Saturday 30 January

Yet again it’s been a very eventful week, the most arresting issues being the passing of the ghastly 100,000 Covid deaths milestone and EC/AstraZeneca row (see below). With a further 1725 deaths being recorded on Wednesday, taking just one day as an example, the situation is clearly improving only very slowly, in terms of numbers of new cases, pointing up yet again the flaws in the lockdown strategy. Many found galling the PM’s defensive reaction to the grim milestone, insisting his government had done ‘everything they could’ to limit the deaths, he was very sorry, couldn’t ‘compute the sorrow’ etc although he long ago proved himself incapable of genuine empathy. Confronted by questions as to why the UK had the world’s worst death count of the pandemic, the PM refused to be drawn, demonstrating yet again his lack of transparency and accountability. One tweeter challenged a BBC report alluding to Boris Johnson ‘bowing his head in sorrow’: ‘I watched the Downing Street Briefing – at no time did Johnson bow his head in sorrow. Papers have published stills of him looking down at his notes. We’re drowning in lies at the moment’.

So the Prime Minister refused to respond to questions as to how this dire situation had come about, instead falling back on one of the many politician’s ploys of deciding what they’re going to talk about, this one amounting to a convenient rewriting of history: ‘What I can tell you is that we truly did everything we could, and continue to do everything that we can, to minimise loss of life and to minimise suffering in what has been a very, very difficult stage, and a very, very difficult crisis for our country, and we will continue to do that’. You almost have to feel sorry for the lackey du jour invited onto the Today programme, except ministers tend to get a very easy ride there as opposed to the evisceration they get on Piers Morgan’s Good Morning Britain. On Wednesday the series of gigs fell to Housing Minister Robert Jenrick, who, knowing his job depends on defending the indefensible, insisted that ‘no one works harder than the Prime Minister’. I wonder how many frontline NHS staff would agree with that.

This denial and bluster gave rise to a volley of tweets from appalled commentators including journalist Paul Johnson: ‘As death totals pass 100k and Boris Johnson says they did everything they could. -Skip 5 Cobra meetings -Late lockdown -Care homes tragedy -PPE fiasco -Back Cummings -Sack civil servants -Exam confusion -Test trace farce -‘Have Merry Little Xmas’ -School confusion -Late lockdown -Vaccine hope -100k deaths -‘We did everything we could’. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘We did everything we could’ will go down in history as one of the most egregious statements made by a Prime Minister in many years’.

Of course, his PMQs performance didn’t escape the pen of Guardian sketchwriter, John Crace, who again stresses the inability of our PM to learn anything. ‘I take full responsibility’ said a downbeat, almost abject Johnson. The few MPs inside the chamber did a quick double take. Boris had never previously shown any signs of taking responsibility for anything in either his private or public life, so why the personality transplant? Was it really possible that the man whose life had been devoted to the pursuit of his own hedonistic ambition might finally come clean about his own failings? Er … no. There would be a time for a reckoning but that moment had not yet come. Just as it had not come after any number of mistakes over the past 10 months. Too late to implement a first lockdown. Too timid to sack Dominic Cummings for the Durham safari. Too slow to put a working track-and-trace system in place. Too late to impose a second…This was Johnson at his most churlish and defensive. A childish refusal to even engage with the questions, let alone answer them. But then that’s the place to which he always psychologically retreats when he’s up against it…. For a few minutes, at least, it seemed as if the enormity of his many failures had finally got to him. The narcissistic charlatan had temporarily been laid bare..

Johnson regards even the most gentle challenge as a life-threatening narcissistic wound. ‘The public just want us to come together’ Boris concluded. And in a way he was right. What the country really wants is for some Tory backbenchers to find a spine and admit that terrible mistakes have been made. That more than 100,000 dead is an unacceptable price to pay for a party leader whose entire life has just been a vanity project’.

Meanwhile, the Guardian’s Marina Hyde continues to attack the PM’s protracted delays on key measures like implementing lockdowns and quarantining overseas arrivals. And don’t even mention packed airports, clearly involving thousands of non-essential journeys of the kind Priti Patel now says will be clamped down on. ‘Boris Johnson’s government continues to make pandemic decisions with all the speed of the Supreme Soviet Secretariat. Don’t ask for agile turnarounds. It would honestly be quicker to get Brezhnev to greenlight a clean energy programme. This is great for people who really enjoy lockdowns, who ideally want to wear four masks at once, who enjoy unnecessarily deep economic collapse, and who believe that a generation of children getting thrown under the bus is the price you have to pay for whatever version of purity they prioritise. For everyone else, it’s the most giant, toxic, damaging, endlessly mishandled arseache’.

Singled out for particular opprobrium are the ‘lockdown sceptics’ in Parliament, led by the leading lights of the ERG and inappropriately named Covid Recovery Group, who wield ‘power without responsibility’. ‘Has there ever been a misnomer like it? You might as well call the Luftwaffe the East End Recovery Group. These guys are the cowboy builders of the pandemic. They turn your leaking pipe into a collapsed central heating system, then tell you only they can fix it’.

Meanwhile, a very pertinent article with contributions from a virologist, a psychologist and a public health expert focuses on the role of personal responsibility in reducing transmission, pointing up some of the mistakes we are still making. These include doing what’s allowed instead of what’s safe; trusting friends who say they’ve ‘been careful’; not appreciating what ‘airborne’ really means; assuming doing anything outside is safe; inadequate face coverings and (very important now) believing vaccination makes you safe and you can relax. ‘A common problem is not connecting the dots between the people you see in one context, and those you see in another’, said the psychologist. ‘I’ve seen interviews with parents who are being really careful in many respects, but then allow their children to mix freely with friends for their mental health, and then also their children to bubble with their grandparents, for the mental health of both the children and the grandparents. I’m sure the parents aren’t wanting to infect the grandparents, but that’s the best way to do it’. Although some of these mistakes are partly attributable to failures in public health messaging, the article succeeds in challenging many assumptions which we see evidence of every day.

The latest example of prime ministerial tin ear comes in the form of Boris Johnson’s letter to parents, ‘in awe’ of what they’ve done with home schooling, just after he’s told them all schools won’t reopen after half-term. ‘While the past 12 months have been tough for all of us, the demands of this pandemic have also brought out the very best in a great many people…And I’m particularly in awe of the way the parents, carers and guardians of children have risen to the unique challenges with which you have been faced’. The government has used the same transparent and feeble tactic with the NHS, seeming to believe that praising and profusely thanking a body of beleaguered workers is a good substitute for actually doing something about their pay and challenges they face. Such a letter does nothing to address the strain many parents are under (and to some extent this can’t be helped) but in particular it doesn’t acknowledge the educational inequalities, bearing in mind many homes are without the kit and broadband they need for online learning. His promises about laptops being delivered and educational catch-up aren’t that convincing when we hear that there aren’t enough laptops, at least some have been found to have malware on them and the catch-up was first mooted last summer but didn’t happen.

Speaking of ministers’ media appearances, Work and Pensions minister Therese Coffey didn’t cover herself in glory on Tuesday, abruptly ending her GMB stint when (unlike Radio 4’s Today programme) she was robustly challenged about the death figures. She tried to attribute these mostly to old age and obesity and later explained that she’d had to leave for another interview, but the coincidence of her departure with the tough question can’t be easily dismissed. Given the amount of flak she attracted, especially about her age and obesity observations, Ms Coffey can maybe expect an immediate recall to the Cummings School of Media Training (still operating despite the apparent departure of its founder).

Another thing the government hasn’t learnt its lesson on is giving silly macho names to interventions which often lack substance even at inception and frequently come to nothing. The latest example is the government’s ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown, crucial because the longer the endless restrictions go on, the more people’s mental health will suffer and the more non-compliance there will be due to lockdown fatigue. There has been criticism of those including journalists constantly asking about the end of lockdown, but many aren’t necessarily asking when it will be but what the criteria will be (eg reduction in R rate, fewer new cases etc), as the government has never had an exit plan based on a well-considered rationale.  

Stephen Reicher, a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science, adds to the voices of those critical of how lockdowns have not met expectations because the restrictions are unclear and ‘rules’ or ‘guidance’ have been flouted by their very architects. ‘So why are we in such a mess? Well certainly the new variant makes things worse, but that isn’t the whole story…. we don’t seem to be doing as much to limit spread as during the first lockdown. We see more people out and about and the roads seem far busier. Personal experience is backed up by data: footfall in shops fell to less than 20% of regular activity last March, and now it is around 35%; the number of cars on the road went down to approximately 30% of normal levels in the first lockdown and is currently hovering around or above 50%’.

One of the problems he cites is the loose definition of ‘key worker’ (one social media influencer recently describing themselves as such), with some schools seeing 50% of their normal intake in classrooms. Another measure he cites as not working is ensuring that workplaces are Covid safe. Many aren’t and despite 97,000 cases of unsafe practice since the start of the pandemic, there have been no prosecutions. ‘If the government were to take its responsibilities seriously, it would be in a far stronger position to ask the public to do likewise. In the end, we can only deal with this pandemic as a partnership, one in which both parties concentrate on playing their own part rather than whether the other is playing theirs’.

The vaccination programme continues to occupy centre stage, more experts now coming out to challenge the change of Pfizer vaccine dosing policy, delaying the second dose to 12 weeks. It has been shocking to see so many key figures allowing themselves to be drawn into the government narrative, one which supports the massage of statistics to suggest more have been vaccinated than have. (Remember the PPE stats scandal, eg a pair of gloves being counted as two items?) On Monday the British Medical Association caused a stir when the private letter thirty of its members wrote to Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, challenging the policy change, was leaked to the BBC. These doctors were later ‘warned’ about their opposition to this policy. Cue a number of ‘on message’ medics stepping forward to talk up the policy change. An MP tweeted: ‘Dear Prime Minister, the BMA say NO, Pfizer say NO, the World Health Organisation (WHO) say NO. We cannot play roulette with people’s lives. Second vaccine dose at 3 weeks, please – like scientists recommend’.  Whatever you think about this debate, it does potentially raise another problem. Could Big Pharma be deterred in future from investing the huge amounts in research needed to develop new drugs if this precedent suggests that the normal approval policy could be so easily overturned?

The biggest vaccination programme problem to rear its head is the row between vaccine supplier AstraZeneca and the EU, which, having contracted with the company later than the UK, was trying to prevent exports of the vaccine now the company is experiencing ‘reduced yields’ at the Belgian plant. Amid fears of ‘vaccine nationalism’, the World Health Organisation and others are speaking out against countries appearing to put their own needs above those of others rather than taking a global perspective on vaccine supply. The International Chamber of Commerce, which represents 45m companies across the globe, said the plan by Brussels to allow export controls on vaccines risked sparking ‘retaliatory action’ from other countries which could ‘very rapidly erode essential supply chains’. Asked on GMB about what looks like the EU’s demands for supplies intended for the UK being diverted to compensate for the EU shortfall, Michael Gove offered reassurance, saying the programme of vaccination had been agreed and assured and the supplies were fixed some time ago’, but this was before an export ban was threatened.  

AstraZeneca’s chief executive Pascal Soriot could be considered brave for standing up to the EU, insisting that the UK would come first regarding vaccine manufactured in the UK because it had signed a contract early on for 100m doses. He also explained that they created separate supply chains in every major market the vaccine will be available and whereas the UK one was already established, the EU one was not. Anger (and, no doubt, anxiety) within the EU and its members at the news of a 60% AstraZeneca vaccine shortfall, expected to affect deliveries during the first quarter of the year, seem to have led to a (perhaps Brexit-related) weaponising of this conundrum.

Some stalwarts have been helpfully analysing the contracts to get a better idea of what the contractual obligations were, work which surely the media should be doing. Leo Cendrowicz, a Brussels-based journalist who has covered Europe for more than twenty years, observed: ‘But for all the EU seething, its leverage may be constrained by the contracts themselves. While the commission has not published its advance purchase agreements (APAs), partly redacted details of its deal with CureVac say that ‘the delivery dates set out in this APA are the contractor’s current best estimates only and subject to change….. the parties acknowledge that there is a risk that … the timeline for scaling up the production of the product may be delayed’. The PM has usefully pronounced: ‘We expect and hope that our EU friends will honour all contracts’. Somehow I suspect resolution of this problem will take a bit more than Boris Johnson’s expectations and hopes of ‘our EU friends’.

Furious politicians and commentators were left reeling late last night as, having not even consulted Ireland about a measure which would have overridden a key part of the Brexit agreement, the Northern Ireland protocol, the importance of which they had spent years stressing, the European Commission abruptly backed down. The U-turn, badged ‘diplomacy by Twitter’, came after late night phone calls between EC President Ursula von der Leyen, Boris Johnson and the Taoiseach. Former NI Secretary Julian Smith, describing the EU’s strategy as ‘a Trumpian move’ which had ‘scant regard for the sensitivities of Northern Ireland, said the UK and the EU had a duty of care to preserve no hard border and the stability of NI. ‘It’s not just a back door for goods going to Britain’. Stormont First Minister Arleen Foster called the EU’s preparedness to trigger Article 16 of the NI Protocol ‘an incredible act of aggression’. Some Brexiters are clearly enjoying what they see as vindication of their views on the nature of the EU but EC preparedness to disregard a principle they argued so hard for over years must alert the government to the potential for similar attempts to overturn agreements. This episode will have done considerable damage to EU/Irish relations besides deepening what is becoming a vaccine supply war.

Another potential spanner in the works, one dismissed by some UK experts, is the suggestion by a German health committee that the AstraZeneca vaccine hasn’t been sufficiently tested for use on the over 65s. It certainly complicates matters further, for example by undermining public confidence, when heath organisations and regulatory authorities in different countries aren’t on the same page. This needs clarifying by UK authorities as a matter of urgency, as those already receiving this vaccine are worried about its efficacy in the wake of such reports. Some good news comes in the form of the new Novavax vaccine, which the UK has pre-ordered 60m doses of. Trialled and manufactured in the UK, it has the advantage of being effective against the UK variant and to some extent against the South African variant. More good news is that the company is working on a vaccine which will specifically protect against the South African variant.

Less good news for the government, always determined to demonstrate amid the chaos it’s created that the UK is ‘world beating’ at something, is that rather than being at the top of the global vaccination chart, the UK is fifth using the measure of proportion of population vaccinated rather than numbers vaccinated. 

Meanwhile, debate continues as to whether certain occupations should be prioritised in the vaccination queue, including teachers, supermarket staff, police officers and carers. It does seem a weakness that priorities were only decided using age criteria when surely other criteria need to be taken account of, the main one being protecting those in public-facing roles.  

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has again weighed into the conversation on how the economy can be restarted, given the enormous pressures it’s been under during the last year. (How it must irritate ministers when former PMs and ministers do this but ‘the reality is’ that they often come across as so much better informed and sensible that the present incumbents). Declaring that ‘governments cannot afford to be behind the curve – especially in a crisis…they have to be at least two steps ahead’, Brown has called for emergency measures to support businesses in the Budget, citing new research by the London School of Economics showing that one in seven businesses (representing 2.5m employees) might be forced into closure by the Spring. The LSE work suggests almost 1m UK companies are at risk and that the Chancellor  ‘needed to extend the scale and duration of government support, proposing a continuation of loan subsidies and debt restructuring during the UK’s eventual recovery that would involve exchanging government loans for government equity stakes’. One of the report’s authors, Professor John Van Reenen, said ‘Without further policy action, businesses face a cruel spring of bankruptcy’.

Still on business matters, we have to wonder about the prospects are for the government’s economic strategy with the new Department for Business incumbent at the helm, the fourth in less than two years. The Week quotes a Sunday Times article describing Kwasi Kwarteng as an ‘ardent Brexiteer’ (of course, this is why he’s in the cabinet) who has a ‘challenging brief’ (not half) including the immediate problem of plans to abolish EU regulations on workers’ rights, eg the 48 hour working week limit. Another key challenge is the dire straits some companies are in trying to get to grips with post-Brexit trading paperwork. Kwarteng was described as ‘essentially an academic’ by Sasha Swire in her very frank book Diary of an MP’s Wife but maybe we should reserve judgement since he has already taken steps to prevent directors of former outsourcing company Carillon from taking positions in UK boardrooms for fifteen years. He’s the subject of Nick Robinson’s Political Thinking feature on Radio 4 today, though I’ve found these aren’t available later for catch-up.

Earlier this week author and broadcaster Michael Rosen, who spent weeks in hospital with Covid, stepped up to back a campaign for a significant rise in NHS and social care spending. ‘The New Deal for the NHS, organised by the patient-led pressure group Just Treatment, says the pandemic has exposed the need for “transformative investment” of £33bn a year in the NHS or 1.5% of GDP’. In a move which would counter suggestions that such a rise would be unmanageable, Rosen cited the creation of government bonds and gave examples of the large amounts suddenly made available for other purposes during 2020. ‘If we’ve learned anything from the last year, it’s that the government has levers which can literally ‘create money’….. If you can raise cash like that for an emergency, why not raise it for the service that looks after us from cradle to the grave. We are the country. Without us, there is no country. What could be more important?’

Since the start of the pandemic there have been reports of what some might consider a decline in sartorial standards, since people can work from home in their pyjamas, just donning a smart top for their Zoom meetings and there are no venues open for us to dress up for, Now we hear that top designer Kurt Geiger has, for the first time, not included a single pair of high heels in its new collection. This upmarket designer has long been associated with four inch stilettos but now the collection features only flats and trainers. It will be interesting to see if such trends continue if lockdowns ever come to an end – at least podiatrists will be pleased at this news. Similar trends were in evidence chez designer Fendi, which has included in its new men’s line an ‘outdoor pyjama’ two piece, coats resembling dressing gowns and boots with soft linings which can also be taken out and used as slippers.

Finally, there’s news that an 11 year old Dutch Japanese boy has won a competition organised by Japan’s Patent Office for his ‘future backpack’. Not all schoolchildren will be overjoyed by the news, because the backpack’s technology is designed to ensure that children will never again ‘forget’ their homework or gym kit. It apparently does this via a tiny computer connected to a scanner, which ‘reads’ tags attached to items as they’re placed in the bag and it issues a warning if an item is missing. Presumably the technology includes the means for the backpack to know on which days a certain item is needed. Liam Vijfwinkel from Kashiwa, near Tokyo, is obviously a boy with a great future ahead of him.

Saturday 23 January

As the week began, the NHS said to be in its most precarious situation ever, anti-lockdown Lord Sumption stirred up another storm by suggesting some lives (in this case a cancer sufferer) are worth less than others. Although many are rightly horrified by his Darwinist stance, hard decisions are already having to be made in the severely strained NHS because ICUs don’t have the capacity for all patients needing that level of care. We can hope that BBC News at Ten’s regular coverage of ICUs will have convinced any Covid denying viewers of what’s really at stake, exhausted staff regularly breaking down and it taking up to eight clinicians to turn a patient, seen as one of the most helpful interventions for facilitating breathing.

