Saturday 3 April

A happy Easter to everyone! Whether or not you’re religious, this time of year is associated with a spirit of renewal, even more so this time as Monday signalled the easing of restrictions in England. Although ministers have long erroneously maintained that ‘most people are obeying the rules’ when sights on local high streets tell another story, it does make a big difference now officially being able to meet outside with five others. Another key difference for many will be the measures applied to care home visits, enabling residents and more family members to see each other. The terrible effects of this last year on many care home residents could have been addressed much sooner if the government had indemnified homes from potential litigation. The hollow and oft-repeated statement that a ‘protective ring’ had been ‘thrown around our care homes’ has long been shown as the fib it is, given the numbers of avoidable deaths and continued dithering over compulsory vaccinations for care home workers. But we are where we are, to quote a cliché, and we have to hope that residents and their families will be able to make up some of the ground they’ve lost this year. It would be interesting to know to what extent the government’s urge to resist the temptation to hug others is being heeded now.

Meanwhile, two news items won’t be great for confidence in the beleaguered NHS: 40,600 people in England are reckoned to have contracted the virus while they were inpatients. This isn’t to unfairly blame hardworking staff but another indication of underinvestment in the service and a contradiction of the belief that you go into hospital to be made better.

The other concerning item is the estimate that 122,000 health workers now have Long Covid, when, despite better awareness recently, there’s still a belief in some quarters that this only affects a very small number of people. The Office for National Statistics reports that 1.1 million people in the UK were affected, including 114,000 teachers. This was the first time I’d heard about effects on the teaching profession, when ministers have long insisted that teachers were no more at risk than anyone else, that schools were safe environments to work in and that teachers would not be prioritised for vaccination. The ONS found about 30,000 social care workers also had long Covid, which would be having a significant effect on those receiving care in homes and in the community.

At issue are not only the dire effects on those experiencing it but also the impact of sick leave putting even more strain on the workforce. Even within medical circles, it seems, there’s a lack of understanding. One senior medic said: ‘It is worrying that doctors with long Covid have described their condition as not understood by their colleagues’. Dr Helena McKeown, the workforce lead at the British Medical Association, commented: ‘With around 30,000 sickness absences currently linked to Covid in the NHS in England, we cannot afford to let any more staff become ill. Simply put, if they are off sick, they’re unable to provide care and patients will not get the care and treatment they need’.

Needless to say, an NHS spokesman attempted to suggest that the condition is well catered for, when it’s known that clinics and their services are still in short supply. ‘Our network of long Covid clinics is already supporting healthcare staff who are experiencing ongoing coronavirus symptoms, to make sure they get the right support’.

Although we’ve long known that significant numbers of people weren’t self-isolating after having tested positive for Covid, thereby contributing to infection rates, it’s still a further indictment of £37bn Track and Trace that yet again the isolation part has been operating so badly. Recent findings from a study conducted by researchers from institutions including King’s College London, Public Health England and University College London shows that fewer than a quarter of people in the UK with Covid symptoms are requesting a test, while only half say they are fully self-isolating after symptoms develop. ‘Our data suggest that self-reported rates of full adherence to isolating and testing are low, as are rates of recognition of the main symptoms of Covid-19’. The researchers say the effectiveness of the UK’s test, trace and isolate system is limited. You can say that again. The results are a sharp contrast with Office for National Statistics data for the previous month, which suggest an 86% compliance rate, but the difference has been partly attributed to the ONS data being based solely on cases already in the Test and Trace system.

One of the authors, James Rubin, a professor of psychology of emerging health risks at King’s College London, said there had been improvement in adherence rates but there’s much more to be done. ‘We need to get more people to engage with the system, to recognise the symptoms, to get a test, and then to self-isolate and follow it through,” Rubin said. “We need to be getting people into the mindset of as soon as you’ve got one of these symptoms coming on, get a test. Don’t leave it a few days. Don’t wait until it resolves’. We have to ask what the government and Track and Trace are actually doing about this – like our leaky borders policy, it’s another key risk likely to impact on lockdown exit.

It’s been notable this week that within days there were attempts to exonerate events in  key areas of government policy, leading us to wonder who on earth would be taken in by such transparent whitewashes. The first was exoneration of the police for their conduct at the Sarah Everard vigil, although it’s fair to say the police had damaging mixed messages from the Home Secretary, who had made clear her expectation that the law should be enforced but who then distanced herself from this, condemning the heavy handed approach. But it’s not only policing of protests and the like – it’s also the discovery that the police have harboured some found guilty of misconduct and criminality.

‘Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services found that police ‘did their best’ to peacefully disperse the crowd at Clapham Common in south London, remained professional when subjected to abuse and were not heavy-handed’. This is the result of Priti Patel’s ‘independent inquiry’ into the events of March 18th. We have to seriously ask how independent these so called ‘independent’ bodies are – they certainly seem to be in the government’s pocket.

The second example is the exoneration, by colleagues including Business Minister Kwasi Kwarteng, of former PM David Cameron in the Greensill lobbying issue. ‘Of course He has not broken any rules’. A tweeter got it in one: ‘Of course he hasn’t. The rules are deliberately full of holes because dodgy behaviour is a big earner for former ministers’.

The third and most serious example is the recent finding that British society ‘isn’t institutionally racist’, a report which Doreen Lawrence (mother of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence) said gave a ‘green light to racists’ and set back race relations in this country by 20 years. The 264-page report has 24 recommendations, but on Tuesday only headlines were released by the Government Equalities Office, an approach questionable in itself. ‘The much-delayed report by No 10’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities is likely to spark an angry response from activist groups, with race equality experts describing it as “extremely disturbing” and offensive to black and minority ethnic key workers who have died in disproportionate numbers during the pandemic. The commission’s chairman, Dr Tony Sewell, said the report did not deny that racism exists in Britain, but there was no evidence of actual institutional racism’.

A Black Lives Matter UK spokesman drew attention to other key omissions: “It fails to explore disproportionality in school exclusion, eurocentrism and censorship in the curriculum, or the ongoing attainment gap in higher education. We are also disappointed to learn that the report overlooks disproportionality in the criminal justice system – particularly as police racism served as the catalyst for last summer’s protests’.

Even more doubt was cast on this report when it emerged (did the authors think this wouldn’t be checked?) that several high profile individuals cited in it had actually not been consulted, suggesting the authors’ need to boost the report’s authority. As for the government’s official response, that the UK should be ‘seen as an international exemplar of racial equality’, there are almost no words. This surely has to be one of the worst examples of government gaslighting.

Historian and broadcaster David Olusoga, Professor of Public History at Manchester University, is one of the latest to weigh into the debate. ‘…..hundreds of experts on race, education, health and economics joined the criticism of the report for brazenly misrepresenting evidence of racism’. Olusoga picked out what was for some one of the most astonishing statements in it. ‘Shockingly, the authors – perhaps unwittingly – deploy a version of an argument that was used by the slave owners themselves in defence of slavery 200 years ago: the idea that by becoming culturally British, black people were somehow beneficiaries of the system’. The report’s defenders have hit out at the amount of abuse Commissioners have been subjected to, but although this isn’t ideal, it’s perhaps strange that they’ve been surprised by this.

It will further undermine public trust in the government and raise public anxiety that so many highly questionable areas of policy are found to be acceptable. It seems to follow a pattern that in all these examples the reports criticise the critics, as if somehow their well-founded reactions were not valid, a kind of silencing.

But despite the denial regularly meted out by sycophantic supporters, the PM’s errors and blunders are recognised in some Tory quarters. Sir Alan Duncan, who had been the PM’s deputy at the Foreign Office, has, in diaries serialised in the Daily Mail, called Boris Johnson ‘a clown, a self-centred ego, an embarrassing buffoon, with an untidy mind and sub-zero diplomatic judgment’ and ‘an international stain on our reputation’. Oof.

Other key figures don’t get off lightly, either. Theresa May is said to have ‘an apparent lack of personality on the campaign trail…a frightened rabbit, a cardboard cut-out, her social skills are sub-zero’. Home Secretary Priti Patel is seen as ‘a nothing person, a complete and utter nightmare, the Wicked Witch of Witham’. Oof, again.

An item of news covered only selectively by the media has been the detailed revelations by Jennifer Arcuri about her four year affair with Boris Johnson, politically important because of the amount of public money allegedly directed her way. ‘Boris Johnson faces an inquiry by the Greater London Authority – responsible for the mayor’s office – over claims his failure to declare his relationship with Arcuri may have been a breach of the Nolan Principles of Public Life, which are contained in the Mayor of London’s code of conduct. Arcuri was granted access to events at three top level trade missions, despite her businesses not meeting the criteria for the trips’. Expect this to be another example of media collusion in government cover-ups and for our PM more water off a duck’s back.

Meanwhile, it’s almost amusing to know how much the Get Brexit Done obsessed Boris Johnson wanted the EU off his back, but how such a stance is antithetical to his ‘global Britain’ aims, as evidenced by the ongoing disputes over vaccine shortages and the Northern Ireland protocol. But isn’t it strange the government hadn’t grasped before that the EU will still be very important for UK foreign policy?

‘For this government, the EU is not a priority. It wants to focus on other parts of the world, not least the US and Indo-Pacific, as the recent integrated review made clear. Its other priority is domestic, on the post-pandemic recovery and “levelling up”. Yet across the two days we convened, it became clear that the success and impact of ‘global Britain’, as the government has pitched it, very much depends on a more productive relationship with the EU’. This article makes the clear the need for joint working through of post-Brexit difficulties rather than resorting to unilateral decisions. It remains to be seen whether our lazy, detail-allergic PM and his hardball playing Brexit minister ‘Lord’ Frost can change their longstanding habits and step up to this crucial ‘plate’.  This is ‘water’ that won’t be so easily flicked off the duck’s back.

It’s ironic, then, that our PM is positioning himself, along with other world leaders like Merkel and Macron, in calling for a global approach to the pandemic. Twenty-four world leaders are calling for a treaty in response to the understanding that ‘a future global pandemic is an inevitability and that Covid has served as ‘a stark and painful reminder that nobody is safe until everyone is safe’. Escalating international tensions over vaccine supplies have led to calls for countries to abandon isolationism and nationalism, and come together to make way for a new era founded on principles like solidarity and cooperation’. We have to wonder if this is another example of ‘cakeism’: the UK positions itself as a global leader, calling for international cooperation, but still wants to cling to British exceptionalism and isolationism in some areas.

Having written about this previously, it’s been interesting to see more speaking up about ‘re-entry anxiety’, anxiety associated with coming out of lockdown.Former Woman’s Hour presenter Jenni Murray wrote about this in Saga Magazine and many others have expressed disquiet about lack of confidence in going out and about again, using public transport and even talking to others ‘in the flesh’. It represents a massive emergence from a kind of comfort zone many have occupied for most of the last year. A key aspect is how we dress ‘for society instead of the sofa’, but who’d have thought we’d need articles on ‘How to dress up after a year in leggings and loungewear’? It would be interesting to know how many did and will again make such preparations – not everyone, for sure. Rather than being at home most of the time, ‘getting dressed is a whole different ballgame from just wearing clothes. It’s when you plan an outfit; when you think about the optics first, and just make the practicalities work.’

This article’s author found that some dressing up really helped her mood, helping with the ‘groundhog’ days. ‘But this is not really about clothes. It is about relearning how to operate in polite society after a period in which we have gone a bit feral. Feeling self-conscious about putting on a party dress and worrying that you have forgotten how to make small talk are expressions of the same core anxiety. There is no getting away from the fact that re-engagement with the world is going to require energy’.

Communities and their resilience – what have we learned? This is the subject of the third of a three part series, Lessons on a Crisis, presented by the BBC’s Evan Davis, focusing on different aspects of the pandemic. He opened by saying ‘community is the most nebulous but the most important’ of the subjects covered. Several examples of ‘civic activism’ are described, including a Sikh food bank in Glasgow. One contributor quite rightly said how the pandemic had greatly increased awareness of our immediate environment, both the wider neighbourhood, such as the park, and your own road and home and how these can be enhanced. Davis usefully asked contributors how we can hang onto the good things communities have been doing, whether it’s Whatsapp groups or local church activities. Dame Louise Casey, known for her longstanding career in social policy and homelessness, highlighted how the pandemic had increased frailty and inequalities, including the digital divide. I think this programme clearly illustrates that while community can be a massive influence and force for good, this doesn’t reduce the need for government policy and statutory services. We can’t solely rely on what David Cameron called ‘the Big Society’.

It’s consistent with this programme’s content that, according to Ipsos MORI and BBC polling, 40% of Britons expect to do more walking after the pandemic than before and 31% plan to do more of their shopping locally.

Finally, The Week, in its ‘Spirit of the Age’ section, tells of New Yorkers hiring ‘healers’ to ‘spiritually clear’ their homes after a year stuck mostly inside. One of these ‘healers’, who boasts Wall Street bankers and celebrities as her clients, is charging $700 for a small flat, during which she will spray possessions with ‘positive energy’ infused water. Others offering this service ‘roam apartments ringing a bell or chanting’. This could be thought an easy way to make money. How long before some spot this business opportunity here, or maybe they already have?

Sunday 28 March

As we pass the anniversary of the first lockdown, the British Academy, the UK’s national academy for the humanities and the social sciences, issued a major report, warning of a post-pandemic decade of ‘social and cultural upheaval’ featuring significant inequality and deprivation. Set up last year, initiated by the Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, the report has contributions from over 200 academic social science and humanities experts and hundreds of research projects.

Although recent months have seen much talk about how things have to change, it sounds as if the Academy has some doubts about this happening. ‘The British Academy warned that failure to understand the scale of the challenge ahead and deliver changes would result in a rapid slide towards poorer societal health, more extreme patterns of inequality and fragmenting national unity’. One of the main interventions needed is a major investment in public services, such as education and health, especially mental health. The report recognises the plummeting of public trust in the government, which we know contributes to the anxiety many have been experiencing. In the observations about ‘returning to normal’ not being enough there’s perhaps a hint that public services need reconfiguring as well as reinvestment, but this is a government ideologically opposed to public services. It’s likely the warnings against over-optimism are directed at our Prime Minister.

The Academy identifies three key areas for action: addressing declining public trust, deepening inequalities and worsening mental health. BA Chief Executive Hetan Shah  said: ‘A year from the start of the first lockdown, we all want this to be over. However, in truth, we are at the beginning of a Covid decade. Policymakers must look beyond the immediate health crisis to repair the profound social damage wrought by the pandemic’.

Meanwhile, especially during Tuesday’s National Day of Reflection, Boris Johnson was all over the airwaves, expressing regret for the 126,000 who lost their lives (some have estimated the numbers much higher, eg 130,000) and seeming to only imply there are things he should have done differently. He repeatedly stonewalled on the need for a public inquiry now (not kicked down the road for years), resorting to the ‘the time will come, now isn’t the time’ argument and clearly hadn’t rehearsed a response to BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg’s question as what he should have done differently. A rather stumbling and bumbling Boris Johnson waffled for a while, then said it had been unfortunate they hadn’t known about asymptomatic transmission. This is to entirely sidestep the major mistakes he made, which are well-known. Labour’s shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth said many of the errors had been the PM’s and urged him again to order an inquiry. ‘The tragic reality is we’ve seen a litany of errors from Boris Johnson’.

‘Public health should have been central to our response from the start, the failure to sufficiently financially support people to isolate has been a monstrous failure, the lack of protection for care homes was negligent, contact tracing should have been community led. And years of underfunding and cutbacks left our NHS vulnerable and exposed when the virus hit. Given future pandemic risk lessons must be learned – meaning a public inquiry is vital’.

The Guardian’s John Crace didn’t hold back on the PM’s omissions, noting that none of these errors and oversights had featured in Tuesday’s press briefing. ‘Boris Johnson hadn’t bothered to attend five Cobra meetings; he had insisted on ignoring the scientific evidence by boasting about shaking hands; he had allowed the Cheltenham Festival to go ahead. And there would have been all hell to pay if he had tried to cancel Carrie Symonds’s baby shower at Chequers. Then there was the abject failure of test and trace in its early months. The care home scandal. The over-optimistic relaxation of the rules over the summer. The refusal to adopt a circuit breaker in autumn. The complacent messaging around Christmas. The delay in bringing in a third national lockdown.So arguably what the country was also pausing to remember was the many thousands of people who had lost their lives through Johnson’s incompetence and negligence’.

It seems especially tasteless that rather than admit fault when he must have realised at least some of the thousands of bereaved would be watching, he resorted to praising the British spirit of endurance during restrictions and talking up the vaccination programme, as if these cancel out the catastrophic effects of his foolhardiness. ‘Johnson probably couldn’t do his job without a high level of denial about the mistakes he has made. If he were to seriously think of the consequences of some of his decisions, then he wouldn’t be able to sleep at night’.

The Guardian reported on how the bereaved and Long Covid survivors experienced the National Day of Reflection. ‘For the families and friends bereaved by Covid-19, it is a day to quietly contemplate those they have lost. For long Covid survivors, it is a reminder the vaccine-enabled relaxing of restrictions will not do much for the bodies they are trapped in that do not work like they used to. For everyone else, it is a day to take stock. So many taken before their time. The nation grieves’. The losses have been made even more painful because of limitations on physical contact and on numbers allowed to attend funerals and wakes. This has deprived the bereaved of the necessary ritual of public acknowledgement of their loss. Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK has repeatedly called for a public inquiry and for therapeutic support for the bereaved, to no avail.

