Saturday 17 July

Having watched football on tv for the first time ever (the Euro 2020 semi-final and final) I am now a football expert (!) and I did think it seemed a mistake for Southgate last Sunday evening to bring on different players for the penalties. Gratifyingly, many of those who know the game inside out seemed to agree, but how well the team did to even get to the final. Even more shaming, then, was the behaviour (not called out by the government) of some fans booing the opponents’ national anthems and abusing England players for falling at the last hurdle. Even more shaming, in the eyes of many, was the government’s hypocrisy over a period of time, condemning ‘taking the knee’ as ‘gesture politics’, giving the green light to misbehaving fans, then appearing to condemn the very abuse this stance had led to. ‘This England team deserve to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused on social media. Those responsible for this appalling abuse should be ashamed of themselves’, tweeted Boris Johnson, leading to this response from footballer Tyrone Mings: ‘You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens’. Oof.

While one Tory MP had the nerve to tell footballers to stick to their day jobs (of course, that would be convenient for them, for these critics to be silenced)‘Sayeeda Warsi, a Conservative peer and former co-chair, sent a public message to Patel, the Home Secretary, calling on her and all Conservatives to “think about our role in feeding this culture in our country. If we ‘whistle’ & the ‘dog’ reacts, we can’t be shocked if it barks & bites,” Lady Warsi tweeted. “It’s time to stop the culture wars that are feeding division. Dog whistles win votes but destroy nations’. It comes to something when even a member of the Conservative Party feels the need to publicly criticise this evident racism.

Dominating the news this week, with all the anxiety it provokes, is the increasing division between those seemingly desperate for ‘Freedom Day’, regardless of the potential costs, and those urging caution because of the significant rise in Covid cases and hospitalisations. While it was always clear that vaccination couldn’t be a silver bullet, the government has treated it as such and continued with its schtick of ‘vaccination has broken the link between infection, hospitalisation and death’. Now the schtick has to change as this is manifestly not the case: those infected and hospitalised include the double jabbed and it seems every week there’s news of a new variant which has a high transmission rate and which is vaccine resistant.

The government’s determination to stick to Freedom Day on Monday 19 July come what may, is a display of hubris only modified by its having already to roll back on its ‘irreversible’ mantra. It’s an offloading of responsibility onto the people. Seeming to see no irony, former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, interviewed on Saturday’s Today Programme, predicted that we could see another lockdown by September and said ‘much depends’ on people’s behaviour over the next few weeks. This again reinforces the message that if people get ill (and there’s been effectively no recognition of disabling Long Covid, now affecting 1m in the UK according to May statistics) it’s their own fault and fails to even acknowledge that perhaps this is the wrong time to reopen everything at once. It seems somewhat of an ironic comment on all this that Health Secretary Sajid Javid has tested positive today. Who will now step up to the plate? Boris Johnson doesn’t seem to have much faith in the junior health ministers (no surprise there), but there’s always Matt Hancock. Not serious but it’s nevertheless interesting that this week London’s Evening Standard reported Hancock as talking to former colleagues to plan his comeback.

Freedom Day schtick also indicates poor recognition of what the clinically vulnerable have to face after Monday: whereas at least some felt safe to get out and about when restrictions and mask wearing were mandated, many now fear being confined to their homes because they can’t rely on the public’s sense of responsibility, wearing masks in confined spaces, for example. Earlier this week junior health minister Edward Argar told the media: ‘people will make their own judgements. I trust in the innate responsibility of the British people to exercise that responsibility in a cautious and sensible way’. This is so disingenuous because we see time and time again evidence of lack of judgement and ‘common sense’, not least in the Euro 2020 crowds last weekend.

Another faulty polarised argument has been ‘If not now, when?’ but a sensible solution would be to wait until many more are vaccinated (currently 52%), so it’s not either continue with restrictions or open up immediately. It’s been interesting to see this last week more and more organisations, especially Transport for London, mandating the continued wearing of face coverings, effectively resisting government policy, although in some cases it cannot be legally enforced. Meanwhile, more than 1200 scientists and medics have added their names to the letter to The Lancet which urged the Prime Minister to rethink his strategy. What’s even more galling is that health experts all over the world are condemning the government’s approach, experimenting with herd immunity, as it doesn’t only affect the UK but the entire world.

‘Professor Christina Pagel, the director of University College London’s clinical operational research unit, told the meeting: “Because of our position as a global travel hub, any variant that becomes dominant in the UK will likely spread to the rest of the globe. The UK policy doesn’t just affect us. It affects everybody and everybody has a stake in what we do.”The letter to The Lancet said: “We believe the government is embarking on a dangerous and unethical experiment, and we call on it to pause plans to abandon mitigations on July 19, 2021.”

How damning is this? The Prime Minister has brought the UK into global disrepute. ‘In New Zealand we have always looked to the UK for leadership when it comes to scientific expertise, which is why it’s so remarkable that it is not following even basic public health principles,” said Michael Baker, a professor of public health at the University of Otago and a member of the New Zealand ministry of health’s Covid-19 Technical Advisory Group’.

Professor Pagel also deconstructed the Prime Minister’s two arguments for ending restrictions now, so it’s interesting that Chris Whitty has accepted them. The ‘rationale’ is based on over 90% of the most at-risk people being vaccinated and it being better to have mass infection during the summer than the winter, when the virus spreads more readily and the NHS is more burdened. While scientists have described a mass infection policy as ‘a dangerous experiment’, the NHS is already under severe strain at a time when it’s trying to deal with the massive backlog of delayed procedures and cancer treatments, etc. Pagel also cites the damage caused by Long Covid and effects on the clinically vulnerable, but another key issue undermining the PM’s stance is that new infections make mutations more likely.

 ‘Dr Susan Hopkins, the head of Public Health England, estimated three more doublings of cases before the peak, potentially meaning more than 200,000 cases a day in six weeks’ time. Even the health secretary, Sajid Javid, concedes there are likely to be more than 100,000 cases a day (implying around two more doublings), which would be higher than the highest recorded day in January. This could easily mean another 2 million people infected before cases return to the low levels we saw in early May’.

Professor Pagel makes the strong point that ‘infectious diseases are a matter of collective, rather than personal, responsibility’ and that as a society we could choose to sign up to keep certain measures in place including investing in better buildings ventilation, and to demand better than what appears to be the government throwing in the towel. ‘We could choose to suppress this virus over winter and protect our population and our NHS and so provide far more freedom to go about our daily lives. The current government position is that it’s not even going to try. This is not good enough and we have to demand better’. Newcastle Labour MP Chi Onwurah made some good points on BBC’s Any Questions, including the loudly applauded ‘You cannot outsource public health to the public, which is what he (Boris Johnson) is trying to do’. Just one indicator of the strain the NHS is under came with the news that one of the country’s largest hospitals, Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth, cancelled dozens of elective operations for two days, including liver transplants, because of the increase in Covid cases, and we can be sure it won’t be the only two days this happens.

Very timely is an article this week about misleading ‘hygiene theatre’, suggesting that excessive cleaning gives us, especially those with health anxiety and OCD, a false sense of security, that ‘something is being done’ to mitigate Covid risks. But such an approach leads to the important things not being done, such as ensuring effective ventilation, which cost more and take time to implement. The article cites a beauty business where the staff frantically clean after each appointment and customers say they feel really safe there, but…. ‘the one measure that would contribute most to the safety of the clients and workers in Claudia’s clinic isn’t being implemented: ventilation’.

‘What Claudia is performing on behalf of the customers who frequent her skincare clinic is “hygiene theatre”. The term was first coined by the Atlantic writer Derek Thompson in a July 2020 essay, in which he defined hygiene theatre as Covid safety protocols “that make us feel safer, but don’t actually do much to reduce risk, even as more dangerous activities are still allowed”. Hygiene theatre is plastic facial visors that do not protect wearers from breathing in infected air or contaminating the people around them. It is single-use cutlery and disposable menus in restaurants and shields between tables. It is staff fastidiously cleaning communal touchpoints in pubs while maskless groups chant football songs at full volume. It is hazmat suit-wearing officials fumigating entire streets with disinfectant. It is gyms that require people to wipe down every piece of equipment they touch, but do not make them wear masks. It is quarantining your post by the front door and wiping down your groceries with bleach. All well-intentioned, but mostly ineffectual, gestures that make us feel safe, but do not keep us safe from the threat posed by Covid-19’.

I suspect many would be shocked to read this article, learning that what they’ve been religiously doing for months on end is ‘mostly ineffectual’. It could also be that such hygiene enthusiasts have been judgemental towards the others less inclined to follow such procedures. Although the term was only coined in 2020, it has interesting origins, being based ‘on a concept originated by the security expert Bruce Schneier in his 2003 book, Beyond Fear. Schneier coined the term “security theatre” to describe the safety measures implemented at airports after the 9/11 terror attacks, such as banning nail scissors and cigarette lighters. In reality, these measureswere pointless: a complicated charade to reassure nervous passengers rather than anything grounded in reality. They also came at a huge cost to taxpayers – the US has spent more than $100bn on aviation security since 9/11’.

This is the most interesting article I’ve read about the pandemic in a while. It concludes that ‘Hygiene theatre can be actively dangerous because it prevents people from making informed choices about the levels of risk they’re willing to accept in their lives’. What makes it even more important now is the imminent ‘Freedom Day’, when people have to make their own judgements because the government has abdicated responsibility. Yet even Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty recently reiterated the importance of handwashing (the hands, face, space mantra looks a bit facile now) but not that of ventilation, now seen as one of the most important interventions in controlling the spread. If you read nothing else, read this!

What’s contributed markedly to the current febrile mood is concern about the NHS Covid app ‘pinging’ people left right and centre (some say unnecessarily), instructing them to self-isolate, which has forced some businesses and organisations to slow down or grind to a halt because of lack of staff. Allusions to a ‘pingdemic’ have been criticised for trivialising a serious situation, the pings being an indicator of potential new cases, yet businesses and some commentators are asking for the app to be adjusted to make it less ‘sensitive’. Although after 16 August double vaccinated people and those under 18 won’t have to self-isolate if a close contact tests positive, this leaves almost a month for this limbo to continue.

As we know, numerous people have been deleting or disabling the app in order to avoid pings, and those without smartphones or choosing not to download the app were never available for pinging in the first place. Jeremy Hunt came out with a good phrase during his Today Programme interview, suggesting that the app was ‘losing social consent’, prompting the tweet: ‘The app is ‘losing social consent’ – now that’s a phrase. Should have asked Jeremy Hunt when this government lost public ‘consent’.’

The other issue dominating the news and causing much anxiety is the government’s hokey cokey traffic light system for foreign travel, and how relaxing is it going to these countries when their status can change within hours? This week the Balearics were placed on the amber list and, virtually overnight, some political fudging has led to an amber plus category for France. Those returning will now have to quarantine, which will annoy a great many. If this was a clinically informed decision it wouldn’t be so bad, but it’s clear it’s a projection onto another country of the UK’s own dire situation. Sky News’s Sam Coates illustrates what happens when the consequences of a policy aren’t thought through: ‘By putting France on the all new Amber Plus/Magenta category, people will struggle to claim on their insurance. Sadly no ministers are available tonight to ask.’ It surely adds insult to injury to introduce such a policy with next to no warning, then remain unaccountable by making ministers unavailable to the media.

The groundswell of ridicule and opprobrium surrounding our Prime Minister was given a further boost this week with Boris Johnson’s allegedly groundbreaking speech about ‘levelling up’. It was felt by many to be incoherent and full of empty promises, but perhaps most striking was a new level of bombast, as if he’d finally lost the plot. ‘Boris Johnson’s flagship “levelling up” speech has been criticised by experts for containing scant new policy as concern grows among Conservative MPs that the guiding principle of his premiership risks becoming little more than a soundbite. Two years after first committing to levelling up, the prime minister travelled to Coventry to deliver a freewheeling speech heavy on rhetorical flourishes but light on detail, and urged local leaders to send in their own suggestions’. If this doesn’t sound like someone who’s given up, needing the public’s ideas as he’s got none of his own, I don’t know what does. A former Cabinet minister said: ‘He seems to be throwing the kitchen sink at it, which suggests there isn’t much of a coherent idea behind it’. Quite without irony, ‘Conservative MP Laura Farris told the BBC on Thursday that levelling up was an ambiguous phrase that “means whatever anyone wants it to mean”, prompting a wag to tweet: ‘Levelling up means whatever I want it to mean’ – Boris Johnson channels his inner Humpty Dumpty’. If nothing else does it, the nonsense constituting this speech, (‘strong leadership is the yeast that lifts the whole mattress of dough, the magic sauce, the ketchup of catch-up’ etc), might surely be what makes at least some followers, including the Red Wall MPs, start to question the mast they’ve pinned their colours to. ‘Strong leadership’ it isn’t.

Alarmingly, this week the Health and Care bill, which would lead to NHS privatisation, passed its second reading in the Commons (356 for, 218 against), a Labour amendment being defeated. Problematic measures the amendment cited included the ability of private healthcare companies to sit on boards where NHS spending was decided, allowing more opportunities for outsourcing of contracts without scrutiny and allowing an approach whereby cuts to and closures of services are incentivised. Labour said that the bill ‘does not ensure that the NHS is a fully publicly funded, accountable and publicly delivered service providing free high quality care for everyone who needs it’. So what happens next? A useful WordPress blog by Calderdale and Kirklees 999 Call for the NHS states: ‘Following discussions in the usual channels, the Public Bill Committee is expected to begin its consideration of the Bill in September. Four sittings are expected for oral evidence in the week of 6 September, followed by 20 sittings for line by line consideration, concluding on Tuesday 2 November’.

Much has been written over the last 16 months about work attire and the alleged slide of sartorial standards. The Week summarises an article by Ben Wright in the Daily Telegraph, saying how ‘the suit and tie are fast becoming endangered species in the corporate world’. ‘Numerous zoom calls’ had thrown up only a handful of men (and what about women’s outfits?) thus attired and I’m surprised it was as many as that. Many workers from home have said how they might wear a smart shirt on the upper half, while their lower half remains encased in pyjama bottoms but now, it seems, the upper half has descended (!) to ‘polo shirts and even t-shirts’. While this will spell freedom for some, Wright cautions that it may be a short-sighted view. Staying with the suit and tie saves endless decisions about what to wear, he reckons, and eliminates the competitive system in companies which claim to have no dress code but which actually do: ‘chinos, button-down shirts and armless fleeces’.

An important point he makes, though, is that formal dress at work helps maintain ‘the necessary boundary between being on and off duty…if you’re always working from home you never get to leave the office..and if you’re always casual you never get to fully relax. The best thing about a suit may be that you can take it off’. Interesting, especially when, outside the corporate world, there are those will never have worn a suit to work and whose work attire morphs from casual to scruffy. It’s not uncommon to witness men who’ve been told they must wear a jacket and tie at dinner (in a smart hotel, for example) vote with their feet, perhaps unwittingly, in that they are indeed wearing a jacket and tie, but such ancient and moth-eaten examples that they negate the original instruction. A good example of obeying the letter of the law but not its spirit, perhaps.

Finally, I’ve been enjoying catching up with the 6 part series of BBC4 documentaries on Ernest Hemingway, described as ‘the most influential US writer of the 20th century’. I’m not proud to admit that I’ve never read him, partly because my English degree was English and European literature, the other option being English and American. Yes, I could have done since then but somehow that hasn’t happened: there’s just so much to read and American literature has never appealed that much. One critic described the series as ‘extraordinarily moreish’, but the film makers were rather felt to skate over the author’s ‘rabid violence, racism, disgusting treatment of women…. misogyny and homophobia’. He sounds to have been rather unstable and prone to depression, but it was hardly surprising to discover why: in the first episode we learn that his mother endlessly made her children feel how much she’d sacrificed for them, how child rearing was like a bank, into which the mother first deposited and into which later (a letter from mother to son quoted this) children were expected to ‘make deposits’. The letter told Hemingway he was overdrawn, but not only that: she regularly dressed him in female clothing alongside his sister, as ‘twins’. Such a subversion of a child’s latent sexuality is a sure-fire way to induce psychological disturbance. I’m now keen to see the rest of these documentaries and read some of this author’s work. Many Hemingway aficionados out there??

Sunday 11 July

Ever since the government reiterated its intention to end lockdown restrictions on July 19th, there’s been an avalanche of doubt, anxiety, criticism and incredulity expressed by scientists, medics and the public, given the rapid rise of Covid cases, including the virulent new Lambda variant. Epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding tweeted: ‘Watching—new Lambda Variant now found in 30 countries…The Lambda originated from Peru, with the highest mortality rate in the world.” Some scientists are worried Lambda may be “more infectious than Delta variant’.

It’s concerning for our mental wellbeing not only that the government seems to be pursuing more explicitly a herd immunity strategy but also that this is polarising society. While many, according to polls, will continue distancing and wearing their masks in indoor spaces, and it’s being mandated in some areas of public transport, there are also many rejoicing in the ‘freedoms’. (YouGov polling indicated 71% want mask use to continue to be mandatory on public transport, 21% don’t. 66% want them in shops, 27% don’t). One sceptic tweeted: ‘Yes, 1m Covid 19 cases are projected by Independent Sage in the next 3 weeks alone… The Johnson regime is doing nothing to prevent this’. Another said: ‘Absolutely extraordinary that Sajid Javid has used today’s Mail on Sunday to declare the ‘health benefits’ of allowing Covid to run entirely unchecked through the UK population – without once mentioning Long Covid. This is experimental, reckless and wrong’. The point about Long Covid is well made as it’s still receiving insufficient attention for its disabling effects in many cases.

