Sunday 12 July

As the COVID19 death toll reaches 44,798, it’s been another very busy news week, starting with widespread criticism of the PM for appearing to blame care homes for not taking sufficient precautions in the early stages of the pandemic, leading to over 20,000 care home deaths. It was then left yet again to hapless ministers to try to explain what the PM ‘had actually meant’. It must be difficult constantly being called upon to defend the indefensible, with the added burden of constantly having to ‘explain’ (never apologise) for their boss’s ‘misspeaking’. Since it’s emerged how many care home residents, especially those with dementia, have gone into decline during lockdown because of lack of contact from family and others, I wonder how many more deaths there will be if such decline proves irreversible. The horrifying scale of these deaths has made imperative the urgent need for social care reform, one of the main challenges being the fragmentation of the sector (85% of the UK’s 22,000 are homes privately owned).

There’s already proof that rather than the mad rush to restaurants and pubs the government would like to see, especially given its ‘Eat out to help out’ mantra, there’s quite a bit of caution for obvious reasons, such as the continuing lack of a functioning test and trace system. A few weeks ago someone wrote anonymously about their experience in one of these call centres, not getting any proper training or even work. Now another recruit has written a similar piece, again citing tech not working and being paid to refresh their screen every 15 minutes: ‘…. NHS test and trace has been sold as ‘a world-beating system’ but everything that could go wrong has. I hope that when this is all over, there will be a massive public and independent inquiry to find out how the UK got it so wrong’. The government continues to insist that it makes decisions according to the science. A sceptic tweeted: ‘When the government says it’s ‘acting on best scientific advice’  read…. whatever scientific advice we can find that best suits our agenda’.

Cancer is another area where deaths are going under the radar (though perhaps less so now following this week’s Panorama coverage), due to delayed or interrupted treatment or undiagnosed symptoms due to patients not feeling safe going to hospital or trying relieve pressure on the NHS. The Health Care Research Hub (HDR UK) for Cancer estimated that as many as two million routine appointments, including breast, bowel and cervical cancer screenings, may have been missed throughout the crisis. Urgent referrals fell by around 60% during the peak and a worst-case scenario estimate could see 35,000 more people dying of cancer by this time next year.

Having long lamented the lack of help for the culture and heritage industries, some were very relieved this week at the announcement of a £1.5 billion rescue package, but others believe it’s too little, too late, far less than other countries are making available. Some arts organisations are already close to being forced into administration. It was striking how many commentators quite rightly said ‘the devil’s in the detail’, and alarming to hear that the details of how to apply for funding will apparently will be posted on the DCMS website ‘within the next few weeks’. This doesn’t exactly convey a sense of urgency. The Guardian arts critic, Michael Billington, wrote an acerbic article in the form of a letter to the Culture Secretary, describing the ‘roadmap’ as ‘worse than useless’, showing no awareness of how the arts actually work. ‘So far the most practical plan for the theatre has come from Sam Mendes, who has made numerous recommendations: increasing the theatre’s tax-relief scheme from 20% to 50%, inviting the government to become theatrical “angels” by investing in productions, challenging the streaming services to put money into an industry from which they directly benefit. Have you spoken to Sir Sam about his ideas? Have you co-opted him onto the cultural renewal taskforce you have set up? Or are you simply fiddle-faddling while Rome burns?’

In a coup de grace, he said: ‘It’s time, Mr Dowden, you faced up to a simple truth: artists know much more about the arts than politicians…..I’ve never met you and I’m ready to believe you are well-intentioned. But I wonder if you have even begun to grasp the scale of the crisis facing the performing arts… Unless you come up soon with a detailed, precise, properly financed plan of action you will go down in history as the politician who presided over the dissolution of the arts in Britain. The only thing one can say for sure is that the show definitely won’t go on’.

https://bit.ly/3fo911j

The Culture Secretary, who presided over Thursday’s press conference, also came in for some mockery at the hands of the Guardian’s parliamentary sketch writer, John Crace, who described him as having ‘the air of a trainee sales assistant on the luxury goods floor of a department store – posh, well-meaning, but not particularly bright’. He was thought to have struggled with journalists’ questions about the science behind the mass reopening of various venues: ‘….by now Oliver was a beaten man. All he could offer was that he was sure the prime minister would never have sanctioned anything that put the public at risk. Er, hello? Have you met Boris?’

An exasperated reader left this comment: ‘Why do they keep lying to us? Every serious epidemiologist acknowledges this is likely a two year (in the best case) – if not four/five year pandemic and there’s a real risk on top of that that Covid becomes endemic and circles the world forever. They’re pedalling false hope, afraid of turning to the country and saying the truth – namely things will not ‘get back to normal’. We need innovation, not a re-hash of the Tories’ 2019 election manifesto…’

https://bit.ly/38MwQ0b

Described as a ‘mini-budget’ or ‘summer statement’, when some commentators thought we needed a full Budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak made a midweek splash, with large sums promised for job creation, job retention, retraining, green recovery, stamp duty cut, VAT cut for the hospitality industry, discounts for eating out and unspecified infrastructure projects. The economic plan to deal with the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis appeared generous at first sight, including funds for employers taking back furloughed workers, a pledge to provide 30,000 new traineeships to get young people in England into work amid fears of mounting unemployment, but there was widespread criticism and some heartrending stories in the media about the thousands of self-employed sole traders, who got nothing. The Guardian has a useful breakdown of how the package amounting to ‘up to £30 billion’ will be allocated. The effect of Sunak’s ‘eat out to help out’ measure was slightly dented by his smiling appearance in a pub as a ‘waiter’ not wearing a mask and taking plates of food to the wrong customers, plus the restriction of this discount to £10 per head and availability Monday-Wednesday only. Owners of more upmarket establishments and those running craft ale pubs have been angered by the clear favouring of large pub chains.

https://bit.ly/38Nyz5z

In a development which will please followers of the #NotmovingontillDomisgone Twitter hashtag, we hear of moves to get the Metropolitan Police to investigate, following the decision of Durham Police to take no action against Dominic Cummings for his lockdown breaches. Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor for north-west England, has been spearheading efforts to get the issues properly investigated, having lost his brother to coronavirus in April. Afzal’s lawyers have pointed out that the Durham Police investigation only focused on Cummings’ movements in County Durham and not on why he left London when his wife was suffering coronavirus symptoms and a day before he fell ill himself. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, emerges from this attempt to initiate a wider exploration, especially given the political sensitivity involved. One thing’s for sure – Afzal won’t give up in a hurry.

Radio 4’s File on 4 this week focused on the widely predicted mental health ‘pandemic’ to come, affecting both those who’ve long experienced mental ill-health and those experiencing it for the first time. The programme explored whether the stress and anxiety of lockdown and of the uncertain future could lead to a national mental health crisis. No doubt about it, I’d say, and not only the UK – most, if not all, countries affected. Looking at mental health services during the crisis, the reporters heard stories of early release from mental health wards and of sudden shifts in how help is provided. A while ago a mental health worker writing anonymously in the Guardian revealed how psychiatric ward staff felt like sitting ducks, with a lack of PPE and with patients who, understandably, were highly anxious and didn’t have the capacity to understand the need for distancing. Crucially, reporters asked the key question as to whether services ‘already stretched to breaking point’ will be able to cope. These services were inadequate before the pandemic and are likely to deteriorate further, unless substantial changes are made to the way mental health services are funded, structured and delivered. The same NHS people are regularly wheeled out for such programmes, always managing to portray a fairly positive view of services which simply isn’t borne out by reality. The first thing that needs to happen, in my view, is the reconfiguration of primary care services, the IAPT (Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies): this is characterised by long waiting lists and the privileging of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which is short-term and doesn’t go beyond symptom control, when what most people need is relational therapy. Primary care is so important because many will first seek help from their GP, not all of whom are clued up about mental health. For relational therapy they will often need to seek private help, which should be a choice, not a necessity because of poor choice of treatment on the NHS. 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000kp64

On the same theme, one of the most alarming things of the last 24 hours is the announcement of the government’s desire and intention for a top-down reorganisation of the NHS, catalysed by the Health Secretary’s ‘frustration’ that too much power lay in the hands of NHS England head Sir Simon Stevens. The government has apparently been exasperated at NHS trusts still not being able to balance their budgets despite ‘record funding’ and the need to get Sir Simon to agree to courses of action rather than being able to initiate it. The description of what’s intended sounds profoundly undemocratic, another example of the centralisation of power of the kind seen in dictatorships. We’re told ‘the prime minister has set up a taskforce to devise plans for how ministers can regain much of the direct control over the NHS they lost in 2012 under a controversial shake-up masterminded by Andrew Lansley, the then coalition government health secretary’. Over the summer this taskforce will present the PM with a set of options to achieve the key goal of reducing NHS operational independence, to be followed by a parliamentary bill. Influential think tank the King’s Fund said: ‘Any large-scale reorganisation of the NHS comes at a high price as they distract and disrupt the service and risk paralysing the system. The last major reorganisation came in the 2012 Lansley reforms. These proved hugely controversial for the coalition government but perhaps worse, they have not stood the test of time’. It’s frustrating and worrying that although some good things are included, such as more integration of services, the disruption mainly seems to be politically motivated and is unlikely to address the shortcomings evident in the area of mental health, to mention just one.

Coinciding with Keir Starmer’s first 100 days as Labour Party Leader, an Opinium poll in the Observer shows that 52% of voters now say they could imagine Starmer inside No 10. Two weeks ago, Opinium found more people cited Starmer as their preferred choice as prime minister (37%) than Boris Johnson (35%). But people seem to be sticking to the view that the government displays more economic competence (42% compared with 26% for Labour). The Guardian points out what a marked change all this is from March, Labour now only four points behind the Tories overall, (Tories on 42%, Labour on 38%) when back then it had been 54% and 28%. This must be due in large part to the dogged, forensic yet polite approach the Labour leader has used with the PM in the Commons, especially at PMQs.