We may have thought the daily Covid death totals couldn’t get any worse, but no: this week we’ve seen shocking numbers – 1610 on Tuesday, 1820 on Wednesday, 1290 on Thursday and 1348 on Saturday. Sceptics may be forgiven for thinking the latest evidence (so far not conclusive) that the new variant, besides being much more transmissible, is also more deadly, has come at a convenient time for the Prime Minister. It’s not the first time he’s appeared to blame the virus rather than the incompetence of his administration. There’s a danger of these terrible statistics becoming normalised, in fact it seems it’s already happening when you hear the matter of fact way such news is conveyed by the media. On Wednesday palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke tweeted: ‘No. Another *1820* UK Covid deaths. This figure makes me want to weep, scream, punch a wall, smash furniture. As if the deaths alone weren’t devastating, knowing many were avoidable crushes me. These are mass casualties caused by failure of government. Heartbreaking.’

The FT’s Chris Giles has been conducting a regular analysis of the Office for National Statistics figures (England and Wales) and reckons ‘the number of UK excess deaths linked to Covid since mid March 2020 has surpassed a new grim milestone of 106,300. Of these, 94,745 have been recorded officially, the remainder are estimates’. As if care homes, their residents and families haven’t already suffered enough, another source pointed up ONS data on care home deaths: ‘another 1,370 care home residents in England and Wales were registered to have died with Covid-19 in the first week of January. To those who say “these people would have died anyway” – deaths were 46% above the 5 year average for that week’.

Early in the week it looked as if there could be some splitting amongst ministers rather than the usual united front. The decision (after 10 months) to close travel corridors and require negative tests for those entering the UK prompted Priti Patel to disclose that back in March she had advocated closing the UK’s borders but was overruled. That this wasn’t done back then has obviously played a major part in what we’re up against over 10 months later. Yet current photos and passenger reports of a packed Heathrow show there is still very little evidence of Covid safety practice there. The Guardian’s John Crace accurately captures the Home Secretary’s skill at filling airspace with soundbites and statements of the obvious while saying precisely nothing. ‘….earlier this week – perhaps anticipating a messy and damaging public inquiry – she had knifed Johnson in the back by claiming she had wanted stricter border controls back in March but had been overruled by the prime minister. So she ignored that bit of the question and went back on to repeat. We were in the middle of a terrible pandemic. The vaccine was a good thing. It was far too early to say when the lockdown would end etc etc. She did much the same when asked whether people should think about booking summer holidays. We were in the middle of a terrible pandemic. The vaccine was a good thing. It was far too early to say when the lockdown would end and people should be concentrating on staying home rather than thinking of travelling. And by the way the emergency services were doing an excellent job’.

In the context of death totals and the need for adhering to lockdown restrictions Health Secretary Matt Hancock infuriated some by telling the public: ‘Don’t blow it now. We are on the route out’. One Downing Street briefing viewer tweeted: Matt Hancock ‘Don’t blow it now. We are on the route out”. You blew it: by letting people with Covid into the UK for 11 months with your disastrous app with your haphazard, late lockdowns with your mixed Christmas messages by failing to remove Cummings’. Another said: ‘How rich of Matt Hancock instructing the public not to ‘blow it’ when his government has consistently ‘blown it’ since March’. Many will have been dismayed (after nearly a year of this lockdown hokey cokey) that lockdown could continue until the summer and that hospitality won’t be allowed to open until May. I wouldn’t put it past this government, though, to put this worse case scenario message out there so that people will then fall over themselves in gratitude and forget the terrible mistakes made if it ends sooner.

Meanwhile, environmentalist George Monbiot, having already written about the government’s lack of exit strategy from lockdown, now focuses on what’s increasingly coming centre stage: the lingering and costly effects of Long Covid and the need for the government to take this seriously. ‘Perhaps to a greater extent than at any point since the first world war, we find that our lives do not matter to those who govern us. Boris Johnson scarcely seeks to disguise his insouciance and callousness. He hardly mentions the astonishing death toll caused by his mishandling of the pandemic: to acknowledge it would be to acknowledge his responsibility. But not only the dead are missing from his moral atlas. So are those with long-term conditions caused by Covid-19. They are likely, already, to number in the tens of thousands. If Johnson eases restrictions when most older people have been vaccinated, there could be tens of thousands more…’.

Monbiot likens the range of possible mental, physical and neurological symptoms to those accompanying Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, whereby any exertion can make the sufferer unwell, leading to such a low quality of life that one study placed it lower on the scale than cancer, stroke, schizophrenia and MS. ‘Many sufferers are confined to their home or even their bed, with their working life, social life and family life truncated. There is, so far, no diagnostic test and no cure. As for ME, Monbiot makes a plea for quality research on Covid and its funding, especially as Long Covid clinics are already making mistakes. ‘We need massive research programmes into both long Covid and ME/CFS, coupled with better information for doctors. But above all, we need something that currently seems a long way off. A government that gives a damn’.

Following on from last week, more problems are emerging with the much flaunted (world beating) vaccination programme, including issues with supplies meaning some are being diverted to other parts of the country; those vaccinators quite rightly sticking to the original dosing advice being threatened with having their licenses removed; the news that yet another crony contract has been discovered to be at work; continuing debates as to which groups should be prioritised (seems a no brainer to vaccinate teachers,  police officers and supermarket workers); insufficient public awareness that one dose doesn’t equate to ‘vaccination’ so many older people believe they can now see their grandchildren, go on holiday etc; and continuing ignorance and/or collusion of the media in not making these issues clear although this is finally improving on some BBC programmes. But the main debate is still the so called ‘public health decision’ to delay the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine for three months after the first, contrary to Pfizer instructions, to the approval process and to World Health Organisation and other bodies’ advice. It’s shameful that so many key spokesmen, primarily Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, have allowed themselves to be caught in the government’s PR net, artificially inflating the numbers of those ‘vaccinated’. Various experts have questioned this and now the British Medical Association has written to Professor Whitty, a letter seen by the BBC, to express its marked disquiet over this decision.

‘The doctors’ union said the UK approach “has become increasingly isolated internationally” and “is proving ever more difficult to justify…The absence of any international support for the UK’s approach is a cause of deep concern and risks undermining public and the profession’s trust in the vaccination programme…’. On BBC Breakfast BMA chair, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, raised ‘growing concerns’ that the vaccine could become less effective when doses are 12 weeks apart.

Data from Israel, which is leading the world on mass vaccination, suggested that effectiveness could be as low as 33 per cent after a first dose. Vallance insisted it was likely to be higher but accepted it would probably be lower than the 89 per cent suggested by the government in justifying the switch in strategy last month. Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick defended it on Sky News, claiming that it was based on ‘advice’ from the regulator and the UK’s four chief medical officers, but it seems clear it’s the other way around: that the government’s decision preceded these experts’ collusion with it. It’s refreshing to see other clinicians lambasting this strategy, including a doctor calling into Radio Four’s Any Answers, who said her respect for Whitty had ‘fallen off a cliff’ because of it. As a listener tweeted: ‘The government vaccination plan is not a plan at all. It is a machine gun scatter and run 1 jab disaster scenario that is going to cost 10s of thousands of lives’. It will be interesting to see what emerges from the BMA intervention, the legal challenge mounted by Dame Joan Bakewell and the petition.

Although it was reassuring, to some extent, to see first dose statistics this week, it was less so to learn that Dominic Raab, on Sky News, had refused ‘to guarantee that everyone will get their second dose within 12 weeks’. One tweeter commented on the verbal gymnastics characterising many of these announcements: ‘…adults to be ‘offered’ the first dose. Stress-inducing, trust-reducing communication as ‘offering’ doesn’t equate to actually getting the dose’. Another interesting angle regarding the second dose delay was raised this week, one consultant suggesting that the change of strategy could invalidate patients’ consent, since this was given on the basis of the original timing. This could have implications for future litigation. The possibility (likelihood?) of vaccination passports has also been discussed, although unlike other countries this government has so far shown itself to have no appetite for creating the infrastructure needed to support necessary measures. It stands to reason that an increasing number of venues will require proof of vaccination before allowing entry and now leading cruise provider Saga has said it will demand it. The Global Tourism Crisis Committee has also said vaccine passports must become essential travel documents in order to restart international tourism. Not surprisingly, some have argued that this would be discriminatory and open to legal challenge, but surely such a crucial measure should be exempt from equalities and discrimination law.

It was only a matter of time before it would emerge that the vaccination programme, like everything else the government touches, had been tainted by cronyism. Now openDemocracy has revealed the role of Tory donor Lord Ashcroft, whose company Medacs Healthcare has been given a £350m contract to source staff for the programme. Hearing about a friend’s husband’s experience this week made me wonder if his vaccinator was one of them – when the injection site started bleeding, the vaccinator, who looked about 12,  just stood there and said ‘It’s bleeding’. openDemocracy observes: ‘The award of a major COVID contract to a firm with close ties to the Tories has sparked further questions about politically connected firms benefiting financially from the UK’s pandemic response’. As with the disastrous PPE contracting, the government shows it has learned nothing, once again issuing a major contract not only to a crony but also to a company inexperienced in the area of work concerned. ‘Medacs has previously worked with numerous councils across England but this appears to be the company’s first major COVID contract’. Nothing like giving newcomers a chance, eh? Yet another for Jolyon Maugham’s Good Law Project to investigate.

Meanwhile, the inimitable More or Less on Radio 4 (Monday morning at 11.30 and later on BBC Sounds) will look at different countries’ vaccination poliies and how they decide which groups to prioritise. Besides not yet having prioritised teachers, police officers and supermarket workers, there’s discussion in the UK as to whether those from black and ethnic minority communities should be included because of the clear evidence that they’re more at risk of contracting the virus. This should prove interesting and important listening. On a lighter note, the last five minutes of the last More or Less are especially worth listening to, for a deconstruction of attempts by ministers Penny Mordaunt and Michael Gove to misrepresent the post-Brexit UK fish catch entitlement. It ends with the deconstruction put into sea shanty form.

In more positive news, it came as a relief and joy to many, following threats of Trump supporter insurrection beforehand, that Donald Trump actually left the White House of his own accord and that Joe Biden, his family and supporters were able to enjoy his exhilarating inauguration day. Biden’s pronouncement ‘Democracy has prevailed….this is democracy’s day’ will surely be remembered for a long time to come. It was predictably ominous that Trump said ‘we’ll be back in some form’, but having his social media accounts closed down and key financial donations withdrawn will cramp his style somewhat and the forthcoming impeachment trial might well result in him no longer being eligible to stand for public office. Regarding his numerous controversial pardons issued just hours before the end of his administration, a wag asked if there would be one for Trump’s hairdresser.

However purposeful and mindful we are of the need during these lockdowns to structure our days, keep busy, keep in contact and practice self-care, these January days can feel a bit like a long Groundhog Day. One of the best signs of spring approaching is the sight of snowdrops and crocuses emerging, so hats off to the provider of a virtual snowdrop festival. Whereas the Devon garden boasting different examples of galanthus would normally be seeing many visitors in person, it’s now generously moving its event online (Facebook and Instagram) so many more can benefit. The house and garden sound very interesting in their own right. ‘….. once home to the vicars of Buckland Monachorum, the house and garden trace their history back to 1305 and feature romantic ruins including a tower with a spiral staircase and a thatched barn. A modern vicarage was built in the 1920s and just after the second world war was bought by Lionel Fortescue, a retiring Eton master, and his wife, Katharine, who set about renovating and developing their garden. They bequeathed the house and garden to the Fortescue Garden Trust, an independent charity that continues to run the property.’

Finally, although it seems strange timing it’s cheering to learn that Paignton Picture House in Devon (thought to be the first pupose-built cinema in Europe, opening in 1907) is to be ‘restored to its former glory’, thanks to an English Heritage grant. It was lovely to hear that crime writer Agatha Christie was a regular patron and used to book two seats – one for herself and the other for her butler, who would then serve her drinks during the film. We’re not told whether the butler liked the films or whether he was allowed to have a drink himself!

Sunday 17th January

Last week, which saw even more shocking daily Covid death totals (eg 1564 on Wednesday), started with Boris Johnson demonstrating his ‘one rule for us, another for them’ stance, being spotted riding his bike 7 miles from home. Seen and snapped by a journalist besides a number of passers by, we have to wonder whether he is naively assuming he won’t be discovered breaching lockdown (as suggested by the uncovering of so much cronyism during the last 9 months), or is almost provocatively flaunting his disregard of the law. It’s too early to call but such incidents are more than likely to reinforce the Cummings breach and to further undermine trust in the government, already at rock bottom. Environmentalist George Monbiot tweeted: ‘At every turn the government has undermined public trust and unity, by creating the impression that rules are for little people, while the elite can do what it wants’. People like Met Police Chief Cressida Dick have a tough job defending such blatant breaches when many forces have issued fines for far less.

As reports emerge that two-thirds of all NHS trusts across England were treating more Covid patients last week than they did at the peak of the first wave of the pandemic, that in 17 trusts Covid patients outnumbered all the other patients and that now over 100,000 have died, public health experts are describing the situation as a ‘phenomenal failure of policy and practice’. Yet the Prime Minister continues to present bullishly and optimistically in the House of Commons and at press conferences, sounding somewhat out of touch with reality, claiming that they’re doing a good job and are ‘world beating’ in the numbers being vaccinated. After hearing ‘People will see the government as having done a relatively good job’ from a minister, a sceptic tweeted: ‘Apart from the bereaved. And the many suffering long covid. And anyone who’s been paying attention’.

While the NHS buckles under the strain of Covid hospitalisations, we also continue to hear government insistence that ‘the NHS is doing a marvellous job, they can cope’, disgracefully taking NHS staff goodwill for granted when many are exhausted and experiencing significant mental distress. Around 46k are said to be off sick and nearly half of critical care staff are said to be affected by issues like anxiety, depression, PTSD and heavy alcohol consumption. So much for ‘coping’, when new Covid patients in London are having to be transported to ICUs in the north of England and over 4.5 million patients are having urgent procedures and treatments cancelled, leaving them to deal with the resulting pain, anxiety and uncertainty. Of course dealing with Covid has to be prioritised at this time, but it’s long term underinvestment in the NHS which has resulted in so much non-Covid work (now in GP surgeries as well because of the vaccination programme) being postponed.

Debate continues to intensify on lockdown measures, compliance and flouting and, as usual, inconsistent policing across the country. An interesting aspect of the debate has been what seems to be a growing awareness in some quarters, but unfortunately not in others, is the relationship between individual and collective responsibility. Some still don’t get that what they do affects others. Meanwhile, backbencher Steve Baker of the anti-lockdown Covid Recovery Group hinted at dislodging Boris Johnson if he doesn’t stop lockdowns. Since then he’s rowed back from that position but the CRG and others continue to rail against lockdowns and their extensions. It might not take Steve Baker to bring this about anyway, since the most recent poll on the Prime Minister’s performance indicates those wanting his resignation exceed those satisfied with it.

The Guardian’s Marina Hyde asks how many waves it will take for the lockdown sceptics to finally ‘call it a day’. She opines that, like the government, they have a hard time learning from their mistakes, singling out journalist Toby Young. ‘If I do have one question for the provisional wing of the lockdown sceptics – other than “Have you suffered a recent head trauma?” – it would only be a tiny one. But I can’t help wondering: how do they think the coronavirus is transmitted? Given that its transmission is not affected by lockdown measures (even though it patently and evidentially is), do they believe it spreads by some means other than respiratory droplets and contact? Do you catch it from self-reflection, perhaps, or not having a media platform? If not, could a sympathetic someone try to get the salient facts on Covid transmission inside Toby one way or another, even if they have to be written in crayons on sandpaper and administered as a suppository?’

As if this wasn’t enough, you’d think sceptics might take some notice of the increasingly high profile research on Long Covid: Office for National Statistics data found that five weeks after testing positive one in five patients continued to experience unwelcome symptoms including fatigue, coughs, headaches and loss of taste and smell. A Chinese study found that some patients were suffering from Long Covid 6 months and more after leaving hospital, including diminished lung function. It’s worth thinking about the additional effects this will have on mental health – someone I know who was very ill but not hospitalised is continuing to feel anxious because of the unpredictability of symptoms taking hold, which could lead to a stressful kind of hypervigilance.

It’s pretty clear that, like conspiracy theorists, lockdown sceptics lack psychological maturity, sticking rigidly to one version of reality, their former ‘normal’, staying in denial because it’s a kind of comfort zone – easier than understanding and coming to terms with the frightening reality which is COVID coupled with an incompetent government. Meanwhile, actor Laurence Fox has attracted more opprobrium by tweeting his boast about his facemask exemption lanyard obtained from Amazon. So now Amazon has jumped into another government vacuum (lack of certification or badges for those exempt, which can’t be enforced but many in this category might appreciate), profiting from government inaction but also opening the exemption to abuse. Such badges or lanyards should only be available for those entitled to have them but we can be sure Amazon won’t be monitoring this. In response to Fox’s tweet ‘Sleep well everyone. Every single human life is sacred’, a sceptic responded: ‘Amazon lanyards. Well considering he won’t wear a face mask, I’d argue Laurence Fox doesn’t think the lives of the NHS staff he’s endangering are sacred. Or his own family of friends for that matter’.

The latest restriction, causing Transport Minister Grant Shapps to tweet in capitals, is the decision (only 10 months too late) to close all air corridors with the UK, primarily to keep out new further variants of the virus. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘Of course it’s 10 months too late. Science advised it last year. Many countries closed down travel and introduced quarantines last March. Today Johnson called it “swift and decisive action”. Seriously?’ The absurd disconnect is the instruction to those entering the UK to quarantine, yet there’s no effective checking to ensure that this is being complied with and poor ministerial defences of the system.  

The PM this week was grilled by Labour’s Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, which has repeatedly pointed out the weaknesses of the government’s strategy on enforcing travel restrictions. Unlike other countries, there’s very little checking and temperature taking at UK airports, no requirement to isolate in a quarantine hotel and little monitoring of whether or not those people are self-isolating. So the PM’s bullish statement that ‘all foreign arrivals will also have to quarantine in toughening of measures in response to new strains’ is a bit of a nonsense.

This latest move has given rise to a further call for government support, from the travel industry. Joss Croft, the Chief Executive of UKinbound, the trade body for the overseas tourism industry, said: ‘Consumer safety is paramount and although the removal of all travel corridors is regrettable, given the current trajectory of the virus it’s an understandable decision. With our borders effectively closed, the government needs to provide urgent, tailored support for the inbound tourism industry’. This raises questions as to how many industries and workers the government can support, especially as there’s still no support for the 3m freelancers.

Presenter Mishal Husain grilled aviation minister Robert Courts on Saturday’s Today programme, during which he struggled to defend this inadequate approach. One listener tweeted: ‘Car crash interview with cardboard cut out minister Robert Courts, aviation minister – uses ‘robust’ about 5 times to describe the UK policy with more holes than substance. Police had hundreds of cases with quarantine folk absent from stated addresses’. Another said: ‘Courts was abysmal. Weapons grade blather and guff’.