The article cites some distressing examples of the effects of Long Covid, much overlooked during the early stages. Claire Hastie used to cycle 13 miles a day to her full-time job but is now a wheelchair user on long-term sick leave. It’s shocking that the support group she formed for Long Covid sufferers has over 37,000 members but 74%  of the 268 who tried to access the patchy NHS treatment and support for this condition were unsuccessful, for reasons like lack of provision in their area or the fact they hadn’t been hospitalised. Many Long Covid sufferers feel ignored or left behind as the country moves out of lockdown. ‘……for some bereaved, this sense that society does not want to look their suffering square in the face can compound feelings of estrangement and alienation’. Let’s hope that despite the understandable wish to return to something approaching ‘normality’ (though this needs redefining) we don’t, as a society, forget those bereaved, disabled and cut off by the aftermath of this punishing virus.

Meanwhile, The Conversation details six lessons the UK should have learned by now. They are: act quickly (not delaying lockdowns and circuit breakers by weeks despite evidence of mounting cases); act decisively (instead of going for half measures and unworkable steps presented as solutions, eg policy on arrivals at airports); trust people to follow the rules (lack of trust contributed to delayed lockdowns); communicate clearly (what we’ve seen is inconsistent messages throughout and the government only ‘levelling with the British public when it wants to raise taxes); tackle inequality (crucial in its own right but also as deprived communities have seen the highest number of infections); be prepared (for example not ignoring the results of major exercises like Cygnus, the 2016 three-day pandemic preparedness simulation.

One of the main points of the communicate clearly section is the damage caused by faulty messaging on restrictions, leading to absurd examples like the Barnard Castle fiasco. Many will also remember the circulation of videos and memes featuring a Boris Johnson lookalike (one being courtesy of Matt Lucas) conveying the farcically contradictory messages: you must work from home if you can, but if you can’t do go to work, don’t go to work, and so on.

‘Over the course of the past year, people in the UK have been in lockdown at least as long as they have been out of it. Even when people have officially been free from full lockdown, they have been living under some form of restrictions. It is absolutely vital that this third and longest lockdown is also the last’.

These ‘lessons’ are even more vital given fears over the Third Wave sweeping through Europe now, compounded by the poor vaccination record in many of these countries and concerns over vaccine shortages. ‘If a slow down in vaccine rollout is not countered by slower relaxation, we can expect more hospitalisations and deaths. Imperial College modelling suggests the UK can expect a further 30,000 coronavirus deaths by next June’. Alarming stuff, yet people still rushed to book flights and summer holidays the minute the lockdown exit ‘roadmap’ was issued despite government advice to the contrary, and the UK’s leaky border policy never prevented the influx of potential cases. It’s a salutary reminder that we can’t just think about what the UK does – we have to take full account of what’s going on in mainland Europe and elsewhere, including the rise of new variants.

As ever, the UK is behind the curve, this time on limiting travel, but is now considering extending the  list of ‘red zone’ countries, currently just 35 though many more have been in the frame including the no brainer – France. ‘Official data published by the UK government on Thursday showed 412 cases of the variant first identified in South Africa had been found in the UK so far. This is the variant causing most anxiety among ministers because some studies have suggested it may be partially resistant to vaccines’. Labour’s Yvette Cooper gave Boris Johnson a challenging time on this during the week and our PM, sounding very hesitant, said they would have to ‘look at’ this (including testing haulage drivers coming from France) but that it would be difficult. ‘Looking at’ always sounds to me like sending something to the bottom of the priority list or kicking it down the road altogether.

This is so typical of the government: if something’s difficult that’s an excuse not to try it but this is not good enough. One of the problems is that ministers aren’t all on the same page regarding the level of caution to be exercised. Some commentators have been struck by the leeway suddenly given to those with second homes, where travel wouldn’t normally be allowed but now it’s permissible to travel to them if the owner’s purpose is to prepare those homes for rental. This has widely been seen as a get-out clause for the Prime Minister’s lawbreaking father, Stanley Johnson, long known for his disregard for rules. A wag tweeted: ‘Surprised Stan hasn’t been given his own show: Great Lockdown Journeys’.

As if critics didn’t have enough to lambast Boris Johnson about, he came in for more stick last week due to his habit of making throwaway remarks, which the press and others then seize upon as policy but which clearly haven’t been subjected to intelligent thought or scrutiny. More cautious colleagues and policymakers then have to scrabble around trying to tone down these shootings from the PM’s hip. One was the suggestion that pub landlords would themselves be able to decide about vaccine passports (surely a recipe for confusion and inconsistency).

He was also branded irresponsible (not to mention tactless) for suggesting that people had had ‘enough days off’ and should go back to work, when many workers have been struggling to keep going, often several workers in the same property and home schooling children at the same time. This also clashes with an emerging consensus that the future of work is more likely to be a hybrid model, working from home some days and going into the office on others. His suggestion was also out of turn because the policy is subject to an ongoing government review, so it’s likely the people working on this could feel his intervention was unhelpful, to say the least.

Another example of ‘misspeaking’ tin ear was telling the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers that ‘greed’ was the reason for the success of Britain’s vaccine rollout. (‘Capitalism’ and ‘giant corporations’ had enabled Britain to secure such large vaccine supplies before other countries). Not the most sensible of remarks to make given heightened tensions across Europe regarding vaccine availability. One tweeter observed: ‘No, Boris Johnson, the success of the vaccination programme was down to the quality of our NHS with its public health service ethos.  “Capitalism and greed” helped you waste £37bn on a private industry track and trace system that doesn’t work’.

As ever with our Prime Minister, though, all criticism seems to be water off a duck’s back. We have to wonder if he reads any critiques or if his ‘people’ don’t tell him about them. The most striking expression of opprobrium could well have been John Crace’s account of Boris Johnson’s Prime Minister’s Questions performance. ‘How much longer can this go on? Previous prime ministers have at least been on nodding terms with the truth, but Boris Johnson is completely without shame. Without conscience. A sociopath for whom no lie is off limits, either in his public or his private life. What counts is reality as he would like it to be’.

That he’s allowed to get away with so much economy with the truth must have something to do with the apparent weakness of the current Speaker: you can imagine John Bercow would have challenged the PM much more on his fibs and evasions, not to mention failure to answer questions. This week one example was on the reduction of troops a part of the defence review. ‘The thing that was going to happen was not the thing that was going to happen. Reducing the number of troops was not actually reducing the number of troops because fewer soldiers would actually be more effective than having more. No wonder the Labour leader looked thoroughly confused by the time he had finished his six questions. Everyone was’. This despite the Tory manifesto promise not to cut the number of troops, although these days manifesto promises seem made to be broken.

‘How much longer can this go on? Just keep delaying the public inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic indefinitely and he could remain “world king” for many more years’.

The government continues to dance on the head of a proverbial pin over compulsory vaccination for care home workers, a no brainer in the eyes of many considering the residents are sitting ducks. The libertarian ethos undermines the need to do the right thing, despite the gall of talking about having a ‘duty of care’ to residents and staff.  Remember the undertaking to ‘throw a protective ring around our care homes’?

‘The Telegraph reported that the sub-committee paper had warned that a “large” number of social care workers could quit if the change is made, while there could be successful lawsuits on human rights grounds’. This is very difficult for care home managers, wanting to protect their residents and staff but at the same time clearly up against the shortage of social care workers.

Meanwhile, there’s growing awareness of the massive falls in numbers of referrals for cancer treatment and urgent surgery. ‘Now an analysis of NHS England data by Cancer Research UK has found that the number of people urgently referred for suspected lung cancer fell by 34% between March 2020 and January 2021 compared with the same time period in 2019/2020 – adjusted for working days. That, they say, equates to about 20,300 fewer people being urgently referred’. Other cancers were affected to a lesser but still significant extent and there’s also a big backlog of knee and hip operations.

In a Cancer Research UK survey of 1000 GPs, 91% said a key factor was patients’ reluctance to attend hospitals for tests, with more than three-quarters citing patients not seeking primary care. And another worrying factor in the way primary care is increasingly run is the use of remote consultations making it much harder to spot potential cancer symptoms. The big question now is how will the NHS be supported to tackle these backlogs?

As the debate over violence towards women continues, the Guardian discussed one of the overlooked costs of violence, that is, suicides of the women involved. These deaths have resulted from violence but aren’t counted in the usual statistics because the women have taken their own lives. Although the figures are unclear, it seems they are significant. One study suggests that of the female suicides in England and Wales, one third were victims of domestic violence. The impossibility of estimating statistics were spelt out by activist Karen Blatchford, who tweets them at Female Suicide @we_are_nina). ‘I’m dependent on local press reports of inquests and only one in 10 [of all inquests] are reported. Families are often unrepresented. The abuse might not be raised’.

In such situations it’s common to hear people ask ‘Why don’t they just leave?’ But it’s much more complicated than that and will often involve a longstanding belief on the victim’s part that they don’t deserve better. But a another major factor is the expectation or otherwise of getting help. ‘The fear of not being believed or properly supported can play a huge part in driving a suicide, says Dr Jane Monckton-Smith, a forensic criminologist who specialises in homicide, stalking and coercive control. Domestic abuse has a higher rate of repeat victimisation than any other crime, says Monckton-Smith, who has written a book about coercive control. ‘If you’re not believed, then you can’t get safety’. It means the police can’t help you, the court can’t help you – and the abuser can act with impunity. It means there’s no way out’. Critics of the current legal system feel that it should be possible to criminalise abusive conduct, holding perpetrators responsible for another’s suicide.

Related to last week’s piece about ‘re-entry anxiety’, public toilets and benches are cited in a report about loneliness and the difficulties emerging from the lack of these facilities in public spaces, proving a disincentive for people to meet up. But for a number of reasons, a survey by Opinium of 2,000 UK adults found that 32% worried that they may not be able to connect with people in the same way as before. In a British Red Cross survey, it was found that (35%) of Britons feel less connected to their community than they did before Covid-19 and 39% don’t expect their loneliness to disappear once restrictions are lifted.

‘The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Loneliness wants Boris Johnson and his government to ensure that the country has a “connected recovery”. They also want ministers to do more to close the digital divide, plan new housing developments so that residents can spend time together and fund charities and voluntary organisations that help “the lonely and cut-off”. The pandemic has shown how much we need connections of all kinds, but what faith can we have in the government addressing such a need when they’ve been blind to such socioeconomic issues in the past?

A government statement was quick to mention the sums invested in work to address the problems but it’s not just a matter of investment – it has to be effectively targeted and followed through. ‘Since the beginning of the pandemic we have invested over £31.5m in organisations supporting people who experience loneliness and a further £44m to organisations supporting people with their mental health. We recognise that the easing of lockdown restrictions will not mean the end of loneliness for many people, which is why this will remain a priority for the government’.

During the pandemic many of us have become so familiar with Zoom that it’s hard to imagine life without it now. It seems fairly likely to assume that its use will continue after restrictions end, in the key contexts of work, learning and social life. Now research has shown that complaints of ‘Zoom fatigue’, feeling ‘zoomed out’, are very real. Researchers at California’s Stanford University have identified four reasons for this fatigue, a major one being the effect of seeing yourself so prominently all the time on screen, ‘like being followed around by someone holding a mirror’. The second is the amount of eye contact involved, whereas normally people would be shifting their gaze from one person to another, looking at notes and so on. The third is the lack of the usual cues in this kind of interaction and the fourth is the need to remain in the same spot to ensure they’re on camera. Something not mentioned is the disconcerting time lag in the audio so people often end up speaking at once because they’ve not realised someone is already speaking. It also rather undermines spontaneity when someone wanting to speak has to raise their hand each time, one problem being that, depending on numbers present, the host can’t see all the participants at the same time and has to toggle between ‘pages’.

Perhaps the most interesting finding, though, is that last year the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons saw a 70% uplift in requests for consultations, a significant number from men.

Finally, another form of communication, letter writing, seems to have taken on a new lease of life during the last year. Long neglected during an era of email and social media, personal letters have creatively filled time for some during lockdowns and given solace to others participating in pen pal schemes. ‘…..letters are good for us – humans thrive on activity and connectivity, and feel thwarted in the absence of those things. Letters offer a reprieve from the sameyness of lockdown, which made us simultaneously time rich and connection poor’.

An academic points out how letters are also ‘first-person accounts of history as it unfolds…..Letter-writing puts you into a speculative mode….some of the best essays in literature start as letters.” The writer of this article explained how writing letters helped her cope with the loss of her mother, a point which conveys the therapeutic nature of this activity for both writer and recipient. It’s so delightful to receive a handwritten letter through the post, given that the bulk of stuff coming through our letterboxes smacks of obligation and tedium, whether it’s the Census form or the Council Tax bill. So let’s hope this very positive development continues after the last difficult year: who will you write to next?

Saturday 20 March

We’re now fast approaching the anniversary of the start of the first lockdown and what a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. Now that about 130,000 lives have been lost, it will be interesting to see how the public mourning day  (National Day of Reflection) goes on Tuesday, to be marked by a minute’s silence at noon, bells tolling and landmarks lit up at 8 pm. I wonder how comforting the bereaved and everyone else will find this, given the number of missed opportunities and errors made in controlling the spread of the pandemic. It’s also grim news that a third wave is hanging over Europe, a number of countries experiencing rising cases and some re-imposing lockdown, more alarming given vaccine shortages and poor take-up of vaccine.

All this reinforces the fact that the UK can’t exist in isolation – what happens in Europe affects the situation here. We’re hearing again, from epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson and others, that it’s unwise to book foreign holidays this year, begging the question of what will happen to the thousands who have booked holidays and flights with Easyjet and the like. Easyjet reported a 330% rise in flight bookings and a 630% rise in holiday bookings to Mediterranean resorts, optimism perhaps prematurely born of the lockdown exit roadmap, progress with vaccination and work on vaccine passports. If flights and holidays have to be cancelled, let’s hope the situation doesn’t result in the same lengthy procedures to obtain refunds as last year. 

The week began with continuing anger and debate about the ‘heavy-handed’ police handling of the Sarah Everard vigil last Saturday evening, prompting calls for the resignation of Met chief Dame Cressida Dick. She refused to resign but we have to ask, even if she did, would her replacement be any better and would it do anything to quell the expression of latent anger around male violence towards women? Probably not, as these issues have been building a head of steam for some years. The Times reports on policing minister Kit Malthouse calling Dick a ‘superlative officer’. He spoke after Sir Peter Fahy, a former chief constable, said that Dick’s job had been made impossible by the politics of being accountable to both the Home Secretary and the Mayor of London, diametrically opposed in their approaches. The number of people cited or quoted in the article demonstrates just how many have popped up to give their opinion on the debate.

Interest in the case was reinforced not only by the suspect having been a serving police officer but also by the Commons second reading of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the measures of which many find draconian. An example made much of is the possibility of a ten year custodial sentence for causing ‘annoyance’ to someone. The Bill is regarded in some quarters as a route to silencing legitimate protest, curbing civil liberties and undermining our democracy, measures set to continue after the pandemic as well as during it. Despite passing its second Commons reading by 359 votes to 263, though, it looked as if the government has listened for once, as the Committee stage has been delayed, suggesting a rethink on the government’s part. The parody ‘Boris Johnson’ Twitter account tweeted: ‘Not sure I’ve thought this through properly – if you can get ten years in prison for “causing serious annoyance” I think I might be in trouble’.

Guardian sketch writer John Crace offered a typically sarcastic deconstruction of Home Secretary Priti Patel’s role in the debate. Patel’s interventions often come across as rather feeble, such as describing things as ‘upsetting’ or calling for inquiries. ‘The right to protest is a fundamental liberty’, Patel insisted. Just so long as it wasn’t done in a way that was noisy or annoying to her. From now on, any protest must be done in a whisper – preferably between 11 and 11.15 in the morning – and only be on government-approved topics….the Home Secretary did her best to deflect accusations – from her own benches as well as the opposition – that the police response had been heavy-handed, lacking in empathy and disproportionate. She had been in discussions with the Met on the Friday and Saturday before the event, she admitted, though it had completely slipped her mind just what those conversations had been about’.

Thanks to a memo leaked to the Guardian days later, we now have a better idea just what those conversations consisted of, the mixed messages resulting in the police  feeling hung out to dry. ‘One chief constable said the message from Patel and the government before the vigil had been clear, that a ban on gatherings had to be enforced’. Then, as we know, Patel weighed in to criticise the way the vigil had been handled, to give Cressida Dick ‘a dressing down’ and to order an inquiry. ‘Senior policing sources say there was no doubt of what the government wanted to be done as forces wrestled with how to act’. After all this, we have to question ‘a Whitehall source’ which suggested that Dame Cressida had a ‘good working relationship’ with the Home Secretary. One of the surprising things about such episodes is how often ministers complacently assume that the truth behind the media version won’t emerge.

Meanwhile, the Guardian published a useful discussion between men about violence against women. One contributor said: ‘But the thing is, learned behaviour is passive. These attitudes and beliefs about manhood, they’re actively taught. It’s media culture, sports culture, peer culture and porn culture. All these influences teach men certain lessons about manhood and social norms that are produced and reproduced at every level. The reason it’s so hard to deal with these issues is because we can’t just isolate individual perpetrators as pathological monsters. Because it is our society that’s producing these abusive men on a regular basis, generation after generation, across class, race and ethnicity.’ Another suggested: ‘They have to move past this idea that because they don’t go out and murder women or beat their girlfriends, they’re not part of the problem. Because they may still be perpetrating the norms of masculinity that contribute to this situation’.

