The dramatic weather conditions have temporarily pushed the Ukraine crisis and this government’s self-inflicted and worsening travails down the news agenda – it’s been quite alarming (much more for those nearby, of course!) seeing footage of London’s O2 arena’s roof being shredded, an enormous tree toppling over in Devon and the top of a Somerset church spire flying off.
As we step out in the wake of Storm Eunice, it might prompt memories of the Great Storm of 1987 for those of us old enough to remember. I had been appalled to find that some colleagues had used it as an excuse not to come into work, that they’d taken the ‘advice’ to stay at home so seriously when I’d simply stepped over a few branches in the street but found the trains working normally. Later, though, the extent of the damage became clearer and organizations like the National Trust lost scores of trees in their south-east England properties particularly. (They weren’t literally lost, though, as their horticultural experts created mini-ecosystems from the trunks). I feel so sorry for those left without power due to storms Dudley, Eunice and others, but wonder to what extent the problems are caused by the privatized utilities market being insufficiently robust to handle them.
Meanwhile, the government (with media colluding) continues to act as if Covid has gone away, when there were 322 deaths on Wednesday, to give just one example, and surely there’s a chance of these numbers increasing due to half term travel. On the subject of half term, I wonder why Parliament has a two week recess when this break only lasts a week – so far I’ve not had any answers to this question. It’s yet another way our Prime Minister and his government attempt to avoid scrutiny, but the Johnson Out movement is gaining traction, one campaigner tweeting: ‘United by sensible ideals, the Johnson Out movement grows daily. Connecting people all over the UK still hurting by all the lies from No 10, still hurting from losing family, hungry, cold and still in the darkness with depression, Johnson Out speaks as one’. Typically, a major demo in London today (Saturday) has not been reported by the BBC.
The latest cynical plan is the threat to end free Covid tests, presented as a step towards ‘living with Covid’: what a reckless way to artificially suppress case numbers. Independent SAGE has called on the Government to immediately publish the scientific evidence and risk assessments on which it has based this decision.
This and the likely lifting of ‘protections’ must be one reason why Sirs Vallance and Whitty have been conspicuous by their absence, no longer flanking Boris Johnson during briefings or making any comment. We can speculate as to what else they may know that we don’t (yet). It’s interesting but so transparent that on 9th February, just when the news of yet another party had emerged, Johnson made the announcement about possibly removing the need for those testing positive to self-isolate from 21st February. But an NHS Confederation survey showed that 94% of the 307 NHS leaders polled said testing for health staff and other key workers must also continue. At present, NHS staff are asked to test at home twice a week….. 79% disagreed or strongly disagreed with the plan to stop free access to Covid-19 tests for the public….. The survey also found that more than three-quarters would disagree with any axing of the legal requirement to self-isolate following a positive Covid result in favour of it being advisory only’.
Besides the ‘gift’ of Ukraine, enabling our Prime Minister to look even more ridiculous in full sabre rattling mode in a desperate bid to save his own skin from Partygate fallout, we learn that he’s resorting to lawyers to get him off on a technicality, the absurd suggestion that only staying ten minutes at a party somehow deletes breaking the law. (On this point, have we ever heard anything so absurd in policing as partygoers being issued with a questionnaire? Not only that but that they will be facilitated in conferring with others to tailor their responses and they can see what Sue Gray has reported on them to the Met to help them not be caught committing perjury). What a farce.
It seems there is genuinely nothing Johnson won’t resort to in order to cling to power. He continues in his attempts to distract us, for example resorting to ridiculous grandstanding over Ukraine, this morning broadcasting from the plane taking him to the Munich Security Conference. A Radio 4 listener captured what must be the mood of many: ‘Am I the only one to feel acute embarrassment hearing the BBC News headline “Boris Johnson to address World Leaders”?’ Another expressed a saltier view: ‘The idea that “Boris Johnson will rally Western leaders” is preposterous. He isn’t Churchill. He’s a globally marginalised bullshit fountain and a national embarrassment’.
Meanwhile, the country continues in a mental wellbeing busting limbo, the government in office but not in charge, unable to act effectively to tackle the serious challenges of Covid, Brexit, cost of living rises, inequality, the NHS waiting list and social care shortfalls. It’s strikingly but typically patronizing that the PM believes that his number 10 ‘reset’, including ‘three jobs’ Steve Barclay as Chief of Staff, longtime ally Guto Harri as Director of Communications and Rees-Mogg risibly as Minister for Brexit Opportunities, will do more than simply shift the deckchairs on his version of the Titanic. Commentators (at least one saying ‘Johnson is finished’) have rightly said that the lax culture and wrongdoing come from him and while he clings to his position nothing will change.