What this raises, not the first time, is that these identikit ministers (given ministerial posts for their Vote Leave loyalty or opportunism) are facing very complex issues on which they’re way out of their depth and for which the early pre-pandemic period didn’t equip them. As an Any Questions listener asked: ‘When ministers have graduated from the Cummings School of Media Training, do they then have to practice in front of a mirror wheeling out soundbites, quoting sums of money allegedly spent on this or that and making evidence-free claims for government achievements?’ Again, to reiterate the principle of this blog, if people can’t trust their leaders and cannot have confidence in them, it’s likely to increase their anxiety about what they’re not being helped to contain and manage.

Meanwhile, it’s emerged that new Business Minister, Kwasi Kwarteng, during the 2019 election campaign accepted £16,000 from companies and individuals with a direct interest in fossil fuels, plus £4,500 from companies that advise on or facilitate trading in fossil fuels, despite the Government’s green policy and goal of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions. His spokesman said there was no conflict of interest and that all donations were in line with the ministerial code. ‘For the past 18 months, as energy minister, Mr Kwarteng led work to develop the energy White Paper – this government’s plan to fully decarbonise our energy system, phase out fossil fuels and end the UK’s contribution to climate change. Any suggestion Mr Kwarteng is somehow not committed to the green agenda is manifestly false’.

The highly transmissible new Covid variants have clearly changed the situation and attitudes, many more fearful than before and now there are at least three: B117 is known as the UK variant but is now known to be present in 33 countries; 501.V, which originated in South Africa, is more alarming because it’s said to render the body unable to detect the virus; and now a Brazilian variant, which clinicians believe is less worrying than the others. The inroads made by these variants have prompted the question, especially regarding 501.V, as to whether the vaccine will afford the necessary protection. Scientists seem to believe they can ‘tweak’ the vaccines to ensure adequate protection, but the much-flaunted (‘world beating’) vaccination programme has run into other problems this week, besides the ongoing one of recruiting vaccinators, who are then expected to undergo hours and hours of irrelevant online training. It also doesn’t help that organisations like the BBC are colluding with the government narrative in talking up and idealising the vaccine: of course it’s a great thing but it can’t be a panacea many want to believe.

First, the UK besides other countries are concerned that deliveries of the Pfizer/BionTech vaccine are being delayed because of upgrades the company is making to its production facility. Second, it emerged that some NHS trusts were instructed to throw leftover vaccine away at the end of the day when these doses could have been used for NHS staff. Third, the Prime Minister admitted that postcode lotteries were occurring throughout the country and that no regional statistical breakdowns had yet been produced. Fourth, when the idea of 24/7 services was raised, the government very publicly said there was ‘no clamour’ for 24 hour vaccinations, yet many have indicated the opposite in polls – taking a slot during unsocial hours would free up more day time slots for elderly and vulnerable people.

Fifth, ministers are now being called out on counting an appointment as a vaccination – more statistical gymnastics reminiscent of the testing ‘capacity’ fib of last year. A similar ploy is also being used to conflate one dose with being vaccinated: Health Secretary Matt Hancock tweeted: ‘Fantastic that over 3.2 million people have now been vaccinated across the UK, including almost 45% of over 80s & almost 40% of care home residents. THANK YOU to everyone playing your part in our national effort to stay at home as we accelerate the COVID vaccine roll-out’. This was called out by palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke: ‘It is genuinely brilliant that so many people have received their first dose. Absolutely wonderful. But you have not “been vaccinated” until you’ve received *both* doses. 400k people have done so to date. This is the number that has “been vaccinated”. Transparency matters’.

Sixth, there’s concern that there are plans in some services to mix and match the vaccines, so someone may not receive the same type in doses one and two. Seventh and possibly most importantly, disquiet continues on the government’s policy to delay by 12 weeks the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, contrary to World Health Organisation advice. There’s a petition about this on the website and, interestingly, veteran broadcaster Dame Joan Bakewell is preparing a legal challenge. One concerned individual said: ‘I don’t doubt that one vaccine dose will offer some protection against Covid-19 infection. But by agreeing to receive one dose and then the second dose later than the manufacturer’s recommendations you are consenting to participate in an ‘off label usage’ unregistered trial’.

Meanwhile, despite the government’s avowed intention to tackle misinformation, antivaxxer arguments continue, said to be strong in certain groups including some Asian communities and some pregnant women/those trying to conceive. One caller to BBC Woman’s Hour this week said her antenatal teacher had warned all her students not to take the vaccine and this could be the tip of an iceberg. It’s timely that this evening’s Profile programme on Radio 4 features vaccination minister Nadhim Zahawi – interesting to learn that his mentor is one Jeffrey Archer.

After a review was undertaken in 2018, headed by leading psychiatrist Professor Sir Simon Wesseley, new mental health legislation finally appears on the horizon. The current Mental Health Act, now forty years old, has long been criticised for its inclusion of autism and learning disability as grounds for detention and also leading to a disproportionate number of black and ethnic minority people being sectioned. ‘The package of reforms includes piloting culturally appropriate advocates so patients from all minority ethnic backgrounds can be better supported to voice their individual needs and allow sectioned people to nominate family members to represent their best interests if they are unable to do so themselves’. So far mental health organisations and advocates seem supportive of the changes. It will be interesting to learn more about the contents and timescale for the legislation.

If it wasn’t so dangerous, dishonest and undermining for the start of Joe Biden’s presidency, Donald Trump’s conduct this last week would be almost laughable. Having incited his supporters to riot, he then turns his back on them so now some are asking him for a pardon and now we learn that his disrespect for the archival function of documents meant many have been lost and others were being taped together by his staff. ‘In the Trump White House “not only has record-keeping not been a priority, but we have multiple examples of it seeking to conceal or destroy that record”, said Richard Immerman, from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations’. But although these records are very important, including the all-pervasive electronic ones, it sounds as if the US has a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards them. The Presidential Records Act states ‘that a president cannot destroy records until he seeks the advice of the national archivist and notifies Congress. But the law does not require him to heed the archivist’s advice. It does not prevent the president from going ahead and destroying records’.

So the Act would imply such records are crucial for the historical record, yet we hear there are no real consequences for non-compliance. Last year the judge throwing out one legal suit last year said that courts cannot ‘micromanage the president’s day-to-day compliance’. A lawyer representing a number of archiving and historical organisations trying to prevent the Trump administration from destroying electronic records said:  ‘I believe we will find that there’s going to be a huge hole in the historical record of this president because I think there’s probably been serious noncompliance of the Presidential Records Act…I don’t think president Trump cares about his record and what it says. I think he probably cares, though, about what it might say about his criminal culpability’.

Meanwhile, as public attention focuses on Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday, how typical that Trump will be the first president in recent history not to attend his successor’s inauguration and instead will be at a departure ceremony held in a Maryland military base. Shame he’s ‘seeing himself out’, as one news source put it, as I can’t be the only one thinking of the widely circulated video featuring Trump continuing to sit at his desk and talk on, while security moved him and his desk down corridors to the removal van, from which a hand emerged, grabbed his chair and dragged him inside, still talking.  

Finally, with all the media coverage we’ve seen for months about how sartorial standards have eased (or plummeted) due to lockdowns, it struck me that, because we can’t have people round and offer hospitality, we may be feeling less inclined to keep our homes clean and tidy. Assuming they were clean and tidy in the first place. I suggested this to the consumer programme You and Yours and presenter Winifred Robinson thought it was a good idea, so if you catch coverage of this over the next few months you’ll know where the idea came from! Of course, lockdowns could incline some to more housework: either way I think it would make a good programme!

Sunday 10 January

Not for the first time, I’m reminded of the Lenin quote which this blog began with in April: ‘There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen’. So much has occurred this week that recent events such as the 18th government U-turn (the third national lockdown announcement), and Trump’s shocking attack on American democracy dwarf other important development earlier in the week, such as the 17th U-turn, changing policy to not reopen schools after all. This, when some schools had already been made to admit pupils for one day, leading to anger and confusion for teachers, parents and children, not to mention a likely rise in cases.

Education Minister Gavin Williamson came in for much opprobrium, most eloquently and succinctly expressed by Rafael Behr in the Guardian. ‘Not much is constant about Britain’s handling of the pandemic, but one rule applies throughout: there is no scenario so bad that it cannot be made worse with Gavin Williamson in charge of schools. It is not the task itself that induces despair, but the identity of the man whose job it is to complete it. Williamson’s record allows only expectation of failure. The unknown element is whether he will inflict the damage by negligence or more assertive sabotage…..He is despised by teachers. He has alienated even the moderate wing of the trade unions. It is never easy for Tory ministers to win trust in the staffroom, but Williamson has fulfilled the caricature of ideological provocateur with spiteful relish, casting teachers as slackers and saboteurs…’

What’s particularly interesting, as some will recall hearing about from Williamson’s Chief Whip days and his sacking by Theresa May for leaking key information to the press, is the low esteem he is held in by colleagues. ‘The rebarbative side of his character is notorious in government. It is not unusual for advisers and MPs to whisper unkind things to journalists about ministers, but the acridity of what is poured on Williamson by his own party is unique and mostly unprintable. The kinder accounts dwell only on his abject ineptitude, but most include chapters on deviousness, duplicity and vindictiveness. It is said that he styles himself as a Machiavellian operator with an ostentatious immaturity that undermines any plot he might undertake – a homage to House of Cards in cruel, humourless slapstick’.

Widely predicted and delayed, the Prime Minister finally bowed to the inevitable and introduced a third lockdown, restrictions possibly lasting until April. Some will have been additionally alarmed by Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty’s suggestion that some restrictions may be necessary next winter, leading to visions of a never-ending cycles of lockdown and easing.  It was astonishing that Boris Johnson still used the over-optimistic and credibility busting language of fantasy, a ‘final sprint’ towards the stage where the UK population will be vaccinated, clearly placing unrealistic expectations on the vaccine, especially given the incompetence of the current regime. Even more astonishing was his attempt to deflect blame from his own dithering complacency to the ‘new variant’ and again suggesting that the lockdown resulted from ‘the facts’ changing. ‘It is inescapable that the facts are changing, and we must change our response’.

What’s so alarming is that the Prime Minister’s narcissism regularly leads to self-deception and denial in order to abdicate responsibility, presenting major policy failures as bad luck. Some strange mental gymnastics are performed so it’s an almost unconscious conversion of the unacceptable into the simply regrettable. The Guardian’s John Crace calls it Boris’s boosterism. Boris Johnson’s narcissism is an open secret. What’s less clear is whether he is at heart just deeply cynical: a politician who is aware of his own failings and goes out of his way to conceal them. Or whether he is a man who is merely the product of his own imagination: bending reality to suit his personality. It’s hard to know which is the more disturbing prospect. But then maybe it’s a bit of both…..

Boris likes to talk a lot about levelling up, but the one thing he appears unable to do is to level with himself and the country. So there was nothing on the delays, confusion and ignored advice over recent weeks. The past isn’t just another country for Johnson, it’s a different geological era. A place that does not bear scrutiny. And certainly one not worthy of apology. Not just because he doesn’t think the country can bear to hear the truth, but because he can’t either. All his life has been spent running from the horror of being Boris’.

Crace gets some serious competition from his Guardian colleague, Marina Hyde, in lambasting the Prime Minister’s lamentable performance. ‘Yet again, we are doing something entirely inevitable entirely too late, meaning it will have to be done much longer and much harder than it would have had Johnson showed some leadership and grasped the nettle. No one should be in any doubt that we are paying for his weakness and vacillation in lives, in the bitterest economic terms, and in vital freedoms that will end up being lost for greater stretches. It’s not that Boris Johnson can’t see round corners – it’s that he can’t see two steps straight ahead of him…But listen, it’s not the prime minister’s fault, he explained to the nation last night – it’s all down to this guy New Variant, who got repeated name checks throughout his sober speech…..

‘Anyway, as Johnson literally pointed out, he would have got away with it if it hadn’t been for pesky New Variant. In his words: “Our collective efforts were working and would have continued to work.” Johnson assured the nation that there was “no doubt” about this. Which is a complete lie, and a useless one. So yet again, “we are where we are”, as the oddly blame-free motto of the times runs. And we are, for the third/fourth/twelfth time, where we were. The person who really needs to go back to pandemic school is, of course, Boris Johnson. Has anyone ever learned less from a situation that keeps repeating itself?’ And now, as even ‘lockdown 3’ isn’t working well, stricter measures are being called for.

According to a Guardian analysis, there have been 91,453 deaths in the UK with Covid-19 on the death certificate or within 28 days of a positive test. The analysts warned that, given the current trajectory, the UK could reach the grim milestone of 100,000 deaths before the end of the month, experts. There must be few who weren’t shocked at the daily death figures going above 1,000 this week, which are now almost being normalised: 1162 deaths on Thursday and 1325 on Friday, London Mayor Sadiq Khan declaring a ‘major incident’ there, a major statement on the NHS’s ability to cope. What’s even more alarming is that we now have 46,000 NHS staff off sick with Covid, so rapidly rising case numbers meet far fewer resources to deal with them. A tweeter said: ‘This is without doubt the most deeply worrying day of the pandemic so far. Major incident declared in London, the NHS on its knees and the tragedy of so many deaths. This is not a political tweet, it’s a moral one. Where is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson’?

Alastair Campbell tweeted: ‘And all the more mindblowing that when they knew for weeks of a dangerous new variant Boris Johnson continued to be led by populist bullshit to do with turkey and Brussels sprouts and everyone having a ‘real Xmas.’ The messaging pre Christmas amounts to a form of corporate manslaughter’. Keir Starmer tweeted on Saturday: ‘To pass 80,000 deaths in the UK is a tragedy — it did not have to be this way. It’s absolutely critical that we all follow the guidance. Please, stay at home’. The latest Observer Opinium poll shows that people are now more scared of the virus than at any time since last June. More than three quarters (79%) of respondents said they were worried about the virus, including 36% who were very worried.

Instead of sensibly relying on a number of crucial measures to tackle the virus, like mask wearing, distancing, reducing contacts, an effective test, track and trace system and testing and isolating incoming air passengers (it beggars belief that the UK is only just adopting the latter measure), it’s clear that our PM and his ministers are over-relying on the vaccine. They’re idealising it as a solution (‘the cavalry’) despite a number of problems hindering its rollout and seem, as ever, to be setting unrealistic targets. The Times tells us that Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccine minister, insisted that the nine at-risk groups that together make up 99 per cent of deaths would be vaccinated in time for the scheduled end of lockdown. He said that the top four most vulnerable groups – 14 million people – would be vaccinated by the middle of February and the immediate threat would be over.

He told Sky News: ‘I’m confident that as we begin to deploy and get more sites operational — I talked about the hospitals, the GPs, the community pharmacies and the national vaccination centres — we will be at over 1,000 sites vaccinating’. But YouTube footage shown today of one busy vaccination centre, with non-distanced queuing, is concerning. It stopped at least one shielding couple from staying for their vaccine. These centres, not being medical settings, will also be without the facilities to deal with adverse reactions or other medical emergencies.

We hear that some GPs are having trouble obtaining supplies, postcode lotteries persist (some over 80s in some areas of the country vaccinated and others not and not kept informed) and some staffing issues. What seems strange is that no media channel to my knowledge has yet tackled the minister on his setting up, with his family, a medical company, which would be a conflict of interest and therefore a breach of the ministerial code.

Another persistent issue is the disquiet caused by the government’s decision to delay the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine for three months, when this is not the use the vaccine was approved for and is contrary to World Health Organisation policy. It#s been suggested that this amounts to an unregulated trial. It’s concerning that the BBC at least only has media doctors being positive and reassuring about this change of policy, when this could be false reassurance. has a petition running to get this policy reversed so it will be interesting to see if it bears fruit. A third problem is vaccination strategy: leading immunologist Sir John Bell, Regius Chair of Medicine at the University of Oxford, said NHS bureaucracy was preventing a high-speed mass inoculation programme that could prevent many further deaths. He claims the NHS has the capacity to vaccinate the entire population within five days but this currently can’t be done because of the hours of online training vaccinators are being asked to do in preparation, some of which are absurd, like anti-radicalisation training. Matt Hancock, in one interview, said he would ‘get rid’ of this but this doesn’t seem to have happened yet. Needless to say, there was the usual defensive response to this idea. An NHS England spokesman said: ‘Professor Bell’s reported comments suggest he may not know that at the current time there are not actually that number of vaccines available to the NHS to deploy. It’s best to stick to the facts, and they are that vaccine supply will be progressively increasing over the coming weeks, allowing rapidly expanding vaccinations’.

Meanwhile, you couldn’t make up the latest example of tasteless triumphalism, Nadhim Zahawi tweeting: ‘The Royal Family has been vaccinated. A good day becomes a great day’. Not to mention Stanley Johnson. The tone seems to communicate ‘job done’ but this is going to take a lot more than vaccinating public figures and some over 80s who then become part of a PR exercise.

On the microcosmic side, having isolated for 3 days before receiving a negative test result, three days later the NHS Covid app told me I’d been in contact (despite hardly going anywhere) with a positive individual and to isolate for another 5 days. It was strange but almost a relief given the terrible situation out there and I’m very aware I had it easy compared with many, especially because some lovely local friends brought things round. With the rampant new variants apparently responsible for 80% of new cases in London, it seems almost dangerous going outside, and supermarkets, which many have to use, have been criticised for not enforcing mask wearing and distancing. One large chain now says they will check, when I told them our local branch is a prime example, security staff on their phones and staff inside not wearing masks or doing so incorrectly. And still no sign of Covid marshalls despite finding out that my local council has recruited them. What’s desperately needed is robust enforcement because this simply isn’t happening – the evidence from streets and busy roads is inescapable.

What comes up repeatedly during the pandemic is government lack of preparedness and slowness to act. I suspect this isn’t only due to lack of intelligence and planning but also reluctance to commit funding and an enduring fantasy that we can go back to ‘normal’ when societies will actually need reconfiguring. Radio 4’s series of Rethink programmes this week, focusing on fairness, has recently covered major areas like health and education and the report cited here a few weeks ago is also highly relevant – Professor Sir Michael Marmot’s Building Back Fairer. The health Rethink, to which Marmot also contributed, laid bare the faulty government strategy of  underinvesting in the NHS because it’s seen as an overhead instead of an investment in our health care. The programme examined how Covid has increased health inequalities and also faulted the separation of health and social care. It’s even more disastrous that the government has used the pandemic to kick the social care can down the road once more, when the pandemic itself is increasing the demand for it.

The world was stunned on Wednesday evening by the dramatic and unprecedented events unfolding in Washington, President Trump having incited his supporters to march on the Capitol to disrupt the vital electoral vote count which would confirm Biden’s victory. It was astonishing that rioters disputing the election result managed so easily to breach security to enter and rampage around the building, even mounting a Confederate flag at one point, demonstrations which resulted in five deaths and many terrified some politicians and staff. The media wasted no time in calling this a siege, a riot, a coup and attack on American democracy. Some commentators also pointed out the lack of effective police presence, when Black Lives Matter protests have resulted in massive police involvement.

It might reassure some that Trump has been permanently suspended from Twitter, but although he will be deprived of that oxygen source, there will be others and some commentators fear he will find a place for his dangerous rhetoric in the ‘dark web’. Despite instructing his supporters to go home and later appearing to retract his inciting of violence, few will be deceived by this. Despite impeachment efforts we have to wonder what further damage he can wreak over the next fortnight and he still has access to the nuclear codes. Vice President Pence and other senior Republicans defied Trump and have broken with him but he can still count on the support of many. It was notable that whereas many world leaders condemned him unequivocally, Boris Johnson failed to mention role of Donald Trump. Still hoping for that trade deal?

