At the start of April, a quarter of the year having already gone, we find ourselves here in a wintry chill, the war still raging in Ukraine with not much sign of progress, the UK besmirched by further political scandals and a cost of living crisis unprecedented in recent years. Marvellous. T S Eliot, whose famous poem The Waste Land sees its centenary very soon, wasn’t joking when he penned that famous opening line – April is the cruellest month. 1 April marked the day energy prices doubled for many, throwing millions into poverty, adding to steadily growing inflation, and the ending of free Covid tests, regarded as reckless by many medics. The Tory script trotted out to ‘justify’ this and the lifting of other related Covid safety measures rests on three myths, excellently explained and demolished by well-known commentator Christina Pagel, a professor at University College London and member of Independent Sage.
These are that the use of the word ‘endemic’ (meaning predictable, therefore implying a capacity to control it) is inaccurate as there’s nothing predictable about Covid. The second is that Covid is evolving to become milder, each variant emerging logically from the previous one, as if in a logical sequence, whereas there’s been no progression through successive variants, and no building towards “mildness”. The third is that we’ve somehow ‘finished’ our vaccination programme, so we don’t need to wait to return to normal when actually immunity wanes after several months so we continue to be at risk. ‘We’re living in two realities: one in which people have returned to living life as if Covid is over, and the other in which we are approaching record levels of infections, with an estimated 4.26m cases last week’. Deaths range from 190-230 per day – that is a lot and it’s alarming to see how such numbers have been almost normalised.
‘Returning to normal behaviour does not return us to normal life. It returns us to a life with more disruption, more sickness and more strain on the NHS. But we can certainly learn to live with Covid better’. What Pagel sees as the partial answer is better public health measures to reduce transmissibility in the first place, such as ventilation, less crowding and tackling economic inequalities – all of which the government has shirked as clearly being too difficult and/or expensive for them. The very first thing that’s needed is for the media to properly challenge ministers and others when they attempt to peddle these myths.
A GP, well qualified to see what’s going on ‘on the ground’, tweeted: ‘It’s over. Any control over Covid we had is over. Duty doctor today. I’ve lost count of the number of patients I’ve seen with classic Covid symptoms NOT A SINGLE PERSON has isolated or done a PCR test. Everyone’s mixing & infecting each other. There is no control. It’s over’.
One in 13 are now said to have Covid and it’s interesting to note that quite a few are those who have been most risk averse and careful throughout. Some will have effectively closed down their lives for no purpose, since Covid got them in the end, proof of increased transmissibility, though it could be argued at least they avoided getting it twice or three times, as many have. A concerned Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘Jenny Harries [chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency and, some would say, Boris Johnson loyalist] told Mishal Husain there’s been a small increase in the number of Covid deaths, as cases surge. Stats show a 26% increase on the 28 days deaths number. I wonder how high the % needs to be for Harries to call it a big increase?’ Another tweeted about the shaming decision to remove free parking for NHS staff: ‘Javid thanks NHS staff for their hard work throughout the pandemic (it’s still a pandemic) then imposes a parking tax on them to help support the NHS, whilst getting a free parking space himself.’
1 April also being April Fool’s Day prompted some good tweets from wags – if only some could be true, eg‘Carrie Symonds files for Divorce. Nadine Dorries implicated. No.10 declines to comment’; ‘BREAKING News – Boris Johnson admits he lied to the British people and Parliament over Partygate & in a tearful statement resigns as PM!’
The news that the Met has (after all this time!) decided to issue only 20 fines so far (and we may well never get to know to whom unless they choose to go public themselves) has brought Partygate centre stage again. For many, though, it never went away, despite the government’s fervent hope that the Ukraine crisis and myth that the UK was ‘leading the world’ on diplomacy and military support would somehow erase it all from our memories. (That particular myth should have been well and truly demolished by the dismal footage of a scruffy Boris Johnson at the NATO Summit being completely ignored as other leaders went around the room exchanging greetings and handshakes. Also by what the former Finnish Prime Minister, Alexander Stubb, said: ‘This idea about ‘Global Britain’ is as true as ‘peaceful Russia’. Simply utter rubbish, to put it diplomatically. To claim that Boris Johnson ‘has taken a lead globally in standing up to Putin’ is an illusion only possible in Brexit La La Land’).
