Not for the first time, key issues dominating the news and causing distress and anxiety bear a common imprint – government incompetence. Afghanistan, Covid and climate change have all been aggravated by the government’s approach of too little, too late, zero planning and with only days before schools reopen, there’s still no effective guidance on Covid safe practices eg ventilation and whether to vaccinate 12-15 year olds.
As the tragic events in Afghanistan continue to unfold following the deadly terrorist attack and the US drone strike, the crisis has given rise to numerous views as to what went wrong, what could have been managed better, and more fundamentally whether the West should have gone in there in the first place. Some commentators say 20 years is nothing in terms of changing such a country and that a much longer investment was needed, others feeling that trying to introduce Western democracy to this intensely tribal and fragile country was always flawed, if not hopeless. What must have been an additional blow for desperate Afghans was President Ashraf Ghani fleeing at the earliest opportunity, called a ‘mistake’ by the Taliban. The US withdrawal and how it was done certainly scotched Joe Biden’s ‘America is back’ mantra and the myth of the ‘special relationship’ between the US and UK.
Although it would be true to say the whole world was taken aback, even blindsided, by the speed of the Taliban takeover, especially given the numbers, (80k militants versus 300k US trained soldiers) it doesn’t excuse governments not having seen the writing on the wall the minute the US announced its withdrawal. Ministers’ excuses have been generally pathetic, along the lines of ‘no one saw this coming’. But the sheer impact of this lack of anticipation and planning has been made much worse by the emergence of contributory factors like Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab remaining on holiday (having been given permission by his boss), the lie about the phone call to the Afghan government opposite number and failures in the system for rescuing Afghan citizens who worked for the UK. A tearful Defence Secretary Ben Wallace admitted that some would unfortunately be left behind, later getting flak for euphemistically describing the situation as ‘sub-optimal’ and a ‘matter of deep regret’. What seems particularly unforgiveable and incompetent is that fleeing British embassy staff left behind on their desks details of Afghans for the Taliban inevitably to find.
General Lord Richard Dannatt, former head of the British Army, has added his voice to others criticising the government for its inaction, thrown into sharp relief by the contrast with France, which started taking its people out in May. ‘Dannatt said it was ‘unfathomable’ that the UK government appeared to have been ‘asleep on watch’ when it came to ensuring the safety of Afghans who helped soldiers and officials. Amid bitter recriminations between government departments over who was to blame for leaving behind thousands of people with links to the UK, Dannatt questioned why ministers had not engaged earlier on the safety of Afghan allies, given that the issue had been raised repeatedly by senior army officers.
Demanding an inquiry, Dannat said: ‘On the particular issue of those who we knew were in danger, people who had worked for us, interpreters, former locally engaged civilians, this issue has been in the media…. This issue has been on politicians’ desks for two to three years and, certainly, it’s been there during the course of this year … Back in July, 45 senior officers wrote to the government … saying there are people we are concerned about and if we don’t do the right thing, their blood will be on our hands’.
As the country’s collapse is on the cards due to widespread hunger, homelessness and a crashed economy, prompting calls for major humanitarian aid, questions continue to be asked about how it came about that the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and various civil service departmental heads were on holiday at the same time. There’s a clear sense of entitlement here and zero sense of urgency, eg Raab and his stay in a Cretan 5 star resort. But surely, those occupying such key positions need to understand that there are limits to their holiday entitlement – when crises occur they need to be back at base, not trying to defensively bat them away from the beach.
For once ministers were subjected to challenging interviews on the BBC, Raab desperately trying to claw back some semblance of authority by constantly repeating that no one could see it coming and playing the old ‘speculation in the media’ card: ‘I am not going to add to speculation in the media – the idea I was lounging on the beach is nonsense’. Ministers can’t keep repeating that they did as much as they could when shocking revelations emerge, such as the huge backlog of 5,000 unread emails from MPs and charities notifying government of urgent cases of Afghans in fear of Taliban reprisals needing rescue from Kabul. No wonder some newspaper headlines have screamed ‘Asleep at the wheel’. The government suggests that numbers left behind could be around 1,100, but the whistleblower who alerted the media to this catastrophic procedural vacuum believes it could be many more because these people have families but also because of the unread emails. ‘They cannot possibly know [how many people have been left behind] because they haven’t even read the emails. Even among those who’ve been registered, many have been left behind. But there’s also a much, much larger group of people who just haven’t been dealt with at all’. The government almost boasts about bringing 15,000 out and while this is an achievement, some estimates put those left behind as close to 9,000.
A Radio 4 Any Questions listener tweeted: ‘Trump’s unilateral “deal” with Taliban should have been a signal to prepare for an orderly withdrawal. Biden’s decision to carry through with the US withdrawal should have meant plans were stepped up. Instead, Johnson just had an “it’ll be all right on the night” approach’. Despite the Taliban’s declaration that they’re not the same as 20 years ago, evidence on the ground suggests there’s been no change. Besides accounts of massacres, summary executions and unmarried women being handed over to fighters, numerous desperate Afghan teachers, women’s rights workers and others likely to be targeted by the Taliban have spoken to UK media outlets – heartbreaking to listen to. One wanted his family to be given safe passage to the UK, saying ‘I know I will be killed’.