These days we’re hearing more and more about how enjoying nature is good for our mental health, and besides high profile projects like the National Trust’s to reclaim farmland on the White Cliffs of Dover, restoring it to meadowland, there are many local efforts with small patches of land, often based on cooperation between councils and volunteers. This is important work given the context, that in the UK, 97% of wildflower-rich land – seven million hectares – have been lost to modern agricultural and out-of-town developments since the 1940s.Now, there’s a larger scale project, run by conservation charity Bugbear, to restore ‘B-lines’ all over England. Bugbear hopes to help restore and create at least 150,000 hectares of wildflower pathways with the launch this week of its B-lines network for England. B-Lines are defined as ‘a strategically mapped network of existing and potential wildflower habitats that criss-cross the country. The 3km-wide corridors stretch from the coast to the countryside and towns and cities, covering in total some 48,000 sq km of England’. The name is a reference to bees and their importance as pollinators, and the threat to various species including the long-horned bee.

It seems our over-centralising government could learn something from the charity’s approach: since Bugbear started this work 6 years ago, supported by DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), it’s worked with various different partners, statutory and voluntary and private, including councils, wildlife trusts, landowners and highways agencies. The result has been ‘450 hectares of wildflower pathways as stepping stones between fragmented sites’. So a model for success could be what’s displayed here: cooperation, consultation, multi-partner working and preparedness to go local, coupled with the centralised overview enabled by DEFRA.

Finally, you might enjoy this witty ditty from Fascinating Aida member Dilly Keane, about Dominic Cummings – perhaps humour is one of the few ways we can cope with the continued attempts to bury this saga.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0na2Y_74_mk

Sunday 5 July

As we enter the second half of 2020 and the UK COVID 19 death toll passes 44,000, it’s been another busy and dispiriting news week, dominated by the dithering and lack of consultation experienced by the other three UK nations around the ‘air bridges’ and quarantine policy. It makes a nonsense of the alleged ‘four nations policy’ when the Westminster government goes right ahead with what it wants to do, forcing the others to play catch up or look to be dragging their feet. We might now be clearer which countries we’re ‘allowed’ to travel to, some of us missing out on a much-needed break because of widespread cancellations preceding the announcement, but travelling anywhere by plane is still regarded as a considerable health risk.    

Competing for top news slot was so-called Super Saturday yesterday, the Treasury coming in for considerable flak for tweeting (later withdrawn) an exhortation to ‘raise a glass’ to celebrate pubs and restaurants reopening. This reinforced the message that, in government eyes, it really is the economy that matters, sadly ironic when media footage of revellers is directly followed by the updated death toll. Widespread anger and frustration have been expressed at the irresponsible trumpeting of venues reopening, ‘coming out of hibernation’, etc, coupled by the government’s lack of accountability for the possible outcome, not least due to such confusing guidance. Increasingly, we’re witnessing the emergence of a wide spectrum of belief and practice regarding risk: although many will occupy a midway position, at one end there are the very cautious, abiding by every piece of illogical guidance, some barely leaving the house and effectively existing rather than living, and at the other the least risk-averse, desperate to get to pubs and beaches, and careless of the risk this could expose themselves and others to. Some couple, family and friend relationships have been adversely affected by opposing positions taken in a scenario comparable with the Brexit and Scottish independence polarities.

Although there were some reports of rowdiness, it seems the general reaction to Super Saturday has been subdued, and at 11 am yesterday there was a fairly small and dismal-looking gathering outside the local Wetherspoons, the dull weather not helping. One journalist who went to see how things were going in central London’s Soho area reported: ‘…from the early drinkers I spoke to, there were far more expressions of the weariness I recognise in myself than any kind of cheery relief’. It sounds as if the pace quickened quite a bit later. Sunday reactions have been mixed, some revellers keen to justify, perhaps naively, what to some are reckless actions: one said ‘if the government tells us we can do this, then we’re not doing anything wrong’, and a jaundiced-sounding Southampton police officer observed that ‘drunk people can’t and won’t socially distance’ (no surprise there).  

In what must have felt humiliating for the government (if they were capable of feeling it) the Super Saturday trumpeting was dampened somewhat by the need for the Leicester lockdown, increasing the likelihood that this is what we face for some time to come – going in and out of lockdown. But although we have to feel for Leicester folk, this proved helpful in an important way because it forced the government, contrary to its centralist stance on data sharing and control so far, to do what Independent SAGE and other experts have urged for some time: to involve local public health experts. In order for that to happen, the government was forced to share so-called Pillar 2 data (relating to drive-through and self-testing), the reason initially given for not doing so being ‘data protection’. (It’s now well-known that many organisations have misused ‘data protection’ as a tool to legitimise inappropriately asking for data or withholding it). So now it will be interesting to see how things go in Leicester and whether local health experts, deprived of key data until now, can get on top of the spike. They might have their work cut out as stories were circulating about minibuses being hired to drive people to pubs in adjoining areas to ‘celebrate’ Super Saturday, and the decimated police force will only be able to check a proportion of vehicles on major roads.

As if further embarrassment was needed, the PM’s father, Stanley Johnson, was widely lambasted for travelling to Greece, against all official advice, the excuse later wheeled out being to COVID-proof his villa ahead of guests going there. It’s surprising that media-savvy ministers appearing on political programmes seemed unprepared for this question, some sounding quite petulant at being invited to defend the indefensible. A good example of this was on Radio 4 Any Questions, the polite and incisive Green MP Caroline Lucas quizzing housing minister Chris Pincher about it and suggesting that Johnson Senior obviously had a different definition of ‘essential travel’. Maybe people wouldn’t be surprised by his actions, though, if they read his monthly column in Saga Magazine, the style of which smacks of arrogance, eg  boasting about not being stopped from going to the pub and asserting ‘it should have been me’ (as PM). Even if intended as a joke, this could be seen as being in poor taste.

During the week there was marked appreciation of the sense, knowledge and measured tones of Dr Anthony Fauci, the American physician and immunologist who has served as the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. Apparently his long tenure is partly due to his way of plugging away patiently and politely and the fact that he’s managed, unlike so many, to survive the Trump regime, is testament to this. Interviewed on the Today programme, he spoke about the important issue of social responsibility, an alien concept to some and not (as far as I know) taught in schools or universities, let alone consistently nurtured in the home environment. A listener tweeted:

“We need to engender social responsibility in people – particularly young people.” Well said, Dr Anthony Fauci. Not only now, in a time of deadly pandemic. We all need to show social responsibility and social intelligence, all of the time. We need to teach it and learn it’. Along with personal risk management, it could be argued.

The Guardian’s John Crace (parliamentary sketch writer) yet again excelled himself with this piece about the PM’s increasingly poor performance at Prime Minister’s Questions, describing it as the authentic ‘whack a mole’ rather than the inappropriate use of this term for local lockdowns. ‘Every time PM put his head above the parapet in the Commons Keir Starmer clobbered him….. Six times he put his head above the parapet and six times he got clobbered. It was going to take more than a couple of paracetamols to deal with the headache. He was facing an entire afternoon on a morphine drip… There will be plenty of wonderful things,” he said, with characteristic penetration. Boris was left to mouth empty, three-word Classic Dom slogans. And Tory MPs were left to wonder why they had never previously noticed that their emperor had no clothes’.

https://bit.ly/3e8i6tX

At least one thing the beleaguered Prince Andrew has in common with the government is the hope and belief (delusion?) that damaging revelations can be made to go away and stay away. The latest blow to his hope, as he continues in a strange state of royal limbo, is the news of the arrest of former friend Ghislaine Maxwell. US authorities, who arrested her at a ‘luxury hideaway in a small town in New Hampshire’, had her under surveillance for some time. She appeared via video in a US court, charged with alleged sex crimes, conspiracy and perjury involving her late close friend and convicted sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein. Now in custody in New York, she has apparently made it known that she won’t ‘say anything’ about Prince Andrew, but this arrest undoubtedly puts him further in the spotlight. Whereas Andrew and his ‘team’ (who is paying for them, it’s been asked) have said they have regularly agreed to help the US authorities with their enquiries, Geoffrey Berman, the US attorney for the southern district of New York, maintains that Andrew is trying to “falsely portray himself to the public as eager and willing to cooperate” and said that a request to schedule an interview had been ‘repeatedly declined’. So which is it?  One very striking thing is surely the imperious way Prince Andrew suggests he’s willing ‘to help’, perpetuating a sense of innocence and cooperation, rather than the possibility that he may be forced to testify and defend himself against powerful allegations relating to his own conduct besides that of his erstwhile friends.  

It’s good news that libraries are finally opening again, but not as we know them, warns The Guardian, in a piece alerting us to ‘space marshalls at the door and librarians behind perspex screens … ‘. Surely the term ‘space marshall’ makes it sound even more Brave New World than it has to. Although online services have continued throughout, librarians interviewed were very clear that they wanted people through the door and it’s long been the case that libraries function as valuable hubs of community engagement. In a South London library, likely to be replicated elsewhere, ‘returned books will be put into crates and quarantined for 72 hours. As for browsing, there may be a system whereby any books that have been touched and not borrowed have to go into quarantine; it’s still to be decided…’. A key underlying issue is that for many years library services have been subjected to damaging cuts, (26.9% in 10 years), partly seen as an easy target for councils themselves being starved of cash by central government. Unfortunately, the short-termism underlying such cuts is rarely understood by politicians, as in the closure of Sure Start centres. In the longer term such services more than pay for themselves because their benefits have a preventative effect and form part of the social fabric, supporting people and helping to prevent them falling through the cracks.  

Finally, in contrast to the annoyance and frustration of those struggling to obtain refunds for cancelled flights and holidays, there’s welcome and possibly unprecedented news from another quarter altogether. The Sicilian government is offering subsidies amounting to over £68m to tempt visitors to the beautiful and baroque stamping ground (south-east Sicily) of Inspector Montalbano, the detective series penned by Andrea Camilleri. Regarding COVID 19, Sicily has got off fairly lightly, with 281 deaths, yet its economy has been badly hit. The Sicilians are especially keen to attract British tourists (there can’t be many countries feeling the same way), possibly because there’s a substantial fan base here for the BBC4 drama series, currently showing Young Montalbano. Travel companies have responded to this interest by offering Montalbano-themed holidays and it was marvellous, last September, to visit all the filming sites, especially Salvo’s house and Enzo’s restaurant in seaside Punta Secca, besides important towns in the area such as Noto and Modica, famous for its chocolate. It will be interesting to see how this offer is implemented and what the take-up will be. Perhaps one place they won’t need to subsidise is the Montalbano house itself, which can be rented via Airbandb, likely to be heavily in demand by Instagrammers and others as the ultimate show-off destination.

