Saturday 12 December

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 5 December

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there’s further coverage of this issue below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 29 November

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 22 November

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 14 November

Of all the eventful weeks we’ve had recently, this one must be a record, including the aftermath of Biden’s victory, Trump’s ongoing refusal to concede amid allegations of fraud, the second predictable government U-turn on free school meals, the relief (despite the hard work to come) of the Pfizer vaccine announcement, the defeat of the Internal Market bill in the Lords and the turmoil inside no 10, culminating in the sudden departure of arch-fixer Dominic Cummings. ‘That’s the last time he walks down the road like Kim Kardashian, preening for the cameras like the spoilt lord of Barnard Castle. In future advisers will go round the back and let the elected prime minister use the front door’, said one commentator, yet others suggested that this dramatic exit was staged for an orchestrated photo shoot and Cummings will still be there in the background. The most memorable photo must be the unstaged one, the lone and forlorn figure standing in Whitehall, with the box at his feet, staring at his phone. Not everyone is glad to see the back of him, though – one caller to Radio 4’s Any Answers said he’d ‘done a lot of good’, and another, seeing his iconoclasm as a good thing, said he’ll probably ‘go to Silicon Valley’ and what a loss this would be.

In The Independent, former Labour Director of Communications Alastair Campbell questions the ability of the government to ‘reset’, which some Conservatives (Bernard Jenkin, David Davis and others) seem to be taking for granted or at least think possible. It does indeed seem far too late for that. Campbell argues that there are three important assets a prime minister has that should ‘never be underestimated and should always be carefully managed… diary, authority and goodwill’. Our PM is struggling with all three now and, it could be argued, has done for quite some time. Campbell suggests that the resources necessary to deal with the UK’s current challenges have had serious inroads made into them because of this time-consuming ‘personnel crisis’, attributed to ‘his inability to set a clear strategic course or to be a commander of events inside Downing Street rather than a responder to them’. It’s argued that the authority and goodwill assets come with a full tank when a PM enters office, but the way they’re managed (or not) will determine whether those tanks are kept topped up or their contents allowed to drain away. We now know that fiancé Carrie Symonds sees herself as ‘a seasoned political operator’ and that she was heavily involved in the turmoil leading to Cummings’s departure.

‘But if the narrative of an all-powerful adviser having already drained Johnson’s authority is replaced by the narrative of an all-powerful, controlling partner, that will drain it more, as will the televised briefings by Stratton. Scrapping them before they start would be a sensible part of the reset….. In the end, this is about Johnson. Diary, authority, goodwill: get a grip on all three. Or, if you can’t, just Leave. Leaving, after all, seems to be the one thing this lot know how to do’.

The US election has thrown up a number of concerns about the American electoral system: it seems to me that constitutional change is way overdue, enabling more federal control of the process to prevent further time consuming and costly disputes but apparently this will never happen as the individual states cling tightly to their power and changing the Constitution requires a two thirds Senate majority. It’s likely that our joy at Biden’s victory will be dampened considerably by the continuation of Trumpism in some shape or form and the likelihood is that this vengeful narcissist will stop at nothing to undermine the new administration. He’s already posing a security risk by excluding Biden from intelligence briefings. The refusal to concede and the undignified accusations of fraud without evidence are undermining America’s international standing, not to mention Donald Jnr calling for ‘total war’ and threatening to run for President in 2024. A week after the result we finally hear that Trump Snr has admitted that he ‘may not’ be President in January.

How Trump Senior must have regretted treating his niece and her family in such a way that she felt the need to write such an attacking and exposing book – Too Much and Never Enough. Mary Trump gave her verdict last weekend: ‘This is how the most colossal and fragile ego on the planet deals with losing the US election: he does not deal with it at all….. My uncle’s speech late on election night wasn’t just entirely mendacious from beginning to end. It was also deeply dangerous. It’s one thing for random Republicans to call a legitimate election into question, but this was the head of the government. The consequences of that action should not be underestimated’. Trump believes her uncle will be having ‘meltdowns upon meltdowns’,  seeing poetic justice in the lies and cheating now coming back to bite him.

Many have wondered what possessed so many Americans to vote for Trump and the answer, depressingly, seems to be that despite his divisive policies and failing to deliver on many of his objectives, he was seen as ‘authentic’, ‘telling it how it is’ because he didn’t speak or come across like other politicians, and somehow this engendered a kind of trust in some voters. As one commentator put it, they saw him as ‘a self-confident guy who took no shit and had moved beyond the rhetorical niceties of politics’, somehow managing to discount his catastrophic management of the pandemic and to overlook his damaging antics and absurd posturing.

Although the Internal Market bill was roundly defeated in the Lords last week, the government wasted no time in saying it would re-introduce the offending clauses when the bill returns to the Commons, including the one enabling the breaking of international law ‘in a limited and specific way’. It seems extraordinary that only days away from the Brexit negotiations deadline, there’s still no sign of real progress and resolution. ‘Lord Clarke, the former home secretary and chancellor, told the House of Lords there was no evidence for the supposed EU threat to the Good Friday agreement – describing the Brexit clauses as a “Donald Trump like gesture” born of “panic” by a government acting like a dictatorship’. It seems the government is determined to press ahead with these clauses, seeing them as ‘a vital safety net’, even though such legislation would damage relationships and trade negotiations with the US, Ireland and the EU as a whole.

After months of doom and gloom, many of us would have experienced a marked uplift in our spirits at the start of last week, the vaccine news following hot on the heels of the Biden victory. It was a jaw-dropping moment hearing immunologist Professor Sir John Bell, interviewed on the BBC’s World at One programme, giving a resounding ‘Yes’ to three questions including ‘Could life be back to normal by spring?’ Nevertheless, it was made clear just how much work this will involve, especially for the NHS, ‘tasked’ by Health Secretary Matt Hancock to get the rollout organised within the next few weeks. Typically, media interviews with high profile NHS figures, such as GP Clare Gerada and former chair of the Royal College of GPs, Helen Stokes-Lampard, talked up the level of preparedness within GP practices, confidence not echoed by all GPs. Some expressed misgivings about the manpower problems (additional staff yet to be recruited) and vaccine storage facilities, since it must be stored at below -70 degrees C. Numerous commentators and members of the public have also voiced concerns about transporting the vaccine from its manufacture base in Belgium after a No Deal Brexit, but during Thursday’s Question Time, Matt Hancock was adamant that it was manageable. This is likely to be as much of a ‘mammoth logistical operation’ as the vaccine rollout. Given the already existing backlogs in non-COVID treatment and urgent procedures, many are concerned that regular NHS work will have to be scaled back in order to resource the vaccine rollout.

Wouldn’t you just know that such a key development couldn’t emerge without the usual taint of corruption? The PM’s vaccine tsar, Kate Bingham (married to a Tory MP) was lambasted for spending £670m on PR and having received a government investment in her company of £49m. Interviewed on Tuesday’s Today programme, Matt Hancock said (in relation to the PR bill) that he will go out of his way to thank her and the vaccine task force for stepping up in the national effort, alluding to such people as ‘giving up their lives’ to carry out this work. Palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke tweeted: ‘First Boris Johnson appointed Kate Bingham his vaccine tsar (a venture capitalist, no health experience, married to a Tory minister, schoolmate of Rachel Johnson). Then her firm received a £49 million investment – funded by the UK govt. Obscene cronyism’. It was somewhat galling to hear Hancock archly reproving presenter Mishal Husain, hinting at churlishness for not ‘thanking’ these armies of people when what’s glaringly obvious is their incapacity to do a job without lining their pockets. Perhaps the most striking aspect is the bizarre perception that it was the cronies who’d given up their lives for months, rather than the many clinicians who’ve given up months and, in too many cases, their own lives.

This week Business Secretary Alok Sharma became the hapless target of Guardian sketchwriter John Crace’s blistering pen. Sharma was the latest minister selected to conduct the press conference which the PM was too tied up with no 10 intrigue to do himself. ‘Not even the business secretary is entirely sure how he came to be business secretary. He doesn’t even seem to have much interest in politics, let alone business. Rather it was a case of one thing leading to another. He had seen which way the wind was blowing in the Tory leadership contest, had declared himself a huge fan of Boris Johnson, despite never having knowingly declared any great enthusiasm for Brexit, and was rewarded – to his and everyone else’s surprise – with a place in the cabinet’. Crace details one failure after another in the Business Secretary’s performance. ‘Fair to say, Sharma is not a details man. The trouble started with a question from the BBC about reports that Brexit could disrupt the supply chain for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Rather sweetly, Sharma didn’t even seem to sense the danger in the question’, admitting that yes, Brexit would cause massive disruption to businesses and that he’d produced a series of webinars to help them prepare.