After the Downing Street briefing several viewers tweeted about the responsibility issue: ‘What is this sudden outbreak of ludicrous ideological zealousness about making our own choices on COVID risk? These are collective risks which need planning and agreement. They cannot be addressed purely through individual choice. This is crazy!’

Alastair Campbell was somewhat less restrained, using the hashtag ‘sadopopulism’: ‘That was a masterclass in mixed messaging …. It will kill people but as Johnson thinks he has got away with more than an eighth of a million dead through his previous mistakes, he thinks he can get away with this too’.

The 19th July decision (though not 100% certain yet) has thrown into sharp focus the divide between those operating according to collective values, their behaviours determined by the common good, and those pursuing individual goals and desires. However we view it, it does seem an abdication of government responsibility: of course self-responsibility is important and there’s not enough of this, but in this context it’s an overarching and evidence-based government strategy we need. Some commentators see this as the start of another ‘culture war’, not unlike that between Remainers and Leavers. The government’s decision has been condemned by the World Health Organisation as ‘moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity’. Care Minister Helen Whately, not for the first time, gave a car crash interview during Monday’s Radio 4 Today programme, delivering a series of vacuous responses, not answering the question as to whether or not she’d continue to wear a mask and coming out with such gems as ‘I don’t think all cultures are the same’.

While Tory backbenchers shouted ‘Hallelujah’ on hearing the news, the backlash against prime ministerial idiocy, including allowing theatres and nightclubs to operate at full capacity, has been loud and clear, scientists predicting new cases rising to 50,000 a day. Clinicians joined forces to write to the Lancet about their concerns, and Jude Diggins, an interim director at the Royal College of Nursing, said: ‘This disease does not disappear on 19 July. No available vaccine is 100% effective … Public mask-wearing is straightforward and well-established – government will regret the day it sent the wrong signal for political expediency’. But already there are signs of government reservations: ‘ministers will hold on to powers to ‘reimpose economic and social restrictions at a local, regional or national level’ if needed to suppress a dangerous new variant, according to a Whitehall document published on Monday’.

Less than a week after his announcement, it seems even our Prime Minister is grasping the need, so he has a ‘get out clause’, to tone down the triumphal rhetoric, although he needed help to do even this. ‘The Prime Minister still believes it is “now or never”, with a later reopening potentially posing even higher risks as cases could peak as children return to school and winter looms. Two Whitehall sources told the Guardian that ministers had been spooked by internal polling. One said the data showed just 10% of the public support the policy of scrapping all restrictions at once, while another said substantially more people believed the government was moving too quickly than at the last reopening step on 17 May. These accounts were denied by No 10’. Despite Boris Johnson warning people not to be ‘demob happy’, not walking that talk himself, of course, adherence to restrictions has been leaking away for months in some quarters.

At least one commentator focuses on the government’s obvious fatigue with Covid and its pushing of responsibility onto us, but this avoidance and cowardice is not what we elect governments for. ‘Boris Johnson ends Covid as a ‘me problem’ and makes it a ‘you problem’ gives it to us straight. ‘The prime minister’s overriding imperative – you could tell by the very many times he said it – is to “move from universal government diktat to relying on people’s personal responsibility”. He’s basically had enough of making all the decisions, and wants someone else to have a go. Absent an obvious single candidate, he’s throwing it on to all of us’.

Meanwhile, a frontline respiratory consultant voiced the views of many colleagues: ‘NHS staff  have a sense of dread about what’s around the corner. While we understand things need to open up some time, the timing feels like utter madness while we are so close to successfully vaccinating the population, and with a more contagious variant circulating’. Again, the government is taking their efforts for granted, failing to recognise the need for a decent pay deal and the level of exhaustion still being felt following the first and second Covid waves. There’s also insufficient recognition of the burdens of the long waiting list, significant rise in Long Covid cases and reduced capacity due to distancing regulations. Let’s hope Sajid Javid doesn’t do as his predecessor often did, just blithely throwing out his ‘I know they can do it’ mantra.

It seems the government is finally realising what scientists have always known, that vaccination was never going to be a silver bullet, despite the soundbite that vaccination is a ‘wall of defence’, ‘breaking the link between infection, hospitalisation and death’. This piece illustrates via infographic how no one measure is 100% effective and how a number of measures are needed to work together.  ‘Australian virologist Ian Mackay, the first to use the Swiss cheese model in relation to the pandemic, says, in reality, the cheese’s holes will constantly open, shut and shift location depending on our behaviour…. It is only by using a number of slices – or measures – that we create the best chance of protecting ourselves and our friends and family’. The simplicity of this infographic’s messaging doesn’t disguise the complexity of the topic, though, something the government has proved itself manifestly unable to manage.

Not unrelated to this desire for simplicity is the government’s pursuit of a cynical narrative, analysed by Rafael Behr in a piece headed ‘Boris Johnson cries ‘freedom’ to fill a void where his leadership should be’. On the Freedom Day ‘pantomime’: ‘They mean freedom from the face mask, asserting their own right to no longer care about Covid infections, while making it sound like freedom from the disease itself. This is the same reflex that wanted to celebrate Brexit with an “independence day” on the grounds that EU membership equated to colonisation by a foreign power. It is the familiar revving of ideological engines, racing through the rhetorical gears from metaphor to hyperbole to paranoid delusion and fantasies of joining the resistance in people whose only political struggle has been for selection to a safe Tory seat’.

He suggests that ‘the language of political emancipation’ has been misapplied to a situation which should be seen rationally ‘in terms of clinical outcome’. Behr deconstructs the series of vacuous soundbites we’ve grown familiar with, eg ‘building back better’ and ‘levelling up’, revealing them as emperors wearing no clothes. Unfortunately, though, many are still taken in by them, including sections of the media. ‘That effect should not be overstated. Johnson is still a unique performer: part raconteur, part escapologist, talking his way out of troubles that would sink other leaders. But a consequence of that shtick is the growing gap between heroic language and grubby practice. It is the duality inherent in any failing ideological project that must keep cranking the rhetoric of abstract ideals higher to cover the stoop to ever shabbier methods. The support it generates is widely spread, but maybe also shallow; a popular consumer choice, lacking the connective tissue of shared and consistent beliefs’.

While some commentators fear the mask wearing issue becoming a culture war, others opine that this needn’t be the case if mask wearing is seen as a form of etiquette. This brings us back to the individual versus collective again. I suspect it’s not commonly realised how many thousands will feel more restricted following 19 July because for various reasons they’ve had to shield due to compromised immune systems. Up till now, for some time they could have felt able to get out and about, if social distancing and mask wearing were in evidence, but not if these measures suddenly collapse on 19 July. Adding to these numbers those yet unvaccinated or double vaccinated, it suggests a large number of people who would be left vulnerable.

‘Reportedly, the Department of Health will be issuing new guidance for the immunosuppressed and clinically very vulnerable. But while support for shielders is needed, confining them to quarters indefinitely is hardly a liberation. Nor is there much choice for exhausted NHS staff who face a soaring workload again, or for patients whose operations are being cancelled because hospitals are treating growing numbers of Covid patients or staff are having to self-isolate. If anything, the authors of the Lancet letter are too generous in describing this as “a dangerous and unethical experiment”: that terminology suggests a degree of scientific rigour and concern. Instead, this is a political wager, in which large parts of the population are not players but gambling chips’.

Radio 4’s Any Answers yesterday was interesting on this conundrum, the presenter getting those with opposing views to speak to each other. It was noticeable that the vulnerable callers sounded calm yet concerned, but those clamouring for restrictions to end annoyed and impatient, suggesting the others would just have to ‘stay indoors’.

Green MP Caroline Lucas tweeted during the Andrew Marr programme: ‘Minister says Government taking a “cautious” approach – but making bonfire of all restrictions is the opposite of caution. People are “expected” to wear masks in public places – but why should others be put at risk by some who don’t meet “expectations”? Utterly incoherent’.

Meanwhile, it’s very interesting, if worrying, that while one government adviser, Christopher Fraser, is trying to insist that use of the ‘NHS’ app is at ‘an all time high’, there’s clear evidence that it’s not, that the app’s inappropriate level of sensitivity is causing people to be unnecessarily ‘pinged’ and that numerous people are deleting the app or switching off notifications. We hear that the politicians are partly doing this because they don’t want to risk being ‘pinged’ just before they go on holiday, some even citing the possibility of their marriages being put at risk if they don’t delete or ignore the app. There must be data available on the usage of this app but it’s not being made public – no surprise there.

It was also alarming to hear (and the media obsession with holidays must take some responsibility here) that NHS staff  in some areas have been pressurised and abused by those trying to get their second jabs before the scheduled time so they can go on holiday. ‘One vaccination lead in the south-east of England said: “We’ve had a number of violent and aggressive incidents at sites, and even had to call the police, with people demanding their vaccine earlier than eight weeks. These incidents involved verbal abuse and aggressive and threatening behaviour. We have had to bring in security for our walk-in and ‘grab-a-jab’ sessions. GP leaders fear that such unsavoury behaviour, especially by younger adults, could intensify following the government’s decision on Thursday to allow double-jabbed Britons to return from amber-list countries this summer without having to quarantine’. It does seem desperately unfair that beleaguered NHS staff  have to put up with this kind of thing and as vaccination experts have said, there needs to be much clearer Government messaging about why bringing the second dose forward is not recommended.

But enough of all this….. across the country and possibly across the whole of Europe, anticipation is building ahead of the Euro 2020 final tonight between England and Italy. It’s still hard to believe England has got this far but very gratifying to see that at least this country can be good at something. Commentators have pointed out the maturity and thoughtful management exhibited by England manager Gareth Southgate, a sharp contrast to the way government is conducting itself. As someone not keen on organised sport and who had never watched football on tv, I surprised myself by watching England vs Ukraine and will watch tonight as well. I was struck by the clever footwork and tactics, particularly of some players like Sterling, but also taken aback by how rough the game was. I didn’t think players were meant to trip each other up and be quite as physical, having attributed that technique more to rugby than football. Needless to say, I’ve been corrected in this misunderstanding by local Arsenal supporters! But now a belated start has been made, who knows…. I might be progressing to trying to understand the offside rule and propping up bar of a local hostelry, pontificating about transfer fees and the deficits of coaches and managers.  

Let’s hope there’s no booing of Italy’s national anthem. What is more sickening, though, is the way Boris Johnson and his government have tried to associate themselves with England’s success, implying that this performance is somehow linked with ‘Brexit dividend’ or an example of ‘global Britain’ manifesting itself. Journalist Andrew Rawnsley suggested that the PM’s desperation to ‘steal himself a slice of their glory’ fails because ‘embracing this diverse and harmonious squad authentically is impossible for the party he’s created’. Marina Hyde wrote a funny piece, lampooning the PM’s appearance at Wembley in a football shirt clearly put on over his shirt and tie, in which he looked only too like a parody of himself. ‘Did you see the prime minister in the fancy seats at Wembley on Wednesday? He seemed to have come dressed as a particularly brutal Matt Lucas impersonation of himself….It’s quite something to think that the government went into the first lockdown last year attempting to score cheap points on footballers’ pay. They are now exiting all restrictions desperately trying to piggyback on what footballers have brought to the country, despite Johnson having managed England’s pandemic like Steve McClaren’.

The PM’s bullish and risible tweets about the England team predictably attracted plenty of derision: ‘Shut up, you tiresome fraud’, said one tweet. Another spoofed his claim to be au fait with sport: ‘I’ve loved rugby ever since I saw Gary Lineker score a century at Wimbledon’. It will be interesting to see what he wears tonight, since he won’t have been wearing his suit today.

Following on from the recent news about George Osborne being made chairman of the British Museum (and his likely role in ‘persuading’ this cultural institution to follow the government line on portrayal of British history), journalist Sam Leith expresses exasperation at the increasing tendency for a certain ‘well connected’ individuals to land jobs they have zero experience for. ‘Good grief’, he said on UnHerd, ‘is there anything George Osborne can’t do?’ Leith points out the two different ‘routes’ taken to career advancement: one ‘where you progress by gaining skills and experience in a specific field’, and the other, where seniority and connections enable a select group of individuals to be appointed to key posts for which they have no experience or expertise. ‘Take Dido Harding, another inhabitant of this world..’, in which the occupants ‘make the right friends at university’, then going on to top jobs, peerages and the like. Alluding to Harding’s hat being thrown into the NHS Chief Executive ring, he said: ‘She’ll probably get that, too. If not, perhaps George Osborne will see her right with senior role at the British Museum’.

After some days of lying low following his dramatic resignation, former Health Secretary Matt Hancock has apparently been seen in public for the first time, having his second vaccination. A bystander described a serious-looking Hancock staring at his mobile phone. Following on from journalist (and wife of Michael Gove) Sarah Vine’s recent piece about political marriages coming under strain and the ‘need’ for a partner who boosts the politician’s ego rather than constantly seeing through their facade, Hadley Freeman has likened Hancock’s affair to a 1980s film, along the theme of ‘dweeb and hot girl’. Apparently Gina Coladangelo was regarded as way out of his league during their university years but in recent times, Freeman suggests, he went out of his way to draw her into his orbit, including her recently vacated NHS non-exec directorship.

‘Boy, did Hancock play the long game here! Lord knows I’ve done some crazy things to try to get a crush to notice me – thrown parties, bought expensive clothes, pretended I could cook – but at least I never gave any of them slightly dodgy jobs and a salary, forcing them to hang out with me. Who knows, perhaps Hancock’s entire career was just a ploy to attract the attention of his university crush. If so, (a) that explains a lot; and (b) while I cannot condone Hancock’s deception of his wife, I do salute his tenacity’. Given their intention to move in together, it seems that hasn’t yet taken place, and we can wonder whether this affair will stand the test of scrutiny. ‘As I write this, “friends of Hancock” are insisting he and Coladangelo are “a love match”. But if Hancock had watched more 80s movies, he would know that getting together with your longstanding crush doesn’t always lead to the expected happily ever after’.

Finally, you might be interested to listen to this episode in the Profile series, featuring England player Raheem Sterling and his rise from ‘troubled youth’ to being one of the highest paid footballers, at only 26. ‘I was probably a naughty kid at school- I didn’t really like to listen to anyone except my mum’, Sterling says, yet a few years later a teacher described him mostly as ‘smile and dreadlocks’. It also seems symbolic that from his home in North London he could see the new Wembley Stadium being built. Many will be looking forward to seeing what he pulls off tonight.

Saturday 3 July

As the shock waves of the Matt Hancock revelations and resignation continue to be felt across the political spectrum, there was derision at Boris Johnson’s later attempt to rewrite history by implying he had actually sacked Hancock, contrary to all evidence. In a car crash Today (Radio 4) interview with Justice Minister Robert Buckland on Monday, Buckland complained about being asked about the Hancock affair when he’d been invited on to talk about youth offending. For once we were treated to a tour de force by presenter Nick Robinson, who gave the minister a deservedly tough ride when so often Labour politicians are grilled and ministers get an easy time.

Questions keep coming about the details of this debacle, the most recent ones focusing on the role and recruitment of non-executive directors. One minister interviewed last week tried to offer reassurance that all appointments were overseen by the Cabinet Office but, as we’ve seen, this ‘oversight’ is lacking and needs rethinking. Peter Riddell, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, said recently that such roles were ‘not regulated at all’ and take place more and more ‘without competition and without any form of regulatory oversight’.

Could it be, though, that rather than ‘hopeless Hancock’ being patronised and lined up as fall guy by Boris Johnson, he’s actually stolen a march on his boss by depriving him of a scapegoat and using questionable contracts/relationships and personal email to protect himself from scrutiny? A related news item this week is that of the Goves divorcing but their statement stresses that ‘no one else is involved’, apparently soon to be contradicted by the Sunday papers, and that they will ‘remain close friends’. What was interesting, though not surprising, about Sarah Vine’s recent article analysing the Hancock affair (and now we know she was speaking partly for herself) was the egoistic pull of Westminster life, the thirst for power needing others to feed it, a process which often would not be performed by a spouse who knew their wiles and defences. ‘…. long-time partners know all your history and insecurities and that they know deep down inside, you are not the Master of the Universe you purport to be.’

‘The problem with the wife who has known you since way before you were king of the world is that she sees through your facade….  there were some politicians who could walk away from power and others who will compromise everything for the sake of it….Westminster changes people… wives of senior politicians are still more or less the same person they were when they got married but their husbands sometimes are not…. And when someone changes, they require something new from a partner. Namely, someone who is as much a courtesan as a companion, one who understands their brilliance and, crucially, is personally invested in it’.

Returning to Hancock, there has also been unease in some quarters at his replacement, Sajid Javid, who raised eyebrows with one of his initial tweets in this role, saying his priority was to reopen the economy. We also understand that he is still continuing to work for the bank J P Morgan. It was as if he was still thinking like the Chancellor he once was, rather than a Health Secretary who should be prioritising public health. Liberal Democrats leader Ed Davey challenged Javid to ‘abolish Conservative cronyism’ at the Department of Health and Social Care, starting by ruling that Tory peer Dido Harding will not be made the next chief executive of NHS England. ‘The public expects so much better from the government during a pandemic’.

The government is between a rock and a hard place, as the alarming rise in Covid cases, the rapid spread of the Delta variant (60% more transmissible than Alpha) and increase in hospitalisations (including the double vaccinated) point to rethinking the 19th July date, but Tory lockdown sceptics, the travel and entertainment industries and others would be up in arms if it was delayed. Public Health England figures show a total of 161,981 confirmed and probable cases of Delta variant have now been identified in the UK – up by 50,824, or 46%, on the previous week. Senior medics are now asking the government to consider retaining some restrictions to help curb the spread of the virus.