Tuesday 30 June

Another week into less than quasi-lockdown and, ahead of significant easing of restrictions, eg pubs, restaurants, museums and galleries allowed to open from Saturday (badged Independence Day in Cummingsese), government gaffes and errors of judgement continue to come thick and fast. The first of these is choosing Saturday as the day people can finally go to the pub, critics saying this will be much harder to police than a midweek day, not to mention the heightened risks of so many congregating in already crowded venues and the non-distancing effects of alcohol. After the chaotic scenes at some beaches and beauty spots last weekend, the police must be dreading the next spell of hot weather, with the pubs open to boot. Meanwhile, it will be humiliating for the government to have to impose a further lockdown on Leicester because of worrying evidence of a COVID19 spike there. It will be very interesting to see how things go at the weekend, especially as a number of venues (eg some major galleries and museums) have said that although they are allowed to open they won’t be opening due to safety concerns.

On Sunday’s the World This Weekend (Radio 4) philosophy academic Professor Angie Hobbs presented a short essay on the ethics of lockdown and exit from it, which captured the resulting dilemmas and different views adopted. She said ‘both raise some of the toughest ethical challenges I have ever wrestled with in 30 years’. There seems to be a spectrum with extremes at either end – those demonstrating a high degree of risk aversity and preparedness to accept ‘rules’ and those at the other end, possibly confused by and/or contemptuous of the illogical ‘guidance’, doing as they please, not distancing and not wearing masks on public transport. The majority of people will be around the middle of the spectrum or towards the rule-taking end but this still leaves a significant number quite sanguine at putting others’ lives at risk. 

Former PM Theresa May is the latest to severely criticise the decisions made around the departure of Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill (certainly not voluntary, by the sound of it), a potentially damaging one being to separate his responsibilities (Cabinet Secretary and National Security Adviser), making the latter a political appointment, not accountable to the Civil Service – chief Brexit negotiator David Frost. This constellation of events sounds profoundly worrying for our democracy: as one observer commented, what we’re seeing is the ‘dismantling the machinery of democracy when it gets in the way’. This is the way dictatorships operate. Commentators pointed out how ‘furious’ Theresa May sounded about this and it must be worrying for the government when its own ‘side’ criticises their strategy.

It’s common knowledge that for some months Sir Mark had come into conflict Dominic Cummings over Brexit and Whitehall reform. The strategy seems to be ‘don’t bother to work things through with key figures in the ‘democracy machinery’, just get rid’. It’s all very well, after the resignation is safely in the bag, for the PM to be lavish in his praise of Sedwill: “Sir Mark has given incredible service to this country. He came in at a very difficult time. He has seen the government through all sorts of very tough stuff – changes in the premiership, an election, Brexit, dealing with the worst bits of the Covid crisis. He has got a lot more to offer and I am sure he will.”

It can’t be a coincidence that the macho-styled Project Speed, trailed over the preceding days, was announced just after the Sedwill resignation. The PM was interviewed on the new Times Radio, which describes itself as offering ‘balanced, thought-provoking debate with presenter-led, expert analysis of the stories that matter’. He grandiosely alluded to a “Rooseveltian moment” (has the identification with Churchill been relegated now?) of massively increased public spending on infrastructure, envisaging a Roosevelt style New Deal. “We had to put our arms around the UK economy, we had to do the coronavirus job retention scheme, the furlough scheme, all sorts of amazing loans, bounce-back loans and so on, to help businesses, we can’t just now step back.

“So what we’re going to be doing in the next few months is really doubling down on our initial agenda, which was all about investment, if you remember, in infrastructure, in education, in technology, to bring the country together.” There’s now quite a regular stringing together of soundbites like ‘doubling up’ and ‘levelling up’, and as for the ‘arms around the economy’, would these be the same ‘arms’ which flung ‘a protective ring around our care homes’?

With the PM’s emphasis on not going back to austerity and taking a different approach, we have to wonder how genuine and durable this is (will there not be huge tax rises in the future?) and how much can be attributed to an ego-driven signalling of dissociation from the Cameron/Osborne regime. “We really want to build back better, to do things differently, to invest in infrastructure, transport, broadband – you name it.”

The PM also seemed to say some rather tactless and ironic things eg alluding to how ‘lucky’ he was to recover from COVID, ‘thousands of people tragically weren’t so lucky’ (as if about ‘luck’ rather than people dying through mismanaged pandemic strategy) and about ‘the need to tackle the UK’s obesity problem (when he’s admitted his own problems with weight gain)….. ‘We certainly must have a care for the health of our population and we will be happier and fitter and more resistant to diseases like Covid if we can tackle obesity.”

In The Observer, former Labour prime minister and chancellor slated the government’s economic response to Covid-19, accusing it of “dither and delay” and betraying those most in need. He thought there should be a July budget, focusing on “the support and, if necessary, the re-capitalisation of viable British businesses and the prevention of mass unemployment.” Citing various essential items for this budget, such as retraining grants for those forced to change jobs and a speedy and comprehensive employment and training programme for school leavers and graduates, he showed how unlikely he thought such provision would be. ‘….. instead, the Treasury – panicked by the likely scale of the debt and deficit and now politically micromanaged from No10 – seems to be in virtual lockdown. Having acted as the generous economic dove of spring, it is now, sadly, on course to be the tax-raising fiscal hawk of autumn.’

Not for the first time, Big Pharma comes in for some flak for excessive profit making when they receive very generous funds for research and development from a number of public and private organisations, including the World Health Organisation, Gates Foundation and CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations). The Observer tells us that these organisations have given pharmaceutical companies over $4.4bn to develop a COVID19 vaccine, but the Big Pharma norm is, despite the subsidies they’ve received, to price the resulting drugs way well beyond what low-income can afford. The article is a plea for more state control of the pharmaceutical industry, exemplified by the shocking example of AstraZeneca getting £84m in government funds towards the costs of developing a COVID vaccine, yet AZ retains the intellectual property rights, dictates the price and refuses to share research data in a WHO project aimed at pooling COVID learning and expertise. What a very unequal relationship this is, given the urgent need worldwide for this vaccine, but perhaps the crisis will train more of a spotlight on Big Pharma generally and the degree of influence it exerts on the medical profession.

A very interesting and illuminating Long Read in The Week traces the trajectory of the office, from its beginnings in the era of the East India Company in the 18th century and its likely demise in the wake of COVID19, now people are increasingly working from home. The article makes clear how central the office has been in architectural design (London’s The Shard, the ‘Cheesegrater’, the ‘Walkie-Talkie’ etc), daily life and culture, for example as portrayed in classic films and tv (The Apartment, The Office etc). Yet the convergence of various events and influences in the 21st century, like the rise of the internet, the decline in importance of status as a defining factor in design (office size related to seniority etc) and increasing use of IT resulting in far less clerical work, have led to greatly reduced need for offices. The author (Henry Mance) writes: ‘We questioned their heights and shapes, the number of shower cubicles they contained and their proximity to Pret a Manger. But rarely did we question their existence’.

Until now, maybe. The post-pandemic conundrum many are now facing is that perhaps economically, the office is done for, ditto for safety because of distancing needs, but individuals’ mental wellbeing is not generally well-served by spending so long away from colleagues and only interacting with them remotely. ‘The key space where white collar workers interact will no longer be the four walls of an office; it will be the four sides of a screen’. Time will tell but all of this begs the question: what will happen to the vast amount of unused office space and that in central London alone, more than 15m square feet of office space is currently under construction? Mance doesn’t predict the end of the office: rather that the home/office balance will change, tipping much more towards home. ‘Those with most to mourn might be the young, who have the least space at home and the most to learn in the office’.

Finally, thousands of Zoom users might soon find themselves staring even more intently at the contents of their colleagues’ bookshelves, with the news that West Sussex company Décor Books is benefiting from an increase in private clients. The company normally sells books in bulk to venues like pubs and hotels, but now individuals are buying about 6 metres worth in order to furnish their Zoom backgrounds. Surely it can only be a matter of time before social media savvy observers are able to identify the sudden acquisition of titles not normally associated with those individuals. Perhaps some public figures are already doing this (there’s been talk on social media during tv programmes about the contents of certain politicians’ bookshelves), in which case yet another new term could enter the popular lexicon – zoomshaming.

Thursday 25 June

As the COVID 19 death toll in the UK exceeds 43,000, several issues jostle for the top news slot, one being the further easing of restrictions scheduled for 4 July, enabling pubs, restaurants, museums, galleries and hairdressers etc to reopen. While some consumers and business owners will be jubilant about this, many remain very concerned at the danger. It was clear that Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty was expressing himself very guardedly, warning that we can’t now behave as if the pandemic was over. ‘If people hear a distorted version of what’s being said, that says ‘this is all fine now, it’s gone away’ and start behaving in ways that they normally would have before this virus happened, yes, we will get an uptick for sure’.

Evidence from packed high streets, beaches and lack of distancing suggests some do feel this way, exacerbated by the gung-ho trumpeting about what a success it all is and how we’re coming ‘out of hibernation’. To others this strategy will seem nonsensical, especially as we still have no vaccine or effectively functioning track and trace system. In addition, a leaked Public Health England report revealed that the R rate was above 1 in some areas and rather than the 1,346 new cases reported for one day, the estimate was actually 7,000. Cynics would be well justified in suggesting that the exhortations for the public to practice ‘self-responsibility’, use their ‘common sense’ and make their own judgements are all a way of enabling the government at a later stage to abdicate responsibility for a sharp rise in those testing positive.