Infuriatingly and unjustifiably, Boris Johnson and ministers in the Commons and the media refuse to be drawn on whether the PM or others would resign if issued with a fine, even though Dominic Raab admitted on the Today programme that the PM had lied and misled Parliament and this is a condition of the ministerial code. There’s long been government contempt for this code but now it seems they are barely even bothering to cover things up now – brazen, suggesting a total absence of moral compass, respect for the law and accountability. But this conduct reached a new low this week: the PM treating his MPs to a slap up dinner at a posh London hotel (nothing to do with needing their support, of course), the attendees walking past Covid19 Bereaved Families for Justice protesters and telling journalists that the events under investigation weren’t parties but ‘gatherings of colleagues’.
The protesters tweeted their disgust: ‘Last night, (29 March) Conservative MPs couldn’t even look bereaved families in the eye as they held yet another party on the day of the first partygate fines and anniversary of the National Memorial Wall’. It was also coincided with the Duke of Edinburgh’s memorial service. It has emerged (how unhelpful is this, smacking of turf wars?) that the Met is refusing to reveal which parties have attracted fines, keeping Sue Gray in the dark. ‘She is due to update and publish her report when the police investigation is complete, but is not expecting to receive full information on which of 12 parties under investigation and which officials, aides and potentially politicians have been fined’. What a way to hobble an investigation and why should those fined be granted anonymity, so that even the Cabinet Office and No 10 don’t know which of their staff are implicated? Meanwhile, in contrast to several ministers (they can’t even sing from the same song sheet on this vital issue), the PM is refusing to accept that a fine would mean he has broken the law, his allies suggested he would not resign if he were issued with a penalty. This is a complete twisting of the truth, a key concept explored by Stephen Reicher.
Professor Stephen Reicher says: ‘The PM’s actions are a resigning matter: democracy is in peril when our leaders no longer care about being seen to lie’. He’s well qualified to opine, being a frequent commentator since the start of the pandemic, a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science, professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews, a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and an authority on crowd psychology. For those who still misrepresent and trivialize Partygate as ‘about cake’, who can’t see the much deeper significance: ‘This matters, not just because it harms trust in this government, and therefore its ability to effectively govern. It’s also harmful because it makes the formation of consensus about what is “true” almost impossible. In Hannah Arendt’s seminal text The Origins of Totalitarianism, she argued that the dying of democracy is marked by a progressive contempt for facts and for those who study them, and a growing belief that truth derives from the power of those who fabricate it. If there is no independent validation of reality, what is permissible – and what counts as “true” – comes down to who is most shameless and shouts the loudest’.
He points up Arendt’s theory that such survival depends on the individual surrounding themselves with talentless acolytes who can be relied upon to fawn and warns us not to be seduced by specious arguments which erroneously claim to be taking account of the bigger picture. ‘Some people may now argue things such as “despite Partygate, Johnson got the big calls right” or “we can’t remove him in the midst of a war” – so called “greater good” arguments, which have always served as cover for the most toxic abuses’.
The PM cut a pathetic figure at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, (the morning after the night before), one commentator suggesting he was incoherent ‘and gave the appearance of being desperately hungover’. The lies continue, unchallenged by the Speaker, backbenchers apparently cheering ‘whatever lies Boris chose to tell. And there were plenty of them; from the Tories having reduced the tax burden to Labour being hellbent on taking the UK back into both lockdown and the EU’. In theory the PM had an even harder time of it at the afternoon’s Parliamentary Liaison Committee (the parliamentary group of select committee chairs), where some tough questions were asked but the challengers seemed to come up hard against the PM’s party-induced soporific state and stonewalling.