‘The British Medical Association (BMA) said that keeping some protective measures in place was ‘crucial’ to stop spiralling cases numbers having a ‘devastating impact’ on people’s health, the NHS, the economy and education. Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA Council Chair, said easing restrictions was not an ‘all or nothing’ decision, and that ‘sensible, cautious’ measures would be vital to minimising the impact of further waves, new variants and lockdowns’. Will the BMA’s views cut any ice with the government? We will see. It will not be good for the nation’s mental health to know that such professional opinions have been expressed and ignored, especially if such a strategy results in yet another lockdown. Whatever the decisions are, we can expect some non-compliance to result from the ‘Hancock effect’, just as we had to from the ‘Barnard Castle effect’.

As ever, the government continues to oversell and over-rely on the vaccine, when important measures like Trace and Trace are seriously underperforming. Many are now complaining about what they see as its faulty strategy, pinging via the app anyone who’s been within any distance of someone testing positive, resulting in an increasing number of people deleting the app or switching off notifications. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘I suspect Boris Johnson unlocking promise on 19th has become a hostage to fortune. He’ll unlock & hope that the NHS can muddle through & accuse anyone being critical of being a doom-monger’.

Another blow to Conservatives came in the form of the Batley and Spen byelection on Thursday, the Labour candidate, Kim Leadbetter, winning by a 323 votes. This number would probably have been much higher without the vote being thoughtlessly split by George Galloway and others. The aftermath has seen much speculation about Keir Starmer’s future as Labour leader, but it doesn’t help that the Labour Party’s far left has been so determined to undermine him. The Conservative Party chair, Amanda Milling, rather ungraciously commented that it was ‘a Labour hold, rather than a Labour win’, but the Party must nevertheless be reflecting on their recent byelection losses and what they mean for the Party’s strategy.

While the extent of the Prime Minister’s less than honest statements is becoming better known, it’s hard to conjure with similar statements emerging from the official No 10 spokesman. One of these was the assertion that no personal email had been used in government business, but in the wake of the Hancock debacle, the Good Law Project issued a press release and tweeted that leaks confirmed use of personal email by Health Minister Lord Bethell (who had also sponsored the official pass of Ms Coladangelo). ‘It’s shocking that the Prime Minister, via his spokesperson, is misleading the public…… On 19 April 2020 Lord Feldman (who you’ll recall lobbied to win PPE contracts for at least one of his clients while working at DHSC) emailed Lord Bethell on his private address about Covid-19 test kits. Plainly this is government business. And plainly Lord Feldman, once co-Chair of the Conservative Party, was writing to James Bethell at his private email address on that government business. This is far from the only email we hold involving Lord Bethell’s private email address’. The press release also mentioned leaked minutes which confirmed Hancock’s own use of personal email. It’s not yet clear how these issues are being investigated – Commons Select Committees can give those appearing before them a rough ride but what outcomes ensue?

Linked to this is evidence, again via the efforts of the Good Law Project, of the existence of a ‘VIP lane’ early in the pandemic not only for PPE supply but also for Covid testing. ‘Bids from politically connected firms to provide Covid-19 tests in Britain were designated as “fast track” according to an email that suggests a VIP priority lane may have operated for tests as well as for personal protective equipment in the early stages of the pandemic….. The same email, sent last April by Max Cairnduff, a Cabinet Office procurement director, also referred to Covid testing, saying there was a separate dedicated email where offers would be “triaged”. It said ‘If they come from a minister/private office then please put FASTTRACK at the beginning of the subject line’. It was later publicly confirmed that a ‘VIP lane’ or ‘high-priority route’ existed for PPE offers’ but it appears this is the first time such a route was found to exist for testing. ‘Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, said there was clear evidence of a VIP route for companies supplying testing kits’ but government spokesmen have strongly denied this. Since they had to publicly admit the existence of the PPE one, how long before they admit the evidence of the testing one? An equally important question, though, is why is it left to organisations like the Good Law Project, to hold the government to account?

Still on accountability and its avoidance, it was reported this week that the widow of Jeremy Heywood, formerly head of the Civil Service, has expressed concern at the way the Greensill inquiry is being conducted. Suzanne Heywood is worried about the neutrality of the inquiry Chair, Nigel Boardman, and she fears her husband could be scapegoated to protect the government. Dominic Cummings said the inquiry would be a ‘stitch up’ and, more worryingly, Conservative-connected Boardman is said to have refused to accept a submission from Lady Heywood or anyone else representing her husband, who died in 2018. Besides the probity issues here, we have to wonder about the cost of such inquiries and lack of public confidence in them because of such weaknesses and biases. Wouldn’t you just know that, when asked for a response, a Cabinet Office spokesman supplied the following reassuring statement: ‘The Boardman review is ongoing, and as we have set out we will publish and present his findings to parliament and the government’s response, in due course’.

How often do we hear that government sound bite ‘levelling up’? This week further news emerged of what this really means: ‘declining life expectancy and deteriorating social conditions in England’s poorest areas’. Health inequalities expert Sir Michael Marmot, who produced two groundbreaking reviews on health equity in this country, has now produced Build Back Fairer in Greater Manchester: Health Equality and Dignified Lives, which reveals ‘jaw-dropping falls in life expectancy and widening social and health inequalities across the region over the past year’. One example is that the Covid 19 death rate was 25% higher in this region than the rest of England, made worse by lockdowns and spending cuts. Whereas the government’s idea of ‘levelling up’ (insofar as there is a genuine one) has attracted criticism for focusing on large infrastructure projects, but it seems the Marmot approach is much more granular, focusing on improving the lives of individuals and, crucially but more complex than large projects, getting to the roots of inequality by addressing the underlying social conditions.

‘Marmot called for a doubling of healthcare spending in the region over the next five years, as well as a refunding of local government, to tackle and prevent these inequalities and growing problems such as homelessness, low educational attainment, unemployment and poverty. Future spending should prioritise children and young people, who had been disproportionately harmed by the impacts of Covid restrictions and lockdowns, and had experienced the most rapid increases in unemployment and deteriorating levels of mental health’. The region’s mayor, Andy Burnham, would have had a hand in commissioning this report and sounds very firmly behind the findings and recommendations.

During the last few years much more attention has been paid to the fundraising choices made by cultural institutions and the decision by some to decline donations from companies associated with questionable or downright unsavoury activities. BP has been in the frame and notably American opioid purveyor Sackler. Culture Unstained is a research and campaigning organisation ‘which aims to end fossil fuel sponsorship of culture’ but I think their concerns extend beyond fossil fuel sponsorship. This is such an important issue for cultural organisations because, if they receive government funding in the first place, it will be limited by smaller amounts being made available, leaving them to seek it elsewhere. But there’s often an ethical cost to doing so.

We now hear that the billionaire founder of online gambling company Bet365, Denise Coates, is supporting a major Van Gogh exhibition at the Courtauld in London next year, described as ‘once-in-a-generation’, partly because it will include a previously unseen showing of Van Gogh self-portraits. But it’s not just this exhibition – Coates has funded an entire new exhibition space: the Denise Coates Exhibition Galleries. The Courtauld’s press release quoted her as saying: ‘I feel sure that the newly renovated Courtauld galleries will give all visitors, both in person and online, a world-class opportunity to experience their own connections to visual art. I have found great fulfilment from my own exposure to the visual arts and I am pleased to be able to support that journey for others with The Courtauld’.

Those familiar with the expression ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’ will be interested to learn of research at Cambridge University, reported in The Week, regarding problems which occupy the attention of podiatrists. There have long been concerns about high heels damaging feet, but the 1950s and 1960s fashion for ‘winklepicker’ shoes must have caused similar concern. Now a team of researchers has found that bunions are not a modern phenomenon but one which was common in the 14th and 15th centuries. Based on findings from an excavation of ancient skeletons, it was found that 27% of the population suffered from the ‘bony lumps’ (bunions), attributed to elongated shoes with pointed toes, called poulaines or crakows. These were apparently even worn by priests, despite being forbidden by the Pope. But the shoes didn’t only cause bunions – they also resulted in frequent fractures because of people wearing them falling forward. The mystery surely is how these pointy shoes were ever considered attractive, whether in the 15th century or the 20th.

Finally, something that might make you laugh. I was in Lush this week buying my regular body spray, and as he fetched it for me and chatted about this product, the young server said ‘You can also spray it on your butt cheeks’. Taken aback by this risqué comment to a customer, I realised, as he chatted on, that he’d actually said ‘You can also spray it on your bed sheets’. I wonder how many misunderstandings have occurred this last year as a result of mishearing what someone may have muttered or mumbled behind their mask!

Sunday 27th June

Yet again, what a week it’s been, many items temporarily pushed off the news agenda by the emergence of Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s affair during the pandemic (and ongoing) with ‘a friend’ who he subsequently made a non-executive Director of the NHS. Many were up in arms about Hancock having been instrumental in making the social distancing rules, giving former government adviser Professor Neil Ferguson no choice about resigning when he breached those rules back in 2020, yet having had no qualms about breaching them himself. The epitome of hypocrisy, though the case has raised many questions including the state of security arrangements which allowed the theft of the incriminating CCTV footage. The most galling thing for many, especially those who suffered bereavements during the pandemic, was the Prime Minister’s easy acceptance of Hancock’s apology, saying it was a personal matter and that he now considered the matter ‘closed’. Not so fast: the public’s reaction has been one of almost unequivocally condemning Hancock’s lack of principle when they were having to distance themselves from loved ones and accept not being able to visit care home residents.  

Housing Minister Robert Jenrick must have spent all Friday afternoon rehearsing responses for the inevitable question on Radio 4’s Any Questions and his attempted defence of Hancock (using the unfortunate construction of ‘Matt being on the job’) resulted at times in uproar from the audience. It’s not only shaming that Boris Johnson was prepared to let Hancock continue, but his own position was weakened by the subsequent resignation, partly as it leaves him without a scapegoat. As we’ve seen, Boris Johnson’s stock response regarding proven wrongdoers (eg Cummings, Patel, Williamson and Jenrick) has been to allow them to continue, declaring the matter ‘closed’, but this is now open to question. We can wonder what further scandals are waiting in the wings to be instantly branded as ‘closed’, this verdict then being overturned via pressure from Tory MPs, the public and the media.

It’s not surprising to hear the theory that Dominic Cummings is behind this. Now Hancock has fallen on his sword Cummings has his first scalp. How many more? It’s most interesting, though, that this government, having demonstrated immunity from any sense of shame in public life, now finally has this resignation. Perhaps Hancock has started something here. Within 24 hours we learn that Gina Coladangelo has left her position on the Board of the Department of Health, Hancock ended his marriage, the couple are moving in together and former Chancellor Sajid Javid has stepped up to the health portfolio. This is an interesting choice as it’s not only a comment on junior health ministers, most of whom are most unsuitable for any office, but it could be seen as a silo in the war against Cummings, who had dismissed Javid’s adviser, prompting his resignation from the Chancellor role.

A medic tweeted: ‘A note on Matt Hancock: for Boris Johnson to back Hancock, announcing that he “considered the matter closed” a day before the pressure caused Hancock to resign… …shows the PM to be weak, of poor judgement & out-of-touch. Like with lockdowns, he cannot make timely decisions’. Another opined: ‘The point is that it shouldn’t have come down to Matt Hancock doing the so called “honourable thing”. He should’ve been sacked rather than allowed to resign and Boris Johnson’s refusal to deal with this shows a serious failure leadership’. Boris’s Johnson’s response to Hancock’s resignation letter made an extraordinary claim: ‘…you should be proud of what you’ve achieved’….. As at least one tweeter observed: ‘Very proud  of 150,000 people dead, the carnage in care homes, PPE fiasco, contracts given to mates via his personal email, selling off the NHS, 1% pay rises to staff. Is this what UK pride looks like now?’ Perhaps the most worrying aspect is the hint of a possibility that Hancock could be rehabilitated at some point, another Johnson tactic. ‘I am grateful for your support and believe that your contribution to public service is far from over’.

Whether or not Hancock’s ‘contribution’ is over, the problems definitely aren’t, as health commentator Roy Lilley says: ‘The NHS will have a new Secretary of State and a new chief executive at a critical time; a new Covid wave likely in the autumn, a workforce crisis, busted budgets and waiting lists around the block, social care in ruins and no IT strategy. Apart from that it’s easy!!’

And the questions keep coming: it’s not only the breaching of social distancing guidelines at issue but also evidence of ‘chumocracy’, for example Hancock giving Coladangelo a paid role after the initial unpaid one, sponsoring her for a Westminster pass, enabling the use public money for her to accompany him to a meeting of G7 health ministers, and easing the path for the company owned by her brother (Roberto Coladangelo) to receive a £28million contract last year to carry out work for the South Central Ambulance Service NHS Trust.

As if this wasn’t enough, Hancock is also in deep water for having consistently used a private email address for government business, meaning, amongst other things, that his conduct can’t be subjected to the same level of scrutiny.

If it wasn’t so serious, it would be almost amusing witnessing senior Conservatives publicly struggle with their massive disappointment in Hancock and their leader at the same time as trying to maintain that they’re doing a great job. Could it be that these Tories, who entered politics in the Major and May eras, are finally seeing the light about the populist and unprincipled ethos of today’s party?

With the headline ‘Matt finished: front pages deliver final humiliation to departing Matt Hancock’, the Guardian describes how the Sunday press has weighed in heavily (‘a bonanza’) to condemn Hancock, the broadsheets only expressing more moderately what the Mail and Express screeched: ‘Matt finished’ (The Sun); ‘Hancock forced to quit (The Express) etc.

Although Hancock’s conduct has been reprehensible, the anger expressed by politicians, the public, NHS staff and groups like the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK seems beyond what this would merit. It’s likely that it represents the coming to a head of resentment and anger which have gathered a head of steam over the last 15 months, when we have been deprived of so much and there has been next to no democratic outlet for our frustrations with government corruption, cronyism and mismanagement.

Also making headlines today is news, highly embarrassing for the government, that on Tuesday confidential and sensitive Ministry of Defence documents had been found at a bus stop in Kent, featuring the destroyer HMS Defender, which we heard a lot about last week. ‘Following the controversy generated by HMS Defender’s mission, the documents discovered in Kent confirm that passage through the TSS (Traffic Separation Scheme near the south-western tip of the Crimea) was a calculated decision by the British government to make a show of support for Ukraine, despite the possible risks involved…. The documents don’t stop there. The bundle includes updates on arms exports campaigns, including sensitive observations about areas where Britain might find itself competing with European allies… and observations on President Biden’s first few months in office.’ Interestingly, the anonymous finder of the documents decided to pass them to the BBC, which didn’t hold back on analysing them and detailing their contents, except, it seems, when it came to policy on Afghanistan. The MOD is investigating and surely it won’t take long to discover who had access to such classified material and who could have left them in that particular location. Boris Johnson must be cursing these Matt Hancock and defence document debacles in the lead-up to the Batley and Spen by-election this week.

Meanwhile, as most ministers continue to flag 19th July as the poorly-named Freedom Day, at least some clinicians and commentators are expressing doubts because of the rising number of Covid cases, the fact that the government is using the criteria of hospitalisations and deaths rather than cases, the rise of the Delta variant and the highly transmissible Delta + variant, and the use of ventilators increasing by 41%. There’s also increasing awareness of the extent and debilitating effects of Long Covid, more than 2m adults still experiencing symptoms three months after their illness, some for far longer. It seems important to enjoy things while we can as further restrictions can’t be ruled out despite the PM’s bullish declaration that the roadmap steps would be ‘irreversible’.

Amid the travel and entertainment industries’ complaints about restrictions they see as unfair and illogical, some people have been irritated by what seems the media’s obsession with going on holiday. Despite what’s thought to have been a Cabinet rift on the issue of giving more freedom to twice-vaccinated travellers, the ‘green list’ for overseas travel was extended to 16 more countries, meaning no need to quarantine on return to the UK. There’d still be the need for tests, though, before and after returning, and it does seem disingenuous to trumpet about travel opportunities without mentioning that more countries are placing restrictions on travellers from the UK because of the Delta variant risk. Whereas EU countries have been deciding their own policies, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said there should be a coordinated EU policy requiring all UK arrivals to quarantine. It certainly makes for a confusing picture for UK travellers, especially when we’ve seen changes overnight to the green and amber lists. It could easily defeat the purpose of going on holiday if tourists suddenly hear the goalposts have changed yet again and they feel compelled to change their flights before the deadline requiring quarantine. Skegness, anyone? Perhaps a mass return to Britain’s own resorts is way overdue, complete with fish and chips, candy floss, buckets and spades.

One of the ongoing complaints the travel and entertainment industries have with the government, one which will add to others in raising public anxiety, is the refusal so far to publish the data on which decisions regarding restriction easing are based. We have to wonder why the secrecy, especially over the pilot mass events, some of which took place in April. ‘The organisers of summer events and the owners of music and sports venues are eagerly awaiting the findings, but Downing Street is still unable to say when they will be published. Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said only that they would come shortly’. It seems that the Department of Media, Culture and Sport reported positive findings but Downing Street didn’t want anything to undermine its cautious messaging following the 21st June delay. It’s interesting that the government is even ‘facing legal action’, to obtain research disclosure,  by key figures like Lord Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh, Lloyd Webber on record as saying he would go ahead with his production of Cinderella whatever the government says. ‘We simply must now see the data that is being used to strangle our industry so unfairly…..The government’s actions are forcing theatre and music companies off a cliff as the summer wears on, whilst cherry picking high-profile sporting events to go ahead. The situation is beyond urgent’. Lloyd Webber turned down the government’s offer for his production to be one of the pilots and Cinderella opened on Friday with an audience capacity of 50%.