Epidemiologist Professor John Edmunds pointed out the double risk involved in visiting crowded venues – the large increase in the numbers of people we come into contact with and the inevitable reduction in distancing. When Business Secretary Alok Sharma was questioned about this on the Today programme, his response about Health and Safety Executive and local authority checks on premises and fines for landlords disregarding the rules didn’t sound convincing. The resources for this kind of monitoring simply aren’t there. Another warning came in the form of a letter to the British Medical Journal from the presidents of Royal Colleges of Surgeons, Nursing, Physicians, and GPs, asking for ‘an urgent review to determine whether the UK is properly prepared for the real risk of a second wave of coronavirus. A listener tweeted: ‘Is lockdown demob happiness preventing people seeing the disconnect between relaxing the guidelines and all the warnings of a second spike? Large gatherings will surely lead to this and government mixed messages are dangerous’.

As easing of restrictions on shielders were also announced, some made clear that they didn’t trust the new arrangements and they would be sticking to their current regime for the foreseeable future. During the debate on the easing of restrictions in the House of Commons, acting Lib Dem leader Ed Davey demanded an urgent independent inquiry into the government’s handling of the crisis. Needless to say, this was batted away by the PM, who said it would not currently be “a good use of official time”.

Another issue jostling for top place is the latest probity scandal – what on earth happened to Nolan’s 1995 The Seven Principles of Public Life: honesty, integrity, accountability, selflessness, objectivity, openness and leadership? Numerous failures on all counts. Housing secretary Robert Jenrick is now under pressure to resign after it was revealed that he “insisted” a planning decision for a £1bn property development should be rushed through so a Tory donor’s company could reduce costs by £45m. The astonishing thing surely is that, having sat next to developer Richard Desmond at a fundraising dinner (coincidence, that) and discussed this development, agreeing to visit the site, Jenrick only withdrew consent when a Tower Hamlets councillor alerted him to his bias. But cabinet colleague Nadhim Zaharwi on the Today programme insisted there had been no wrongdoing and that (remind you of anything?) ‘the matter is now closed’. I doubt it. Even more astonishing is that when questioned about privileged access to ministers not being available to all Tory voters, for example in the north of England, Zaharwi responded that they could attend a fundraising dinner.  

The Guardian’s John Crace excels himself again in his regular analysis of the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions ritual and increasingly it seems we are seeing not just the bumbling Boris but the Bullingdon face – aggressive and threatening (see the article’s photo). ‘The trouble is that Boris can dump wives, mistresses, ministers and friends but he just can’t get rid of Keir Starmer. For the first time in his life, Johnson has come up against an immovable object. And rather than accept the inevitable, Boris has merely allowed himself to regress’.

https://bit.ly/2CybRlN

On 23rd Radio 4’s You and Yours phone in was about our mental health during the pandemic and what we do to take care of it. Some poignant accounts were given but it was lovely nevertheless that one man having a difficult experience was making striking music and nature recordings. The programme reported that, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the nation’s mental health has declined overall by 8.1% and by more in certain groups of the population. ‘A survey from Nuffield Health suggests around 80% of British people working from home feel lockdown has had a negative impact on their mental health, while a study from the Office of National Statistics showed 39% of people who are married or in a civil partnership now reporting high levels of anxiety, compared with 19% before the pandemic’.  We already know how very impacted children’s mental health has been. One of the main contributors to this, besides the obvious uncertainty of the surreal situation we’re living through, is that we cannot feel psychologically ‘held’ and supported to survive this by leaders who have so consistently delayed action, missed opportunities, made numerous mistakes and been economical with the truth.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000k9b1

Now the solstice is behind us and we approach the half way point of 2020, it could be time, if we haven’t already, to take stock and thinking about the future, and many are apparently already doing this during lockdown. New programming for Radios 4, 5Live and the World Service, entitled Rethink, is doing this in terms of public life. It consists of both standalone programmes and pieces forming part of others. It aims to discuss how we develop a new kind of society post-pandemic, for example how key areas like social care and technical education should be reconfigured. It’s about a new social contract, defined as ‘an implicit agreement among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits, for example by sacrificing some individual freedom for state protection’. We’re reminded (or told!) that ‘theories of a social contract became popular in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries among theorists such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as a means of explaining the origin of government and the obligations of subjects’. It will certainly be a wasted opportunity if we don’t step up to this.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000k7hm

Of course the BBC isn’t the only organisation looking into scenarios for the future, and one journalist, Jonathan Watts, has been looking at what’s going in Hartlepool, a poor and longstanding disadvantaged area, and the possibilities for ‘green recovery’ and levelling up. One interviewee, who’s been delivering food parcels and medicines to those in need during lockdown, tells him:  ‘We try to reinvent ourselves, but we always seem to be one step behind because we don’t address deep structural changes…..If we are not careful, I worry the country will level down rather than level up’. He feels ‘people in the north-east have been ignored, scorned as “scroungers” or derided as racist throwbacks who failed to adjust to a globalised post-industrial world’. But the election of more conservative politicians in the area has shifted the power balance.

Locals are clear that ‘recovery’ jobs aren’t minimum wage, or zero-hours contracts, which barely pay more than benefits and that those working in the care, health and retail sectors should be valued as the “essential workers” they were designated as during lockdown. This seems absolutely key and long overdue – that no longer should such jobs be demeaned and the workers subjected to poor pay and conditions.  Some want ‘a more caring economy’, an example being the owners of an independent coffee bar, who used their £10,000 Covid-19 support grant to expand the cafe to provide a “gentle space” to help socially isolated residents to reintegrate. “Covid has heightened anxieties among many people. There will be a big mental health impact.” This sounds an excellent development which other business owners would do well to replicate, since many have self-isolated from necessity or fear and going out anywhere could feel very difficult at first.

Finally, here’s a chance to showcase your best and worst lockdown bakes – it will be interesting to see if anyone posts a bad one, like the one pictured here. Should special dispensations be made for those who couldn’t get hold of flour, I wonder. So, come on, you bakers – get snapping and submitting!

https://bit.ly/2Z86lhA

Sunday 21 June

Following hot on the heels of the school meals U-turn came the news that the centralised contact tracing app, trialled and then apparently muted in the Isle of Wight, has been abandoned in favour of the Apple/Google decentralised model. How many lives could have been saved if, rather than wasting time on the foolish, ideological pursuit of this home-grown piece of tech, the government had immediately followed the example set by other countries and advice of public health and Independent SAGE experts? Former Labour minister Andrew Adonis commented: ‘the collapse of the government’s whole test and trace strategy is a much bigger story than being reported. A catastrophic management failure by Johnson and his Health Department Lots of people will lose their lives, and have their lives blighted, as a result’.

The media don’t always help matters, alluding to the ‘NHS’ app when it was actually developed by the company headed by the brother of a Cummings colleague – more money going down the private sector drain. A hospital consultant tweeted : ‘Note to Radio 4 Today and other broadcasters. Please stop referring to the failed “NHS Track & Trace App”. The NHS has nothing to do with it. This was an un-tendered commercial app, endorsed by Matt Hancock and given to SERCO to deliver. SERCO and Hancock failed – not our NHS’.

Sky News and other sources reported that at least a quarter of people who test positive are missed by contact tracers, a very hit and miss strategy, yet economic drivers are prevailing in the decision to downgrade the COVID alert level from 4 to 3 and the announcement expected next week to reduce distancing to 1 metre. An Any Questions listener tweeted: ‘So cynical that Oliver Dowden and other ministers are talking up the success rates of the contact tracing work to legitimise easing of restrictions. It’s lulling the public into a false sense of security.

As restrictions are eased and more and more shops and venues reopen, there’s real concern about traffic volumes rising, with the commensurate rise in pollution levels, further endangering public health and the wellbeing of those with respiratory conditions. Many are deterred from using public transport because of close proximity to others, leading to increased car use, and YouGov figures showed that 28% of people planned to drive more than before lockdown and only 16% less. It’s been very noticeable for weeks how traffic is increasing – for example, at the start of lockdown seeing a car was a rare sight and you never needed to press the crossing lights button, but now you usually do. Let’s hope that the funds given to local authorities to encourage more walking and cycling will have some effect, though these activities could decline during the winter months.

The debate continues about schools reopening, children’s mental health and educational inequalities, which are surely likely to be exacerbated by the £600m fund going to schools for ‘catch up’ tuition, especially when schools have to find a quarter of the money themselves. Absurdly, there’s no provision for early years of 16-18 year olds and what about MP Robert Halfon’s idea for plan for an army of volunteers (eg graduates, retired teachers etc) to help children catch up over the summer? Not for the first time I’m wondering what on earth Ofsted and the Education Department are for if not setting and implementing standards for children’s education yet it’s just talk from people like Amanda Spearman (Chief Inspector of Schools), not addressing the inequality bound to arise. Why, for example, is there no national IT system and software provision for schools?

This week the Guardian’s John Crace (parliamentary sketch writer) excelled himself with his take on the government’s ‘world beating’ boasts, eg  “Boris Johnson did his best to talk up the futility of the exercise (the departmental merger) by calling it Global Britain, but the longer he spoke the clearer the Britain he had in mind was Little Britain. Only without the jokes but keeping the casual racism….. it’s beginning to look more and more as if we are genuine world beaters: if only in total incompetence’.

https://bit.ly/2zQm7VH

It’s timely, then, in news you couldn’t make up, that we now hear there’s likely to be a government reshuffle in September, when the PM will dispense with the services of those regarded as ‘underperforming’ during COVID19, eg Gavin Williamson, Therese Coffey and Robert Jenrick. It seems a bit unfair on Jenrick, who has doggedly turned up as fall guy for media interviews when these should have been headed by his increasingly absent boss. Cabinet sources are said to believe this is necessary to ‘defuse mounting discontent on the Tory backbenches (and in Tory ranks at large) following a stream of U-turns and a fall in the party’s poll ratings’. The irony and scapegoating of alluding to ‘underperforming’ ministers, while leaving the key operators in place, is pretty breathtaking but on what planet can it be believed that rearranging the chairs on this Titanic will make any difference?

On MP Paul Goodman’s planet, apparently: the editor of grassroots Tory website Conservative Home thought it would help resolve what he sees as a ‘decision-making bottleneck’ (it’s a bit more than that). ‘It isn’t terminal, but it’s problematic. What would help would be bigger, braver cabinet ministers and a more relaxed, collegiate central operation. No one seriously thinks that this cabinet is the Conservative first 11’. No, because a substantial number of big hitters were sacked by Boris Johnson for not supporting Brexit, yet he clearly didn’t anticipate what the cost of this petulant and vengeful decision would be.

