Yet again it’s a week during which the feeling of things being out of control is even more in evidence, from queues at petrol stations, HGV driver shortages leading to some empty supermarket shelves to the anger at police failings following the sentencing of Wayne Couzens. On Radio 4’s Today programme, Home Office crime and policing minister Kit Malthouse gave a defensive interview regarding police culture, regarded by many as institutionally sexist, and its head, Dame Cressida Dick. It emerged that he had voted against violence against women and girls being made a serious crime in the forthcoming policing bill. When challenged on this, he demonstrated his poor grasp of this issue by suggesting that measures could be adopted if such violence was a ‘systemic problem’ in particular areas whereas it needs to be across the board. He also grasped at the ‘digital improvements’ straw, which didn’t cut much ice. Sarah Jones, Labour MP, tweeted: I’m afraid Kit Malthouse is being disingenuous about the new serious violence duty in the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill. I had an amendment in committee to include violence against women and girls and the government rejected it out of hand’.
And you couldn’t make up the pathetic police ‘advice’ to women feeling threatened by individual police officers to call out to passers-by or ‘flag down a bus’. Can you imagine that having any effect in London or any other large city? As the Independent headline read: ‘Don’t tell us to flag down buses – vet your police officers properly’. Very pertinent, especially as Couzens was known to have committed offences which should have been a huge red flag long before the Sarah Everard murder and other officers have also been placed under investigation. Establishment figures like Lord Blair (former Met Commissioner) and Inspector of Police Tom Winsor (Chief Inspector of Constabulary) continue to defend the status quo and leaving Cressida Dick in post. A good start would be the no brainer of making domestic abuse training compulsory for all police forces – astonishingly, it isn’t already. A shocking statistic that probably won’t make mainstream media coverage is the 81 women killed by men since the murder of Sarah Everard.
Meanwhile, we hear that, as the country struggles to function, Boris Johnson, ahead of the Conservative Party conference, is fantasizing that he can reinvigorate his party and administration. We’re told to expect ‘big bold decisions’ when what we’ve actually seen is dither, incompetence and corruption and the supreme irony must be the lack of staff to serve the Tory faithful as they descend on Manchester Central Convention Complex. For once, though, it’s doubtful he will be able to evade anger at the combined reality of petrol shortages, worsening supply chain problems, increase in poverty due to furlough ending and the cessation of the Universal Credit uplift and severely undermined confidence in the police and the government. All of these issues will be raising public anxiety considerably. A Guardian podcast discusses the nature of the PM’s complacency: ‘When Boris Johnson returned to the UK from his visit to New York to speak at the UN general assembly, he got off the plane with a spring in his step. He had presented himself as a climate crisis leader on a global stage. He had completed his reshuffle, got rid of some dead wood, and installed party favourites such as Nadine Dorries and Liz Truss in top cabinet jobs. His government was starting to look towards a post-coronavirus agenda, with Brexit a distant memory. The upcoming Conservative conference appeared to be a golden opportunity to tell voters what “levelling up” would really mean – and why they should support Johnsonism. Instead, he flew back into the teeth of a crisis – with shortages of petrol creating media coverage of disgruntled drivers and gridlock on service station forecourts. With energy companies still going bust (12 so far this year) and many observers attributing at least some of the blame to Brexit, his hopes of turning the page on a crisis-ridden two years now appear tenuous at best’.
Boris Johnson won’t have done himself any favours with his shocking ‘definition’ of what ‘levelling up’ will look like in NE England, telling the BBC’s Luke Walton on Friday: ‘I’ve given you the most important metric which is, never mind life expectancy, never mind cancer outcomes, look at wage growth’. Even some of his colleagues could be shocked to hear him say something so insensitive and ruthless. The Guardian gives its predictions as to how this conference will go, alluding to ‘research’ which shows that the PM sees the need to ‘shake a sense of national paralysis (not just a sense, is it?) and reassure his party before a daunting winter’.
This kind of pretentious pantomime won’t necessarily fill us with confidence, not least because characters in Greek theatre had something more about them this current crop of politicians. ‘Above all, Johnson’s aim for the conference will be to try to shake that sense of inertia. He will characterise himself as the delivery prime minister, even if his own MPs complain there has been precious little delivery so far. To symbolise that idea, he will take to the stage at the Tory conference next Wednesday in Manchester quite literally surrounded by his ministers and party members. Reminiscent of an ancient Greek theatre, the stage set-up will be almost entirely in the round’. It also might not cut much ice with the group of senior Conservative MPs which has broken ranks to openly question how Boris Johnson can deliver on his promise to increase prosperity in poorer parts of the UK while at the same time raising taxes for working people and cutting benefits.
