Having watched football on tv for the first time ever (the Euro 2020 semi-final and final) I am now a football expert (!) and I did think it seemed a mistake for Southgate last Sunday evening to bring on different players for the penalties. Gratifyingly, many of those who know the game inside out seemed to agree, but how well the team did to even get to the final. Even more shaming, then, was the behaviour (not called out by the government) of some fans booing the opponents’ national anthems and abusing England players for falling at the last hurdle. Even more shaming, in the eyes of many, was the government’s hypocrisy over a period of time, condemning ‘taking the knee’ as ‘gesture politics’, giving the green light to misbehaving fans, then appearing to condemn the very abuse this stance had led to. ‘This England team deserve to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused on social media. Those responsible for this appalling abuse should be ashamed of themselves’, tweeted Boris Johnson, leading to this response from footballer Tyrone Mings: ‘You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens’. Oof.
While one Tory MP had the nerve to tell footballers to stick to their day jobs (of course, that would be convenient for them, for these critics to be silenced)‘Sayeeda Warsi, a Conservative peer and former co-chair, sent a public message to Patel, the Home Secretary, calling on her and all Conservatives to “think about our role in feeding this culture in our country. If we ‘whistle’ & the ‘dog’ reacts, we can’t be shocked if it barks & bites,” Lady Warsi tweeted. “It’s time to stop the culture wars that are feeding division. Dog whistles win votes but destroy nations’. It comes to something when even a member of the Conservative Party feels the need to publicly criticise this evident racism.
Dominating the news this week, with all the anxiety it provokes, is the increasing division between those seemingly desperate for ‘Freedom Day’, regardless of the potential costs, and those urging caution because of the significant rise in Covid cases and hospitalisations. While it was always clear that vaccination couldn’t be a silver bullet, the government has treated it as such and continued with its schtick of ‘vaccination has broken the link between infection, hospitalisation and death’. Now the schtick has to change as this is manifestly not the case: those infected and hospitalised include the double jabbed and it seems every week there’s news of a new variant which has a high transmission rate and which is vaccine resistant.
The government’s determination to stick to Freedom Day on Monday 19 July come what may, is a display of hubris only modified by its having already to roll back on its ‘irreversible’ mantra. It’s an offloading of responsibility onto the people. Seeming to see no irony, former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, interviewed on Saturday’s Today Programme, predicted that we could see another lockdown by September and said ‘much depends’ on people’s behaviour over the next few weeks. This again reinforces the message that if people get ill (and there’s been effectively no recognition of disabling Long Covid, now affecting 1m in the UK according to May statistics) it’s their own fault and fails to even acknowledge that perhaps this is the wrong time to reopen everything at once. It seems somewhat of an ironic comment on all this that Health Secretary Sajid Javid has tested positive today. Who will now step up to the plate? Boris Johnson doesn’t seem to have much faith in the junior health ministers (no surprise there), but there’s always Matt Hancock. Not serious but it’s nevertheless interesting that this week London’s Evening Standard reported Hancock as talking to former colleagues to plan his comeback.
Freedom Day schtick also indicates poor recognition of what the clinically vulnerable have to face after Monday: whereas at least some felt safe to get out and about when restrictions and mask wearing were mandated, many now fear being confined to their homes because they can’t rely on the public’s sense of responsibility, wearing masks in confined spaces, for example. Earlier this week junior health minister Edward Argar told the media: ‘people will make their own judgements. I trust in the innate responsibility of the British people to exercise that responsibility in a cautious and sensible way’. This is so disingenuous because we see time and time again evidence of lack of judgement and ‘common sense’, not least in the Euro 2020 crowds last weekend.
Another faulty polarised argument has been ‘If not now, when?’ but a sensible solution would be to wait until many more are vaccinated (currently 52%), so it’s not either continue with restrictions or open up immediately. It’s been interesting to see this last week more and more organisations, especially Transport for London, mandating the continued wearing of face coverings, effectively resisting government policy, although in some cases it cannot be legally enforced. Meanwhile, more than 1200 scientists and medics have added their names to the letter to The Lancet which urged the Prime Minister to rethink his strategy. What’s even more galling is that health experts all over the world are condemning the government’s approach, experimenting with herd immunity, as it doesn’t only affect the UK but the entire world.