As to the cynically framed rhetorical question about an alternative approach, one tweeter had had some substantial suggestions: ‘What more could the UK government have done? 1. Recognise it has never been only “interpreters” 2. Start evacuating them in 2015 3. Really think about Trump’s unconditional withdrawal, then Biden’s acceptance of it 4. Start withdrawing far more under ARAP, early’. Another added: ‘Create safe routes to asylum, scrap the Nationality and Borders Bill, don’t criminalise refugees and show them compassion’.
What’s been striking is the hubristic and deluded stance of the US and UK governments, implying they have some power in this crisis and some clout with the Taliban when they actually have very little. Joe Biden described the US service personnel as ‘heroes’, insisted they would not be deterred by terrorists: ‘We will not forgive, we will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay’. Meanwhile, the UK government believes that because Afghanistan is 75% dependent on foreign aid, this automatically gives the West leverage, when the complex means of aid distribution and desire not to disadvantage the Afghan people mean this surely can’t be taken for granted. Yet the government still affects a high-handed and faux authoritarian attitude. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘We will judge them on their actions not their words’ says James Cleverly about the Taliban. ‘If they act like a proper government, then we will engage with them Shame the UK electorate didn’t apply the same criteria to him and his cronies’.
An interesting article focuses on what a Taliban government could look like, quoting leadership sources as suggesting there will be a 12-man council, including offering ‘some pliant members of the former U.S.-supported government the ministries of their choice as they strive to form an administration that is acceptable to the international community’. This sounds like they’ve more than understood the need to at least appear acceptable to the West. The article reckons that the main four men mentioned ‘represent one of the world’s biggest criminal and terrorist cartels…. The Taliban make billions of dollars each year producing and trafficking heroin and methamphetamine, as well as smuggling mining assets including marble, lithium, and gemstones’. It also suggests that this and discontinuing the presidential role will lead to problems and ‘open the door to factional struggles’. We will see.
A Radio 4 profile of Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar is useful listening – politicians who find leaders like Putin and Xi Jinping challenging will no doubt have to step up to an even more demanding plate. ‘He says very little, he’s very secretive, we really don’t know what he believes in….’ observed one contributor. Regarded as a ‘skilled political operator’ and now thought to be a linchpin for bringing different factions together, he has been active since before the Taliban last took control in 1996 with its ‘draconian’ laws and punishments and suppression of women’s rights. It will be interesting to see what further insights emerge about him.
Meanwhile, Covid hasn’t gone away despite the widespread focus on holidays and world events. On Wednesday 149 deaths were registered, 141 of deceased having been vaccinated once, a situation we would not have anticipated months ago. Despite the Office of National Statistics reporting that the number of weekly deaths is at its highest level since March for the third week in a row, there seems no sense of urgency about addressing this. There were 571 deaths in England and Wales registered in the week ending August 13 mentioning Covid-19 on the certificate. That was up from 527 the week before, and 404 a week earlier. These numbers (people testing positive – 35,847; admitted to hospital – 859; patients in ventilation beds – 957), are substantially attributed to the Delta variant, which apparently doubles the risk of hospitalisation. Meanwhile, those opposing reintroduction of any restrictions, like the Covid Recovery Group’s Mark Harper, continue to spin the outdated narrative which paints the vaccine as almost a silver bullet.
If some people and politicians are too sanguine about this, health professionals are not, reporting themselves ‘braced’ for a surge of cases after the Bank Holiday, due to packed beaches and music festivals, etc. Newquay in Cornwall has been badged England’s Covid capital and a local director of public health said: ‘The lifting of restrictions and the successful vaccination programme has caused people to drop their guard against Covid, adding to a really high pressured situation for Cornwall’s health system. Living with Covid is not the same as pretending it doesn’t exist, and I think that’s what has happened. It’s not just younger people, that’s a general picture for people who have been told that all gloves are off and they’re taking that at face value’.
An interesting article about the profiles of patients dying (about a hundred a day) suggests key differences between now and the second wave in January. One relates to the age factor: at the height of the second wave in January, when the under-65s accounted for just 11% of deaths but recently it’s been about 25%. Deaths amongst the over 65s have now fallen. ‘If vaccine coverage was equal in all age groups, experts would expect to see the same proportion of almost all deaths from Covid in elderly people. But the younger age groups are not vaccinated at the same rate as older age groups and this is resulting in a relative increase in younger people dying’. I’d have thought the rise in younger people’s deaths was also attributable to a persistent number of antivaxxers (at least two high profile cases in the media this week, both being parents leaving young children behind) and far greater attendance at crowded events such as festivals.
