As we approach the Easter weekend the news continues to be grim, with the war raging in Ukraine, inflation running at 7%, rapidly rising Covid cases, service closures and clogged roads and airports due to engineering works Covid absences and Brexit-related delays and continuing mismanagement of crises by this government. All of this is likely to add further to the mental health burden in this country which has steadily worsened over the course of the last two years. But what’s just blown this news aside is the Partygate fines (50 issued so far), which have now drawn Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Carrie Johnson into the net, the former two resisting calls to resign. The craven sycophancy of Tory MPs worried about their seats and futures is embarrassing to behold, many citing the specious idea that the PM can’t resign during a war (except it’s not our war). Needless to say, plenty of commentators and social media users have pointed out extensive precedent for prime ministers resigning during wars and ones which the UK was directly involved in at that. The argument makes even less sense when an acrimonious election is taking place just across the Channel.
The shameless Transport Minister, Grant Shapps, drew the short straw for Wednesday’s Today programme, advancing the usual ‘defences’ such as the PM ‘didn’t break the law knowingly’ or ‘with malice’, ‘he’s apologised’ (devoid of sincerity), ‘you have to look at the man in the round’ and (of course) ‘he got the big calls right’. (But it doesn’t stop here – we now hear the PM may be in line for three more fines. It comes to something when one of his own, Defence Select Committee Chairman Tobias Ellwood, suggested the PM should hold a vote of confidence on himself, albeit only after the local elections).
One listener tweeted: ‘The squirming, wriggling Shapps cannot bring himself to admit there were illegal parties at No.10. What a spineless, shameless excuse for a human being. No honour, no integrity, complete and utter sycophancy’. Tory MP Rory Stewart said: ‘The key point is not that Boris Johnson received a penalty notice. The key point is that the fine proves he has repeatedly lied to parliament about his actions during COVID. Democracy requires – for voting for accountability – leaders who tell the truth. He must go’. It shows the sorry state of our politics that some have gone public and said he can’t go because there’s no one to replace him, especially since Rishi Sunak (compared to Icarus in one headline) so spectacularly blotted his copy book recently. Another rightly pointed out, in response to Shapps saying whether the PM misled Parliament was for the police to decide, that ‘No. It is the responsibility of MPs & ministers to uphold the rules of our democracy. They have to stop trying to slough that responsibility off onto someone else’.
The Guardian’s sketch writer, John Crace, delivers his usual excoriation of Boris Johnson, the ‘Suspect’ now morphing into ‘the Convict’ – so much for the PM’s hope that the Ukraine war and his own absurd and initially secret photo op visit there would make Partygate go away.
Nor did Grant Shapps escape Crace’s acerbic pen, put to use dissecting that Radio 4 interview. ‘It wasn’t his intention to lie….There was no malice in anything he did etc etc (as if ‘malice was the key point) – Johnson had never set out to break the law. It had just never occurred to him that the law might also apply to him. He had always assumed the rules were for the Little People’.
So what’s next? ‘Downing Street has promised that Johnson will make a statement only when the entire police operation is over. However, this could take many more weeks and there is pressure for him to say something immediately, with Labour, the Lib Dems and SNP calling for the Commons, which is currently on Easter recess, to be recalled’. This is surely the kernel of the matter – the country cannot have a criminal in charge, a terrible precedent to set: ‘It is not believed that a prime minister and/or a chancellor has broken the law while in office’. Despite Tory MPs mostly falling over themselves to support the embattled PM, a former no 10 adviser told a journalist: ‘Conservatives, if they stand for anything, stand for the rule of law and the maintenance of order. If they cannot abide their own rules, and do not show humility in the face of justice, it is impossible for them to maintain that mantle’. No doubt the PM and ministers must be relieved at no Prime Minister’s Questions straight after these revelations and they will need some robust preparation for when Parliament resumes. But whether or not he resigns or is pushed should not be the sole decision of the party in office – this is surely one of the things wrong with our unwritten Constitution and why we need a completely new one.
One thing at least seems clear – government via WhatsApp has to stop. The Partygate and other investigations have indisputably found that vital evidence of specific agreements and transactions are too easily obscured by use of different phones and by the convenient ‘loss’ of phones.
Needless to say, many who lost family members and friends during the last two years expressed disgust. On said her father ‘died on his own, on a cold Covid ward without anyone there to hold his hand’ because she and her family had followed the rules. ‘Lobby Akinnola, a spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said: ‘After everything that’s happened, it’s still unbelievably painful to know that the prime minister was partying and breaking his own lockdown rules, while we were unable to be at our loved ones’ sides in their dying moments, or in miserable funerals with only a handful of people – because we were following the rules. The fact that the prime minister and his chancellor then lied about it and would have continued to do so if the police hadn’t intervened is truly shameless. They broke the law. But, even worse, they took us all for mugs. When we met the PM in the No 10 garden – the same one where they had these parties – he looked us in the eyes and said he had done everything he could to save our loved ones. We now know that that was a lie’.