‘From there, it all went downhill. Asked about the current infighting within Downing St and the resignation of Lee Cain, all Sharma could manage was that everyone was working hard to protect lives and livelihoods….. You could hear the cries of despair coming from what was left of the Downing Street communications team. They had counted on their man not to mess up, and he had just let them down. It was turning into one of those days. Or, as the rest of us call it, one of those years’.

Meanwhile, the lockdown in England, hard to detect in some areas, plods on, not helped by anxiety that it could well be extended beyond 2 December. An interesting analysis in the Guardian describes how the second wave and lockdown have more clearly exposed the country’s socioeconomic divisions, as the instructions to stay at home and ‘do the right thing’ are given by those with decent-sized properties, gardens and laptops, with the ones suffering the most being young people, the low paid and the self-employed.

A similar pattern is seen across Europe, where violent protests have broken out in some cities, and in the US. ‘The biggest victims of lockdowns and curfews have been blue-collar workers, the self-employed and those whose livelihoods depend on servicing the better-heeled in the metropolises of early 21st-century capitalism….. If you have to leave home to do your job, you are probably in trouble. If you are securely ensconced in the better-paid knowledge economy, and able to retreat to the virtual world of Zoom, you’re probably still in business.’ Worryingly, the article describes how anti-lockdown sentiment is being weaponised by populists in order to further their own agendas. ‘After too often demonstrating a tin ear for the preoccupations and perceptions of the post-industrial working class, the liberal left cannot afford to make the same mistake again. In the short term it must lobby for far greater social protection for those worst hit by the economic fallout of Covid’.

Mental ill-health continues to feature in the news, and no surprise, since pre-existing difficulties, especially anxiety, will be significantly exacerbated by the shambolic management of the pandemic besides cuts to mental health services making themselves felt more keenly. We’ve known this for some time but recent research suggests that mental health should be added to the COVID pre-disposing risk factors. The study by the University of Oxford and NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre showed that nearly one in five people who have had COVID-19 are diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder such as anxiety, depression or insomnia within three months of testing positive for the virus. Furthermore, they found that those with a pre-existing mental health condition were 65% more likely to be diagnosed with Covid-19 than those without, even accounting for known risk factors such as age, sex, race, and underlying physical conditions. ‘A particularly concerning finding was the doubling of the diagnosis of dementia – which is typically irreversible – three months after testing positive for Covid-19, versus the other health conditions’. If such research doesn’t help make a cast-iron case for better mental health funding, I don’t know what would.

There hasn’t been much in the media about the government’s Winter Mental Health Plan and I hadn’t been aware until I saw news from my professional body, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), that Nadine Dorries has been Minister for Mental Health, Suicide Prevention and Patient Safety since 2019. Not exactly a high profile. BACP tells us: ‘We’re pleased the UK government is set to announce an evidence-informed Winter Mental Health Plan, which will include improved access to talking therapies at its heart. The plan, which was raised by Mental Health Minister Nadine Dorries MP during questions in the House of Commons on the mental health impact of the pandemic, will also include a campaign to help people access the support they need when they need it. These were key elements of our Covid-19 campaign and we’re writing to government to offer our support in bringing this plan forward as well as pushing for greater funding for counselling and psychotherapy to meet the growing demand’.

Brave talk, but as so many have found out, support is often not there ‘when they need it’, because of long waiting lists and poor choice of treatment in primary care services. The government’s Plan doesn’t seem to amount to much and seems rather technocratic in its approach, for example ‘piloting a national surveillance system to monitor suspected suicide and self-harm by collecting data from local systems in near real-time…… This will allow us to identify patterns of risk and inform national and local responses. [But, given the cuts made over the years, what can these ‘responses’ amount to?] I can also announce we’re developing a winter plan for wellbeing and mental health, and I hope to return to the House with more information on this shortly’. BACP acknowledges the statement and thanks its 27 campaign partners but is clearly on the government’s case: ‘But the government needs to get this right and we’ll be continuing to make the case that the plan must provide adequate funding and draw on the expertise of our skilled and professional members if it’s going to support the growing number of people whose mental health has suffered during this challenging year’.

Meanwhile, we learn that out of area psychiatric in-patient placements have more than doubled over recent years, causing considerable distress to patients and families, patients often being sent far away, with the attendant difficulties involved in organising visits. An NHS spokesman said: The NHS and psychiatrists remain committed to reducing the numbers of out of hours placements’. I wonder how many will be reassured by that.

Finally, you might like to explore two interesting kinds of audio output. The latest of Radio 4’s very topical profile programmes features the husband and wife doctors who developed the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID vaccine.

New to me is slow radio podcast producer Radio Lento, which produces beautifully meditational pieces consisting of natural sounds like water, the forest at night, an afternoon in the Essex countryside, and so on. This kind of content is so good for our mental health, especially if we feel rushed, stressed or it’s difficult to access natural spaces. I hope they get a good following.

Saturday 7 November

Here we are in the first few days of England’s second lockdown and some are already asking ‘what lockdown’? At least in London we’re still seeing heavy traffic on the roads, numerous people walking around and on public transport, non-essential shops open and not a single police officer in sight, let alone the COVID marshalls talked up a few weeks ago but never funded. In contrast, Greece, which entered lockdown today, requires that anyone wanting to go out has to text the authorities in advance.

Although it’s been another eventful week for the UK, no one could ignore what’s been going on across the Atlantic, where a highly fraught election campaign looks like ending in victory for Joe Biden. Not least because of Trump’s allegations of fraud and predictable threat to use the courts to challenge this and overturn that, it’s clear the US needs to improve its broken electoral system. They could start with a measure making it mandatory for candidates to stand by the results, any threat of disregarding them constituting grounds for immediate disqualification. Surely the most undignified and worrying development we’ve seen so far is the bellicose acting out on the part of Trump’s family and supporters, calling openly for ‘war’ on the grounds that the election has been ‘stolen’. Incredulous that the result could go the other way, they resort to denial and inciting hatred, further eroding America’s reputation on the world stage.

US broadcaster NBC said ‘Donald Trump’s speech Thursday showed if he can’t win, he’ll make sure all of America loses. The man who always has to be the alpha is about to be the biggest loser. It’ll likely leave him unhinged, uninhibited and more dangerous than ever before’. But yes! Biden has done it, we finally hear, and let’s hope Trump doesn’t dishonour his country further by sticking to his undignified ‘stolen election’ narrative. Hearty congratulations came flooding in from all over the world, but our PM’s typically delayed message sounded a little cool.

Back in the UK, strange to think a week has passed since the PM’s COVID Statement on 31st October, itself echoing the dither seen during the entire pandemic, via delays from 4 pm, 5 pm, 6 30 pm, finally taking place at 6.45 pm. There was widespread criticism of the misleadingly pessimistic graphs and data in that presentation, not to mention the delivery. As one commentator said, ‘The very small print at the bottom of the graphs presented by Sir Patrick described them as ‘scenarios’ and not predictions. Nevertheless, that is exactly how they will have been taken by many viewers’. People’s fears of a never-ending situation were not allayed by hints of an extension beyond 2 December, again reinforcing what seems to be government and media obsession with Christmas.

Before these could be shut down by the PM during his address to the House of Commons on Monday, there had been numerous pleas to allow golf and tennis to continue and for gyms, pools and places of worship to remain open. There were also robust debates about the wisdom of keeping schools and universities open. The PM didn’t get off lightly, with 98 MPs asking questions. Labour leader Keir Starmer said: ‘At every stage he’s over promised and under-delivered’.

Having been off for half-term, Guardian sketchwriter John Crace was back in the fray this week, having lost none of his gifts for scathing commentary on the PM’s performance. Johnson insisted the virus would be beaten by March. He didn’t say what year. It’s hard to know which is the more bewildering: the fact that we have a prime minister who is both incompetent and unable to distinguish between fact and fiction; or that there are so many Conservative MPs who are consistently taken aback by the failings of their leader. You would have thought by now it would have been 203 times bitten, 204 times shy. But no. This was a subdued Boris. Even by his own standards, this latest U-turn was a humiliation. An admission that he has not just lost control of the coronavirus, he’s lost control of the government. He’s just a piece of flotsam being buffeted around. Not that it stopped him lying, of course. Just that the lies have become progressively more feeble, as if even he has stopped the pretence of believing them’.

It was gratifying to see that a number of MPs’ questions were about the effects on people’s mental health. No surprise that the PM responded with bluster about ‘the millions’ being put in to support mental health charities and the NHS, when the situation ‘on the ground’, is dire, many unable to get help. Besides significant rises in anxiety and depression, exacerbated by diminished trust in our leaders, there’s been a marked rise in eating disorders, and the NHS seems to prioritise a biomedical approach which fails to take account of the patient as a whole. A primary focus on weight gain for anorexic patients means key factors in their condition are being overlooked and not addressed. The findings of one sad death in Cambridgeshire echoed those of four previous cases, the assistant coroner citing factors such as lack of weekend support from the medical team including the psychiatrist, being allocated an ‘inexperienced trainee psychologist’ and a ‘staffing crisis’ at the Eating Disorders Service. Crucially, he identified ‘an absence of a formally commissioned monitoring service in primary or secondary care is the context wherein a number of these deaths have arisen’ – all mental health patients need monitoring but it’s vital for many of those eating disorders.