Anything prior to ‘hopeless Hancock’s’ resignation might seem like ancient history now but it’s hard to resist mention of the Prime Minister’s first in the flesh audience with the Queen for 15 months. John Crace wrote a spoof account in the Guardian: ‘There was a knock on the door. “Come in,” said the Queen, her heart sinking. It was the moment she had been dreading. Why on earth couldn’t she have carried on her weekly meetings with the prime minister on Zoom? Not having to deal with Boris Johnson face to face had been one of the few upsides of the coronavirus lockdown. She couldn’t stand the way he put his feet up on the furniture and generally acted as if he owned the place. There was only so much entitlement a Queen could take….’.

The Queen’s allusion to the Health Secretary (‘poor man’) was probably her way of admonishing the PM for his ‘f……. hopeless’ WhatsApp messages, but when she said of Hancock ‘he’s full of………’, the PM suggested ‘beans’ when perhaps some of us would have supplied a less flattering noun. Boris Johnson, looking embarrassingly casual in his crumpled suit and with his scarecrow hair, surely broke protocol by finishing the Queen’s sentence for her – it would be interesting to know if he was pulled up on this later.

Especially given increasing criticism of the BBC, there was alarm last week at plans to sell Channel 4. ‘The broadcaster – home to shows such as the Great British Bake Off, It’s A Sin and Channel 4 News – is editorially independent but has been owned by the state since it was created by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1982. It operates with a remit to commission distinctive programming and serve diverse audiences across the UK. Unlike other broadcasters it is required to reinvest its profits in new shows, funnelling cash to the independent production companies that make all its programmes’. It’s no coincidence that the move comes at the same time as complaints from Conservatives about what they see as anti-Tory bias. ‘The announcement came as the government takes an increasingly aggressive approach towards broadcasters, welcoming the new rightwing discussion channel GB News while regularly battling with the BBC over funding and so-called “culture war” issues. This has led to criticism from figures such as Sir David Attenborough, who signed an open letter warning Dowden against dismantling the UK’s public service broadcasting ecosystem – the heavily regulated channels run by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, S4C, and Channel 5’.

Privatising Channel 4 was first mooted 25 years ago and the channel has fought off regular attempts to do this ever since, most recently in 2017. Let’s hope the latest attempt doesn’t gain a foothold.

With the Northern Ireland protocol problems rumbling on, negotiator ‘Lord’ Frost has again been in the news, astonishingly having expressed surprise on the part of Leavers that relations with the EU had deteriorated so badly. No doubt many leavers had no idea of what this Protocol was or how it would work. ‘The Brexit minister, David Frost, said they had dreamed of a sovereign Britain, which could set forth on a global mission while maintaining friendly relations with its neighbours…. Asked if the British government had “underestimated what sort of impact” the protocol would have on the movement of goods, Frost hinted this was the case. “I don’t see what is wrong with learning from experience. This is a very unusual agreement and we’ve learned a lot about how economic actors behave … we underestimated the chilling effect.” It’s a bit late  to be talking now about this kind of learning, yet despite sour relations the PM and ministers still cynically continue to refer to the EU ‘as our friends and partners’. When asked what all this would look like in 10 years time, Frost predicted that the UK will have ‘settled into a more normal relationship with the EU … one where we have gone our own way in a number of areas and succeeded … nobody is questioning Brexit. It was self-evidently the right thing to do’. I would think a good many will still be questioning Brexit after ten years.

Frost also didn’t cover himself in glory at the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, by the sound of it. ‘Having established his credentials as being rather more important than a minister for Europe, Lord Frost then did his best to prove why he wasn’t really up to the job. He got off to a bad start by saying that the decision not to fully accredit the EU ambassador to the UK had been “over-interpreted” and that petty point scoring had been the last thing on the government’s mind. For some reason, the EU had seen it differently and taken offence’. He also maintained that the current impasse with the EU over Northern Ireland couldn’t have been anticipated. It seems Frost believes himself to be a force to be reckoned with, the opposite of how many now see him, an example of the Peter Principle.

It will be seen as worrying in some quarters, that following on from Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden’s avowed intention to compel government-funded cultural institutions to reflect a traditional view of British history, former Chancellor and Evening Standard editor George Osborne has been made chair of the British Museum. The government doesn’t want cultural organisations giving the bigger picture, including institutions’ links to Britain’s colonial past and slavery, regarded by some as a ‘woke’ agenda, so pressing for Conservative chairs and trustees will be one way of fending off such attempts. ‘The former chancellor, 50, will take up his new role in October after stepping down last year as editor of the Evening Standard. He will combine his position with a partnership at Robey Warshaw, a Mayfair investment bank.’ He’ll really be able to give it his all, then.

Finally, we’ve heard about the idea of incentivising hesitants to get vaccinated and in the US this seems to be common, some states people being offered free beer and baseball tickets in exchange for being jabbed. Washington State has gone quite a bit further, with cannabis shops offering ‘joints for jabs’ to anyone over 21, a plan approved by the local drug and alcohol licensing board. We can just imagine the collective shudder around the Cabinet table at the thought of anything like it ever happening here.

Sunday 20 June

As the week pass, it seems they become ever more action packed and this last one has certainly been a corker. It started with various assessments of the G7 summit, some commentators thinking it had been groundbreaking, others seeing it as the equivalent of a weekend spa break. Labour leader Keir Starmer said Johnson ‘was a host not a leader, a tour guide not a statesman’. Time will tell, as work on climate change and global tax arrangements continue, with many steps before their goals are realised. At the summit Boris Johnson worked hard to play down the rift with EU and to play up ‘global Britain’, prompting a sceptic to tweet: ‘Global Britain? Little England, more like’. This tweet does rather sum up the government’s approach to negotiations with the EU: ‘EU: please implement the deal we agreed. UK: hang on, hang on… We need to be pragmatic, flexible, and imaginative. EU: what does all of that even mean? UK: you know the text we negotiated, agreed and ratified? Let’s bin it and do something different. Here’s our list of demands’.

It was also noticed that, despite having just got married in a Catholic church, he didn’t attend mass – no surprise there.  

Having been widely trailed, it was no surprise to hear the official announcement on Monday that the fourth step of lockdown exit wouldn’t now be until 19 July at the earliest, prompting predictably angry reactions from the usual suspects. Speaking VERY EMPHATICALLY (a sure sign he’s on uncertain ground) our PM kept saying ‘I’m confident’ that this or that, but many of us have no confidence in his confidence. It was noticeable that a worryingly snuffly Michael Gove, interviewed on Tuesday’s Today programme, had already downgraded this to ‘pretty confident’.

And ‘irreversible’? ‘The prime minister sees this as the final stretch and wants people to be patient. We are nearly there, it’s one last haul’. The doubt now creeping into this bullishly declared ‘irreversible’ exit schtick is now palpable. It’s telling that polls indicate widespread public support for delaying the exit and for continuing certain measures like mask wearing, despite regular anti-lockdown protests, which this week in Central London had BBC journalist Nick Watt being chased and abused.

The Times discussed how Conservative MPs were privately accusing the PM of ‘having lost his nerve, especially after Edward Argar, a health minister, conceded this morning that it was “possible” restrictions could be extended again beyond July 19’. This has naturally prompted cries of protest from the hospitality, travel and entertainment industries.

During Monday’s BBC World at One programme, irascible lockdown sceptic Sir Charles Walker opined: ‘If you can’t lift restrictions at the height of summer, and we are in the height of summer, then you almost certainly are looking at these restrictions persisting and tightening into the autumn and winter. We were told we were going to live with Covid-19 and it now looks like most of the remaining of this year, and certainly the first half of next year, will probably end up with some form of lockdown’. Walker was annoyed at the question as to whether he didn’t trust Boris Johnson, saying he had a ‘great affection’ for the Prime Minister, then, astonishingly, that the PM had nearly ‘given his life to Covid’. A listener tweeted: ‘Surely this comment of Charles Walker’s will go down in history as one of the most deluded about Boris Johnson. He put himself in the position of ‘nearly giving his life’ by ignoring scientific advice, not distancing and shaking hands willy nilly’.

Another dimension of 14 June announcement was Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle’s fury that Johnson had made the announcement at a press conference rather than first to MPs, as per the proper procedure. He said he had been “misled” about the prime minister’s announcement over the delay to the roadmap, telling MPs he had been told no decision had been finalised. ‘I was told no decisions will be taken until the Cabinet meets. I am being misled, this House is being misled. I find it totally unacceptable that once again, once again, that we see Downing Street running roughshod over members of parliament. We’re not accepting it and I’m at the stage where I’m beginning to look for other avenues if they’re not going to treat this house seriously’. Yet again, though, it’s water off the duck’s back: Boris Johnson managed to pacify the Speaker for now but it won’t be the last time he treats the Commons without respect.

Besides general concern about the rapid rise of Delta variant cases, some scientists and clinicians are convinced a Third Wave is on the way, one saying he’s ‘resigned to it’. The criterion as to how bad things are seems to be not the number of cases but numbers of hospitalisations, but as ever, it seems the lingering and disabling effects of Long Covid are overlooked.

Ministers keep talking up the vaccination programme but other supporting measures have never worked properly and now statistics show that councils refuse about 6 in 10 of applications for self-isolation support. Whereas Track and Trace should have been allocated to local authorities in the first place, this self-isolation support could perhaps have been removed from busy and cash-strapped councils and operated centrally and consistently, ensuring those who need it get it. It’s the government’s criteria for receiving the payments which are too tight, say some local authorities, ‘sparking warnings from trade unions that a key policy to limit Covid-19 is “failing” in the face of rising infections’. It’s known that some who’ve tested positive are continuing to go to work and the Office for National Statistics reckons that between March and May, ‘between 13% and 17% of people who tested positive did not stick to self-isolation requirements’.

The latest Dominic Cummings silo (how many more are waiting in the wings?) took centre stage last week, texts showing that last March Boris Johnson had called Health Secretary Matt Hancock ‘totally f…ing hopeless’, evidence that can’t easily be undone by Downing Street statements that the PM has ‘every confidence’ in his Health Secretary. The media played clips of journalists calling out ‘Are you hopeless, Mr Hancock?’ This morning’s Radio 4 Broadcasting House featured an amusing piece on this phenomenon by veteran broadcaster Michael Crick, who said it had developed in the wake of Parliament being televised: ‘if in doubt, shout it out’.

A journalist tweeted: ‘No 10 failing to deny Johnson planned to sack Hancock and replace him with Gove will confirm for most reasonable people that he did, leaving the Health Secretary a dead man walking in a Covid crisis’ and Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said: ‘So, Boris Johnson – if you keep a Health Secretary you consider to be “totally f***ing hopeless” in post during a global pandemic, what does that make you…?’

Thanks to Emma for the heads up on this…. Astonishingly, in the Commons on Thursday, Jacob Rees-Mogg defended his colleague, calling Hancock ‘the brilliant, the one and only successful genius who has been running health over the last 15 months…he has done so much to make not only the country but the world safer’. You couldn’t make it up.

The Guardian’s sketch writer John Crace returned once more to his regular targets – ‘Door Matt’ and the Prime Minister. ‘But on a day of ironies the biggest one was left to last. For who should the government send out to lead the debate on extending the lockdown restrictions for a further four weeks than Hancock. The minister whom even Boris thought was completely f……. hopeless. Still, not even Door Matt could screw this one up as Labour was supporting the government, though he did seem to think the appearance of the Delta variant had been a total mystery that couldn’t have been expected by anyone. Just give us four more weeks, Hancock said, and we’ll be back to normal. Data not dates no longer appears to be government policy’.

On Prime Minister’s Questions: ‘Johnson did what he always does when put under pressure. He blustered and lied…… And Boris doesn’t care that people know he’s lying, because even his own MPs seem happy for him to do so. A liar’s gotta do what a liar’s gotta do. The Tories knew what they were buying when they chose him as leader and, as the Cummings blog shows, he’s not about to have a personality change. The irony is that the same MPs are outraged at perceived breaches of faith from other parties and countries, yet are blind to the more obvious failings of their own man’. With all these goings on, it’s hardly surprising that so many are experiencing insecurity and anxiety, since the government is not only doing nothing to psychologically contain the causes, their role, but actually creating more with a never-ending stream of disreputable acts.

Guardian columnist Marina Hyde explores why it’s useful for Boris Johnson to surround himself with the ‘hopeless’: ‘from Matt Hancock to Gavin Williamson, these proven failures have become the prime minister’s human shields’. I can’t believe these ministers don’t know this, that they’re being used in the most cynical way, but their egos and desire for spurious advancement must be enabling them to overcome any misgivings or pricks of conscience.

‘….the role of Health Secretary in a pandemic is a profoundly critical one. Likewise that of Education Secretary in a period of disrupted learning and life chances. So to stick with known and proven failures says vastly more about Boris Johnson than anyone else. Despite his matey posturing, the prime minister appears so completely indifferent to the death and myriad forms of suffering his own hopelessness has wrought that he would rather retain Hancock and Williamson as human shields than upgrade his personnel. This is the weak leadership of a man who judges – perhaps rightly – that if he permits the bell to toll for one of his cabinet ministers, it hastens the moment it tolls for him.

Former Speaker John Bercow’s defection to Labour will be a further blow: although Bercow insisted that this wasn’t ‘personal’ towards the Prime Minister, he did go on to say in interviews that the PM’s contempt for Parliament and his ‘lamentable’ management of the pandemic had been factors. Describing today’s Conservative party as ‘reactionary, populist, nationalistic and sometimes even xenophobic’, he said of the PM: ‘he is a successful campaigner but a lousy governor. I don’t think he has any vision of a more equitable society, any thirst for social mobility or any passion to better the lot of people less fortunate than he is. I think increasingly people are sick of lies, sick of empty slogans, sick of a failure to deliver’. Let’s hope the government doesn’t try to dismiss this as resentment for not being given a peerage – I can just see this happening in tomorrow’s Today programme ministerial interview.

Other concerning news during the week was that Track and Trace ‘supremo’ Dido Harding had shown interest in the top NHS job, prompting a petition to prevent this happening and palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke to tweet: ‘Dido Harding just threw her hat in the ring. Can we be clear? If Boris Johnson chooses to reward the woman who’s presided over the multi billion pound debacle of Test & Trace with the role of next NHS England CEO, then he has nothing but contempt for the NHS & NHS patients’. As if this didn’t display sufficient hubris, the Baroness, writing in today’s Sunday Times, has vowed to end England’s reliance on foreign doctors and nurses if she becomes the next head of the NHS. This prompted numerous tweets from critics, one calling her ‘a repugnant individual’ and another ‘a serial failure and menace’. One commentator tweeted: ‘Tough words but if Dido Harding is capable of feeding xenophobia to the press to win the NHS top job, she should be utterly ashamed of herself. “Foreign” medics/nurses saved the PM’s life, they are our pride and joy’.

Whoever does get this top job will have their work cut out, assuming they take their role seriously, given the revelation that fixing NHS waiting lists could cost £40bn. Alarmingly, the government seems to think there’s no urgency about this, according to a No 10 ‘source’, because the public are not thought to be ‘distressed’ about long delays. How out of touch is this? I suspect most of us know at least one person waiting for an operation or other treatment and they are certainly perturbed by the wait. The number of patients waiting now exceeds 5 million.

 Professor Anita Charlesworth, an NHS finances expert at the Health Foundation think tank said: ‘The health service now has a mountain to climb. Reducing the backlog of long waits and getting the NHS into a position where waiting time standards are consistently met will need a major increase in funding. But that would also need 5,000 extra beds, 4,100 more consultants and 17,100 additional nurses, as the NHS was too under-resourced to ramp up the number of patients treated’. So much for Dido Harding’s plan to do without foreign staff.

There were also mixed reactions, particularly from British farmers, about the much-trumpeted trade deal with Australia, promoted as an example of global Britain throwing off EU shackles, its proponents seemingly unable to see that the so-called benefits were not at all comparable with what had gone before. This was brought out on Radio 4’s Any Questions, ‘Dame’ Andrea Leadsom fulfilling the role of government cheerleader, saying what a fantastic opportunity it was that young people could live and work in Australia for 3 years. This was instantly deconstructed by commentator Ellie Mae O’Hagan, who pointed out how much weaker these ‘opportunities’ were than the ones afforded by EU membership.

Despite Boris Johnson’s attempt to brush off their devastating result in the Chesham and Amersham by-election as ‘due to local circumstances’, it’s clear and some Conservatives admitted that they do need to seriously think about the dramatic overturning of their 16k majority, the Lib Dems winning by almost 8k. While commentators speculate as to whether this is the first breach in the ‘blue wall’, the PM declared that they would ‘continue to unite and level up the country’. ‘Continue?’ questioned one tweeter: ‘He’s done a good job of dividing it’. Commentators suggest this result could mean the end of the ‘safe seat’ and that the local electorate was voting with its feet regarding planning policy and HS2. At least one caller to Radio 4’s Any Answers said the Conservatives had been ‘complacent’ and this did seem evident from the manner of candidate Peter Fleet, who appeared to attribute the Lib Dem victory to them ‘having thrown everything at it’.

It’s striking how many Conservatives are saying ‘this is a very disappointing result’, as if this is a fact rather than their opinion. As for Labour’s failure, a New Statesman article (summarised in The Week), suggests this is partly due to the party’s attitude towards English identity, thought to be more important than Labour recognises. Rather than being a set of regions, traditional supporters ‘have a strong sense of English identity and they worry that regional devolution would put them at a huge disadvantage to Scotland in the matter of funding’. They’re thought to be concerned that Gordon Brown is urging the party to go further down the regional devolution path. ‘Unless it shows more deference for English identity, Labour will remain marooned’.