All the problems we’re facing were avoidable – lack of foresight and planning has led to what we are witnessing now. Kit Malthouse was also challenged on the petrol shortage and repeated the ministerial mantra that the situation was ‘stabilising’, trying to attribute it to ‘panic buying’, but it’s manifestly not. All over the country there are long queues at petrol stations and motorists have also found them closed altogether. There have also been reports of abuse and violence, knives being drawn in some areas and the latest news is that the problem is getting worse in the South-east, not better. While this situation is distressing for all motorists, it’s particularly acute for those needing to drive for their work, for example the community midwife interviewed this week, where the consequences of their inability to get to their visits could be severe. Cancer patients are among those who have had appointments delayed by the fuel crisis, with patient transport services unable to fill up and NHS staff struggling to get to work.
But the Today programme quoted an EU hauliers union rep as saying ‘we will not go back to England to help them get out of the shit they created themselves’. It will be interesting to see how the recruitment drive goes. The situation has exposed, in common with the agricultural industry, the fault lines in the business model, keeping wages low while not improving working conditions. Many Brits would not want to work long shifts with poor access to washing facilities which amount to little more than cattle trough sinks in some lorry parks. It might prove a wakeup call for employers but also for consumers, who mostly won’t be questioning how the goods they want get to them.
The media seem to be milking predictions about Christmas and potential shortages, as if there aren’t more important issues to engage with. Apparently sales of Christmas goods have been surging already. ‘Millions of Christmas dinners will be saved by importing turkeys from Poland and France’! All the harping on Christmas is in very poor taste considering the challenges this country and the world face’, said one tweeter at the First World Problems hashtag. With food and goods shortages, not to mention potential blackouts depriving us of the internet, we may be back to the Victorian Christmas yet, maybe no bad thing – perhaps there will be a run on second hand pianos to facilitate the traditional sing-songs. Not to mention poaching your own rabbit. But hey, none of this might need to happen because of the government’s latest U-turn, allowing overseas drivers to stay until March in the interests of ‘saving Christmas’. Besides saving his own skin, could the PM be feeling he owes us for Christmas effectively being cancelled last year?
Perhaps Boris Johnson thinks he doesn’t have to worry about how the conference goes, because of what a commentator calls his ‘rigging of the system’ to stay in power. Four examples of this, according to journalist Jonathan Freedland, are ‘hobbling’ the elections regulator, weakening the courts, limiting protest and devising new rules which would gag whistleblowers and the press. ‘Almost unnoticed, perhaps because it’s done with an English rather than a Hungarian accent, our populist, nationalist prime minister is steadily setting out to weaken the institutions that define a liberal democracy: the ones that might act as checks and balances on him. And he’s moving, Orbán style, to make it ever harder for his government to lose power’.
The likely changes to the justice system are chilling to read about, as are several other categories of change, for example limits on what journalists can report by widening the scope of the Official Secrets Act. ‘But Johnson is bent not only on preventing his government from being held to account. More sinister, he is taking steps to ensure it can’t easily be replaced. He wants to tilt the playing field of electoral competition permanently in the government’s favour, and his first target is the referee’…. There is a pattern here, if we’re only willing to see it. A populist government hobbling those bodies that exist to keep it in check, trampling on democratic conventions and long-held rights, all to tighten its own grip on power. We need to recognise it, even when it wears a smile and tousled hair, and speaks in the soothing cadences of Eton College’.
Meanwhile, mixed news on the health front. NHS Digital statistics show that the proportion of in person GP consultations is now only marginally higher, at 58%, than during lockdown. This is so unsatisfactory because many doctors have said worrying symptoms can be missed because they’re not seeing the whole person and observing their demeanour and some patients will not consult the GP if only virtual consultations are on offer. Long Covid also continues to be an insufficiently acknowledged problem. Researchers at the University of Oxford, the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and the Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) shed fresh light on the scale of the problem after studying more than 270,000 people recovering from Covid in the US. They found 37% of patients had at least one long Covid symptom diagnosed three to six months after infection. The most common symptoms were breathing problems, abdominal symptoms, fatigue, pain and anxiety or depression. Not only are these conditions complex to treat but NHS facilities for treating Long Covid are in short supply, with availability determined by postcode lotteries.
Encouraging news comes in the form of the new Covid drug trial, which has involved giving recently diagnosed Covid patients the anti-viral pill (molnupiravir) twice a day. Interim results from the trial by US pharma company Merck suggest that it could cut the risk of hospitalisation and death by half.
What also seems very positive news is the NHS plan to create diagnostic hubs in community venues close to people’s homes, to speed up ‘life-saving checks’. Maybe this initiative (the pandemic has further catalysed the need for radical change in the way NHS services are delivered) could encourage those disliking virtual GP consultations to see a clinician, but the service isn’t planned to be operational until March. Some concerns have been expressed at the difficulties in recruiting staff, suggesting that the initiative could result in clinicians being taken out of hospitals.
On top of all the mental health service deficits discussed here recently, we’re hearing more and more about how young people’s mental health has been detrimentally affected by Facebook and Instagram use. Instagram is particularly in the frame for its tools which allow users to rate the appearance and personalities of others, giving rise to further self-esteem problems. One commentator criticised the ‘monetizing’ of children and apparently children as young as nine are setting themselves up as ‘influencers’, a travesty of childhood, surely. But given that Facebook is unwilling to admit the problems, let alone address them, it begs the question how can tech be controlled? At least there’s more awareness now that the tech Trojan horse has inveigled itself into our lives in ways which can be dangerous as well as convenient.