 The media are clearly fishing in an increasingly shallow pool for ministers to appear on programmes, evidenced in very weak performances by Culture Minister Oliver Dowden on Question Time, business minister Nadhim Zahawi on the Today programme and pensions minister Mims Davies on Any Questions. The number of times it’s been wheeled out, it’s clear the Cummings School of Media Training has instructed ministers to repeat the alleged compliment of the International Monetary Fund for the UK’s furlough scheme extension, even if it still omits millions from its net and came too late to prevent many losing their jobs. Dowden had to be challenged several times by Fiona Bruce and Labour’s Lisa Nandy, and when it came to the shambolic test, track and trace system (eg less than 60% contacts traced and flaunting test capacity instead of actual tests), all he could say was (yes, this again) they were ‘ramping up’ testing, citing the only mass testing pilot in Liverpool. Zahawi and Davies were challenged on the furlough extension and the plight of over 3m self-employed people, especially freelancers, who had received no support since March. The most inadequate response heard for some time must be Davies’s recommendation that those concerned should check the benefits calculator on the government’s website and approach their council (yes, those cash-strapped outfits) about ‘discretionary payments’. Someone who had just checked their council’s scheme tweeted that the scheme had ended – no surprise there.

In contrast, some may have welcomed the presence of former PM Tony Blair on the Today programme this week talking about vaccine policy, though he divided opinion – some commending his good sense, articulacy and compelling arguments on policy but others questioning when he became an epidemiologist.

As the mass testing pilot gets underway in Liverpool, pressure continues on the government to remove from Serco the test, track and trace programme, whose head, Dido Harding, is still AWOL and being protected from scrutiny by both government and media. How shaming for the UK that Slovakia’s decision to test its entire population of 5.4 million was considered hugely ambitious but on Monday it was reported that two-thirds had been tested, with 38,359 people, or 1.06%, found to be Covid-positive. Journalist Paul Johnson tweeted: ‘How effective has test and trace been in stopping spread of COVID? ‘It’s not been effective at all. It hasn’t made any difference’ (James Naismith, Professor Structural Biology, Oxford University) -‘We asked to speak to Dido Harding. She was unwilling’. Cost: £12billion’.

Meanwhile, despite ministers’ protestations to the contrary, reports continue of hospitals cancelling or postponing vital surgery and treatment for life-threatening conditions such as cancer because of COVID pressures on their services. New research has shown that delaying cancer treatment by four weeks (and extending the lockdown could make this worse) increases the risk of death by up to 10%. Cancer Research UK estimated that about 12,750 fewer cancer patients had had surgery, 6,000 fewer had received chemotherapy and 2,800 fewer had had radiotherapy due to the postponement of routine NHS care during the pandemic. Last time, people feared catching the virus if they went to hospital and were made to feel they couldn’t call on the NHS. This time, let’s hope the message many will have received from their GP practice is borne out and people get the help they need. ‘Don’t ignore new symptoms. Your GP is here during lockdown to help and can offer telephone, video consultations and at the practice if required’.

This week there’s been yet more focus on the plight of those in case homes and their families, who’ve not been able to visit these residents for months on end, in many instances. Radio 4’s You and Yours featured a heartrending example of Maureen, unable to see her husband, Harry, since even before March, and even window visits were stopped. Many of these residents have dementia and simply cannot understand what’s going on or why their families have stopped visiting. The government cites the risk to residents of people going into homes, yet their own flaunted ‘protective ring’ had COVID patients discharged into these very care homes. As Maureen pointed out, the visitors are likely to be extremely conscientious themselves about avoiding risk, so as not to endanger themselves or residents. Some aspects of the government’s ‘advice’ as to how to deal with this impasse, such as floor to ceiling screens, were dismissed by some as inhumane and unworkable. The daughter of one resident, unable to hold her father for 8 months, said: ‘The care home offers a Zoom call once a week for 20 minutes, but all my dad does is cry… He says: ‘I’m finished here, I want to die.’ Since 12 March, I’ve had two garden visits, one raining the whole time, and two window visits, which were horrendous. All my dad was doing was crying and asking me to come in’.

A senior judge has now challenged government policy and said friends and family can legally visit their loved ones in care homes. Mr Justice Hayden, vice-president of the Court of Protection which makes decisions for people who lack mental capacity, said courts are concerned about the impact on elderly people of lockdowns, setting out an analysis that regulations do “permit contact with relatives” and friends and visits are “lawful”. Politicians and care home managers often seem to wilfully misunderstand media questioning about government policy and cite permission for end of life visits. It’s not enough to only focus on end of life situations –many would regard as unacceptable the failure to properly address the emotional and mental health needs of both families and care home residents, which are aggravated by the current policy. ‘Relatives and residents have become increasingly despairing at a lack of access, with some feeling their loved ones are in effect “imprisoned”. A promise by the care minister Helen Whately on 13 October to start testing relatives to allow them to visit has not been fulfilled’.

Good news for lovers of nature, walking and the environment came this week in the form of the Ramblers Lost Paths project. Shockingly, one enthusiast has identified around 500 paths not on official Ordnance Survey maps, which are in danger of being lost. He and thousands of other volunteers have between them identified almost 49,000 miles of lost paths in England and Wales in the most comprehensive survey to date. ‘These paths are a vital part of our heritage, describing how people have travelled over the centuries within their communities and beyond, yet if they are not claimed for inclusion on the definitive map (the legal record of rights of way) by January 2026, we risk losing them forever. At a time when more than ever, we recognise the importance of being able to easily access green space and connect with nature, it is vital that we create better walking routes to enable everyone to explore the countryside and our towns and cities on foot’. Of course, this is even more important during lockdowns, when gyms, pools and other exercise venues are closed. The Don’t Lose Your Way campaign has drawn in thousands of volunteers and crowdfunding is contributing to its progress, kickstarted by Cotswold Outdoor.

The Guardian’s Upside (which collates examples of cheerful developments during these strange times) reports on a generous project by financial journalist George Nixon, distributing the books he’s finished with, only asking recipients for half the cost of the postage. ‘During the first lockdown I posted pictures of my bookshelves on Twitter and Facebook in case anyone was interested in borrowing any of them, as they don’t do much after I’ve finished reading them. I’ve reposted the original posts from March (I’ve also bought plenty more books since then naturally…) and wondered if you wouldn’t mind helping me get the word out please? They’re all free, I just split the cost of postage with people, and it’d be great to spread the word as far as possible’. As bookshops are closed and libraries may be harder to get to, it’s good to have an alternative to Amazon:

Finally, you might like to nominate your heroes of 2020. ‘Some people have led the way, from Marcus Rashford to NHS key workers. But we’d like to hear about the people in your everyday life, whose acts of kindness, or quiet heroism have brought you hope in 2020’ (nomination form in the link below). On this theme, it was pleasing today, having nominated him months ago, to find that our local café owner finally received his community hero certificate from the Council.

Sunday 1 November

Well, here we are again, in a place many of us expected and dreaded for some time: a second national lockdown from Thursday (subject to parliamentary approval on Wednesday), naturally briefed to the press late on Friday evening. This is a habit which undermines trust in the government even more, ensuring its bombshells fall on ground which at least has been prepared. But it has a massive downside, which short-termism merchants fail to take account of: in the days to come people will taking the last chance to mingle, party and get out and about, contributing to the spread, and it also adds to the massive uncertainty underpinning the nation’s compromised mental health. How ironic it’s been, that the timing of the Downing Street Briefing, scheduled for 4 pm today, then delayed till 5, then 6 30, finally starting at 6.45, is echoing the dither and delay characterising the government’s strategy throughout the entire pandemic. Is this the poor 21st century equivalent of the 1939 gathering around their wirelesses to hear Churchill say that as no assurance had been received we were now at war with Germany? There were more debateable issues with the press briefing than you could shake a stick at (not least the claims of humility, morality and responsibility) and many on social media were annoyed by the data not being properly configured for tv transmission and the constant ‘next slide, please’ requests, asking why, by now, hadn’t they acquired a Powerpoint clicker. It’s clear the absence of one isn’t about tech: it must in part be to convey status and the message that Vallance and Whitty should be freed from the potential for technical hassles.

This move comes weeks after the warnings of SAGE and the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser and it seems unconscionable that the decision has only now been taken (hubristic government procrastinating on national lockdown in order to make the UK seem in a better position than other European countries) because advisers said imposing new national measures could “save Christmas from the coronavirus” and allow families to meet during the festive season. So Christmas (focus on family gatherings and retail opportunities) is now being made to drive government policy – marvellous. Novelist Jonathan Coe asked whether we can now expect a new government slogan – Save Our Christmas.

