As the school term begins and with Parliament about to return, 178 deaths from Covid were recorded on 2 September, the highest number for some time, yet mask wearing on public transport is still patchy, some passengers reporting only around 25% compliance on their journeys. When in Wales recently it seemed to me that compliance was much higher. This could be partly due to restrictions having only just been lifted then, as opposed to the much earlier date in England, but I suspect it’s also because the leadership shown by First Minister Mark Drakeford commands more authority than the chaotic version in England.
But what seems common everywhere is quasi mask wearing, for example masks hanging around the wearer’s neck. A professor of public health, Dr Nisreen Alwat, tweeted about the important debate around ‘normality: ‘Masking in crowded indoor spaces during a raging viral pandemic is ‘normal’. Pretending the pandemic is over with more 245 thousand people testing positive in 1 week is not normal. I feel we need to work on the definition of ‘normal’ away from propaganda’. An even more fundamental debate emerging is the effects of Covid in reshaping people’s ideas about their place in society, the role of the state, individual freedoms versus protecting public health and even about democracy itself. This debate is bound to intensify as holidays end and autumn properly kicks in. Many are rightly asking themselves where they are in their lives: do they want to return to pre-pandemic activities, ambitions and lifestyles or has all this changed irrevocably?
Back to last week…. Education Minister Gavin Williamson, in a typically poor interview on Radio 4’s Today programme, yet again showed how the government is behind the curve. He alluded to Co2 monitors being ‘rolled out this term’, signalling no advance preparation, put the crucial ventilation issue back onto those mostly underfunded schools and kept avoiding key questions by repeatedly playing the vaccination silver bullet card. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has advised against vaccinating 12-15 year olds and the four nations’ chief medical officers will now decide whether or not to override this advice.
Concern is also rising about supply chain problems due to the shortage of HGV drivers, which many media outlets are still reluctant to admit is anything to do with Brexit. Reports about the shortage of chicken in Nando’s and milkshakes at McDonalds might lead some to think less consumption of such items might be a health benefit but the problem is now urgent due to undelivered flu vaccines and with waste collections in some parts of the country.
As Afghanistan continues to dominate the news, a key UK event this week was Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s appearance before the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, during which his hubris and denial were fully on display. He refused to answer the question as to the date he’d gone on holiday, but later it was proved that this was a fortnight after the Taliban takeover of Kabul was predicted. Raab’s key defence was his extraordinary projection of failure onto MOD intelligence and his accusation that those ‘anonymously briefing’ against him were ‘passing the buck’ suggests he doesn’t grasp that as Foreign Secretary the buck stops with him.
During the hearing, Raab apparently appeared to be taken by surprise when he was asked why he had not acted on the Foreign Office “principal risk report assessment” from 22 July, which warned: ‘Peace talks are stalled and US Nato withdrawal is resulting in rapid Taliban advances. This could lead to: fall of cities, collapse of security forces, Taliban return to power, mass displacement and significant humanitarian need. The embassy may need to close if security deteriorates.’ One account of the hearing suggested Raab deliberately adopted an uncharacteristically monotonous tone, suspected to be a technique to deter his interrogators.
On Tuesday Raab gave a defensive and avoidant interview on the Today programme, during which the presenter failed to challenge him on his breathtaking comment that the 5,000 or so unanswered emails from MPs and charities making urgent requests for help for Afghans at risk would be ‘responded to within days’ – when all the flights had already left. The whistleblower who broke the unanswered emails story reckons there are about 9,000 Afghans at risk in Afghanistan, not the ‘low hundreds’, as claimed by Raab during the hearing. A volley of scathing tweets accompanied the Today interview, one saying: ‘If, at any time, I am stopped by a policeman who accuses me of speeding I shall say: ‘I don’t accept that.’ That’s how Dominic Raab replies on Today when confronted with the truth. No accountability’. Another pointed out the cynical use of semantics: ‘I don’t think it’s worth getting ahead of ourselves on this,’ self-excuses Raab. So that’s it – inaction = ‘not getting head of ourselves’.
Perhaps the most extraordinary remark was when Raab referred to ‘so-called Afghans’, prompting incredulity from some listeners. Such a remark is surely a sign that questioning and dismissal of these Afghans’ nationality could be used as a reason not to help them. Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, was impressed with how active a number of European politicians had been for several months and said that the Foreign Secretary needed to outline what exactly he had been doing for the last four months. In a classic example of buckpassing, Raab spoke on BBC Breakfast about the UK’s role. ‘It did morph, if you like, into something closer, more akin, to nation-building, and I think we need to be realistic, particularly in an inhospitable climate like Afghanistan, about the extent to which over 20 years those objectives are reconciled with the means to achieve them. That’s something that I’m sure Lord Dannatt (former head of the army) would need to reflect on as well, given his role over many years’.