SNP MP Pete Wishart bombarded the PM with a series of questions: ‘Could any prime minister survive being busted and found guilty? Was breaking the ministerial code a resigning matter? Would he accept that issuing FPNs was proof that criminality had taken place? Could he explain why his answers on parties had changed from “They never took place” to “I was outraged that other people had been to lockdown parties” to “I didn’t realise I was breaking the law”?
We have to wonder what the point of these Commons committees is, since so many feature good, solid work by their chairs and others but nothing seems to result from them.
Despite, predictably, presenting his Spring Statement as a progressive budget (worrying that so many will just be taken in by this, not looking for the omissions and misrepresentations) the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, came in for a great deal of flak, especially for its transparent mechanism to allow a tax cut just before the next General Election. Some of the most polite yet firm of the challenges came from Labour’s Angela Eagle and Siobhain McDonagh, the latter asking him, incredulously: ‘Do you think people are stupid?’ Many were shocked by Sunak declaring that he was ‘comfortable’ with the choices he’d made, when the energy price cap went up 54% , putting millions at risk.
Unfortunately, what we’re seeing now from this government is an increasing amount of cynical gaslighting and victim card playing as defensive strategies. For example, on coming under fire because his wife is said to be collecting “blood money” in dividends from a family company continuing to operate in Russia despite the invasion of Ukraine, Sunak made a specious comparison with Jada Pinkett Smith in the recent Oscars row, saying it was ‘very upsetting and … wrong for people to try and come at my wife’. Ahem, the difference is, Chancellor, that your wife (who holds a stake in her billionaire father’s firm worth approximately £690m, and which yielded her £11.5m in dividend payments over the past year) is a legitimate target whereas Pinkett Smith was not.
But this isn’t the end of it….. inflation continues to climb (the Office for Budget Responsibility says it will average 7.4% during 2022) and it’s thought the price cap will rise again later this year. The Resolution Foundation think tank suggests that it could push an additional 2.5m households into ‘fuel stress’ (those spending 10 per cent or more of their income after housing costs on energy bills) – culminating in a total of 7.5m households.
It looks as if, yet again, the government has used the domination of the news agenda by the Ukraine war, Spring Statement and Oscars to slip out news which could prove most unwelcome. It seems Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has ignored the advice of the scrutiny committee of MPs and gone ahead with appointing former Tory candidate Orlando Fraser to chair the Charity Commission. ‘The select committee said in its pre-appointment scrutiny report this week it could not endorse ministers’ “slapdash and unimaginative choice” of Fraser for the £62,000 a year job as head of the charities regulator in England’. Questions have been raised about this and other appointments, eg the one of Lord Grade as Ofcom chair. Fraser’s name and appearance would partly reinforce what we’re told about him: ‘Educated at a private school and Cambridge University, Fraser is a white, upper middle-class barrister. He is the son of the late Tory MP Sir Hugh Fraser and the writer Lady Antonia Fraser. His grandfather was the Labour peer Lord Longford’.
So, ‘one of us’, as Mrs Thatcher might have said, though, to be fair, Fraser himself insisted the Commission under his watch would be independent of government and not allow itself to be ‘dragged into culture wars’. It will be interesting to see how far he maintains this independence, though, as previous culture secretary Oliver Dowden said the regulator’s next chair should be prepared to pursue charities which stray into so-called “woke” and “political” activities. That cynical agenda strikes again.
More than a month after the Ukraine invasion (we have to wonder about those calling it a ‘conflict’), other very damaging consequences are being felt besides the tragic loss of life and displacement of over 10m Ukrainians. It’s reckoned over 160,000 people are trapped in the besieged port city of Mariupol, 7000 Russian soldiers have been killed and that some, experiencing at first hand the lack of food, fuel and effective strategy, have defected to the Ukraine side. We’re told that no one can stand up to Putin and besides several generals being killed, others have been sacked or put under house arrest. Extensive consequences are being felt regarding fuel prices and wheat supplies, Ukraineno longer able to be ‘the bread basket of the world’, thought likely to lead to starvation in some countries heavily dependent on this supply.