Radio 4’s All in the Mind this week discussed mental health during lockdown, even more difficult for those already experiencing mental ill-health. Some are actually finding things more challenging now that restrictions are easing as it makes them more aware of things they struggle with eg going out, meeting others etc and this can lead to feelings of exclusion. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000k2mn

As Loneliness Awareness Week (hosted by the Marmalade Trust) draws to a close, let’s hope this initiative has boosted awareness, as it’s definitely an area the government has sidestepped during the lockdown. The effects of loneliness on mental health are well documented. The Red Cross has done a considerable amount on exploring and addressing loneliness and one of the key points is that it’s not, as often portrayed, just older people who are vulnerable to it – it affects every age group. Nevertheless, it’s likely to be older people living alone who could feel the effects most acutely. The Red Cross survey of 2000 people showed that 2 out of 5 adults felt lonely during lockdown because of the tight restrictions on physical contact, substantial numbers feel alone and uncared for and 33% thought their feelings of loneliness would get worse in the years ahead. Professor Martin Marshall, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, described this situation as “an epidemic of loneliness” in Britain.

Ipsos Mori surveyed 1,000 50-70 year olds in England, to ascertain the impact of lockdown on them in key areas such as having: fulfilling work; safe and accessible homes; healthy ageing and connected communities. The findings showed that 23% have seen their physical health deteriorate, 40% mental health deterioration, 37% have been drinking more alcohol and 39% have been smoking more.

https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/covid19-impact-lockdown-older-generations

Only now, after months, has the government created a £5m fund to award grants to charities and local groups to tackle the problem but all this takes time and it’s only one way of tackling it: personal interactions are often best and this involves preparedness of those affected to step out of their comfort zones as it can’t be just one-way. It will be interesting to see how this £5m fund will be distributed (often small but effective organisations find themselves ineligible) and how much it helps reduce loneliness, a difficult thing to measure.

Amid discussions about the plight of the arts at this time and the perception that theatres aren’t being supported by the government, it’s interesting to read about how other countries are supporting their culture sectors. It’s quite a mixed picture, France and New Zealand seeming to come out best. In some countries, like Germany, the support looks good on the surface but some feel it doesn’t go far enough, especially as in this case, the amount pledged is 1m euros when national airline, Lufthansa, will get €9bn in state support despite its decision to cut 22,000 jobs. This could be a good time to revisit the theatre business model, since prohibitive seat prices place this cultural experience beyond the reach of many, not to mention the discomfort of being crushed into seats in close proximity to others for hours on end.

https://bit.ly/2NcfOij

Finally, here’s an interesting article for wordsmiths on words which don’t lend themselves to translation into English. One of the best has to be ‘sisu’ – ‘an untranslatable Finnish term that blends resilience, tenacity, persistence, determination, perseverance and sustained, rather than momentary, courage: the psychological strength to ensure that regardless of the cost or the consequences, what has to be done will be done’. As well as helping Finns get through the dark winters, it’s said to be the quality which helped them, in 1939-40, ‘to twice fight off Soviet forces three times their number, inflicting losses five times heavier than those they sustained’.

Another is the Russian ‘tocka’ (tosca), the closest (except it doesn’t really capture the sense) being yearning or ennui. ‘What can toska (pronounced tahs-kah) mean? Spiritual anguish, a deep pining, perhaps the product of nostalgia or love-sickness, toskais depression plus longing, an unbearable feeling that you need to escape but lack the hope or energy to do so’.

https://bit.ly/2YigIjt

Wednesday 17 June

As the death toll was just announced as 42,153, it’s sobering to realise we’re nearly halfway through the year, the pandemic and lockdown potentially making us feel a lot of life has been lost. For many, though, there have been some notable and unexpected gains as well, such as cheering examples of community engagement, perhaps getting to know neighbours better and exploring other ways of doing things and thinking about things, not to mention the creativity it’s unleashed in some quarters. Nevertheless, concerns persist that the government is opening up the UK prematurely and the World Health Organisation certainly thinks so: unlike other countries, we haven’t yet done the hard work which would justify safe easing of restrictions and it seems typical of this government that they want results without the right inputs. This particularly applies to the reopening this week of ‘non-essential’ shops (rather depressing to see the long queues outside Primark) although a YouGov survey showed 40% don’t feel comfortable about going shopping, and proposed reduction of the 2-metre distancing rule. Numerous people are sticking to their original stance, not flocking to shops and onto public transport, as it’s pretty clear that economic drivers are being allowed to take precedence over safety concerns. WHO pointed out that the UK doesn’t yet have a reliable test, track and trace system and this, coupled with lack of a COVID19 vaccine, should indicate the need for continued caution. Challenging, because at the same time life is a risk and we will have to take risks at some point in order to live rather than merely exist.

This scenario leads to heightened anxiety, when it’s clear we can’t trust our leaders to issue appropriate advice because economic considerations are being prioritised over safety. Guardian Membership Editor Mark Rice-Oxley has written succinctly this week about lack of genuine authority:

‘Leadership, it has been said, is a bit like beauty. Tricky to define, hard to break down into component parts – but you know it when you see it. I don’t know about you, but I’m just not seeing it at the moment. From the pandemic and policing to racism and the lethal unfairness that blights so many marginalised lives, leadership seems to be broken. Where we need humility, we have hubris. Instead of inclusivity – division. Where we need magnanimity, we have narcissism. Instead of vision – vitriol. A good leader should inspire, enthuse and unite, should manage and direct with courage, compassion and a thick skin. The very best make us greater than the sum of the parts, like an orchestra conductor or a football manager’.

It’s only Wednesday but, like previous weeks, events and damaging revelations continue to come thick and fast, including Labour MP David Lammy’s excoriation of the PM for setting up yet another review of racial inequality, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, when two previous reviews including his own had not had their recommendations implemented.   

“It feels like yet again in the UK we want figures, data, but we don’t want action,” Lammy told Today on Radio 4. “Black people aren’t playing victim as Boris indicates. They’re protesting precisely because the time for review is over and the time for action is now. It’s because this was written on the back of a fag packet yesterday to assuage the Black Lives Matter protests. Get on with the action, legislate, move, you’re in government, do something!”

There was also criticism of the choice of review chair, and former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, said: “A new race equalities commission led by Munira Mirza is dead on arrival. She has never believed in institutional racism.” This new review looks too much like another attempt to kick the can down the road.

A good example of where the public could be taken in is through the hyperbole of government and media trumpeting about the Dexamethasone COVID treatment ‘breakthrough’.  Some medics have been clarifying that it didn’t need to be ‘approved’, it’s been used for years (though obviously not in this context) so therefore not ‘discovered’ and not an innovation. Whether or not this was being used as yet another distraction from government incompetence, it’s positive because the Recovery Trial found that the drug was responsible for the survival of one in eight of the sickest patients (those on ventilators). What’s been described as ‘the biggest randomised, controlled trial of coronavirus treatments in the world’ found that Dexamethasone reduced deaths by one-third in ventilated patients and by one-fifth in patients receiving oxygen only, although no benefit accrued to patients not needing help to breathe.

Radio 4’s More or Less should be compulsory listening for all politicians, especially this PM and set of ministers, today’s focusing on misconceptions around ‘excess deaths’ statistics, for example the idea that many of those who died would shortly have died of other conditions anyway. 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000kdr6

As #NotmovingontillDomisgone continues to trend on Twitter and there are clear indications that the Cummings controversy hasn’t gone away, it emerged that a former regional chief prosecutor, Nazir Afzal, has joined a legal campaign for a new investigation into Cummings for his alleged lockdown breaches. Afzal said that if the Crown Prosecution Service and the police didn’t take this up he would consider launching a private prosecution on “behalf of every citizen whose goodwill and generosity led them to make painful sacrifices in order to comply with the law and protect their fellow citizens”. It seems shocking that such a private prosecution would have to be crowd funded when taking action should not have been bottled by Durham Police in the first place, but good for this former prosecutor for taking up the cudgels. He’s likely to get a lot of support.

As the reopening of schools debate rumbles on, what’s emerged is a shocking lack of consistency across the education sector, with seemingly no agreed standards and certainly no access to standardized software or IT infrastructure for schools. A report for the National Foundation for Educational Research found that 4 in 10 pupils in England are not in regular contact with their teachers, third of pupils were not engaged with their lessons, fewer than half (42%) had bothered to return their work, and, not surprisingly, pupils in the most disadvantaged schools were the least likely to be engaged with remote learning. This scenario will surely lead to worrying disparity in achievement levels. It will be interesting to see what will happen to MP Robert Halfon’s proposal that an ‘army’ of graduates, retired teachers and others be recruited to help these children catch up over the summer: there probably wouldn’t be a shortage of volunteers.

The event of the week (so far) must be footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign, succeeding in getting the government (which seems to listen to no one) to U-turn on the free school meals issue. This is an undignified wake-up call for the PM and ministers, apparently believing they can choose whether or not to listen to the public, other politicians and scientists: now it’s been shown there are some who can, based on their own life experience and public profile, make their case so well that they can’t be ignored. Now a foot has been put in this apparently closed door, it will be interesting to see what the same and other ‘feet’ can do. A particularly galling statement about this was, when interviewed this morning on Radio 4’s Today, Matt Hancock twice saying he was ‘proud’ of Rashford. What a patronising, proprietorial and pathetic way of trying to claw back some dignity. I don’t blame presenter Nick Robinson for being rather pleased with himself for asking Hancock ‘Why did it take Manchester United’s number 10 to tell Downing St’s number 10 what to do?’

The Guardian’s John Crace (parliamentary sketch writer) isn’t the only one to suggest that the announcement about merging the Foreign Office with the Department for International Development was timed to deflect attention from the free meals indignity, the headline reading  Johnson’s global Britain fantasies offer little distraction from school meals own goal. It’s quite funny so worth reading, eg ‘…..The Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford has just skipped past the defence of Grant Shapps and Thérèse Coffey to set up the prime minister with a tap-in own goal on free school meals. You’re also worried that Harry Kane will now enter the Brexit talks and nutmeg you with an extension to the transition period’.