Former Conservative MP for South West Hertfordshire David Gauke, who was rejected by Johnson over Brexit, thought that the ‘realignment’ in British politics had favoured the Conservatives but now there is vulnerability in areas not naturally aligned with Boris Johnson’s brand of politics. ‘… there are a group of seats – up to 30 or 40 – where the Conservative vote is not Johnsonian, considers the government to be pretty populist, not focused on the interests of taxpayers, not sufficiently pro-business, and that vote is soft. And it’s vulnerable’. Not for the first time, I’m finding that the views of those cast into outer darkness on account of Brexit have just as or more interesting and intelligent views than opposition politicians.  

Although it’s a different setting and set of circumstances (the Labour candidate being the sister of former MP Jo Cox, Kim Leadbetter), all eyes will now be on the upcoming Batley and Spen by-election on 1 July.

Some good news for the environment, nature, wildlife and indirectly mental wellbeing comes in the form of plans for a £16m fund to pay landowners for creating new woodlands in England. These would ‘boost wildlife, increase public access and reduce flooding’…. The new scheme will cover all the costs of saplings and planting and pay bonuses of up to £2,800 a hectare for woodland that helps wildlife recover, £1,600/ha for riverside trees, £2,200/ha for woodland with long-term public access and £500/ha for cutting flood risk by slowing water flow. Landowners can claim multiple benefits if their project ticks multiple boxes’.

We have to wonder, though, at the government’s claim that this is part of ‘the biggest shake-up of farming policy for 50 years in November, enabled by Brexit’. While the intention sounds good, ‘redirecting subsidies from simply rewarding land ownership or rental to measures that help tackle the climate and wildlife crises’, it didn’t set out the level of payments or how this would be implemented, given the amount of administration such an exercise will involve. The scheme seems to have been cautiously welcomed by representatives of farming and conservation organisations, but, as one said, ‘the devil is in the detail’, so these experts will no doubt be carefully monitoring these developments over the next few years.

The Week describes some of this year’s finalists, including Father Len Black, a Catholic priest who streamed mass from a shed in his Inverness garden to an online congregation including people from all over the world. Another is a shed turned into a Peaky Blinders themed bar. Category winners will be announced in August – who’d have thought, years ago, that the humble garden shed could reach such heights of sophistication?!

Finally, many will be aware of the men’s sheds movement, which has grown up over recent years to promote a sense of sharing, community and mental wellbeing amongst men who might be less keen to join mainstream clubs and societies. The Men’s Sheds Association describes them as ‘kitted out community spaces where men can enjoy practical hobbies. They’re about making friends, learning and sharing skills. Many guys come just for the tea and banter, everyone’s welcome’. Many had an online presence during lockdown and we can well imagine that these places became even more popular during the pandemic.

I wonder how many in this movement entered this year’s Shed of the Year contest, run by DIY firm Cuprinol, now in its 15th year. Categories included cabin/summerhouse, unexpected/unique, nature’s haven, budget and lockdown. Cuprinol’s Creative Director, Marianne Shillingford, said: ‘Our garden sheds are more than just a place to put our tools – they are a wonderful creative outlet for an individual’s unique artistic vision’.

Sunday 13 June

With Delta Variant Covid cases rising rapidly in the country, it comes as no surprise to learn that the much-trumpeted ‘Freedom Day’ (release from all Covid-related restrictions) scheduled for 21 June is likely to be delayed by at least four weeks. The Delta Variant is said to be 64% more infectious than the Kent strain, cases doubling every 4.5 days in some parts of the country, representing 96 per cent of cases across England. There are now 42,323 cases of Delta Variant in the UK, but the rapid rise from around 29K was partly attributed to a new kind of testing, which delivers results within 48 hours instead of 5 -10 days. And what about the new Thailand and Vietnam variants, which scientists are investigating?

Even with a four week delay, some scientists are predicting a heavy Third Wave, but yet again we hear non-stop emphasis on the vaccine, when other measures need much more work, such as contact tracing and support for those isolating. It’s no coincidence that these are the ones the government itself is responsible for, whereas the vaccination programme was always something only the NHS should take credit for.

Boris Johnson and his ministers will hate eating humble pie and rolling back from the 21 June promise, especially since it seems numerous people are behind the curve and not properly realising the circumstances giving rise to the delay. There’s also very powerful pressure from Tory backbenchers and business leaders, seeing further weeks of lost business added to their debt burdens. We know to expect an announcement on Monday and over this weekend a so-called ‘quad’ meeting will take place, between the PM, Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and Matt Hancock, so the decision will arise from the deliberations of these fine minds.

It’s been a hefty week for news and confusion over holidays still reigns, Environment Minister George Eustice appearing to ‘rule out’ foreign holidays and thousands of passengers scrambling to return to the UK from Portugal before its demotion to the amber list. This is likely to have defeated the purpose of a holiday for many, as relaxing and invigorating it isn’t, worrying about flights and chaotic airports with zero Covid safe procedures.

There are almost no words for the cringe worthy statements issued by our Prime Minister on Wednesday as he arrived by plane (yes, when climate change is the key item on the agenda) for pre-G7 meetings in Cornwall. ‘I’ve arrived in Cornwall for this year’s G7’, he tweeted, ‘where I’ll be asking my fellow leaders to rise to the challenge of beating the pandemic and building back better, fairer and greener. It will be a busy and important Summit, and I can’t wait to get started’. This raises projection and lack of awareness to another level, suggesting it’s other leaders who need to ‘rise to the challenge’ when he and his government have presided over one of the worst pandemic management performances in the world and shown no genuine interest in ‘building back better, fairer and greener’. The embarrassment continued in the form of responses to media interviews, eg, ‘The pandemic was, let’s face it, a pretty scratchy period’. You could certainly say so but placing the pandemic in the past and the massive understatement of ‘pretty scratchy’ take some beating.

It seems the first substantial thing the leaders did was to agree a global tax deal, which sounds a great achievement, potentially putting a stop to endless disputes over how much tax tech giants and others should pay in different jurisdictions. But is it watertight and will it work? It beggars belief that, just days later, Chancellor Rishi Sunak was asking for an exemption for the City. ‘Britain will seek to exclude the City of London’s financial services companies from a global tax overhaul targeting the world’s most profitable businesses agreed between G7 finance ministers last weekend. The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is concerned that under a version of the plan put forward by the US president – which involves redistributing the profits of the world’s 100 largest businesses – digital businesses such as Google, Amazon and Facebook will be joined by banks that he says already pay a fair share of tax. The impact of Joe Biden’s proposal could prove to be a significant deterrent to banks running many of their operations from London, compounding the impact of Brexit that resulted in a shift of financial trading to Amsterdam’.

But before there’s trumpeting of a ‘historic’ deal, it’s important to realise that the details (and the devil is in the detail) still have to be ‘hammered out’ at a wider G20 forum in Venice in July and this would have to find solutions to attempts to cherry pick from the so-called ‘pillar one’ and ‘pillar two’ measures. (Pillar one would allow countries to tax large company profits based on their sales in that market, and Pillar two would enable a minimum global corporation tax rate to be set).

But even this is just the start: ‘The changes will then be negotiated between 139 countries in a process overseen by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, with the aim of reaching a final agreement by October’. The initial steps, then, look promising, for example estimates that the UK will gain about £7bn a year in extra tax from the minimum 15% tax rate, far outweighing pillar one downsides, but there’s clearly a long way to go to reach the final stage. Let’s hope UK negotiators involved in this project are more skilled than those ‘negotiating’ with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol row.

Worsening relations between the UK and EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol are at present focusing on the admission to Northern Ireland of sausages and processed meats but it’s an ongoing irritation that some, including various irresponsible media sources, are trying to trivialise the issues as being ‘about sausages’ in the same way as they did the ones about the Downing Street flat (‘cash for curtains’ etc). As we know, much more serious issues are at stake, such as differences between environmental standards, but the main point is that the government, having signed up to this deal in a hurry to ‘get Brexit done’ is now, not surprisingly, reaping what it’s sewn but trying to evade its responsibilities, accusing the EU of intransigence. It cannot be helpful that the main negotiator, ‘Lord’ Frost, seems pigheadedly determined to spin the narrative of an EU implementing the Protocol in such a way that it disadvantages the UK but this is sophistry and the deal is what the government agreed to.

It’s arrogantly taking the EU negotiators for fools for ministers to have believed they could just ‘negotiate’ their way out of it but there’s intransigence on both sides as the EU does want to make an example of the UK ‘pour encourager les autres’, especially as its relations with Switzerland are now worsening. Journalist and commentator Simon Jenkins analyses the situation and options, suggesting that the President Biden’s ‘rebukes’ (although there’s been so sign of them so far at G7) are a much-needed catalyst for Boris Johnson to resolve the impasse. ‘Biden should tell Johnson to stop being an idiot and honour the protocol. Everyone knows there can be no erecting of a border across the fields of Ireland. Johnson knew that when he campaigned for Brexit. He knew it when he decided to leave the single market. If he promised Northern Ireland’s unionists something else, he was lying. He should get busy preparing EU-compatible customs barriers in Belfast, as required by the protocol. Biden might add that Johnson can forget any US/UK trade deal if he refuses, not that any deal agreed by Congress is ever likely to be in Britain’s interest’.

Jenkins suggests a couple of ‘can kicking’ delaying tactics open to both sides, but says ultimately ‘there are only two options…… One is that the protocol becomes permanent and Northern Ireland does indeed become part of an all-Ireland integrated economy. For that there are any number of sound arguments, which Johnson is probably too gutless to grasp. The other is that Britain extends the Northern Ireland deal to the whole of the UK. In effect, it signs itself up to EU regulatory standards across the whole range of goods covered by last year’s ‘no tariff’ deal’.

We’ve seen quite enough can kicking from this government and it’s unlikely the EU will accept yet more delay to a permanent solution so the question is, can the hubris displayed by the government allow it to overcome bruised egos and bear the anger of unionists if they allow Northern Ireland to become part of an all-Ireland integrated economy or the fury of Brexiteers if they sign up the whole of the UK to the EU’s regulatory standards?

Back at Westminster, the row over proposed reductions in foreign aid rose to a crescendo and had Labour’s Hillary Benn banging his table during an exchange on Radio 4’s Any Questions on Friday. An amendment seeking to reverse the cuts and reinstate the 0.7 per cent target was not selected for a debate in the Commons for allegedly being ‘out of scope’, but Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle ‘told the government that it must give MPs a vote on the decision to cut foreign aid to 0.5 per cent and said he could allow a non-binding emergency debate on the issue in the Commons tomorrow’. Of course, a ‘non-binding’ debate immediately hobbles it. It can’t be often that personalities like David Davis and Gordon Brown are on the same side but they certainly are regarding the damage they anticipate being caused by foreign aid reductions, especially given increasing Chinese involvement in Africa. Although the government only narrowly averted the rebellion backed by thirty Conservatives including Theresa May, it is still refusing to give MPs a vote on this £4bn reduction.

A major political event this week was Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s appearance before MPs on the combined Health and Social Care Committee and Science and Technology Committee inquiry on Thursday, in the wake of Dominic Cummings’s recent damaging testimony against him. ‘Hancock’s testimony comes two weeks after Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s former adviser, accused him of serial incompetence that should have led him to be sacked. He also alleged Hancock had in effect misled Downing Street into believing that testing on patients being sent to back to care homes was being carried out when it wasn’t. Hancock denies this, saying that his position was that hospital discharges would be tested only when enough testing became available’.

Prominent care home managers were adamant during media interviews that they were more or less forced to take in untested patients and rubbished government figures which had suggested infections were due to care home visitors and staff, not discharged patients. ‘The Care Provider Alliance also called on the government to prioritise testing for care residents to stop the spread of the virus, warning on 26 March 2020 that without it ‘there is no way of knowing whether they are going to infect others’. It also emailed Hancock directly saying: ‘All people discharged from hospital to social care settings … MUST be tested before discharge’. Yet despite the pressure from frontline care operators, Hancock didn’t make testing for hospital discharges mandatory until mid-April, after the first wave death toll had peaked weeks later’.

Palliative care doctor and broadcaster Rachel Clarke tweeted a lengthy thread on this. ‘He *did* lie. He *didn’t* protect care homes. And he’s lying again now in claiming otherwise. And – as someone who dedicates their entire professional life to caring for some of society’s most vulnerable members, our terminally ill – I think this absolutely stinks’. Besides the severity of the claims made against Hancock, I was struck by the number of times both he and Cummings used the words ‘ recall’ or ‘recollect’, when these are likely to have been quite selective and hazy but what about official minutes? All such discussions and exchanges with the Prime Minister and colleagues should have been properly documented, meaning claims and counter claims could be checked. And if not, why not?

As if this wasn’t enough, Hancock also has October to look forward to, when he will face a High Court hearing ‘over an allegation from a bereaved relative of a deceased care home resident that the government breached the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act when their policies allowed people to be discharged into care homes without being tested’. Sadly, for such people, such attempts to set the record straight and call them to account seem water off a duck’s back.

The Guardian’s parliamentary sketch writer, John Crace, wasted no time in demolishing the Health Secretary’s performance, but to some extent the hearing was hobbled because Cummings had not produced evidence of his accusations and Crace’s theory that the chairmen would give him an easy ride as both have their eyes on returning to the front bench. ‘Matt Hancock – a man with the mixed blessing of a good second-rate mind – has a rather more selective memory. He is brilliant at remembering his own successes and rather less able when it comes to recalling his failures. If indeed there were any, which he is fairly certain there weren’t. Though, when pushed, Hancock might just about concede that things would have been a whole lot worse if he hadn’t been in charge of the nation’s health’.

What’s the point of these hearings if they’re not going to cross-examine properly those summoned? Ah yes, nearly forgot – to give the appearance of accountability. It sounds like Hancock wasn’t properly challenged on statements which were clearly proven otherwise, eg ‘everyone got the treatment they needed’ (including those with learning disabilities having ‘do not resuscitate’ stickers on their foreheads) and ‘there was no national shortage of PPE’ and ‘a protective ring had been thrown around care homes’ (the opposite of what we know from clinicians and care home staff actually happened).

‘Hancock lied: ‘It’s good to be able to set out the truth about what really happened’, hoping he had done enough to survive the next reshuffle. What we had got was the truth as Matt would like it to have been. And we never did get an answer to the question that had hung over the entire proceedings: what on Earth had Door Matt done to Dom to make him loathe him quite so much?’

One bit of good news, though, except it shouldn’t have been proposed in the first place, is that the Department of Health and Social Care seems to have rolled back on the NHS ‘data grab’ plan, allowing opt-outs until September instead of July. ‘The Royal College of General Practitioners warned NHS Digital a week ago that plans to pool medical pseudonymised records on to a database and share them with academic and commercial third parties risked affecting the doctor-patient relationship. NHS Digital needed to explain the plans better to the public, the group said, as well as outlining how people could opt out’. No wonder many patients (if indeed they know about it) are concerned about this – the NHS is presenting the intention as needing data for ‘planning and research purposes’ but the private sector will still be able to gain access to it, ‘with approval from advisory groups’. Although this has been denied, it opens up the field for insurance companies and the like to purchase patients’ data and target them with marketing messages.

This article highlights the importance of effective communication, which has been seriously lacking by this government throughout the pandemic. Yes, this is the NHS but the NHS is very much directed by the government. ‘This must be a central effort, rather than just being left to individual GPs, to ensure a consistent message…and given the current ‘confusion and lack of transparency’, the scheme would be paused ahead of both a public information campaign and a consultation’.

Speaking of water off a duck’s back, the Guardian’s John Crace clearly illustrates the Prime Minister’s skill in this, managing at Prime Minister’s Questions to deflect legitimate criticisms with a shrug and cursory dismissal. If the Speaker was up to his job he would not have allowed the PM to get away with this, especially when this forum is specifically intended to allow MPs to put questions to him. ‘Riding his wave, the PM swats away questions, and the protests of lefties such as Theresa May…..’ on such key matters as the education recovery embarrassment, suggesting the tutoring programme was the best in the world, and refusing to see the problem with pursuing a policy of reduced foreign aid during a pandemic and ahead of the G7 summit.

‘As so often, the exchanges between Starmer and Johnson ended in impasse. Though the Labour leader clearly had the better of the argument, Boris’s refusal to answer the questions rendered the whole thing pointless. You could sense Keir’s frustration. Ennui even. There was a time when he believed that his forensic style of questioning could get under Johnson’s skin and expose weaknesses in the government, but the prime minister has realised he doesn’t have to engage with the substance because there is no parliamentary mechanism to force him. Rather he can indulge his passion for stories by inventing his own parallel narrative’. Even more telling is his awkwardness on being congratulated on his recent wedding, just staring down at the floor in embarrassment and ignoring it, observed Crace.

A real turn up for the books this week was lawyer and anti-corruption campaigner Jolyon Maugham, of the Good Law Project, finally being invited onto Radio 4’s Today programme, in the wake of the successful court case proving that Michael Gove had broken the law. To host focus groups on pandemic messaging the contract was handed to the Cummings recommended Public First and it was awarded without question or scrutiny, it seems. The high court agreed with the Good Law Project that this was unlawful. ‘It rejected Gove’s arguments that no one else could do the job. The truth, it found, was that no one had even considered giving the contract to anyone else. It appeared to a reasonable observer – that being the legal test – as though Public First’s relationships with Cummings and Gove had won the contract for it. Gove had indeed broken the law’.