There’s still a failure to acknowledge what’s really missing – an effectively functioning test, track and trace system, its head, Dido Harding, seeming to have gone AWOL for weeks on end. As if we could be surprised by anything any more, George Monbiot’s piece in the Guardian (How teenagers ended up operating crucial parts of England’s test and trace system) is shocking. He describes and puts in context the £12bn spent on the system, which is still only reaching 60% of contacts when the critical threshold is 80%, to ensure real impact. This amount is equivalent to all the general practice budget, giving an idea just what a colossal sum has been wasted. ‘The government has created an opaque and unmanageable hybrid system of public and private provision, in which favoured corporations have received vast contracts without competition, advertising or even penalty clauses. Public health, reorganised in the midst of the pandemic to give even greater control to Harding and her chums, is in semi-privatised meltdown’.

Getting to the shocking revelation of the title, an anonymous (and ID checked) call centre worker informed Monbiot that the workers (supposed to be at least Clinician Band 6 NHS level) were mostly students and school leavers being paid the minimum wage, not the advertised rate of between £16.97 and £27.15 per hour. Not only that, they were recently ‘upskilled’ so their duties would include calling infected patients and discovering all their contacts over the previous fortnight. ‘To use the official terms, they have suddenly been promoted from level 3 call handlers to level 2 clinical contact caseworkers’.

The NHS defines the Band 6 role as ‘working as part of a team of experienced clinicians..must have a health or science degree or demonstrable equivalent experience or qualifications…experience in a field related to public health or health and social care services as a practitioner and registration with the relevant professional body’. This is a far cry from the level of these call centre workers, through no fault of their own, and it turns out the ‘upskilling’ consisted of 4 hours of online content, including a PowerPoint presentation, an online conversation, a quiz, some e-learning modules and some new call scripts. The worker told Monbiot: ‘We weren’t asked if we wanted to ‘upskill’: there was no consultation and no choice. We were just told. No one felt able to say no. After the announcement, I spent three hours crying about it. Other people in the team were crying and having panic attacks.’

Serco said and the Department of Health and Social Care confirmed that it had given these instructions, but insisted that those who’d accepted the roles had volunteered and that the role had been split in two so that each traced contact also gets a “qualified health professional”, who dispenses medical advice and decides whether or not to escalate complex cases. Monbiot’s informant categorically denied these two statements. The article paints a shocking and depressing picture of a situation which only came to light because of a leak: massive profits being channelled to inexperienced private providers, the NHS being privatised by stealth and underfunded to the extent of advertising for posts to be filled by volunteers (this has been happening in the talking therapies field for years) and minimal accountability for the money spent. ‘People ask me, “is this a cockup or a conspiracy?”. The correct answer is both. The government is using the pandemic to shift the boundaries between public and private provision, restructure public health and pass lucrative contracts to poorly qualified private companies. The inevitable result is a galactic cockup. This is what you get from a government that values money above human life’.

Added to this is the apparent collusion between government and the media to avoid the elephant in the room, the continuing absence of programme head Dido Harding, who now hasn’t been seen for weeks. Instead of going AWOL, she should be out there defending her record. It comes to something when even Conservatives are critical of such records, as exemplified by veteran MP Sir Bernard Jenkin, Chairman of the Commons Liaison Committee, who opined strongly last week that she needs to go. The coup de grace must be today’s Sunday Times revelation that the COVID 19 app, downloaded by 19m people, has been subject to a ‘software bungle’ and has consistently failed to send alerts telling people to self-isolate after they came into contact with infected people. A government source admitted that Android device owners were among the worst hit. This is also an equalities issue: ‘the mobile operating system (Android) accounts for more than half of UK phone users and is also disproportionately used by the less well-off, who are most at risk from the virus’. The problem has now been rectified, apparently, but many will not be comforted by the knowledge that the app was so ineffective for so long. And what about those who can’t or won’t download the app?

Anti-corruption campaigner, barrister Jolyon Maugham, who runs the Good Law Project, is also on Harding’s case. ‘Appointing your mates to top jobs isn’t new or the preserve of the Conservative Party: we all remember “Tony’s Cronies” too. But it’s high time we put a stop to it. That’s why, along with the Runnymede Trust, Good Law Project is challenging the appointment of Dido Harding, as well as a string of other appointments which were made with seemingly no advertisement or fair recruitment process’. It will be interesting to see if this campaign makes any headway.

An article in The Times could make us wonder if the government has taken its foot off the complex track and trace gas, because of an unrealistic idea that we will have less need of it. In news that sounds a little far-fetched, the government is said to have purchased from Big Pharma Pfizer sufficient vaccine doses for 20 million people, ‘….. ready to distribute before Christmas, with the first doses earmarked for the elderly and vulnerable’. But since when has the government shown genuine concern for ‘the elderly and vulnerable’? The government’s move sounds rather risky, since the vaccine has not yet been approved for use. Just as well, then, that the UK has also secured early access to five other vaccines currently in development.

A useful reality check comes from Kate Bingham, leader of Britain’s vaccine task force. Writing in the medical journal The Lancet, she said it was likely that we would need several vaccines to end the pandemic. “There will not be one successful vaccine, or one single country, that is able to supply the world. And crucially, ‘It is important to guard against complacency and over-optimism’.

Speaking of ‘complacency and over-optimism’, it’s ironic that this article was only published on Thursday, quoting Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick still resisting the need for a national lockdown. He told Sky News: ‘We don’t want to create a second national lockdown. We know that has some effect on bearing down on the virus but we also know it’s immensely disruptive in other regards to people’s lives and livelihoods and broader health and wellbeing, so we will do everything we can to avoid that situation’.

All of this will leave such a bad taste in people’s mouths that we can surely expect the cosy Boris and Carrie Sunday evening broadcast, part of the Pride of Britain awards, (ironically, praising the NHS) to be postponed. Cartoonist Martin Shovel tweeted: ‘The toxic combination of libertarianism, neoliberalism and incompetence at the heart of this government guarantees that the handling of the second wave will be a disaster for our country!’

As the total in England living under Tier 3 topped 8 million last week, 50 Northern MPs, including the ‘red wall’ ones, wrote to the PM demanding ‘a roadmap for the way out of lockdown’. Many of them must feel on a sticky wicket, having been victoriously elected to longstanding Labour seats, and now no doubt confronted by angry constituents chafing against restrictions and seeing their businesses going down the drain. How cowardly, then, that 14 of the 50 signed anonymously, some saying they didn’t mean it to be a demand, etc. Will they now be relieved they’re about to be overtaken by events?

Meanwhile, former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption, long having opposed lockdown policy, is once again apoplectic about what he sees as the threat to our liberty we are sleepwalking into. “The British public has not even begun to understand the seriousness of what is happening to our country. Many, perhaps most of them don’t care, and won’t care until it is too late. They instinctively feel that the end justifies the means, the motto of every totalitarian government which has ever been … The government has discovered the power of public fear to let it get its way…’. Sumption bases his arguments on the evidence of government by-passing of the legislature, starting with the proroguing of Parliament (later ruled unlawful) and continuing with the suspension of many normal procedures during the pandemic, all constituting an avoidance of scrutiny. ‘Governments hold power in Britain on the sufferance of the elected chamber of the legislature. Without that we are no democracy. The present government has a different approach. It seeks to derive its legitimacy directly from the people, bypassing their elected representatives.’

Having special relevance to the imminent second lockdown (have the appropriate regulations been prepared this time?) he exposed what he sees as the illegitimacy of giving lockdown orders without making statutory regulations. ‘Even on the widest view of the legislation the government had no power to give such orders without making statutory regulations. No such regulations existed until 1 pm on 26 March, three days after the announcement… I do not doubt the seriousness of the epidemic, but I believe that history will look back on the measures taken to contain it as a monument of collective hysteria and governmental folly.’

Occupying a lot of airtime earlier in the week but now somewhat pushed down the news agenda were the ongoing debates about free school meals and the deaths of migrants, but these will continue to rumble on until they’re resolved, the latter being much trickier than the former.

Despite the doom and gloom, some benefits of the pandemic have been identified and now the Guardian’s European edition reports on research suggesting that the pandemic has resulted in a reduction in populist tendencies in the eight countries surveyed. The good news is that the YouGov/Cambridge Globalism Project (surveying 26,000 people in 25 countries, eight the same as last year’s survey) showed a ‘steep decline’ in the eight, but the bad news is that political scientists thought populism could recover when the economy becomes the main focus of the crisis. The eight countries cited are Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and Sweden.

