Although the news continues to be dominated by Covid-related issues, there was another stark reminder last Sunday of the climate crisis, parts including London once again experiencing flash floods. We’ve become used to seeing these in other countries but it feels even more alarming when you see for the first time footage of local places under feet of water. It seems at least two local authorities in London don’t have a regular regime of drain inspection and in one borough councillors denied there was a problem despite being sent evidence of blocked drains. No doubt there will be more of this and more media coverage as we approach COP 26 in November.
News yesterday that the Johnsons are expecting their second child (the PM’s 7th or is it 8th?) already has some sceptics wondering what bad news this has been timed to push under the radar, although the news we already have couldn’t get much worse. It seems strange, if not extraordinary, that politicians, media and commentators are mostly pushing the view that Covid cases are declining (based on a very limited time span) when medics yet again feel overwhelmed, conveying quite a different experience. More young people are being admitted to hospital than before and a 34 year old anti-vaxxer died last week. We don’t even yet have the data reflecting the effects of ‘Freedom Day’ and what too many are ignoring is that recorded case numbers aren’t reflecting actual numbers because so many have deleted or disabled the Covid app to avoid its ‘pinging’. Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, London, opined that we’re ‘not out of the woods yet’ (too true, with deaths of 91 and 131 on a couple days last week) and perhaps we will have to go much further into those woods before emerging from them.
Oddly, it was suggested for a while that it wasn’t possible to obtain statistics on the amount of app deletion and disabling but now YouGov has polled it and according to them, 40% of people say they never downloaded it, 34% did but have since disabled it to avoid being pinged and only 22% continue to ‘use it correctly at all times’. This is quite a low figure!
It’s worrying that progress with the vaccination programme has revealed that numerous young people have opted not to be vaccinated when they could be, often not realising that they are at risk of becoming seriously ill and perhaps not grasping the disabling effects of Long Covid. ‘NHS England said one-third of 18- to 29-year-olds had still not had at least one dose of the vaccine – a figure that falls to one in 10 for the whole adult population. While young people are generally at a much lower risk of dying from Covid, doctors say they are increasingly witnessing them become severely unwell. Dr Samantha Batt-Rawden, senior intensive care registrar, said the patients they were seeing were “getting younger and younger”…… ‘The latest data from the Office for National Statistics shows that coronavirus in England is now largely an infection among young adults, with cases in 16- to 24-year-olds almost six times more common than in 50- to 69-year-olds’.
A serious point is why, apart from blatant protection of the government, are so many media sources spreading what could well be false optimism without giving the bigger picture? For example, ‘hospital bed occupancy for coronavirus patients has also increased significantly in the last week, with occupancy of mechanical ventilation beds rising by 31% and other bed occupancy up by 33%’.
The Times conveys the contradictory nature of this debate and speculation about the trajectory of Covid, with some commentators trying to cover all bases. Professor Ferguson said we could be looking mostly at the back of it by October, but cases could well rise, for example when schools re-open in September. At least some sources recognise that the reduction in app use and in testing is contributing to the apparently positive (but possibly misleading) data. ‘Some scientists believe this reflects less testing as schools break up for the summer, while another theory being taken seriously in Whitehall is that a big part of the reduction is because people are avoiding tests in case their summer holiday plans are ruined’.
Following the recent ejection from the Chamber of MP Dawn Butler for calling out the Prime Minister’s serial lying, coupled with the longstanding efforts of journalist Peter Oborne and lawyer Peter Stefanovic, the mainstream media is now finally paying some attention to this mendacity. It was beyond embarrassing this week to see Work and Pensions minister Therese Coffey, interviewed on Sky News by Kay Burley, trying to dismiss such evidence as trivial social media stuff, saying she was ‘proud’ of the Prime Minister and that he was doing ‘a great job… leading from the front’- manifestly what he is not doing. But an equally serious issue is how helpless this can make us feel, when such behaviour is not called to account even in the House of Commons. One tweeter said: ‘Our political system can’t cope with a Johnson. His misdemeanours are so numerous, his lies so incessant, his morals so non-existent, his incompetence so gobsmacking, his chutzpah so breathtaking, the system has no answer. He goes ploughing on. We spectate – powerless’.
If it wasn’t so serious you could almost feel sorry for these ministers, one after another having to submit themselves to media interviews (as their boss won’t) during which they have to defend the indefensible, or, in the case of Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Transport Minister Grant Shapps, misrepresent the government’s kneejerk and defensive policy switches as part of a carefully laid plan. It shows how desperate the government has become about the lack of tourists and their spending power that they’ve suddenly agreed that double jabbed visitors from the US and EU no longer have to quarantine, but the exclusion of France from this arrangement, allegedly due to their Delta variant prevalence, is a shameless projection of the UK’s situation.