News that former Trump allies were distancing themselves from him as his ex-chief of staff declared Trump’s political career ‘is over’, it reminds us of who in the UK (lambasted at the time in some quarters) refused to attend the official dinner during Trump’s UK visit, including Jeremy Corbyn and the SNP’s Ian Blackford. Those refuseniks could be feeling a sense of redemption now. The Guardian’s Marina Hyde analyses the situation as it applies to the UK – alternative media channels being set up to reflect the tactics of Fox News. ‘And here we are. The import of events in Washington this week is many things, but one of those is a cautionary tale about what happens when “news” is entirely unmoored from facts… In the coming months, not one but two anti-impartiality news channels will launch in the UK – GB News, backed by Discovery, and News UK, courtesy of that aforementioned adornment to international life, Rupert Murdoch….The Trump presidency was arguably the logical result of the type of hyper-partisan disinformation first fostered by Fox News, and the grotesque events of Wednesday were the logical result of a Trump presidency…’

It’s no excuse for non-thinking lawbreakers and conspiracy theorists but I think it’s important to recognise how public anxiety over Covid and the appalling death toll in the US will be contributing to these heightened emotions. Nevertheless, it’s astonishing that Trump allowed his narcissism to take precedence over democracy, the rule of law and America’s reputation as world leader. It’s been said Trump’s mental health is in a fragile state – no surprise there: when narcissists’ edifices collapse and their carapaces dissolve, it inevitably leads their fragile egos towards what they see as damage limitation. If there’s any amusing side to this it must be the widely circulating meme of a grinning Kim Jong-un saying ‘I no longer craziest leader, lol’.

Recently, the BBC has come in for some flak (at least regarding news reporting) for its right-wing bias and refusal to challenge the government narrative. Now it’s surprising that the Corporation has so transparently appointed Tory party donor and former Rishi Sunak boss Richard Sharp to the role of Chair. We also learn that ‘He has recently been acting as an unpaid economic adviser to Mr Sunak during the coronavirus pandemic…His new role will see him lead negotiations with the government over the future of the licence fee. The licence fee is due to stay in place until at least 2027, when the BBC’s Royal Charter ends, with a debate about how the broadcaster should be funded after that’. It’s interesting to note that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport Committee has expressed some concern about this appointment. ‘Julian Knight, the chair of the DCMS Committee, said in a statement: “It is disappointing to see this news about the next BBC chairman has leaked out ahead of a formal announcement from the DCMS’. The Committee previously expressed some concerns over the appointments process, calling for it to be fair and transparent.

Finally, there’s news of an ambitious archiving project designed as ‘an insurance policy against human disaster’. An abandoned coal mine on the Arctic’s Svalbard archipelago is being used to preserve items of cultural heritage including a perfect copy of Munch’s The Scream. The Arctic World Archive, on the island of Spitsbergen, involves burying digitised versions of key works 300 metres beneath the earth, 15 countries coming on board since the project began in 2017. The founders believe these digitised versions will last at least a millennium in these conditions. It sounds like future archaeologists could be making some spectacular discoveries, one of them being a Vatican manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Saturday 2 January 2021

Happy New Year to all, or at least a better one than 2020, despite entering 2021 facing the dire situation of daily deaths approaching 1,000, a lockdown in almost everything but name, new variants running rife, overburdened and exhausted clinicians and medics’ concern about the policy to change the timing of the Pfizer vaccine second shot. A GP tweeted: Can I ask Matt Hancock to come & do a shift on our phones, ringing our 80+ patients to explain that their 2nd dose of vaccine has been cancelled? Our PCN needs to cancel 1160 appointments and rebook another 1160. At 5 mins per phone call, that’s 193 hours work. Not to mention the grief & anger’. Independent Sage’s Anthony Costello tweeted: A delay between first +second dose of Oxford AZ vaccine makes sense. But the Pfizer vaccine is different, the first RNA one, probably immunogenic for less time and Pfizer state ‘There are no data to demonstrate that protection after the first dose is sustained after 21 days’. Another tweeter observed: ‘Those people who receive one dose of vaccine 3 months apart are now actively participating in a unregistered trial’. It comes to something when even US medical adviser Anthony Fauci weighs in to condemn the policy change and now we hear GPs are taking the law into their own hands and continuing with the original scheduling of doses.

It seems unbelievable that Covid deniers and conspiracy theorists continue to undermine public health messages, one group even gathering outside London’s St Thomas’s hospital, shouting that Covid is a hoax. This, when there’s no falsifying clinicians’ accounts of what they’re dealing with and footage of ambulances queueing outside A&E departments. It therefore seems scandalous that the government and NHS won’t allow ICUs to be filmed: it would indeed further expose government pandemic management incompetence but could also help get deniers to get real and this is of the essence now.   

Dr Claudia Paoloni, a consultant anaesthetist in the NHS and president of the HCSA, said ICU staff may end up having to in effect ration who received care that could help them survive. ‘Our NHS just doesn’t have the beds to cope. Some areas will be overwhelmed in days. If ventilation capacity is exceeded, horrendous choices will have to be made over those who live and die’. In an extraordinary denial which will further undermine trust in the government, the Department of Health and Social Care said:‘There is no shortage of ventilators and we have enough oxygen to meet demand. Throughout this global pandemic we have done whatever it takes to protect the NHS and save lives, including ensuring everyone who needed a ventilator had access to one’.

Earlier this year, many of us hadn’t been personally touched by virus but this has changed now, with more and more people we know or know of being affected. I had my own brush with the possibility, having unusually become quite ill over Christmas and an NHS friend urged me to get tested. Whereas I was pretty sure it was just a bad cold virus, I dutifully booked a test, a palaver in itself when feeling wretched, and found it a pretty unpleasant and stressful experience: people shouting from behind windows and masks, unable to open the fiddly bags of test kit, all with different closures, the gagging-inducing swab and getting stressed about not being able to complete it. [It hadn’t been clear that it was self-test at this walk-in centre]. I felt myself getting quite emotional and apparently this is putting it mildly.

The only nice part was talking to the young instructor who said he’d ‘seen it all, people crying and panicking’ but he was ok with it, as it ‘helps build my character’. You can say that again. He was studying civil engineering and when I asked him if he could design a better procedure he said yes. Clearly a man going places. It then took three days of self-isolation (thank goodness for lovely local friends bringing a couple of things and providing some doorstep company for a few minutes) before a negative result, the news of which was marred by hearing about four close neighbours who had been or were currently very ill.

Scientists have been strongly urging a national lockdown since before Christmas, yet the government just responds by placing more areas in Tier 4, but as ever, with very little enforcement, except at predictable times like New Year’s Eve. The number of fines issued and parties broken up by some police forces on New Year’s Eve confirms the suspicion that people are feeling increasingly imprisoned, restriction fatigued and sceptical about restrictions actually working. Again we can wonder what happened about the Covid marshalls the government gave councils the funding to recruit. No sign of them.

Meanwhile, the thing separating us from lockdown (schools remaining open) has brought about two more predictable government U-turns, derided Education Secretary Gavin Williamson first deciding to delay the return of secondary school pupils then the return of London primary schools. We can predict a third U-turn before the end of the weekend, the Westminster government always behind the other three nations’ governments, which our PM regularly condescends to. Williamson still fails to understand why schools can’t just get on with the mass testing of other pupils next week. One head teacher, commenting on his media interview schtick, said she didn’t need him to point out that we’re in a global pandemic and how important education is. Teachers have had next to no warning to get the system up and running, and the promised ‘support’ turns out to be a quarter of one unit of army personnel per school. Although it’s a rolling competition between ministers as to which one is the most incompetent, Williamson seems to have won top prize this week. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘Everything Gavin Williamson says is risible besides irresponsible and dangerous: amongst other things today he ministersplained schools reopening ‘policy’ by saying ‘we can’t sit back’. Precisely what this constantly behind the curve government has always done’.

The Prime Minister comes in for at least two demolition jobs this week, from the Guardian’s John Crace and Marina Hyde. Hyde effectively details how the PM’s emotional incontinence raises public anxiety, echoing the point of this blog, that if we cannot have confidence in our leaders our own mental wellbeing is undermined. ‘Should Johnson fail to toughen up and take himself in hand – a locked-on certainty, given the form book – then we are condemned to endure what might well be the worst months of the pandemic thus far, led by someone whose first thought seems always to be for his own emotions. “I hate having to take these decisions …”, “I deeply regret having to do this …”, “I do this with a heavy heart …” Once you’ve noticed the tic you can’t stop hearing it. If only he’d take back control of himself’. His constant playing of the victim card, interspersing every observation with how it makes him feel, is seen to detract from his true role as someone who should be leading from the front, shaping events as far as possible, not just belatedly reacting to them because he can’t bear to give bad news and just wants to be popular. ‘Time and again, Boris Johnson has so deeply regretted even the prospect of having to do difficult things that he hasn’t done them, meaning he has had to do even more regrettable things later’.

As one tweeter said: ‘Johnson was confident it would be over in 12 weeks, confident it would be over by Christmas, now confident it will be over by Easter. Confidence without competence is proving a lethal combination’.

John Crace’s demolition focused on the Brexit deal, widely presented as a good deal and the start of wonderful opportunities for the UK without detailing too clearly what these opportunities are and certainly not mentioning the numerous omissions. The frightening thing is that many without political awareness will believe the tabloid headlines as to the marvels brought off at the last minute. ‘Who would have guessed? When push came to shove it turned out that a bad deal was better than no deal after all. The first deal in history to put more barriers in the way of free trade than the one that preceded it. A 1,200-page treaty and 80-page bill that was granted a mere four and a half hours of what passed for scrutiny in a recalled House of Commons to allow it to become law before the end of the year. In most countries this would be called a farce: here in the UK we call it a return of parliamentary sovereignty’.

Some pretty staggering things were said during the debate, indicating those proponents’ occupation of a different planet, for example ERG Bill Cash comparing the PM to Pericles and Alexander the Great, the PM saying the UK would be the EU’s biggest friend and ally and Michael Gove claiming that businesses would benefit. ‘Smug, graceless, short of self-awareness – he somehow believes extra bureaucracy will make businesses “match fit” – and still prioritising point scoring over trying to bring the country back together’.

Meanwhile, the Guardian tracks what the Europeans think of it all in an article titled ‘View from the EU: Britain ‘taken over by gamblers, liars, clowns and their cheerleaders’. A Dutch think tank gets it in one by suggesting thatwhereas they’d previously seen the UK as ‘like-minded: economically progressive, politically stable, respect for the rule of law – a beacon of western liberal democracy’, this had now been seriously undermined. ‘I’m afraid that’s been seriously hit by the past four years. The Dutch have seen a country in a deep identity crisis; it’s been like watching a close friend go through a really, really difficult time. Brexit is an exercise in emotion, not rationality; in choosing your own facts. And it’s not clear how it will end’. Whereas this sounds rather sad, the Germans in their attachment to international law were said to be deeply shocked by the UK’s internal market bill. One commented on the PM himself (and it’s to be hoped that they realise not all Brits are like this):’Boris Johnson has always been seen as a bit of a gambler, displaying a certain … flexibility with the truth. But observing him as prime minister has only made that worse’.  

‘Others were more brutal still. In Der Spiegel, Nikolaus Blome said there was “absolutely nothing good about Brexit … which would never have happened had Conservative politicians not, to a quite unprecedented degree, deceived and lied to their people”. The “sovereignty” in whose name Brexit was done remained, essentially, a myth’ said a French think tank…. ‘It is history, geography, culture, language and traditions that make up the identity of a people…not their political organisation’. It is “wrong to believe peoples and states can permanently free themselves from each other, or take decisions without considering the consequences for their citizens and partners. ‘Take back control’ is a nationalist, populist slogan that ignores the reality of an interdependent world … Our maritime neighbour will be much weakened’.

Perhaps the most damning analysis comes from the German historian Helene von Bismarck, because it makes clear that Brexit is not the end of anything but one expression of damaging populism, the key constituents being ‘an emotionalisation and over-simplification of highly complex issues, such as Brexit, the Covid pandemic or migration, and a reliance on bogeymen or enemies at home and abroad….Populists depend on enemies, real or imagined, to legitimise their actions and deflect from their own shortcomings…If the EU has been the “enemy abroad” since 2016, it will steadily be replaced by “enemies within”: MPs, civil servants, judges, lawyers, experts, the BBC. Individuals and institutions who dare to limit the power of the executive, even if it is just by asking questions, are at constant risk of being denounced as ‘activists’” by the Johnson government. .. Everyone has political motives – except for the government, which seeks to define neutrality’. We’ve already seen this happening, haven’t we, as with the Windrush lawyers being described as ‘activist lawyers’? But no doubt this is just one example.

As we continue to hear bad news about the nation’s mental health, another stark statistic emerges, one which has been growing for some time. Eating disorders, especially in young people, have been on the rise for some time, yet specialist services are lacking and patients are often sent miles away from their families because of the shortage of beds. Hospital admissions for eating disorder patients have now risen by a fifth. ‘According to the latest NHS Digital data (England) there were 21,794 admissions for eating disorders among all age groups in 2019-20, up by 32% from 16,547 in 2017-18. Meanwhile, there were 4,962 admissions for eating disorders for children aged 18 and under in 2019-20, a 19% increase from the 4,160 admissions seen in 2017-18’. This is a very marked increase and symptomatic of the anxiety these patients are experiencing, besides isolation and lack of access to community services.

Dr Agnes Ayton, chair of the Eating Disorders Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: ‘Infection control and social distancing in inpatient units has also led to a reduced number of beds, so desperately-ill patients are struggling to get help. The government and the NHS must take immediate action to tackle this crisis’. The NHS response is always to suggest that more is being invested (not mentioning the cuts which have steadily taken place over the last decade). But now we’re hearing about ‘rapid access to specialist NHS treatment across England, which will provide access to early intervention, treatment and support’, so it will be interesting to see how that works out in practice as such services are often subject to worrying postcode lotteries.

As ever in the New Year we see a slew of articles and programmes which aim to analyse the previous year. While some of the ‘winners’ (eg supermarkets, Amazon and Zoom) and ‘losers’ (eg airlines, hospitality and ‘bricks and mortar’ retailers) will be obvious, given the extraordinary year many are glad to see the back of, there are others we could have overlooked or been unaware of. At the start of 2020, most could not have predicted big gains for gambling operators, crony PPE suppliers and losses or even ‘oblivion’ for entertainment venues such as cinemas. ‘And let’s not forget the estimated 3 million people, such as some self-employed, who have seen limited or no benefit from government measures to support businesses and jobs’. Who’d have thought the US oil industry could move for a while into negative pricing, or that supermarket staff, cleaners and delivery drivers would be appreciated as never before? In an article also covering wheeling and dealing, skulduggery and pay packets, key comings and going are noted, such as the departure of Mark Carney as head of the Bank of England, the incoming chair of John Lewis, Sharon White and the rising star of Rishi Sunak, who became Chancellor in February.

For once this time the New Year Honours list seems to have rightly focused on those who went beyond the call of duty during the pandemic, 15% of the list and a shame it wasn’t more. There were some media and political honours, only to be expected, but gratifying to see honours given to ‘public sector workers, including medics, teachers, local government workers, police officers and firefighters, recognised for making a huge individual impact’. Among those honoured are a former palliative care nurse who came out of retirement when Covid struck, a director of nursing for initiating safety procedures for fitting PPE, a woman who turned her pub into a shop, a retired policeman who came out of retirement to lead the volunteer effort across North Wales. What some will find ironic, if not hypocritical, is the PM’s declaration that ‘the outstanding efforts of those who had received honours was a welcome reminder of the strength of human spirit, and of what can be achieved through courage and compassion’.

Finally, it’s been gratifying that some readers have reacted to my proselytizing about the Walter Presents Seaside Hotel series on Channel 4. Here are some other programmes to recommend: the series of three documentaries on BBC4, Berlin 1945, which feature fascinating film footage and diary entries from differing walks of life, including an American airman, prisoners of war including a French surgeon, a Jewish woman in hiding, Berlin residents and how they experienced the Russian takeover of their city, and Russian and German soldiers.

Broadcaster Horatio Clare offers two beautiful soundscapes on Radio 3, one describing a pre-dawn walk towards Lindisfarne and the other a walk across the Wash, both accompanied by wonderful music, playlists included.

And something many will be looking forward to is the start of the 8th and final series of French crime drama Spiral, on BBC4 tonight!

Sunday 20 December

With 586 Covid deaths registered on Friday and dire warnings of a new and highly contagious strain of the virus wreaking havoc in London and the South East (thought to be 62% of cases in London), the Prime Minister has now, after weeks of dithering, restricted Christmas relaxation of restrictions to one day in England and done away with it altogether in large part of the South East. This is the14th U-turn, on a situation which could have been predicted and planned for some weeks ago, some European countries having made similarly stark decisions much sooner. This latest press conference nevertheless still comes as a shock, not only for those who have to cancel their plans but also for those only allowed now to meet one other person outside. And for how long will this continue? The review scheduled for 30 December may well just keep things the same. Social media were on fire after this press conference, Alastair Campbell capturing the mood and tweeting: ‘Worst possible Prime Minister and worst possible government at the worst possible time?’ Some commented on how again Keir Starmer’s predictions had come to pass: ‘Starmer’s proved to be Captain Foresight, not Hindsight. Again’. Some picked up on the illogical elements of this scenario: ‘Long, long overdue, but at least the 5-day madness of relaxation is binned. Effectively it’s lockdown for the new tier 4. However, to allow Midnight Mass and other communal services when all other gatherings are outlawed is totally stupid. Hopefully, churchgoers won’t go’.

We shouldn’t be surprised at these last minute developments, though. Statistics for England show there are now 15,465 patients in hospital with Covid – more than at any other time during the second wave that began in September. The most alarming thing is that this exceeds the previous second wave peak, recorded prior to the current surge, of 14,712 patients recorded on 23 November, but is less than the record 18,974 seen on 12 April. There is some debate about this as one source last night said the current rate was higher than April’s. Whichever, a most concerning situation, yet there are still Covid deniers in evidence and quite a number not wearing a mask on public transport and in shops.

Immediately after the announcement the Guardian starkly outlined the Tier 4 restrictions – more than some of us might have expected. Later on the media showed footage of hundreds of people crowding into mainline railway stations in an effort to beat the deadline- this alone will obviously cause some spreading. Yet another thing that’s not been thought about – when asked where the police are in all this a Police Federation spokesman on Radio 4 said they didn’t have powers to enter people’s homes and why had nothing been said about police officers being amongst the first to be vaccinated? A good point, as high numbers are already on sick leave and their work does bring them into contact with the public.