In his new book, Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life, philosopher John Gray makes a case for learning the wisdom of cats: it’s not such a bad idea, reflected by the meme of Larry, the No 10 cat, sitting at the PM’s lectern appearing over and over on social media. Larry for PM – he couldn’t do a worse job. Gray believes that humans turned to philosophy principally out of anxiety, looking for some tranquillity in a chaotic and frightening world, telling themselves stories that might provide the illusion of calm. He says cats wouldn’t recognise that need because they naturally revert to equilibrium whenever they’re not hungry or threatened. The article alludes to Gray’s 2002 book (Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals), in which he was thought to have dismantled the history of western philosophy. It particularly attacked the prevalent belief in the steady forward progress of humankind brought about by liberal democracy. ‘I would say that a lot of torment in our lives comes from that pressure for finding meaning…. We struggle with the idea that there is no hidden meaning to find. We can’t become cats in that sense – we probably will need to always have the disposition to tell ourselves stories about our lives – but I would suggest a library of short stories is better than a novel’. Demonstrating that major events were not predicted by experts eg the banking/finance crisis, he believes that ‘politics is a succession of temporary and partial remedies for permanent and recurring human evil’ and ‘baser tribal instincts’ and ‘human folly’ won’t be prevented by the advance of enlightened thought. Coming back to cats and their relevance, ‘Cats live for the sensation of life, not for something they might achieve or not achieve… If we attach ourselves too heavily to some overarching purpose we’re losing the joy of life’. Sobering stuff.

A Guardian article further highlights what seems quite a contrast regarding  people’s commitment to health and fitness during the pandemic, some reporting greater takeaway and alcohol consumption, others less and likewise with exercise, some taking next to no exercise and others using the lockdown to get fit. ‘Chocolate sales soar as UK shoppers comfort eat at home amid Covid’ begs the question what happened about the government’s anti-obesity strategy, which would already have taken a hit from the Eat Out to Help Out campaign, since many of the restaurants featured were purveyors of fast food. ‘While the £50m sales increase is only 3% up on the total value of chocolate sales, the amount of chocolate eaten is likely to have risen by two or three times that level because the kind of chocolate bought in supermarkets is so much cheaper’.

While a survey found that half the UK population found their weight more difficult to manage since the start of the crisis, retail analysts attributed the rise in chocolate sales down to the ‘lipstick effect’– a spending pattern where cheap treats sell especially well during tough economic times. (Interestingly, the online survey focused on both Slimming World members and what they term ‘a representative sample of 637 adults in the general population’ and asked respondents their opinions about their general health, mood, diet, alcohol intake, physical activity, and weight management.

Finally, an article which attracted much comment in The Times this week (Your get up and go will have gone by 54) reported on research in Norway which concluded that ‘Fifty, it turns out, may not be the new thirty after all….. people lose their spark and the “get up and go” to try new things when they hit 54’. The Norwegian psychologist explored, across different age groups, the links between ‘passion, grit and a positive mindset’, the results suggesting that ‘from the age of 53 this drive fades and more is needed to motivate people in middle age’. The correlation between passion and grit was found weaker in those over 50, but both traits were needed for ‘get up and go’. ‘The study also found that across the age groups males had significantly more passion than females, scoring an average of 4.12 compared to 3.85. For grit and mindset the differences between genders were not significant’.

The study’s lead author, Hermundur Sigmundsson of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (Trondheim), said: ‘It’s more difficult to mobilise our grit and willpower, even if we have the passion. Or we may have the grit and willpower but aren’t quite as fired up about it. The correlation between grit and the right mindset diminishes with increasing age. The willpower and belief that we’re getting better aren’t as closely linked any more.’ He then urges people to identify meaningful activities and interests they can bring grit and willpower to and stresses how important it is to ‘ignite the spark, whatever your age’. I couldn’t agree more: lack of spark seems very common but in my view represents more than a step down the road to a geriatric mindset. The article attracted 453 comments, a good number contradicting these findings, eg ‘I am sixty nine and set up my business when I was fifty four, and made a success of what I do. This was after a relatively successful corporate career. I am still working and passionate about what I do, positive and determined’.

Saturday 24 October

During a week dominated by the Greater Manchester standoff, more local mayors giving the lie to the PM’s insistence that he’d had some ‘great’ conversations with them, COVID cases continue to rise at an alarming rate, with more and more areas of the UK going into Tier 3 or total lockdown. As if it needed stating, there’s growing consensus that what’s really needed to keep the virus in check is a properly functioning test, track and trace strategy, but this seems a fond hope given the government’s ongoing commitment to the Serco travesty. It felt the last straw for some Sevenoaks residents earlier this week to have been sent to a non-existent test centre there, some driving around for an hour trying to find the facility. Officials were investigating how this came to be listed on the government website when it had not yet been ‘signed off’. Not long after this came news of an £80 test to be offered at Heathrow, for those needing a test prior to flying to places like Italy and Hong Kong. Transport Minister Grant Shapps made no secret of yet again enabling the private sector (in this case Collinson Group and Swissport) to profit from this development. ‘Public Health England will set the quality for the test itself and then it will be up to the private sector to provide a test up to that quality’. A telling statement on Collinson’s website reads: ‘With over 25 years’ experience, Collinson Group is a global leader in shaping and influencing customer behaviour to drive revenue and add value for its clients’.

Brexit issues also continue to dominate the news agenda, one video clip illustrating Theresa May’s incredulity at Michael Gove’s ‘assurance’ that security would be more easily assured by leaving the EU. Increasingly, the government is getting flak from its own side and this week the Guardian’s John Crace turns the attention of his withering pen to Gove. ‘Gove appears to have no vestigial sense of shame. Politics for him is just a theatre in which truth and lies are interchangeable, and he retains an outward appearance where excessive politeness is merely a front for outright contempt. “I am not blithe or blase,” he said. Sometimes, a politician’s lack of self-awareness is breathtaking. According to the Govester, 10 weeks was more than enough time for all those businesses that were hopelessly unprepared for a no-deal Brexit to put in place all the systems they needed should the all too thinkable become a reality’.

Alluding to Opposition questions about Kent lorry parks and recruitment of new customs officials, ‘Mikey just blanked those questions. He wasn’t here to talk to problems, he was here to sound vaguely threatening to Johnny Foreigner. The whole play had merely been a charade. A piece of posturing….Because everyone knew how the comedy would end. The UK could not afford a no deal on top of the economic damage of the coronavirus pandemic. So the EU would give a little and the UK would give a lot and some sort of deal that Boris had always insisted he could never agree to would be negotiated. And the Govester would be first on his feet in the Commons to declare the deal that was noticeably worse than had been on offer under the Maybot a government triumph. What’s more, he might even believe it’.

Rarely idle, it seems, the same pen also slated Housing Minister Robert Jenrick and the PM, the former on the Greater Manchester support package wrangling, refusing to go above £60m: ‘You’d have thought that if anyone was capable of brokering a financial deal between central government and Greater Manchester it would have been the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick. After all, Honest Bob has a track record of magicking money out of thin air’. In the PM’s case there was slating of his Greater Manchester stance: (‘For the sake of £5m Boris Johnson was prepared to grind the least well-paid workers into poverty. All the talk of a levelling-up agenda had been just bullshit. The real agenda was levelling down. A government that had talked at the beginning of the pandemic about doing “whatever it takes” had switched to the punishment beating of whatever you get’).

This was followed up by deconstruction of his PMQs performance, the frequent lying and the blaming of London Mayor Sadiq Khan for the ‘need’ to make swingeing cuts to Transport for London. ‘It wouldn’t be prime minister’s questions without Boris Johnson being accused of telling at least one lie. Indeed, in recent months it has often felt as if Boris has taken a bet with Dominic Cummings to see if he can outdo himself on the lies of the week before. But normally Boris saves his biggest fibs for his exchanges with Keir Starmer. This time he reserved his top Trumps for London MPs concerned about planned changes to TfL and council tax’.

‘It was also telling just how personal Johnson’s hatred for Khan is. He can’t stand the fact that Sadiq is more popular in London than him, nor can he bear it that Khan has unarguably done a better job than he did as London mayor. So Boris went into hissy-fit overdrive where one lie was immediately topped by another. Sadiq had bankrupted the city, etc etc…..None of which was true. According to TfL’s accounts, since Khan took over from Johnson in 2016 he has reduced the deficit by 71% and increased cash reserves by 16%. That TfL is now in trouble is entirely down to the pandemic. Not even Johnson’s own MPs could stomach these lies. Asking for the country’s trust during a national crisis when you can’t even tell the truth about an audited balance sheet is an uphill struggle. If the prime minister will lie about this, what won’t he lie about?’

Once again the World Health Organisation has expressed extreme concern about the COVID situation and lamented the lack of cooperation between countries, so it seems helpful to be aware of how they’re experiencing the pandemic rather than focusing exclusively on the UK. This week there was a pictorial record of Paris before and after the curfew, the first conjuring a jolly scene of busy streets and bars, where little distancing seemed to be going on, and the second showing empty streets and grills pulled down over the previously lively venues. Many UK towns and cities can boast similar depressing backdrops, the likelihood being that some venues may never open their doors again.

