Yes, I seem to say this most weeks but you really couldn’t make up what happened last weekend. On the cusp of the much trumpeted Freedom Day, the Health Secretary tested positive and the PM and Chancellor were told to self-isolate, taking out at one fell swoop three key government figures. ‘Beyond satire,’ as one commentator put it, but, for a while, it was suggested that a special scheme would enable Johnson and Sunak to continue with their duties in Downing Street, before an absolute outcry about one rule for them, one for the rest of us forced a humiliating u-turn just hours later. But not before Boris Johnson had hightailed it to the much more comfortable setting of Chequers, thereby breaking more rules. While Housing minister Robert Jenrick said this scheme had been set up last December, it was odd no one had heard anything about it and claims that Transport for London were participants were immediately rebutted by TfL.
Actor and director David Schneider tweeted: ‘It’s almost like they know millions self-isolating undermines their countrycidal “Freedom Day”. So by not self-isolating themselves they push everyone else not to do it. £37bn on Test & Trace and now they’re making sure it’s ignored. We’ll be back in lockdown in weeks’. Palliative care doctor and broadcaster Rachel Clarke outed the PM’s ‘explanatory tweet’, which had read ‘Like so many people I’ve been pinged by NHS Test and Trace as I have been in contact with someone with COVID-19, and I will be self-isolating until Monday’ by saying ‘Unlike so many people, you had to be publicly shamed before you did the decent thing’. On Monday there was a car crash interview with Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi on Radio 4’s Today, during which the minister tried to suggest that the PM proactively did the right thing instead of being shamed into the U turn.
What a different experience for Boris Johnson from the one most of us will have – Chequers reportedly has splendid leisure facilities and an excellent wine cellar, not to mention those lovely grounds and the surrounding countryside. What’s surely way overdue is a tv documentary about Chequers: it would be most informative.
It was noticeable during the week that there was even less compliance than usual with the mask wearing requirement on public transport, around here at least. Apparently transport staff unions won’t be enforcing it and just to take one Underground carriage as an example, just one individual was wearing a mask correctly. The other passengers had no mask (or put it into their bag when boarding the train) or were wearing it under their nose or around their throat. I’ve also observed several times people not wearing a mask on the train but putting it on to exit the station, clearly when there’s a likelihood of more officialdom. Interestingly, the public being once more ahead of the government, The Week describes public polling suggesting that two thirds think masks, distancing and travel limits should have continued for another month and ‘a sizeable minority’ want freedoms restricted permanently. One in four of us even want nightclubs closed for good and two in ten want a permanent 10 pm curfew.
Again, the government narrative makes itself apparent, creating a false polarity between restrictions and a total lack of them, ‘living with the virus’ being taken to mean just allowing it to take over. In a letter to the Observer, all four of the UK’s independent public health bodies warned: “Living with Covid-19 is not the same thing as letting it rip. We should proceed carefully, not recklessly … The government must promote effective public health measures because personal responsibility will not be enough’. This is certainly true – we’ve seen plenty of evidence that many aren’t capable of using their ‘common sense’, if they have any in the first place.
The extra time being holed up at Chequers will afford Boris Johnson extra time to deliberate his hubristic legacy, since we’re told he wants to ‘echo Blair’s promise of an ‘opportunity society’ and energise those who feel left behind’. A source sounding as if hailing from a parallel universe disclosed the comparison of ‘levelling up’ with Blair’s programme: ‘We’re going to do the thing that Tony Blair failed to do for the people who voted for him. We’re going to energise the towns and regions that feel left behind: we’re going to reach out to those places and improve people’s life chances’. How on earth do they think they’re going to do that, since Red Wall voters are already beginning to see the light about the Emperor’s lack of clothing and in any case ‘levelling up’ has proved to be vacuous waffle? ‘Johnson’s biographer, Andrew Gimson, told Politico’s Playbook on Friday that as Johnson celebrates two years in power this weekend, “he’ll be pretty pleased because he’s a bit like Tony Blair, oddly enough, with the wider public. He’s having an unnaturally prolonged honeymoon. He’s high in the polls and the Labour party have got terrible difficulties at the moment. I think Boris Johnson will think to himself: ‘This is just the start – if I play my cards right, then I can win three more elections’’’. We could well ask why there’s been no evidence of his ‘opportunity society’ after 11 years of Conservative government and Johnson has led the party for two years.