This Christmas conundrum raises a number of issues and questions, including whether ministers and public figures, having exhorted the public not to travel, will themselves be travelling to their second homes more than likely in a lower tier. An article in the Guardian featured the Christmas plans of various experts, which mostly can still stand despite the Tier 4 shock. Professor Danny Altmann, Professor of Immunobiology at Imperial College London, captured the mood of all contributors regarding minimising the risk: ‘So we’ll be doing anything that’s compatible with a safe, socially distanced Xmas: no mixing of bubbles with other households, and all socialising beyond our immediate family will be by Zoom’. Professor Stephen Griffin, Associate professor at Leeds University’s School of Medicine, didn’t mince his words: ‘Just because you can do something it doesn’t mean you need to. Frankly, five days of mixing indoors with multiple households is bonkers’.

Another question raised by 2020 Christmas is how much the reluctance to change plans reflects an inability or unpreparedness of some to be alone? Solitude and learning to be alone are important skills to acquire on the route to mature adulthood and not to be conflated with loneliness. That said, the latest restrictions will be a tall order for many, as the ‘Christmas is only a day’ mantra is no longer the case – this could go on and on. An interesting newspaper review has a classic quote from an Observer columnist: ‘The right decision – made at the wrong time and in the wrong way’. Instead of headlines screaming ‘Christmas is cancelled’ there could be an acknowledgement and encouragement to seek a different kind of Christmas, so I hope there’s some content to this effect in the press. It seems right, though, that the Mail asks ‘Will this nightmare ever end?’ No wonder Nicola Sturgeon feels ‘like crying’ as she imposes yet another set of restrictions.

Two fifths of doctors surveyed by the British Medical Association said they were not confident about their department’s ability to cope with Covid patients this winter. Amid NHS warnings about the service’s ability to cope with demand this winter, exacerbated by Christmas, head of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson, said: ‘We’ve talked about a perfect storm… I certainly feel that we’re probably headed towards that – and in many places we’ve now reached the leading edge of that storm’. I don’t quite see how the ‘stay-at-home message will be enshrined in law’, though, as Parliament is now in recess.

The latter part of the week was marked by the government’s sudden decision, after schools had already broken up, for all secondary school children to be tested during the first week of January. This caused extreme consternation amongst teachers and others, as the guidance won’t even be issued till next week and the infrastructure will have to be supplied by the schools themselves, meaning many heads and others will have to work over Christmas. Schools Minister, a rather glib Nick Gibb, took a leaf out of Matt Hancock’s book on the Today programme during a spiky interview by presenter Mishal Husain, becoming indignant when questioned on details not addressed, for example the DBS procedure for vaccination volunteers. ‘This is a national effort’, he kept repeating, omitting to say whether ministers would also be working over Christmas. There’s an attitude with such ministers that despite all their bungling incompetence of the last year they somehow expect the public to be grateful to them and are miffed when instead they’re asked challenging questions. Teachers are said to be exhausted and desperately need a break, yet this looks unlikely at least for school heads.

Meanwhile, Brexit negotiations rumble on and no one can be surprised that last Sunday wasn’t the deadline after all. It’s becoming increasingly clear that our PM doesn’t actually want a deal, despite professing the opposite. Despite being in between another rock and hard place regarding his party’s views on the subject, he could well pull something out of the hat at the midnight hour, a poor deal dressed up to look good to the gullible. Lord Heseltine castigated the government’s stance. ‘Sovereign, in charge, control regained. None of that creates a single job, one pound’s worth of investment or any rise in living standards. We will have risked our trading relationship with the world’s largest market on our doorstep, which accounts for nearly half our imports and exports….Yet we are constantly told of a glorious tomorrow. All that is missing is a shred of evidence or a single fact’.

He calls out the ‘Australia type deal ‘propaganda, aka World Trade Organisation terms and for the sheer lack of principle and preparation. ‘No one can blame the government for the Covid crisis, which, in any case, may be at last seriously diminished by the vaccine. But Covid has acted as a curtain behind which, unseen, Brexit has crept closer. The government has greeted this crisis in the traditional Whitehall-knows-best way, underpinned by vast quantities of borrowing money’. Heseltine doesn’t blame the government for making mistakes, as all of them will, he says, but he finds unforgivable that ‘they are guilty of something worse: knowingly taking their country down a rocky road’. And his coup de grace: ‘My hope is that, by the time you read this, common sense will have prevailed and both sides will have drawn back from the abyss. But if the prime minister has been forced to remain inflexible by hardliners at his shoulder, then he will have failed his test of leadership. We will pay the price’. Oof!

As usual, Guardian sketch writer John Crace has worked hard this week, deconstructing the performances of his regular targets, the PM and Matt Hancock (‘Door Matt’). He seems to have a particular preoccupation with Hancock’s cognitive dissonance. Having initially seen him as a politician with integrity, now shot to hell following his submission to the Johnson regime, career opportunism has been seen to triumph over the principles of the former Remainer. ‘There was a time early in the pandemic when Matt appeared to be one of the few members of the cabinet to act with integrity. Someone who was prepared to call out the prime minister’s rubbish about the coronavirus being all over in three months’….. But sometime around the summer, Hancock’s nerve failed him. Though never sinking to the level of Jacob Rees-Mogg, who had earlier today criticised Unicef for feeding hungry British children, maintaining his job became more important than telling the truth. Matt became Door Matt. Another piece of Westminster flotsam. He didn’t stand up for the Sage advice recommending a circuit breaker in September. And he allowed himself to stand by an initial tiering system that he knew would be inadequate. And now it seems as if he’s managed to convince himself of the virtues of the new improved tiering system….Because if there were delays in the vaccine and people’s personal responsibility couldn’t fill the vacuum in the government’s own regulatory system, then there was sure to be hell to pay in January and February’.

Crace’s piece on the Prime Minister will seem more ironic now, given the announcements, devastating for many, about Christmas and Tier 4 at his Saturday press conference. Describing his performance at the last Prime Minster’s Questions of the year, he observed: ‘A narcissistic opportunist chancer, who is only on nodding terms with reality and has been sacked at least twice for lying. Even as Johnson was speaking, Wales was upgrading its Christmas guidance into law. Yet the prime minister has so little sense of personal responsibility either to himself or the nation that he is incapable of reviewing a promise he made last month in the light of new scientific evidence. He knows what the right thing to do is, but is incapable of doing it. We now have Pontius Boris. A leader who has washed his hands of the difficult decisions. He had told people to have a shorter, safer “merry little Christmas” and he believed his job was done. If more people died, then it was their own stupid fault. Come January and February, there may well be a reckoning’. Alarmingly, there will still be a reckoning despite the latest U-turn, as there’s plenty of evidence of people not intending compliance with the latest diktats. One tweet which said ‘If you want to see your family on Xmas day just bloody go. Life is too short to let this clown tell you how to live’ got 1.9k likes. Will there be road blocks set up to interrogate travellers? And officialdom at railway stations and coach stations?

Crace goes on to tell us: ‘Then Johnson went completely rogue. “We have always followed the science,” he insisted. Apart from the times when he hasn’t. Most scientists wanted to go into lockdown sooner in March. They also wanted a further short lockdown in September. And they sure as hell don’t want the five-day Christmas killing zone that the government has set its heart upon. Even more bizarrely, Boris acted as if both the lockdowns the country has been put in were nothing to do with him, and were all the fault of the namby pamby Labour leader. I guess Johnson is often as surprised as the rest of us that he is actually in charge of the country’.

In charge? This reminds me of the old expression ‘You’ve got to laugh, or you’d cry…’. Some of us have been having a bit of fun on Twitter, along the lines of Larry the 10 Downing Street cat, often ‘pictured’ behind the lectern, taking charge of government and doing a better job than the present incumbents. Not for nothing has the philosopher John Gray recently written about the wisdom of cats. People often tweet pictures of their cats, doing something clever or mischievous, meanwhile affecting an appearance of supreme innocence, although some don’t look beneath serious skulduggery. So I’ve tagged suitable cat owners with the suggestion that their cat might be candidate for an alternative government. I can just see the headlines now: ‘Cabinet of cats – while Boris Johnson’s beleaguered and discredited government slumbers over Christmas an alternative cabinet has been quietly working behind the scenes in preparations for a New Year coup’. Stranger things have happened…..

Numerous public figures have died recently, mostly of natural causes, this week the esteemed writer John le Carre. Journalist Jonathan Freedland captured why this feels important, suggesting that it’s not only related to his status as a major literary figure but because when we mourn the loss of public figures we mourn our own loved ones too. This is relevant for all times but especially now, after so many thousands have died from the virus this year without public acknowledgement and only limited private marking of their passing. Freedland read every obituary he could and describes a lunch with le Carre which he was summoned to some years ago without knowing the reason why. ‘Writer of spy novels doesn’t capture it: Le Carré was one of the giants of postwar English literature, a master of his chosen form and an exceptional prose stylist. He had an ear for the dialect of the governing classes of this country, perfectly tuned to their evasions, their deceits, their melancholy…..’. Freedland also commends his ‘deep moral sense’, antipathy to Brexit  and ‘ability to walk moral high wires…without losing balance’, giving as examples condemnation of Israeli militarism at the same time as denouncing Labour’s anti-Semitism and exposing ‘the hypocrisies of the West whilst not overlooking the cruelties of the Soviet East’. I’ve personally never been attracted to espionage literature but perhaps I will try a Le Carre at some point, having read this powerful description of his place in our literary canon.

Media interviews this week with Sir Michael Marmot, (Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London and Director of The UCL Institute of Health Equity) have been very timely. His recent work, Build Back Fairer, focuses on what needs to happen in the wake of the pandemic. Taking the lead from the government’s mantra of Build Back Better, this report, following up earlier work, stresses the need for fairness: ‘The levels of social, environmental and economic inequality in society are damaging health and wellbeing’. The report seeks to explore social and mortality inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic and to urge the government to address these and their deleterious effects on our physical and mental health. Earlier Marmot reports had recommended six major interventions: Give every child the best start in life; enable all children, young people and adults to maximise their capabilities and have control over their lives; create fair employment and good work for all; ensure a healthy standard of living for all; create and develop healthy and sustainable places and communities; and strengthen the role and impact of ill health prevention. We have to wonder what progress has even been made on these recommendations, let alone new ones, but let’s hope this latest work is able to make some headway with policymakers.

Since the pandemic started the Guardian has been publishing its Upside weekly supplement, focusing on positive experiences and initiatives and now we’re given an overview of 2020, with some quite inspiring stories from all over the world. At a time when so much has been lost, these stories tell us what’s been gained, including a newly found pleasure in nature, changing relationships, more enjoyment of solitude and quiet, benefits gained via Zoom and one was thankful for the time to ‘plumb’ his ‘spiritual depths’. A correspondent from South Africa offered the following sobering lessons, as ‘our global and local society is unjust and broken and must be fixed.
• Each one of us has a (small) part to play to help heal our nations
• People do really care and want to share and support each other
• Greed is wasteful and over-consumption is ugly – less is definitely more
• Truthful leadership is in short supply and much of political power is misplaced
• The media feeds diversity and confrontation through fake noise created
• Being “isolated” calms and rewards
• Family and friends are what truly matters
• This is an excellent time to reset oneself

Finally, I want to recommend a series in the World Drama section of All 4’s (accessible via Channel 4) Walter Presents channel. Excellent though many are, it’s sometimes good to get away from crime series and Seaside Hotel is described as ‘a richly detailed period Danish drama from Walter Presents – a hotel is hotbed of intrigue’. It shows the interactions and machinations of a group of well off holiday makers who visit this hotel year after year, and the often charming relationships between the staff, apart from the unsavoury owner, who runs the place in a tyrannical way. What’s a tonic in itself is the summer setting and the marvellous scenery, sand dunes and miles of deserted beach just yards from the hotel (well, it is supposed to be 1928). Dark undertones are felt almost immediately, as one eccentric guest, who has brought his radio with him, mutters ominously after news bulletins about some banks’ finances being in a precarious state, perhaps foreshadowing the Wall Street crash. Watching these summery scenes when it’s dark and rainy outside has proved a bit of a much-needed tonic.

Festive greetings to all, thanks for reading and this blog will be back in the New Year, when I hope we will get some better news!

Saturday 12 December

Whereas just one of these would be more than enough to contend with, this week has seen ‘V-Day’ jingoism, Christmas and Brexit dominating the news agenda, some media outlets generally assuming that everyone has a fairly middle class lifestyle. A letter to the Daily Telegraph demonstrated this, quoting SAGE advice as to how to manage the Christmas dinner with more households involved. ‘Have drinks or Christmas dinner outside by a fire pit; have two tables so you can socially distance; and if you’re a visitor, take your own plates and put them in the dishwasher yourself’. Said the letter writer: ‘These guidelines certainly tell us something about the lifestyles of SAGE members and their understanding of how most people live’.

Another example is, in relation to an Observer piece which estimated that 1.67m, mostly over 65s, will be on their own this Christmas, Radio 4 Broadcasting House’s take, featuring celebrity chef Prue Leith bullishly advising how to prepare a turkey drumstick for one. Whoopee. The article on loneliness quoted a survey showing the usual figure of 4% alone at this time was expected to be 8% this year, attributed to the disruption and fragmentation inflicted by the pandemic. Among the over 65s, the figure is predicted to rise from 7% to 14%. ‘The survey results follow a growing body of research raising concerns about the impact of loneliness during the pandemic. Similar polling for the British Red Cross in the autumn found that 39% of UK adults had not had a meaningful conversation with someone in the preceding fortnight and 32% worried that should something happen to them, no one would notice. Zoe Abrams, the executive director of communications and advocacy at the charity, said the seasonal impact of loneliness on top of the pandemic could not be underestimated.’ The article goes on to point out that loneliness is a public health issue, technology is a help but not the answer and many older people have no access to it – none of which were covered by the BH piece.

Meanwhile, some commentators have suggested that people are starting earlier and ‘going bigger’ on Christmas this year in an effort to compensate for the restrictions and lack of levity this year. One manifestation of this is thought to be the size of Christmas trees and wreaths and it does seem some of the wreaths already on display are bigger than usual. Who’d have thought the size of your wreath (assuming you’ve even got a front door to put one on) would become a target for oneupmanship? But now perhaps some plans for gatherings won’t be activated, following scientists’ and advisers’ exhortations to rethink Christmas amid fears of rising COVID cases in many areas. Already a third wave and a third lockdown in January are widely predicted. Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, is on a sticky wicket, wanting to appear not to depart from the government’s stance but clearly worried, resulting in a mixed message some will find confusing. ‘The country needs to accept that Christmas is a period when we can do things, that’s the reason why the rules are being relaxed – but that doesn’t mean we should do things’.

Remember the promise, after months on end when family members weren’t allowed to visit care home residents, that measures would be introduced to facilitate this? Not surprisingly, charity Age UK has now revealed that this is unlikely to happen for anticipated Christmas reunions because there’s still no detail on when the lateral flow tests will be delivered. While one helpline, the Relatives and Residents Association, said most of their calls were about banned or restricted visits, the head of Age UK, Caroline Abrahams, said: ‘As one barrier is overcome another always seems to take its place, whether it’s the pronounced risk aversion of some care home chains and their insurers, or a lack of confidence in lateral flow tests among some local authorities’. Of 2,732 people Age UK surveyed, 70% had not been able to visit or see their relative since the start of the pandemic and a third said they hadn’t been offered an alternative eg videocall. Such a situation can lead to despair on both sides, the frustration and undeserved guilt of families and the lonely confusion of the residents. One respondent poignantly captured this painful experience: ‘My grandad was going to die, we knew that it was only a matter of time. But the fact that he might have died thinking we abandoned him kills all of my family. And it probably will do for the rest of our lives.’

There are almost no words for what’s been going on with the Brexit negotiations, the PM, ministers and UK negotiators causing more embarrassment for the UK by the day. It’s almost as if they don’t realise that their blustering and antics are being beamed into households all over the world. The week began with Michael Gove repeating Brexit fibs in the House of Commons, the last place you’d have thought he’d get away with chestnuts like the ‘Australia-like deal’. We hear that the UK has had to allow the EU to have an office in Northern Ireland: it sounds like they also need one in the House in order to counter the many misrepresentations still being trotted out there. Asked by Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy ‘How would you rate the current government?’, veteran broadcaster David Dimbleby said: “Very, very low… the lowest… the lowest since I was born in 1938… it’s not a government one would be proud of…”

Guardian sketch writer John Crace broadened his repertoire this week, giving Matt Hancock a rest and focusing on other ministers including James Cleverly. On the alleged ‘oven ready deal’ (this week disingenuously conflated with the Withdrawal Agreement), Crace observed: ‘You can sometimes tell how much of a state No 10 is in by its choice of minister for the morning media rounds. And sending out the junior Foreign Office minister James Cleverly – living proof of the fallibility of nominative determinism – rather proved that Downing Street was in full panic mode over the progress of its Brexit trade talks. At a time like this, only a minister too dim to sense the danger he was in would do. Cleverly may have his talents, but the only one that he doesn’t keep hidden – apart from to himself; in his own world he is one of life’s winners – is his inability not to make a bad situation worse’.

Focusing on an exchange with Labour’s Rachel Reeves, Penny Mordaunt fared only marginally better. ‘She sounded like a presenter on a 24-hour news channel trying to fill dead air by reading out the same headlines over and over again, telling nobody anything that they didn’t know already. The talks were at a critical stage. She couldn’t say how they were progressing. The sticking points were the level playing field, fishing and governance. And that was about it. Thanks for that, Penny…. Unlike Cleverly, she has the self-awareness to realise when she’s out of her depth. And right now, she was drowning’.

In a move which could have felt humiliating for the Brexit negotiators, it was decided the fountain heads should meet over dinner, our PM having had the nerve to suggest that perhaps ‘sweet reason’ might prevail – his own, of course. Off went a more tousled than usual Boris to Brussels, immediately getting into an idiotic exchange with Ursula von der Leyen about mask wearing. Having already felt the need to remind the PM about distancing, she said he should remove his mask. “Then we have to put it back on…You have to put it back on immediately.” “You run a tight ship here, Ursula, and quite right too,” Johnson responded’. We can only imagine what the EC president thought of the Boris Johnson ‘ship’.

We also have to wonder about the cost of this exercise, including the travel, lost time and the three-course meal of scallops, turbot and pavlova, when the outcome of ‘significant differences remaining’ could have been predicted from the start. We were then told the deadline is Sunday, but no one will be surprised if the negotiations drag on for another week or beyond, as the parliamentary recess could be delayed beyond 21 December in order to pass a Brexit bill.

One of the untruths peddled by ministers and others about Brexit is that of an ‘Australia type deal’, aka No Deal, but dressed up to sound more than it is and managing to convince the gullible that the emperor is wearing some clothes. Anyone who hasn’t yet seen or heard former Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull on BBC’s Question Time last night might like to catch up: a genius bit of programming during which Turnbull firmly deconstructed ‘the Australia type deal’, thereby demolishing this Tory fib. The clip was replayed on Friday’s Today programme and it seems as if this had some effect, because when the PM spoke to journalists during his visit to Blyth (Northumberland) he didn’t trot out the usual misrepresentation.

‘It obviously would be different from what we’d set out to achieve but I have no doubt this country can get ready and, as I say, come out on World Trade terms’.