Meanwhile, an article by Karl Lauterbach (SPD member of the Bundestag and professor of health economics and clinical epidemiology at the University of Cologne) explores whether Germany’s first time COVID approach of politicians and scientists working together will work second time round. He describes three major factors of the initial strategy: ‘luck’ (but surely more good sense in reacting quickly to what was seen elsewhere) in that Germans seeing what happened in Italy immediately reduced their mobility; an immediate government decision to be straight and transparent with the public, with scientists enabled to contribute to the communication strategy; and the involvement by Berlin of local and municipal governments and of opposition parties, enabling consensus building. Contrast this with the UK. Lauterbach also cited other contributory factors, such as avoiding lockdowns and curfews, recommending mask wearing early on and having an effective testing strategy.

As to measures adopted for this second wave, unlike the UK the Germans have divided the country into zones with either more than 35 or more than 50 cases per week per 100,000 inhabitants. ‘These limits have proved to be useful for predicting the success of contact-tracing infected persons. The aim is to have as few areas as possible declared high risk’. Long-term, there’s recognition that this will be a difficult journey – there seems to be reliance on the development of a vaccine, but no expectation of significant improvement until May 2021. A key factor is the German government has taken the population with it. ‘Uncertainty and doubt are not a disgrace for scientists or politicians at this time. What is disgraceful is excessive self-confidence, self-righteousness or dishonesty towards fellow human beings’.

A reader highlighted the importance of effective communication: ‘When the pandemic started, virologists and epidemiologists together with federal and local governments informed and communicated with the German population via TV news and special TV reports and other media channels (print and online media). The same happened on district and municipal level. The information was so extensive that no one could claim to either no know or be confused. It was this clear and decisive stance that counted for a lesser expansion of the pandemic’.

Having been under the spotlight for some time, this week has seen significant mental health coverage by the media, including the difficulty of obtaining help for children and young people (‘Psychotherapist says accessing NHS is harder and most services offered only online or by phone’) and the ‘irreparable damage’ being done to prisoners’ mental health due to the imposition of solitary confinement during the pandemic. Yet again, we have evidence that NHS mental health services aren’t working effectively and are not coping. One parent of a disturbed teenager said ‘We have been directed to websites that don’t exist and, shockingly, advised to Google side-effects of an antidepressant medication when I called to say that my child’s mental state had significantly worsened since she started to take them’. This parent had been under the impression that child and adolescent mental health services were where to go for help. ‘This is not the case … It has been extremely stressful and I just want the best help for my daughter’.

A child and adolescent psychotherapist working in a school and interviewed anonymously reported that as the pandemic progressed, there had been around a fivefold increase in attendance, with a notable increase in eating disorders. ‘I think accessing the NHS is harder and all that is offered now is pretty much online. People want children to be seen, and the only way to do that at the moment is to pay for it’.

Departing Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales said ministers and officials should see the coronavirus crisis as a chance to ‘reset the aspirations for what prisons could be about. While agreeing it was right to focus on the pandemic, he was keen to emphasise that ‘the underlying systemic problems within the prison estate, including drug use, violence and self-harm, had not gone away’. Capturing the common syndrome of short-termism, Clarke said the impact of deteriorating mental health, as well as lack of access to rehab programmes and education, would be felt further down the line.

This is a key point, especially for those inclined not to take prisoners’ health and rights seriously. ‘There’s a risk that very little, if anything, is being done in terms of preventing reoffending. There’s an overriding public interest that people should emerge from prison less likely to reoffend and this is damaging that possibility’. The Prisons Service also came in for some (polite) flak for its defensiveness rather than a preparedness to admit and address the problems. It will be interesting to see what kind of job the next incumbent does. ‘The government adviser and former youth justice boss, Charlie Taylor, is taking over the £135,000-a-year chief inspector role next month and is expected to be in the post for three years’.

A charming and uplifting piece on BBC Woman’s Hour this week featured a community of nuns in Sussex called the Poor Clares of Arundel, who have just released an album called Light for the World, described as ‘traditional plainchant with added beats’. Sisters Leo & Sisters Aelread are interviewed at the end of the programme. ‘We do it as part of our normal living’…. the sisters admit that not all of them can sing but this Earthly Kingdoms excerpt sounds pretty celestial.

Finally, online clothing retailer ASOS, which has done much better during the pandemic than many of its competitors, reports a shortage of tracksuit bottoms. This isn’t surprising, since working from home and less socialising has increased the use of leisurewear. This begs the question of how many of the well-attired people we see on Zoom are only smart on the upper half, the lower half being encased in jogging bottoms. A second question poses itself: will we ever get used to non-elasticated waistbands again?

Saturday 17 October

With a week like this, during which COVID cases have risen by 50% (now about one in 160 according to the Office for National Statistics) and the government has imposed its much-trailed Three Tier strategy, it could be easy to overlook other important news, such has been the resulting outcry. Under the new rules, nearly a third of the country – more than 17 million people – face localised restrictions. It has seemed that the government is trying to drive a wedge between the northern politicians, some going along with the government’s Tier 3 status for their areas, but Andy Burnham for Greater Manchester still resisting it, without further financial support. It’s now thought the restrictions will be imposed on Greater Manchester regardless. Having largely ignored local politicians and public health experts for months, prioritising hubristic centrist ideology over the nation’s health, ministers are finally, when it suits them, talking about the importance of ‘putting party politics aside’ and ‘working together’. You couldn’t make it up. Regarding Tiers 2 and 3, at one fell swoop the hospitality sector has taken a major hit (likely to prove fatal in numerous cases) and the mental health of single person households (15% of the population) has been put further at risk through the prohibition on separate households meeting inside.

I forecast widespread non-compliance (plenty of evidence already) and the mass purchase by pubs and restaurants of environmentally unfriendly patio heaters, if they have the funds and the space for outside seating. Illogically, you can visit a restaurant alone and therefore be in the same space as many more households, and are cash-strapped venues intending to ask customers whether they’re in the same household? If faith in the PM and his government wasn’t already seriously undermined, it surely would have been with Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty’s statement at the press conference that he was not confident even this strategy would be sufficient to slow the spread of the virus. Immunologist Professor Sir John Bell has just said the same thing.

It also emerged that SAGE warned weeks ago that more urgent action was needed but the government ignored it. Besides the ‘circuit breaker’, SAGE had recommended advising all who could to work from home; a ban on household mixing in homes, except for those in support bubbles; the closure of all bars, restaurants, cafes, indoor gyms and services such as hairdressers; and all university and college teaching to be online “unless absolutely essential. So, it looks quite possible that even these latest measures will prove insufficient and we will be back to general lockdown within weeks, except, unlike countries like France, Spain and Italy, the UK lacks the resource to police it, leading to a quasi-lockdown.

Many have commented on the no-brainer that what’s really essential in slowing the progress of the virus is an effective test, track and trace system, but we are still no nearer that given the litany of failures it’s been dogged by. And still no sighting of Baroness Dido Harding, who should be out there ‘straining every sinew’ to improve it and defending her record. It’s almost as if ministers have agreed to shield her from scrutiny. It emerged that only around one fifth of those who should be self-isolating were actually doing so but this couldn’t be solely attributed to selfishness, as in many cases people can’t afford it without support. Labour’s Zarah Sultana tweeted: ‘People need a liveable income to be able to self-isolate, but working class people aren’t getting that support. Instead, as the PM made clear to me today, many have to choose between self-isolating in dire poverty, or the risk of a £10,000 fine. Outrageous’. Although yet again the devolved nations seem steps ahead of the Westminster government, the science and experience outside the UK must make us wonder whether lockdowns don’t work, since the minute they’re eased the situation worsens. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘Lockdowns are a blunt instrument – so much points to the lack of an effective track and trace system, which the government isn’t going to fix any time soon, thanks to its disastrous crony outsourcing policy’. Another said: ‘Phew!! It’s official now. UK is following herd immunity strategy. Tiering is just a whitewash’.

Meanwhile, both the government and the media continue to ignore the wisdom of Independent SAGE, which ran another webinar on Friday which anyone could join, demonstrating transparency and inclusiveness the government has rarely shown any grasp of.

Guardian sketch writer John Crace wrote several disembowelling pieces this week, starting with this description of that press conference. ‘Johnson looked knackered before he even started… For a moment it looked as if the narcissist had been confronted with his own sense of futility. A situation that he couldn’t bend to his will, no matter how delusional the thought process. He is cornered by hubris: a man hating every second of his life but condemned to experience its unforgiving horror. Not even the health secretary could be bothered to attend to watch this latest meltdown….Yet all he had really achieved was to remind everyone that he was out of his depth and had no real answers to anything. Like all of us, he was just dancing in the dark. Beam me up, Whitty’. This gets close to the central message of this blog:  the nation’s mental health is severely undermined in an already gruelling situation when its leaders, who we justifiably look to for psychological ‘containment’, are incapable of delivering it, cannot be trusted and have no real authority. A Radio 4 listener tweeted:  ‘Time is of the essence…’ says Boris Johnson, whose whole government has had an irony bypass. Shame he didn’t say so before as so much time has been wasted by his uncoordinated and corrupt CovidUK strategy’.