But despite at least some now being away on holiday, a number of ministers have been in the news this week because of intractable situations they’ve done little to effectively address, for example the significant increase in migrants, demands for more former Afghan interpreters at threat from the Taliban to be allowed to settle here and the ‘advice’ for Latin to be on state schools’ curricula, allegedly to tackle elitism. Insufficient desire to resolve these situations and lack of brainpower to do so are only going to increase public anxiety further when confidence in the government has long been in marked decline. One tweeter summed up the views of many: ‘The police have no confidence in Patel; the teaching profession regards Williamson with contempt; Javid is a disaster zone for health workers; Dowden has left the highly successful creative industries in a state of despair; and Johnson is an embarrassment to all and sundry’. The latest example must be his antics at the unveiling at the memorial for fallen police officers, when he showed himself incapable of managing an umbrella. Several video versions of this have gone viral and Prince Charles could be seen joining in with the general amusement, though this was clearly an occasion warranting some gravitas from our Prime Minister.
Details have recently emerged of what many must have suspected for some time, that is, quite apart from regular lobbying, government policy is being influenced by a select group of Tory donors. One tweeter described The Financial Times piece about this as ‘Great article showing how this government is rotten to the core and reliant on money from anywhere. Cash for policy is not democracy it is autocratic and corrupt’. Lawyer and Good Law Project founder Jolyon Maugham tweeted: ‘There’s a rather charming frankness about the Tories’ decision to call the fantastically wealthy donors who give vast sums to push their personal agendas an Advisory Board’.
‘The club, some of whose members have given at least £250,000 to the party, has been developed by Ben Elliot, Tory co-chair, as a means of connecting major Conservative backers with its top figures. The club does not appear in party literature but Conservative officials confirmed the Advisory Board “occasionally” meets with Johnson and Sunak “for an update on the political landscape”.
Wouldn’t you just know that the Conservative Party denies the existence of this ‘250 club’?
‘Government policy is in no way influenced by the donations the party receives, they are entirely separate. Donations to the Conservative party are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them, and fully comply with the law. Fundraising is a legitimate part of the democratic process’. Maybe not this kind of fundraising, though.
The Week summarises an article from US magazine The Atlantic about the enigma who is Boris Johnson, revealing the different sides of his character lurking beneath the superficial bonhomie. ‘Johnson is unlike other prime ministers I’ve covered’, said author Tom McTague…contrasting him first with Blair and Cameron (‘polished and formidable’), then with Brown and May (‘rigid, fearful, cautious’), he says Johnson is ‘scruffy, impulsive, exuberant – the first British leader I’ve seen who genuinely seems to be having a good time’. At our expense, perhaps? McTague details ‘his ambition, his outrages, his scandals’ over the years, saying that what ‘drives opponents mad’ is that nothing ever seems to stick. The most recent revelations of mendacity would appear to prove this. During a conversation about John le Carre’s views on ‘England’s failing ruling class’, he more or less admitted to being a cynic as well as a romantic, being determined to ‘squeeze out’ ‘world-weariness’ within the government and re-energise it with ‘some of the energy and optimism that this country used to have’.
This sounds alarmingly simplistic: it’s not without merit but ‘energy and optimism’ need to have firm foundations, some track record and surely can’t be achieved simply by jollying people along. It’s probably no understatement to suggest that for many, Brexit knocked the stuffing out of the country. The article emphasises what appears to be his unrealistic optimism, his close aides concerned that he’s too reliant on faith that things will be fine. ‘The duality of his character continued to fascinate me. There is the light and the colour he wants the world to see. But there is also a darker side that most who know him acknowledge, the moments of introspection and calculation’.
Shortly after the unveiling of Boris Johnson’s rather simplistic-sounding Beating Crime Plan (for England and Wales), it’s timely though arguably strange that a police review has been announced which will explore the reasons for the rise in the teenage murder rate. ‘Every government agency involved in the victim’s life – health services, local authorities, children’s services, probation, and even voluntary groups – will contribute to an examination of what went wrong and consider how to identify the signs of a life at risk. Police hope to see patterns that will help to prevent future murders. If the pilot scheme is successful, it will be introduced across England and Wales’. While the cross-sectoral approach in this review sounds promising, it’s surely way overdue: so far this year 22 teens have been murdered, compared with 14 in 2020. While it’s clear to authorities that Covid restrictions, lockdowns and the drugs trade have contributed, partly because gangs have targeted pupils out of school, it’s surely a significant factor that so many youth clubs have closed. Apparently, between 2010 and 2019 (coinciding with Conservative governments) 760 youth clubs closed in England and Wales, related to councils’ expenditure on youth services declining by 70%. While these places cannot be a panacea, they’ve provided much-needed structure and opportunities for personal development and friendships that won’t be available to all of these young people at home.