You’d think his tactical and diplomatic blunders couldn’t get any worse, but they reached an all time low on Friday, with reports that at this 11th hour, he tried to divide and undermine the EU side by seeking separate audiences with German and French leaders Merkel and Macron. The EU turned down his request. When asked about these reports, a Downing Street spokesman said: ‘I would point you to the PM’s words yesterday where he said he would go the extra mile to reach a fair deal, including going to Brussels, Paris or to Berlin’. So there we have it: this isn’t an embarrassing blunder or a desperate last minute measure due to pressure from senior Tories, but an indication of the lengths our illustrious PM is prepared to go to get these errant Europeans to see sense.   

Meanwhile, The Times spells out what a No Deal Brexit will mean, effects having been masked by the transition period. The alarming catalogue of prohibitions, price rises and shortages will create even more anxiety in an already anxious population. One example, as the UK is now officially ‘a third country’, is that UK holidaymakers will be barred from EU after 1 Jan under COVID rules. It will come as a shock to some that Brits will be lumped together with ‘other non-EU countries such as Albania and Turkey’…… Researchers based in Britain would lose access to European research funding programmes and students would no longer be able to take part in the Erasmus exchange programme. It is unclear on what terms British travellers would be allowed to drive and access healthcare in the EU and take their pets with them’. It will clearly involve a lot more paperwork for activities we’ve long taken for granted.

Interestingly, the article also describes the effects of Brexit on the EU bloc and some member countries – it would be interesting to know how many of these are anticipated by the residents. While the EU is predicted to lose at least €33 billion in lost annual exports, France will lose E3.6 billion and its fishermen prevented from entering British waters, Germany could lose E60 billion in exports and up to 400,000 jobs and Italy could find a big dent in its E21 billion of exports to the UK, its wine trade already suffering (half of all the exported prosecco comes to the UK).

V Day jingoism is now somewhat tempered by the not surprising news, despite Matt Hancock’s bullish assurance that he had every faith in the NHS, that dozens of GP practices won’t be taking part in the vaccination programme due to lack of capacity, so what happens to their patients? Surely they could end up waiting quite some time because those practices taking part will be prioritising their own patients. Two key deterrents for GPs are the contractual obligation to run vaccine clinics from 8 am till 8 pm, 7 days a week, and the need to monitor all vaccine recipients for 15 minutes afterwards, to check for adverse reactions. One GP seems to have captured the doubts of many colleagues, citing the “inflexible” contract and NHS England’s ability to unilaterally impose new conditions during the rollout, believing that these “pose a real risk to the safe and essential general medical services we provide to our patients, to the wellbeing of our colleagues, and to the financial stability of the GP practices”. How typical that Health Secretary Matt Hancock ‘tasked’ the NHS with this massive additional programme (‘I know they can do it’ aka ‘I’ll make them do it whatever the cost to their wellbeing’) without thinking through the implications of these barriers to participation.

As rising numbers of cases make it likely that London will be placed in Tier 3 next week, we’re told the not surprising news that Track and Trace, the cost of which has now rocketed to £22bn, is only managing to test 68% of its capacity and is still fails to trace a significant number of contacts. This is seriously worrying after all this time, but at least local public health departments are now much more involved in the process. Pubs in Tier 2 are taking good advantage of the ruling that a Scotch egg counts as a ‘substantial meal’, the necessity of which is the condition for customers buying alcoholic drinks. Some producers have seen Scotch egg sales rocket by 200%. Who’d have thought a year ago that the humble Scotch egg would become so newsworthy?

This week has seen yet more evidence of the development of a mental health crisis to match that of the pandemic. Demand for Young Minds’ parents services have risen significantly as children and young people across the UK continue to contend with the uncertainty and trauma of living through COVID and its consequences, including lengthy school closures, cancelled exams, the confusion over university places, compulsory isolation in student accommodation and poor prospects for the future including employment opportunities. Even one of these factors could lead to compromised mental health, but taken together, it’s hardly surprising that many young people and their parents have experienced anxiety, depression and grief. We are all, to some extent, susceptible to feelings of bereavement because of all the pressures and losses of this last year, one of the less acknowledged ones being the loss of spontaneity. Now, instead of just doing something, going somewhere or hugging a friend, so many factors have to be weighed up, including the likely stance of others on risk adversity and on compliance. Said one helpline volunteer: ‘The issues that parents are bringing tend to be more complex and more severe. The mention of suicide is definitely more common’. A report by the National Child Mortality Database said children’s deaths by suicide increased during the first lockdown, and since then the same factors continue to contribute, such as fragmented or suspended support services, tensions at home and isolation. While it’s very positive that such charities can be so helpful, it also reflects a failure of cash-strapped statutory services to meet these needs.

Still on mental health, the new chief executive of Samaritans, Julie Bentley, has spoken about the impact of COVID on mental health and why it’s important not to wait until someone becomes suicidal. She believes Samaritans have been crucial during the pandemic and she’s so right to say ‘being listened to without judgment is an extraordinarily powerful thing’, not least because volunteers (who are emotional support workers, not counsellors, usually) are at the end of a telephone, unlike (unless you seek help privately) regular mental health services, which are increasingly subject to long waiting lists, threshold criteria and limited hours of operation. ‘Just because somebody considers taking their own life, it is not inevitable that they will take their own life. That’s why it’s important that there are services like Samaritans where people can phone; not just because they’re feeling suicidal, but if they’re feeling troubled, distressed or concerned, they will find somebody who will listen, in a very real and meaningful way without judgment’.

A survey among Samaritans volunteers ‘offers a window into the impact of Covid on the national psyche: one in five calls over the past six months were from people who were specifically concerned about Covid, though volunteers surveyed suggest that the pandemic has affected every caller to some extent, with worries about isolation, mental ill-health, family and unemployment the most common concerns’. (This reminded me that one of the regular questions on the University College London Covid survey was about what caused respondents anxiety and the level of that anxiety – besides the expected categories like employment and relationships, etc, one was ‘future plans’.) Julie reminds us that suicide tends to rise during recessions and of course this is already happening, due to the pandemic and Brexit. She gets to the nub of it here – underinvestment in statutory services. ‘So we need to be mindful of where we’re at in the country … particularly as a result of coronavirus and the financial impact..We need to be concerned about the numbers of people feeling high levels of distress and to keep pushing to ensure there is a good provision of service…One of the things that is a worry is that of those people who do take their lives, many of them were not in touch with any mental health services. And we know that people are waiting too long to access services. So, mental health concerns are significant’.

Set up in 1953, Samaritans now has 201 branches in the UK and Ireland and there can’t be anyone who hasn’t heard of them. That’s not to be underestimated as often people don’t where to go to get help. We’re told that since March, staff have been “entirely focused” on addressing difficulties emanating from the pandemic. Between March and September they supported 1.2 million people – a colossal achievement, in my view, especially as many wouldn’t have been able to get help from statutory services when they acutely needed it. There’s a little CV of Julie Bentley at the end and it was good to see her interests reflect some of my own – ‘walking, reading, movies, long dinners and wine with loved ones’. Let’s hope she enjoys her new role and is able to continue conveying to government the need for mental health support.

Finally, there’s been quite a bit of coverage this week of light pollution and the need for more work on increasing visibility of ‘dark sky’. ‘Supported by the astronomer royal, a cross-party group urged the government to designate a “minister for the dark sky” and to establish a statutory commission to regulate excess lighting’. Light pollution is thought to be detrimental to mental health (eg disrupting hormone levels) and the environment, for example by interfering with breeding cycles and activity patterns, linking with the broader issue of climate change. Astronomer Royal (first time I knew we had such a thing) Martin Rees said: ‘Throughout history, people have looked up at the stars and tried to make sense of their place in the universe. It is a deprivation if people, especially, young people, can’t see that. Just as you don’t have to be an ornithologist to miss birds in your garden, you don’t have to be an astronomer to miss the night sky’. In a report launched this week and to be debated on 14 December, the All-party Parliamentary Group for Dark Skies made a number of recommendations, including the appointment of a minister for dark skies. Let’s just hope, if this comes to pass, it’s not Chris Grayling.

Saturday 5 December

Friday’s announcement of 504 new deaths and 16,298 new COVID cases must make us wonder whether lockdown has worked, although many believe it’s never been a ‘proper’ lockdown. This week Boris Johnson had his work cut out trying to quell the threatened rebellion to the post-lockdown restrictions regulations, Tory rebels demanding to see the evidence for the revised tier system which now has only three areas in Tier 1. Predictably, they were disappointed, one saying the 48 page assessment was just data they’d seen before, and 55 of the original 70 complainants rebelled. The measures were passed but despite some ministers’ efforts to present this as a good result, a rebellion of that magnitude is a cause for concern for the government.

As restaurants, non-essential shops, hairdressers and nail bars sprang to life once more, Wales was again re-enters a period of restrictions and some in large Tier 3 locations like Kent were up in arms at being lumped together with far more seriously affected areas. ‘The assessment stated that it is “not possible to know with any degree of confidence” whether the economy will be better or worse off without the tiering restrictions’. Yet again, it captures the conflict between avoiding higher death statistics and intolerable pressure on the NHS and avoiding crippling the economy, already predicted by the Office for Budget Responsibility to be 11% smaller by the end of the year.

The news agenda was justifiably dominated by updates on the COVID 19 vaccines, primarily the German Pfizer/BioNTech one, which the UK medicines regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, approved for use ahead of the EU regulator, the European Medicines Agency. Meanwhile, the EMA said on Tuesday that it might not reach a decision until the end of December, which would make the start of vaccination programmes across Europe unlikely before 2021. Some are concerned that business minister Nadhim Zahawi has also been made a health minister with the responsibility of rolling out the vaccine, because a crucial aspect is logistics, leading to concerns that there could be further crony contracts in the pipeline. However the distribution and delivery operation is managed, it needs to be super-smart, as Interpol has warned that, based on evidence of behaviours demonstrated during the pandemic, organised crime gangs are likely to attempt infiltration of the supply chain. These gangs have apparently changed their strategy to address new ‘opportunities’, including targeting government loan schemes, selling fake testing kits and defrauding people via fake test and trace messages. It’s critical, then, that vaccine logistics must not be subjected to Chris Grayling style bungling or cronyism.

At least in more mature quarters, early jubilation regarding vaccines development has been tempered by the realisation that logistical issues, especially post-Brexit, could hinder progress and that there are still many unknowns, so we shouldn’t idealise the vaccine in the way many media channels seem to be encouraging. The UK’s chief medical officers have warned that the vaccine will have only a marginal impact on hospital admissions over the next three months and that the festive season is likely to put additional pressure on health services. NHS staff have been asked to brace themselves for an ‘especially hard’winter. As if they haven’t already had to brace themselves enough.

During a discussion about vaccine ‘hesitants’ and the plan to have politicians getting the vaccine live on tv, Professor Robert West of University College London came out with this classic understatement on Saturday’s Today programme: ‘…politicians aren’t always the most trusted of people’. Too right. A key point has again come up several times this week: that the government is now reaping what it has sewn all along via lack of transparency, as mistrust is contributing directly to vaccine hesitation. One example is a series of angry tweets and emails to BBC5 Live coverage about tackling conspiracy theories, clearly demonstrating the link between lack of trust in the government and vaccine scepticism. Another example was via Noreen Khan, director of Tweetneesie, a platform for enabling single mothers with information and resources in order to counter misinformation within communities. She highlighted the lack of trust in government, like others stating it like a matter of fact, no longer just of opinion. Unlike Germany, the government has kept people in the dark throughout, the only ‘levelling with the public’ being on hints of future tax hikes and the like.

The difficulties which could dog the vaccination programme haven’t yet filtered through to ministers, who have long been desperate to prove the UK is good at something and has done something first. That the UK has been the first to approve this vaccine (prematurely, according to some experts) has given rise to embarrassing triumphalism in government circles, revealing determination finally to be ‘world beating’ in something, taking credit for something not of the UK’s making. Cue a retinue of ministers then claiming that this approval could only have happened because of Brexit and having left the EU, starting with Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg and Health Secretary Matt Hancock, followed up by Alok Sharma and most embarrassingly, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. Sharma had grandiosely tweeted that ‘in years to come we will remember this moment as the day the UK led humanity’s charge against this disease’. Just when you thought government blunders couldn’t get any worse, Williamson carried on digging: ‘I just reckon we’ve got the very best people in this country and we’ve obviously got the best medical regulator, much better than the French have, much better than the Belgians have, much better than the Americans have. That doesn’t surprise me at all because we’re a much better country than every single one of them’.

The blistering pen of Guardian sketch writer John Crace hasn’t rested this week, focusing on his regular targets, the PM and Matt Hancock, but also this week adding Gavin Williamson to the mix. On Thursday Williamson was doing the media rounds, starting with a feeble interview on Radio 4’sToday programme, talking for some time about the strategy on exams without saying anything of substance. Leading up to coverage of the disastrous vaccine comments on LBC’s Nick Ferrari show, Crace described him as ‘a manchild who has yet to move up to secondary school level and whose career since winning Fireplace Salesman of the Year two years running in 2006 and 2007 has been a mystery to us all….Just think about the level of stupidity for a moment. Not only does Williamson have no firsthand knowledge of other country’s medical regulators – don’t forget he is also the education secretary who failed to spot in March that the coronavirus pandemic would have knock on consequences with the cancellation of school exams – he is seemingly unaware that Pfizer is a US company and that the vaccine is being produced in Belgium’.

Pressed again by Ferrari if he was actually saying that Brexit had given the UK an advantage, he didn’t take the opportunity to row back, seemingly unable to resist the temptation to position his government above others implied to be slacking. ‘I think just being able to get on with things, deliver it and the brilliant people in our medical regulator making it happen means that people in this country are going to be the first in the western world – in the world – to get that Pfizer vaccine’. You have to wonder at his level of political nous in making such assertions, oblivious to the embarrassment he was causing this country. England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, ‘seen as just about the only person in the country the public trusts for independent advice’ was then seen as conducting a damage limitation exercise. ‘He immediately trashed Williamson by saying no one should read anything much into the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency being the first to license the vaccine. Other countries were also working round the clock and he expected some of them to give their approval long before a needle had been jabbed into any Brit’s arm’.

Crace then turns to his regular target, the Health Secretary, who he sees as one of the few now prepared to be wheeled out to front press conferences and the like.  ‘Inevitably it was Matt Hancock who was yet again delegated to do the front-of-house gig at No 10 [Monday]. The Health Secretary has long since resigned himself to doing all the jobs that no one else will. That’s why he’s the Door Matt; the ideal fall guy for a press conference at which the government has almost nothing much to say. And what he did have to say didn’t really stand up to much scrutiny….. But Door Matt is nothing if not willing and he’s never been afraid to fill 10 minutes of dead air with 10 minutes of dead words…… “Hope is on the horizon,” he concluded. As was the light of dawn. It’s going to be one hell of a horizon when it finally appears. Our sacrifices would not be for nothing. If it’s any consolation to the Health Secretary, Boris Johnson is no more convincing when he’s going through his own repertoire of sub-Churchillian bollocks. It would be nice for once to have a politician who just radiated honesty, rather than ones that substituted grandstanding for sincerity…. You could tell he was floundering because he lapsed into his default management consultancy speak. The type of language for which you get paid £600 per hour for saying precisely nothing at all’.

The week couldn’t go by, though, without covering his main target, the PM, who he’s now christened ‘Major Sulk’. What with ‘Door Matt’ and ‘Major Sulk’ you have to wonder if the targets’ ‘people’ are keeping an eye on the critics and either shielding them from the opprobrium or ensuring they know about it. In a piece titled ‘Boris misjudges the mood as mind wanders to petty point scoring’, Crace describes how relatively ‘cautious’ the PM initially was at Prime Minister’s Questions: ‘And at first it seemed – unusual, I know – that Johnson was taking a serious question seriously’. But this couldn’t last. ‘Instead, he went on the attack by accusing Keir of having failed to support the government in its new coronavirus measures the previous day. This was the real Boris. Major Sulk unable to let go of any resentment. He’d gone through the charade of doing the statesman bit and wanted to squeeze in the few third-rate gags he had prepared that morning….. He used to be Captain Hindsight,” Johnson blundered on. “Now he’s General Indecision.” If nothing else it was an act of insubordination coming from Major Sulk’. Such a lack of dignity and gravitas is truly embarrassing in any minister, let alone the Prime Minister. Again, some will shudder, wondering again what the foreign media are making of it. So much for our oft-vaunted position on the world stage.

If anyone thought all the examples of cronyism had now been identified and called out, they were premature, since today it’s emerged that Carrie Symonds’s close friend, Nimco Ali, was given a £350 a day government contract which wasn’t openly advertised. We can surmise that the role of adviser on tackling violence against women and girls would have attracted a good pool of potential candidates who weren’t given the chance to apply. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: Surely the strangest thing about cronyism is the government’s assumption, despite social media and investigative journalism, that it won’t be found out. Now Carrie Symonds in the frame, which will put Boris Johnson on an even more sticky wicket’. Another case for Jolyon Maugham’s Good Law Project to get stuck into? Meanwhile, Sophie E Hill, a Harvard University PhD student of government, has produced a visualisation of the connections between those awarded contracts and Tory politicians and donors. It packs quite a punch seeing it in this format. Take a look at

And there’s further coverage of this issue below.

Other important news will increase public anxiety further: the prospect of thousands more job losses as the Arcadia empire falls into administration and huge uncertainty caused by the absence so far of any Brexit deal. Arcadia boss Sir Philip Green (called an ‘asset stripper, not a retailer’ by a former employee) came under fire once more, especially since it doesn’t look as if he will use his considerable wealth to honour the company’s pension liabilities. With the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier in London again, talks on a post-Brexit trade deal are said to be ‘at a very difficult stage’ (so what’s new?), the sticking points continuing to be fishing rights and sovereignty.  

I recently came across a blog by Chris Grey, Emeritus Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, who has won plaudits from commentators and journalists, such as ‘Best guy to follow on Brexit for intelligent analysis’ and ‘By far one of the best analysts of Brexit’. His latest post starts with the observation: ‘It’s now less than a month, and less than 20 working days, until a massive change in the way that the UK trades with and relates to its own continent, and in many ways to the rest of the world as well. It is truly remarkable how little public discussion of that there has been, and what there has been has almost entirely focused on the ongoing ‘deal or no deal’ question largely ignoring just how much will change in either scenario and what either scenario will cost (£)’. Although someone took issue about this today, I absolutely agree with Chris as there seems to have been very little public education about the issues, hence the number of ill-informed people calling into phone-ins, irate about either the EU’s or the UK’s intransigence.

‘As for relative lack of discussion of what the end of the transition will mean, the Covid crisis has obviously been a big reason for that, but there’s more to it than that. Some people actually believed that the UK left the EU immediately after the referendum. Many more will not have understood that when the UK did leave, at the end of last January, the transition period masked most of the practical effects of doing so’. Grey goes on to analyse the various lies politicians purveyed, for example suggesting that despite such a massive change inherent in Brexit, everything would somehow remain the same, such as a ‘free trade zone’ and Freedom of Movement ending for some but not others. He takes the words out of my mouth on the issue of how the EU wasn’t ‘sold’ to us, so perhaps it’s hardly surprising that the Leave Campaign had such a fertile ground for their exhortations and fibs. ‘To put all this another way, it is a very legitimate criticism of pro-EU British politicians and commentators that they did virtually nothing to promote and build consensus for it in the decades of UK membership’.