Maugham cites how many other ‘vast’ contracts were placed in a ‘VIP lane’, how those close to ministers ‘cleaned up’, especially friends of Matt Hancock, and asks, since they see this as ‘institutionalised cronyism’, what happens now? He reckons such highlighting of the struggle between civil servants and ministers should lead to better decisions but also resignations. Fat chance of that as there seems very little shame in public life these days. A listener tweeted: ‘Worth noting: Government spent more money on lawyers defending its unlawful award of a contract to Public First than the actual value of the contract. Its own costs were over half a million for a one day judicial review. Extraordinary stuff’.

But for now all eyes (political eyes at least) are now on the G7 Summit in Cornwall, and, oh dear, Boris Johnson is in a spot, wanting simultaneously to demonstrate ‘the special relationship’ with the US but not give ground on the Northern Ireland Protocol row, which Joe Biden has been very firm about. Both positions are mutually exclusive, but nevertheless the Bidens (and later the royals at the Eden Project dinner) were subjected to a charm offensive, with footage of the wives walking along the golden sands (magically emptied of tourists, of course), with little Wilfred in tow. One of the interesting clips was of the royals appearing to turn their backs on the Johnsons, which reminded me of Princess Anne’s determination not to move forward and shake the POTUS hand during the Trump UK visit. The Today programme told us how much Johnson is enjoying hosting the G7, prompting a listener to tweet: ‘Of course Boris Johnson is enjoying hosting G7 – this surface grandstanding is just what he’s good at but what we need from our Prime Minister is commitment to the detailed hard work and consistent policymaking that makes the public feel they’re in safe hands’.

While one article describes the ‘razzmatazz’ in Carbis Bay, the mayor was certainly right to say ‘the G7 is having an impact on just about everybody’. While it will be good business for many (G7 branded pasty, anyone?) there’s also serious disruption, protest groups making their presence felt and it does seem extraordinary that local fishermen received no communication in advance about how their movements would be limited during the Summit. But there’s serious work to be done at this meeting, with commentators saying it’s make or break for addressing climate change. ‘The message in Cornwall is clear – leaders must act now or go down in history as the ones who threw away last-ditch chance’. And we can rely on our Prime Minister to make the first questionable gesture by arriving there by private jet. ‘Lord Stern, the climate economist, said: ‘This is a crucial moment in history. Either we recover [from the pandemic] in a strong and sustainable way, or we do not. We are at a real fork in the road. This decade is decisive’. He pointed out the mixed nature of progress over the last ten years, benefits accruing from developments in renewable energy and electric vehicles but overall progress on reducing emissions being too slow.

‘Scientists have made it clear that greenhouse gas emissions must be halved by 2030 if the world is to stay within 1.5C of global heating – the threshold beyond which extreme weather will take hold, small islands and low-lying areas will face inundation, and swathes of the world will face water stress and heatwaves’. Whatever gets discussed and decided here, it’s clear a lot more work needs to take place ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November.

Beyond the glad-handing and bonhomie, though, it’s clear Johnson’s aim for the G7 to be about showcasing ‘global Britain’, the event has been seriously overshadowed by European anger over the Brexit row. ‘The reason for much of the EU’s irritation was a feeling that the UK under Johnson simply could not be trusted. Throughout recent weeks, and on Saturday, the prime minister made it clear he would be prepared to unilaterally delay the full implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol – part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement – in order to prevent a ban on some foodstuffs, including sausages, crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain…. Their annoyance is unlikely to have been lifted by the presence at all the meetings of Lord Frost, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, who was wearing union jack socks… Foreign policy experts and former British diplomats said that while the summit may have its successes on advancing initiatives on climate change and vaccinations for developing countries, it had also shown the UK to be distrusted and therefore unable to be a true global leader’. Again, our Prime Minister’s cakeism and cherry picking has been on full display, expecting the UK to be seen as a global leader when it clearly can’t be trusted.

It seems that no sooner than we’ve registered the outcomes of the previous one, we get yet another honours list. We hear that a quarter of those on the Queen’s Birthday Honours list have been recognised for their activities during the pandemic and it’s gratifying to see the inclusion of people like Professor Sarah Gilbert, Saïd professor of vaccinology at the Jenner Institute, who becomes a dame. But I almost dread going through this list for fear of seeing yet more crony peerages when we actually need to decrease the number of peers, not increase them.  

‘….there are likely to be eyebrows raised over other honours, including the knighthood for banker António Horta-Osório, whose time in charge of Lloyds Banking Group was marred by controversy amid criticism of its treatment of people whose businesses were ruined in the HBOS Reading fraud scandal….. There was also a knighthood for William Adderley, who donated half a million pounds to the Conservative party under Boris Johnson through a firm he was a director of during the 2019 UK general election’.

These are examples it would be good to see more of. ‘Debbie Williams, of Brexpats – Hear Our Voice, received an MBE for services to UK nationals in the EU. She founded the pan-European citizens’ rights campaigning and support group in June 2016.British Empire Medals go to, among others, siblings John Brownhill and Amanda Guest, co-founders of Food4Heroes, which delivered food from local chefs to NHS frontline staff. A BEM also goes to Rhys Mallows, 25, who repurposed his gin distillery to produce hand sanitiser’.

Finally, as temperatures reach the high twenties in the UK, salads will have been increasingly on the menu but perhaps without that ingredient which was a favourite of 1960s cuisine – what can I be talking about? Salad cream, of course, often to be found back then alongside the couple of limp leaves of lettuce, soggy tomato and dessicated cucumber. But great news for those who love it, as its manufacture is reportedly coming back to Britain as part of a £140m investment in Kraft Heinz’s existing plant at Wigan. Kraft Heinz had shifted production to Europe in 1999 but has now decided to bring it back to Wigan, alongside its mayonnaise and tomato ketchup. The Week tells us that this is a milestone for the company, its ‘biggest expansion of a manufacturing site outside the US in more than 20 years’, but wouldn’t you just know that ministers have hijacked this development, presenting it as ‘a post-Brexit vote of confidence’? There are no words…….

Sunday 6 June

Last weekend ministers and other Johnson supporters queued up to congratulate the PM well on his ‘secret’ wedding to Carrie Symonds, a pretty clear and intended distraction from bad news since this event had originally been planned for 2022. Many were puzzled as to how Father Daniel Humphreys had deemed it acceptable to preside over such an event, since marrying divorcees is against Catholic doctrine, but it appears the previous two weren’t ‘recognised’ by the Catholic Church, prompting speculation as to the effects on previous wives and children of those unions (now considered illegitimate in this context). A sceptic tweeted: ‘If Boris marrying is Westminster Cathedral is true then, as a Catholic, I would like to know why a twice divorced adulterer was able to and my practising Catholic friend who divorced a husband who battered hell out of her had to re-marry in a registry office. ‘

Carrie Johnson, as she now is (interesting that she changed her name), has even been dubbed First Lady by some media sources, especially relevant prior to her anticipated public role at the imminent G7 meeting. The authors of such gushing and obsequious commentaries don’t seem to realise that First Lady is not a role we have in the UK. Meanwhile, irreverent ‘adverts’ immediately starting circulating on social media, purportedly for a replacement ‘mistress’, the qualities required including the capacity to work horizontally.

Bad news the nuptials were used to deflect from is legion, including the continuing aftermath of Dominic Cummings’s testimony, the very worrying rise of the strain known as the Indian Variant, the news that days after his elevation to the realm of crony peers, Tory donor Peter Cruddas had given a large sum to the Conservative Party and anger over the foreign travel amber list, especially the sudden inclusion of Portugal. Actual and would-be travellers were interviewed in the media, some saying they’d have to cancel, some deciding to go ahead anyway, leaving the travel industry and those already in Portugal in shock, some saying they had to return immediately to work and couldn’t quarantine. But in any case, who will check? We know the £37bn Track and Trace programme has been particularly weak on tracing and checking on those meant to be self-isolating. It’s estimated that fewer than 20% are fully isolating when required to.

As the Delta Variant is believed to be 40% more transmissible than the original strain of Covid, there’s certainly cause for concern and it’s highly likely the government will have to backpedal on its ‘irreversible’ stage 4 of lockdown easing on 21 June. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘There he goes again, Matt Hancock attributing spread of  #IndianVariant to the unvaccinated. With all the government’s talk of ‘working 42/7’, ‘bending over backwards’, the hardest work it does is in thinking up new ways to deflect attention from their own errors’.

The Portuguese government can’t understand the UK government’s logic in coming to this decision. Many UK residents are equally baffled, but it’s pretty clear that it’s yet another projection of responsibility. The UK has a rapidly rising numbers of cases so the government tactic is to deflect attention by implying the problem lies elsewhere, and because it has to be seen to be taking action, however inappropriate, relegating Portugal to the amber list is the kneejerk result. A key issue will be how quickly the travel industry will issue refunds following the often disgraceful situation last year, many being kept waiting for months on end. And a big question mark hangs over other European destinations, though many are sticking to their plans regardless (tour operator Tui said 50% of their customers planning to visit Portugal still planned to do so).

Many commentators are united on condemning what they see as poor and cynical messaging behind the move: the very concept of an amber list is questionable when it causes confusion and when the EU itself has imminent reopening to vaccinated UK visitors. But it’s again the abdication of responsibility. The Times said:’ It seems ministers are unable to agree the limits of UK policy, so they’ve put the onus on the public to decide, but it’s neither fair nor sensible to outsource border policy during a pandemic to individual holidaymakers… both travellers and Britain’s beleaguered tourism and aviation industries deserve clarity’. If it wasn’t so serious, it would be almost amusing witnessing in the media one minister after another trying to defend such an absurd position, some even having the nerve to play the ‘all in this together’ card because they can’t visit their own second home.      

Meanwhile, as more give up the idea of foreign holidays and opt for ‘staycations’ (yes, one dictionary definition at least includes remaining in the UK, as opposed to its original one of staying at home) those without their own transport will be at the mercy of what seems worsening public services. After a horrendous experience two weeks ago (a journey to Wales of 4 hours, with several changes, becoming 9, with the last connection missed altogether) this pattern continued for me, including a cancelled train from Sussex, which had cost implications for work commitments, and this last weekend a journey to Norfolk took 6 hours instead of 4, due to yet another broken down train. It also was far from plain sailing on the way back, the journey involving a rail replacement bus we had to wait 40 minutes for. Yet again there seems to be no contingency planning, staff either absent or running around like headless chickens, when surely we can assume that applications for franchises demand evidence of such a plan. In this case coaches were laid on to take passengers to the next major station down the line, but with no distancing: we were told, on boarding: ‘every seat to be used’. Such inconsistencies make a nonsense of distancing in stations and on trains.

I’ve heard similar stories from others and can only conclude that these stressful problems are due to the haphazard operation of privatised services, staffing pared to the bone, and services struggling to ‘get back to normal’ following the last 14 months. Although some commentators sound positive about the Great British Railways plan, others say it won’t remove the problems caused by both private and state involvement and unclear division of responsibilities. Although GBR will own the network, collect fare revenues and set most fares and timetables, the private sector will still be active in the form of contractual agreements given by GBR to run lines for a fixed fee. Commentator Simon Jenkins believes the plan is problematic because it still divides responsibility but the outlook generally also isn’t positive because of declining passenger numbers and the ‘exorbitant’ HS2 absorbing most investment.

As aspect of the plan which might well alarm many, is the likely undermining of Trainline, the popular online ticketing system, shares in which fell markedly when GBR was announced. At present Trainline sells around 70% of digital tickets but GBR’s own platform could well eat into this. One commentator thought the smartest move would be for GBR to ‘snap up’ Trainline for its ‘brilliant’ technology.  

Cronyism reared its head again last week, relating to ‘disgraced’ Conservative Peter Cruddas, who’d had to resign as party co-treasurer in 2012 after offering undercover journalists access to PM David Cameron in return for £250,000 in donations. It emerged that he gave more than £500,000 to the Conservative Party after becoming a peer, an appointment advised against by the House of Lords Appointments Commission but overruled by Boris Johnson.

Yet another embarrassment for the government this week, which brought Education Minister Gavin Williamson even further into disrepute, if that was possible, was the resignation of schools tsar Sir Kevan Collins due to insufficient amounts earmarked for education catch up. ‘Sir Kevan took on the role as catch-up tsar in February to develop a long-term plan to help pupils make up for lost learning during the pandemic. But on Wednesday he stepped down saying the government’s funding for the plan ‘falls far short of what is needed’. Head teachers labelled the £1.4bn cash over three years as a ‘damp squib’. The Education Policy Institute had calculated that a catch-up funding recovery would need £13.5bn – and Sir Kevan was reported as having put forward plans costing £15bn’. What a colossal contrast to the £1.4bn actually offered, attributed by some to Gavin Williamson’s poor performance in making the case for more.

‘…Sir Kevan’s resignation has fired a torpedo at the government’s contention that school recovery is one of its top priorities’. Quite, but I wonder what on earth happened to the idea floated last summer to recruit thousands of volunteers, including retired teachers, to help children catch up. Although this important work should be adequately funded, I suspect quite a few volunteers would have stepped up to help but it came to nothing back then, so now there’s much more catching up to do.

Meanwhile, ByLine Times spells out why the ‘we did everything we could’ narrative is false. ‘This mantra – ‘we did everything we could’ – has been repeated by the Government endlessly during the past 12 months… about the goods and services that it has procured. A Coronavirus death toll of 150,000 people – the highest in Europe – is a glaring and unavoidable fact that obstructs any claim that the Government excelled during this crisis. But, on so many levels, aside from its basic (mis)management of the disease through delayed lockdowns and botched, epidemiologically illiterate relaxations, the Government has failed Britain at a time of desperate need. The author outlines the key areas in which what he calls an ‘unparalleled national calamity’ have been manifested: PPE procurement, Test and Trace, Nightingale hospitals and ventilators. ‘These four crucial areas of Government policy in response to the Coronavirus pandemic have been marked by inconsistency. There has been a haphazard blend of over-compensation, negligence, overspending, secrecy and cronyism’ but it’s all been made light of, presented as ministers and officials perhaps spending too much or acting precipitately, ‘but they only did so to protect the nation at a time of crisis’. The dangerous thing about this, of course, is that, repeated often enough, more will be taken in by this false narrative rather than supporting the scrutiny these actions justify.

We’ve often seen governments bury bad news or green light a controversial measure when attention is taken elsewhere, and one now gaining traction is what’s happening in primary care. Thanks to campaign groups like Keep Our NHS Public, it’s now more commonly known how efforts to privatise by stealth have been passed by local Clinical Commissioning Groups, including the sale of over 50 London GP practices to an American company (previously covered by this blog). The media have mostly colluded with this by failing to report it, though it was well covered by BBC Radio London once they were alerted to it. Now, unless we opt out in a particular way (not the way most publicised) our NHS records are in danger of being sold under our noses.

The Full Fact website spells out what’s being planned and the details of the two kinds of opt-out, the deadline for the first being 23 June, not far off. The plan is that from July, NHS Digital NHS Digital ‘will start collecting patient data from GP medical records in England about any living patient, including children, and any data about patients who died after the collection started. This is called the General Practice Data for Planning and Research data collection, and NHS Digital says it will be used to help the NHS improve health and care services by allowing it to plan better, prevent the spread of infectious diseases, help with research and monitor the long-term safety and effectiveness of care’.

Sounds very reasonable, doesn’t it? But although NHS Digital says people can’t be identified from the data collected, there are other identifiers besides name, eg postcodes and the like, which could be unique in some areas. It also says the data won’t be sold, ‘but there is a price list on the organisation’s website listing charges for its Data Access Request Service’ and it’s possible organisations wishing to purchase such data could construct a ‘legal’ reason why they needed it. I don’t think everyone will be reassured by the NHS Digital statement: ‘Any data that NHS Digital collects will only be used for health and care purposes. It is never shared with marketing or insurance companies’.

Several interesting articles discuss different aspects of Covid ‘recovery’, the first consisting of contributions from experts in the key areas of education, physical health, mental health and the justice system. Professor of clinical psychology at the Institute of Mental Health, Roshan das Nair, was interviewed regarding mental health and he’s never been so concerned at the ‘mounting crisis’ in this area.  “The challenges presented by the pandemic are so complex and wide-ranging, they cannot be solved by health and social care professionals alone’. It’s helpful to recognise in this way the need for joined up thinking and working and he also emphasises the need for preventative work, not just addressing issues when they manifest, as often they’ve taken some time to develop, with no help. ‘He calls for a public health response that doesn’t just see money urgently put into the NHS, but seeks solutions that compel schools and employers to take more responsibility in helping people stay well. ‘For instance, there is a role for the education sector to monitor how pupils are faring, and we can train young people to be better at looking after their mental health’. But we know mental health services have been underfunded for years and it’s been a serious misdirection of resources, in my view and those of many, to privilege Cognitive Behaviour Therapy at the expense of the relational therapy many people need. Quite apart from unacceptably long NHS waiting lists, for years the NHS has ignored the availability of thousands of qualified and experienced counsellors and psychotherapists in order to train its own workforce in CBT. This often proves unhelpful for patients, who then have to seek help privately.

‘In the spring the government announced a £500m mental health recovery action plan to ‘level up mental health and wellbeing across the country’ by targeting groups most affected, including young people and frontline staff. Leading medical organisations including the BMA and the Royal College of Psychiatrists have said more is needed and have lobbied for NHS staff to have access to mental health support similar to that available to war veterans’. These organisations make good points and I would add that mental health is the least appropriate place for use of the meaningless and over-used ‘levelling up’ descriptor.