It must be galling for Boris Johnson when he’s challenged or attacked by one of his own side. The latest silo is from veteran Tory Michael Heseltine, who suggests unease amongst the Leave faction because of a fear that if/when Johnson goes the whole Brexit house of cards will go too. ‘There is an air of desperation in attacks from those on the right and their supporters in the press. They fear if Johnson falls, the Brexit deception will crumble too’. Heseltine aims to expose the vacuity at the heart of the Brexit campaign, claims of its alleged benefits not having been realised because they were impossible, eg ‘that we could keep all the benefits of the single market and customs union, while negotiating trade deals with faster-growing countries in a world that was shifting east’. Perhaps the most embarrassing example of this vacuity is Jacob Rees Mogg, as Minister for Brexit Opportunities, inviting Sun readers to tell him what these were or what they could be. A number of Twitter users have also publicized that they’ve been blocked by their Vote Leave MP for regularly asking what the benefits are and getting no response. Heseltine thinks that the light is now dawning, hence the attacks on Andrew Adonis and himself (respectively, Chair and President of The European Movement). The next few weeks could prove interesting.
Boris Johnson isn’t the only one coming under scrutiny, though: it’s encouraging for democracy that some lively locals in European Research Group chair Steve Baker’s constituency have got a watch on him because of fears that he’s trying to water down commitments to environmental measures. ‘Constituents of Steve Baker MP who are concerned about his environmental position have set up a “Steve Baker Watch” group and are launching a crowdfunding page to raise money. The constituents in Baker’s constituency of Wycombe in the rolling Chiltern Hills believe that Baker is trying to “wreck the government plans to improve the environment”…. Baker, who as chair of the European Research Group was instrumental in pressing for a hard Brexit, helped set up the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG), which has close links to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a lobbyist group that has been accused of denying climate science’.
One campaigner said : ‘Steve’s Net Zero Watch campaign will make people’s lives in Wycombe miserable. He wants to stop us getting cheaper clean energy, insulating our homes and creating a better future for our children. We’ve had enough!’ So they are raising awareness within the constituency about what they see as a derailing of the green agenda.
How many other MPs need to be ‘watched’ by their constituents? It might make them a lot more accountable.
On the Covid front, let’s hope that the plan to ‘offer’ (that weasel word again) to vaccinate for 5-11 year olds and the new antiviral treatment (Pfizer’s Paxlovid) targeting the clinically vulnerable will be helpful, though the rapid lifting of restrictions and increased air travel cast some doubt on this.
Meanwhile, QualityWatch, a joint programme between the Nuffield Trust and the Health Foundation, reports on the health of children and young people during the pandemic. The report features numerous useful statistics but of most interest to me, confirming what other sources have been finding, is the 81% increase in demand for mental health services. These have long been underfunded but the funds available have not been used wisely in my view and those of many. It’s too often wrongly assumed that children and young people are sufficiently ‘resilient’ (a faulty concept from the start) to avoid the worst effects of the pandemic and that they have a preference for online interventions. Although online consultations were inevitable during the worst of the pandemic, what many need and want is relational therapy delivered in person.
Eating disorders have been a particular concern and 2021 statistics showed four times as many children waiting for treatment than in 2020. A&E attendances for children and young people doubled during the pandemic, we’re told, with much longer waits than for other issues – this when it’s well-known that A&E is profoundly unsuited for addressing mental health crises.
Still on mental health, it’s taken a while but the NHS now has several clinics to deal with gambling addiction, but of course these cannot meet all the need. Not before time (and some may be surprised that this had even been allowed to happen) the NHS has decided it must sever its ties with a charity connected to the gambling industry. ‘GambleAware, which describes itself as “an independent, grant-making charity commissioning prevention and treatment services” is funded almost entirely by donations from the gambling industry. Last year it announced a three-year funding arrangement with the UK’s four biggest gambling companies totalling £100m. It has previously been criticised for having too big an influence on the funding of research into and treatment of gambling addiction. NHS England has had a “dual commissioning and funding” arrangement with GambleAware since 2019, with £1.2m a year going into the National Gambling Treatment Service, which currently operates five clinics in London, Leeds, Manchester and Sunderland as well as a national telephone helpline’.
Of course, we know why this was allowed to happen in the first place – underinvestment in the NHS and in mental health services in particular, leading to commissioners casting around for alternative sources of funding. But ‘supping with the devil’ will always be a risky strategy, as it’s now proved in this case. It’s good that two new clinics, set to open in Southampton and Stoke-on-Trent, are now to be funded entirely by the health service, ‘as part of a £2.3bn increase in mental health spending authorised by the government’. While it’s helpful for mental health service spending to receive this £2.3bn, you can bet it won’t be nearly enough.