The ‘peace talks’ just seem like window dressing and why should Ukraine have to make any concessions when the invasion was unprovoked? It’s as if we were all supposedto feel grateful to Russia for promising a significant withdrawal of forces from outside Kiev, but not only has this not happened, war crimes like the shelling of hospitals and humanitarian pathways and forcibly taking Ukrainians to Russia persist. Then we have to contend with the endless pontificating of ministers lambasting Putin – the irony. One tweeter observed: ‘Keep hearing commentators say “Nothing Vladimir Putin says can be trusted or taken at face value.” And they’re absolutely right. The problem is that precisely the same words can be uttered about Boris Johnson’. There’s one thing to be grateful for, though: advisers must have managed to nip in the bud the appalling suggestion a fortnight ago that Boris Johnson was ‘desperate’ to visit Ukraine. According to that fount of all wisdom, Oliver Dowden, the PM ‘feels a real emotional connection with the Ukrainian people’ when it’s clear to most of us that he is incapable of such a connection with anyone.
The Prime Minister’s ‘journalist’ sister, Rachel Johnson, was excoriated for blithely suggesting on LBC that she was ok with Putin taking some territory (presumably the parts already occupied by Russian forces) if this would then keep him at bay. Besides being outrageously presumptuous, we know such placatory strategy doesn’t work, along the lines of the old English expression ‘give them an inch and they’ll take an ell’. Many, not least Putin and colleagues, have been clearly taken aback by the strength, persistence and determination of the Ukrainian resistance and how they came from a low base to quickly develop an effective cyber strategy.
Initially it was said that they were winning the cyber war but now others seem to imply Putin is winning but just playing a longer game, helped by China, accused of mounting cyber attacks against Ukraine. ‘UK intelligence officers warned on Thursday that Russia is increasingly seeking out cyber targets as its ground military campaign in Ukraine stalls. Additional reports on Wednesday revealed Russian hackers recently attempted to penetrate the networks of Nato and the militaries of some eastern European countries. These developments showed that “things are heating up” on the cyber front, said Theresa Payton, cybersecurity expert and former White House chief information officer. “We should prepare for the worst and operate at our best,” she said….. Putin might also be “playing a long game” and having his cyber operatives infiltrate various adversaries and gain footholds, then wait until he decides to launch a cyber-attack’.
Closer to home, there’s been much criticism of the Homes for Ukraine scheme for simply not working and giving people ‘false hope’ – it’s about cynically giving the appearance of taking action but actually making it too bureaucratic to be workable, also abdicating responsibility from central government onto the public. A fortnight after the scheme began, we were told no visas had been granted and the PM still refuses to answer questions in the Commons as to how many Ukrainians have obtained visas and have actually got here. The UK’s scheme is ‘a calculated pretence’, confirmed a Russian-speaking teacher (currently in Warsaw helping families with their paperwork) on Radio 4’s Any Answers today, also telling us that the Spanish had already processed 2000 who were already in Spain. It was reported elsewhere that at least one family (how many more??) had given up on the UK’s bureaucracy and gone to Germany instead.
It comes to something when even those on the government side find fault with the system but perhaps not all in the most savoury of ways. Another challenge Boris Johnson got at the Parliamentary Liaison Committee was from North Herefordshire MP Sir Bill Wiggin, who said: ‘I am really worried, Prime Minister, that everything you have said to us today I actually want to happen. But it isn’t happening, and the only people who are turning up turned up in rubber boats. Why can’t we get the right people through our immigration system instead of the wrong ones?’ Isn’t it surprising that an MP is comfortable with expressing such a view, knowing that this forum was covered by the media? Meanwhile, numerous ‘wrong ones’ such as Syrians and Afghans remain holed up in hotels and there’s little reporting in the media about their plight.