In many cases social media use by young people will be contributing to the rise in anxiety, and now some cynical operators have stepped into the vacuum left by NHS mental health services. Radio 4’s File on 4 has investigated some of these offerings, highlighting, as another of their programmes did last year, the statutorily unregulated nature of private counselling and therapy services. Parents desperate to help their children with anxiety predictably found long waiting lists for NHS treatment, leading some to seek help privately, some of these therapists also having long waiting lists.
The programme alludes to ‘rogue operators’ with barely any appropriate qualifications charging huge sums to ‘cure’ children of anxiety, using various cynical marketing methods such as implying if parents don’t pay they don’t care about their child. Some parents were charged £5,000 and encouraged to go into debt to finance the ‘treatment’, which, not surprisingly, did not work in numerous cases. No surprise there: it should be better known that ‘cure’ is an inappropriate concept to apply to this kind of work. The journalists ask – why isn’t the law protecting people who seek help online? Having long pressed for statutory regulation of counselling and therapy, I doubt it’s likely to happen any time soon: Conservative governments have always taken the stance that there’s no evidence to suggest regulation is necessary. There’s plenty of evidence…..
Another situation which has been unregulated for far too long (and obviously more to the fore during the last 18 months) is the opacity of the funeral industry. The vulnerability of many bereaved people has meant that they don’t explore and challenge (and often don’t know they can) what undertakers tell them they need. These companies often issue invoices which aren’t itemised, one heading I recall being quite a sizeable one for ‘funeral director’s fees’. Fortunately, Quaker Social Action has been involved in catalysing a Competition and Markets Authority investigation through its Fair Funerals campaign (2014-2018). QSA also engaged fully with the investigation, giving feedback throughout consultation, informed by detailed (anonymised) evidence from their Down to Earth funeral costs helpline. Two of the main outcomes are disaggregated price lists. It seems shocking that the average cost of a simple funeral in the UK is £3,837 (Royal London, 2020) and during the last ten years prices rose well above the level of inflation. Let’s hope this investigation really makes a difference and that it also prompts the bereaved to find out more about their options, the less expensive ones traditional funeral directors don’t necessarily tell them about. (Useful information can be obtained from Dying Matters, a not-for-profit coalition working to create an open culture to talk about death, dying and bereavement).
Several weeks ago we heard that the UN agency Unesco had taken the radical decision to delist some of its World Heritage sites, including Liverpool, because of excessive development on the water front. It now looks as if a site in Derbyshire could be under threat. In the Derwent Valley mills area there’s a plan to build a 17 storey block of flats opposite an old silk mill, which Unesco is unhappy about. It would be a blow if the site is delisted because it has enjoyed Unesco status since 2001 in recognition of its importance during the Industrial Revolution and would no doubt have encouraged tourism in the area. Again, it raises the conundrum of how we balance preservation of heritage sites with the need to create more housing.
With so much going on in the UK, we could perhaps be (slightly) forgiven for overlooking the key election last weekend in Germany, which saw the departure of Angela Merkel after 16 years and the ‘ascension’ of Olaf Scholz (SPD – Social Democratic Party leader) if he can produce a successful coalition. It’s important stuff as what happens in Germany will impact directly on the EU bloc and generally on the world stage. Scholz, former mayor of Hamburg, is profiled in Radio 4’s useful Profile series, considered a little ‘robotic’ and lacking in charisma. Sholtz is apparently good at rising again after falls from power and his performance during the pandemic has been praised. He’s shown he can make tough decisions. Concerned about his weight, we learn that at the age of 40 he took up running and rowing. He apparently doesn’t mind being considered ‘boring’ and we’ve seen where ‘charisma’ leads in the UK and US – in the longer term sturdy and reliable politicians are likely to do their electorates much more good.
Meanwhile, Angela Merkel’s legacy has been discussed in many fora. While she has performed a valuable role in psychologically holding the nation (not called Mutti for nothing and something we’ve manifestly not benefited from here), especially important during the anxiety generating pandemic. But her conservatism and risk adversity have been criticised by some commentators, for example keeping existing structures going when they need reforming. While critics have to acknowledge that economic performance remains good in terms of exports and GDP growth, they suggest that this has negatively impacted public investment, for example Germany is said to be way behind other nations in ‘the digital revolution’.
Finally, it’s good news that London has two new stations on its elderly Northern Line (used to be known as the Misery Line), no doubt to support the extensive redevelopment about the former Battersea Power station. The new stations, Battersea Power Station and Nine Elms, represent the first major development of the Underground this century. ‘Taking six years of construction and testing, and a longer period again of design and planning, the £1.1bn project – adding nearly two miles of tunnel as well as the two stations – has put the dramatically changing area of south London on the Tube map’. It will be interesting to see how this opens up this area to a wider ‘audience’ and whether the promised 25,000 new jobs and more than 20,000 new homes will actually materialise.