What interesting timing, then, amid the Partygate fines scandal and before the local elections, is for the government to announce a new scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing, a piece of news you’d think was an April Fool had it been 1 April. Widely condemned for its breaching of the UN Convention of Human Rights, the likely costs and impracticability, yet hotly defended by the PM’s colleagues, it’s been seen by many for what it is: a dystopian pretend solution to a broken asylum system timed to distract attention from Partygate and possible trouncing in the local elections. As one tweeter said: ‘Boris Johnson using the war in Ukraine to save his job by visiting Kyiv last week for photo op. Now it’s the old time favourite, Johnson is using xenophobia to divide us by announcing he’ll send refugees to Rwanda as a distraction for his Partygate.’ Another pointed out the dishonest description: ‘This is *not* offshore processing, it will *not* save money, nor stop asylum seekers, nor the boats. It will cost lives, money and our reputation’.
Again, John Crace wasted no time portraying his version of events at the press conference for the scheme, which, embarrassingly, new refugee minister Lord Harrington claimed to have not heard of 9 days previously. ‘Johnson started with the usual waffle. The stuff he needs to tell himself each morning so he can drag himself out of his bed and look in the mirror. Somehow he has to find a way of convincing himself he’s a decent man. Not some lying narcissist who will do and say anything to get him through the day relatively unscathed. So he mumbled something about Britain’s fine history of openness and generosity to refugees’. A paragraph was devoted to demolishing this myth (one of the many) put about that the UK has a generous record regarding refugees, summarising – ‘A quick reality check. The UK is the fifth or sixth largest economy and takes just 0.2% of the world’s refugees’.
Besides the obvious cruelty to vulnerable people underpinning such a scheme, possibly the most galling element of the presentation, in my view, has been the cynical attempt to portray it as ‘a world beating first’ (yes, that tautology was uttered by one media sap) which would avoid further ‘tragic loss of life’ and tackle ‘the business model of the criminal gangs’. This is obviously in the script they all have to trot out. Crace points out further irony: ‘Then things just turned surreal. First, the Convict tried to portray Rwanda as some kind of tropical human rights paradise. Regardless of the fact that it was a dictatorship that the UK had condemned for human rights violations. Then he tried to claim the programme would be a bargain. Ignoring the fact that some Tory MPs had estimated it would be cheaper to put all the refugees up at the Ritz. But he saved the best till last. This was necessary because he was a firm believer in the rule of law. From the man who has shown a spectacular disregard for it since he became prime minister’.
It’s been suggested the courts would rule against this scheme before it gets off the ground but, as we’ve already seen, this government has steadily worked to undermine the judiciary, with headlines in the right-wing press describing lawyers and judges as ‘enemies of the people’. Perhaps we need to have some hope in the fact that international law trumps national law.
For weeks now we’ve seen the Covid situation worsening, aggravated by the removal of all Covid safety measures and the withdrawal of free tests. Although some have chosen to contest the statistics, the shocking number of 651 deaths on Wednesday is seriously alarming and NHS chiefs are warning of ‘a brutal Easter’. They complain of the NHS being ‘abandoned’ and government complacency, one clinician tweeting: ‘We have a situation in our health service now which is **as bad as any winter**… we do not have a living with Covid plan, we have a living without restrictions ideology’.
Another reason not to get Covid is the significant risk of Long Covid, which has up to 200 symptoms under its ‘umbrella’ but also recent research by the UK Biobank Study which shows shrinkage of the brain in those who contracted Covid. Before and after scans revealed thinning of brain tissue, equating to 1-6 years of ageing, involving various areas of the brain such as those relating to memory, taste and smell. More research is needed to establish whether or not these changes were lasting but this news is surely alarming enough to make us less likely to be seduced by the ‘Covid is over’ pretence.
Professor and chair of global public health Devi Sridhar challenges the herd immunity mantra: ‘Covid-19 is not yet mild enough to be treated like the common cold because it makes people so ill that they cannot work. This has created widespread disruption for airlines, border control, supermarkets, schools, hospitals, police forces and even Apple stores. And it’s worth pointing out that while Omicron is milder than Delta, it is still hospitalising and killing people, especially those who are unvaccinated, the clinically vulnerable (including some for whom vaccines are ineffective), and elderly people. Waning immunity is also an ongoing concern, as is making sure boosters are provided at the right time’. She suggests governments ‘must use the triad of testing, therapeutics (in particular, rapid antiviral pills) and vaccines to manage Covid-19’. It will be interesting besides depressing to see what the statistics look like when the effects of Easter weekend travel have fed through.