Government briefings have suggested that Raab will be sacked over Britain’s chaotic departure from Afghanistan, but he dismissed anonymous critics today as ‘lacking in any credibility whatsoever’ and now he seems to think he can compensate for his complacency and inaction by dashing around Qatar and Pakistan. The supreme irony, given the government’s recent record on asylum seekers, is its ‘Operation Warm Welcome’ and its disconnect with the tactics of Home Secretary Priti Patel. A Today listener tweeted: ‘Surely there is nobody in the entire country who buys the “warm welcome” for refugees rhetoric from this government this morning? Reporting on it without mentioning plans to reject and criminalise refugees contained in Patel’s Borders Bill is a joke’.
We learned from Victoria Atkins, now minister for Afghan Resettlement, that one third of councils have offered to help, prompting the question from some quarters as to whether all local authorities should be compelled to join the scheme. We can’t necessarily assume that it’s only the most cash-strapped councils which aren’t stepping up. But the minister was keen to assure us that more will come forward – surely something the government really must work ‘around the clock’ on rather than the false ‘straining every sinew’ sound bites we heard early in the pandemic. Chancellor Rishi Sunak is under pressure to double the amount of funding given to councils to house refugees after a leaked Whitehall memo revealed a multimillion-pound shortfall. Ministers are said to be in urgent talks with councils to find permanent homes to resettle more than 8,000 Afghans who were evacuated last month, a complex issue as many already have long waiting lists, those waiting perhaps fearing they could be deprioritised in favour of the refugees
Former Civil Service head Sir Mark Sedwill has said the UK has ‘no coherent plan for the refugee crisis’ and clearly hasn’t been impressed with the bandying around of ‘Operation Warm Welcome’. ‘Mark Sedwill, a former ambassador to Afghanistan and senior adviser to two British prime ministers, said the emergency airlift out of Kabul had only helped “relatively small numbers” and greater pressures were likely to emerge as people fled overland. ‘Forty-five senior officers, including myself, wrote an open letter to the government in July to say that a large proportion of British nationals and interpreters and other locally engaged civilians were at risk from the Taliban. We urged greater generosity and speed because time was not on our side. The response to that was very disappointing. As far as Dominic Raab is concerned, I shake my head because I wonder how people can go on defending the indefensible’.
As Dominic Raab busies himself in Qatar and Pakistan, he’s said the government needs to engage with the Taliban but not recognise their regime, a tricky position to adopt but one some suggest is akin to the relationship we have with countries like Myanmar. He wants to establish a new international ‘coalition’ of interested countries to ‘exert the maximum moderating influence’ on the Taliban, citing four ‘critical tests’ they would be judged on, including allowing Afghan and other citizens with the correct documentation to leave the country, preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a ‘haven’ for terrorists and allowing access to humanitarian aid workers.
Meanwhile, we hear that only one of the team of 125 British embassy guards who were promised help to leave Afghanistan by the Foreign Office has made it to the UK. The plight of those left behind is pretty desperate, sacked by the outsourcing company which employed them, not paid for August and no promise of severance pay. While the US apparently evacuated all their 500 guards and their families, the UK ones were subjected to a hokey-cokey approach, first having been told that as outsourced workers they weren’t eligible, followed by a U-turn. ‘Buoyed by UK promises of assistance, and hopeful they would be evacuated to the UK last Thursday, many sold their possessions – cars, televisions, carpets, furniture – and handed their homes to relatives. When the evacuation attempt failed, some returned to homes stripped of furniture. Others have been forced into hiding, after visits from Taliban representatives’.
The 124 left behind, described by an embassy staffer as ‘loyal and dedicated’, received this final chilling email: ‘You were authorised for evacuation by the British military. The evacuation has now ended. We are sorry if, as we think, you were not able to reach the evacuation point. If you were approved for evacuation, you will be supported if you wish to relocate to the United Kingdom’. Can you imagine what it would be like getting a message like that, knowing your details were left behind at the embassy and with the Taliban on your tail?
There’s still a great deal we don’t know but the key question perhaps is can the Taliban go beyond conquering Afghanistan and actually develop the infrastructure of government needed to support a population (nearly two thirds under 25) much better educated and with higher expectations than was the case in 1996? Will it be held back by its ideology, including separation of the spiritual and political roles and will it be able to convince the world of its capacity to distribute foreign aid appropriately, tackle the corruption hindering its progress and to form effective relationships with world leaders? Let’s hope that those not normally engaged with the news and politics understand how important all this is: not only will the events in Afghanistan shift tectonic plates in the geopolitical sphere, but here in the UK there are the refugees to manage and Taliban regime could lead to a resurgence in terrorist attacks on these streets.