While aid organisations accused the PM of tying aid to security and diplomatic aims, the official argument is that the new ‘super-department’ (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) would be ‘more joined up, focused and coherent’. This didn’t cut any ice with three former Primer Ministers (David Cameron, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown) who all came out firmly against such a move, Cameron saying it would mean “less respect for the UK overseas”. Meanwhile, it’s just been announced that £900,000 will be spent on rebranding the PM’s plane, repainting it with Union Jack colours. You really couldn’t make it up.

https://bit.ly/30OOxdK

On things that matter to people at the everyday level, this article about some barbers and hairdressers working secretly during lockdown is worth a glance if only for the lovely illustrations, which convey very well the clandestine nature of the activity. If you see someone looking well coloured and coiffed, it’s highly likely they’ve taken advantage of these services and the article reveals that a good number of those are people whose work involves enforcing the lockdown.  I thought this would make a good documentary and suggested it to Channel 4 – it will all out at some point anyway!

https://bit.ly/2N84GCQ

Finally, although we ‘only’ have Young Montalbano on BBC4 at present, fans might be interested to know about this YouTube film about the making of the entire series – not only does it take you right back to those beautiful places in baroque South-east Sicily (strange to think I was there last September, feels like 100 years ago) but it’s also good for Italian comprehension and learning about Zingarella as an actor. It’s also rather poignant in prominently featuring the recently deceased pathologist, Pasquale (aficionado of the Sicilian cannoli pastries). But even those who aren’t Montalbano fans can’t fail to have their spirits lifted by the marvellous intro, with its swooping music and glorious scenery.

Sunday 14 June

As the death toll now reaches a shocking 41, 662, this last week has seen yet more unsettling and damaging developments, including: the government’s U-turn on schools reopening; complaints about the illogical quarantine policy (one backbencher telling a journalist Priti Patel had ‘gone mad’); more chaos surrounding the inadequate test and trace system and silence on the Isle of Wight app trial (Independent SAGE member Sir David King saying “The system, as it stands, is not fit for purpose”); and what must worry the government most of all – its own ministers and scientific advisers departing from the party line to speak openly about mistakes and missed opportunities. Professor Neil Ferguson, former SAGE member, plainly said that the number of coronavirus deaths in the UK could have been halved if the government had introduced the lockdown a week earlier and in the first two weeks of March, modellers assumed about two-thirds of infected people coming into the UK were not being identified, but Ferguson said a more accurate figure was about 90%. 

There have also been further damaging revelations, such as a National Audit Office report showing that less than half of the expected pieces of certain PPE equipment were distributed to frontline workers as the crisis developed because, despite China’s struggles with COVID and the government having been alerted to the need to stockpile, it had not done so during January and February. (The report resulted from an examination of the government’s response to the pandemic since Chris Whitty, the chief medical adviser, confirmed the first cases of COVID19 on 31 January – probably the closest we’ll get to an inquiry during the pandemic). It seems that a key problem was the NHS sticking rigidly to ‘business as usual’ procurement procedures (just in time model) rather than demonstrating agility by adapting to the emergency.

The only items stockpiled were aprons and clinical waste bags, very short of what was actually needed. The report also confirmed that 25,000 hospital patients were discharged to care homes at the height of the pandemic before testing became routine: so much for having, from the start, ‘thrown a protective ring around our care homes’. Some sources suggested that although hospitals knew which patients were infected, this information was not passed on to discharge teams Figures show that many care homes received little PPE from the government. While health settings received a third of the number of eye protectors required from central government, care homes received 5%; hospitals received three quarters of gloves required from central stocks, care homes received 8%; and care homes received no gowns from central stocks. Jeremy Hunt, chairman of the Health and Social Care Select Committee and a former Health Secretary, said: “It seems extraordinary that no one appeared to consider the clinical risk to care homes despite widespread knowledge that the virus could be carried asymptomatically”.

Meanwhile, in a development which must ring alarm bells for Matt Hancock (despite his apparent ability to brush off multiple accusations of error and misjudgement), a doctor is taking legal action against the Health Secretary because of the death of her father in a care home which was taking in infected patients. Dr Cathy Gardner has requested a judicial review, claiming that there had been a ‘litany of failures’, that Hancock had breached his legal duty and that “policies and measures adopted by the Health Secretary, NHS England and Public Health England have manifestly failed to protect the health, well-being and right to life of those residing and working in care homes”. It seems very likely that others who have lost loved ones in this way could follow suit, perhaps even leading to a class action.

Although ministers maintain that testing is available and is happening in care homes, those who actually know, eg those with relatives resident in these homes, say this isn’t generally the case. The extreme deprioritisation of care homes during the crisis, in favour of the NHS, makes a nonsense of the fairly recent change in nomenclature, the Department of Health and Social Care. It also demonstrates yet again that social care needs to be a nationally run service in the public sector, not the haphazard hybrid we have at present, with care home chains often being owned by private equity firms. The care of so many elderly and often vulnerable people is just too important to leave to the vagaries of such an unthinking and fragile business model.

As the Dominic Cummings debate rumbles on despite continuing efforts of the government to distract us from it, there’s been further evidence of censorship, for example scientists at the Downing Street briefings not allowed to speak or attend and journalists not being allowed follow-up questions. Now we hear that on 1 June, England’s Chief Nurse, Ruth May, was dropped after she refused to back the Cummings account justifying his trip to Durham. 

Perhaps the most shocking revelation this week has been that, within days of taking office, the PM abolished the Threats, Hazards, Resilience and Contingency Committee, the purpose of which was to prepare the UK for a pandemic, in order to free up resources to deal with a potential Brexit No Deal situation.  This forum, which included senior ministers Michael Gove, Matt Hancock and Gavin Williamson, was disbanded without discussing virus control plans. The Daily Mail said Labour’s ex-foreign secretary Dame Margaret Beckett, who chairs the National Security Council Committee that oversees the NSC, ‘has pledged to investigate the axing of the THRCC as part of a cross-party inquiry into the Government’s readiness for a pandemic’.

Ahead of ‘non-essential’ shops reopening from tomorrow (often without loos, another disincentive to visit them besides safety concerns), the possibility of the government deciding to reduce the 2 metre distancing ‘rule’ to 1 metre in England could mean councils and retailers will have wasted millions of pounds on signs and other preparations based on the original guidance. The government gave councils £50m for signage so it will be interesting to see if another £50m will be forthcoming if the decision is taken to reduce the distancing requirement.

As usual, not holding back, Piers Morgan tweeted: ‘The irony of Boris Johnson

winning an election on a pledge to ‘take back control’ when he’s now completely lost control of this country through his mind-blowing dithering & incompetence… is amazing’.

Men’s Health Week is next week and it’s a timely that ‘the nation’s PE teacher’ Joe Wicks has been on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs this morning, being so engaging, stressing the mental health benefits of exercise and discussing the struggles in his family. He spoke about his mother’s OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and, on the verge of tears, admitted that he once said he hated his father, Gary, a recovering drug addict. “I was just so angry at the time because he had relapsed again. I only said it once, and I have never really admitted that [I said that]. It was just a reaction and I felt so bad afterwards. I didn’t hate my dad. What a horrible thing to say.” Joe explained how he has since managed to come to terms with this experience, finding sympathy for his father and recognising the difficult childhood he has survived. Former speaker John Bercow said recently on Any Questions that he followed the daily workouts – I wonder how many other politicians do or what they do (if anything) for exercise.

The focus of Men’s Health Week, run by the Men’s Health Forum, is ‘Take Action on Covid-19’, very important as it’s been shown that more men than women are dying of this virus. On the MHF website you can sign up for their newsletter, to access resources and see links eg to the webinar to be held on Thursday afternoon.

https://www.menshealthforum.org.uk/mhw

As part of Black Lives Matter but also a pertinent issue in its own right, there’s been much debate recently about statues and what messages these convey. Some seem to think they’re only of white men, whose activities and livelihoods are now regarded as morally dubious, if not downright unacceptable. But there are others and this article describes some interesting and important ones, including Churchill’s, currently boarded up because of the Central London  protests. One of the arguments advanced by those taking the ‘statues must stay’ line is that there should be a democratic debate about them and they shouldn’t be taken down by protesters. But what evidence (except in Bristol, where it was ignored for years) is there that local authorities have ever asked people what they think about these monuments to our history? Surely time for these conversations to start.

https://bit.ly/2B04GlH

Finally, it was pleasing to be on Radio London’s Tea at 3 slot in the Jo Good programme on Friday (1.36 minutes in). Radio London journalist Anna O’Neill, who I’d been in touch with via social media for some years but not actually met, invited me to talk about psychotherapy during lockdown, this blog and our local U3A, of which several of those gathered in Anna’s front garden are members. A listener emailed in with the suggestion that the name should change from Tea at 3 to Anna in her Manor and Jo Good said afterwards that when the pandemic was over she would broadcast one of her programmes from there.

A lovely interlude and good example of community engagement, as neighbours meet every day there at 3 pm and some days have a group singing session afterwards.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p08f5qrs   1.36 minutes in.

Tuesday 9 June

On Sunday The Observer led with what some of us have believed for some time – we can’t leave a public inquiry on the government’s management of the crisis till after the pandemic (will there even be an after?) as numerous politicians want to do, kicking that hugely shaming can down the road with arguments that ‘there will come a time’ etc etc. In a damning assessment of the government’s record, we were reminded that the PM ‘has offered no apology for the serious mistakes the government has made so far: its haphazard procurement of protective equipment for frontline workers; the tragedy it did too little to prevent unfolding in Britain’s care homes; its unforgivably slow efforts to build up testing capacity. Last Wednesday, without a hint of contrition, he declared himself “very proud” of the government’s record on coronavirus, just the day before the chief operating officer of the NHS test-and-trace scheme told staff it would not be operating at full speed for another three or four months. All along, there have been worrying signs that this was a government prepared to put politics above pandemic management. We agree with the scientific and medical experts who wrote to the Guardian on Friday calling for a rapid public inquiry. Such an inquiry should be focused on producing practical recommendations for the autumn and could be conducted by a cross-party committee of senior parliamentary backbenchers’.