On a lighter note, it’s clear just how much many enjoyed and benefited from artist Grayson Perry’s Channel 4 series earlier this year – Grayson’s Art Club – which saw thousands of people getting creative during lockdown and producing all manner of quirky works of art. It was all very heart-warming and inspiring and you didn’t need to be artistic to appreciate it. What a long time it feels since then. This week many enjoyed the follow-up, showing preparations for the exhibition based on Grayson’s pick of the pieces. Unfortunately, the opening at Manchester Art Gallery coincided with the second lockdown, but no doubt many will be getting along to see it when the time feels right. One viewer tweeted: ‘Thanks to Grayson and all who contributed to Grayson’s Art Club – I think it’s really connected people (within themselves & with each other) through difficult times (& has been great TV). Can’t wait to see the exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery’. Another said: ‘What an utter joy Grayson’s Art Club is – so moving, inspiring & life affirming. Thank you.’ Yet another flagged up the importance of art, whether or not we’ve had a hand in it ourselves. ‘What an exceptional exhibition. Everyone should be so proud. What a wonderful display of talent, passion and commitment. Really moving to see it. Art restores us whether you create or experience it’. The link’s below in case you missed it.

On an amusing but also serious note, as Christmas fever starts to gain a foothold in some quarters, we learn that Santas might be in short supply this year. The reason? Characteristics associated with Santa include being an older man and overweight, perhaps with underlying health conditions, all high COVID risk factors and some of the regulars have decided to hang up their sleighs this year. Others, who usually make between 75 and 100 ‘appearances’ every Christmas, have only agreed to two this year. ‘And while Santas, like drug dealers, tend to have a loyal and delighted fanbase, they still need to look out for number one’. Some are migrating to virtual appearances, one observing: “I’m more likely to be alive in January’. If I wasn’t approaching the high risk age group myself I’d be tempted to offer my services (I’d have to attach some padding) as I’ve always fancied myself as a Father Christmas – ho ho ho!

Based on recent analysis of food habits during the pandemic, it sounds as if Santas aren’t the only ones needing to be concerned about expansion. The Guardian’s consumer affairs correspondent tells us that although consumption of fruit and vegetables rose across Europe, ‘comfort-seeking Britons have eaten and drunk their way through more unhealthy snacks, alcohol and ‘tasty treats’ than their peers elsewhere in Europe’. The findings emerged from a study carried out by a consortium of leading European universities, led by Aarhus University in Denmark and ten countries were surveyed: Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Romania, Spain, Sweden and the UK. There were several very positive findings, though, such as more than a third (35%) saying buying locally produced food had become more important to them during the pandemic and 87% reporting that they were very likely to continue supporting local shops.

Finally, on its consumer page, The Week tells us where to find ‘unusual online courses’, including a wilderness bushcraft course, two hour sessions on clowning skills from the Online Clown Academy (tutor one B Johnson?), learning how to whistle with your fingers (always wanted to do that) and YouTube’s LockPickingLawyer, comprising hundreds of videos explaining ‘how to open all sorts of locks, including padlocks and even safes’. Plenty to keep us occupied for months on end, unless the police find a way of taking the lock picking channel down first! The US-based ‘lawyer’ cautions: It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: do not use any of the information presented in my videos for illegal purposes’.

Sunday 29 November

Weeks continue to be so eventful that it can be difficult not to let the latest onslaught eclipse important developments occurring at the start. All discussions and decisions have to be seen in the context of the latest sobering statistics: a further 696 coronavirus deaths were announced on Wednesday, the highest UK daily total since 5 May, but statistics are disputed because of the methodology for calculating them. One tweet asserted: ‘We should recognise that Covid-19 is linked to around 75,000 UK deaths since mid March, not the wholly fictitious government number of 52,147. The BBC and others should stop using that figure. The fact it is written down daily on a government website doesn’t make it true’.

The announcement earlier in the week that Christmas wasn’t ‘cancelled’ came as a relief to some and alarming to others, who don’t understand the obsession with Christmas and worry about the potential for a third wave in January. A wag tweeted: ‘Classic…. first the government admits it will break the law in a ‘limited and specific way’. Now we can celebrate Christmas in a ‘limited but cautious way’. Dr Julian Tang, clinical virologist at the University of Leicester, got it in one: “I do not think SAGE will have evidence to show that enhanced mixing is going to be beneficial in terms of stopping the virus from spreading, if anything it will increase the virus spread … The reason that the government and Sage are … giving this amnesty of five days is more of a psychosocial, emotional side of what Christmas means to people’. Meanwhile, widespread non-compliance with restrictions seems likely, with little policing to prevent it. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘Yet again the government tries to have it both ways and give itself a get out clause: restrictions eased over Christmas to appease rebellious backbenchers but still cautioning people ‘to be very careful when making Christmas plans’. So it’s our fault if it goes wrong’.

The Christmas debate has revealed the stark divide between those desperate to see their families at Christmas, citing mental health and loneliness, etc and those who plead for patience and eschewing contact until it’s safe. It raises once again the old conundrum of instant versus delayed gratification.

The Guardian’s John Crace offered a witty analysis of the PM’s performance on Monday (‘Tiers of a clown as Boris Johnson’s video link falls down), an attempt, he suspects, to distract attention from the Priti Patel bullying fallout. Seizing on the illogicality of the ‘rules’, (‘Tier 3 would more or less be like the current national lockdown apart from the bits that wouldn’t’), it was felt to be ill-considered and smacking too much of unhealthy compromise: ‘It all felt pretty much like something that had been cobbled together on the back of a fag packet in cabinet to fit in with what the libertarian wing of the Tory party might accept, rather than something that was based on hard scientific evidence’. But our PM is forever optimistic, despite now citing Easter, rather than Christmas as originally suggested, as a time when all this might be over, relying heavily on the vaccine. ‘Though this had to kept hush-hush for now, because if the coronavirus got wind of any relaxations in measures it could seek to take advantage by working overtime and leaving many elderly relatives dead in January and February. There again, it’s been a long old year for Covid-19 as well, so maybe the virus could do with a four-day break too’.

Following the PM’s protracted IT problems, Matt Hancock was left to pick up the questions, until the PM reappeared, only to lapse into embarrassing nonsense that we must hope the foreign media weren’t observing. ‘Johnson happily went into a string of lazy metaphors – “the drumming hooves of the cavalry coming over the hill”, “Tis the season to be jolly, but also the season to be jolly careful” – before lapsing into rhyme with “squeeze the disease”. Not for the first time, it was left to the scientists to remind everyone to basically ignore the prime minister and to listen to them instead’.

The week has been a build-up to Thursday’s announcement of the new tier system to replace lockdown on 2 December, and it’s a shock to see the Metro’s map showing the country mostly allocated to Tiers 2 and 3, very few to Tier 1. Many southerners have been relieved to find themselves in 2 but those now in 2 who had been in 1 have reacted angrily at such a hike in restrictions. There’s been vociferous annoyance in some areas at what seems to them the unreasonable lumping together of areas with very different levels of infection, for example in Kent. Our PM, who has now developed a fine line in cringe worthy patter (‘squeeze the disease’), has now excelled himself with ‘your tier is not your destiny’, dangling the carrot that tiers may change when they’re reviewed.

He has frequently demonstrated his difficulty in facing up to challenging situations but is now stuck between a rock and a hard place – scientists advising caution and not supporting Christmas relaxation on one side and the Covid Recovery Group of MPs firmly opposed to lockdown and restrictions on the other. It will surely be embarrassing for him needing to rely on Labour to get these measures through, except typically, he is now trying to buy off the rebels by offering more reviews. The Times says: ‘…It is hard to see Mr Johnson making any substantive concessions to his MPs. The tiers will become law, even if it has to be with Labour votes, and it makes sense to take a political hit now in the expectation that it will all be forgiven in the spring once a vaccine arrives and the NHS has got safely through the winter’. It remains to be seen whether, given the anger engendered by this tier allocation, the Times’s prediction will prove accurate. ‘Ultimately, the public are still supportive of restrictions and astonishingly understanding about the curtailment of their freedoms. Only if this changes will Mr Johnson have real cause to worry’.

As usual, Matt Hancock didn’t escape John Crace’s attention this week, this time focusing on his performance at the Health and Social Care Select Committee, chairman one Jeremy Hunt (as erstwhile Health Secretary quite some conflict of interest there). ‘There must be many times when Matt Hancock wonders what he has done in a previous life to deserve his present one. Come to think of it, there are many times when most of us must wonder what we have done in a previous life to deserve him’. The interrogation was supposed to be about ‘lessons learned’, which the government seems to struggle with the very idea of: it seems that, despite the clear trajectory of errors and misjudgements since March, in the collective ministerial mind nearly everything has been done well.  

‘…..we never found out whether he had learned his lesson in hubris, and would never again allow his ambition to exceed his capabilities. Just when the country needed a really able Health Secretary, we’ve got someone whose enthusiasm and patter would have seen him rise to be the manager of an upmarket car showroom’. Crace describes the ‘decidedly tetchy’ exchanges between Hunt and Hancock (predictable bit of antler clashing) on the subject of ‘the science’. ‘Hunt asked Hancock if he had always followed the science. “I prefer to say that we were always guided by the science,” Matt said.

“But you did used to say you were following the science,” Hunt observed. “I was merely being colloquial on those occasions,” Hancock snapped. Now we were slipping down a semantic rabbit hole. One in which it was unclear if the government was following the science when it got things right and was guided by the science when it screwed up. Or vice versa’.

After the ‘jaw dropping’ statement ‘One of the lessons we’ve learned is that you must hit the disease hard and hit it early’, Hancock apparently began to demonstrate his confusion about the pros and cons of circuit breakers and lockdowns. ‘By now it was again unclear whether Matt was following the science or being guided by it. Or whether he was following the incompetence or being guided by it’.

Meanwhile, heavy media coverage of various vaccines has now revealed (you couldn’t make it up) that the government tried, unsuccessfully, to get the Oxford University/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine containers labelled with an image of the union jack in order to counter Scottish nationalism. Hospitals have been told to prepare for vaccine rollout in the first half of December. It’s surely a significant concern that in addition to its regular work, the NHS has been ‘tasked’ with the rollout, apparently without government help, enabling ministers again to abdicate responsibility if problems occur. Care home directors are up in arms that residents will not now be amongst the first to receive the Pfizer vaccine (as promised in September, along with NHS staff), ostensibly because of problems associated with transporting the vaccine, which loses efficacy if moved more than four times. This Pfizer vaccine, although it’s first off the starting blocks, does seem a somewhat delicate flower, including having to be kept consistently at low temperatures, not to mention being transported from Belgium post Brexit.

It looks more likely residents will get the Oxford/AstraZeneca one. ‘Unlike the Pfizer vaccine, it does not need to be frozen at -70C to -80C and can be stored in normal fridges and easily moved around by GPs, nurses and health visitors administering jabs in locations such as care homes’. And now our cup runneth over – top of the news is that Nadhim Zahawi (as well as retaining his business portfolio) will take responsibility for vaccine rollout, reporting to Matt Hancock. How long before we hear that some private sector crony, facilitated by the multitasking minister, has been commissioned to transport and distribute the vaccine?

As QC Jolyon Maugham and his Good Law Project continue to challenge the government in the courts on the award to cronies of pandemic-related contracts and inappropriate appointments like that of Dido Harding to head up Test and Trace, we have to wonder who will be awarded the contracts to run the 42 vaccination centres and to transport the vaccine. We can no longer, if we ever could, assume this will be carried out fairly or transparently. As if from a parallel universe, the government’s legal department told the Good Law Project that ‘they were not civil service roles so fell outside the requirements for full and open competition’. They then praised the administrative abilities and experience of those chosen, dismissed claims of indirect discrimination and declared that the case is ‘unnecessary and will soon be academic’. It’s a mistake for the government to assume, as they’ve done with the Dominic Cummings and Priti Patel rows, that the ‘matter is closed’ because to many, such examples are further nails in the coffin of trust in our leaders.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Spending Review naturally generated keen interest but further anger in some quarters, freelancers again not benefiting, nothing for those with disabilities and the cut in the foreign aid budget. Fears of massive unemployment prompted a £4.3bn package of support to help the unemployed find work, including a £2.9bn Restart scheme designed to help with job hunting. But it also comes with a public sector pay freeze, which seems appalling when we consider how so many of these workers have kept going on the frontline throughout. Sunak said ‘The Covid economic emergency has only just begun’ and that the £280bn spent tackling the pandemic in the current financial year would be followed by a further £55bn of spending in 2021-22, to include substantial funds for testing, PPE equipment and vaccines; £3bn to help the NHS reduce its routine caseload backlog; and £2bn to subsidise the railways.

 ‘The shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, accused the government of squandering public money on an industrial scale during the crisis and attacked the decision to freeze public sector pay. ‘Key workers who willingly took on so much responsibility during this crisis, are now being forced to tighten their belts. In contrast there’s been a bonanza for those who have won contracts from this government’. It prompts the question again about what jobs are actually available and which ones will become permanently ‘unviable’, increasing calls for a Universal Basic Income. Shocking that this lockdown and other restrictions have the economy on course for the worst contraction in three centuries and unprecedented peacetime borrowing, inducing a sense of helpless resignation in those not in a position to do anything about it and probably also those who do. Public anxiety will be ratcheted up every time we see evidence of our leaders out of their depth.

We hear more and more allusions to it, for example during radio interviews, and it seems people are beginning to grasp the extent to which their mental wellbeing has been undermined as a result of the profoundly unwelcome changes and uncertainty we’ve all had to confront since March, some much worse hit than others. The Guardian’s Marina Hyde drills down into some of the reasons for this – poor communication, unrealistic promises and inadequate management of expectations from the top. ‘From the very start of this pandemic, the Prime Minister has confirmed he is temperamentally unsuited to delivering bad news. Instead, he has opted to deliver bad news hopelessly belatedly, and good news self-defeatingly prematurely. The effect is to make people feel constantly cheated, even when the news is better than might have been expected had their expectations been managed more fairly or reasonably’.

On Tory disillusionment, she observes: ‘Naturally, there is a certain irony in seeing Tory MPs who voted for Johnson now outraged to discover that he won’t tell them the truth. Had you given a look to camera this morning every time an MP said something like “the prime minister needs to be straight with people”, you’d have had whiplash before breakfast….Much worse are the ones still quietly making excuses for his character failings, like he’s some special case….. Yet hope is hugely important, now more than at any time this past year, and a better leader – even an adequate one – should be able to inspire without misleading’.

Sir Norman Lamb, former coalition care minister, is one of the latest to call the government out on its lack of attention to mental health. Despite the government constantly saying it’s put ££ more into this area, it’s never enough and goes no way for compensating for the cuts made over the years during a time of rising demand. Lamb has joined a group of 18 former care ministers to call for more funding for social care, which naturally can’t be separated from health services. (While he welcomes the £500m expected for NHS mental health support in the Spending Review, he stresses it must be accompanied by extra funds for social care). A parliamentary select committee report estimated the social care shortfall in England alone was at least £7bn a year, to fund increasing needs of elderly and disabled people and, crucially, to improve pay and skills for care workers.

‘Lamb wants more acknowledgment of Covid’s lasting impact on people’s mental health and is campaigning with consultant clinical psychologist Warren Larkinfor the UK government to introduce a resilience taskforce. They have written an open letter to the health and social care minister, Matt Hancock, backed by a group of more than 80 experts, outlining why such a taskforce is vital to protect people’s mental health and social wellbeing…….On the issue of unfairness, Lamb is concerned that Covid is widening existing inequality: “There’s a sense of a growing divide. People who are financially secure are fine, and particularly young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are the most vulnerable as a result of this [pandemic], and that’s what worries me most…You can do so much to improve people’s lives and give people the chance of a happy life – and that is ultimately what government should be about.” This seems a very important statement, because we do hear ministers saying they’re about ‘improving people’s lives’ while pursuing numerous policies designed to do precisely the opposite.

Although the mental health impacts of domestic violence are now better understood, it’s clear there’s still quite some way to go. During the pandemic the situation has worsened because of lockdown and related stresses, ripples spreading out from victims, perpetrators, their families and the wider community, not to mention the costs involved. Now Nicole Jacobs, the first commissioner for domestic abuse for England and Wales, who will have significant powers once the domestic abuse bill becomes law early next year, has spoken out about the urgency needed to address femicide – the killing of women by men. The Femicide Census showed that over a 10-year period (2009-18), 1,425 women were killed by men. ‘One woman died, on average, every three days. Twenty men killed twice’. She criticises the ‘postcode lottery’ and lack of coordinated response of agencies. It’s also been found that when women speak out about their abuse, they’re often assumed to be liars. As Domestic Abuse Commissioner, her powers will allow her to obtain information from public bodies, make recommendations and to expect the authorities to respond within 56 days. It’s some indication of the scale of the problem that so far none of the leaders of the main political parties had commented on the census and the rate of femicide. We’re not told to what extent the new role will also cover male victims of abuse and if the powers extend to enforcing public bodies’ response to information requests – it’s hobbled if it’s toothless.

While some are rightly calling for some kind of public acknowledgement of and memorial for all those who have died from Covid, the Guardian profiles ‘an exclusive members’ club none of us wanted to join’. The closed Facebook group of 2,000 bereaved people is described as ‘a secret society… a place where the bereaved can drop the ‘just about OK face’ they manage in public and let the crumbling face of grief show’. Society as a whole still struggles with confronting the issues of death and dying, as shown by excellent documentaries like the series Dame Joan Bakewell presented for Radio 4 – ‘We need to talk about death’ – but Covid death is experienced differently by those bereaved by it. ‘They speak with a raw frankness about the reality of their loved ones’ deaths rarely heard in the national Covid conversation, for example, the anguish of sealed coffins and not being able to dress the deceased. And there is a powerful feeling they are out of step with the rest of the country as it obsesses over tiers and Christmas gatherings that seem to many “insane”. It is as if society, in a kind of collective fight-or-flight mode, remains in denial of the pain caused by Covid deaths’.

One member confided that she split from her boyfriend of 18 months because ‘he questioned my father’s death and said it couldn’t possibly be Covid as it didn’t exist’. Another spoke about her husband’s death in April. ‘Ten chairs were spaced out in the crematorium and it felt surreal and impersonal. There were no family hugs outside whilst I collapsed in grief … the darkness that swept over me, the shock that I would never hold my husband ever again’. Another captures the abject loneliness of this experience: ‘Sometimes it feels like you’re living in an alternate reality to others…To them it’s been disruptive and difficult but to us it’s been world-shattering’. The public facing Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK group is calling for a judge-led public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic and for funding for bereavement counselling. Let’s see what happens as such measures seem the very least that can be done for these people.

