With so much going on in the political sphere, increasingly impacting on our mental wellbeing, an economist (Walter E Williams) quoted in the Sunday Telegraph seems especially fitting: ‘Most of the great problems we face are caused by politicians creating solutions to problems they created in the first place’. As we continue to reflect on the aftershock and implications of the Sir David Amess killing, now clearly linked to terrorism, a cluster of issues jostle for attention, including the shortage of HGV drivers and now butchers, the Northern Ireland protocol logjam, COP26 preparations widely regarded as insufficient, the prediction that energy prices will rise for 18 more months and the crisis in the NHS, which the government insists isn’t a crisis. Last week’s damning report on the government’s management of the pandemic will make us more alert to delayed action and it was significant that our Prime Minister ensured he was away on holiday (yes, again) at the time of its release.
Perhaps most worrying, though, is Johnson’s and ministers’ denial (contrary to NHS evidence and pleas for reintroduction of some restrictions) there’s anything much amiss, spinning the narrative that Covid deaths are no higher than can be expected etc when this reluctance to act promptly is clearly linked to fear of vociferous backbenchers. About 1,000 a week are dying and 50,000 new cases a day, yet the government appears to have learned nothing from last year, when they acted far later than they should have. There have apparently been only 16 days throughout the whole pandemic when cases were higher in the UK. A good example of government denial is the statement by Health Minister Edward Argar that the NHS still has 6,000 free beds for Covid patients, a ‘degree of headroom’, bed occupancy rates being used to justify delaying any move to ‘Plan B’, aka reintroducing measures like mandatory facemasks. Of course he was careful not to allude to the A&E crisis in many hospitals which is causing 11 hour waits in ambulances for some patients.
Good luck with mandating mask wearing, though, when things have become so ‘relaxed’ on public transport that you’re lucky if you see more than a third of passengers masking up. But the government and its false narratives have led to this false sense of security. There have been several insidious and cynical examples of complacency and narrative creation this week: one was Jacob Rees-Mogg suggesting his party didn’t need to wear masks because ‘we on this side know each other’ and ‘have a convivial fraternal spirit’ (but does the virus know?). The other was Health Secretary Sajid Javid coupling his ‘advice’ to get vaccinated and wear masks in crowded places (except, it seems, the House of Commons) with a ‘save Christmas message’ – aka if Christmas is clobbered for the second year running it will be our fault, not the government’s.
Dr Kit Yates, a mathematical biologist at the University of Bath and a member of the Independent Sage group of experts said: ‘The narrative has become that case numbers aren’t important, but they still are. They don’t mean the same as they did before vaccination, but the link between cases and deaths has not been broken. We are seeing over 120 deaths a day on average, which for me is unacceptable. Just glancing at the numbers from our neighbours in Europe demonstrates that it didn’t have to be this way’. Despite this evidence to the contrary, ministers still pretend the pandemic is over, using the past tense and alluding to ‘coming out of the pandemic’.
They continue to play the vaccination silver bullet card when it’s clear that vaccination doesn’t prevent hospitalisation and death. Vaccination and booster rates have also slowed down. ‘We are just walking into this winter crisis’, said a BBC Any Questions contributor. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘It is staggering that the UK has a Health Secretary who will not implement basic public health measures to stop the spread of disease. The job of government is to protect its population, not just to manage pressure on the NHS’. Another didn’t mince their words: ‘The government’s reluctance to take simple preventative measures to keep infections down shows how much Johnson is controlled by the swivel-eyed gammon flakes on the right of his party who for some inexplicable reason oppose such hardships like mask-wearing’.
Now it’s not only NHS clinicians, the BMA and policymakers calling for more Covid measures but also local public health directors. At least 12 in England are breaking from the government’s official guidance and recommending so-called plan B protective measures (mask wearing and working at home etc) to curb the rise in coronavirus cases. One effectively challenged the government’s vaccination silver bullet policy. ‘We can’t rely only on vaccines. It’s test when have no symptoms, wear face covering more often than not, give people space, work from home when can, vaccines, isolate when symptoms, ventilate etc’.
On the vaccination policy, the government didn’t do itself any favours this week by fielding the new Vaccines Minister, Maggie Throup (no, many have never heard of her) to answer questions in the Commons, an event lampooned by John Crace in the Guardian. ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the woman. There’s a fair chance you haven’t heard of Maggie Throup. There again, there’s a fair chance that Maggie Throup hasn’t heard of Maggie Throup……..Someone who would be out of her depth in a teacup. And yet, for reasons no one has as yet determined, she is the UK’s new vaccines minister during the worst public health crisis in 100 years. Still, her complete unsuitability for the job made her the ideal health minister for Sajid Javid to send out to take the flak for him by answering Labour’s urgent question on the Covid pandemic. After all, the less she knew, the less chance of her accidentally revealing something potentially embarrassing’. Of 8m eligible for a booster, only 4m have received one and the overall vaccination programme has stalled, we’ve learned. Not a good look for a government trying to depend solely on one solution for our protection.