Another article analyses how the government’s rhetoric on Covid recovery has been constrained by the Treasury, the PM and Chancellor Rishi Sunak at odds on the key issue of recovery spending. The ‘levelling up’ and ‘building back better’ schtick has had to be modified by reality, leading to tensions between these two stances. ‘The Treasury’s spending plans, which were settled before the pandemic, allow only for small rises in day-to-day spending of 2.1% each year in real terms between 2020-21 and 2025-26 and much of that money has already been handed to the NHS, schools, international aid and defence. So where will the extra funds for day-to-day spending on schools and hospitals and courts and other services come from?’ The article predicts that last week’s upheaval over education spending is just the tip of a large iceberg, surely one which might make Red Wall voters start to see the ‘levelling up’ for what it actually is, the Emperor wearing no clothes.

The third article by Eva Wiseman on the theme of Covid ‘recovery’ focuses on the individual and the need to adjust to life meaning ‘living on constant alert’. Very tiring. ‘It has become boggling to me, the idea that, once, I was able to simply plan a break. That our lives have now been so neatly delineated it’s possible to mark time as BC or AC, the before Covid period now remembered as a simple cruise through tree-lined boulevards, caressing strangers (consensually), laughing in offices, high-fiving (constantly). And now, well. Even the things that haven’t changed have changed, our own new, raw eyes seeing them in ungenerous and terrible lights’.

I think this article brings out the exhausting need to be so careful and the virtual impossibility of spontaneity as nearly everything has to be booked in advance, not to mention the need to mourn these losses. ‘Life AC (After Covid) is stained with anxiety, some of it acceptable, much not. I watch the world open up with sharpened teeth and feet in concrete and I think about going away. Would it be selfish? Would it be the thing to fix us? Would we simply be decanting our domestic moaning to another town, without our lovely stuff there to soothe us? Would the thrill of travelling outweigh the worry of returning?’

In this context it’s very fitting that Radio 4’s Moral Maze last week focused on happiness and one of its dichotomies – hedonism versus an interpretation predicated on contentment arising from a life well lived. The programme description is interesting, summarising some of the dilemmas around its definition. ‘Philosophers and artists, from Epicurus to Ken Dodd, have grappled with the secret to happiness…. a team of neuroscientists suggest we ‘should lower our expectations to be happy….. this appears to fly in the face of a celebrity culture that chases fame, status and success as ends in themselves’. One of the ‘witnesses’ grilled by the panel targeted the ‘wellness industry’, which has been seen in some quarters to unfairly place responsibility on the individual for wider socioeconomic problems leading to distress.

‘While the wellness industry is booming, so is the prescription of antidepressants, increasingly for teenagers – according to The National Institute for Health Research. What does this reveal about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? What is wrong with personal happiness as a life goal? Some think that there is too much stuffiness about happiness, that there is nothing selfish about self-care, and that people should be free to set the bar as high as they wish and explore personal fulfilment however they chose. Others believe that life should be about more than seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, that the conscious pursuit of happiness can make us more miserable, and that happiness – rather than being an expectation – should be a by-product of a life well-lived’.

Finally, given that studying medicine has often been an area reserved for the privileged, it was good news to hear that 29 students from a deprived London authority area have won places at medical school since 2017, due to a ‘pioneering’ scheme to widen access. The Mossbourne Federation, which runs schools in Hackney, aims to support would-be medics from less well-off backgrounds by providing the benefits they would have received if attending a fee-paying school. These include access to talks, visits to university labs, hands-on experience and expert training in entrance exams. Let’s hope the Federation keeps track of these students and that we get to hear how they fare. This is a good example of what ‘levelling up’ should look like!

Sunday 30 May

As ever, several key issues have been jostling with each other for media coverage, all of them with very unsettling potential, including the quality of BBC journalism and position of the BBC in the wake of the Martin Bashir scandal, continuing confusion over the Amber List of countries, the rapid rise of the Indian Variant and the damaging Dominic Cummings allegations. A difficult week for the Prime Minister, but news of his ‘secret’ nuptials yesterday, when previously the wedding was planned for 2022, was clearly another attempt to deflect attention.

With 5 million bookings to currently Amber List countries, there’s a great deal at stake regarding the government’s unclear guidance, legally permitting travel to these countries but advising strongly against it. I also heard that there’s little checking at ferry ports – so much for a consistent borders policy, and we know passengers from countries on different lists are mingling in crowded airports. And has the refunds situation improved since last year? Many travellers had to wait months for refunds last year and some are still waiting, faced with closed phone lines and unanswered emails, some companies effectively closing down customer communication channels. I think I only had a £360 refund eight months later not because the airlines had just repaid the company, as stated, but because I’d repeatedly raised it on Twitter and companies don’t like the bad publicity.

There’s also little emphasis in the UK about what the destination countries require (eg locator forms to be completed) and France has prevented entry to Britons because of the Indian Variant, which will not please those with second homes there. The government struggled to even sing from the same song sheet on travel policy, Lord Bethell in the Lords and Peter Bone MP saying travel is ‘dangerous and not for this year’, causing uproar in the travel industry. On the other hand Environment Secretary George Eustice was slapped down by Boris Johnson for saying people could visit these countries if they were visiting friends. Skills Minister Gillian Keegan didn’t endear herself to Radio 4 listeners when she played the ‘we’re all in this together’ card, a typical politician’s ploy. She said although she was ‘desperate’ to visit her second home now is not the time to book a holiday to Spain, telling people to stick to the slim list of 12 destinations on the government’s Green List if they want a foreign holiday. St Helena, anyone?

Equally embarrassing last week was Transport Minister’s talking up of the Great British Railways plan, not only for its jingoistic branding but also because it apparently amounts to yet more cosmetic tinkering and retains the private ownership at the root of longstanding rail transport failures. I experienced the worst journey of my life last weekend, a journey of 4 hours actually taking 9, due to breakdowns, 50 minutes waiting for drivers and several missed connections, necessitating a bus for the last ‘leg’ in the pouring rain. The worst thing was that when passengers were turfed off the first train at Milton Keynes, there was no evidence of any contingency planning or customer communication system to take account of such breakdowns. Surely such planning is a crucial requirement when bidding for a rail franchise. Apart from one or two beleaguered staff on the platform, passengers were on their own without advice to decide how best to continue their journeys – or not.

It looks like we’ll have to wait till 2023 to see if any of the planned benefits actually materialise, such as simpler ticket purchasing systems, easier routes to compensation and more flexible season tickets.

With 4,182 new Covid cases reported on Friday (over 7,000 altogether according to some sources) and 27 more deaths, there’s further pressure on the government, including from Independent Sage’s Professor Anthony Costello, to consider delaying the lifting of remaining restrictions in June. Costello tweeted: ‘New data is very worrying. Cases and hospital admissions up 25% and deaths up 38%. June 21 step 4 looks very unlikely. The govt should be pouring resources and trace/isolate teams into hotspots. Why aren’t they doing it? Third Wave on the way?’

While the atmosphere on high streets seems mostly buoyant, cafes and restaurants full to bursting in some places, this could shortly prove a damp squib if it all has to be reined in. Even at the third step of lockdown easing roadmap on 17th May, some commentators were advising against inside mixing and there was talk of ‘hugging with caution’, rather a contradiction in terms. When the variant was discovered in at least 86 council areas, the government was lambasted for seeming to imply local lockdowns in the worst affected northern towns, like Bolton and Blackburn, in anything but name.

With no official announcement, advice on the government’s website was changed overnight to suggest there should be no travelling in and out of those areas, a position they shortly had to clarify and roll back on. This proved a humiliating and cowardly strategy, infuriating those local mayors and council leaders – let’s hope it’s not repeated. Such important changes need to be communicated very clearly, not buried on a website which only a few are likely to see. While it’s pretty clear that the Indian Variant was allowed to take hold because of the delay in banning flights from India, Matt Hancock, in media interviews, continued to attribute the rise to those hospitalised having refused vaccination, when it was later shown that some of those patients had been vaccinated once and some twice.

One Bolton couple told the local press they were being treated ‘like lepers’ after a hotel on the Isle of Wight cancelled their reservation and many could have had a similar experience. What’s the betting that despite the government rolling back on the initial ‘advice’, people from these areas might still struggle to make holiday bookings and could well lose their deposits. Commenting on the Radio 4 interview with Grant Shapps, who demonstrated the increasing tendency of the government to abdicate responsibility, one tweeter observed: ‘Common sense is an incredibly amorphous concept which displaces responsibility onto individuals. It allows the govt to stealthily remove itself from the picture and shifts the responsibility of managing risks during a **global pandemic** entirely on to the public’.

The Guardian’s John Crace wasted no time in demolishing Matt Hancock’s particular deflections. ‘It was more a question of do as I say, not as I do. “We must be humble,” said Matt Hancock. Not something that comes naturally to Matt, despite him having a lot to be humble about. Matt talks a great deal about levelling with the country but he can’t even level with himself. The reality is that the government doesn’t learn from its own mistakes as it is unable to admit it has made them. So it is destined to endlessly repeat them. The dead are just collateral damage…. Though Door Matt was at pains to point out it wasn’t really the government’s fault. Those who had got ill had no one to blame but themselves, as almost all the people in hospital had failed to get themselves vaccinated’.

Meanwhile, as yet another anti-lockdown protest gets underway in London, Dr Helen Salisbury, GP and NHS campaigner, tweeted: ‘I hate to be gloomy but cases are up by 25% and deaths within 28 days are up by 38% this week compared to last week. We are not over this pandemic yet – but it won’t go away just because we are all so bored of masks and restrictions’. We really can’t expect overworked and underpaid NHS staff to cope with a third wave of the virus without the government properly addressing their concerns. Although the ministers and the PM in particular seem immune to shame, it must have been a blow to hear that one of the nurses who cared for the PM 24/7 when he was in intensive care has resigned over the ‘lack of respect’ shown for NHS workers. All the time we see evidence of the NHS being taken for granted (eg ‘I know they can do it’, says Matt Hancock frequently, without acknowledging that they are often ‘doing it’ at considerable cost to their own wellbeing). Describing the proposed 1% pay rise as ‘a kick in the teeth’,  nurse Jenny McGee also revealed that the PM’s staff had later attempted to co-opt her into a “clap for the NHS” photo opportunity with him during what she thought would be a discreet thank you visit to Downing Street. How cynical is that?

With a full pandemic inquiry delayed till 2022, we have to make do with other inquiries and investigations, some of which are purely or mostly whitewash. One of these is Lord Geidt’s inquiry into the issue of payments for the Downing Street flat refurbishment, which has unsurprisingly cleared Boris Johnson of misconduct. ‘Lord Geidt, the PM’s adviser on standards, said a Tory donor had paid an invoice for some of the costs. But he cleared Mr Johnson – who was seemingly unaware of the arrangement – of breaking ministerial conduct rules’. The whole refurb was thought to have cost about £90,000 and the report didn’t state how much Tory vice-chair Lord Brownlow contributed, although it’s reckoned to be around £58,000. The report will still make for uncomfortable reading, though, coinciding with the Cummings allegations. ‘Lord Geidt questions why Boris Johnson didn’t pay more attention to who was paying for the work in his flat. Why wasn’t the prime minister more curious, he wonders? It is also critical of officials – saying the prime minister was “ill-served” by those around him when it came to this project’.

On the other hand, the National Audit Office’s recent report, which looked into ‘more than a dozen’ areas of government performance, was fairly damning, saying the virus ‘laid bare existing fault lines within society, such as the risk of widening inequalities, and within public service delivery and government itself…. Amid renewed questions over the reopening timetable, the National Audit Office (NAO) warned that from the very start of the pandemic a lack of planning had left ministers without a “playbook” on how to respond’. It’s exactly this kind of thing which is bad for our mental wellbeing, because we rightly look to our elected representatives to take care of situations, or at least address them effectively, however challenging, but time and time again we’ve seen failure and misdirection of resources. Our mental health can suffer when these scenarios occur and persist and there’s ample evidence of how mental health has been affected during the pandemic.  

‘The NAO report highlighted the need for long-term solutions across areas including the disconnect between adult social care and the NHS, failings in data and IT systems, workforce shortages and ongoing monetary shortfalls, with a warning that already-struggling local government finances had been ‘scarred by the pandemic’. The report also collated the total government extra spend on Covid-related measures, putting it at an estimated £372bn by the end of this March, taking in the full lifetime of all policies’.

In the media there has been no end of hand-wringing and condemnation regarding the Martin Bashir scandal and how his deceitful tactics regarding the Princess Diana interview had been covered up by the management at that time and Bashir himself was re-hired in 2016. BBC Director General, Tim Davie, rather struggled in an interview on Tuesday and it can’t have pleased the Corporation that media mogul Lord Grade criticised the ‘culture of arrogance at the BBC’. But it also beggars belief that the interviews on Radio 4, for example, discussing ‘the quality of journalism at the BBC’, seemed to be unaware of how a powerful right-wing bias has increasingly intruded and news not consistent with the government’s narrative often goes unreported. ‘There is no problem with journalism at the BBC… it’s a non-story’, said one contributor on Radio 4’s Media Show. A view many would not share.

Not surprisingly, though, most media attention this week has been taken up with the allegations of Dominic Cummings, giving damning evidence to MPs on the trajectory of the pandemic. It’s long been clear that Cummings is a vengeful individual, but his evidence is convincing, and besides declaring that Boris Johnson wasn’t fit to be PM (a conclusion many reached quite some time ago), I do wonder whether Matt Hancock had any idea in advance the extent to which he would be attacked. Cummings didn’t hold back, detailing Hancock’s multiple ‘lies’ and saying there were 15-20 occasions on which he deserved to be sacked. One of the key lies, for which there is clear evidence despite Hancock’s denial, is that despite the declaration that the government had ‘thrown a protective ring around our care homes’ and the commitment to test discharged hospital patients, this had been far from the truth because elderly patients were discharged into care homes untested, causing multiple deaths. One care home manager interviewed on Radio 4 said over 65% of her residents had lost their lives.

The Times detailed Cummings’s allegations and attempts to respond to them. One of the most severe was Boris Johnson’s holiday at Chequers and failure to attend COBRA meetings and about how government operated: ‘The government’s pandemic preparations were ‘basically completely hollow’ despite Matt Hancock’s claims. The Cabinet Office was ‘terrifyingly shit’…..Cummings’s judgment on Hancock is brutal: “I think the Secretary of State for Health should’ve been fired for at least 15, 20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions in meeting after meeting in the Cabinet room and publicly.” Hancock has “performed far, far disastrously below the standards which the country has a right to expect’.

The charge sheet continues, including the failure to lock down because ‘there was no plan on how to do it’, the accusation that Downing Street attention was diverted by a negative story in the press about the Boris and Carrie dog (Dilyn),that herd immunity was indeed the strategy in March 2020 and that the failure to close borders was due to concerns that such a policy would be ‘racist’. No wonder mental wellbeing generally has been affected by the climate generated by such colossal incompetence. Needless to say, ministers have been wheeled out to be interviewed in the media and have been predictably exhibiting via bluster and denial their occupation of a parallel universe, especially Robert Jenrick on the Today programme and David Davis on Any Questions. But another reason the testimony has to be taken seriously is Cummings’s admission of fault regarding the Barnard Castle saga. Some may consider this a cynical ploy, but overall, the evidence presented does present a serious challenge to the government and ministers will struggle to dismiss Cummings when they previously commended him because of his Brexit ‘achievements’.

In defence Boris Johnson said: ‘We put £1.4 billion extra into infection control within care homes, we established a care homes action plan, I remember very clearly, to ensure that we tried to stop infection between care homes’, carefully omitting the key issue of what happened between hospitals and care homes. Again, he presumed to state what he believes the public wants when he actually has no idea: ‘What people want us to get on with is delivering the road map and trying – cautiously – to take our country forward through what has been one of the most difficult periods that I think anybody can remember’.

For his part, Hancock typically defended himself with denial: ‘These unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true, and I’ve been straight with people in public and in private throughout…..Every day since I began working on the response to this pandemic last January, I’ve got up each morning and asked ‘what must I do to protect life?’ A sceptical tweeter opined: ‘Hancock: ‘I’ve been straight with people in public and in private throughout..Every day since I began working on the response to this pandemic last January, I’ve got up each morning and asked ‘what must I do to protect life?’ Then didn’t do it??’

Meanwhile, one article seems designed to make us question whether Matt Hancock is an over promoted incompetent or a dastardly strategist who ‘knows which levers to pull’. ‘Hancock has managed to cling on to frontbench positions during the No 10 tenures of David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson through a mixture of political skill and overriding ambition…… His success in clawing his way back into the cabinet was a result of hard work, one former cabinet colleague said. “He is enthusiastic – Tiggerish is the right word – and is absolutely focused on doing the job.” Another said he understands the workings of Whitehall better than anyone in the cabinet other than Michael Gove. “It would be wrong to underestimate him, just because he comes across as irritating. He knows which levers to pull,” he said’. Despite ‘numerous calls for his sacking’, though, Boris Johnson has always stood by him, for a good reason, some may think: he will be the fall guy and scapegoat when this administration is properly called to account.

But any ideas of proper scrutiny and accountability can be dismissed for the present because many are still, despite the events of the last year, taken in by Boris Johnson. The right wing press and woeful lack of political awareness in this country mean that many voters still see our PM as a bit of a rogue but all the better for it. The Guardian’s Marina Hyde analyses the ‘dangerous cult that now runs Britain’ – ‘no matter what the prime minister does, no matter the consequences, his devotees line up to heatedly excuse it….. you’ve heard a lot of denials over the past 24 hours. But the biggest UK repository of denial remains the polls, where no revelation of incompetence or failure impacts other than positively for the government…. The thing about cult leaders, typically, is that they’re charismatic, male and able to persuade people of the wisdom of things very much not in their best interests. There is simply no moral failing of theirs that could be placed in front of their followers that would not cause those same followers to passionately excuse it or love them more for it’. This all makes us sound rather doomed.