Finally, on an artistic note, ‘important but divisive’ artist Maggi Hambling caused some controversy with her recently unveiled statue of feminist Mary Wollstonecraft on North London’s Newington Green. It took ten years to raise the required £143,000, and although the plaque says it’s ‘for’ Wollstonecraft, not ‘of’ her, feminists and other critics have lambasted the nude representation, described by Hambling as ‘everywoman’, (‘clothes would have restricted her’). It was felt that a man would not have been represented naked and apparently some feminists have been covering up the statue and ‘knitting her a tiny cardigan’. Having seen the recent documentary about Hambling on the BBC, I can well imagine the feisty and maverick Hambling would give critics as good as she got. At least it’s good that, whether or not we favour this memorial, it’s meant Mary Wollstonecraft has come much more to public attention than would possibly have been the case with a more conventional statue. At the end of the article below you can see a link to the short Facebook film made as a substitute for an official launch.

Sunday 22 November

As bad news and government blunders continue to come thick and fast, the Office for National Statistics tells us that the latest weekly count of COVID deaths in England and Wales (week ending 6 November) showed a rise of 40%, the highest since May. Taking just one day as an example,  Thursday saw 22,915 new cases and 501 deaths and now, shockingly, such figures are almost normalised because we’re so used to hearing them. So called ‘excess deaths’ were shown to be 14.3% higher than the 5 year average for this month, and deaths in hospitals, private homes and care homes were all, predictably, above normal levels. The Times estimates that there have been 74,000 excess deaths across the UK since early March. [‘Excess deaths are considered one of the best measures of the impact of the pandemic, because they will capture deaths that were due to coronavirus but not recognised as such, and deaths indirectly caused by disruption to other healthcare’].

As the fallout from last weekend’s no 10 turmoil continues to make itself felt, the supreme yet highly damaging irony of the PM having to self-isolate because of what was clearly insufficient observance of COVID safety procedures inside Downing Street ensured that, once again, Boris Johnson had a temporary reprieve from his grand ‘reset’ plan and from having to appear in person at Prime Minister’s Questions. His conviction of ‘being as fit as a butcher’s dog’ came in for some derision on social media: one wag tweeting: ‘My local butcher has a cat. Had to get rid of the dog as it kept stealing sausages and disappearing for days’. In the wake of the Scottish devolution blunder, another said: ‘Boris Johnson may be isolating but he can still use Zoom. Instead, he sends out Robert Jenrick, a minister reeking of corruption, to defend his appallingly stupid remarks on devolution. If Johnson is a “butcher’s dog” he’s one that prefers to cower in his kennel’.

The BBC seems to be colluding with the government on shielding Test and Trace head Dido Harding from scrutiny and also avoiding coverage of the staggering £12bn spent on private sector pandemic-related contracts, underpinned by the worst examples of cronyism. Fortunately for us, Channel 4 is made of stronger stuff and its Dispatches revealed (news to some, who maybe don’t read newspapers or follow politics) how extensive and damaging this cronyism has been. Viewers were told of the findings of the parliamentary spending monitor (the National Audit Office): ‘PPE suppliers with political connections were directed to a “high-priority” channel for UK government contracts where bids were 10 times more likely to be successful…More than half (£10.5bn) of contracts relating to the pandemic were awarded without competitive tender…’. The NAO also found that some paperwork documenting why suppliers had been selected was missing, and that in some examples, contracts had only been drawn up after the companies had already started the work.

Having discovered that the main contractor, Serco, had sub-contracted testing to a number of other companies, the presenter was unable to find out from them which companies were involved. So much for transparency when this is public money. Perhaps the most alarming discoveries, though, were made by the undercover reporter at one of the testing labs, Randox, who found very lax procedures in operation, including faulty testing kits and leaking samples, besides evidence (strongly denied by Serco) of private samples being prioritised. An expert biologist invited to comment on operations at the Randox Lab said: ‘The potential for contamination here is quite significant….it’s a shocking failure’.

As one viewer tweeted: ‘We paid a world beating price for a barely functioning Track and Trace. The only thing “world – beating” about this government is the breathtaking corruption and cronyism’. Independent SAGE’s Professor Anthony Costello said : ‘The revelations from C4 Dispatches about failings in test and trace by Randox, Serco, sub-contracted companies and the role played by Harding, Hancock, and the PM are breath-taking. It amounts to criminal negligence, pure and simple’. It therefore beggars belief that Randox was given a further 6 month £347m contract despite some of its failings having come to light. As the days pass, it really does seem that, as far as the government is concerned, anything goes. An example of the seeming obliviousness to standards of conduct in public life was the revelation that the Conservative MP Owen Paterson, paid £100,000 a year to act as a consultant for Randox, was involved in a call between the company and James Bethell, the health minister responsible for COVID testing supplies.

Meanwhile, Brexit negotiations continue to rumble on, neither side seeming to acknowledge that if anyone involved tests positive, as they now have, the negotiations will need to be extended. Likely to rumble on into January and beyond is President Trump’s continuing refusal to concede, an embarrassment not only for him but the entire country. Yet some are seeing signs of concession in Trump’s newly silvery locks – gone is the blond quiff. As widely predicted, Trump seems determined to cause as much disruption as he possibly can before 20 January, still contesting the election result and inciting others to do the same, firing his defence secretary, Mark Esper, and even considering a missile strike on Iran which he had to be ‘talked out of’. No wonder House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said: ‘The abrupt firing of Secretary Esper is disturbing evidence that President Trump is intent on using his final days in office to sow chaos in our American Democracy and around the world’.

Our Prime Minister’s most recent challenge, though, which he has predictably bottled with damaging and seemingly unconsidered consequences, is dealing with the delayed report of the Cabinet Office inquiry into bullying allegations made against Home Secretary Priti Patel. It’s scarcely credible, that having sat on this report for months, the PM has chosen to reject the findings (of evidence she had broken the ministerial code), instead giving her his ‘full support’. What does this remind you of? Such short-termism, aiming for some temporary relief at not having to replace her, is surely likely to have a marked downside: the inquiry head, Sir Alex Allan, immediately resigned; like the Cummings Barnard Castle fiasco it will further reduce compliance with government ‘rules’; and it will convey the message that bullying, which can have catastrophic effects on victims’ mental health, is somehow ok, especially if it’s perceived to ‘get results’. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: ‘Yet again, the prime minister has been found wanting when his leadership has been tested’. As for the suggestion that no official complaints had been made so Patel wasn’t aware she had anything to address, this was scotched by former top civil servant Sir Philip Rutnam, who said he had repeatedly advised her that she must not shout or swear at staff and that she must treat them with respect.

By giving Patel his ‘full support’, the PM has clearly learnt nothing from the Barnard Castle backlash, and his role as ‘sole arbiter’ of the ministerial code is like putting Saddam Hussein in charge of the Nobel Peace Prize. As for Patel’s ‘apology’, the wording was extraordinary, indicating no understanding of bullying. It’s about much more than ‘upsetting people’ – it can affect their mental health to such an extent that suicides have resulted from it. We understand that Conservatives were instructed to rally around the Home Secretary and many have predictably stepped up to that plate, tweeting one after another. This won’t be easy for them, as former Conservative Party co-chair James Cleverly found on Question Time, suggesting that Patel expected people to ‘work hard’, again indicating poor understanding of what bullying actually is. Excusing an act described as ‘unintentional’ flies in the face of recognised criteria, which make clear that the perception of the victim is the crucial factor, not that of the perpetrator. So now the PM ‘considers the matter closed’? Good luck with that.

There’s naturally been much debate in the media about this, some contributors demonstrating further misunderstandings about bullying, excuses including expressing ‘frustration’ is ok because it’s a tough job (no – it’s up to individuals, especially in managerial positions, to self-regulate and not immediately project their anger externally); people need to ‘toughen up’ (ditto, and why should people accept disrespectful treatment?); people are lucky to have a job (implying this means preparedness to put up with anything) and a common one, ‘they’ve always been alright with me’ (no grasp of the specific relational dynamics and power balance, big difference between being an employee, which encourages dependency and a constituent, for example). A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘It’s barely credible that during AntiBullying Week 2020 Boris Johnson has put back by years progress on tackling bullying – by not sacking Priti Patel he’s effectively legitimised workplace bullying’.

The Guardian’s Marina Hyde, in an article trending on Twitter, succinctly calls out some of the discrepancies and disconnects in the Home Secretary’s conduct. ‘While Priti Patel would snitch on you for having seven people in your back garden, we do know she wouldn’t call the police if she saw her neighbours breaking international law – in fact she’d vote for it in the House of Commons…..And she certainly wouldn’t “take personal responsibility” for behaviour for which she was personally responsible. Why bother? It’s certainly not required by her boss, who doesn’t even take personal responsibility for an unspecified number of his own children’.

On the principle of this blog, that this decline in trust leads to further anxiety and the mental health burden, ‘Every case like this chips away at the remaining vestiges of respect people have for politicians…..Priti Patel is, in many ways, the perfect politician for an age when “taking responsibility” means precisely the opposite. It is a great mantra of the right that individuals need to take responsibility for their lives, but this is a government of people who steadfastly refuse to’. Warner also makes the key point that discounting bullying by describing it as ‘unintentional’ has serious consequences for the wider justice system. And the coup de grace: ‘Political public life has become so unmoored from the earthly sphere that ministers need no longer fear the same consequences as the people they are elected to serve. Or, to put it another way: shame is for little people’.

It wouldn’t have come as a surprise to many that amid one U-turn and blunder after another, the government sought to shore up its irreparably damaged image by announcing a massive uplift in defence spending, a four year £16.5bn increase. Such a macho gesture is undermined by the extreme strains on public finances due to the pandemic, the likelihood of billions to be cut from the foreign aid budget, freeze on public sector pay and deciding not to extend the £20-a-week increase to universal credit payments beyond April, despite the pandemic and rising child poverty. The old adage ‘all fur coat and no knickers’ comes to mind. One of the interesting, if strikingly hypocritical, aspects to emerge (pots and kettles?) was Cummings (apparently pro defence spending but anti MOD waste) writing in his blog that the procurement process ‘has continued to squander billions of pounds, enriching some of the worst corporate looters and corrupting public life via the revolving door of officials/lobbyists’.

What caused some amusement at the start of the week, though it’s a serious issue as it constitutes yet another avoidance of scrutiny, was the ending of ministers’ 201 day boycott of Piers Morgan’s Good Morning Britain programme. ‘Where have you been?’ Piers began. Matt Hancock was said to be ‘left squirming’ when Morgan demanded that he resign because of the government’s response to the pandemic. We’re told that Morgan’s lambasting of Hancock generated 84 complaints to media regulator Ofcom. ‘Given that we now have over 50,000 deaths in this country, which is the worst death toll in Europe, why are you still Health Secretary? Why haven’t you handed in your resignation?’ We could well wonder how many more viewers were happy with this interview, since ministers often get such an easy ride on the BBC.

Guardian sketchwriter John Crace laid into Hancock, initially for the GMB interview and not grasping the magnitude of the mismanagement. ‘The health secretary is Boris Johnson’s go-to Door Matt. A person who commands almost as little authority inside the cabinet as he does outside. The harder he tries to become one of the in-crowd, the less respect he gets from his colleagues. The pathos is almost unbearable. He is the loser’s loser. …..With the UK having locked down too late, old people kicked into care homes without a coronavirus test and the UK having the highest death rate in Europe, the health secretary’s one regret was that he hadn’t allowed more people to attend funerals?’ But steady on, John.  Matt Hancock had done three interviews before 9 am that day, so perhaps was feeling a bit overwhelmed.

On Hancock’s heading up the press conference later the same day, talking up the recently publicised Moderna vaccine: ‘We have today secured 5m doses’ he said proudly, as the rest of us wondered why Kate Bingham, the head of the vaccine taskforce, had failed to spot Moderna as one of the six most promising drug trials. Presumably, one day we will get an answer from the PR consultants to whom she awarded a £670k contract. These were still early days, Door Matt murmured. But we must nurture the candle of hope, he said, sounding like an Elton John tribute act. The Prime Minister self-isolating was a sign that the rules applied to everyone, he said, overlooking that if Boris had obeyed the face mask and 2-metre rules when meeting Conservative MPs then he almost certainly wouldn’t have needed to self-isolate in the first place’.

Not content with this, Crace then turned his attention to his other favourite target, the Prime Minister and his debut PMQs performance delivered via Zoom. ‘Boris appeared in front of a hastily erected Downing Street backdrop in what sounded like an echoey basement – either that or no one had thought to provide the crumpled Boris with a microphone and he had had to make do with his infant son Wilf’s baby alarm. Whichever it was, I’ve seen more professionally shot hostage videos’. Prime Minister’s Questions sounded to have been rather lacklustre on both sides, Keir Starmer preoccupied by the ongoing Jeremy Corbyn issues. Crace thought it only really came to life when the questions about PPE contract cronyism visibly rattled the PM. ‘So it had only been thanks to Tory ministers and MPs coming through with names of friends of friends who might be able to help out for a sweetener of a few million that the country had been saved. If only Labour MPs had shown an equal willingness to compromise their ethics and come up with some suppliers who would fail to supply usable equipment then the UK might have survived the pandemic even more successfully’.

Debate on the plight of people unable to visit residents in care homes continues, especially given the approach of Christmas and with many unable to visit since March. The government guidance is regarded by many as inhumane and impracticable, those distressed residents with dementia unable to understand why their families aren’t visiting them. What’s been particularly highlighted is the effects on the mental health both of residents and their families, many having seen the resident deteriorate considerably between visits, if these are allowed at all. Radio 4’s You and Yours consumer programme has regularly featured heartrending interviews with family members and there’s also been the high profile case of police involvement where a woman removed her mother from a care home. Of course the government should be concerned about spreading the virus if visits are freely allowed, but this is an overreaction from their declared stance of having thrown ‘a protective ring around our care homes’ early in the pandemic when potentially COVID infected patients were being discharged from hospital into those homes.

This once again raises the problems associated with many of these homes being in the private sector and not being indemnified (unlike NHS services) by their insurance policies should a COVID outbreak occur. Fortunately, the government finally seems to be planning how visits could take place by Christmas by facilitating visitor testing. Let’s hope this actually happens generally, not just in pilot areas. Fiona Carragher, research officer at the Alzheimer’s Society, said: ‘…But we worry it is too little too late for the desperate families who have been waiting eight months to visit their loved ones. The promise of care home visitors being at the front of the line to get more ring-fenced tests as the new ones become available must fast become reality. We can’t afford for the heartache and deaths to continue’.

Meanwhile, there’s been a great deal happening on the vaccines front, the Moderna one sounding a bit more promising in some ways a it doesn’t need keeping at such low temperatures. But it sounds likely, as the government has only secured a proportion of the doses needed, that we will be relying on a portfolio of vaccines, all with pros and cons. Bringing up the rear very quickly, by the sound of it, is the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine, which could also be available ‘in limited quantities’ before the end of this year. But, despite the Health Secretary’s bullish confidence that he’s ‘tasked’ the NHS with devising an implementation strategy within the next three weeks, there’s the usual hallmark of ministers’ assumptions and a number of GPs have voiced serious concerns about their capacity to roll out the vaccine as well as keeping up with their other NHS work. A Bristol GP, Zara Aziz, said: ‘And if we start inoculating patients as early as next month, we GPs will be busier than ever. As we navigate uncharted waters, the government needs to take a proactive approach alongside NHS staff for this to work and end the pandemic’. This gets the message across: it’s not enough for Matt Hancock to say ‘I’ve tasked the NHS….I know they can do it’, etc: GPs need government help to achieve this, not just a arm’s length approach which can later lend itself to blaming NHS staff if it doesn’t go according to plan.

Christmas and what to do about restrictions continue to divide opinion, some focusing on the mental health effects of lockdown and that older relatives could suffer much from not seeing their families, and others seeing this as folly, Christmas doesn’t matter that much and we should postpone celebrations till the pandemic is more under control. Now an Opinium poll for the Observer has found that the pro-lockdown argument is prevailing, 54% over 33%. The same poll suggests another split, this one on whether COVID vaccinations should be compulsory: 42% for and 45% against,  Two thirds (66%) of adults in the UK would take a vaccine if it became available and were recommended by the government for people like them.

We’re told that 42 vaccination centres will be opening and that the government is actively working to tackle antivax misinformation, but it seems they are stopping short of taking down offending websites. It’s alarming the number of people who subscribe to conspiracy theories about these vaccines: on Radio 5 Live this week there was a useful programme featuring clinicians who debunked one after another, several callers having been convinced that the vaccine ‘changes your DNA’. But the main concern isn’t primarily these people, according to one article, but the one in 5 who are naturally cautious, ‘women more likely than men to believe it hasn’t been tested thoroughly enough’. ‘What really keeps public health experts awake at night isn’t a handful of people convinced that Bill Gates wants to inject them with invisible microchips, nor the Russian bots now amplifying their loopy theories. It’s the ‘vaccine hesitants’…’

Let’s hope some of the vast sums spent on tackling the pandemic can allocated to producing high quality patient information which does what it should – explaining in Plain English the benefits, risks and side effects so that patients are enabled to make an informed choice.

If you haven’t heard it you might be interested that there’s another succinct and timely profile of a public figure on Radio 4 – the Prime Minister’s new Press Secretary, Allegra Stratton, who’s been one of the victors of the recent number 10 turmoil. She does indeed sound very able but yet again this demonstrates the intertwined nature of political alliances, eg married to the political editor of the Spectator, their best man was Rishi Sunak and they’re godparents to each other’s children.

On a lighter note, The Week references an article in The Economist about the slowing down of the traditional brand globalisation, one bellwether being that ‘no new country has welcomed McDonald’s in four years’. Now apparently there’s a new form of globalisation, the ‘hipster index’, produced by the shipping company MoveHub. Based on ‘design aesthetic’ such as ‘exposed wood and vintage light bulbs’, it’s often manifested in coffee shops, vegan restaurants and independent boutiques. The article points up predictable locations like Brighton, ‘but, judging by the rise of hip coffee shops in places like Kabul, it may only be a matter of time before even ‘conflict-ridden’ cities make the grade’.

Finally, in January an intriguing project will get underway, in which research centres across Europe will collaborate to ‘develop an online encyclopaedia of European smells, including potted biographies of particular odours, together with insights into the emotions and places associated with certain scents’. Many of us will have had the Proustian experience of suddenly being transported back in time because of associations with that time being catalysed by something we’re smelling or sensing in the present. The project recognises how many smells alluded to in literature accrue to items no longer available to us. ‘A key part of the project is to highlight how the meanings and uses of different smells have changed over time, something that shows in the history of tobacco’. ‘Odeuropa’, to cost E2.8m, aims ‘to identify and even recreate the aromas that would have assailed noses between the 16th and early 20th centuries. That information will be used to develop an online encyclopaedia of European smells, including potted biographies of particular odours, together with insights into the emotions and places associated with certain scents. It will [also] include discussions of particular types of noses from the past – the kinds of people for whom smell was significant and what smell meant to them’. Fascinating stuff and two which immediately come to mind are the smell of old books and decaying paper, as witnessed in traditional libraries, these days a rarity, and the whiff of French cigarettes on the Paris Metro.