Ever since the government reiterated its intention to end lockdown restrictions on July 19th, there’s been an avalanche of doubt, anxiety, criticism and incredulity expressed by scientists, medics and the public, given the rapid rise of Covid cases, including the virulent new Lambda variant. Epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding tweeted: ‘Watching—new Lambda Variant now found in 30 countries…The Lambda originated from Peru, with the highest mortality rate in the world.” Some scientists are worried Lambda may be “more infectious than Delta variant’.
It’s concerning for our mental wellbeing not only that the government seems to be pursuing more explicitly a herd immunity strategy but also that this is polarising society. While many, according to polls, will continue distancing and wearing their masks in indoor spaces, and it’s being mandated in some areas of public transport, there are also many rejoicing in the ‘freedoms’. (YouGov polling indicated 71% want mask use to continue to be mandatory on public transport, 21% don’t. 66% want them in shops, 27% don’t). One sceptic tweeted: ‘Yes, 1m Covid 19 cases are projected by Independent Sage in the next 3 weeks alone… The Johnson regime is doing nothing to prevent this’. Another said: ‘Absolutely extraordinary that Sajid Javid has used today’s Mail on Sunday to declare the ‘health benefits’ of allowing Covid to run entirely unchecked through the UK population – without once mentioning Long Covid. This is experimental, reckless and wrong’. The point about Long Covid is well made as it’s still receiving insufficient attention for its disabling effects in many cases.
After the Downing Street briefing several viewers tweeted about the responsibility issue: ‘What is this sudden outbreak of ludicrous ideological zealousness about making our own choices on COVID risk? These are collective risks which need planning and agreement. They cannot be addressed purely through individual choice. This is crazy!’
Alastair Campbell was somewhat less restrained, using the hashtag ‘sadopopulism’: ‘That was a masterclass in mixed messaging …. It will kill people but as Johnson thinks he has got away with more than an eighth of a million dead through his previous mistakes, he thinks he can get away with this too’.
The 19th July decision (though not 100% certain yet) has thrown into sharp focus the divide between those operating according to collective values, their behaviours determined by the common good, and those pursuing individual goals and desires. However we view it, it does seem an abdication of government responsibility: of course self-responsibility is important and there’s not enough of this, but in this context it’s an overarching and evidence-based government strategy we need. Some commentators see this as the start of another ‘culture war’, not unlike that between Remainers and Leavers. The government’s decision has been condemned by the World Health Organisation as ‘moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity’. Care Minister Helen Whately, not for the first time, gave a car crash interview during Monday’s Radio 4 Today programme, delivering a series of vacuous responses, not answering the question as to whether or not she’d continue to wear a mask and coming out with such gems as ‘I don’t think all cultures are the same’.
While Tory backbenchers shouted ‘Hallelujah’ on hearing the news, the backlash against prime ministerial idiocy, including allowing theatres and nightclubs to operate at full capacity, has been loud and clear, scientists predicting new cases rising to 50,000 a day. Clinicians joined forces to write to the Lancet about their concerns, and Jude Diggins, an interim director at the Royal College of Nursing, said: ‘This disease does not disappear on 19 July. No available vaccine is 100% effective … Public mask-wearing is straightforward and well-established – government will regret the day it sent the wrong signal for political expediency’. But already there are signs of government reservations: ‘ministers will hold on to powers to ‘reimpose economic and social restrictions at a local, regional or national level’ if needed to suppress a dangerous new variant, according to a Whitehall document published on Monday’.
Less than a week after his announcement, it seems even our Prime Minister is grasping the need, so he has a ‘get out clause’, to tone down the triumphal rhetoric, although he needed help to do even this. ‘The Prime Minister still believes it is “now or never”, with a later reopening potentially posing even higher risks as cases could peak as children return to school and winter looms. Two Whitehall sources told the Guardian that ministers had been spooked by internal polling. One said the data showed just 10% of the public support the policy of scrapping all restrictions at once, while another said substantially more people believed the government was moving too quickly than at the last reopening step on 17 May. These accounts were denied by No 10’. Despite Boris Johnson warning people not to be ‘demob happy’, not walking that talk himself, of course, adherence to restrictions has been leaking away for months in some quarters.