On several fronts Matt Hancock caused dismay on the Andrew Marr programme: Channel 4 journalist Krishnan Guru-Murthy tweeted: ‘Epidemiology Professor John Edmunds (on SAGE Govt advisory group) agrees with other top scientists and tells Marr UK should have gone into lockdown earlier and it cost a lot of lives. PPE graduate Matt Hancock (the Health Secretary) says he’s sure Govt took right decisions’. Yet The Independent presents statistics to show that confidence in UK government’s handling of the pandemic plummets almost to lowest in the world after the Cummings scandal, joint bottom place alongside the US, with only Mexico below them.

Meanwhile, Priti Patel had to witness thousands of Black Lives Matter demonstrators taking not a whit of notice of her pleading with them not to attend such demos. This can hardly be surprising for the government. There was certainly something symbolic, too, about the pulling down of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol on Sunday: although demonstrators feel strongly about historic racism and injustice, there does also seem some displacement afoot of more general anger and helplessness many are feeling at present.

This week is Carers Week and perhaps there was never a more appropriate celebration of it, since it has become clear even to those reluctant to hear that this work is crucially important yet pay and conditions are poor. It should highlight further the need for social care reform in the UK and much stronger support for carers, especially those unpaid ones, caring at home for elderly, chronically ill or disabled relatives.

Meanwhile, it’s not looking good for Prince Andrew again, when he might have thought recent events would have removed the spotlight from his alleged role in the Epstein scandal. But no – at the weekend The Sun published details of a leaked bilateral mutual assistance treaty, which seems to allow investigators much more leeway than what was originally thought to be the case. The Times includes this in its Q&A:

What are investigators allowed to do under the treaty?
’Quite a lot. They can take witness statements from individuals — in this case, Prince Andrew. They can also ask to see documents and for help from the authorities in the other jurisdiction in locating or identifying individuals. The treaty also provides for the transferring of those held in custody for testimony and for help in executing searches and seizures. It says that the authorities in both countries must assist each other with the identification, tracing, freezing, seizing, and forfeiting of the proceeds of crime’.

It also states that although Andrew can’t be forced to say anything if summoned, it would look suspicious if he remained silent, leading to the possibility of US prosecutors charging him. Apparently, the prince’s lawyers are ‘distressed’ that this has been leaked, but surely this is a good thing, as it is in the public interest. It will be interesting to see how Andrew’s ‘public fightback’ works out, based so far, it seems, on Andrew’s repeated statements about ‘assisting’ the US authorities with their enquiries. Framing it in this way conveniently preserves his lofty stance and avoids the possibility of compulsion, which may yet come to pass.  It could be argued this is another example of those in privileged positions believing in their own invincibility, despite the growing power of social media and investigative journalism to ‘out’ what’s been hidden.

As the death toll rises above 40,000, The Guardian focuses on the psychological cost of the pandemic, which has still not received enough attention. ‘What will be the long-term emotional and psychological cost of such a sudden and seismic disruption of our way of life?’ Many of those experiencing mental ill-health will be struggling behind closed doors. Renowned psychotherapist and author, Susie Orbach, observes: “How the outside impacts on the inside is something that people like me think about all the time…But now we are seeing it on a grand scale. The pandemic has been a prolonged assault from outside on our community. The state of uncertainty and unsafety it has created is new and utterly unfamiliar. Unless you are a refugee who has risked their life to get here, or a survivor of childhood abuse that could not be escaped, there is simply nothing to compare it to.”

Even at the start of lockdown, the WHO predicted that this very extreme disruption to our lives and sense of connectedness would cause levels of loneliness, depression, harmful alcohol and drug use, and self-harm or suicidal behaviour to rise.  Trauma specialist Jo Stubley, a consultant psychiatrist and clinical psychoanalyst at London’s Tavistock and Portman clinic, points out that a global pandemic cannot be compared with other kinds of trauma, which are limited in terms of timeframe and those affected. The potential scale of the effect is huge and damage likely to be exacerbated by the paucity of services to address it. ‘Given that mental health services have been starved of resources for years, one can only imagine the impact that a deep recession will have on an already beleaguered sector. So there is a lot of concern among health care professionals like myself about what will happen next.”

Besides large numbers of frontline NHS staff, the likelihood of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) is quite strong (studies have found increased risk in 20%) in patients who have spent time in intensive care. Current levels of need for trauma treatment are expected to significantly increase further down the line, when the immediate crisis has abated, as currently those involved are focused on getting through it, responding to immediate demands. One of the key points the article makes is the psychological damage done to those who have lost people close to them without being able to be with them at the end or even attend the funeral in many cases. This will lead to a great deal of ‘complicated grief’, whereby mourning cannot take place in the usual way, exacerbated by the culture of denial around death which still persists.

A big unknown is the damaging effect of the general prohibition on what human beings need – contact and touch. It’s not all doom and gloom, though, as the huge amount of community kindness demonstrates, and many have found some respite from not having their lives dictated by hectic schedules. There’s also the chance of a different kind of world emerging, which could build on the kindness, reduction in pollution and greater presence of wildlife. Writer Arundhati Roy suggests we could ‘walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it’. Susie Orbach said: ‘Part of me thinks that this is somehow a moment of possibility. Many of us who believe we need to work together to democratise our institutions saw that actually happen when the doctors and nurses took control on the ground, while management did not have a clue’. It remains to be seen whether we can grasp these opportunities (but it will take political leadership as well as individuals’ commitment) or whether we will just get caught up once more in daily practicalities without any genuine change taking place.

Finally, the Observer makes a well-timed plea for people to show their front gardens some love, stressing the importance of green spaces for our wellbeing and the capacity of these gardens to lift the spirits of passers by, especially in these strange times. It’s striking just how many gardens have been paved over to create parking spaces – unsightly but some may consider necessary, at a cost, though: ‘These grey areas are not just a depressing eyesore, they increase urban temperatures and diminish biodiversity by removing plants and habitat’. The Royal Horticultural Society reckons up to a quarter of British front gardens have been paved over for parking. Taking centre stage in the article is a beautiful collection of railway cottage gardens near here, usually open annually for the National Garden Scheme. The RHS’s Fiona Davison says: “The front garden was traditionally where you showed the world your best face, and our version of what a front garden should be is very coloured by the Victorian ideal of a romanticised cottage garden.” There are so many beautiful and interesting plants and trees to observe in people’s gardens during walks: note to self to walk past these particular gardens again soon for a bit of uplifting.

Saturday 6 June

It seems the government’s house of cards is collapsing further, every day bringing more revelations of incompetence and delayed action, which will result in yet more anxiety for an already worried population. During the last 36 hours it emerged that the Westminster government suppressed a report on the Iris pandemic modelling exercise in Scotland in 2018. The report revealed frontline staff “unease” over personal protective equipment and inadequate contact tracing capability, stressing “the need for substantive progress”. This is on top of the 2016 Cygnus Exercise report also not being published, which also revealed significant lack of preparedness. The Iris findings have only come to light because of investigative journalism by the BBC and a Freedom of Information request, so it begs the question what else is being suppressed?

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-52927462

It also emerged that the so-called NHS (aka Serco) contact tracing app won’t be fully operational until the autumn, although on BBC Question Time Nadhim Zaharwi (known as the ‘sponge’ for his attempts to mop up after government mistakes) ‘would like to think’ it would be ready by the end of June. This casts further doubt over the entire test, track and trace strategy, since the various elements are interdependent, so it’s not surprising many have no confidence in it.

Meanwhile, the death toll continues to rise and it’s shocking it’s passed 40,000 when 20,000 at one time was regarded as a good outcome. But this number sidesteps the important issue of excess deaths. Former MP and chair of the Commons Health and Social Care Committee  Sarah Wollaston tweeted: ‘The official UK coronavirus death toll has passed 40,000 but truth is that excess deaths above 5 year average reached that grim milestone some time ago & run at over 60,000 since the pandemic hit. Far many more bereaved families, both directly & indirectly, than being presented’. Palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke tweeted: ‘Yesterday the UK, population 66 million, had more deaths from COVID19 than the *entire* EU, population nearly 450 million. Not even 10 Downing Street can spin that away – it is utterly, irredeemably damning’.

On Any Questions last night smooth-talking Transport Minister Grant Shapps was challenged splendidly by former Speaker John Bercow on the illogicality of the quarantine policy and on the lack of action on BAME vulnerability to COVID19. Bercow was at least the second within 24 hours to suggest government policy was being made ‘on the hoof’, the other being Chris Hopson of NHS Providers, complaining about the sudden decision to make facemask wearing compulsory in hospitals from 15 June. Again, NHS policymakers weren’t warned or consulted, leaving them very little time to prepare for this.

As if we needed further proof that social care needs to be in the public sector in a properly funded national service, this must be it. Today it was revealed that some care home self-funders (who already substantially subsidise local authority funded residents) are being asked to pay more than £100 a week on top of their usual care home fees, to cover COVID19 costs such as PPE and staff absences. There’s very real concern about the affordability for families but also the possibility of residents becoming homeless if providers go bankrupt or decide their profit margins are too low to continue.

Reports suggested costs are more than 30% higher than usual, and that as many as 20,000 care homes may go out of business without urgent extra support. Judy Downey, chair of the Relatives & Residents Association, said: “The R&RA, like the Competition and Markets Authority, takes a very dim view of care providers who exploit the vulnerabilities of older people. This is particularly distressing at such a stressful time when most residents have little knowledge of their contractual rights. Contracts must not be unfair or misleading and must justify any new charge. Forcing residents with little or no alternative to accept unanticipated costs may be exploitative and unfair. It may also be unlawful. We urge all families in this position to contact us or the CMA urgently for further advice.” Although this is helpful advice, I wonder how many even know about this Association and if they do, would they have the energy to contact them if feeling very stressed about the situation they face? And what choice do they have if made to accept the charges? It’s not as if there’s a huge choice of care home accommodation available.  