‘Professor Christina Pagel, the director of University College London’s clinical operational research unit, told the meeting: “Because of our position as a global travel hub, any variant that becomes dominant in the UK will likely spread to the rest of the globe. The UK policy doesn’t just affect us. It affects everybody and everybody has a stake in what we do.”The letter to The Lancet said: “We believe the government is embarking on a dangerous and unethical experiment, and we call on it to pause plans to abandon mitigations on July 19, 2021.”
How damning is this? The Prime Minister has brought the UK into global disrepute. ‘In New Zealand we have always looked to the UK for leadership when it comes to scientific expertise, which is why it’s so remarkable that it is not following even basic public health principles,” said Michael Baker, a professor of public health at the University of Otago and a member of the New Zealand ministry of health’s Covid-19 Technical Advisory Group’.
Professor Pagel also deconstructed the Prime Minister’s two arguments for ending restrictions now, so it’s interesting that Chris Whitty has accepted them. The ‘rationale’ is based on over 90% of the most at-risk people being vaccinated and it being better to have mass infection during the summer than the winter, when the virus spreads more readily and the NHS is more burdened. While scientists have described a mass infection policy as ‘a dangerous experiment’, the NHS is already under severe strain at a time when it’s trying to deal with the massive backlog of delayed procedures and cancer treatments, etc. Pagel also cites the damage caused by Long Covid and effects on the clinically vulnerable, but another key issue undermining the PM’s stance is that new infections make mutations more likely.
‘Dr Susan Hopkins, the head of Public Health England, estimated three more doublings of cases before the peak, potentially meaning more than 200,000 cases a day in six weeks’ time. Even the health secretary, Sajid Javid, concedes there are likely to be more than 100,000 cases a day (implying around two more doublings), which would be higher than the highest recorded day in January. This could easily mean another 2 million people infected before cases return to the low levels we saw in early May’.
Professor Pagel makes the strong point that ‘infectious diseases are a matter of collective, rather than personal, responsibility’ and that as a society we could choose to sign up to keep certain measures in place including investing in better buildings ventilation, and to demand better than what appears to be the government throwing in the towel. ‘We could choose to suppress this virus over winter and protect our population and our NHS and so provide far more freedom to go about our daily lives. The current government position is that it’s not even going to try. This is not good enough and we have to demand better’. Newcastle Labour MP Chi Onwurah made some good points on BBC’s Any Questions, including the loudly applauded ‘You cannot outsource public health to the public, which is what he (Boris Johnson) is trying to do’. Just one indicator of the strain the NHS is under came with the news that one of the country’s largest hospitals, Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth, cancelled dozens of elective operations for two days, including liver transplants, because of the increase in Covid cases, and we can be sure it won’t be the only two days this happens.
Very timely is an article this week about misleading ‘hygiene theatre’, suggesting that excessive cleaning gives us, especially those with health anxiety and OCD, a false sense of security, that ‘something is being done’ to mitigate Covid risks. But such an approach leads to the important things not being done, such as ensuring effective ventilation, which cost more and take time to implement. The article cites a beauty business where the staff frantically clean after each appointment and customers say they feel really safe there, but…. ‘the one measure that would contribute most to the safety of the clients and workers in Claudia’s clinic isn’t being implemented: ventilation’.
‘What Claudia is performing on behalf of the customers who frequent her skincare clinic is “hygiene theatre”. The term was first coined by the Atlantic writer Derek Thompson in a July 2020 essay, in which he defined hygiene theatre as Covid safety protocols “that make us feel safer, but don’t actually do much to reduce risk, even as more dangerous activities are still allowed”. Hygiene theatre is plastic facial visors that do not protect wearers from breathing in infected air or contaminating the people around them. It is single-use cutlery and disposable menus in restaurants and shields between tables. It is staff fastidiously cleaning communal touchpoints in pubs while maskless groups chant football songs at full volume. It is hazmat suit-wearing officials fumigating entire streets with disinfectant. It is gyms that require people to wipe down every piece of equipment they touch, but do not make them wear masks. It is quarantining your post by the front door and wiping down your groceries with bleach. All well-intentioned, but mostly ineffectual, gestures that make us feel safe, but do not keep us safe from the threat posed by Covid-19’.