You couldn’t make up the deluded concerns of some Conservatives, though. Writing in the Observer, Tobias Ellwood has demanded ‘an immediate end to the “unseemly and unprofessional” row between the foreign and defence secretaries over Afghanistan, warning that it is further damaging the UK’s already battered reputation on the world stage……’. He thinks ‘the crisis has exposed the weakness of the UK as a global player, and calls for a complete overhaul of the way foreign policy is handled in Whitehall’. He wrote: ‘We’ve lost the passion and the art of leadership – and have caused further reputational damage in the unattractive blame game over Afghanistan that has played out so publicly. This unseemly, unprofessional squabbling must stop’. He seems to have no idea that in the eyes of many the UK’s reputation on the world stage was shot to hell some time ago but it’s surely extraordinary that he believed this government ever had ‘passion and the art of leadership’.
Several developments on the home front risk raising public anxiety further. It’s shameful that, in 2019 having announced a long-awaited plan to reform social care, our Prime Minister still hasn’t produced said plan but now has announced a possibility, based on rising tax and national insurance. As ever ministers have different views on this and it was striking that former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, while pressing for reform, also seemed to agonise about this being the reverse of Conservative economic policy and a breach of a 2019 manifesto commitment not to raise taxes. But so many such promises are broken and what better cause than social care, which is currently in such a dire state? Although not held in high esteem by many, former Tory leader Iain Duncan-Smith stressed how important it was to decide what needed to be done and how, before discussing how it should be paid for.
He has a point, but there’s a more immediate catalyst for reform and how many of those needing care could fall through the net because of these problems? We already know that Brexit has caused some to leave this area of work, as has the low pay and in some cases the requirement for compulsory Covid vaccination. Now it’s emerged, not surprisingly, that care workers have been leaving for better paid jobs, which, interestingly, includes Amazon, not known for employee care. It’s thought there could be 170,000 vacancies by the end of the year. This comment from a care home manager about one of the leavers puts the situation in a nutshell: ‘She said she loves her job and doesn’t want to leave but going to Amazon she can work three days a week and earn more. Society doesn’t value the work being done in social care’. This is an important issue in itself, how society values certain jobs, or not. Carers should be valued, no doubt about it, but how is it possible to change attitudes and quickly?
It’s been pointed out that it’s the strained NHS which will have to step into the breach, but how, given their own challenges? The Department of Health and Social Care spoke from its alternative universe: ‘We are working with local authorities and providers to ensure we have the right number of staff with the skills to deliver high-quality care to meet increasing demands. The vast majority of care staff are already vaccinated and we are focusing on encouraging even more staff to get jabbed to protect their colleagues and those they care for’.
As we hear that the NHS needs a £10bn boost to deal with its backlog and the effects of Covid, anything less regarded as inadequate, perhaps it’s not surprising that it’s been suggested free prescriptions for the over 60s should go and the age of eligibility raised to 66. What a false economy this could well be: analysis by Age UK already suggests that such a measure would have a ‘devastating impact on the health of tens of thousands of older people’. As so often, the false economy would lie in the likelihood that those unable to afford the charges could well feel reluctant to consult their GP in the first place or find their conditions worsening, perhaps with fatal consequences but also additional costs to the NHS over the longer term. It seems to me that governments really must learn to adopt long-term planning, not just short term thinking suited to the length of parliaments.
A consultation apparently attracted 32,000 responses and ‘in a joint open letter urging the government to reconsider proposals to scrap free prescriptions for over-60s in England, 20 healthcare organisations expressed “deep shared concerns” that the move would leave many patients unable to afford medication, intensifying existing health inequalities and having a devastating impact on some older people’s health. It’s been described as ‘a tax on the sick’, but as usual the parallel universe of the DHSC attempts to minimise the potential impact: ‘90% of community prescriptions in England are free of charge, and people don’t pay if they are on a low income, over 60, or have certain medical conditions. The upper age exemption has not changed since 1995 and that is why we are consulting on restoring the link between this and the state pension age. No final decisions have been made and we will publish the consultation response in due course’.
In recent weeks the media have been criticised for low to zero coverage of the forthcoming German election, but this is important for a number of reasons, including Germany’s key role within the European Union and its role on the world stage via the G7 and NATO, etc. Long-term Chancellor Angela Merkel is leaving the stage, her potential successors in the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) party thought to be somewhat unimpressive.
A useful Radio 4 exploration of Merkel’s impact and legacy was interesting for several reasons, one being the role she embraced (hence the ‘Mutti’ (mum) nickname) as container of the nation’s psychological wellbeing. Exactly what we’ve never had recently in the UK. Whatever challenges the nation faces, the qualities of its leaders, ideally including steadiness and consistency, go a long way towards making the population feel in safe hands, reducing individual anxiety levels. BBC Europe correspondent Katya Adler spoke to a number of interesting interviewees about how they experienced the 16 years of ‘phlegmatic Angela Merkel…… ‘unassuming and hard to pin down….. an enigma’ and so on. One who hadn’t liked the CDU told Adler she’d completely changed her mind about Merkel – ‘I love her very much (laughs) She gave me security… she’s steadfast, consistent in her decisions….’.