Crace also slated the PM’s performance at Prime Minister’s Questions, in a piece called ‘Starmer has the intellect, the economics, the science. Johnson has his apathy’ suggesting that Johnson is no longer even pretending to counteract Starmer’s forensic forays, instead falling back on trying to ‘make PMQs look like a meaningless charade, to minimise the beatings’. He was apparently surprised at an entirely predictable question, that is at what point did he ‘decide to abandon the science and cobble together a three-tier regional system with which almost no one was happy?’ ‘Boris looked genuinely bemused. As if he had quite forgotten it was Wednesday and had been hoping for a lie-in. So he did what he always did. He filled dead air with dead words. When he had said he was going to follow the science, he had never intended to imply he would do so faithfully. Rather he was going to pick and choose the bits he liked’. ‘Of course Boris Johnson won’t take Keir Starmer seriously’ said one tweeter at the PMQs hashtag – ‘Sensible policy must be sacrificed on the altar of Tory hubris’.

Speaking of hubris, we can’t ignore the Brexit news this week and clear evidence that the PM’s sabre rattling brinksmanship and setting of unnecessary deadlines is rapidly unravelling. The epitome of fibs must be the regular allusion by politicians to an ‘Australia type deal’ (aka No Deal), a disingenuous way of saving face skilfully demolished on Any Questions last night by former World Trade Organisation DG Pascal Lamy when wheeled out by trade policy minister Greg Hands.

Not content with two PM eviscerations in one week, Crace turned his attention yet again to his other favourite target, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, again painting a worrying picture of cognitive dissonance. In a piece entitled ‘Teetering Matt Hancock ignores head and heart and sticks to PM’s script’ and subtitled ‘Door Matt knows a circuit breaker is the right way to go but he lacks the strength to stand up to Boris’, he describes what he calls a ‘spectacular’ fall from grace. He suggests that at the start of the pandemic Hancock seemed to have a grasp of the situation but one failure and missed target after another soon put paid to that although he could persuade himself he’d stuck to ‘the science’. ‘But even that escape clause for his conscience was snatched away once the prime minister chose to ignore Sage’s recommendation to introduce a circuit breaker in September and then chose not to disclose the evidence until this week’…Now Door Matt finds himself ground down by Boris Johnson’s desperation to please the crowd and he just reads from whatever script is put in front of him. He doesn’t even bother to check the details as he can be fairly certain they are incorrect’…. He apparently wheeled out the cliché ‘Things will get worse before they get better’, as if that was remotely acceptable. ‘He wasn’t kidding. We now have a government masquerading as a piece of self-destructive performance art’.

Following on from last week’s piece about the massive amounts spent by the government on Brexit consultancy, more news emerged this week of colossal sums disappearing down the test, track and trace rabbit hole. Apparently management consultants including the Boston Consulting Group are being paid as much as £6,250 a day to work on the system, amounting to an ‘eye watering’ £12 bn. But the BCG tentacles have reached further than this and we’re told that ‘publicly available data collated by the Spend Network show that they were awarded contracts worth at least £18.3m for work related to the pandemic’. As if this wasn’t jaw dropping enough, it seems that BCG are actually amongst smaller fry in this scenario – ‘BCG’s 40 workers are only a small fraction of the 1,000 consultants employed by Deloitte on the system’. The profoundly worrying thing (amongst others the Good Law Project is trying to plumb the depths of consultancy contracting), is the lack of transparency resulting from the suspension of normal tendering procedures during the pandemic. ‘None of these appointments has been announced publicly, no costings have been published, and there is no information about how the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) will secure value for money from the consultants’. Another often overlooked downside is the loss of organisational expertise and infantilisation which increased dependency on consultancy leads to.

Much has been said about the crisis in social care, the can kicked down the road for years by successive governments, but news today should have been a real wake up call. Whereas days ago, looking ahead with more promises, the PM said he was going to fix social care (when?), it was said today that the sector needs urgent funding within the next few days – not weeks or months – as private homes were in danger of going to the wall. The crisis is due to the number of empty beds due to the pandemic, deaths and new residents unable to move in, but also the funding model often based on private equity. Closures would leave thousands without a home or a job and be simply unacceptable anywhere, let alone a developed country.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘We recognise the challenges facing the social care sector and we are doing everything we can to support it’. Nowhere near enough, many have argued. The National Care Association said: ‘The statistics are alarming and provide a stark warning as we anticipate a second wave. Social Care provision has been fragile and ignored for too long’. Nevertheless, some policymakers don’t advocate an entirely national service. This article on the King’s Fund view makes clear the appeal this may have but points up key differences, eg social care has eligibility criteria and NHS doesn’t. ‘Who is eligible for publicly-funded care, who manages and commissions it, who provides it, who regulates it and how it is funded are distinct issues that don’t all have to sit in the same place and may not be best carried out at a national level….. a nationalised service would be hugely expensive, legally difficult and time-consuming to implement, without necessarily delivering the benefits its proponents expect’. The King’s Fund recommends a mix of providers – public, private and voluntary, locally commissioned and those organisations ‘embedded in the community’. This in itself is problematic as it takes time to achieve this engagement and embedding, but the real sticking point is that all this ‘requires local authorities to pay providers a fair price for good quality care, which in turn requires national government to fund councils adequately’.

It seems to me a big mistake to have allowed private equity anywhere near the care home sector – sensing decent gains in the wake of government austerity and losses in other PE areas, these companies ‘piled in’, only later to reap the overlooked complexities and mounting debt. But, as so often, short-termism prevailed and PE may have felt welcome at a time when central government was making severe cuts to council budgets.

As the importance of nature moves further up the public agenda in terms of maintaining mental health and tackling climate change, it’s puzzling that adherents of ‘wild swimming’ must be regularly ignoring notices warning that this activity is prohibited in many waters and that only one in seven of English rivers are considered ‘ecologically healthy’. The Week tells us that the Environment Agency set a target for 75% of English rivers and lakes to meet the ‘good’ standard by 2027 (that’s quite some way ahead) but predicts that it won’t be achieved. The main barriers are said to be raw sewage discharged from storm overflows and agricultural run-off but there’s also the danger of swimmers contracting Weil’s disease from water contaminated by affected animals such as rats. The situation in Scotland sounds better (64% of rivers rated as healthy) but the average across Europe is only 40%. This is interesting as not long ago there was an interesting article about how the main rivers in some European capitals were being geared up for swimmers. It sounds a great idea as long as health and safety measures were in place but what about all the river traffic?

One development excellent for both physical and mental health which sounds far more promising is that of mapping Britain’s intercity footpaths via a ‘slow map’. A BBC piece about this interviewed one woman who had never walked to the next village just a few miles away. The assumption of car use and more inactivity mean this won’t be a surprise to many, but a major disincentive is the lack of known routes away from main roads, where the pavement soon disappears and heavy traffic makes the experience unpleasant. ‘Geographer Daniel Raven-Ellison is offering a solution; a new map created by volunteers during lockdown to show the best walking routes between all of Britain’s main towns. All that is needed now is 10,000 keen walkers to test out the routes on his ‘slow’ map’. Interestingly, the article carries a photograph of a walkway looking remarkably like one near here in North London. It also makes clear just how important this development is. ‘Coronavirus is changing life in many unexpected ways and those who think more walking should be part of our lives now have a new tool. Maps do not just describe the world, they can often help change it’.

Finally, the Radio 4 series of profile programmes is typically bang on topical with tonight’s subject of Liverpool mayor Steve Rotherham. A former bricklayer, it’s cheering to hear of politicians who’ve had ‘a proper job’.

Saturday 10 October

I seem to be saying this most weeks but it has indeed been another eventful week, some developments proving quite shocking when we thought it couldn’t get any worse. Leaving aside the drama across the Atlantic, the main one here must be being the loss under the aegis of Public Health England and the discredited Serco Track and Trace of 16,000 tests, meaning so many details weren’t entered into the system until a week later. Their contacts were therefore not traced, leading to possibly thousands of potential people remaining uninformed and at risk of spreading the virus. IT experts and others were shocked on learning that what ministers tried to dampen down by calling a ‘glitch’ was largely due to trying to send data via an outdated version of Excel, spreadsheet software not designed for mass data transmission, rather than a recognised database platform.

The wider context of the ‘glitch’ is a system which simply isn’t working, despite Health Secretary’s protestations to the contrary. Matt Hancock was lambasted in the House after it was revealed that just 33% of in-person test results were returned within 24 hours, months after the PM said he wanted all test results delivered within a day. As cases are rapidly rising, prompt testing is needed more than ever, but supply problems persist, many being forced to isolate at home because they can’t obtain a test or get to a centre. And more is emerging about the prevalence of asymptomatic cases: in a national survey more than 80% of people who tested positive had none of the core symptoms of the disease the day they took the test. Matt Hancock seems to have adopted a defensive strategy which consists of no longer attempting a response to critics but simply rudely dismissing them or coming out with a non-sequitur statement, as he did with Labour’s Dawn Butler last week.