I suspect many would be shocked to read this article, learning that what they’ve been religiously doing for months on end is ‘mostly ineffectual’. It could also be that such hygiene enthusiasts have been judgemental towards the others less inclined to follow such procedures. Although the term was only coined in 2020, it has interesting origins, being based ‘on a concept originated by the security expert Bruce Schneier in his 2003 book, Beyond Fear. Schneier coined the term “security theatre” to describe the safety measures implemented at airports after the 9/11 terror attacks, such as banning nail scissors and cigarette lighters. In reality, these measureswere pointless: a complicated charade to reassure nervous passengers rather than anything grounded in reality. They also came at a huge cost to taxpayers – the US has spent more than $100bn on aviation security since 9/11’.
This is the most interesting article I’ve read about the pandemic in a while. It concludes that ‘Hygiene theatre can be actively dangerous because it prevents people from making informed choices about the levels of risk they’re willing to accept in their lives’. What makes it even more important now is the imminent ‘Freedom Day’, when people have to make their own judgements because the government has abdicated responsibility. Yet even Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty recently reiterated the importance of handwashing (the hands, face, space mantra looks a bit facile now) but not that of ventilation, now seen as one of the most important interventions in controlling the spread. If you read nothing else, read this!
What’s contributed markedly to the current febrile mood is concern about the NHS Covid app ‘pinging’ people left right and centre (some say unnecessarily), instructing them to self-isolate, which has forced some businesses and organisations to slow down or grind to a halt because of lack of staff. Allusions to a ‘pingdemic’ have been criticised for trivialising a serious situation, the pings being an indicator of potential new cases, yet businesses and some commentators are asking for the app to be adjusted to make it less ‘sensitive’. Although after 16 August double vaccinated people and those under 18 won’t have to self-isolate if a close contact tests positive, this leaves almost a month for this limbo to continue.
As we know, numerous people have been deleting or disabling the app in order to avoid pings, and those without smartphones or choosing not to download the app were never available for pinging in the first place. Jeremy Hunt came out with a good phrase during his Today Programme interview, suggesting that the app was ‘losing social consent’, prompting the tweet: ‘The app is ‘losing social consent’ – now that’s a phrase. Should have asked Jeremy Hunt when this government lost public ‘consent’.’
The other issue dominating the news and causing much anxiety is the government’s hokey cokey traffic light system for foreign travel, and how relaxing is it going to these countries when their status can change within hours? This week the Balearics were placed on the amber list and, virtually overnight, some political fudging has led to an amber plus category for France. Those returning will now have to quarantine, which will annoy a great many. If this was a clinically informed decision it wouldn’t be so bad, but it’s clear it’s a projection onto another country of the UK’s own dire situation. Sky News’s Sam Coates illustrates what happens when the consequences of a policy aren’t thought through: ‘By putting France on the all new Amber Plus/Magenta category, people will struggle to claim on their insurance. Sadly no ministers are available tonight to ask.’ It surely adds insult to injury to introduce such a policy with next to no warning, then remain unaccountable by making ministers unavailable to the media.
The groundswell of ridicule and opprobrium surrounding our Prime Minister was given a further boost this week with Boris Johnson’s allegedly groundbreaking speech about ‘levelling up’. It was felt by many to be incoherent and full of empty promises, but perhaps most striking was a new level of bombast, as if he’d finally lost the plot. ‘Boris Johnson’s flagship “levelling up” speech has been criticised by experts for containing scant new policy as concern grows among Conservative MPs that the guiding principle of his premiership risks becoming little more than a soundbite. Two years after first committing to levelling up, the prime minister travelled to Coventry to deliver a freewheeling speech heavy on rhetorical flourishes but light on detail, and urged local leaders to send in their own suggestions’. If this doesn’t sound like someone who’s given up, needing the public’s ideas as he’s got none of his own, I don’t know what does. A former Cabinet minister said: ‘He seems to be throwing the kitchen sink at it, which suggests there isn’t much of a coherent idea behind it’. Quite without irony, ‘Conservative MP Laura Farris told the BBC on Thursday that levelling up was an ambiguous phrase that “means whatever anyone wants it to mean”, prompting a wag to tweet: ‘Levelling up means whatever I want it to mean’ – Boris Johnson channels his inner Humpty Dumpty’. If nothing else does it, the nonsense constituting this speech, (‘strong leadership is the yeast that lifts the whole mattress of dough, the magic sauce, the ketchup of catch-up’ etc), might surely be what makes at least some followers, including the Red Wall MPs, start to question the mast they’ve pinned their colours to. ‘Strong leadership’ it isn’t.
