibility on the individual for wider socioeconomic problems leading to distress.
‘While the wellness industry is booming, so is the prescription of antidepressants, increasingly for teenagers – according to The National Institute for Health Research. What does this reveal about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? What is wrong with personal happiness as a life goal? Some think that there is too much stuffiness about happiness, that there is nothing selfish about self-care, and that people should be free to set the bar as high as they wish and explore personal fulfilment however they chose. Others believe that life should be about more than seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, that the conscious pursuit of happiness can make us more miserable, and that happiness – rather than being an expectation – should be a by-product of a life well-lived’.
Finally, given that studying medicine has often been an area reserved for the privileged, it was good news to hear that 29 students from a deprived London authority area have won places at medical school since 2017, due to a ‘pioneering’ scheme to widen access. The Mossbourne Federation, which runs schools in Hackney, aims to support would-be medics from less well-off backgrounds by providing the benefits they would have received if attending a fee-paying school. These include access to talks, visits to university labs, hands-on experience and expert training in entrance exams. Let’s hope the Federation keeps track of these students and that we get to hear how they fare. This is a good example of what ‘levelling up’ should look like!