Medics have already called out the withdrawal of funding for Covid studies and now they’ve spoken out about one the public may not have known about. ‘The React-1 study, which played a crucial role in detecting and tracking the spread of the Alpha variant in December 2020 ahead of the second lockdown, has been stopped as part of the government’s plan to cut its Covid costs. But in its last report, the study found 6.37 per cent of the population was infected between 8 and 31 March – the highest figure since it began in May 2020. More worryingly, the scientists behind the research said the prevalence rate has also reached new highs for people aged 55 and over, at 8.31 per cent’.
Meanwhile, exacerbated by Covid, the NHS continues to be under significant strain and it no longer seems cynical to see this as part of a strategy to undermine and underfund it to such an extent that it becomes unviable, opening the field up to further privatisation. We’re told at least 1 in 10 is having to wait more than 12 hours for treatment in A&E, very long waits for ambulances and, very risky, families are being asked to take in Covid-positive loved ones to help reduce the burden. But politicians continue with their Easter breaks, persisting in the narrative that the NHS can manage despite 20,000 people in England being hospitalised with Covid.
A senior A&E consultant, lamenting the crisis in urgent care, sounds despairing: ‘Staff now frequently start their shift with twice as many patients as they have cubicles, all waiting to go up to a ward bed. This shortage of beds, the shortage of staff, the social care crisis mean we end up practising emergency medicine in ambulances in car parks or any other space we can find. This is our reality – a world of constant apology, compromise, and frustration. A world of risk and worry when we know that long stays lead to patient harm and even death, emergency medicine teams stretched and working in corners and corridors so that patients can be treated, and teams with 10-20% of staff off sick as Covid circulates leaving an understaffed workforce further depleted’. Imagine having to face this every day at work, and worse.
Of course it’s not just about funding – it’s about a range of factors including ensuring in advance effective workforce planning (it hasn’t happened for years, starting with Jeremy Hunt’s cuts years ago) and minimising the risks of burdens like Covid. But don’t expect change any time soon because apart from the funding element there’s a lack of preparedness to take account of and act on the bigger picture. ‘The true barrier to tackling this crisis is political unwillingness. Big problems require big solutions.’ Exactly, but this government is incapable of strategic and joined up nuanced thinking. Half measures just don’t do the business.
As if there wasn’t already enough to contend with, the cost of living crisis and inflation reaching 7% here have many in despair as to how they’re going to manage, following energy price and council tax hikes, the rise in national insurance and food price increases due to various factors including the Ukraine war and Brexit. Alarmingly, finance expert Martin Lewis and others have predicted civil unrest and a crime wave as a consequence. Commentators ‘hope’ for some help in the Autumn Statement but the situation for many sounds dire already – we can’t afford to wait that long. The Independent reported that staff at more than 550 food banks across Britain had warned Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak that they are close to ‘breaking point’ from an unsustainable surge in demand, some saying their shelves were empty, partly because those who were donating are less able to do so. One tweeter suggested ‘a magic solution’ but of course these are measures the government doesn’t wish to enact as they would target Conservative Party donors and those who have long not paid their dues: ‘Windfall tax on energy companies and a proper price cap. Make companies like Amazon, Starbucks, Vodafone pay the billions in tax they owe. And cancel non-dom status for corrupt wealthy kleptocrats’.
Yet another delayed government strategy is the one relating to energy and, again, with interesting timing this was launched last week, when the Prime Minister typically donned his hard hat for an appearance at Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant in Somerset. He had the nerve to say his government was the first for years that had not ‘dodged the big decisions on energy’ when we know his government has form for ‘dodging the big decisions’ on most things, social care being the most pressing one. The strategy prioritises atomic energy, ‘yet within hours, critics spoke of a lack of ambition, particularly around onshore wind and energy efficiency, avenues that experts say offer the best and quickest hope of bringing down bills and achieving energy self-sufficiency’.
As the war continues in Ukraine, the casualties mount and there has been evidence of appalling Russian atrocities such as massacres, mass graves and extensive rape in the areas the Russian forces withdrew from. Use of chemical weapons in Mariupol has also been suspected. Attention now seems to be turning to what Putin can try to present to his people as success on 9 May, the anniversary of the original 1945 Victory Day marking Russia’s defeat of Nazi Germany. There have been challenges to those surprised by what Putin has done, as he has ‘form’ and his actions have been described as ‘straight out of Stalin’s playbook’. First giving examples of Putin’s humiliation of others, Gideon Rachman goes on to criticise the West’s treatment of him as ‘a pantomime villain’ and how they underestimated what Putin is capable of. It’s now rather late to be catching up with this reality.