Alarmingly, this week the Health and Care bill, which would lead to NHS privatisation, passed its second reading in the Commons (356 for, 218 against), a Labour amendment being defeated. Problematic measures the amendment cited included the ability of private healthcare companies to sit on boards where NHS spending was decided, allowing more opportunities for outsourcing of contracts without scrutiny and allowing an approach whereby cuts to and closures of services are incentivised. Labour said that the bill ‘does not ensure that the NHS is a fully publicly funded, accountable and publicly delivered service providing free high quality care for everyone who needs it’. So what happens next? A useful WordPress blog by Calderdale and Kirklees 999 Call for the NHS states: ‘Following discussions in the usual channels, the Public Bill Committee is expected to begin its consideration of the Bill in September. Four sittings are expected for oral evidence in the week of 6 September, followed by 20 sittings for line by line consideration, concluding on Tuesday 2 November’.
Much has been written over the last 16 months about work attire and the alleged slide of sartorial standards. The Week summarises an article by Ben Wright in the Daily Telegraph, saying how ‘the suit and tie are fast becoming endangered species in the corporate world’. ‘Numerous zoom calls’ had thrown up only a handful of men (and what about women’s outfits?) thus attired and I’m surprised it was as many as that. Many workers from home have said how they might wear a smart shirt on the upper half, while their lower half remains encased in pyjama bottoms but now, it seems, the upper half has descended (!) to ‘polo shirts and even t-shirts’. While this will spell freedom for some, Wright cautions that it may be a short-sighted view. Staying with the suit and tie saves endless decisions about what to wear, he reckons, and eliminates the competitive system in companies which claim to have no dress code but which actually do: ‘chinos, button-down shirts and armless fleeces’.
An important point he makes, though, is that formal dress at work helps maintain ‘the necessary boundary between being on and off duty…if you’re always working from home you never get to leave the office..and if you’re always casual you never get to fully relax. The best thing about a suit may be that you can take it off’. Interesting, especially when, outside the corporate world, there are those will never have worn a suit to work and whose work attire morphs from casual to scruffy. It’s not uncommon to witness men who’ve been told they must wear a jacket and tie at dinner (in a smart hotel, for example) vote with their feet, perhaps unwittingly, in that they are indeed wearing a jacket and tie, but such ancient and moth-eaten examples that they negate the original instruction. A good example of obeying the letter of the law but not its spirit, perhaps.
Finally, I’ve been enjoying catching up with the 6 part series of BBC4 documentaries on Ernest Hemingway, described as ‘the most influential US writer of the 20th century’. I’m not proud to admit that I’ve never read him, partly because my English degree was English and European literature, the other option being English and American. Yes, I could have done since then but somehow that hasn’t happened: there’s just so much to read and American literature has never appealed that much. One critic described the series as ‘extraordinarily moreish’, but the film makers were rather felt to skate over the author’s ‘rabid violence, racism, disgusting treatment of women…. misogyny and homophobia’. He sounds to have been rather unstable and prone to depression, but it was hardly surprising to discover why: in the first episode we learn that his mother endlessly made her children feel how much she’d sacrificed for them, how child rearing was like a bank, into which the mother first deposited and into which later (a letter from mother to son quoted this) children were expected to ‘make deposits’. The letter told Hemingway he was overdrawn, but not only that: she regularly dressed him in female clothing alongside his sister, as ‘twins’. Such a subversion of a child’s latent sexuality is a sure-fire way to induce psychological disturbance. I’m now keen to see the rest of these documentaries and read some of this author’s work. Many Hemingway aficionados out there??