Meanwhile, who is running the country while Covid cases rise rapidly (on Tuesday 46,558 new cases and 96 more deaths were recorded, the highest number of fatalities since March), the frequency of Covid app pinging has resulted in staff shortages and cross-party work found a significant decline in analysis of red list country arrivals’ positive tests for variants? ‘The analysis of NHS test and trace data was carried out by the House of Commons library, commissioned by the chair of the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on Coronavirus, Layla Moran’.
Various industries are pressing the government to urgently review the way the Covid app works, as it’s been shown to often ‘ping’ people unnecessarily and staff shortages across the economy, especially transport, are having a serious impact. A news bulletin today suggested that without urgent action in the distribution and retail sectors, the supply chain would break down within two of three weeks. The system will change on August 16, when the double jabbed will no longer be expected to self-isolate when pinged (an advisory system, as opposed to the Test and Trace phone calls, which confer a legal requirement to isolate), and new adjustments to allow some key workers to continue have been criticised for their longwinded procedures. ‘The government has said supermarket depot workers and food manufacturers will be exempt from the ten-day self-isolation rule if pinged by the Covid app or contacted by a Test and Trace official, regardless of vaccination status. Instead they will do daily Covid testing and can carry on working if they test negative’.
Up to 10,000 workers are expected to qualify for the scheme across 500 key sites. The measures have started at 15 supermarket depots, to be followed by 150 depots this coming week. As ever, we can sense the government’s reluctance to properly take responsibility for a difficult situation as they go off on holiday, but this latest abdication will further raise public anxiety. They seem repeatedly to demonstrate poor capacity for nuanced thinking, resorting to blunt instruments and one-size-fits-all approaches, which prove unhelpful. The daftest example must be the plans to introduce Covid passports for nightclubs and other venues in September, a good example of trying to close the stable door once the horse has bolted.
As if all this wasn’t enough, Health Secretary Sajid Javid was lambasted this morning for an ‘insensitive’ tweet in which he’d appeared to boast about recovering from Covid within 8 days, advising that people shouldn’t ‘cower’ before the virus. Notice that government narrative again? If you’re being careful given the premature ending of restrictions you’re somehow being cowardly. Hours later he was forced to remove the post and apologise but he can’t undo this so easily: ‘I’ve deleted a tweet which used the word “cower”. I was expressing gratitude that the vaccines help us fight back as a society, but it was a poor choice of word and I sincerely apologise. Like many, I have lost loved ones to this awful virus and would never minimise its impact’. Even this could be seen as a non-apology as it resorts again to government narrative – ‘we’re all in this together’ (‘Like many, I have lost loved ones’). One of the main organisations to complain was the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group. Co-founder Jo Goodman said earlier that the ‘flippancy and carelessness’ of Mr Javid’s comment had ‘caused deep hurt and further muddied the waters of the government’s dangerously mixed messaging’. As one tweeter put it: ‘I am not in a position to delete tweets due to poor choice of words. A health minister who cannot consider impact of choice of words until some time after tweeting perhaps needs to consider if twitter is an appropriate medium for communicating re serious issues’.
Meanwhile, numerous commentators point out the trivialisation of the pandemic by alluding to the ‘pingdemic’, which proves the app is actually doing its job, albeit perhaps too effectively in some instances. Observed one tweeter: ‘The pinging problem is being framed in terms of the sensitivity of the app. The real problem is the number of infections’. Anecdotally (crazy that the government can’t supply statistics on this) it seems many are disabling the app because they don’t want to be pinged, so an unsatisfactory situation all round.
The government continues to get it in the neck from various critics, including Sage member Sir Jeremy Farrar, who runs the Wellcome Trust. ‘Boris Johnson’s failure to start a public inquiry into Covid this year is a disgrace that is all about “political manoeuvring” to protect his reputation, according to a leading scientific adviser to the government. The comments from Sir Jeremy Farrar came in the third extract from his book Spike – The Virus vs The People: The Inside Story, where he claims that Johnson’s pledge to wait until 2022 to start the inquiry into what happened with the management of the pandemic is for “no reason other than political manoeuvring”. Farrar’s latest comments come after he revealed that he nearly stepped down as a member of Sage over Johnson’s decision not to lock down the UK last autumn’. Sir Jeremy is highly critical of Boris Johnson’s lack of strategic thinking at the start of the pandemic (although surely this has been the case throughout) and reckons what we need is ‘hard-nosed independent assessments of political and structural capability’, not a likely outcome of anything the government controls.