‘Even though western intelligence services had warned for months that Russia was poised to attack, many experienced Putin-watchers, both in Russia and the west, refused to believe it. After more than 20 years of his leadership, they felt that they understood Putin. He was ruthless and violent, no doubt, but he was also believed to be rational, calculating and committed to Russia’s integration into the world economy. Few believed he was capable of such a reckless gamble. Looking back, however, it is clear that the outside world has consistently misread him. From the moment he took power, outsiders too often saw what they wanted and played down the darkest sides of Putinism’. He describes the ‘Putin fan club’ as including such influential figures (whether you like them or not) as Rudy Giuliani, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini and China’s Xi Jinping.
Rachman describes how well Putin appeared to begin his administration, promising to ‘protect freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of the mass media, ownership rights, these fundamental elements of a civilised society’ but how, within a year, erosion of democratic standards set in. This intensified, with Russia’s few independent television networks being brought under government control at the same time as his PR people were hard at work portraying him as a strong and impressive figure, exemplified by the photos of ‘Putin on horseback, Putin practising judo, Putin arm-wrestling or strolling bare-chested by a river in Siberia’.
The signs were there for us (or at least politicians and military experts) to see, but it seems the West has been too relaxed about this sinister trajectory. ‘In a speech in 2005, Putin labelled the collapse of the Soviet Union ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century’. As the years have passed, he has become increasingly preoccupied by Russian history. In the summer of 2021, he published a long essay entitled On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians – which, even at the time, some saw as a manifesto for invasion. Delving through centuries of history, Putin attempted to prove that Ukraine was an artificial state and that “Russia was robbed, indeed” when Ukraine gained independence in 1991’. In addition, he cites what sounds like a key speech Putin gave at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, suggesting that Putin’s ‘fury’ with the West amounted not only to ‘an angry reflection on the past’ but ‘also pointed the way to the future. The Russian president had put the west on notice that he intended to fight back against the US-led world order. It foreshadowed a lot of what was to come: Russia’s military intervention in Georgia in 2008, its annexation of Crimea in 2014, its dispatch of troops to Syria in 2015, its meddling in the US presidential election of 2016’. Much to reflect on here.
What’s geopolitics got to do with language learning, some may ask….. quite a lot, it seems. The Financial Times reports on the increase in Russian and Chinese learning following the collapse of the Soviet Union, iron Curtain etc and recognition of China as a major world power. Last year Chinese apparently overtook Russian on the Duolingo language app, becoming the 8th most popular but recent events mean both could plummet somewhat. ‘If Western businesses there are forced to make the sort of tough ethical decisions they’re making in Russia, spurning Chinese may turn out to be an educated bet’. This will be rather galling for those who’ve invested a lot of time and energy in learning these languages in the hope of putting them to use in a professional context.
Those of us old enough to remember dessert trolleys in restaurants will recall them being wheeled out after the main course, bearing a variety of classic puds and the cheeseboard. It’s not clear what exactly led to their demise, unless it just fashion, but now apparently they are back, and not just about puddings. The Times gives examples of trolleys being pressed into service to showcase smoked and cured fish and one venue has several, one of which carries baked Alaska. But apparently they never went away altogether – Piccadilly bistro Maison Francais uses their multi-storey trolley for creations which need slicing, individual desserts and petit fours. It would almost be worth going there to see it in action despite the breathtaking prices!
Finally, on a seasonal point, it’s today, Good Friday, when hot cross buns are supposed to feature (in the Christian tradition anyway) and I admit to disapproving of seasonal items being available all the year round, even months in advance, like these buns, crème eggs and mince pies. But another development which could attract condemnation in some quarters is the introduction of different flavours and types, eg chocolate, triple berry and cheddar and caramelised onion chutney (Sainsburys) which obscure the meaning of the original recipe. Wales Online reminds us: ‘The buns were originally baked to mark the end of the Christian season of Lent and different parts of the delicacy have a certain meaning, including the cross representing the crucifixion of Jesus, and the spices inside signifying the spices used to embalm him at his burial and may also include orange peel to reflect the bitterness of his time on the Cross’. But ye gods, different flavours are one thing but now we apparently have hot cross bangers and smash, hot cross bun steak tartare and a new cocktail – hot cross bun espresso martini! It would be interesting to know how these innovations fare. Whatever you choose to eat and drink, a happy Easter to all!