Some commentators are already predicting the failure of COP26, the forthcoming international climate crisis conference, as three of the main polluters (China, Russia and India) will not be attending, but also our own government has done insufficient to prepare. What seems sickening and humiliating, then, is Boris Johnson’s gathering of business leaders including Bill Gates at a Global Investment Summit, his errors over the amounts to be invested and fantasy promises during his speech. ‘No need to mention the inconvenient truths of food and lorry driver shortages. Covid infection rates increasing at an alarming rate could also be safely ignored. Those were all just present day irritants. The story he wanted to tell was of a future in which Britain would lead the world to the promised land of net zero by 2050. A speech that was light on detail but peppered with recycled gags’.
Possibly more embarrassing was the PM’s dinner for potential investors, which sounded like more razzmatazz than substance and which included roping in the royals to glad-hand the lucky attendees at the Queen’s reception for them at Windsor Castle. We have to wonder how the royals feel about being used in this way. Meanwhile, corporate sponsors who have committed millions to finance COP26 feel short changed, some complaining about the involvement of young and inexperienced civil servants who know nothing about managing relationships with the private sector. One sponsor employee said that “the biggest frustration” was the lack of information about how the event will run, and the role for its key backers, because important questions have gone unanswered and planning decisions have been delayed. ‘They had an extra year to prepare for COP due to Covid, but it doesn’t feel like this time was used to make better progress. Everything feels very last minute’. No surprise there, but a Whitehall veteran of such summits said: ‘It feels like some of these sponsors have forgotten the actual reason we’re in Glasgow. COP isn’t about branding, it’s about tackling climate change. Keeping 1.5C in reach is the best thing you can do for your bottom line: they would do well to remember this’.
The situation doesn’t look promising in terms of effecting real change but let’s hope this event doesn’t just turn out to be an extravagant jamboree. As host, the UK has a special onus to lead by example and we are apparently doing well on pledges eg to reach net zero by 2050 (but that’s the easy bit, isn’t it?) but badly on others, being the 17th highest emitter in the world. It will be crucial to see just what progress is made on NDCs (nationally determined contributions) and interesting to see if key figures like David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg actually appear.
Journalist and broadcaster Adrian Chiles attracted attention this week with his article which gets to the heart of the climate crisis – our attachment (addiction, even) to ‘stuff’. He points up both the distinction many seem unable to make between needing and wanting and the cynical tactics of advertisers and retailers. ‘I’m so sick of stuff. Some of it is stuff I really need or that is at least genuinely nice to have, but a good 70% is useless stuff…. Stuff, stuff, stuff. Advertising people, pushing at the open door of our acquisitive instincts, dedicate their lives to fooling us into acquiring more of it. It bugs me how these people regard themselves as “creatives”, as if they write plays or novels or grace lighted stages and silver screens’.
Then there’s the illogicality of multiple storage facilities: although there are sensible uses like the need to store furniture between property moves and so on, we have to wonder how much space is given over to ‘stuff’ its owners could do with going through and dealing with. ‘Look around you next time you make a road trip. There are storage companies springing up everywhere. We’re so stuffed with stuff that we’re actually paying people to store our stuff for us. This madness must stop, but I don’t see our lunatic addiction to stuff addressed in the plans to get to net zero. What we need is a brilliantly executed ad campaign around the slogan STOP BUYING STUFF’. And, getting beyond the domestic to global environmental concerns: ‘We now have so much stuff stuffed into shipping containers all over the world that the entire system is congested, stuffed up with stuff’. Christmas and birthdays also play their part – perhaps we will eventually be able to transition more permanently to gifts which aren’t planet and home clogging ‘stuff’!
But hey, if COP26 fails to cut much showcasing ‘global Britain’ ice, the government still has Unboxed (the 2022 UK creativity festival) to come. Originally planned by Theresa May’s administration and since endorsed by the Johnson regime and the devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast., the idea of the event derided by some as a ‘festival of Brexit’ is to draw on arts, science, engineering, technology and maths in a government-backed £120m celebration of ingenuity. When interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme this week, I thought it was noticeable that Martin Green, Unboxed’s chief creative officer, didn’t use the B word and was perhaps keen to distance himself from associations with Brexit. The article describes the ten successful projects chosen from over 300 submissions, which certainly sound innovative, if a little wacky. The good thing is that this is a UK-wide exercise, which should help encourage community involvement and avoid accusations of metrocentricity. Dame Vikki Heywood, the chair of the Unboxed board, said: ‘The programme will support economic recovery in the UK by reanimating towns and cities and expanding our connectivity through new online communities. As the programme unfolds, it will both entertain us and inspire us to imagine what the future might hold’.
Amid news that UK households will be £1000 poorer next year, due to rising energy prices and shortages of workers and supplies caused by Covid and Brexit, there’s been premature leaking (to the regular annoyance of the Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle) of the likely contents of next week’s Spending Review. Not before time, it will include investment in mental health ‘support’ (a weasel word usually employed to disguise lack of substance) for parents and, crucially, ‘family hubs’ to provide all round support. What a nerve that Conservative governments dismantled New Labour’s Sure Start centres, which achieved so much, and are now pinching the idea at the same time as saying these hubs will do ‘much more’. It will be very interesting to see how long they take to be set up and what they will actually deliver.
The Local Government Chronicle outlines the ‘tricks’ used to obfuscate, presenting an appearance of investment, very important if they’re serious about ‘levelling up’, rather than genuine investment. ‘Too often, government ambition breaks down in the face of Treasury penny-pinching. So how will we be able to tell whether what we’re getting from the chancellor is premium unleaded or if he’s instead flogging us low-grade red diesel? Here are a few common tricks every chancellor uses to confuse us, to look out for on October 27th.’ One of the main tricks the media need to be alert to and challenge is recasting of existing funding as new money. Another is making substantial initial investment, but for this to tail off during the course of the project. A third concerns ‘real terms rises’, that is whether investment will keep pace with rising inflation: if not, its value will decline.
Earlier this month mental health organisations again stated the dire state services are in and that1.5m people are already waiting for treatment, with about 10m people needing help over the next three years as a result of the pandemic. So far the government has gone nowhere near what the Centre for Mental Health urges for this Spending Review, ie making the nation’s mental health a priority. The Centre reckons there are three key priorities within this overarching one.
‘The Government should make three major commitments in the Spending Review. First, it should commit to keep the promises of the Long Term Plan for mental health. That includes giving mental health services a fair share of NHS funding, expanding support in communities, and boosting social care. Second, it should take action to improve children’s mental health. That means investing in evidence-based parenting support for young families, in helping schools to promote mental health for all children, and in early support hubs for young people. And third, it should take steps to prevent mental ill health. This should start with a pledge to keep the £20 Universal Credit lifeline to keep people out of poverty at this critical time. And it should include investing in public health services, with funding that enables them to protect the mental health of their local communities’. We will wait to see what is actually promised on Wednesday.
As of this wasn’t enough to contend with, another mental health issue has entered the lexicon: ‘range anxiety’, caused by the worry that one’s electric car will run out of power before it reaches its destination. Fortunately for the government, given the severe under investment in mental health, the solutions to this anxiety are quite concrete, said to include the deployment of extensive charging infrastructure, the development of higher battery capacity at a cost-effective price, battery swapping technology, use of range extenders, plus accurate navigation and range prediction. But how long before these developments come to fruition?
I thought one of the most amusing yet sickening news items this week was the palpable anger of BBC royalty editor Nicholas Witchell on being left out of the loop regarding the Queen’s hospital stay. Visibly annoyed, Witchell complained that the media had not ‘been given the complete picture’ to relay to viewers and readers. ‘We were now being told that she was resting, undertaking light duties and in good spirits. Well, we must hope that we can place reliance on what the palace is telling us.’ Some commentators thought the Palace had indeed handled this badly, as the story was only ‘outed’ by the Sun, but there is a key element Witchell fails to see, which is the line to be drawn between ‘the privacy individuals are entitled to on medical matters and the expectation the nation has of being informed about the health of its head of state’.
We’ve long known how the royals feel about Witchell and the inquisitiveness demonstrated generally by these royal correspondents but these days more and regular news is expected than during the pre-internet age. One amusing aspect was Boris Johnson commenting: ‘But I’m given to understand that actually Her Majesty is characteristically back at her desk at Windsor as we speak…’ when we’ve seen how often he is away from his own ‘desk’.
A good dose of Schadenfreude was afforded last week by the swift withdrawal of an extraordinary job offer by the UN to former Heath Secretary Matt Hancock, that of helping Africa’s economy recover from Covid. You really couldn’t make this up. At least the UN, on hearing about the damning report on this government’s pandemic response, thought better of their offer but you have to wonder why they even considered it in the first place. We’ve long known that Hancock is ambitious, a case of ego exceeding ability, so now he will have to continue elsewhere his search for rehabilitation.
Finally, perhaps relevant given the above discussion about ‘stuff’, we learn that fashionistas are not only investing in clothes for the real world but the digital world as well. A site called DressX sells a range of 1,000 digital garments which are then pasted onto their photos for use on social media. A new entrant to the job market, then – digital clothing designer/retailer!