At least one commentator focuses on the government’s obvious fatigue with Covid and its pushing of responsibility onto us, but this avoidance and cowardice is not what we elect governments for. ‘Boris Johnson ends Covid as a ‘me problem’ and makes it a ‘you problem’ gives it to us straight. ‘The prime minister’s overriding imperative – you could tell by the very many times he said it – is to “move from universal government diktat to relying on people’s personal responsibility”. He’s basically had enough of making all the decisions, and wants someone else to have a go. Absent an obvious single candidate, he’s throwing it on to all of us’.
Meanwhile, a frontline respiratory consultant voiced the views of many colleagues: ‘NHS staff have a sense of dread about what’s around the corner. While we understand things need to open up some time, the timing feels like utter madness while we are so close to successfully vaccinating the population, and with a more contagious variant circulating’. Again, the government is taking their efforts for granted, failing to recognise the need for a decent pay deal and the level of exhaustion still being felt following the first and second Covid waves. There’s also insufficient recognition of the burdens of the long waiting list, significant rise in Long Covid cases and reduced capacity due to distancing regulations. Let’s hope Sajid Javid doesn’t do as his predecessor often did, just blithely throwing out his ‘I know they can do it’ mantra.
It seems the government is finally realising what scientists have always known, that vaccination was never going to be a silver bullet, despite the soundbite that vaccination is a ‘wall of defence’, ‘breaking the link between infection, hospitalisation and death’. This piece illustrates via infographic how no one measure is 100% effective and how a number of measures are needed to work together. ‘Australian virologist Ian Mackay, the first to use the Swiss cheese model in relation to the pandemic, says, in reality, the cheese’s holes will constantly open, shut and shift location depending on our behaviour…. It is only by using a number of slices – or measures – that we create the best chance of protecting ourselves and our friends and family’. The simplicity of this infographic’s messaging doesn’t disguise the complexity of the topic, though, something the government has proved itself manifestly unable to manage.
Not unrelated to this desire for simplicity is the government’s pursuit of a cynical narrative, analysed by Rafael Behr in a piece headed ‘Boris Johnson cries ‘freedom’ to fill a void where his leadership should be’. On the Freedom Day ‘pantomime’: ‘They mean freedom from the face mask, asserting their own right to no longer care about Covid infections, while making it sound like freedom from the disease itself. This is the same reflex that wanted to celebrate Brexit with an “independence day” on the grounds that EU membership equated to colonisation by a foreign power. It is the familiar revving of ideological engines, racing through the rhetorical gears from metaphor to hyperbole to paranoid delusion and fantasies of joining the resistance in people whose only political struggle has been for selection to a safe Tory seat’.
He suggests that ‘the language of political emancipation’ has been misapplied to a situation which should be seen rationally ‘in terms of clinical outcome’. Behr deconstructs the series of vacuous soundbites we’ve grown familiar with, eg ‘building back better’ and ‘levelling up’, revealing them as emperors wearing no clothes. Unfortunately, though, many are still taken in by them, including sections of the media. ‘That effect should not be overstated. Johnson is still a unique performer: part raconteur, part escapologist, talking his way out of troubles that would sink other leaders. But a consequence of that shtick is the growing gap between heroic language and grubby practice. It is the duality inherent in any failing ideological project that must keep cranking the rhetoric of abstract ideals higher to cover the stoop to ever shabbier methods. The support it generates is widely spread, but maybe also shallow; a popular consumer choice, lacking the connective tissue of shared and consistent beliefs’.
While some commentators fear the mask wearing issue becoming a culture war, others opine that this needn’t be the case if mask wearing is seen as a form of etiquette. This brings us back to the individual versus collective again. I suspect it’s not commonly realised how many thousands will feel more restricted following 19 July because for various reasons they’ve had to shield due to compromised immune systems. Up till now, for some time they could have felt able to get out and about, if social distancing and mask wearing were in evidence, but not if these measures suddenly collapse on 19 July. Adding to these numbers those yet unvaccinated or double vaccinated, it suggests a large number of people who would be left vulnerable.