Amid the war reporting and visa shenanigans there’s been insufficient attention paid to the trauma being experienced by Ukrainians so it’s good to see experts acknowledging this. (The same applied to Syrians and Afghans, of course). ‘Civilians fleeing conflict in Ukraine must be given immediate access to mental health support when they reach the UK, experts have said, adding there is an urgent need for more investment in such services. Jonathan Bisson, professor in psychiatry at Cardiff University and director of Traumatic Stress Wales, said many people remaining in Ukraine would be experiencing uncertainty, anxiety and fear and some were likely develop mental health problems’. But for years there’s been significant under-investment in mental health services in this country, many UK residents unable to obtain NHS help so there’s almost bound to be a severe shortfall where help for Ukrainians is concerned.
Typically, a government spokesman trotted out the usual empty promises, without, of course, mentioning the long waiting lists for help and limited choice of therapy and face-to-face therapy. ‘Ukrainians fleeing their home country will be guaranteed free access to NHS healthcare, including mental health care services and registration with a GP. Arrivals will be signposted to services including 24/7 mental health helplines available in every area, and information on accessing NHS services including talking therapies’.
In other news, many were dismayed this week to see the Queen, at the Duke of Edinburgh’s memorial service, so publicly accept Prince Andrew’s assistance as she made her way to her seat, potentially signalling some kind of rehabilitation. The rather feeble justification was that it was seen as ‘a family occasion’ rather than a state one but it’s doubtful this would cut much ice with those who were angered by the prince’s conduct and his longstanding avoidance of legal proceedings. Meanwhile, he seems to have been embroiled in another scandal. Although (concerned about litigation?) the article stated that ‘there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by the prince or Ferguson’ it describes a convoluted situation which makes it clear that there was some involvement.
Some may be pleased to learn that our apparent love affair (not in all quarters) with the ‘small plates’ in restaurants (aka stingy portions costing quite a bit) could be over, since more customers are tiring of it. Imogen West-Knights describes an experience of actually feeling full after a restaurant meal: ‘I realised that I hadn’t eaten this way in a restaurant in a long time. Without noticing it I had, for a good decade, been in thrall to small plates. And I was not alone. All over the country, small plates restaurants (often with short names to match) have proliferated, from Noto in Edinburgh to Poco in Bristol, Belfast’s Ora to Manchester’s Erst, and through almost every city in between’. This must be the quote of the week, one of her friends describing small plates as ‘the Tinder of eating – loads of choice, but satisfaction by no means guaranteed’.
Opinions are divided: ‘Those who loved them, loved them for their variety, but the naysayers had a litany of objections, associating them with pretentiousness and feeling confused, ripped off, overwhelmed by choice and often still hungry at the end of a meal’. The author describes restaurant managers being worn down trying to explain the concept of small plates to older people – perhaps this demographic is more sceptical and less taken in by urban cool. There are numerous suggestions in this article, for example that Brits aren’t regarded as keen on sharing, the absurdity of sharing 6 beans between 8 diners, say, and food critic Jay Rayner saying we don’t go out to eat because we’re hungry – what nonsense and arguably an insensitive comment to make given the cost of living increase and what many fear is semi-starvation to come in some sections of society. An amusing and worthwhile article and good that there are decent places mid spectrum serving proper adult portions, neither overpriced ‘small plates’ nor large portions of variable quality.
Finally, continuing the gastronomy theme, the Daily Telegraph discussed an interesting survey in which Italians were asked how they felt about 19 different ‘abuses’ of their cuisine (what about those who wouldn’t even recognise the ‘abuses’?!). Apparently, they were ‘remarkably relaxed’ about some, like pairing meatballs with spaghetti (many restaurants serve this dish!) but were ‘considerably less tolerant’ of other crimes like putting pineapple on pizzas and rinsing pasta under cold water. The surveyors found that Britons and Americans, like Italians, disapproved of putting ketchup on pasta, whereas Chinese and Indonesian respondents thought it was fine. Fascinating stuff!