Hot on the heels of the testing debacle came news, not surprising, of further restrictions in the North of England and elsewhere, and a leaked plan for a three-tier approach to restrictions and lockdowns. More and more areas are being subjected to lockdowns, possibly a cynical ploy to increase the numbers of locked down areas, approaching a general lockdown in all but name. Meanwhile, north of England mayors and public health experts are up in arms about the lack of consultation, despite business minister Nadhim Zawahi emphatically declaring that they had been consulted. I’d be more inclined the believe the angry Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, who described on Question Time and other programmes a discussion with ministers where agreement appeared to be reached, but it actually hadn’t, and the first the mayors knew about imposition of further restrictions like households not mixing was seeing it in the papers. The government seems to have no idea how contemptuous this would feel to the northern politicians and how difficult it would be for them to deal with the fallout. Besides the need for proper consultation, Burnham’s key demand was no further restrictions without support: the thousands of staff working in the bars and restaurants shut down overnight had no source of income.

One of Guardian sketch writer’s Boris Johnson eviscerations this week naturally focused on his appalling conference speech, where he sounded like a parody of himself, talking bullishly about COVID19 being ‘the trigger for major social and economic change. Try to think of the virus as an opportunity rather than a disaster’ etc. ‘But up until now, he’s got away with it (being a ‘conman’) – in his public life at least – because the country has been happy to collude with him. It wanted someone who could tell a few gags and promise that everything would be OK in the end. The narcissistic fantasist as national saviour. But the last eight months have changed all that. The country has grown up in the time of coronavirus’. Felt to be a profoundly misjudged speech, in which Boris alluded to people being ‘fed up’ with the virus and how he was working to get things back to normal…. ‘There was nothing on the toll the last eight months had taken. No apologies for government inaction, failure and incompetence that has seen the UK leap to near the top of the global COVID mortality scale’. A fantasy land speech including the promise to fix social care (a can kicked down the road so often it must be severely dented by now) where the PM failed to even convince himself, let alone party members and viewers.

The second John Crace evisceration focused on Boris Johnson’s increasingly poor and bizarre performance at Prime Minister’s Questions. Resorting defensively to questioning the Labour leader when he’s the one supposed to answer questions, his defeated demeanour apparently contradicted his assertion the night before that he had rediscovered his ‘mojo’. ‘None of this is what Boris had ever wanted or planned. He had signed up for the glory and the applause. Not to see the country through its biggest health crisis in 100 years. Six months in and he’s all but out of ideas. He knows that. And more importantly his own backbenchers know that. Even though the whips have tried to get MPs to sound more enthusiastic, no one is fooled.’ The Labour leader kept hammering home the severity of the missing cases and contacts, getting deflections and non-answers in response. One of the embarrassments for the government is the cases have actually risen in 19 of 20 lockdown areas, proving the strategy isn’t working. ‘Boris chuntered on, but by now no one was listening. Rather there was a general feeling of futility on both sides of the house. The Tories despair of a leader who gets weaker with each outing and no longer appears to really want the job’.

What must be puncturing the PM’s increasingly effortful joie de vivre even more is that normally loyal right wing newpapers are beginning to challenge him, the Telegraph and the Mail leading the charge. Both papers criticise the lockdown strategy for curtailing freedom but also question the effectiveness of the measures introduced. While a no 10 spokesman said: ‘We live in a liberal democracy and you would fully expect open debate on these matters’, it could prove unsettling for the government as the winter approaches if more papers go the same way.

It stands to reason that in order to ‘beat the virus’ (in gung-ho government parlance) or even live with it, we need to operate within the context of decent public services. Unfortunately, these have been decimated in recent years and in the Guardian Richard Vize describes a disconnect with the Build Back Better slogan. ‘But to stand any chance of improving public services, the government has to understand the significance of the wreckage around us. Covid-19 has laid bare the destruction caused by a decade of austerity. Everywhere there is a lack of capacity, from too few respirators to threadbare public health teams in local authorities…. Tens of thousands of deaths from disrupted healthcare could follow’. Apart from the longstanding crisis in social care, nearly every part of the public sector is short-staffed – this needs rectifying and the ‘excessive dependence on consultants’ needs to end. Vize effectively suggests a reconfiguration of government, enabling public health to be ‘brought out of the shadows and put at the heart of public services’, and it must be brought into overarching policy rather than left in a silo. ‘The pandemic has shown how public health permeates everything from industrial production to transport. It needs to be integral to public policy’.

Talking of consultants, Brexit preparations have apparently involved the government spending amounts rising by 45% to more than £450m in three years. Eight top management consultancy firms were cited, the top of the heap being Deloitte, which pocketed £147m in 2019/20 alone. ‘While 1% of civil servants are paid more than £80,000 a year, day rates for management consultants working in the public sector range from about £1,000 for junior consultants to about £3,500 for partners’. It’s rather shocking to see the table detailing what each government department spent on consultancy over the last three years. Just imagine what could have been done with that in the NHS or social care. Yes, there will be a need for some consultancy, but this level is simply off the Richter Scale and begs the question, where is Whitehall’s own expertise? While Deloitte said ‘We are confident that our work adds significant value to the public sector organisations we work with’, a government spokesman said they didn’t recognise some of the figures quoted and ‘We continue to take considerable steps to reduce unnecessary spending and protect taxpayers’ money’.

Keep a look-out for the green lapel ribbons today and wear your own if possible – it’s World Mental Health Day (the theme of mental health for all is set by the World Federation for Mental Health and led in the UK by the Mental Health Foundation). Various pieces of research are underway, including MHF’s own work on resilience (or not) across the UK during the pandemic. One finding was that ‘most people (64%) say they are coping well with the stress of the pandemic. However, many are struggling with the current crisis’.  The Resilience Research Centre defines it this way: ‘In the context of exposure to significant adversity, resilience is both the capacity of individuals to navigate their way to psychological, social, cultural and physical resources that sustain their wellbeing and their capacity individually and collectively to negotiate for these resources to be provided in culturally meaningful ways’. ‘Resilience’ has become a controversial concept in the mental health field because it’s felt in some quarters to put disproportionate responsibility onto the individual to resolve their difficulties, to justify offering fewer services on the NHS, and to ignore the underlying systemic issues such as poverty and poor housing which contribute to mental ill-health in the first place. On the other hand, it is a necessary personal quality to cultivate, so the term needs treating with some caution.

At the same time is the not surprising news that, based on research carried out for the Royal College of Psychiatrists, one in four are waiting more than three months for mental health treatment – this is putting it mildly. We hear of much longer waiting lists, longer than a year in some places. ‘The delays are leading to patients ending up in A&E, seeing their mental health decline and experiencing problems with their work, finances or relationship. RCP warned that the big increase in mental health problems caused by the Covid-19 pandemic could result in even longer waits for care’. We already know there’s a ‘mental health pandemic’ and this research reinforces earlier findings. A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman acknowledged the pandemic-related need and said: ‘We are committed to increasing the mental health workforce. Mental health services will expand further and faster thanks to a minimum £2.3bn of extra investment a year by 2023/24 as part of the NHS Long Term Plan.’ The problem is that this ‘expansion’ has been left vague and the amount is insufficient to even plug earlier gaps in services: professional bodies like the BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) are regularly pressing the government on what this boosted workforce will look like, when the desperate need is for more qualified and experienced professionals to offer psychological therapies of choice (not restricted to CBT, which many find doesn’t touch the sides).

This year the Queen’s Birthday Honours have especially recognised people’s contributions during the pandemic –  two high profile ones being fitness guru Joe Wicks, the ‘nation’s PE teacher’ and footballer Marcus Rashford, who forced the government to U-turn over free school meals. Both get MBEs. Yet again, though, it does prompt the wider question of the uses and abuses of the honours system, which too often, especially in the recent Prime Minister’s Honours, is seen as a route to bribing or acknowledging cronies.

You might be interested in the new series on Radio 4 of the Moral Maze, which involves a panel of public figures interviewing a series of ‘witnesses’ on a key topic, this week being the role of lived experience in policymaking. How much of a role should it have? Is it essential or does it cloud judgement? This is a key theme in discussions on mental health policy but I don’t think this episode focused on that, interestingly.

Finally, fans of the Sicilian detective Salvo Montalbano will be delighted that he’s back on BBC4 tonight, and yes, it’s new, not a repeat, with actor Luca Zingaretti credited as co-director for the first time. Even if you don’t care for Montalbano, it’s worth tuning in for the ‘gorgeous Sicilian backdrops’ and the opening sequence of that inimitable theme music accompanying the swooping camera shots panning the mountains and bays of South-east Sicily.