Another regular critic, of course, is the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, who also reveals in this piece that, not for the first time, some NHS trusts have been gagged so the public doesn’t get to hear how bad things are. So much for ‘not overwhelming’ the NHS. ‘The prime minister had planned a Churchill-style speech. But his U-turn reveals the true cost of his Covid bungling. ‘Please, please, please be careful’, Boris Johnson urged in full U-turn, but that’s not what his lot practise. His “irreversible” pledge has vanished because, right here and now, disaster has already struck an exhausted NHS all over again.
But so as not to spoil freedom day, the public was not supposed to know about it. The Health Service Journal reports that three NHS chief executives have been banned from speaking to the media about the “unsustainable pressure” their hospitals are facing, and banned from commenting on the reckless removal of masks, social distancing and indoor gathering limits’. Citing the example of the Health Secretary testing positive and who had recently visited a care home and had attended Cabinet meetings, she points out what at least some ministers don’t grasp, that there’s no invincibility however much the rules are bent: ‘That’s the story: the virus is everywhere, disease-inducing and still deadly to VIPs and little people alike…. Boris Johnson’s “Do what I say, not what I do” freedom day won’t be remembered for Churchillian declarations, but for foolish boasting, toxic politics, and calamitous health policy misjudgement’.
But the news making most impact this week must be Dominic Cumming’s latest silo in the form of the documentary on BBC2, which featured him being interviewed by the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg. Coming over as supremely arrogant and Machiavellian, it was nevertheless telling that when she asked ‘How do you see yourself?’, he had to ask what she meant. Of numerous revelations, one of the most damaging must be the one in which Boris Johnson appeared to refuse an autumn lockdown because those at risk of death were only those in their 80s. Or it could be the one where he had to be dissuaded from visiting the Queen, although Downing Street denies this, or was it the one where Johnson said the Telegraph was his boss? The most humiliating suggestion must have been that ‘Boris Johnson’s closest aides decided he was unfit to be prime minister within weeks of his 2019 election victory and began plotting to oust him’. Downing Street can deny away because, despite the obvious faults and curious amorality of Cummings, his description of events rings too true to be dismissed, as with his previous revelations. Will Cummings keep them coming till he engineers Johnson’s defenestration, as he did with Matt Hancock? Hell hath no fury like an adviser scorned.
The BBC produced a useful piece about this interview called Dominic Cummings: eight takeaways from his interview, the eighth concerning his alleged ease with criticism. ‘Portraying himself as someone who wanted to reform government and was opposed by the “establishment”, Mr Cummings says he wasn’t afraid to upset people to get things done. People thought of him “generally as a nightmare”, he said. ‘If you are airing big difficult things, it’s going to be upsetting for a lot of people… A lot of people have a pop at me, but you don’t see me crying about it’. I suspect he would see being considered ‘a nightmare’ as a badge of honour.
If we needed any further proof that many government ‘inquiries’ these days are whitewashes, the Greensill inquiry outcome will supply it. Although it concluded that David Cameron showed ‘significant lack of judgement’, it didn’t find him guilty of breaking any rules, demonstrating the weakness of those very rules rather than Cameron’s exoneration. To be fair, the report did suggest that the rules needed strengthening, but we have to ask why chairman Nigel Boardman was allowed to get away with consistently refusing evidence from Lady (Suzanne) Heywood, the widow of former Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood, who feels that her husband has been scapegoated by this inquiry. The inquiry said Lord Heywood had failed to fully consider conflicts of interest over a government role for the financier Lex Greensill, but Lady Heywood said there had been insufficient scrutiny of ministers who signed off the Greensill appointment. ‘In a statement after the report’s release, Lady Heywood described the report as ‘nothing less than a travesty….His absence is being exploited to distort the facts of a decade ago and divert attention from the current government’s embarrassment at the collapse of Greensill Capital long after Jeremy’s death’. Not surprisingly, a Cabinet Office spokesman said the inquiry had been a fair process, that they had listened to Lady Heywood’s concerns, and that they would respond ‘in due course’.