This was a common view, including ‘she has a good deal of trust’, ‘she’s a great manager with a deep sense of duty’, a quality Germans value very highly. During big global crises like the euro, refugee and Covid crises, one said ‘it was good to have someone calm and thinking, not jumping forward’. A psychologist spoke about her diamond shaped hand gesture (hands folded over the lower stomach), which carries ‘a great deal of symbolism……a caring, protective boundary (inside which) people can pursue their own hobbies, interests and desires while she ensures nothing bad happens’. Such statements capture exactly what we don’t have in the UK, where incompetence, cynicism and self-interest are more to the fore in our leaders, resulting in the population missing this protective boundary.
After Merkel started on this positive tack, but then swerved, it seemed to me, towards criticism of Merkel, citing all the things she had allegedly not achieved. Merkel has apparently become a byword for prevarication in key policy areas eg not investing in her own country, seen as reactive, a manager without a big vision without a big vision, she’s over-protected the German car industry, hasn’t got rid of coal production and risked opprobrium at home by allowing 1m refugees into the country (a policy which seriously impressed President Obama, though). But could it be that this is less important than the other qualities she’s brought to the table? As for the ‘enigma’, it’s said she likes singing and making potato soup and is a splendid mimic – interesting combination.
An article by the Guardian’s Berlin correspondent constitutes an exit report, detailing her approach and performance regarding key policy areas including Russia and China, Europe, refugees and the climate crisis. He quotes Stefan Kornelius, the foreign editor of Süddeutsche Zeitung and author of her authorised biography, as saying ‘She has two core qualities. She is risk-averse and a centrist in the sense that she wants to bring people together rather than alienate them. These qualities apply to domestic politics as well as the European Union, which is a political constellation that has an intrinsic tendency to drift apart’. It’s quite something that ‘Unlike all her seven male predecessors, she will be stepping down of her own will, at the end of a full term, and while her popularity ratings remain so phenomenally high that her three most likely successors have all in different ways modelled themselves on her’.
She comes across as an arch-diplomat, but ‘Critics say the cost of Merkel’s success has been an erosion of the political landscape: by co-opting other parties’ policies and programmes, she has made Germany’s traditional parties increasingly indistinguishable. The CDU has struggled to put up a united front as it approaches the post-Merkel era: party insiders fear a defeat at the September vote could throw the once-dominant force of German postwar politics into an existential crisis that could culminate in a split between centrists and conservative hardliners’. We will see, but one thing’s for sure – she will be a hard act to follow.
More organisations opting for a hybrid model (some days working from home, others in the office) and Parliament returning this week has turned attention once again to matters sartorial. An article featured in The Week by someone clearly keen on more formal dress, especially the suit, suggests that the apparent freedom to wear what we like at work following the wearing of underwear for zoom calls at home isn’t real freedom. He cites the school uniform argument, that a more genuine kind of freedom arises from not having to think too hard about what to wear, the choice of which will inevitably invite judgements and expose inequalities.
But has the Speaker now shown some much-needed authority? Sir Lindsay Hoyle has repeatedly failed to challenge Boris Johnson on his misrepresentations and question avoidances but has now updated the ‘Rules of behaviour and courtesies’ in the House. He stressed the required dress standards, clothing such as jeans and chinos being disallowed. The guide states: ‘the way in which you dress should demonstrate respect for your constituents, for the House and for the institution of Parliament in the life of the nation…Members are expected to wear business attire in and around the Chamber…Jeans, chinos, sportswear or any other casual trousers are not appropriate. T-shirts and sleeveless tops are not business attire. Smart/business shoes are expected to be worn. Casual shoes and trainers are not appropriate. Men are encouraged to wear a tie, and jackets must be worn. It is a privilege to serve as a Member of Parliament and your dress, language and conduct should reflect this’. A wag tweeted: ‘Surely the scruffiest MP in most need of cleaning up his act is the PM Boris Johnson…’.
Finally, in a lovely piece of community engagement and cultural ‘nurturing’: la Barraca de Cinehas been travelling around remote Spanish villages showing films where this wouldn’t normally prove viable. ‘We want to create magic… Our motto is cinema for everyone and anywhere’, say the founders. ‘It is a cinematic take on an effort launched nearly a century ago by Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. In the early 1930s, Lorca along with writer and film director Eduardo Ugarte, launched an initiative to bring classical theatre to villages across Spain.The project was named La Barraca, referring to the makeshift wooden stalls set up at fairgrounds. “Lorca did it with theatre and we do it with cinema,” said De Luna. Theirs has a bar, too’. Great stuff – something similar has happened in remote Scottish areas but it would be interesting to know what similar initiatives have taken off.