Alarming headlines earlier this week revealed that the NHS will be at risk unless it gets an extra £8bn within days, a situation which stems from its budget still not being settled despite the new financial year rapidly approaching. Besides coping with Covid cases, the NHS has a huge backlog of surgery and other treatments to catch up on. As if the NHS needed anything else to be rightly dissatisfied about, this latest budgetary delay will be adding to the anger about the proposed 1% pay rise (which will rumble on until the Pay Review Body publishes its findings) and claims of unhelpful pressure from ministers regarding the vaccination programme.

Alongside trumpeting vaccination progress (despite recent concerns about vaccine shortages) the Prime Minister and ministers are thought to be creating false expectations in the public about how soon they can be vaccinated, putting unfair pressure on staff. One senior NHS staffer said: ‘There is frustration that the politicians are very focused on political boasting about the success of the vaccine rollout and who’s going to get jabbed when, without taking into account the operational complexity of what that means. The risk is that these political boasting messages will create undue expectation over who can get their jab when, which risks overwhelming NHS staff who are already going as fast as they can. Staff are annoyed that the government seems obsessed with how things will play politically and in the media, but has no sense of the public health impact of such statements’.

Despite the colossal bill for Test and Trace (£37bn) we know it’s still not working effectively, exemplified by it taking a week to discover the rogue Brazilian case in South London recently. Despite cases falling in most areas of the country, reports say they’re rising in the East Midlands, with other areas looking ‘uncertain’. An interesting report on Saturday’s Radio 4 Today programme reported how Suffolk was now mostly doing its own testing and tracing, the local public health route many believed was the best approach in the first place. It’s obtaining good outcomes by receiving results very quickly and phoning people, going door to door, and using translators where necessary, a better way of getting those to self-isolate who need to. Although some aspects of the national programme still have to be used, this proves the benefits of a local approach rather than over-reliance on a slower, centralised approach, especially one costing so much.

Meanwhile, the government is coming under increasing pressure to set up a public inquiry about its pandemic management. Public figures like Dame Joan Bakewell, author Michael Rosen, film director Stephen Frears, government scientific advisors Professor John Edmunds and Professor Andrew Hayward and former head of the Civil Service Lord Bob Kerslake have added their voices to those of the Covid 19 Bereaved Families for Justice, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing, the NHS Race and Health Observatory, the Care Campaign for the Vulnerable (representing carers of those who died in care homes), the Muslim Council of Britain, the Labour Party and Lib Dems. ‘The calls came at the end of a week in which a group representing more than 2,800 bereaved issued an ultimatum to Boris Johnson that they would start legal action within weeks unless he triggered a statutory public inquiry. They want it to have the power to subpoena witnesses and evidence and to examine the reasons the UK has the worst per capita death toll of any of the world’s largest economies’.

Rosen said he wanted the inquiry to focus in part on why the virus was allowed to take hold in the UK in February and March last year, saying that he suspected ‘the government were experimenting with herd immunity without vaccination’. He said he believed he was a victim of that experiment, as were the thousands who died or are still suffering from long Covid. Unfortunately (but how much longer can this defence be wheeled out?) the usual response is to kick the can down the road, meaning lessons won’t be learned and those responsible won’t be properly held to account. ‘We are focused on protecting the NHS and saving lives and now is not the right time to devote huge amounts of official time to an inquiry. There will be an appropriate time in the future to look back, analyse and reflect on all aspects of this global pandemic’.

But it’s not only these organisations and individuals. MPs on the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee issued a blistering report on the handling of the pandemic, including criticising Michael Gove for not appearing before them, regarding this as ‘contemptuous of Parliament’. ‘MPs examined the government’s levels of transparency and openness around the data underpinning key decisions, finding a lack of sufficient explanation that it says has placed needless strain on public confidence…. accountability for decisions and the data on which they are based must be clear to ensure the trust of the public’. The government maintained that it had been ‘guided by the latest scientific advice at every stage of the pandemic’ but we now know how selective this has been. This is such an important point because lack of trust in the government contributes massively to public anxiety.

Separately, the Times describes how a BBC documentary reiterated what we’ve already learned, about how our Prime Minister initially thought the best strategy was to ignore Covid, also ignoring medical advice to tell people not to shake hands with each other and treating the situation like ‘hysteria’. ‘A senior figure’ also confirmed to BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg that there was indeed ‘a genuine argument’ within government about pursing a policy of ‘herd immunity’, despite the later denials. Of course we have to make some allowances for some current observations being the wisdom of hindsight, but even so it’s clear there was significantly damaging complacency and delayed action.

A reader commented on this article: ‘What is crushing is knowing that Johnson did this not because he is a libertarian but because he is so horrifically over-promoted. A chaotic and mendacious journalist and a part-time city mayor is poorly positioned to be prime minister. On what basis would Johnson take any serious decision? He clearly could not imagine, for the first time in his life, taking responsibility. We are very badly served at the moment by our politicians, but Johnson is indubitably the worst. As with Trump (who only otherwise shares with Johnson a similarly painful lack of knowledge of what his job entailed) you can’t row back overnight from decades of self-indulgent parasitism’.

It must have been galling for some, especially Matt Hancock, having defended the former Downing Street fixer during the Barnard Castle pantomime, that Dominic Cummings didn’t hold back in his own criticisms of early pandemic policy. The Guardian’s John Crace details how Cummings described Hancock’s Department of Health and Social Care as having been ‘an absolute, total mess’, a ‘smoking ruin’ in the aftermath of its failure to provide enough PPE. He said this is why he and Patrick Vallance (no mention of the PM!) had insisted that the vaccine programme be taken out of Hancock’s hands. Heading up the Downing Street press briefing later, ‘Door Matt also did his best to swerve questions on Dom’s remarks about the Department of Health. ‘It’s a team effort….We have a positive mission, can-do spirit’. Except some parts of the team had been noticeably weaker than others. He looked miserable. All Tigger spent’.

This abject lack of preparedness is detailed in a new book, reviewed by former Labour Health Secretary Alan Johnson. He begins his review with an almost poignant anecdote from 2007, of how the then Chief Medical Officer, Liam Donaldson, had explained to him why a pandemic was due. ‘Liam had been instrumental in shaking politicians out of their torpor not only here but, through his role at the World Health Organization (WHO), around the globe. It had been his report on infectious diseases in 2002 that sparked Britain’s efforts to prepare properly for what was to come. That report led to a ministerial committee on pandemic planning and in turn to a national response framework approved by parliament. In January and February 2007, 5,000 doctors, nurses, police officers, soldiers and civil servants took part in Operation Winter Willow, a rigorous rehearsal for the real thing’.

Swine flu duly struck two years later, though its effects were milder than had been anticipated and it seems that this later led to some complacency, whereby the government was nowhere near prepared for what was to come. In Failures of State: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle With Coronavirus by journalists Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott (HarperCollins), the authors suggest that ‘a combination of austerity and “the government’s one-eyed obsession with Brexit” had eroded our defences. There had been another scaled-down rehearsal in 2016, codenamed Cygnus, after which the official verdict was that Britain’s preparations were by now inadequate for the “extreme demands” of a pandemic. It was a danger signal that seems to have been ignored’.

Although former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and others have suggested that flu (the focus of Cygnus) and Coronavirus are different, Johnson points out that ‘there are more similarities than differences between the two. Both are respiratory diseases emerging from a novel virus. Both require detailed plans for containment through isolation, quarantine and contact tracing. And, crucially, both require substantial stocks of personal protective equipment. In any case, given that it had been 16 years since Sars and 11 since swine flu, we should have been well prepared for both’. Johnson details the authors’ sources of evidence and the damning death toll, ending with the profoundly depressing evidence that the vaccination programme is being used to deflect attention from the colossal scale of this mismanagement. One of the best tweets I’ve seen for a long time reads: ‘Defending the government’s handling of the pandemic by saying “but the vaccine” is like telling someone whose arm’s been chopped off that they should be grateful for the antibiotics they’ve been given by the person wielding the rusty chainsaw’.

It’s usually assumed that everyone is champing at the bit to get out of lockdown and back out to social venues, meeting others and going on holiday, but the situation is more nuanced than that. There’s now awareness of what’s being called ‘reentry anxiety’ which could affect us in some ways after effectively a year of restrictions on our movements. ‘Alongside anxieties about returning to the office, or socialising with people one may not have seen for more than a year, the thought of an imminent return to busy streets and train carriages can be overwhelming – particularly for those with a history of mental health issues’. One interviewee said: ‘The mental strain of lockdown ending is the biggest source of stress. It’s been such a long time since we’ve all faced ‘normal life’ that I’ve honestly forgotten what it feels like. I’ve felt safe inside my house but the outside world is unfamiliar and frightening. Socially, how do we navigate this? Where’s the mental health support for those of us returning?’

The potential for anxiety isn’t just for those with mental health difficulties. Many have enjoyed a slower pace of life, not rushing from one thing to another, but normal activities returning could result in an unwelcome FOMO (fear of missing out) feelings. Whereas this last year there’s been no choice because venues and activities were closed down, opening them could present tricky dilemmas for those wanting to preserve their quieter lives but not at the expense of missing out on meeting friends and activities they used to enjoy. Linked to this is the fear that the disappointment would be worse if we got stuck in again, only for yet another lockdown to descend.

Long having felt deprived of access to nature, it’s pleasing to learn that today is World Rewilding Day, coinciding with the Spring equinox. ‘Backed by the Global Rewilding Alliance, an umbrella group for organisations in more than 70 countries that are looking to restore ecosystems by returning land to nature, the day will be celebrated with virtual events to share knowledge, skills and connections’. Richard Bunting, a spokesman for Rewilding Britain, suggested a definition very fitting for these times:  ‘At its heart, it’s about hope. Rewilding offers a powerful way of tackling the overlapping nature, climate and health crises’. ‘The charity is calling for nature restoration across 30% of Britain’s land and sea by 2030, with 5% of this dedicated to core habitats, such as native forest, peat bogs, saltmarshes and kelp beds.’ The article concedes that rewilding can clash with other agendas in some communities but gives useful examples of projects which satisfy rewilding criteria as well meeting the needs of local populations.

A poignant piece of business news traces the ‘slow and painful death’ suffered by high street chocolate retailer Thorntons, which was founded in 1911. Apparently 61 shops will close, representing over 600 jobs, though an online presence will continue. Many will remember how popular this brand once was, queues down the street, but one aspect of their demise was the growing popularity of upmarket brands. ‘While fans of Thorntons recall smashing its toffee slabs with a hammer and shunning the coffee creams, today the conversation is more likely to be about the percentage of cocoa in a chocolate bar and the “origin story” of the beans’. Whereas high street bakery Greggs managed to innovate, analysts suggest ‘Thorntons found itself trapped between the old model of running lots of shops and a new order dominated by one-stop-shop supermarkets and internet brands selling direct to consumers’. One thing I’ll miss is being able to obtain unique Easter eggs because of the Thorntons custom of icing recipients’ names onto the eggs, something the posh brands didn’t do.

Finally, we regularly hear about purveyors of particular cuisines rising up in high dudgeon if they feel their creations have been misrepresented but now the normally tolerant Italians (when you think how pizza, for example, has been made in some places) have condemned a new version of its traditional carbonara pasta sauce. Or at least one has, according to Italian daily paper Corriere della Sera.  Alessandro Pipero, a Michelin-starred chef from Rome, known as Rome’s ‘carbonara king’, faults a New York cookery column for suggesting a ‘smokey tomato carbonara’, when tomatoes are not one of the normal ingredients. The traditional version consists of egg yolks, pork cheek and pecorino cheese, prompting the indignant comment that this the tomato version was like ‘putting salami  in a cappucino’. Social media users weighed in to urge ‘this madness’ to stop and Italy’s farmers association said this ‘falsification’ of traditional Italian dishes poses a threat to authentic producers. Just as well Chef Pipero isn’t checking out what passes for carbonara in some UK kitchens, professional or otherwise!

Saturday 13 March

This week could prove memorable for many children and parents, as schools reopened but, having made this the first high profile milestone in his roadmap out of lockdown, only now does our Prime Minister state what we knew all along. Boris Johnson now says the reopening of schools will have an impact on infection rates that could affect the roadmap for lifting restrictions, and England’s deputy Chief Medical Adviser said it was too soon to rule out a fourth wave taking off. #Lockdown4 started trending on Twitter but the country is understandably weary and it’s likely a fourth lockdown would meet with some resistance. Independent SAGE gets next to no coverage in the media, despite coming out with much more sensible stuff than ‘official’ SAGE. During their weekly online conference (open to all to attend via Zoom) a member tweeted: ‘Finally schools are back, but a year into the pandemic, the failures of Test, Trace and Isolate are clear. Latest figures from Christina Pagel (professor at UCL’s Clinical Operational Research Unit) and questions from the public. Join us’.

The Test and Trace programme came in for more stick this week at Wednesday’s cross party Public Accounts Committee, MPs criticising its staggering expenditure (£37bn), excessive use of consultants at £6,600 a day in some cases and the system’s ongoing failures. Ministers remain defensive, Grant Shapps saying that coronavirus would have been ‘a heck of a lot worse’ without the programme, a facetious comment since having no system at all was never proposed. A former Treasury chief described it as ‘the most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time’. A Today programme listener tweeted: ‘The only thing world beating about the UK’s Serco Test and Trace system is the amount it has cost. £37 billion. With 68 million people in the UK, Test and Trace will cost each and every person £550’. Another said: ‘Chortling Grant Shapps gaslighting there over the failures of Test And Trace – he knows very well critics have never said there shouldn’t be a system. What they’ve said is not this particular corrupt and money-gobbling one’.

Meanwhile, as some estimates of UK Covid 19 deaths reach 130,000 (one figure suggests 143,000), those losses barely acknowledged by the government, politicians, including our PM and Keir Starmer, and charities have urged us to observe a minute’s silence on 23 March, the anniversary of lockdown imposition. This ‘national day of reflection’ is designed to enable mourning, the silence to be followed by bells tolling and landmarks lit up all over the country at 8 pm. Mourning these losses has been especially hard for the bereaved because of lack of political recognition, not being able to be with the deceased at the end and the restrictions imposed on funeral attendance numbers. This situation will have added to the already existing mental health burden many are experiencing, especially since lockdown 3. NHS England head Sir Simon Stevens said: ‘We need to reflect on the pandemic’s deep toll, mourn those we’ve lost, and mark the service and sacrifice of staff throughout the NHS. It’s also a moment to acknowledge how in adversity we saw strength, as friends, neighbours and communities have come together to help each other through the nation’s worst ordeal since the second world war. While we need continuing vigilance against this virus, the remarkable NHS vaccination programme now brings hope of better times to come’.

As the NHS pay rise debate rumbles on (the independent pay review body is not expected to publish its recommendations before May) and treating Long Covid is again identified as an overlooked aspect of underinvestment in the NHS, we learn of another example of government extravagance in the form of a proposed £9m ‘situation room’ (where on earth did that name come from?) within the Cabinet Office in Whitehall. Immediately, visions of Churchill’s war rooms came to mind and perhaps this is the comparison we’re invited to make. The idea is to ‘fit the room with interactive dashboards and heat maps so it can be used as a command centre during emergencies like terror attacks and epidemics’. We have to ask ourselves what this room could achieve which the existing structure cannot, since it’s surely dependent on the brain power of the individuals operating it.

The government must be feeling thankful that That Interview has so dominated the media this week that their own misdemeanours have sunk right down the agenda, not that they’re covered by the BBC anyway. Whatever one thinks about the disturbing revelations in the interview, it raises again some key questions, including the future of the monarchy in the 21st century and the nature of ‘public service’. The spiky exchanges between Harry and Meghan and the royals demonstrated different views of what ‘public service’ constitutes. For the royals (and I wonder how many of us see it this way) ‘public service’ has been seen in terms of heading up regiments, acting as patrons for numerous charities and appearing and speaking at events, whereas Harry and Meghan, with their statement that ‘public service is universal’ would be alluding to working for the advance of causes they espouse, such as mental health, the environment and animal welfare.

Commentators have suggested that the debate is mostly polarised between older people, who defend the royals and see Harry and Meghan as audacious upstarts who believe they can cherry pick the duties they like while discarding the rest, and younger people, who believe the opaque and traditional ways of the ‘institution’ need to be brought into the 21st century and that coming into the Royal Family shouldn’t mean being silenced and being denied all independence. (Meghan said her driving licence and passport were taken away and that she wasn’t allowed to go out to meet friends).

I wondered what the royals made of Meghan calling the Royal Family ‘a construct’ and whether they heard journalist and author Simon Jenkins on Radio 4 calling them a secret society, akin to the mafia, which Harry and Meghan wouldn’t be able to change. I suspect the royals were taken aback and shocked at what emerged, particularly about the alleged racism underpinning the curiosity about the likely colour of the forthcoming baby’s skin. A listener tweeted: ‘Like some governments and some powerful individuals, it seems the Royal Family have long assumed secrecy about how they conduct themselves but this is outdated now, given social media, investigative journalism and the marked decline in obeisance to authority’.

We heard that the Queen expressed ‘concern’ over allegations of racism, sadness on learning exactly how challenging the couple had found life as working royals, but also some doubts about this, as she said ‘some recollections of events differed’. Some may find it strange that this came as a surprise to the Queen, as if she didn’t know what was happening on her watch, even though the implication in the interview was that the difficulties arose via ‘the institution’ or ‘Firm’, rather than the Queen herself. To me one of the most striking bits of the interview was when Meghan was talking about lack of support for her mental health difficulties and Oprah Winfrey asked whether she couldn’t have got herself ‘checked in somewhere’, Meghan having to point out that this wasn’t like ‘calling an Uber’.

In ‘Beyond the Masquerade’, Byline Times editor Hardeep Mataru writes about how the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have exposed ‘the real power structures in Britain – now in full destructive, neo-imperial retreat….. Meghan and Harry may be symbols, but they are not just that. Together, their very human experiences are revealing about British society and how it will protect its own in a clash of class and race with white supremacy, unearned privilege and unyielding power’. Instead of dismissing the interview and aftermath as another piece of royal melodrama perpetuated by the press, she believes we need to listen because the systems the institution upholds are those which ‘set the temperature of the water the rest of us are having to swim in’.

There’s also been concern at the Queen’s declaration that this would be dealt with by the family, when they have no objectivity in this, not to mention William’s strange form of words when responding to a journalist’s question – ‘We’re very much not a racist family’ when it’s been argued that many don’t actually understand what racism is. Whatever the outcome is, let’s hope we don’t have to put up with many more sanctimonious and sycophantic ‘royal correspondents’ on the airwaves, and politicians like Jacob Rees-Mogg, who said, before reciting the first two verses of the national anthem, ‘Were we to have a debate to praise our sovereign lady, it would take up all the legislative time available in this house’.

In recent days the news has been dominated by the shocking abduction and murder of Sarah Everard and that the suspect is a serving police officer. As if the police needed anything to further reduce public trust in them. The murder has given rise to a huge outpouring of feeling for the victim, her parents and family, but also anger at the way (unchanged, it seems, from the original Reclaim the Streets campaign years ago) some men feel entitled to get away with harassing and abusing women. This has long been dismissed in some quarters as ‘banter’ and it’s become normalised but it’s much more serious than that – it goes back to the way men are socialised, beliefs about constitutes masculinity and peer group pressure. Over the years women have repeatedly been advised not to go out in the dark, not to wear this or that, go to this or that place, when it’s actually the freedom of male abusers which needs curtailing. Labour’s Harriet Harman believes one part of the solution lies in legislating that anyone caught kerb crawling in order to harass women would have their licence removed.

This tragic event has brought three related issues to the fore, one being, as some see it, the curtailment of freedom to protest, using lockdown as a back door. Surprisingly, the judge in the court hearing to assess the legality of the Clapham Common protest copped out of making a definitive judgement, leaving it to the organisers and police to discuss and come to some arrangement. Meanwhile, as the #Reclaimthestreets hashtag on Twitter demonstrates, many more protests have been organised all over the country: are the police going to stop these going ahead as well? The protest was cancelled because of the difficulty of negotiating with the police but, in the event, many women turned up anyway, thousands of bouquets were deposited and there was some heavy handed policing of the vigil. This will bring the police even more into disrepute. This debate won’t go away – Harriet Harman pointed out that the police can’t keep resorting to the courts: there must be a recognised system for balancing the right to protest with the public health necessities of the pandemic.

The second issue is that the domestic abuse bill is another can the government has kicked down the road, having been in preparation for four years. The government was also challenged by the Lib Dems’ Wendy Chamberlain to incorporate misogyny as a hate crime into this legislation. ‘A cross-party amendment supported by a string of charities, including the Fawcett Society and the Jo Cox Foundation, would make all police forces in England and Wales record misogynistic crimes as hate crime, a campaign started by the Labour MP Stella Creasy. The amendment will be voted on in the House of Lords next Monday’.

The third issue relates to how this has proved such a high profile case (of course the police involvement is one factor) when so many other murders take place each week, with no media coverage. At the annual International Women’s Day debate in the House of Commons, female MPs related their own experiences of sexual harassment and a regular fixture of this debate is Labour’s Jess Phillips reading out a list of names of women killed by men since the previous year’s debate (this time 118). Besides the imminent bill on police, crime, sentencing and courts, critics slated the government for not yet attempting to produce a long-term strategy on tackling violence against women and girls. ‘A statement’ is expected by December. What’s more shocking, though, is the lack of attention to the numbers of older women killed by men (278 over 60s between 2008 and 2018 according to the Femicide Census), statistics and circumstances of which have gone under the radar. This is partly because the upper age limit for criminal investigation has been too low and partly because cases have been dismissed as being due to ‘accidents’ or dementia rather than the coercive control and abuse which underlie a significant number of long term relationships.

In just one case, a 67 year old’s husband strangled her at the beginning of lockdown, citing the ‘hardness’ of lockdown, anxiety about the virus and that he had ‘just snapped’. He received only a five year sentence for manslaughter because of diminished responsibility and could be out after a year. Several women’s and domestic abuse organisations have been involved in collating these statistics and bringing them to public attention in order to obtain proper scrutiny, effective investigation and action. It’s seen as indication of both misogyny and ageism that it’s often been assumed that when an older woman is found at the bottom of the stairs, say, it’s an accident, a fall, whereas such an assumption wouldn’t be made in the case of a 40 year old. The charity Hourglass (formerly Action on Elder Abuse) conducted a survey which indicated that despite one in six older people suffering abuse every year, 30% of respondents didn’t view harmful behaviour towards older people as abuse. The perpetrators of these crimes have often been husbands and sons, some claiming that they were ‘mercy killings’.

An important factor is the normalisation of coercive behaviour over the years, though it’s still insufficiently recognised as such by people of any age. (The story of Helen Archer and her controlling husband, Rob, in the Radio 4 series The Archers, did much to publicise this distressing phenomenon, the publicity penetrating well beyond The Archers listeners). One 67 year old said: ‘I met him when I was 16….He let me have a dog so I could have a friend’. There’s obviously a huge distance for society to travel in exposing and addressing these crimes and their causes. ‘Older women are not counted in statistics, overlooked by the police, marginalised by services and many are left dangerously at risk in a relationship because the few exits available to them are barred by ageism, stereotyping, underfunding and ignorance’.

Another result of government short termism continues to rear its ugly head: Brexit and its effects in Northern Ireland, the consequences of which can no longer (if they ever could) be dismissed as ‘teething problems’. The stance of ‘Lord’ Frost, now responsible in the Cabinet for post-Brexit policy, is quite extraordinary. Writing in last week’s Sunday Telegraph, he quite unselfconsciously, it seems, complained about how the EU were ‘sulking’ at the UK leaving the EU bloc because they objected to the breaches of the treaty and Northern Ireland protocol, initiated by Frost and euphemistically called ‘grace periods’ and ‘temporary easements’ to relieve the trade blockages resulting in shortages of goods. Once again, the EU and rest of the world will see the UK as not to be trusted, reneging on treaty obligations which it had signed up to only very recently. The article and its implications are, as usual, expertly dissected by Chris Grey (Emeritus Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London) in his blog post, ‘Brexit and beyond’.

Again, we see in this section called ‘dangerous delusions’, evidence of the government occupying a parallel universe. How easy and comforting but deluded for such individuals to see themselves as ‘skilful’ and courageous when many will instead see them as embarrassingly foolish. ‘In particular, he undoubtedly believes that his ‘hardball’ negotiating approach was highly skilled and the only way in which the EU was ‘forced to accept the UK’s terms’. Included in that supposed skilfulness was the ever-present threat of no deal (in relation to both agreements) and the threat to break international law with the Internal Market Bill (in relation to the TCA). This has been an article of faith amongst Brexiters, and they think it was lacking in Theresa May’s approach but demonstrated in Johnson’s. It is nonsense, of course. Both the deals Johnson and Frost struck were substantially on terms set by the EU in the light of the UK’s – originally Theresa May’s – red lines. And so skilled were Frost and Johnson in making these deals that they had no idea of the consequences for Northern Ireland or for trade generally.….’. Besides the pandemic and lockdown, the mental health burden many experience is reinforced by extreme concern about the effects of Brexit.  Exports to the EU have dropped by 40% and we haven’t yet seen the full extent of the aftermath on the mainland.

We’ve long known, highlighted by the pandemic, that many young people from deprived households are unable to access the internet, which in turn has seriously affected their access to education during lockdowns. It’s also clear how much more dependent we are on the internet, even more than previously. Now, Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web, has published a letter on the web’s 32nd birthday, arguing for post-pandemic ‘reimagining’ of our world to include ensuring internet access for the many young people currently excluded from it. As we know, one problem is the lack of kit, but the other is lack of broadband access. Not for the first time, I’ve thought this should be a public resource, not treated as an optional extra. Jeremy Corbyn’s idea at the last election of providing free broadband for all was ridiculed in some quarters but many of those who dismissed his plan will have had to rethink it. ‘A third of young people have no internet access at all. Many more lack the data, devices and reliable connection they need to make the most of the web. In fact, only the top third of under-25s have a home internet connection, according to Unicef, leaving 2.2 billion young people without the stable access they need to learn online, which has helped so many others continue their education during the pandemic’.

At the opposite end of the age spectrum, reports have emerged of some older people who have made huge strides with the internet when some had previously had nothing to do with it. One such 79 year old has even created his own website. ‘Learning about the endless possibilities of the online world has been a lifesaver to me. I have learned so much about the modern world just in the past year. It’s opened the UK up to me: I can now give talks via Zoom to groups in Scotland, whereas before I was limited to the 15 miles around where I live because that’s where I could drive to, to give the talk in person’. An 85 year old is now reportedly ‘enthralled’ by the internet, whereas before the pandemic he had to ask his children how to turn his computer on. All of this is encouraging but the same issues apply to many in the older age groups as to younger people from deprived communities – not everyone has the wherewithal to afford the kit and broadband access and there are more psychological barriers to overcome.

Finally, on a positive note, joint working between the National Trust, Historic England and local councils is aiming to reproduce Japan’s hanami tradition of celebrating the cherry blossom each spring by planting dozens of circles and avenues of trees. The sites are in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the first being London’s Olympic Park, with other cities to follow. One of the best things at this time of year is seeing so much beautiful blossom around in parks, streets and gardens, and the intention of this project is to create ‘green, nature-rich havens in the very heart of urban areas’. It brings back a poignant memory, as this time last year I was just planning a group visit to Brogdale, home of the National Fruit Collection, which runs such a hanami festival, when it was guillotined by lockdown. Another time!

Saturday 6 March

So much can happen in a week and when we come to look back over the trajectory of the pandemic, it could well seem as if a month’s worth has been packed into every single week. It’s interesting, then, that only on Monday there was extreme concern that our leaky border controls had enabled 6 cases of the Brazilian variant to be detected in the UK, one who’d not supplied proper contact details going AWOL, yet media interest had markedly declined towards the end of the week. The identity of the mystery 6th case was finally established on Friday, the delay of nearly a week being a great commendation for the chaotic Track and Trace system. But why didn’t this individual come forward of their own accord instead of compelling Track and Trace to visit 379 households in the South East of England?

In the latest example of parallel universe, Health Secretary Matt Hancock lauded this achievement, talking up the use of ‘the latest technology and dogged determination’ of   system staff to track down the individual. ‘The best evidence is that this person stayed at home and there is no evidence of onward transmission but as a precaution we are putting in more testing in Croydon where they live to minimise the possibility of spread’.

But on Monday’s Radio 4 Today programme Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi was typically unable to answer key questions about this, instead talking up the UK’s world beating genome sequencing programme which had enabled the variant to be discovered in the first place. Professor Graham Medley, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), said the risk was that new variants could delay or even reverse the route out of lockdown. SAGE believes the return to school of ten million pupils could raise the R rate by between 10 and 50% – this represents a lot of mingling in mostly poor ventilated spaces, not to mention those children mixing with other household members, some potentially vulnerable, and the issue of parents at the school gates.

The reopening of schools all at once on Monday could prove risky, yet everywhere this seems to have become a bellwether for the approaching end of lockdown, prematurely implying that we’re out of the woods when this is anything but the case.

As the debate around vaccines and vaccine passport continues, it’s very encouraging to hear of successful NHS work (NB not the government’s despite their avowed intention to tackle misinformation) to tackle vaccine refusal and hesitancy. Professor Azhar Farooqi, a Leicester GP, says his practice has been contacting all in groups 1-4 who haven’t taken up a vaccine (about 25% in his area) and talks to them about their concerns, after which 60-70% of those contacted (mainly BAME/deprived groups) changed their minds. A key message here it is that it’s clearly about the personal contact, and the fact someone from their own community is talking to them about it, engendering trust, rather than relying on depersonalised websites and official ones at that which people may not trust.

Not surprisingly, it seems that more and more countries and UK venues will be requiring vaccine passports in order to allow people to travel and to take part in activities and events. There was a heated discussion about it on the BBC’s Moral Maze on Wednesday, some feeling that such a development attacks their civil liberties and others that public safety trumps libertarian arguments of some individuals.

Since Tuesday evening the news has been dominated by the Budget, which was made to sound very generous but which had several key omissions and evasions: the extension of the Universal Credit uplift for only six months; no investment in the NHS; a pay rise of only 1% for NHS staff; and critically, nothing on social care. Reform of social care has been promised then kicked down the road by successive governments for years, but its omission now seems especially shameful given the severe strain the pandemic has put the service under and the PM’s statement earlier this year that he had an ‘oven ready’ bill to bring forward. The fact that so many care home residents have died of Covid is partly attributable to the shocking policy of discharging Covid positive patients into care homes, representing another social care failure.  

Asked about his repeated praise for NHS workers over the course of the pandemic, Hancock insisted he could not be more generous: ‘We do have issues of the affordability because of the consequences of the pandemic on the public finances, which were set out in the budget this week’. It’s astonishing that he expects to be taken seriously on this. On Friday junior health minister Nadine Dorries, a former nurse, was interviewed on the Today Programme about the 1% pay rise, repeating that it’s what the government can afford. As a listener tweeted: ‘Did this government ever think that the ‘what we can afford’ schtick wouldn’t hold water further down the line because we’ve seen how much they wasted on crony contracts and malfunctioning Track and Trace?’ [The total for Track and Trace is now estimated to be a whopping £37bn]. NHS staff are now considering industrial action, which would cause the government far more trouble that giving them a decent pay rise in the first place. The shocking irony is that our Prime Minister is only here because of the 24/7 care he received from nurses during his ICU admission last year year, his survival hanging in the balance although he later attempted to deny it had been that bad. Meanwhile, Unison estimates there are 112,000 nursing vacancies and the largest NHS employer, NHS Providers, has come out in support of the pay claim, saying government had originally planned a 2% increase.

Palliative care doctor, author and broadcaster Rachel Clarke comments on the Prime Minister’s vacuous use of the word ‘love’, a descriptor he used of the NHS last April. ‘It is the best of this country. It is unconquerable. It is powered by love’, but the NHS has a very different experience of ‘love’ from his government’s mediated kind. She points out that the government’s hands aren’t (as they say) tied regarding the pay rise, it’s a political choice.

‘NHS love is kneeling on the floor to help a child into a mask and apron so she can say goodbye to Mummy, who is dying in intensive care. NHS love is nearly vomiting with anxiety by the side of the road – because there’s only so much dying one human being can take – before setting off again towards the patients you know still need you. NHS love is the doctors and nurses who even now, as I type, are suffering from PTSD, anxiety and depression in their droves: who feel they can’t go on, who are broken, who have even talked of suicide when their defences are down’.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has allocated £700m to arts, culture and heritage bodies to help them keep going until they can reopen in May but there is concern that these funds could come with strings attached – adherence to government guidelines being developed on how British history should be portrayed. As discussed last week, ministers have long been concerned about institutions reflecting the bigger picture (one which includes the effects of colonialism and slavery), believing this amounts to ‘talking Britain down’. Although it receives no government funding, the National Trust, with a membership of over 5.6m, doesn’t get off lightly, some members and governors believing the ‘warts and all’ version of history needs telling (many of its properties having links to slave owners) and others complaining about a ‘woke agenda’ and saying this interferes with their aesthetic experience and plans for a nice day out.

A significant feature of Budget coverage has been criticism of the government and media for using a misleading household analogy to describe government finances, exemplified by allusions to ‘balancing the books’ and such like. The evidence is that many are taken in by such a ploy, seen to artificially justify austerity policies. We see it again now in the argument that the government ‘can’t’ afford an NHS pay rise (yet, oddly, it afforded billions for Track and Trace and the numerous contracts awarded to government contacts). In November leading economists wrote to the BBC about coverage of the Spending Review, complaining about key staff like political editor Laura Kuenssberg perpetuating what they see as myths about public fiscal policy.

‘….Specifically, when responding to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s public sector borrowing projections, BBC News political editor Ms Kuenssberg said that ‘this is the credit card, the national mortgage, everything absolutely maxed out’, and later went on to comment that ‘for next few years, there is really no money’. (This kind of spiel might sound ok on tv but it looks remarkably silly and superficial when seen in print). We argue that this commentary misrepresents the financial constraints facing the UK government and reproduces a number of misconceptions surrounding macroeconomics and the public finances.

To focus on the “credit card” analogy, we would argue that this is never an appropriate metaphor for public finances. Maxing out a credit card would imply that the government is approaching a hard limit on its ability to borrow. This is not the case. It is the consensus amongst economists that the government should at this point in time not focus on reducing the deficit, but rather on delivering the spending necessary to secure a recovery from Covid-19….. With informing and educating the British public at the very heart of the BBC’s mission, it is crucial economic issues are explained in an accurate way, and we ask that BBC journalists take care to avoid such analogies in the vital work they do’. It’s clear from Budget reporting that the media including the BBC have not taken these arguments on board.

Criticisms of the Budget itself came from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Resolution Foundation and others for lack of public sector investment, especially he NHS, and also by right-wing think tanks for the increase in corporation tax to 25%.

IFS Director Paul Johnson said the ‘spending plans in particular don’t look deliverable, at least not without considerable pain’ and that the government would have to spend more. ‘Are we really going to spend £16bn less on public services than we were planning pre-pandemic? Is the NHS really going to revert to its pre-Covid spending plans after April 2022? In reality, there will be pressures from all sorts of directions. The NHS is perhaps the most obvious. The chancellor’s medium-term spending plans simply look implausibly low’.

The Office for Budget Responsibility (charged with economic and borrowing forecasting) said the Budget didn’t give an ‘explicit commitment beyond the end of the 2021-22 financial year for the legacy of the pandemic for public services’. This despite the ‘need for an annual re-vaccination programme, an ongoing test and trace capacity, and catching up on operations that the NHS had been unable to do over the past year’.

It’s pretty clear that a long term view (something this government is allergic to) of NHS funding is needed and an Independent article by Mary Dejevsky, summarised in The Week, points out how other European countries like France and Germany have dealt much better with the pandemic in terms of lower death rates and have better health outcomes overall. ‘And one hard-to-admit reason is that a system funded out of general taxation is less able to respond to the challenges of an unexpected threat than Europe’s more flexible, insurance-based systems. For them there’s no sharp divide between public and private provision: patients, not doctors, decide what gradation of service they want’. The author says people often focus (perhaps unhelpfully) on the ‘appalling’ US system when insurance based systems are discussed but the European model is more helpful. ‘If Matt Hancock focused instead on systems across the Channel, he’d see that the insurance principle, not more political control, is the way forward’.

Meanwhile, the media continue to collude with the government, sheltering it from scrutiny over its own corruption while filling endless hours and pages with speculation about Meghan and Harry and the SNP debacle. It’s very worrying that economies with the truth come so easily to our Prime Minister but aren’t picked up by the Speaker. Only three days after the shaming court judgement last weekend on government contracts not being published within the appropriate time period, the PM misled Parliament by suggesting they were all on record, yet the judge later said this was untrue because 100 of the original 708 (!) contracts were absent from the public record. [The government is required by law to publish a ‘contract award notice’ within 30 days of the awarding any contracts for public goods or services worth more than £120,000].

The Good Law Project, which mounted the legal challenge, said: ‘Government has not only misled Parliament and placed inaccurate information before the Court, it has misled the country. Unless contract details are published they cannot be properly scrutinised – there’s no way of knowing where taxpayers’ money is going and why. Billions have been spent with those linked to the Conservative Party and vast sums wasted on PPE that isn’t fit for purpose. We have a Government, and a Prime Minister, contemptuous of transparency and apparently allergic to accountability. The very least that the public deserves now is the truth’.

On the same theme, concern has been expressed about the new UK science body being exempt from regular procurement rules, enabling ‘maximum flexibility’ as this could so easily lead to further cronyism. We’re told the Advanced Research and Invention Agency will have access to £800m during the life of this parliament and also be exempt from Freedom of Information legislation.

‘Although it will be audited by the National Audit Office and required to submit annual reports, there is concern be allowed to invest taxpayers’ money in financially risky projects’. Whenever ministers talk about removing ‘red tape’ you know that stands for removing due process. ‘Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, said ARIA would be ‘equipped with all the tools and freedoms it needs to succeed’ including placing scientists at the heart of decision-making and ‘stripping back red tape’. You can bet that the Labour Party, Good Law Project and others will be keeping a close eye on ARIA, though their efforts will be hobbled by the lack of FOI.

In other major news we see yet another example of government short-termism. So desperate was our PM to ‘get Brexit done’ that he agreed to the Northern Ireland Protocol without apparently anticipating what problems this would cause him further down the line. Now the EU is threatening legal action because the UK has unilaterally put in place ‘temporary easements’ or ‘grace periods’ (as ministers call them, rather than the treaty breaches they actually are), there’s rising discontent in unionist communities in Northern Ireland and paramilitaries have written to Boris Johnson and Ireland’s taoiseach, Micheál Martin, warning of “permanent destruction” of the Good Friday Agreement without changes to post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland.

Let’s not worry, though. Our ever optimistic PM has it all under control: ‘I’m sure with a bit of goodwill and common sense all these technical problems are eminently solvable’. It will now be interesting to see what the negotiating skills of ‘Lord’ Frost are really like.

Can anyone think of a less deserving charity than the one allegedly being set up to cover the costs of refurbishing the PM’s flat, an exercise his fiancée, Carrie Symonds, seems to be spearheading? ‘A No 10 spokesman would not deny reports in the Daily Mail that the prime minister is attempting to set up a charity where benefactors can contribute to the upkeep of Downing Street’. I wonder how well this idea will go down here, apparently modelled on the American White House one. ‘It was reported to be modelled on a similar scheme used by the White House to raise money for interior design and restyling the building, which is bankrolled by private donors. By tradition, incoming US presidents and their families are allowed to spend $100,000 on redecorating the White House, and the first lady takes an active part in the White House Endowment Trust, which maintains the fabric of the building’. Carrie apparently wants to get rid of the current John Lewis style, whatever that is, and replace it with a chintzy style one commentator thought resembled a Parisian brothel.

Several commentators reflect on lockdown, from both sides, focusing on the pain it’s involved for many but also on some of the upsides we’re likely to take into the ‘new normal’. One article tracks the last year for those who’ve been separated from family members because of travel restrictions, etc, and they’ve obviously stuck to those rules, unlike some. One had lost her grandparents and captured the experience of many unable to attend the funerals in person, an important and publicly witnessed aspect of the grieving process, which in some cases has been halted or cannot begin. ‘I still don’t have closure with my grief because I don’t have a physical memory of saying goodbye’ (she had to watch who had to watch the joint funeral via a live stream)…. . ‘There’s definitely a detachment to the reality of what has happened’. The situation is particularly acute for those living outside the UK, having missed so much contact and not knowing when they will be able to meet again.

Despite the huge increase in holiday and flight bookings since the roadmap was announced and talking up an anticipated spending spree as the economy recovers, at least one commentator thinks ‘there may well be an initial splurge, followed by a slightly anxious retrenching’. Instead of a sudden switch back to our erstwhile lifestyle choices, a hybrid pattern is predicted, for example working both from home and office and accessing cultural content online besides attending live events. ‘We could use tricks learned of Covid necessity to add new layers of possibilities to old lives, rather than as wretchedly thin substitutes for them. Everyday life may not change radically, but could still evolve more incrementally for the better’.

For a year now, fitness guru Joe Wicks, aka the Body Coach and ‘the nation’s PE teacher’, has been live streaming workouts, so it was a poignant moment yesterday when he bid us farewell (for the timebeing – ‘I’ll be back’) as children are returning to school on Monday. But these and many other workouts are available on his YouTube channel for free. Many have been grateful for his engaging and encouraging manner, his upbeat patter and being so open about his life and mental health issues during media interviews. He ended yesterday’s session with a repetition of his recipe for life – work hard, have fun and be nice, that’s all you need to remember’ – not bad advice. Perhaps a few politicians could think about following suit.

Finally, The Week focused recently on Edvard Munch for its ‘Artist of the week’ feature, based on a Guardian article by Kate Connolly. The lugubrious Norwegian artist has been the flavour of the year, exemplified by the major Royal Academy exhibition featuring his work besides that of Tracey Emin, two of his works expected to fetch millions at auction soon and a major museum devoted to his work opening in Norway this summer. But it’s also thought he has somehow captured the zeitgeist of this pandemic year, his famous 1893 painting The Scream expressing the pain and despair of the human condition. Munch experienced both physical and mental illness, was ‘prone to alcoholism and nervous exhaustion’, also finding relationships difficult. He never married or had children. Connolly believes his true achievement was to ‘turn his own angst into symbols of universal malaise…which acts on us subliminally, its underlying source remaining hidden…‘Munch distilled the anxieties and uncertainties of modern life onto canvas with an originality and urgency that has made his work a byword for alienation and inner turmoil: rarely has it felt more contemporary than now’.

Let’s hope it won’t be too long before we can view these works in person, but with one of the benefits of the pandemic – social distancing measures in place so you can actually see the exhibits rather than being jostled by the hordes of pre-pandemic times!

Sunday 28 February

This last week will be memorable at least for the formal announcement of the long awaited roadmap out of lockdown, widely leaked beforehand. It attracted criticism from some health experts and teachers for focusing on dates rather than data despite declarations to the contrary, and for allowing all schools to reopen at once on 8 March. This does seem very risky, with unvaccinated teachers and parents expected to test their children without this being compulsory. #lockdown4 has already started trending on social media. Some aspects of the plan again demonstrated how out of touch the government is, eg permission after 8 March to ‘meet one other person for coffee’ when people have been doing this for weeks. In local parks every bench is occupied (when rules dictate no sitting down), there’s much mingling around cafes, toilets and playgrounds and no sign of any officialdom or enforcement. Ministers and policymakers keep telling us it’s too early to relax and we must stick to the rules, but they don’t put themselves about to see what’s actually going on in communities. Around here at least, the roadmap and spring weather seem to have imparted a feeling of optimism, people becoming demob happy, understandably suffering from lockdown fatigue after a year of this, on and off. When many are already experiencing anxiety and other mental health challenges due to the pandemic and lockdown, the last thing they need is uncertainty over the management of vital health services.

Palliative care doctor and broadcaster Rachel Clarke tweeted: ‘So either we’re being set up (again) for date-driven disappointment, or the prime minister intends to ignore the data to stick to his arbitrary timetable. This is the exact opposite of what “data not dates” means. It risks raising people’s hopes, only to dash them. Again.’ A Radio 4 listener added: ‘London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine thinks mass return to school will push R rate above 1. Might they know something here, Boris? Words like ‘medicine’ and ‘school of’ might be a clue?’ Yet another gave a list of what they thought should actually feature in the roadmap (or not): ‘No schemes encouraging everyone into restaurants; schools opened gradually; help for the ‘Excluded UK’ (freelancers who received no financial support from the government); steps to make schools safe (since no measures were adopted during lockdown); Boris’s resignation; public and criminal inquiries so we can learn lessons’.

Guardian sketch writer John Crace painted a rather different picture of the Prime Minister this week, perhaps a more measured and less ebullient than his usual persona despite the date-heavy roadmap and ‘a return to normal’ promised for 21 June. ‘Somehow the use of “hope” and “irreversibility” in the same sentence didn’t inspire much confidence that the government totally believed in its own roadmap. But it would have to do….Better late than never, we saw a Boris who could pass as sane. Someone who could cope with the certainty of uncertainty. Someone who appeared able to learn from his previous gung-ho approach. Who would have thought that possible?’

As suggested last week, at least two further factors could slow down lockdown easing: continuing vaccine hesitancy in some quarters and high infection levels in deprived areas, which should concentrate minds on the real problems of inequality. According to new research by the Policy Institute at King’s College London in collaboration with the UK in a Changing Europe, commissioned to inform the Institute for Fiscal Studies Deaton Review of Inequalities, ‘Britons across the political spectrum care about disparities between deprived and better-off areas, chiming with the government’s focus on ‘levelling up’. This sounds positive but it’s hedged around with four other major findings which suggest that doing something about this will be much more challenging. The researchers found that Britons, due to ‘an emphasis on hard work and ambition’, lack sympathy with those who lost their jobs during the pandemic, and that their longstanding views on inequalities hadn’t shifted that much during the pandemic. Based on a nationally representative survey of over 2,000, the authors claim that this is ‘the most comprehensive examination to date of attitudes towards different types of inequality in the context of the coronavirus crisis’. Separately, the Runnymede Trust think tank has urged the government to implement door to door vaccination in deprived and ethnic minority areas because of the difficulty some may have in getting to vaccination hubs and a conviction that the country shouldn’t be divided into ‘vaccine rich’ and ‘vaccine poor’ areas.

Another serious issue adding generally to the Covid burden is Long Covid, many patients suffering long term physical, mental health and neurological symptoms post-Covid. Someone who’s made a special study of this, having experienced it herself, is Dr Nisreen Alwan, Associate Professor of Public Health at the University of Southampton. She writes a blog about it for the British Medical Journal, amongst other things urging the setting up of proper patient registers so that there’s a record of numbers affected and how, meaning that this phenomenon can be measured and coded within electronic clinical systems. Although Long Covid is better recognised now, it’s still being overlooked in some quarters and the risks not being taken as seriously as they might by the public and politicians. It’s a serious business. ‘Covid-19 leads to severe morbidity and organ damage in some people. NHS data analysis of 47,780 hospitalised patients with covid-19 (with 43,035 non-ICU patients) shows that within a few months of discharge, 29% got re-admitted to hospital, and 12% died. They had higher rates of heart, liver, kidney disease, and diabetes, compared to matched controls not diagnosed with Covid19’. 

Dr Alwan also suggests that additional statistics need to be collected, ‘informing our pandemic response and research priorities – not only deaths, hospital admissions, and positive tests statistics. These could include: proportion of people not recovered within 4, 8 and 12 weeks among those infected; proportion of people with complications and organ damage following Covid19 infection; proportion re-admitted to hospital following discharge; proportion off work due to Long Covid and/or Covid19 complications; proportion recovered from Long Covid’. She recently tweeted: ‘Long Covid is not an afterthought. It’s not a subheading. It’s THE story. Between 1 in 10 and 1 in 3 people who get Covid don’t recover for months (yes- even not knowing the exact figure is quite telling). It really blows my mind how this is still considered a marginal issue’.

Meanwhile, actress Gwyneth Paltrow, now equally famous for her Goop website which promotes the use of questionable substances (some would call quack remedies) for health maintenance, came in for some flak this week. The site’s opening spiel reads: ‘We operate from a place of curiosity and nonjudgment, and we start hard conversations, crack open taboos, and look for connection and resonance everywhere we can find it. We don’t mind being the tip of the spear—in short, we go first so you don’t have to. We’re glad you’re here’. As on previous occasions, it doesn’t sound as if she’s touched on much ‘connection and resonance’ in medical circles, certainly regarding Covid.  Professor Stephen Powis, national medical director for the NHS in England, warned that those including ‘influencers’ are being irresponsible and spreading misinformation by suggesting solutions which were not evidence based. He said: ‘Like the virus, misinformation carries across borders and it mutates and it evolves…We need to take long COVID seriously and apply serious science. All influencers who use social media have a duty of responsibility and a duty of care around that’.

Although it’s long been suspected, it’s shocking to learn how hospitals, which we should be able to equate with safety, have been the source of Covid in numerous cases. No wonder people are scared to go to A&E, even more to be admitted for treatment. Someone who lost their father very quickly in this way contacted

Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, and found that many of its 2,600 members were grieving for relatives who they believe contracted Covid in hospitals.

‘Figures published by NHS England suggest that 39,088 people were likely to have been infected with Covid-19 in hospitals between 1 August last year and 21 February 2021’. It would be unfair to lay the blame entirely at the NHS’s door, though, since we know what pressure they have been under and how poorly and inconsistently supplied they’ve been with PPE.

On PPE, many have complained this week, including to Radio 4’s Feedback programme (which purports to hold the BBC to account on behalf of radio listeners), about lack of coverage of the shaming court judgement last week on the Health Secretary and his conduct over PPE contracts. Sadly, many will be taken in by government’s dismissal of the judgement as simply about late notification of contracts ‘in the middle of a pandemic’, when the serious issue is about the suspension of normal tendering procedures and the granting of contracts to those with connections to the government. In not reporting malfeasance, instead focusing on the Scottish Parliament shenanigans, the media are colluding with the government to hush up the unacceptable. Since March 2020, The Citizens (committed to investigating and holding organisations to account) found that at least £21bn has been spent by the UK government in their pandemic response. £5.3bn of this (25%) went to just 1% (10) of the 990 companies that won contracts.

As if Health Secretary Matt Hancock didn’t have enough to be embarrassed about after last week’s court judgement, it emerged that the medicines regulator (the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) was investigating Hancock’s friend who had been awarded a £30m contract. Despite the BBC’s reluctance to cover such issues in its radio and tv output, at least it does on its website, and it tells us the regulator is investigating Hinpack, the company of Hancock’s pub friend Alex Bourne, which had been contracted to produce vials for Covid testing despite having no experience of producing medical goods. In some media sources articles have carried a picture of Bourne and Hancock, grinning broadly and pulling pints behind the bar, yet Hancock insisted he had ‘nothing to do with that contract’. MHRA has not disclosed the reason for the investigation.

Ministers seem to be increasingly occupying a parallel universe, for example Hancock’s expectation of gratitude. On ITV’s Good Morning Britain acerbic host Piers Morgan asked Dr Rachel Clarke ‘When you heard Matt Hancock demanding to be thanked, how did it make you feel?’ ‘I just felt that was disgustingly disrespectful to the families of over 130,000 people who have died from COVID in this country’ was the response. 

During the week I attended a virtual conference (The Pandemic and Privatisation) run by Health Campaigns Together, which aims to keep the NHS in the public sector and stop privatisation by stealth. The recent NHS White Paper sells the proposed reorganisation as about streamlining, giving the government more direct control and removing ‘bureaucracy’ (aka proper scrutiny) and the need to put contracts out to tender, giving the impression of curtailing privatisation when this is anything but the case. For several weeks now clinicians and campaigners have revealed the worrying takeover (not covered by the media) of a GP practice network representing over 500,000 patients by US health insurance provider Centene Corporation. A clinician tweeted: ‘We love the NHS, they said. NHS staff are heroes, they said. NHS forever, they said. All the whole quietly siphoning huge tranches of NHS care into US corporate hands. Please RT if you won’t stand for it’.

A concerned group of clinicians, academics and campaigners have now written to Matt Hancock, asking him to authorise an investigation by the Care Quality Commission. ‘Operose Health, a UK subsidiary of Centene, has recently taken over the privately owned AT Medics, which was set up in 2004 by six NHS GPs and runs 37 GP practices across 49 sites in London. Operose already operates 21 GP surgeries in England. Objectors are concerned because they claim the change of control was approved for eight practices in the London boroughs of Camden, Islington and Haringey in a virtual meeting on 17 December that lasted less than nine minutes, during which no mention was made of Centene and not a single question was asked’. These events indicate a worrying lack of transparency and most patients will have no idea this is going on.

Professor Allyson Pollock said: ‘What we’re really worried about is changes in the model of care and quality of service, especially in areas of high deprivation. Practices may employ fewer GPs – and they may bring in substitutes for GPs like pharmacists and nurses – there may be cuts in services and reduced access, for example, closures of branch surgeries’. Predictably, NHS and Department of Health and Social Care spokesmen said that health commissioners had approved the transfer and that robust procedures were followed. We have to ask how much more NHS privatisation by stealth could be on the cards if this could happen so easily and without patient consultation.

The debate continues as to whether specific occupational groups, such as teachers, police officers and supermarket workers, should be moved further up the vaccination priority list. The JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation), which seems to me increasingly in thrall to government rather than being independent, having changed its mind about those with learning disabilities, is still sticking to its guns on adhering solely to the criterion of age. This seems rather rigid and insufficiently nuanced, as it’s clear that these occupational groups come much more into contact with the public than the older age groups being vaccinated now. Most people in these groups probably wouldn’t mind waiting just a bit longer for their vaccination if it means frontline workers get the protection they need.

Meanwhile, the concept of ‘vaccine etiquette’ has come to the fore, and a new word has been coined: VOMO (based on FOMO, fear of missing out, in this case on the vaccine). We’ve been hearing examples of some seeming to jump the vaccination queue and now Sir Richard Leese, the head of Manchester City Council, has said people were ‘fiddling the system’, for example pretending to be social care staff in order to dishonestly make their way into priority categories, thereby taking a slot away from someone in greater need. ‘Pete Lunn, the head of behavioural research at the Economic and Social Research Institute, an Irish think tank, said cheating or perceptions of cheating could undermine trust in the system. ‘If people perceive a system to be unfair, they will often withdraw from it even at cost to themselves. It is important that the system is fair and seen to be fair’. This issue of trust in the system is an important point in its own right but even more so given the need to counter vaccine hesitancy. This week our monarch weighed into that debate, suggesting that antivaxxers and hesitants should think about others rather than themselves. ‘Queen’s shock message: do your duty…get the jab’, screamed the Daily Express’s front page on Friday.

The Times reports on an issue which has raised its head again, some questioning the timing of ministers’ focus during a pandemic. The Black Lives Matter movement brought much more to the fore the debate about our heritage, how it’s marked and celebrated (or not), notably the strong connections many institutions have had with colonialism and slavery. In recent years more institutions, including the National Trust, have been openly acknowledging these links but now it seems the government wants to revert to the previous status quo. They seem to see portraying a more honest and rounded history of this country, ‘warts and all’, as ‘denigrating Britain’. Culture Minister Oliver Dowden recently met representatives of 25 organisations, including the National Trust, English Heritage and British Museum and ministers now plan to establish a working group to ‘draw up guidelines for heritage bodies to implement a “retain and explain” policy for contested monuments’. Some heritage professionals now fear that their funding will be dependent upon complying with these guidelines. It’s good that the National Trust isn’t dependent on government funds but there is quite a polarised debate within its own membership, some applauding the wider portrayal and others complaining that the Trust is moving away from its original purpose and this agenda interferes with visitors’ desire for a nice day out with tea and cake.

The Germans, always good with words, especially long compound nouns, haven’t let us down during the pandemic. The Guardian reports on a new list from the Leibnitz Institute for the German Language which includes more than 1,200 new German words coined during the last year when the annual average is around 200. There’s something about German which enables nuanced experiences to be captured in a succinct way English at least doesn’t lend itself to – think of Schadenfreude and Weltschmerz, for example. Some of the key new entrants must be coronamüde (tired of Covid-19), Coronafrisur (corona hairstyle), Coronaangst (when you have anxiety about the virus), Impfneid (envy of those who have been vaccinated), Kuschelkontakt (cuddle contact) for the specific person you meet for cuddles and Abstandsbier (distance beer) for when you drink with friends at a safe distance. Some will be pleased to see the UK’s Covidiot also in the German list.

The Institute’s compiler speaks of the importance of being able to name experiences. ‘When new things happen in the world [we] look for a name. Things that do not have a name can cause people to feel fear and insecurity. However, if we can talk about things and name them, then we can communicate with each other. Especially in times of crisis, this is important. Language has a strong power. We see again and again how important it is to formulate precisely and to be very careful about which words we choose. Words not only convey content, but can also convey emotions and feelings. And speakers should be aware of that’.

Finally, you may be interested to watch this charming 21 minute film, My Brother’s Keeper, BAFTA longlisted for British Short Film 2021 and directed by Laurence Topham. It features the unlikely friendship which grew between a former Guantánamo detainee, Mohamedou Ould Salahi, and his guard, Steve Wood, changing both their lives, and their reunion in Mohamedou’s home city of Nouakchott, Mauritania, 13 years after their last meeting. Mohamedou was suspected of being involved in the 9/11 bombings and was taken from his home in 2001 and incarcerated for 14 years without being charged. Coinciding with this documentary is a Golden Globe nominated feature film, The Mauritanian, based on Mohamedou’s bestselling memoir Guantánamo Diary, starring Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, and Benedict Cumberbatch. This definitely sounds like the kind of film best seen in a cinema rather than streamed at home.

Sunday 21 February

As numbers of Covid deaths and new cases continue to fall but remain high, this last week finally saw the introduction of hotel quarantining for UK passengers returning from the 33 ‘red list’ countries (in Scotland it’s sensibly all countries since dangerous variants have been found in many besides the 33). Ministers had quite a job in the media defending this delay, when the South African variant had been found here 50 days previously, yet despite this risky time lag hotel chains, airport and Border Force staff still said what little preparation and communication there had been. A number of passengers went public with their experiences of all passengers mingling freely within the airport, no segregation on planes and ‘red list’ passengers not being questioned about their departure points and countries they transited through, so only their honesty prevented them from just going on their way. A spokesman for the PCS union, which represents Border Force staff, said: “It is a disgrace our members in Border Force only received new guidelines on hotel quarantine late last night. It’s vital that Border Force are equipped to deal with helping the public stay Covid safe. However, many feel under prepared and under valued by a department that is not doing its job’. Unions also warned that security staff could refuse to continue working under these conditions unless they were issued with better quality facemasks.

One man, travelling from Brazil, via Madrid, said: ‘The system is ridiculous. It doesn’t make sense. I was on the flight from Madrid surrounded by other passengers who were not from red-list countries. How can that be safe and a good way to prevent coronavirus from spreading?’

Two issues getting scant coverage are the companies likely to have links to the government awarded the contracts for passenger transport, security and testing (we know about G4S and Mitie so far) and what about those to whom the £1750 quarantine charge would come as a big shock and may be unable to pay?

As if this muddled policy didn’t give the government enough to contend with, the Times tells us that one law firm, PGMBM, was preparing to launch a legal challenge, arguing that it could be breach of article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to liberty and security. The company suggests that the enforced quarantine of people without knowing whether they have Covid and are therefore infectious could potentially constitute a breach and should be subject to judicial review.

At the same time, pressure on the Prime Minister to ease lockdown continues to increase, the most voluble proponent being Tory backbencher Steve Baker, who made numerous media appearances during the week. He says the UK ‘must never again be locked up without MPs having a say. We need a new Public Health Act, meaning: votes on restrictions in advance; amenable legislation; cost benefit analysis; and end of monopoly on advice of government scientists with red teams’. Baker and colleagues are asking for schools reopening by 8 March (already strongly hinted to be in the imminent ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown, the subject of heavy leaking), hospitality open by Easter and by 1 May ‘no more rules’.  The key factor he cites is the success of the vaccination programme, despite the fact that most people have only still received one dose and that the JCVI stance on vaccination criteria remains primarily age-based. Debate continues about other important groups, such as all those with learning disabilities and ‘frontline’ workers like the police and supermarket staff.

Others including scientists are urging extreme caution, as some lessons at least have been learned from last year and no one wants lockdown 4 within a few months. Although children obviously should be in school, reopening schools is a worry because of the risk of heightened transmission and now many more younger people are being hospitalised with Covid. But as mentioned in the last blog post, there’s another reason for caution: despite the much trumpeted reduction in cases and deaths in many areas, the situation is still dire in certain hotspots (as it’s emerged in a leaked government report), further highlighting social inequality. In some areas like Blackburn-with-Darwen, Bradford and Leicester, ‘interconnected factors such as deprivation, poor housing and work conditions, and delays in the test-and-trace system, were all likely to be significant contributors to the high coronavirus rates’.

Head of Test and Trace, Dido Harding, who seems to have been AWOL for months, has had the nerve to say that at least 20,000 people a day are not complying fully with isolation orders, ‘allowing the virus to spread’. An interesting statement when enforcing self-isolation is actually one of the key tasks of the organisation she heads. Many in deprived areas say they can’t afford to self-isolate but their going out and to work having tested positive is a clear public health failure. The report interestingly revealed that Scotland and Northern Ireland have guidance for how to self-isolate safely in high-density housing but England doesn’t.

Meanwhile, there seems to be no urgency about gearing up Test and Trace to carry out its isolation enforcement responsibilities and instituting an effective self-isolation payment system. This issue might compel those not interested in social equality to finally take an interest in it, albeit a cynical one, as the longer these hotspots keep emerging, the longer easing of restrictions will be delayed.

As usual, probably in a bid to catch the weekend papers, more details of the roadmap have emerged, such as the key one that an individual (using PPE) will soon be allowed to visit a care home resident and hold their hand but further closeness ‘will be discouraged’. This is great news for those residents and their families but what a pity that so many residents had to die, confused and lonely, before such a measure which could have been introduced earlier actually was.

Another measure is groups of people being allowed to meet outside by Easter, although the government has said easing this lockdown must be ‘cautious but irreversible’. We’ll have to see after Monday what the approach will be. ‘Will the Prime Minister hold fast to this new lower-key approach? Or will he be tempted to offer some concessions to the siren voices on his right?’ An anonymous Tory source said MPs and the country think they know what they are getting next week: schools to open on 8 March, non-essential retail in April and pubs and restaurants in May…The Party is largely onboard, but the problem is once you get detail, people will start finding things to complain about’. It doesn’t help that for weeks now the media has harped on about lockdown end and going on holiday – this week the Daily Mail’s front page shouted ‘Now take the brakes off, Boris’, its editorial titled ‘Set the nation free!’. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘Tempting though it must be to leak a big news item like lockdown exit roadmap to catch the weekend papers, should this have happened ahead of parliamentary approval? Or is it partly to deflect attention from the Matt Hancock legal judgement debacle?’

Meanwhile, the hospitality and travel industries are understandably asking the government for ‘a plan’ out of lockdown, as they need time to prepare for reopening. But would the government recognise a plan if they fell over one, as what we usually see is a reactive muddle of the kind which happened with schools? In yet another example of the government not ‘levelling with’ the public and employers, we learn that this week pub chain chief executives left talks with the Department for Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), complaining of a ‘lack of interest and respect’. Since the breakdown of talks, pub bosses said they were only hearing second-hand about proposals which would be problematic, such as being allowed to open without serving alcohol or only offering outside service. Last time pubs were open bosses apparently weren’t consulted in advance about policies like allowing a Scotch egg to count as ‘a substantial meal’ and the 10 pm curfew. In another example of parallel universe the BEIS insisted that they would ‘continue to engage relentlessly with the hospitality sector, as we have done throughout this pandemic, and our door remains firmly open’. Perhaps they were talking about gimmicks like Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s interview with TV chef Gordon Ramsay, which came in for some flak on social media for not representing the needs of most business owners.

The Observer gives it views on end of lockdown planning, pointing up the debate and disagreement between scientists and politicians regarding how accurately data can be used to decide dates of restriction easing. ‘Johnson cannot promise this is to be the last lockdown under the excuse that pre-announced dates are only indicative and will not trigger easing if the data suggests otherwise. The medical officers know Johnson is incapable of resisting pressure from the right of his party and pre-announcing dates invites a repeat of the mistakes that have led to Britain having among the highest Covid death rates in the world’. Instead of ‘switching targets as they suit political exigencies’, it’s suggested the PM must stick to the criterion of the R rate (but ministers won’t like the fact that the Blair Foundation has pressed so hard for this) ‘with the government agile enough to tighten pre-emptively, according to the data, or relax earlier if improvements are enduring’. So, the basic message is ‘data before dates and no changing the goalposts’: it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Fewer people are likely to be able to enjoy the end of lockdown due to news this week that a further 1.7 million have been identified as possibly needing to shield. The decision has been made according to a model developed by New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) and Oxford University which uses additional criteria such as ethnicity, age, Body Mass Index and postcodes (indicating level of deprivation). The letters being sent out could be a shock for some but a key benefit is that they will be prioritised for vaccination. It’s understood they’ll be told they could benefit from shielding but this won’t be compulsory. ITV News reminded us that about 2.2 million people in England are currently on the shielding list, mostly identified for a single reason, such as specific cancers, being on immunosuppression drugs or having severe respiratory conditions. Those about to receive letters would bring the number to almost four million.

Given accusations that richer countries were hoarding vaccines, it’s significant that the PM chose the virtual G7 meeting on Friday to announce that the UK’s leftover vaccine would be donated to poorer countries, but typically, no details were given as to when and how much. During the meeting the PM said: ‘Science is finally getting the upper hand on Covid. Around the world [we need to] make sure everyone gets the vaccines that they need, so that the whole world can come through this pandemic together. There is no point in us vaccinating our individual populations – we’ve got to make sure the whole world is vaccinated because this is a global pandemic and it’s no use one country being far ahead of another, we’ve got to move together’. In another example of parallel universe, James Cleverly claimed on Radio 4’s Today programme that ‘we are a global force for good and that’s why we are leading the world in calls to ensure that the poorer countries in the world are also made safe’. He maintained that right from the start of the pandemic the government had borne in mind the needs of less developed countries but this does seem rather like a rewriting of history, the belated development of a global overview.

The most damning news item this week (and one of several the BBC has allowed to become the elephant in the room, not being covered in current affairs programmes) must be the court’s ruling that the government, in particular Health Secretary Matt Hancock, did break procurement law by failing to disclose the details of PPE contracts, many of which went to firms with links to the Conservatives. In a case brought by the doughty Good Law Project (and how shocking it had to be a private organisation which did so) the High Court judge said: ‘The Secretary of State spent vast quantities of public money on pandemic-related procurements during 2020. The public were entitled to see who this money was going to’. The judge added that DHSC could have avoided running up a £207,000 legal bill if the Department had “candidly” admitted that transparency rules had been broken. How shaming is this? But there’s no comeback or sanction, not helped by the silence in some quarters of the media, which prefer to focus on the royals and lockdown end fever.

In another example of parallel universe, the Department for Health and Social Care said the government had been “working tirelessly” to deliver what was needed to protect health and social care staff during the pandemic. ‘This has often meant having to award contracts at speed to secure the vital supplies required to protect NHS workers and the public’. Shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves said the judgement was ‘troubling and unsurprising, and a perfect example of how this government believes it is one rule for them another for the rest of us…This government’s contracting has been plagued by a lack of transparency, cronyism and waste and they must take urgent steps to address this now – by winding down emergency procurement, urgently releasing details of the VIP fast lane, and publishing all outstanding contracts by the end of the month’.

It demonstrates how accountability at the heart of government has been severely undermined, and the original excuse of normal tendering being suspended due to having to move quickly during the pandemic simply doesn’t hold water. It’s interesting that the government has been notoriously slow to act at every stage of the pandemic, but shows itself capable of acting ‘at pace’ when it comes to issuing contracts to those connected with them, who are often markedly unqualified for the job. The Good Law Project pointed out that as the judge stated that the admission of breach by Government was ‘secured as a result of this litigation and at a late stage of it’ and ‘I have no doubt that this claim has speeded up compliance’. ‘It begs the question, if we hadn’t brought this legal challenge, what other contract details would have remained hidden from view?’ Quite. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘Judging on past performance, can we expect Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock to treat this opprobrium as water off a duck’s back? There’s no longer any sense of shame in public life’.

Journalist Nick Cohen traces with concern how David Frost (now Lord Frost and just made a minister) and his ‘climb up the greasy pole’ have damaged Britain. Frost’s journey seems to convey the message that rapid progress with this government is possible by becoming an extreme Brexiteer and with a bit of cunning and planning. Could this prove a template for others similarly minded? His Oxford tutor apparently remembered ‘nothing at all about him’, but he entered the Foreign Office ‘where he became a figure familiar in many workplaces: the frustrated middle manager, whose resentment at an indifferent world that overlooks him gnaws at his pride. Do not underestimate the anger of the men no one remembers’. He was allegedly going nowhere, according to a former boss, describing Frost as being ‘very diligent and conscientious, good at carrying out instructions, not always as good at querying instructions’. A quality of intelligence surely crucial for these roles – being a yes man is the easy way out many take in the workplace and elsewhere but it doesn’t move things on.

But since then he seems to have become much more assertive, ‘aggressive’ in the eyes of some. ‘For years, liberals have warned about the danger of politicians corrupting the independence of the civil service. The inexorable rise of David Frost is a lesson to us. It shows there are civil servants who so want to be politicised that they yearn to become politicians, as long as they do not have to stand for election in the process. Perhaps all he sees is how well he has done. From Mr Frost to Frosty to Baron Frost to cabinet minister Frost is one hell of a rise. Not bad for a lad whose political career seemed over in 2013. Not great for anyone else’.

Radio 4’s File on 4 this week focused on the growing problem of self-harm in young people, taking as an example ‘Sarah’, who first started harming herself at the age of 11, then continued for 6 years. She often found the responses of parents, teachers and health services unhelpful and later describes what actually did help. Yet again such stories not only demonstrate how mental health difficulties are affecting younger and younger children and in worryingly rising numbers but also how inadequate the statutory services are at coping with them. It’s galling that time and time again, NHS spokesmen and policymakers are invited onto such programmes and wheel out the usual clichés like ‘speak up and ask for help…. help is out there’, when this amounts often to charity helplines and substantial help in the form of psychological therapy isn’t usually available without going on a long waiting list or accessing it privately. Again, this situation is attributable to rising demand (the pandemic is a contributory factor, of course) but primarily underfunding of NHS mental health services over years. The threshold to get help from NHS services is so high it can push people to do more and ‘Sarah’ did try to take her own life –  ‘it seemed like you had to be the sickest of the sick to get help’.

It’s concerning that there’s so much emphasis put on teachers first spotting the signs – although this is important teachers are already very busy and such emphasis deflects from the need, as stressed by organisations like BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) for years, for a qualified counsellor in every school. File on 4 features Kate Rufus of the NHS-funded Self Injury Pathways Project, who said she’d never been to a school where self-harm wasn’t an issue. Do government ministers even know this? She’s often asked why people self-harm. One reason is that it seems to afford a kind of release, almost a purging, from emotional pain and stress.  The project aims to train school staff about what to watch out for and how to talk to young people who may be self-harming. It’s also developing ‘online resources and information where teachers, volunteers and parents can learn to detect and address self-harming amongst school children’. Very worryingly, hospital admissions for those aged 13-17 have doubled in five years. It seems to me some want to blame social media for this but it’s only going to be one factor, which could obscure a failure to recognise the wider psychosocial and systemic problems.

Ahead of the start this week of the second series of Grayson Perry’s Art Club, which captured the hearts and imaginations of many during the first lockdown, a number of articles profile Perry and his psychotherapist wife Phillippa besides the Art Club’s themes and intentions. In a pre series programme in January, also on Channel 4, Grayson asked Phillippa what her advice would be to those wanting to have a go and it was interesting and refreshingly non-intellectual that she advised (paraphrasing) not trying to ‘do art’ but just allowing your life experience to communicate itself. In one article Grayson says: ‘We’re saying the finished thing doesn’t have to be good, but the process has to be genuine. And it has to be heartfelt and enjoyable. We’re not saying make art like a professional, we’re saying get stuck in and lose yourself a while in it…I am trying to democratise art, but I’m not saying it means a drop in quality. It just means upping the accessibility and entertainment. Entertainment and humour are often denigrated, but they take just as much skill as the so-called intellectual level of high culture’. I’m not artistic myself but nevertheless greatly enjoyed these programmes, illustrating different people’s art journeys, which afford a kind of mindfulness and wellbeing experience, and I hope to get to see the exhibition in Manchester when galleries reopen.

The Week reports on a Financial Times article about how publishing has boomed during the pandemic, Bloomsbury Publishing (of Harry Potter fame) citing just one example, expecting profits for 2020 to be well ahead of original expectations. Bestseller lists apparently show a marked appetite, not surprisingly, for wellbeing and ‘feel good’ choices, though a darker undercurrent is also discernable, for example in the continuing popularity of titles like George Orwell’s 1984. Statistics from Nielsen BookScan had UK book sales last year at 202 million, equating to £1.76 billion. Although it’s nowhere near the massive sales figures for Harry Potter titles, it’s suggested that the ‘upward trajectory’ is clear and suggests ‘a comforting truth’, that ‘the best shelter is to be found between the covers of a good book’.

Finally, it’s worth listening to psychoanalyst Susie Orbach’s reflections on the pandemic, lockdown and isolation. Suggesting that we are experiencing ‘social depression’, she says: ‘We are not simply able to breathe into a difficult situation, roll up our psychological sleeves or dig ourselves in without the emotional cost of feeling constrained, nervous, watchful, touchy’.

Saturday 13 February

As the latest estimate of excess deaths since the start of the pandemic passes 120,000, four main issues have continued to dominate the news this week, none of them inspiring confidence in how they’re being managed. At the start of the week a number of newspapers and websites headlined fury with Michael Gove, amid plunging UK exports to the EU. Discussions have been taking place between Gove and his EU counterpart as to how the logjams in Northern Ireland can be eased, but it beggars belief that there’s any surprise given this was one of the consequences of the Prime Minister’s Brexit Deal. Having surveyed its membership, The Road Haulage Association informed the Observer that UK exports to the EU were down ‘a staggering 68%’ in January compared to the same period in 2020. RHA Chief Executive Richard Burnett said he was ‘very frustrated’ because his organisation had long warned about these problems ‘but the government did not listen sufficiently and is still failing to do so now’.

Many have been irritated by ministers’ suggestions that these difficulties are just ‘teething problems’. The post-Brexit border problems constitute a potentially incendiary mix of severely disrupted trade and supply of goods and political tensions. ‘Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, which represents all types of manufacturers in Northern Ireland, many of whom have been struggling with the new rules, says views on Brexit inevitably feed into wider historic divisions. Everything in Northern Ireland is viewed through an identity filter. Unionism is fundamentally opposed to the [Northern Ireland] protocol because it means that Northern Ireland is different to the rest of the UK whereas nationalism and the moderate middle ground is fundamentally opposed to Brexit and supportive of the protocol’.

The BBC has been accused of not fulfilling its educational role in news coverage, bandying terms around which not everyone understands, but this article on the Northern Ireland Protocol is well worth reading.

Amid accusations that mainstream media are obsessed with holidays and when we can have them again, pressure is building for some clues and clarification ahead of the government’s announcement on 22nd February of its ‘roadmap’ for the route out of lockdown. As we’ve seen before, the strategy seems to be to ‘leak’ proposals around a week before the planned publication date, allowing the government to backpeddle on those badly received. When interviewed ministers and policymakers have expressed some exasperation at continually being asked about the end of lockdown, but such questions are inevitable after such a long period of going in and out of lockdowns, this one evidently affecting people’s mental health more than the others. It seems one of the frustrations is not so much being kept in the dark as to when lockdown might be lifted, but what the criteria are for its easing and this is what the government doesn’t seem to be clear on, eg the R number, numbers of new cases, virulence of various strains of the virus, or numbers of deaths.

Those who aren’t normally engaged in equalities issues could start taking an interest since it’s been suggested that social inequality, the virus disproportionately affecting some areas, especially the South African variant ‘hotspots’, will hinder an early end to lockdown. Statistics showed marked differences between the numbers of Covid cases in less and more affluent areas. ‘Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said the government’s failure to offer financial support to help low-income people to self-isolate had caused a huge Covid divide to open up’. Ashworth said it’s vital these ‘transmission chains’ are broken but this won’t be possible without financial help for those needing funds to self-isolate. In his view this lack of funding is proof that the Prime Minister’s ‘promise to level up lies in tatters’. As Tory backbenchers and Covid Recovery Group members continue to exert their own pressure on the PM to ease lockdown, most scientists and policymakers are more guarded, no doubt partly informed by what happened last summer. Professor John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine believes that reopening schools alone will increase the R rate by as much as 0.5%, and advises proceeding ‘very cautiously’.

In my view it’s profoundly unhelpful, conveying the wrong messages and attempting to deflect attention from his mistakes over the last year, that Boris Johnson continues with his puerile idealisation of the vaccines: ‘I have no doubt that vaccines generally are going to offer a way out of the pandemic…with every day that goes by you can see that medicine is slowly getting the upper hand over the disease’. As of last week 147 people had been identified with the South African variant in Britain but scientists believe it’s actually many more because of rapid community transmission. Head of NHS Providers Chris Hopson goes to the heart of the matter, suggesting that the lockdown shouldn’t be lifted until the Test and Trace system had been improved. He wants it to be capable of spotting mutations within two or three days whereas at present genomic tests take eight days. Meanwhile, an interesting article in the Guardian suggests three different scenarios for how things could look by May: the optimist’s view, the middle ground and the worst case scenario. Unfortunately, the latter seems quite likely. ‘By far the greatest worry for most scientists is the creation and spread of new variants of the Covid-19 virus – in particular, mutations that could evade the protection provided by the current vaccines on offer’. Professor Martin Hibberd of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine thinks ‘a new strain of virus could overcome the protective effects of previous infections and vaccines, meaning that we will have to develop new vaccines and then re-vaccinate everybody again’. It anyone finds this unduly pessimistic, the middle ground section of the article isn’t that positive either.

More than 50 days after the South African variant was first discovered in the UK, the government has finally introduced a scheme of quarantine hotels for returning air passengers, but absurdly, only those from 33 ‘red list’ countries despite the variant being found elsewhere. Some scientists and policymakers say hotel quarantine should be imposed for all UK arrivals to prevent variants spreading, rather than an approach targeting only 11 of the 41 countries where the South Africa variant has been detected. The scheme has attracted anger, derision and disbelief in some quarters, many finding it ill thought out, sloppy compared with the Australian scheme, not even being enacted until Monday and leaving loopholes such as people travelling from one of the listed countries but transiting through another. And how will it be checked that people have had the requisite number of tests and what they’re doing when they go out, as they’re allowed to do? What about people due to return to the UK next week who won’t have factored this into their budgets and won’t be able to pay for these compulsory quarantine packages?

The threat of 10 year jail sentence for those breaking this law and lying has widely been found disproportionate. Tory MP Sir Charles Walker stunned Radio 4 World at One listeners yesterday by his intemperate outburst on this subject, during which the adjective ‘bloody’ was used and presenter Sarah Montague was called ‘Martha’. On Channel 4, interviewed by Krishnan Guru Murthy, Walker criticised ‘irresponsible’ ministers for implying, via the direction not to book summer holidays, that lockdown could continue into the summer. He said people were really struggling, needed human contact and alluded to ‘a very stressed out and exhausted nation’. Accusing the government of deliberately scaring people witless and ‘robbing people of hope’, he described the plan for 10 year prison sentences for those who try to evade quarantine rules as ‘utterly ridiculous’.

It’s not conducive to public confidence when one minister (Matt Hancock) lets us know he booked his summer holiday in Cornwall some time ago, at the same time as another (Grant Shapps) says it’s too early to book any holiday. Ministers not even being able to present a consistent policy across government will contribute further to public anxiety. One tweeter commented: ‘Rather ironic that liar Grant Shapps is introducing tough sentences for people who lie’, and Piers Morgan tweeted:  ‘If failing to quarantine properly is punishable by 10 years in prison, what is the punishment for failing to properly protect the country from a pandemic?’

We understand that these pricey hotel packages include transport, security and testing, and surely it won’t be too long before investigative journalists or curious individuals discover which companies with links to the government have been given the contracts to operate these services. Cronyism continues despite its exposure by the Good Law Project and others.

Guardian sketch writer once more turned his guns on Matt Hancock this week, focusing on his performance at Monday’s Downing Street press briefing. ‘Hancock tried to remain upbeat but he’s beginning to look frayed around the edges. A year of trying to hold it together, of being that glass-half-full guy, appears to have taken its toll. Outwardly he still looks like one of the first contestants to be thrown off The Apprentice, but his eyes are the giveaway. They are almost dead. Empty hollows. I’m not sure how much longer he can keep this up. Even Tiggers have their breaking point’. Yet again, the ineffective Test and Trace system was raised, as it’s clear, despite continuing idealisation of the vaccine, that this won’t prove the much vaunted ‘cavalry coming to the rescue’. ‘Door Matt also nearly came unstuck when asked how it was that Test and Trace was going along at a “blistering pace” when many staff were being made redundant. Ah, snapped Hancock. The fact that Test and Trace was able to lay off staff was a sign of just how efficiently it was now working. So once the organisation was down to double figures, it would be working perfectly. Presumably Hancock’s experience of test and trace is rather different from most other people’s’.

Radio 4 was criticised this morning for interviewing that famous epidemiologist, former Brexit negotiator David Davis, during which he pontificated about Covid,  suggesting it will become like flu, that we have ‘to live with it’ and we don’t lock down for flu.  His Brexit negotiating performance, which left his credibility hanging in shreds, hasn’t put the BBC off inviting him onto programmes, as if for balance with real scientists. When asked if flu/Covid comparison was a valid one, Professor Stephen Riley, professor of Infectious Disease Dynamics at London’s Imperial College, very politely dismissed this speculation and the idea that restrictions can just be lifted. A listener tweeted: ‘I can’t believe I’m *still* hearing David Davis cited as a counterbalance to a ‘Professor of Infectious Diseases’ on the subject of… infectious diseases. The continuing promotion of proven nincompoops is scandalous. Whatever the topic, Davis has all the expertise of a mackerel’.

Charities are now pressing for more clinically vulnerable people, such as those with ME and learning disabilities, to be moved up the vaccination queue and there’s still no clarity about those with asthma. A more nuanced approach to vaccination priorities is way overdue but, as we’ve seen so often, the government doesn’t ‘do’ nuance. ‘Professor Wei Shen Lim, the Covid chair for JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation), said: “The JCVI’s advice on Covid-19 vaccine prioritisation was developed with the aim of preventing as many deaths as possible. As the single greatest risk of death from Covid-19 is older age, prioritisation is primarily based on age. It is estimated that vaccinating everyone in the priority groups would prevent around 99% of deaths from Covid-19’.

Comedian and presenter Romesh Ranganathan is one of the latest to express concern about those who are entitled to the vaccine but who have eschewed it, such as some care home workers, who pose a massive risk to the residents they care for. Only 55% of Asian community members are said to be taking it. ‘I recently participated in a video organised by the actor Adil Ray, in which we tried to dispel some of the myths about the vaccine. But while the response was overwhelmingly positive, there were people who kicked back: they said it was patronising – how was a video made by a bunch of celebrities going to make people suddenly decide to have the vaccine? There were even suggestions that we had been paid to support a government agenda….I realise that people are distrustful of the government (and if you are from an ethnic or impoverished background, then it is understandable why); but the other option is to contract the virus, which is easily the worst one’. Yet the government has no plans to make vaccination compulsory in certain circumstances. Another factor is that there’s a shortage of carers so employers won’t easily be able to compel their employees to get vaccinated.

A hugely significant news item this week (now covered by the BBC since it’s no longer a leak) is the plan to reform the NHS, even during the pandemic. The proposals were presented to MPs on Thursday by Health Secretary Matt Hancock but there’s quite some discrepancy between what has been presented, what language the plans are couched in, and the reality. The plan is intended to ‘streamline’ services, especially removing barriers between health and social care, to remove ‘bureaucracy’, to increase accountability and give the Health Secretary much more direct control over the NHS. It’s long been known that the government has been frustrated that its power has been limited because of it resting with NHS England chief Simon Stevens, and now it’s likely he will stand down this year because he won’t favour the reduction of his own fiefdom. But it’s been suggested by clinicians that the worthy goals referred to could be achieved without a wholesale reorganisation at such a difficult time. It’s not convincing for the government to talk about ‘accountability’ and ‘taxpayers’ money’ when they’ve wasted millions on crony contracts which weren’t subjected to scrutiny, and the plan won’t see the end of private sector incursions into the NHS. Hancock said: ‘Medical matters are matters for ministers…NHS England will have a clinical and day-to-day operational independence, but the Secretary of State will be empowered to set direction for the NHS and intervene where necessary’.

The NHS White Paper is snappily titled Integration and Innovation: Working Together to Improve Health and Social Care for All. It’s been noted that it still kicked the social care can down the road despite improving social care being given as a major raison d’etre. Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth commented: ‘We’re in the middle of the biggest public health crisis our NHS has ever faced, staff on the frontline are exhausted and underpaid. The Royal College of Nursing says the NHS is on its knees, and the Secretary of State thinks this is the right moment for a structural reorganisation of the NHS’. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘NHS White Paper plans to sweep away ‘bureaucracy’? Aka proper checks to ensure decisions are made on clinical, not financial or ideological grounds’.

The undermining of proper scrutiny links to another news item this week. Newspaper editors have pressed for the protection of the Freedom of Information Act, as they have observed increasing difficulties experienced by those making inquiries in obtaining the information they seek. OpenDemocracy, set up in 2001 to ‘challenge power and encourage democratic debate across the world’, coordinated the letter to government from six different newspaper editors. The editors include those of the Guardian, the Mirror, the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times. ‘Last November an openDemocracy report accused ministers of running an “Orwellian unit” at the heart of government that sought to control the release of potentially embarrassing information. It said Whitehall departments were rejecting requests at the highest rate since the introduction of the act 20 years ago’. Significantly, the budget of FOI regulator the Information Commissioner’s Office has been cut by 41% over the last ten years, during which time its caseload increased by 46%. This situation could make it even harder for those trying to find out more about crony contracting since the start of the pandemic.

Reflecting a trend reinforced by the pandemic and massive increase in working from home, news reaches us of a Swedish project seeking to improve urban living by reclaiming parking spaces. One microcosmic example is what happened recently in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city, which involved the removal of several parking spaces and their replacement with outward facing benches outside a gourmet sausage shop. This led to people enjoying themselves, chatting, eating and drinking there despite the freezing temperatures. ‘This pop-up public space is part of a Swedish urban experiment known as the “one-minute city”. They’ve been appearing around the country as part of a government project called Street Moves, which aims to investigate what happens when cars are displaced, and how every street in Sweden could be healthy, sustainable and vibrant by 2030’.

In many areas motorists might object but it seems the locals have been broadly in favour. No doubt they can experience the benefit of the opportunities for social mixing, good for mental wellbeing rather than people driving around and sticking in their own silos. The approach links to the ’15 minute city’ idea, which is working well in Paris – that all key amenities should be within a 15 minute walk or bike ride. We could do with a bit more of this in the UK.

Finally, we’ve been hearing since the start of the pandemic about those who have lost their traditional jobs and who have since diversified and tried to find niches which wouldn’t have been workable pre-Covid. One of the most charming examples must be the Doorstep Puppet Theatre, developed by theatre professionals Benedict Hastings and Maddie Sidi. Since theatres closed, the pair came up with the idea of bringing performance art to the people, appealing to both children and adults. ‘We want to bring the magic of a live performance to people in these difficult times, so we’ve come up with a way of doing just that. Our portable puppet theatre allows us to come to your home and perform just for you and your family, outdoors and in a Covid-secure way’. 10% of the ticket price goes towards two theatres held dear by the performers, helping the theatres to keep going during these difficult times. Imagine (perhaps in better weather) a knock at the door turning out not to be a parcel delivery but a puppet theatre ready to entertain you on your doorstep. I think this would be marvellous for kids of all ages and I hope it does really well.

Saturday 6 February

As we move into February the first week has seen plenty to occupy minds and media, from the Covid death totals, which remain very high (eg 1449 on Tuesday, 915 on Thursday, 1014 on Friday), to the sad death of Captain Sir Tom Moore, continuing debate about the vaccination programme and challenges regarding the slow progress being made in introducing quarantine hotels. Despite public sadness at the passing of ‘national treasure’ Sir Tom, many were annoyed by the Prime Minister’s cynical call for public clapping that evening, especially when the PM continues to be deaf to the intolerable strain and exhaustion NHS staff are experiencing. The tactic of praising people under severe strain when also denying them pay increases and underinvesting in their service just doesn’t cut it. We saw the same thing last week when the Prime Minister wrote to parents thanking them for their sterling efforts on home schooling. As one tweeter observed: ‘Perhaps you could properly honour the legacy of Captain Sir Tom Moore by properly funding the NHS in future so that centenarians don’t need to skip around the garden to raise 1% of the £30billion your government is underfunding it by.’

Referencing the effects of lockdown on mental health, the British Medical Journal drew attention to record alcohol-related deaths, with 5,460 in England and Wales attributed to this cause between January and September 2020, up 16% on the same period over 2019. This is the highest number since records began in 2001. The BMJ, considered one of the most respected medical journals, also attacked the government for corruption and misuse of science to suit its own ends. The Journal suggested that Covid-19 had ‘unleashed state corruption on a grand scale’, that politicians and industry were guilty of ‘opportunistic embezzlement’ and ‘the suppression of science’. The BMJ points to scientists being told not to speak to the media, and the suppression of key paragraphs from Public Health England (PHE) reports, besides accusing PHE of attempting to block the publication of a scientific report into the efficacy of antibody tests procured by the government. It’s surely an indicator of what dire straits we’re in when a prestigious organ like the BMJ feels the need to speak out like this.

One of the most depressing news items, though not surprising, is the introduction of doorstep testing of around 80,000 people in specific ‘hotspots’ given the rapid rise in those areas of South African variant cases. Again, we see evidence of a process not properly thought out, as there will be household members missed and no procedure ensuring that those asked to isolate actually do. It’s thought that around 20,000 should be self-isolating but are not doing so. The reason this is so depressing is that, despite the government’s simplistic attempt to deflect from their mistakes and present the vaccine as a ‘cavalry’ coming to our rescue, a panacea which would enable us to ‘get back to normal’, it’s now manifestly not the case. More and more experts are saying that we will need other measures in place for some considerable time, some suggesting that we won’t be ‘out of the woods’ until the whole world is vaccinated because we can’t just operate as an island when we’re one part of a global economy. Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s declared goals to ‘stop the spread altogether of these new variants and bring this virus to heel’ aren’t likely to be met by doorstep testing while our borders remain open. It’s also a bit of joke describing this initiative as ‘a sprint’, when the government has been tardy in every measure it’s taken from the start of the pandemic.

Sky News featured one public health expert who believes getting back to any kind of normality will take a couple of years, and the head of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson, forecast many more months. Hopson attributed this partly to the workforce being ‘exhausted and traumatised’ (still not acknowledged by the government), with many needing to go on long term sick leave and/or considering leaving the NHS. This is a serious issue the government needs to take seriously.

These forecasts haven’t, of course, stopped vociferous anti-lockdown campaigners including Parliament’s inappropriately named Covid Recovery Group from expressing their views and putting pressure on the Prime Minister. He’s in between a rock and hard place trying to do what’s necessary, even ‘following the science’, at the same time as trying to placate these relentless backbenchers. But then being able to navigate such tricky territory is one of the many skills required in this role, not one demonstrated by the present incumbent, with his endless dithering and half measures.

A good example of half measures, like trying to fill a leaky kettle, is the delayed introduction of quarantine hotels for returning air passengers, not due to start until 15 February despite the South African variant being discovered here in December. But this is another half measure, planning to only quarantine UK passengers, as opposed to the thousands of others entering the UK. It’s strange that ministers don’t realise journalists and others will check out their statements – the head of the largest chain of airport hotels, Best Western Hotel group, said the government had not spoken to him and how frustrating it was not to have the opportunity to properly prepare. It’s not dissimilar to the government claim last March to have spoken to the supermarkets about supplies and stockpiling, when they had done no such thing.

These exemplify the imperious and top down attitude demonstrated by the government, failing to communicate well in advance with those expected to implement these plans and remaining unaware of the work and complexities involved. Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds described the need for doorstep testing as ‘deeply worrying….. It shows the UK government’s quarantine system is not working, with the country being exposed to dangerous strains of the virus and new cases now appearing…while door-to-door testing is welcome … how can the Home Secretary justify keeping our borders open to Covid, allowing around 21,000 people to arrive every day?’ Nevertheless, one minister after another repeated during media appearances the standard disingenuous script, to the effect that this was an ‘additional’ measure because we already had ‘robust’ procedures in place, such as asking people to isolate when it’s known that there’s very little checking and a good number are not doing so.

Regarding the ending of lockdown, it’s fair to say many have been pressing ministers on this and their promised ‘roadmap’ (not expected until 22 February) not for simple answers to the when question but for the actual criteria that decision would be based on. So far there has been no clear response and this is yet another aspect of this situation to be increasing public anxiety.

Eviscerations of the Prime Minister came from several sources this week, including, as usual, the Guardian’s sketch writer John Crace and also the Scotsman. Crace’s article is titled ‘Prime minister’s questions for the prime minister who doesn’t do questions’, as it’s been highlighted many times how often Boris Johnson turns the questions into an attack on Keir Starmer, with no challenge from the Speaker. Several commentators have observed the lack of Speaker intervention and we can imagine such diversionary tactics wouldn’t have been tolerated by predecessor John Bercow. Crace started with Boris Johnson’s PMQs performance: Right now, PMQs feels increasingly redundant. Even as a piece of weekly political theatre it is failing. There was a time when Keir Starmer regularly managed to get under Boris Johnson’s skin, but Boris has long since worked out that he can get by quite easily without answering any questions, and the Labour leader has yet to find a strategy for forcing him to do so. He needs to do so quickly as we have reached a point of stalemate that suits Johnson just fine’. It sounded a very poor performance on questions relating to quarantine, dangerous cladding and the Northern Ireland protocol, resorting to waffle or tirades against the opposition leader and nor was Crace impressed with the PM’s performance at the Downing Street conference. ‘It started with Johnson again paying tribute to Moore. Almost as if the prime minister was trying to create an association between himself and the late soldier in people’s minds. Perhaps the prime minister has yet to learn the difference between selflessness and selfishness’. But later a change of approach showed itself, striking a more sombre tone. ‘What was most remarkable, though, was that – for almost the first time – Boris’s natural gung-ho optimism had given way to something rather more pragmatic. That he had discovered the hard way that the coronavirus couldn’t be pushed around and forced to fit with his government’s timetable…

The Scotsman forensically dissects the Prime Minister’s behaviour. ‘The trick is to create low expectations for your conduct, in terms both of ethics and of political competence, and to do so boldly, with some degree of charm. Then thereafter, in true showbiz style, the trick is to live down to those expectations, in a spectacular way that keeps you in the news. You lie, you cheat, you fracture social norms and break treaties, you conduct a private life riddled with self-indulgence and betrayal; but always with the suggestion – false, but in the reactionary spirit of the times – that you are just saying and doing what every normal guy would do, given half a chance. Your political colleagues find your popular appeal seductive; your opponents are at a loss to know how to oppose you, because the more they point out the consequences of your actions, the more they boost your reputation as the bad boy who gets away with things’. Making the comparison with Donald Trump, the author suggests that this situation leads to the development of ‘Teflon’ politicians, whose supporters find them entertaining and whose detractors can’t touch them.

But this surely comes at huge cost, some supporters starting to understand that they’ve been taken in by the buffoonery which masks skulduggery. ‘…. if all political careers end in failure, the downfall of Teflon Boris, when it finally comes, may leave much more in ruins than his own vaulting ambition, and his childhood dream of becoming ‘king of the world’.

While the PM and his colleagues repeatedly praise the NHS to the skies, taking their work for granted, The Independent raises the alarm about the government allegedly using the pandemic as a cover for taking more control of NHS England. We’re told the reforms would undo at least some of those undertaken by the Cameron government, by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, in terms of NHS England no longer being an arm’s length body. There would be new powers to change the current structure, including new integrated care organisations and allowing some contracts to be awarded without the need to put them out to tender. You couldn’t make some of it up: ‘We are proposing to create a power of direction over NHS England that will provide clear lines of accountability by allowing the secretary of state for health and social care to direct NHS England in relation to relevant functions’. It’s long been known that Conservative health secretaries have been frustrated by not being able to enact the measures they wanted regarding the NHS so here’s Matt Hancock’s chance though some may argue this will result in less accountability, not more. But you will be relieved to hear there are some limits to the suggested new powers: ‘The health secretary will not be able to formally direct a local hospital nor will he have the power to intervene in clinical decisions’. At least you won’t have to imagine Matt standing over you at a critical juncture, saying they won’t be able to replace your hip after all.

Needless to say, it was former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt who the Today programme invited to comment on the proposals, predictably saying that although they were big changes he reckons they’re the right ones. How about interviewing a health service expert? The Department of Health and Social Care, saying that it didn’t comment on ‘leaks’, said: ‘From tackling bureaucracy to driving forward the integration of health and care services, we are rightly considering where changes need to be made to help us build back better’. One listener tweeted: ‘Filtering proposals through Tory ideology, NHS becomes a charitable emergency service while private healthcare and insurance become mainstream; a status symbol. It’s what they’ve always wanted, and it’ll be sugar-coated for the election’. Another said: ‘It’s ‘bureaucracy’ when it gets in the way of crony contracting’ and, as we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, scores of companies linked to the government have benefited from contracts awarded without tender.

Vaccines and their rollout have also continued to dominate the news, especially regarding supply issues; efforts to prioritise certain occupations such as the police and teachers; clinicians’ efforts to put minds at rest given Belgian and German statements that the AstraZeneca vaccine wasn’t suitable for the over 60s; the capacity of vaccines to cope with dangerous new variants; and worrying suggestions that further departures might be made from approved use practice in terms of possibly switching to a different vaccine for the second dose. Concern is increasing over those who refuse the vaccine going into care homes, where the residents are effectively sitting ducks. It seems no one organisation has the power to enforce vaccination for care home workers and although employers could do so via employees’ contracts it could lead to litigation and would result in staffing problems since there’s a shortage of carers. At the same time discussion around vaccine passports is intensifying – the principles and practical issues such as preventing faking by criminal gangs. Typically, the government has said it has no plans to introduce them and new Tory peer Lord Hannan said on Radio 4’s Any Questions that ‘we’re not the kind of country that will enforce vaccine passports’. However, this stance is likely to prove short-sighted as some countries including Denmark already have them, they will be increasingly required for travel and potentially large numbers of venues will only admit those who can prove they’ve been vaccinated. So yet again the UK could be behind the curve and surely, in these times, public health has to trump accusations that such measures are discriminatory. 

Meanwhile, The Week reproduced an interesting letter to the Guardian, which sheds light on the disagreement over the changed use of the Pfizer vaccine. A Professor Paul Glendinning said the BMA, which had criticised the revised policy, has ‘a Kantian, (rule-based) moral philosophy, under which doctors have an obligation to do the best they can for each patient, and any action or inaction that causes potential harm to a patient is deemed to break this obligation’. He contrasts this with the stance of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which takes ‘a utilitarian view of moral philosophy, seeking the greater good for the greatest number, arguing that lives are likely to be saved by delaying the second dose to individuals, even if some of those individuals become vulnerable again’. The Professor suggests the two parties should stop arguing that they have the right interpretation of science and should recognise that this is a philosophical disagreement. Not everyone, though, will be cheered by his recommendation that it’s ‘the function of the government to decide which moral stance to support’, since ministers have clearly demonstrated a marked capacity to cherry pick ‘the science’ when it suits them.

Evidence continues to emerge of the second ‘pandemic’ affecting our society, the latest during Children’s Mental Health Week being the Mental Health Foundation’s findings on teenagers’ mental health. Researchers found, not surprisingly, that all those surveyed said their mental health had deteriorated during the pandemic and between 27% and 32% experienced marked anxiety, irritability, and trouble concentrating and sleeping. Those with unemployed parents were much more affected by anxiety and depression, as were those whose parents were in ‘social grades’ C2DE. Commenting on the findings, the Foundation’s Head of Research, Catherine Seymour, saidThese findings are a warning about how painful many young people’s lives have become during the pandemic. We gathered the findings before the recent school closures – and fear that when we next ask teenagers about their experiences, they will be feeling even worse’.

Professor Ann John, Professor of Public Health and Psychiatry at Swansea University (the academic partner in this research), pointed out how the pandemic had exposed ‘the deep inequalities in our society. Many studies have shown the greater impact and widening gaps in mental health difficulties, educational attainment and more severe financial consequences for the young and those in living in poverty…..More than this, the Government must address the factors that can contribute towards young people having problems with their mental health in the first place. This means delivering an equitable welfare system, guaranteeing housing safety and security and ensuring teenagers have the basics to live comfortably through the pandemic and beyond – including food and warmth’. Unfortunately, not only does the government fail to fund mental health services adequately, it also fails to recognise these fundamental inequalities which are aggravated by its own policies.

We’ve long known how the French fiercely guard their language against foreign incursions, with some success, although some might argue that the Académie Française, described as ‘the pre-eminent French council for matters pertaining to the French language’ is fighting a losing battle, with phrases like ‘le weekend’ becoming commonplace years ago. Similar concerns are now being expressed in Spain, an article in Madrid’s El Pais newspaper suggesting that the ‘colonisation of the Spanish language by English is fast becoming a nightmare’. The complaint focuses on the growing habit of Spanish journalists to sprinkle anglicisms throughout articles, using phrases like ‘winner takes all’, ‘talent shows’, said to ‘infuriate’ Spaniards, who are thought to be mostly unfamiliar with them. The author says it’s fair enough if English terms are used when there’s no Spanish equivalent, but criticises use of the English ‘newsletter’, for example, when the Spanish ‘boletín’ is ‘perfectly good’. He attributes the habit to snobbery, laziness and perhaps a belief that using anglicisms is ‘cool’…. ‘But in a profession which prides itself on its economy with words, the proliferation of pointless synonyms is tantamount to abuse. It’s high time we put a stop to it’. It would be interesting to know if speakers of other languages have the same experience.

Consumer programmes have often featured the difficulty many customers have experienced getting refunds from airlines and holiday companies after so many flights and breaks had to be cancelled last year. The companies are supposed to refund customers’ money but all too often customers have not had a reply to their requests or they’ve been fobbed off with vouchers. In some cases customers couldn’t even contact the companies because they closed their phone lines and ignored other forms of communication. We have to wonder why they don’t realise that we will probably take our business elsewhere in the future, since we still can’t plan any travel with any degree of certainty so further cancellations are possible. A result recently, then, after many months of pestering (Twitter often works well as companies don’t like to be outed for poor customer service) to finally get more than £360 back from Travel Republic.

Finally, here’s a lovely little nature piece, with sounds of curlews and the River Tyne – a tonic to listen to after the maelstrom of news.

Saturday 30 January

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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