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.

Saturday 23 January

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 17th January

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 10 January

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 2 January 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 20 December

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 12 December

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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