Some good news for the NHS this week must be that Baroness Dido Harding, who has presided over the massive Test and Trace shambles, didn’t get the Chief Executive job. ‘Lord Stevens of Birmingham’s deputy is to replace him as head of NHS England in a decision that signals continuity as the health service attempts to recover from the pandemic. Amanda Pritchard was confirmed as NHS chief executive yesterday after a protracted recruitment process that was overshadowed by rows over the candidacy of Baroness Harding of Winscombe, the former head of Test and Trace’. Pritchard has over 20 years experience in the NHS and apparently knows her way around Whitehall, but the fact that two very corporate candidates were seriously considered for the job would yet again indicate the government’s privatisation intentions. On a related issue, Stevens does sound worthy of a peerage but how many more peers can be created when numbers already exceed those of MPs? ‘He became a crossbench peer three weeks ago and is expected to become a prominent advocate for social care reform and related issues’.
As an aside, the efforts of former Health Secretary Matt Hancock to rehabilitate himself were dealt a blow last week when Newmarket Town Council passed a vote of no confidence in him. ‘The full motion said: “Newmarket Town Council states its concerns that the West Suffolk MP Matthew Hancock neglected the best interests of his constituency. As secretary of state for health he has demonstrated hypocrisy and hubris in the pursuit of his own interests. Newmarket Town Council states that we no longer have confidence in Matthew Hancock MP representing Newmarket’. Although this motion only passed because the Mayor used his casting vote and the local constituency party is still backing Hancock, such a judgement won’t help him.
Worrying news about the NHS, though, is the crisis in primary care, with GP practices groaning under their workloads while staff shortages undermine patient care further. Many have experienced the effects of this, for example their GP practice perhaps going into special measures, the difficulty of getting to see the doctor in person because of the massive move to virtual and telephone consultations and the knock-on effects these have for onward referrals. ‘Doctors are warning that general practice clinics risk cracking under the pressure of “unsustainable” workloads unless the government ramps up the recruitment of medical staff and takes steps to reduce burnout. The Royal College of GPs is calling on the government to introduce an emergency rescue package to shore up general practice clinics after the pandemic, including recruiting 6,000 more GPs and 26,000 additional support staff, such as nurses and receptionists, by 2024 as well as reducing paperwork and investing in £1bn worth of improvements to infrastructure and technology. Without these changes, patients will not receive the care they need, the college said’.
The ‘rising and ageing population’ is thought to be the main reason for the rise in consultations but perhaps the after-effects of Covid are adding to this as well, not to mention issues patients didn’t feel able to consult their doctor about during lockdowns and restrictions. Over the last 5 years the number of qualified GPs in England has apparently declined by 4.5% and it’s shocking that many are considering leaving the profession because of stress and burnout. Needless to say, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesman detailed all the investment the government is apparently putting in, but also falls back on that old bribing chestnut of saying how ‘incredibly grateful’ the government is ‘for the tireless efforts of GPs’, when gratitude isn’t going to do the business.
Following the controversial news last week that Unesco was removing World Heritage Site status from Liverpool because of ongoing waterside development, it’s good news that this status is now being granted to Snowdonia’s slate landscape. ‘The landscape in Snowdonia National Park became the world leader for the production and export of slate during the 18th century, when the industrial revolution saw demand for slate surge. The industry had a considerable impact on global architecture and urbanisation in Europe and North America, with Welsh slate used on buildings, terraces and palaces across the globe. According to Unesco, the status was awarded in recognition of the region’s 1,800-year history of slate mining, its people and culture, and its role in “roofing the nineteenth-century world”…. The region is the UK’s 32nd World Heritage Site and the fourth in Wales, following the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, Blaenavon industrial landscape and the castles and town walls of King Edward in Gwynedd’. We hear that Boris Johnson backed the bid – how long before he claims credit for it, we could ask ourselves.
It’s worrying, though, that several UK sites are under threat of having this status removed, including Stonehenge, the Lake District, Devon and Cornwall, Edinburgh and Westminster, the urban ones being related to what are felt to be inappropriate developments threatening to dwarf the skyline. Some commentators have been critical of Unesco’s decision making, citing the need for regeneration and other social issues – perhaps in Unesco’s eyes these aren’t reconcilable with recognising key heritage sites.
Last week saw the publication of this year’s Booker Prize long list, in which the latest novel by Rachel Cusk was thought to stand out. ‘Mercilessly anatomising privilege, creativity and ambition, male-female relationships and lockdowns Covid-driven and emotional, Cusk is brutally funny and honest about shame, ego and our sense of self. The novel is truly one of a kind’. It does sound a very interesting list of contenders but I do hope the judges avoid the temptation often given into that the winner should be unreadable by anyone except academics and critics.
Finally, in the current circumstances of needing to adapt our ways of greeting others, it seems to me another book would be well worth reading. The handshake: a gripping history, by ‘evolutionary biologist Ella Al-Shamahi’, focuses on how the shaking of hands has persisted over years despite attempts to ban it during previous pandemics. She reckons that since chimps and uncontacted tribes of humans have similar gestures, we could be genetically hard-wired to shake, ‘perhaps to deliver things like smell-related chemosignals to each other’. Although people don’t often seem to expect women to shake hands, I’ve always liked it and regarded it as very civilised, with the exception of the wet haddock hand shake most of us will have experienced at some point. I hope the other kind persists despite this pandemic!