Given the nature of the last year, it’s not surprising to learn that alcohol-related deaths in England and Wales have risen 20% from 2019  to 7,423 (Office for National Statistics), the figures representing more men than women and  many more living in the poorer areas of the countries. The deaths are thought to be caused by people drinking more during lockdowns, a common response to fear and uncertainty, especially when there’s been little psychological support, but also reluctance to seek medical help. A key reason, though, has to be the cuts to drug and alcohol services over the last ten years, with some mental health services refusing to take patients with alcohol issues. It was always a mistake to separate drug and alcohol services from mental health services, when the issues are often intertwined but services do need to be available in the first place if we’re not to see rising figures year on year.

With the spotlight on the hospitality industry since the lockdown exit roadmap opened venues first to outside service, then inside, The Economist reports on a ‘headache’ which has gone under the radar in some quarters, that of staff shortages. The situation is said to be worst in London and South East and has been attributed to Brexit, students being less available and workers moving into other sectors such as retail and logistics, which opened earlier. The article suggests that the industry needs to raise wages, which have remained low, to ease recruitment. That sounds a no-brainer but it must be difficult for the owners of venues which had to close for months on end and may themselves be on their uppers.

Another article analyses some likely future scenarios for restaurants, interviewing a top chef, a restaurateur and a street food team. The chef, Tom Kerridge, said of the last 14 months: ‘I’ve tried to take all fear away from the staff….Filtered all the way through, it’s been, ‘Don’t worry, you’re all safe.’ I’ll be honest, it’s been absolutely exhausting. I’m more tired than if the restaurants are open’. Hmmm…. he’s carrying out the psychological containment role for his staff which the government should be doing for the whole population. There’s concern that social distancing measures continuing beyond June will affect business and ‘diners should not expect deals’ – interesting given reports last year of rude and demanding customers expecting just that. Although Kerridge predicts more closures, especially ‘wet-led pubs’, where profit margins are low, he sees opportunities for entrepreneurs due to yet unexploited sites and good deals negotiable on rents, so ‘it’s not all gloom’.

The others interviewed cite other key factors, like people holidaying in the UK boosting trade but the real reckoning point coming in 2022, following a tough winter and VAT and rent rates returning to normal. What emerges forcibly from this very interesting article is the amount of strength and optimism needed in this business within a climate of extreme uncertainty: it’s a salutary lesson for those of us who use restaurants but know little about what they’re up against.

Finally, it’s encouraging to read a positive story about this business, about a Syrian man who fled with only £12 to his name and now has his own restaurant in London’s Soho. ‘When Imad Alarnab, a Syrian chef, arrived in the UK as a refugee five years ago, he could barely afford to eat. Meals were regularly skipped and a Snickers bar could be eked out over a whole day to help him survive’. The article describes how this massive achievement came about, first partnering with a charity in 2017 to host a pop up kitchen in East London, word of mouth success then leading to many more customers. One thing led to another and ‘Alarnab crowdfunded £50,000 last autumn to help secure the 60-cover restaurant on Carnaby Street, Soho’.

‘This is not because I am strong or brave,” says Alarnab, who begins to well up as staff scurry through the restaurant, prepping for their first service. “I am proof that if you try to do something good for people, something good will happen to you. This is a fact.” Back in Syria, he had lived a comfortably affluent life as the owner of three restaurants and several juice bars and coffee shops’. He lost everything during severe bombing over 6 days in 2012, then was forced to move from place to place with his wife and three daughters, before attempting the perilous journey to the UK over three months in 2015. ‘Almost 10,000 licensed premises – including restaurants, pubs and clubs – closed permanently in 2020 and an estimated 640,000 jobs were lost from the hospitality sector in the last 12 months’. Despite such a difficult operating environment, let’s hope Imad Alarnab survives and thrives.

Sunday 16 May

Confirmation of the third step of lockdown easing understandably dominated the news agenda this week but wouldn’t you just know that, like last time, the sense of release was marred by the exponential growth in Indian variant cases. These are tripling every week and there are at least 1300 cases in this country, particularly affecting northern towns like Bolton and Blackburn. We can’t be surprised at this, given the delay before putting India on the red list and further delay between announcement and implementation. During this time 20,000 are thought to have entered the country from India but, needless to say, Boris Johnson has denied that the government acted too late. Local politicians in those towns are fighting the advice by some scientists to delay the fourth step in June and the threat of local lockdowns. It’s quite striking that the government aims to remedy this situation by surge testing and vaccination, but the key factor which has never worked properly is Test and Trace. Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zawahi also stressed the need for self-isolating but key factors militating against this are the weakness of the government’s system in enforcing self-isolation and lack of financial support for those who can’t afford to isolate.

‘The PM’s words came as new documents released by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) revealed just how worried scientists are about the variant. Modelling by Sage suggested it was “a realistic possibility” that it could be up to 50% more transmissible than the Kent variant. If that was the case, they said, progressing to stage 3 of the road map – due on Monday – would “lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations (similar to, or larger than, previous peaks)”. Professor Alice Roberts tweeted: ‘The SAGE minutes published on Friday make it very clear the government has not met its own tests for proceeding with reopening. So it’s a political decision, despite the science’. Health Secretary Matt Hancock raised concerns on his Sunday morning media round by again stressing ‘personal responsibility’, prompting a number of plain-speaking tweets: ‘Little Matty Hancock ‘we’re moving towards personal responsibility’, so if Johnson’s latest gamble goes tits up, then the Gov will blame the public’.

Although tomorrow’s easing seems unstoppable, the fourth step now looks in doubt and June 14th has been given as the date when we hear whether it will go ahead on 21st. Doubts hanging over the easing measures will cause more uncertainty and anxiety in the population, especially if they feel that easing is going ahead to satisfy a date-based plan rather than evidence-based strategy. It could be particularly difficult for businesses which have had to close or only partially open all this time, some having invested substantially in the wherewithal to allow Covid-safe opening.

Some experts have gone further, predicting a third wave if restrictions are eased tomorrow and emphasising the risk of Long Covid: millions still haven’t been vaccinated and there could be many hospitalisations despite the vaccination programme. ‘Deaths are not all that matters. The decision to vaccinate older people first was based on saving lives and preventing the collapse of the NHS. The trade-off is more infections in younger, healthy people, and while they are much less likely to die from the disease they are at real risk of long Covid, in which patients continue to suffer from fatigue, brain fog and other debilitating symptoms long after they have overcome the virus itself’.

From Tuesday onwards the Queen’s Speech, including its omissions, took centre stage. It beggars belief that, having heard the PM boast in 2019 of a ready made plan for social care reform, this has been kicked down the road yet again. Health Secretary Matt Hancock came in for some flak on Tuesday’s Radio 4 Today programme: when challenged about lack of a social care plan he responded ‘We got Brexit done’ and said ‘We’ll deliver on this commitment (social care) just as we have on our other commitments’ (except, as we’ve seen, they often don’t). Green Party MP Caroline Lucas tweeted: ‘Matt Hancock on top form on Today- “I’m really proud that the PM is so *into* fixing social care…we’re gonna deliver”. R4: “why is it not being delivered today?” MH: “the Queens Speech is *jam packed* full of delivering”. Would be funny if not so serious – we need action today. In just a couple of months, it will be the 10th anniversary of the Dilnot Commission on social care reform. What a wasted decade’.

Journalist Polly Toynbee explains why she thinks social care reform isn’t on the government’s agenda, attributing it substantially to it being a devolved responsibility involving local authorities (although this would change if it became a national service) and also because it’s ‘invisible to most voters. When families do suddenly encounter it – frantic parents of a child with special needs, or a family needing care for a parent with dementia – they are shocked to find a threadbare postcode lottery of erratic services. Many voters who cast ballots on Thursday know virtually nothing about social care, blindly assuming it’s like the NHS, until they need it – and most won’t…… Yet again the government calculates that not enough voters benefit to be worth spending the many billions it would take to put this right’.

She explains how the government doesn’t want to lose votes by threatening inheritance expectations (although many surely already have to sell their homes to pay for care) and also reports Age UK’s shocking discovery, that last year 2,000 frail, old people a day had been refused care when asking for help. This is the reality many won’t see.

As every measure to reform social care could prove unpopular, such as tax rises, Toynbee suggests nothing is likely to happen, but didn’t at least one poll reveal that many would be prepared to pay extra tax in order to fund a decent social care service? ‘In name only is Matt Hancock in charge of the Department of Health and Social Care. In practice, the two will stay as divided as ever, until some government some time is brave enough to grasp the nettle’.

The government was also lambasted for omitting a Covid public inquiry, although this was promised in what some saw as an unintended response to Lib Dems leader Ed Davey. The proposed delay amounts to another can kicked down the road because the Covid Bereaved Families for Justice and many others have long called for an inquiry now, so that lessons can be learned and evidence is still fresh in people’s minds. But the ‘reason’ given was that at a time when the government had to focus on the Covid recovery strategy, too much time would be taken up by those involved having to give evidence to an inquiry. In many minds spring 2022 is far too late to begin. Although the PM has said he will appear and answer questions under oath if necessary, we’ll have to believe that when we see it.

In a piece written prior to the Queen’s Speech, the Guardian identified a number of bodies involved in pressing for an immediate inquiry, including influential think tanks the Institute for Government and the King’s Fund. ‘The King’s Fund said: ‘The suggestion that everyone in government is too busy for an inquiry is a poor excuse’.  The list includes the British Medical Association, the Trades Union Congress, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, the government scientific adviser Professor John Edmunds, the Muslim Council of Britain and the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group which represents more than 3,000 families who lost their loved ones to the virus’. It’s quite astonishing that despite all these organisations and individuals expressing their strong opinions on the subject, Downing Street stood firm, and now we have the announcement of the timetable will they feel any more positive about it?

We also have to be concerned about the remit of the government’s ‘independent’ inquiry, whereas the King’s Fund proposed a format examining numerous areas ‘including how health, demographics and social structure increased risk, the responses of the public health system, the NHS and social care response and the handling of the economy and schools’. More broadly, it’s not an area I claim to know much about but I wonder if the machinery of public inquiries is faulty. It’s thought to take months or longer to establish an inquiry, obviously introducing further delay, and it’s unclear why it has to take so long. If any inquiry deserves urgent attention, it’s this one.

So what did the Queen’s Speech actually contain? Some commented that it was thin gruel and you had to feel sorry for the Queen having to wheel out such cliches as ‘levelling up’ – how she must have gritted her teeth at that. We were told that the Prime Minister announced a package of 31 bills that he said would ‘unleash the nation’s full potential’, including legislation to overhaul the planning system, reform the NHS, ‘level up’ the nation and regulate social media companies for the first time. Cynically, some might say, the programme focuses on the needs of the Red Wall constituencies, including adult education and home ownership. But a particularly striking measure thought to amount to voter suppression (because many don’t possess a passport or driving license) is the plan for voter ID. Although very few have been prosecuted for this, ministers are trying to justify this measure by saying we need ‘to keep our elections safe’, when they were never in danger, except perhaps in the wider sense from the First Past the Post tradition. But how typical of an organisation which wants to avoid the challenging tasks – focus on a non-existent problem, trumpeting loudly about it, while omitting the much more pressing problem of social care. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘Such a displacement, ‘bringing forward’ legislation for a problem that doesn’t exist while abdicating responsibility for the one that does’.

The Guardian’s parliamentary sketch writer, John Crace, wasted no time in lampooning the Queen’s Speech performance, although ceremony was kept to a minimum this year. ‘This was the Queen’s first ceremonial public engagement since the death of Prince Philip, and she remains a class, deadpan act. It’s not everyone who could read out a list of Boris Johnson’s promises and give nothing away on the likelihood of at least half of them being broken. It took quite some doing not to even raise an eyebrow at some of the proposed legislation. Or at what was missing’. Alluding to Keir Starmer’s attempt to make some sense of the speech, Crace described this task as ‘…easier said than done when you’re up against a Prime Minister whose defining quality – one that voters even seem to quite admire – is to not keep his promises. So you have to assume that at least half of what Johnson says he is going to do will never happen. The trick is knowing which half is true. A near impossibility as frequently not even Boris knows’.

It was thought Starmer played it safe, saying he would ‘judge the government on its record, not its rhetoric. And the initial signs were not hopeful. The UK was on its knees after 10 years of Tory austerity even before the pandemic, and all that Johnson was offering was to paper over the cracks. How could he talk of ‘levelling up’ when there was no sign of an employment bill of workers’ rights? Where was the social care bill he had said was ready 657 days ago when he became Prime Minister? And what about the cladding scandal? If the Tories were serious about these things – along with ending conversion practices and online harms – then Labour would work with the government. If not, then the government would have its work cut out’.

Although this has been raised before, news that  almost 5 million people are on NHS waiting lists is alarming and although Covid has obviously put the NHS under a massive strain, underfunding  of the NHS over years would have contributed substantially to this situation. The BBC’s heartbreaking Hospital documentaries have demonstrated the agonising choices surgeons and other staff are having to make every day as to who should take priority and the difficulty of ‘getting a bed’ for a needy patient when only two operations a day were allowed in one hospital featured. This week’s showed patients repeatedly being told that they were at the top of the list, but then being disappointed because an even more urgent case had to be slotted in. One viewer tweeted: ‘Obviously all private health provision in the UK should be requisitioned until the waiting lists caused by the government’s failure to prepare for a pandemic have been eliminated’.

As we know, an NHS bill was included in the Queen’s Speech, but some will argue that another NHS reorganisation is profoundly unhelpful at this time, when the service and staff need time to recover without such distractions. ‘An NHS bill is expected to give back to the Secretary of State powers to direct the service in England that were delegated under previous reforms. Clinical Commissioning Groups will be merged into a smaller number of new bodies to be known as integrated care systems, with a new responsibility to work with councils on social care. NHS England’s boss, Sir Simon Stevens, is stepping down’. Again, changes will be unsettling for many, already experiencing lack of service from GP practice, some already having succumbed to takeover by an American subsidiary (58 so far). The need to generate profits for American shareholders is highly likely to result in cutting corners, such as increased use of virtual consultations, where diagnosis of serious conditions can be delayed or not happen at all due to the GP’s only partial experience of the patient.  

‘The Johnson government’s record on public service reform is short and unimpressive. The two Conservative prime ministers before him did far too little to address the long-term health challenges facing the country, notably the increasing demands of an ageing population and the toll of chronic and mental illnesses. The failure to legislate for a new funding model for social care must be counted, along with the lack of affordable housing, among the biggest social policy failures of the past 10 years’. This article also identifies another serious problem which has been allowed to build up over the years, that is, the chronic workforce shortages, although the most significant problem is seen as lack of capacity to meet demand for urgent heart conditions and cancer treatment.

This week two further items emerged to add to Boris Johnson’s impropriety

charge sheet: evidence of an unpaid debt of £535 dating from last October, prompting jokes about the possibility of bailiffs turning up at Downing Street, but also questions as how this had to be uncovered by Private Eye and not by the mainstream media. It was also confirmed that the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, Kathryn Stone,  ‘was investigating a possible breach of the MPs’ code of conduct’, based on questions around the Mustique holiday taken by the PM and fiancee Carrie Symonds at the end of 2019. ‘The Daily Mail reported that Johnson spent 10 days on a luxury villa break worth £15,000 – provided courtesy of the Carphone Warehouse founder and Conservative donor David Ross’ but later this seemed to be denied by Ross. ‘Questions were raised when the Daily Mail said a spokesperson for Ross initially said he had not paid for the trip and described the claim as a ‘mistake’, before backtracking and saying he had ‘facilitated the trip’. There seems so much sophistry employed by those defending the PM’s activities, based on use of ambiguous language. Another underlying issue is that the Register of Members’ Interests is way out of date, with no date for the appearance of its update.

More issues rumble on, including the very public post-mortem of Labour’s failure at the local elections, although more credit could be given by the media for Labour’s gains in the mayoral contests. It must be galling for any party when former prime ministers step forward and issue their eminence grise advice for remedying a situation, though, to be fair, they are often wiser than the present incumbents. The Times featured Tony Blair’s intervention, Blair opining that Keir Starmer was not ‘presenting a convincing vision’, ‘lacks a compelling message’ on the economy and was ‘struggling to break through with the public’. Meanwhile, the balance of power appears to be shifting, the Greens ‘surging’ and moving ahead of the Lib Dems in terms of third party position. Commenting on the party’s success, particularly in Bristol, co-leader Jonathan Bartley said: ‘Who does Labour represent any more? Who do the Conservative party represent any more? Neither of those two parties have a vision for the future. We want re-localised economies where people can work from home, we don’t want to shift hundreds of thousands of people a day on the daily commute’.

Another issue doing more than rumbling is that of former PM David Cameron and his conduct regarding Greensill. Giving evidence to two parliamentary committees this week, Cameron apparently emerged as an arrogant figure, showing no remorse for his relentless lobbying of ministers, but also one, astonishingly, prepared to play the victim card (there was no career path for former prime ministers, especially one so young, etc). ‘In an unprecedented move underlining Cameron’s fall from grace, he was brought before both the Treasury Select Committee and the Public Accounts Committee on one day. The failure of Greensill has jeopardised 5,000 UK steelmaking jobs, as the bank was key lender to Liberty Steel’.

It beggars belief that he maintained he acted ‘in the public interest’, suggesting that his approaches were designed to help the government in their pandemic plight. How shaming that he was told his persistent lobbying of ministers, begging for favours on behalf of the controversial bank he worked for, had ‘demeaned’ the position of the prime minister and left his ‘reputation in tatters’. Yet such a verdict, on the surface at least, is water off this duck’s back, demonstrating yet again the Eton ethos of ