How things can change in a week – ten days ago despite rising Covid cases some commentators and politicians were blithely alluding to Covid as being in the past: on UnHerd Andrew Lilico had said ‘Britain is remarkably well-placed as it emerges from the pandemic. Public health officials will of course continue to be concerned about infection levels but as a grand policy question, Covid is finished’. Then last weekend the Omicron variant (now 160 in the UK), thought to be highly transmissible and dangerous, emerged here, more coming to light every day. Boris Johnson’s and ministers’ complacency about Christmas has been punctured and the public now has a double dose of anxiety – not only the increased risk of Covid but uncertainty due to the government’s mixed and unscientific messaging. The PM, Oliver Dowden and others, obviously concerned about attracting opprobrium, have effectively said continue with Christmas events, others displaying more caution.
Whereas Work and Pensions Minister Therese Coffey said there shouldn’t be ‘much snogging under the mistletoe’ (a bit of ‘snogging’ is ok, then?), Sajid Javid and science minister George Freeman in media interviews took the opposite view and Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden said ‘People should keep calm and carry on with their Christmas plans, as long as they abide by the mask-wearing in the settings we’ve set out, namely public transport and retail’. It comes hours after government advisor Professor Peter Openshaw cautioned: ‘Personally, I wouldn’t feel safe going to a party at the moment’ – even if attendees were vaccinated…..the chances of getting infected were too high’.
Lamenting the lack of political leadership over Covid, Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust who stepped down as a government scientific adviser last month, said ‘Omicron shows the world is closer to the start of the pandemic than the end’ and that progress is being ‘squandered’.
Boris Johnson typically undermined leading scientists and health officials who advised people to cut back on unnecessary socialising, instead urging people not to cancel their Christmas parties or nativity plays. He said the best thing was to get booster jabs, with a massive NHS effort backed by the army to offer all adults one by the end of January. As usual ministers are continuing to see vaccination as the silver bullet rather than considering further measures other countries are now implementing. This laizzez faire attitude could cost more lives. Having seen what happened last year, many have nevertheless been cancelling hospitality bookings and at least some planned holidays will have to be postponed because of the quarantine requirements imposed by a number of countries, not to mention the hurriedly re-introduced pre-departure tests. On Tuesday, the first day of the reintroduced measures, there were 39,716 new cases in the UK and 159 deaths, with mask refuseniks on public transport being caught out by substantial fines. Up till now there’s been very little policing of mask wearing on transport systems but at least in London the situation has definitely changed over the last few days.
On Day 1 152 people were fined £200, and a further 125 were ejected from London’s services, with 127 refused entry to stations. Will this continue, though? It’s been common to see unmasked staff and it’s fairly likely that there will be less attention paid to policing it over the coming weeks and perhaps months. The groups of police at station entrances also need to get themselves down onto platforms and trains – it’s not uncommon to see people remove their mask once they’ve got past ‘officialdom’. Not to mention their doing nothing about maskless passengers emerging from escalators and lifts.
The hospitality and travel industries have once more been plunged into gloom, 70% of hospitality venues seeing cancellations and a steep decline in bookings since the emergence of Omicron. ‘Of the 290 independently owned Best Western hotels in the UK, three-quarters have had an increase in Christmas cancellations and 89% have expressed concern about the festive trading period, the group said. About 70% have seen a decline in bookings since the Omicron variant emerged. More than two-thirds are worried businesses and individuals will still be wary about booking in the early part of next year’.
The travel industry will find itself under yet more pressure due to the latest ruling, one representative calling it ‘a hammer blow’. All international arrivals to the UK will be required from early Tuesday to take a pre-departure Covid-19 test to tackle the Omicron variant. Some callers to Stephen Nolan’s Five Live programme yesterday were up in arms about this and other measures because of their illogicality – when people are required to quarantine they can still and do travel from airports to their homes by public transport. Perhaps the travel industry (reacting ‘furiously’) will now have to take on board the messages they refused to during COP26 – their partial responsibility for the climate crisis.
As ever, our Prime Minister looks on the bright side, substituting hope and optimism for sensible polices and contingency planning. This ‘Bertie Booster’ act is now wearing thin with his own colleagues let alone those who saw the light months or even years ago. The Guardian’s John Crace writes: ‘The PM’s response to Omicron is to do the bare minimum his deranged backbenchers will tolerate’. It was also to disown Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency and frequent speaker at Downing Street press conferences, after she publicly advised limiting our social contacts at this time. Crace then deconstructs various ‘Tory MPs: ‘Graham Brady, another of the more intellectually challenged MPs, reckoned that if the Omicron variant was resistant to the vaccine then it was best all round if people died sooner than later. Then we’d know where we were. Craig MacKinlay rather agreed. There was no point developing a new vaccine that worked against Omicron as the virus would only mutate again. Christopher Chope couldn’t work out why people who had been vaccinated should be made to wear masks even if they were infectious, while the fundamentalist Steve Baker saw it as something of a crusade’.
The article ends with the Prime Minister’s modus operandi in a nutshell: ‘Besides, you only really needed masks if you were meeting people you didn’t know. Mmm. Fingers crossed and all that’.
As if there wasn’t enough important news on the agenda, a supplement which must have been very unwelcome to Boris Johnson was the revelation of the Downing Street party last December – against lockdown rules, of course. Some ministers unlucky enough to draw the short straw for the daily media round have been tying themselves up in knots trying to deny it. It was actually a couple of parties, involving ‘food, drink and games that went on past midnight’ although no 10 has said ‘all rules were followed’. Ironically, that same evening we’re told police handed out £34,000 in fines after breaking up a student party in Sheffield. Much easier for the police to do than tackle rulebreaking at government level.
Besides further adding to the ‘one rule for us, another for them’ attitude, it’s highly cynical of the media to only ‘out’ this now when they must have known about it at the time. The difference is the media are now far more disenchanted with the PM and his colleagues than they were last year. An exasperated commentator tweeted: ‘You could not have a party in December 2020 & comply with rules which said you cannot have a party! How hard can this be!!!’ As the Do Not Comply hashtag has been trending on Twitter this last week, news of this illegal party will further strengthen the resolve of those opposed to mask wearing, vaccination and other Covid safety measures.
As so often, the media collude with the government in focusing on other issues eg deflecting attention onto the rise of Covid cases in Germany. Meanwhile, many have been flabbergasted by the Met Police saying they only investigate an issue on request and they don’t investigate retrospectively! Whatever happened to the concept of proactive policing? And by definition all crime has been committed ‘in the past’. This has resulted in Labour MPs and many members of the public tweeting and writing to the Met to demand an investigation into this party. A series of tweets reads: ‘Dear Met Police, I wish to report a flagrant breaching of Covid rules at 10 Downing Street SW1A 2AA where a gathering of over 40 people took place on 18th December 2020. This included the Right Hon Boris Johnson will you please investigate this matter. Thanks.’
Amid the Omicron and Downing Street concerns, what should surely have attracted more attention is Ian Blackford’s striking performance on Tuesday spelling out Boris Johnson’s misrepresentations, calling him a liar but without any demand to retract his comment from ‘Madam Deputy Speaker’. Blackford, Leader of the Scottish National Party in the House of Commons, has long gunned for Boris Johnson, but at least this time has perhaps scored a bull’s eye. He tweeted: ‘Last Christmas, the Prime Minister hosted a packed party in Downing Street, an event that broke his own lockdown rules. When public health messaging is so vital, how are people expected to trust a PM when he thinks it is one rule for him and one rule for everybody else?’
The Herald (Scotland) tells us that ‘prior to the session, the Commons Deputy Speaker Dame Eleanor Laing warned MPs about their conduct, saying “intemperate abuse” was “out of order”. However, she added, that “things may be said which the chair would not normally permit.” The SNP scheduled the debate to raise their concerns about the ongoing claims of corruption and sleaze within the Conservative party, and within Government in general. They have specifically called for Mr Johnson to be censured for his alleged role in the scandals, and for his ministerial salary to be reduced by half’.
Meanwhile, despite the Owen Paterson/Geoffrey Cox and many other examples of corruption, sleaze continues unabated in some quarters, more examples emerging like that of former health minister Steve Brine, who ‘started raking in £1,600 a month giving “strategic advice” to Sigma pharmaceuticals, just months after quitting as Public Health Minister in March 2019’. Except he’s only recently quit. At issue is his breaking the ministerial code by claiming in the register of interests to have consulted Parliament’s revolving door watchdog before taking a £200 an hour job with pharma company Sigma when in fact because he’d already started the job. ‘The firm was later handed a Covid-19 testing contract worth £100,000’. (Former Ministers have to consult jobs watchdog the Advisory Body on Business Appointments (ACOBA) before taking any job within two years of leaving government). Faux gracious innocence is one way we could describe the MP’s response to the Sunday Mirror: ‘I am going to look into all of this with the House authorities, at the earliest opportunity, and make sure everything is in order. I am grateful for your bringing it to my attention’. You couldn’t make it up.
Opinion polls show how Boris Johnson’s assumption of public support can no longer be taken for granted, as trust plummets following the ongoing revelations about his conduct and that of his MPs. ‘Trust in politicians to act in the national interest rather than for themselves has fallen dramatically since Boris Johnson became prime minister, according to figures contained in a disturbing new study into the state of British democracy. The polling data from YouGov for the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) shows a particularly sharp fall in trust in the few weeks since the Owen Paterson scandal triggered a rash of Tory sleaze scandals’.
‘In 2014, when David Cameron was prime minister, 48% of voters believed politicians were “out merely for themselves” as opposed to their country or party. This had increased to 57% by May 2021 after nearly two years of Johnson in No 10, and leapt to 63% last week in the wake of the Paterson affair. In the same poll, just 5% of voters thought politicians were in the job primarily for the good of their country’. It’s significant that Boris Johnson was booed when he parachuted into Shropshire last week, although the seat held by Paterson had been a safe Tory seat.
The IPPR report (Trust issues – dealing with distrust in politics) is the first in a series that will look at the causes of distrust and possible remedies to shore up UK democracy. It concludes that declining trust is a serious danger to the efficient functioning of society. ‘It matters for our democracy: where an absence of trust turns into active distrust – characterised by cynicism and disillusionment – it can lead to a downward spiral of democratic decline’. It’s relates to the central topic of this blog – that the collapse of trust in our leaders (who function as important proxies for our early authority figures) has a direct effect on our mental wellbeing. It’s not surprising that since this government took office but particularly given its conduct during the pandemic, demand for mental health services (themselves cut to the bone by this government, with long waiting lists) has risen markedly. That won’t only be due to uncertainty caused by Covid but the very clear evidence that our leaders are in office but not in charge and not performing their role of containing the public’s anxiety due to a toxic combination of incompetence and corruption.
The rising tide of antidepressant prescriptions in England has risen alongside these developments: in 2011 – 47.3 million; 2012 – 50.1; 2013 – 53.3; 2014 – 57.1; 2015 – 61.0; 2016 – 64.7; 2017 – 67.5; 2018 – 70.9; 2019 – 74.8; 2020 – 80.1. If this continues nearly a quarter of our adult population will be prescribed ADs by 2030. It’s important to see these statistics in the wider socio-political context – the medical model tends far too easily to attribute mental ill health to individuals rather than considering the effects of the wider socioeconomic environment.
In order to bring about ‘democratic and social renewal’, the report’s authors see four ‘significant social and significant gaps’ which need to be closed and which their work will be contributing to getting addressed (we hope): between the lives people expected to lead and the lives people are experiencing; between the scale of the social challenges we face and the (perceived) ability of government to deliver against them; between the principles of liberal democracy and the reality of our political system as it manifests today; and between the values and experiences of citizens and those who govern on their behalf. This sounds fascinating and vitally important work which the media needs to cover in order to bring it more to public attention.
By-elections are rightly concentrating numerous minds and it begs the question what is wrong with people that the Conservative yet again won Bexhill and Sidcup on Thursday, albeit with a greatly reduced majority (from almost 19,000 to 4,478)? The clue is perhaps in the words of one constituent, who said ‘better the devil you know’. Maybe not. ‘Parody Boris Johnson’ tweeted: ‘Huge thank you to the people of Old Bexley and Sidcup for voting in favour of higher prices, empty shelves, turds in our rivers, corruption and sleaze, higher taxes, suppression of protest and privatisation of the NHS’. Regarding the North Shropshire by election to replace Owen Paterson, Conservative MPs now fear they could lose after Richard Tice’s Reform UK split the vote in Old Bexley and Sidcup. But attributing their narrow win to this would be to sidestep government misdemeanours, which will penetrate the tough shell of some voters’ political ignorance at least to some extent. Tactical voting plans are in evidence there: as one voter tweeted ‘As a North Shropshire Labour voter, I can say it’s almost certain the Lib Dem candidate will get my vote. Helen Morgan seems to be an excellent candidate too. Having a non-Tory MP is the most desirable outcome, bar none.’
Spending time in nature has long known to boost mental health, but, crucially, the report by Forest Research is the first to estimate the amount that woodlands save the NHS through fewer GP visits and prescriptions, reduced hospital and social service care, and the costs of lost days of work. The research also calculated that street trees in towns and cities cut an additional £16m a year from antidepressant costs. ‘The estimated £185m cost savings are comparable to estimates of the value of all recreation, which the Office for National Statistics puts at £557m a year’. The report ‘uses evidence of reduced depression and anxiety as a result of regular nature visits, as well as data on woodland visitor numbers, and prevalence of mental health conditions and the associated costs. The evidence included an Australian study, showing that visits to green spaces of 30 minutes or more during a week reduced overall rates of depression by 7%, and a UK study led by White that found a two-hour “dose” of nature a week significantly boosted wellbeing. The evidence on the benefits of street trees came from studies in the UK, the Netherlands and Germany’.
The authors say woodlands have value in their own right but that economic valuations aimed to make them relevant for policymakers. This is a real challenge, however, as much research of this kind is qualitative rather than quantitative. Let’s hope this work does cut the required ‘ice’, given the parlous state mental health services are in, and perhaps serves as a catalyst for other organisations to carry out similar work.
Recently this blog included pieces about changes in drugs legislation in various countries, more European countries now moving towards legalisation of cannabis in order to undermine the illegal market. Interestingly, a Times columnist has just described this direction of travel as ‘a slow motion car crash’. This view is based on the fact that years ago ‘pot’ contained about 2-5% concentration of THC, the main psychoactive component, but now modern ‘skunk’ is thought to be five times as potent, often leading to cannabis-induced psychosis. The first NHS clinic to treat this has been ‘swamped by referrals’ and the article points to evidence that liberalisation eg in Colorado and California have neither reduced the criminal black market nor brought back the less concentrated kind – both intended by the legislative change. So another intractable problem continues. It will be interesting to see if the government’s new 10 year drug strategy, to be released tomorrow (Monday) makes much difference.
Finally, most of us will be familiar with the bright red leaved plant, poinsettia, which starts appearing in shops in the lead up to Christmas. They’re difficult to keep going as the leaves so easily fall off, especially in the warmth of central heating, but some green-fingered folk seem able to keep them alive all year. It’s been interesting to read about these exotic plants in the local garden centre’s email, which says the plant is also known as the Christmas star or Mexican flame leaf. It originated from a Mexican shrub and ‘was first cultivated by the Aztec people, who used it for dye making and as a medicine’. Not only beautiful but potentially highly useful, scientists have recently created a set of drugs for Alzheimer’s Disease made from chemicals found in the plant. I won’t be able to look at Euphorbia pulcherrima in the same way again!