During the week The Guardian’s parliamentary sketch writer, John Crace, excoriated the PM in a witty and powerful piece about PMQs: ‘The truth is that Boris is a beaten man even before he stands up to speak at the dispatch box. He knows that. Keir knows that. Worst of all, the country knows that. The shouting is all just empty, white noise. A distraction from his own limitations. And at a time of national crisis you can’t get away with putting that on the side of a bus’.

More powerful and damaging, coming as it does from former Tory MP Matthew Parris, is his blistering attack on the PM in The Times today, with the headline ‘Johnson has been tested and found wanting’. Amongst many other things, Parris opined: ‘He never had any judgment or strategic vision. His powers of concentration have always been weak. There never was a golden age of Boris Johnson…Mr Johnson was only ever a shallow opportunist with a minor talent to amuse…Sadly though, he doesn’t have any other skills [than as a self-parodying light entertainer]. He broke into Downing Street by clambering up a drainpipe called Brexit and he never fully believed in that foolish endeavour, as the more deeply-rooted Brexiteers always knew.” Although The Times places its content behind a paywall, you can register to get two free articles a week and some tweeters at the #MatthewParris Twitter hashtag, including Anna Soubry,  reproduced the whole thing.

This must be phrase of the week – ‘he broke into Downing Street by clambering up a drainpipe called Brexit’. Another competing for first place would be Crick Institute scientist Sir Paul Nurse’s observation on Channel 4’s Dispatches, that talking to ministers was ‘like talking to a blancmange – you poke them a bit, they wobble a bit, then go back to their original form’.

Amid ongoing complaints about BBC bias, it was announced that an internal candidate (no surprise there?) Tim Davie, 53, currently head of BBC Studios, will be the BBC’s new Director-General from September. Is the Beeb playing safe sticking with an internal candidate, one who’s not a broadcaster? He said the BBC needed to “accelerate change” to survive in a fast-moving world and that the corporation must “continue to reform, make clear choices and stay relevant”. It will be interesting to see how this works out as the BBC obviously has huge influence over the news agenda and must increasingly compete with streaming channels such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV and the Disney Channel. Surely, though, the salary is excessive, as so often in the public sector these days. We’re told Davie will be paid £525,000 a year – £75,000 more than Lord Hall, but £75,000 less than he was getting as head of BBC Studios.

Shout is described as a ‘free, 24/7 text messaging service, connecting people experiencing mental health crisis to trained volunteers who provide help at a time when it is most needed’. It’s good that Prince William is volunteering for this charity but very unfortunate that media organisations like the BBC and The Guardian refer to him being a ‘counsellor’. This unfortunately contributes to the misunderstandings already prevalent about counselling and psychotherapy, made easier because this profession is still statutorily unregulated. Becoming properly qualified as a counsellor or therapist (not just doing a quick weekend or online course) takes between three and five years, many more when practitioners undertake further qualifications offered by their professional body. For those serious about it, this work also involves a great deal of time and energy on CPD, reflection, supervision and personal therapy. So, great that William has been so committed to promoting mental health, but please don’t call him a ‘counsellor’.

Finally, on a positive note, the Guardian’s weekly Upside newsletter focuses on ‘stories of humanity and opportunities for change’. Recently they invited nominations for community heroes and this edition includes mine – scroll down towards the end. You might like to subscribe to Upside and think about who you would like to nominate in your community!

https://bit.ly/2AMAOsL

 

 

For many the weekend marked a major change after months, as the warm weather and anticipation of Monday’s easing of lockdown restrictions tempted them to start early by inviting people round and meeting outside, often in quite large groups, not to mention flocking to beaches and beauty spots. What took us by surprise, including public health directors who hadn’t been consulted, was the sudden change of advice for those shielding. The PM told them on Thursday that he was ‘afraid’ they’d have to continue in lockdown, but the advice changed on Saturday night, allowing the ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ to go outside if they live alone and meet one friend from Monday. Nikki Kanani, NHS England’s primary care medical director, had also not been informed in advance and health professionals including Dame Donna Kinnair of the Royal College of Nursing are concerned generally about the easing but especially for this group. This lack of consultation is another worrying thing about the government’s strategy, as if it needs to pre-empt objections. Another example of an inadequate defence was Matt Hancock  insisting it had been “very well received by those who are shielded”. Fears of a second wave continue.

Meanwhile, the Dominic Cummings controversy continues to dog the Prime Minister, despite his astonishingly naïve suggestion a week ago that a line had now been drawn under it. The #Borisvoteofnoconfidence and #DominicCummingsMustResign hashtags have been trending on Twitter, as has #NotmovingOnTillDomIsGone, and a petition for the vote of no confidence has nearly 90,000 signatures.

Besides the Cummings row, it does feel as if the government’s house of cards is gradually collapsing because of the number of damaging revelations emerging and problems with various aspects of the strategy. These include the increasing number of key scientists and health professionals speaking out against Cummings’s breach of lockdown restrictions, ‘a matter of personal and professional integrity’; the inadequacy of the test and trace system (leaked figures showed less than half of people in England with confirmed Covid-19 cases have been through the system) and so far no questioning of programme head Dido Harding; the rebuke of Matt Hancock by Sir David Norgrove, (chairman of the UK Statistics Authority) about misrepresenting numbers of tests via confusing presentation of the figures; the under-reporting of care home deaths; the exclusive focus on the NHS and little consideration of the vital social care sector, leading to an estimate of 22,000 care home deaths; the lack of regulatory oversight of the care home situation eg by the Care Quality Commission and the Health and Safety Executive; and illogical policies on quarantine for incoming air passengers.

With 40% of COVID19 deaths having taken place in care homes, the outgoing chair of Hourglass (formerly Action on Elder Abuse), John Beer, said that calls to their confidential helpline relating to concerns over neglect increased by more than 25% since the lockdown began. Before the pandemic around 2m people over 60 in the UK are thought to have experienced some kind of abuse, and the 25% increase relates to relatives’ concerns including knowing homes were taking in new residents without testing or observing isolation periods. So much for the recent statement that ‘from the start a protective ring was thrown around our care homes’.

It all adds up to a further plummeting of confidence and trust in the government, which is worrying both short-term and in the longer term, yet ministers don’t seem to grasp the damage being done by the lies, muddle and obfuscations. It’s striking that according to YouGov surveys conducted on behalf of the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute, less than half of Britons now trust the Westminster government to provide correct information on the pandemic – down from more than two-thirds of the public in mid-April. At Prime Minister’s Questions today Keir Starmer delivered a robust challenge to the PM regarding this collapse in public confidence over the government’s handling of the crisis, saying No 10 would be directly responsible if the infection rate starts to rise again. The Guardian commented: ‘In a significant hardening of his language, Starmer said Johnson had to “get a grip” of the crisis’.

Yet identical-sounding ministers continue to appear in the media, using the same predictable script and soundbites, which surely must convince very few. Asked three times on the Today programme if any European country had a worse death toll than the UK, health minister Edward Argar instead answered questions he hadn’t been asked. A listener tweeted: ‘Doesn’t the government yet realise that their soundbites trotted out at every opportunity about decisions being taken according to ‘the best scientific advice’ hasn’t cut ice for quite some time? Far too selective, politicised and muddied by controversy’.

Channel 4’s Dispatches sounds like essential listening tonight, at 9 pm. It asks: Britain’s Coronavirus Catastrophe – Did the Government Get it Wrong?

https://bit.ly/3gRFFtu

So has any country got things right? We often hear about much sharper and responsive track and trace systems operating in more authoritarian regimes like Taiwan, but Slovakia could be a new success story to us. The Week has coverage from The Atlantic (New York), which says the country had the lowest per capita death rate in Europe, due to prompt action, adopting key measures like sealing borders and closing schools and restaurants within days of cases being confirmed. Wearing face masks was made compulsory in public places and politicians led by example, wearing them in parliament. The key phrase must be: ‘Slovakia’s politicians made a point of leading from the front’, something which manifestly hasn’t happened here.

The easing of lockdown restrictions and more people meeting outside has focused attention on the dire state of many public toilets. Naturally, these have been closed for some time now but their numbers have markedly declined in recent years and how often do users find them in an unhygienic state, missing water, soap, towels or all three? Councils and other bodies responsible for public loos now need to consider how they can be adapted to require touching as few surfaces as possible, but ensuring the supply of water, soap and dryer would be a good start.  

We don’t seem to have heard much in the media about this being Volunteers Week, but everyone will be aware of how the large number of regular volunteers has been augmented by thousands more volunteering during the pandemic. A total of 230 organisations from across the UK have been awarded the prestigious Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service this year – great that they’re being recognised as they make such a difference to people’s lives. Lady Diana Barran, Minister for Civil Society, wrote in the Guardian that the ‘British people and businesses have been incredibly generous: their contributions total over £800m through national fundraising campaigns alone. We’re determined to match that generosity which is why we’re pledging a multibillion-pound boost to bridge the gap and make sure help reaches those who need it most’. This sounds positive but let’s hope the various pledges and schemes come to fruition because there have been plenty of examples of pledges not being honoured and of announcements which are actually new promises of existing funds. It’s especially important because, for obvious reasons, charities have been finding it harder to raise funds during the pandemic.

On a positive note, and we certainly need it now, the Wildlife Trusts are encouraging us to sign up for their 30 Days Wild campaign, which encourages daily activities throughout June to enjoy and appreciate the nature around us. About half a million of us are expected to join in and there should be plenty to observe, especially as lockdown has resulted in more bird and animal sightings, not to mention numerous trees and plants blossoming. Interestingly, more participants are in urban rather than rural areas. It’s well known that close proximity to nature is good for our mental and physical wellbeing and the crisis has lent an additional dimension to the experience. Dom Higgins, the Trusts’ head of Health and Education, said: ‘Our lives have been changed by coronavirus and this is giving people a reason to reflect on our relationship with nature, the way we live our lives and how we spend our free time”.

‘We want you to do one wild thing a day throughout the whole month: for your health, wellbeing and for the planet’) but I think I’ll stick to baking banana bread rather than hedgehog cupcakes!

https://action.wildlifetrusts.org/page/57739/petition/1