‘Reportedly, the Department of Health will be issuing new guidance for the immunosuppressed and clinically very vulnerable. But while support for shielders is needed, confining them to quarters indefinitely is hardly a liberation. Nor is there much choice for exhausted NHS staff who face a soaring workload again, or for patients whose operations are being cancelled because hospitals are treating growing numbers of Covid patients or staff are having to self-isolate. If anything, the authors of the Lancet letter are too generous in describing this as “a dangerous and unethical experiment”: that terminology suggests a degree of scientific rigour and concern. Instead, this is a political wager, in which large parts of the population are not players but gambling chips’.
Radio 4’s Any Answers yesterday was interesting on this conundrum, the presenter getting those with opposing views to speak to each other. It was noticeable that the vulnerable callers sounded calm yet concerned, but those clamouring for restrictions to end annoyed and impatient, suggesting the others would just have to ‘stay indoors’.
Green MP Caroline Lucas tweeted during the Andrew Marr programme: ‘Minister says Government taking a “cautious” approach – but making bonfire of all restrictions is the opposite of caution. People are “expected” to wear masks in public places – but why should others be put at risk by some who don’t meet “expectations”? Utterly incoherent’.
Meanwhile, it’s very interesting, if worrying, that while one government adviser, Christopher Fraser, is trying to insist that use of the ‘NHS’ app is at ‘an all time high’, there’s clear evidence that it’s not, that the app’s inappropriate level of sensitivity is causing people to be unnecessarily ‘pinged’ and that numerous people are deleting the app or switching off notifications. We hear that the politicians are partly doing this because they don’t want to risk being ‘pinged’ just before they go on holiday, some even citing the possibility of their marriages being put at risk if they don’t delete or ignore the app. There must be data available on the usage of this app but it’s not being made public – no surprise there.
It was also alarming to hear (and the media obsession with holidays must take some responsibility here) that NHS staff in some areas have been pressurised and abused by those trying to get their second jabs before the scheduled time so they can go on holiday. ‘One vaccination lead in the south-east of England said: “We’ve had a number of violent and aggressive incidents at sites, and even had to call the police, with people demanding their vaccine earlier than eight weeks. These incidents involved verbal abuse and aggressive and threatening behaviour. We have had to bring in security for our walk-in and ‘grab-a-jab’ sessions. GP leaders fear that such unsavoury behaviour, especially by younger adults, could intensify following the government’s decision on Thursday to allow double-jabbed Britons to return from amber-list countries this summer without having to quarantine’. It does seem desperately unfair that beleaguered NHS staff have to put up with this kind of thing and as vaccination experts have said, there needs to be much clearer Government messaging about why bringing the second dose forward is not recommended.
But enough of all this….. across the country and possibly across the whole of Europe, anticipation is building ahead of the Euro 2020 final tonight between England and Italy. It’s still hard to believe England has got this far but very gratifying to see that at least this country can be good at something. Commentators have pointed out the maturity and thoughtful management exhibited by England manager Gareth Southgate, a sharp contrast to the way government is conducting itself. As someone not keen on organised sport and who had never watched football on tv, I surprised myself by watching England vs Ukraine and will watch tonight as well. I was struck by the clever footwork and tactics, particularly of some players like Sterling, but also taken aback by how rough the game was. I didn’t think players were meant to trip each other up and be quite as physical, having attributed that technique more to rugby than football. Needless to say, I’ve been corrected in this misunderstanding by local Arsenal supporters! But now a belated start has been made, who knows…. I might be progressing to trying to understand the offside rule and propping up bar of a local hostelry, pontificating about transfer fees and the deficits of coaches and managers.