Another clear example of faulty procedure is the ejection from the Chamber on Thursday of Brent MP Dawn Butler, for outing Boris Johnson as a liar. There’s been no end of evidence for this assertion but the old parliamentary rule disallows calling a member a liar even if they manifestly are. It’s an absurd anachronism that you can be ejected for calling someone a liar but not for lying in the first place. In Byline Times Hardeep Matharu argues that Butler’s removal exposes the structural failings at the heart of the British state. This is a key point and I believe the Speaker is very much at fault in this: ‘Johnson has not been required to correct the record in the Commons over his many misleading statements – which have been catalogued by the journalist Peter Oborne and others – and is hardly ever robustly challenged by the Speaker when he repeats them weekly in Prime Minister’s Questions… There is nothing to compel Johnson to demand greater accountability of his ministers or to offer greater responsibility himself. As the Ministerial Code – a guide rather than a guard-rail – states: “Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.” It makes no mention of to whom Prime Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament should present themselves’. Matharu makes the key point that besides the current procedures not being fit for purpose, the government isn’t being held to account by a robust media, especially since BBC governance has been packed with those with links to the Conservative Party. All of this can make us feel rather disempowered.
Yet again NHS mental health services have been in the news, with further evidence, if any was needed, of the deficits which have caused pain and distress to many. An area of acute need is eating disorders, with deaths and suicides amongst young people having resulted from service inadequacies and the continual raising of the bar allowing someone to even qualify for treatment. For some time it’s been very difficult to even ‘qualify’ for a place on the CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) waiting list. Across the whole of mental health, the most recent statistics showed that ‘up to half of all children and teenagers referred to mental health, learning disability and autism services in the run-up to the pandemic were left without proper support, with parents telling the Observer of children waiting years for treatment and a seven-year-old girl denied support as she was not suicidal’. It’s an appalling situation that parents have to prove their child is suicidal before help can be considered, and not always then. Following her own ‘horrendous’ experience, one parent last week ‘posted on Facebook asking for people’s experiences of CAMHS and got 500 responses within a day. Parents described years of waiting for help, with many saying CAMHS refused to help unless their child was suicidal’. Not surprisingly, ‘he pandemic has seen a rise in demand for young people’s mental health services. It was revealed last week that referrals rose by a third in 2020-21 compared to 2019-20. Mental health minister Nadine Dorries recently tweeted that “we lead the world in the delivery of [mental health] services” and “we are not in the middle of a MH crisis” after a deluge of parents described their negative experiences of CAMHS’.
Nadine Dorries, not unlike most NHS spokesmen, is severely in denial here, as it’s well known that there’s been serious underinvestment in mental health services for years. One of the most galling misrepresentations was when she tried to suggest in the House of Commons that some service issues were caused by ‘lack of people coming through’ (to work in mental health, when there are thousands of qualified and skilled counsellors and therapists not recruited by the NHS. We find many not benefiting from cheap options like apps and computerised Cognitive Behaviour Therapy: what they want and need is relational work during which their difficulties are explored and understood rather than quick fixes being foisted upon them which don’t work long term anyway.
Last week Liverpool received the unwelcome news that, after several warnings, it was going to lose its UNESCO listing as a World Heritage site, because of what the United Nations agency considers unacceptable waterside development. Liverpool officials are fighting back, regional mayor Steve Rotherham saying that ‘places like Liverpool should not be faced with the binary choice between maintaining heritage status or regenerating left-behind communities and the wealth of jobs and opportunities that come with it’. Others have found it shaming, though, because only two other sites have lost this status since the scheme started in 1978: Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in 2007 and the Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany in 2009. It seems there is no appeal process so Liverpool will have to live with this and see to what extent it will dent tourism.
Finally, good news about museums: the Art Fund’s Museum of the Year shortlist rightly focuses on institutions which have focused on their local communities during the pandemic. ‘The Art Fund museum of the year prize is the world’s biggest museum prize, with the winner receiving £100,000. The five shortlisted museums were named on Wednesday: the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Derry, Experience Barnsley, Firstsite in Colchester, the Thackray Museum of Medicine in Leeds and Timespan in Helmsdale, a village on the east coast of the Scottish Highlands’. In recent years the competition has helpfully focused on smaller museums rather than large, national museums – it makes sense as those institutions already benefit from other funds. The competition also usefully alerts us to museums we may not previously have heard of. The winner will be announced on 20 September.