Scientists also suggested that men were more at risk and warned that cases will rise as schools return. Teachers and others have been very concerned that with only a few days to go before the school term starts, they have received no guidance about Covid safe practice and a decision about vaccinating teenagers still hasn’t been taken. Needless to say, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has assumed the usual ministerial ostrich-like stance, brushing off these concerns and adopting a wing and a prayer approach. He told the Financial Times: ‘We don’t want to see the same level of disruption … My hope is that, combined with the mass testing we’re doing, children aren’t going to be in the situation of having to self-isolate’. Is his ‘hope’ enough?
A key point made by one article and the central theme of this blog (the anxiety caused when we cannot trust our leaders, who abdicate their role as psychological ‘containers’) was the unacknowledged role of distrust in governments in vaccine hesitancy and refusal. ‘What all these doubters have in common, whether they’re from Kansas or Khartoum, is that they don’t believe the state has their interests at heart. The trust has gone’. For example, sceptics reportedly see ‘outrageously profitable’ healthcare and pharma companies spending huge amounts on lobbying, leading to suspicions about profit motives behind the developments. Maybe this alone wouldn’t be that damaging but coupled with many governments’ incompetence in dealing with the pandemic it makes for a powerful influence. ‘You might, if you lived in the UK, doubt the government’s assurances that the vaccine had been rigorously tested, after seeing senior officials appear to make up pandemic policies as they went along, dragging the nation with them through U-turns and lockdowns whose rules they did not follow themselves. State failure breeds paranoia. And when trust in government breaks down, people turn to personal vigilance. This climate of hesitancy and wariness is heightened by poorly regulated media that trade in falsehoods. In the UK, for example, a misleading report about ethnic minority people being excluded from vaccine trials was resolved only with a short correction in a footnote. Vaccine rejection doesn’t happen in a vacuum…. it’s a measure of how political systems work. We should spend less time haranguing anti-vaxxers for their stupidity and more time scrutinising the systems that have lost their trust’. Hear, hear.
Naturally, this time of year has put the knotty issue of PCR tests further the spotlight, and it seems that for some time some rogue operators have been given a home on the government’s website, companies which charge excessively, don’t return results in time or worse, not even sending the tests for analysis, obscuring additional charges and customers even being sent the wrong results. This is unacceptable anyway but especially because customers are spending hundreds of pounds on tests to take families on holiday.
After Health Secretary Sajid Javid said ‘rogue’ companies could be removed from the list of approved suppliers (but how did they get onto it in the first place?) the regulator, the Competitions and Markets Authority, came on stronger and said they could face enforcement for breaching consumer law. But could is the operative word – this laissez faire approach means all kinds of unethical and unfair practices can slip through the net in all fields. Another reason why this is an intolerable situation is the knock on effects on the struggling NHS – it has to step in when such companies don’t deliver. Isn’t it interesting that some entrepreneur hasn’t created an app to review and rate PCR tests?
Climate change is another thing that’s not gone away, of course, and many are concerned that the clock is ticking in the lead up to COP26 and there’s been little planning as to how to dramatically reduce emissions. Extinction Rebellion has been active again, disrupting traffic in central London and elsewhere. Although it’s annoying to have journeys interrupted it doesn’t seem to have been universally grasped that this is the only way protesters have found to puncture people’s complacency. A wag tweeted: ‘Who knew saving the planet would be so inconvenient?’
One woman was astonished at what she experienced as police brutality, ripping apart women who’d glued themselves together so that bandages were needed afterwards. ‘I’m a white middle-aged woman; I’ve not experienced police violence before … now I have direct experience of police violence. The public need to know that women and mothers trying to protect their children are being violently attacked by our state police. We pay their wages and they basically attacked us for trying to protect all life on earth’. How the Met from its parallel universe put it was that ‘officers intervened when protesters were building a structure at Oxford Circus. Some individuals have glued themselves to the structure, specialist officers are working to support their removal’.
It seems clubbers at the Pipe in Aberdeen got even better value than expected on Saturday night when Michael Gove, tipped to replace Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab at the next Cabinet reshuffle, joined them for several hours. The Guardian revealed that ‘arms aloft, suit jacket on, Michael Gove has been filmed giving it his all in an Aberdeen nightclub after reportedly trying to avoid a £5 entrance fee by stating that he was the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’. Which was the most embarrassing, I wonder – Gove’s ‘dad dancing’ or trying to wriggle out of paying to get in? ‘His hands flailed wildly, and occasionally swung in time to the music, in the clip filmed by a fellow clubber. Friends of Gove denied that he had attempted to avoid paying’.
Finally, the biblical expression ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’ must have come to archaeologists’ minds when they found the remains in Pompeii of a ‘remarkably well preserved’ fast food joint which ‘closed for business’ (that’s one way of putting it) almost 2,000 years ago. Excavators made the discovery in 2019 and it opened to the public last week. Experts believed it served hot meals made from pork, goat and even snails, typically purchased by poorer Pompeii residents who had no kitchen of their own. Will future archaeologists be excavating a McDonalds at some point, we could wonder…..