Let’s hope there’s no booing of Italy’s national anthem. What is more sickening, though, is the way Boris Johnson and his government have tried to associate themselves with England’s success, implying that this performance is somehow linked with ‘Brexit dividend’ or an example of ‘global Britain’ manifesting itself. Journalist Andrew Rawnsley suggested that the PM’s desperation to ‘steal himself a slice of their glory’ fails because ‘embracing this diverse and harmonious squad authentically is impossible for the party he’s created’. Marina Hyde wrote a funny piece, lampooning the PM’s appearance at Wembley in a football shirt clearly put on over his shirt and tie, in which he looked only too like a parody of himself. ‘Did you see the prime minister in the fancy seats at Wembley on Wednesday? He seemed to have come dressed as a particularly brutal Matt Lucas impersonation of himself….It’s quite something to think that the government went into the first lockdown last year attempting to score cheap points on footballers’ pay. They are now exiting all restrictions desperately trying to piggyback on what footballers have brought to the country, despite Johnson having managed England’s pandemic like Steve McClaren’.
The PM’s bullish and risible tweets about the England team predictably attracted plenty of derision: ‘Shut up, you tiresome fraud’, said one tweet. Another spoofed his claim to be au fait with sport: ‘I’ve loved rugby ever since I saw Gary Lineker score a century at Wimbledon’. It will be interesting to see what he wears tonight, since he won’t have been wearing his suit today.
Following on from the recent news about George Osborne being made chairman of the British Museum (and his likely role in ‘persuading’ this cultural institution to follow the government line on portrayal of British history), journalist Sam Leith expresses exasperation at the increasing tendency for a certain ‘well connected’ individuals to land jobs they have zero experience for. ‘Good grief’, he said on UnHerd, ‘is there anything George Osborne can’t do?’ Leith points out the two different ‘routes’ taken to career advancement: one ‘where you progress by gaining skills and experience in a specific field’, and the other, where seniority and connections enable a select group of individuals to be appointed to key posts for which they have no experience or expertise. ‘Take Dido Harding, another inhabitant of this world..’, in which the occupants ‘make the right friends at university’, then going on to top jobs, peerages and the like. Alluding to Harding’s hat being thrown into the NHS Chief Executive ring, he said: ‘She’ll probably get that, too. If not, perhaps George Osborne will see her right with senior role at the British Museum’.
After some days of lying low following his dramatic resignation, former Health Secretary Matt Hancock has apparently been seen in public for the first time, having his second vaccination. A bystander described a serious-looking Hancock staring at his mobile phone. Following on from journalist (and wife of Michael Gove) Sarah Vine’s recent piece about political marriages coming under strain and the ‘need’ for a partner who boosts the politician’s ego rather than constantly seeing through their facade, Hadley Freeman has likened Hancock’s affair to a 1980s film, along the theme of ‘dweeb and hot girl’. Apparently Gina Coladangelo was regarded as way out of his league during their university years but in recent times, Freeman suggests, he went out of his way to draw her into his orbit, including her recently vacated NHS non-exec directorship.
‘Boy, did Hancock play the long game here! Lord knows I’ve done some crazy things to try to get a crush to notice me – thrown parties, bought expensive clothes, pretended I could cook – but at least I never gave any of them slightly dodgy jobs and a salary, forcing them to hang out with me. Who knows, perhaps Hancock’s entire career was just a ploy to attract the attention of his university crush. If so, (a) that explains a lot; and (b) while I cannot condone Hancock’s deception of his wife, I do salute his tenacity’. Given their intention to move in together, it seems that hasn’t yet taken place, and we can wonder whether this affair will stand the test of scrutiny. ‘As I write this, “friends of Hancock” are insisting he and Coladangelo are “a love match”. But if Hancock had watched more 80s movies, he would know that getting together with your longstanding crush doesn’t always lead to the expected happily ever after’.
Finally, you might be interested to listen to this episode in the Profile series, featuring England player Raheem Sterling and his rise from ‘troubled youth’ to being one of the highest paid footballers, at only 26. ‘I was probably a naughty kid at school- I didn’t really like to listen to anyone except my mum’, Sterling says, yet a few years later a teacher described him mostly as ‘smile and dreadlocks’. It also seems symbolic that from his home in North London he could see the new Wembley Stadium being built. Many will be looking forward to seeing what he pulls off tonight.