This week we had the interesting news (given his apparent commitment to stick it out regardless) that Prince Andrew had decided to settle out of court for an ‘undisclosed sum’, which some may consider a rather cowardly avoidance. It’s widely thought the timing was inevitable due to pressure from key Royal Family members in the lead-up to the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. His statement notably didn’t contain an apology or admit any personal culpability and now there’s feverish speculation (and demands for us to be informed) as to where the money is coming from. Various amounts have been suggested for the settlement, ranging from £5m to £14m, but even if he sells the Verbier skiing lodge it’s likely to leave a significant shortfall. As with the lawyer fees, this is likely to be paid by the Queen but the particular pot of money the Queen apparently regards as hers comes from a source stemming from public funds. This is when many have demanded that no public money goes towards paying off Andrew’s liabilities.
Having already been stripped of most of his titles and royal duties, there’s now been a call to remove his Duke of York title. Radio 4’s Any Questions discussed this issue and what becomes so wearing about such exchanges is when respondents say ‘It’s a matter for the Queen’, in order to avoid committing themselves to an opinion. Another very wearing thing whenever anything related to the monarchy hits the airwaves is the endless opining and wittering of sanctimonious royal correspondents, the media being complicit in encouraging them, of course. A wider question, though some will have no sympathy, is what kind of life he can have now. One lived in semi-exile, in the shadow of shame, perhaps.
There’s a nifty rhyme doing the rounds on social media, the last bit of which also smacks of the Johnsonian defence:
The grand old Duke of York, he had 12 million quid. He gave it to someone he never met, for something he never did.
One of the most extraordinary scandals of recent times must be the prosecution for fraud and false accounting by the Post Office of hundreds of their workers when the fault was all the time with the Horizon computer system. It led to terrible experiences for these victims of injustice, including prison sentences, homelessness, relationship breakdown and extreme stress, some even dying before their convictions could be quashed. ‘Former Post Office workers who were among those wrongfully convicted for theft, fraud and false accounting have called for the company’s former management to go to jail for their part in the long-running scandal.
More than 700 Post Office operators were prosecuted between 2000 and 2014, based on evidence from the Horizon IT system, which was installed and maintained by Fujitsu’. It’s hard to know what’s the most scandalous element of this affair: that the public inquiry is only just getting underway; that the Post Office didn’t wonder why as many as 700 employees could be at fault; that even when managers did realise it was Horizon at fault they didn’t change tack on the prosecution strategy; that managers told the victims they were the only ones ‘making these mistakes’, hence preventing any security of numbers; that no senior staff were called to account; or that the first many of us properly heard about it was via the excellent Radio 4 podcast rather than robust investigative journalism.
It’s simply heartbreaking to learn what these victims went through following their convictions, for example, a Lucy Brennan from Liverpool, whose marriage broke down, who was declared bankrupt and attempted to take her own life. ‘I had no job and I couldn’t afford the mortgage. I had to sofa surf…. It was the end of the world to me…That was my life, all I had known was the Post Office from 16, and just to be told: ‘You’re a thief’ is horrible. I wasn’t, and hadn’t taken anything…I used to drink a lot, vodka, wine, anything just to numb it.” Her scandalous ‘ordeal’ has lasted twenty years. MPs from parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) committee have expressed concerns about the time taken to make settlements to the victims and have called for full compensation to be made. But what can compensate for the level of distress and loss these people have been subjected to? Let’s hope the inquiry proceeds without delay and finally sees justice being done in this shaming case.
In more cheerful news (yes, there is some!) we learn that Morecambe is to be the site of the Eden Project North, anticipated to bring ‘huge benefits’ to the local economy. It will be linked to the original Eden Project in Cornwall but its focus will be on marine life in Morecambe Bay. This should be a timely boost to this Lancashire town, which suffered a disaster in 2004 with the death of least 21 Chinese illegal immigrant labourers, trapped by the incoming tide after picking cockles.
Good news for birdwatchers and conservationists is that last year was apparently the best breeding year for cranes in the UK since the 17th century. Described as ‘Britain’s tallest bird’ (reaching up to 4ft), the birds became extinct here about 400 years ago because of loss of habitat and hunting. In 1979 some returned to the Norfolk Broads from continental Europe and in 2010 serious conservation work began. Of the 72 pairs seen last year, 65 bred, producing 40 chicks. Let’s hope they will distribute themselves more widely, enabling more of us to see them. I’ve only seen them once, in captivity – seeing them in the wild must be a great experience.
Finally, it was great news this week to hear that the third ‘season’ of the Danish series Seaside Hotel is now available on Walter Presents, the streaming service hosted by Channel 4. Some may recall I raved about this last year, such an absorbing series set in a delightfully unpopulated sand dune surrounded beach location and with strong characters and story lines. I think one of its strengths is the dual threading of the plot, focusing on the serious challenges faced by the hotel owner and her staff and on the fascinating interactions of the guests who return year after year. The new series starts in 1930, against the background of the world economic crisis. Highly recommended!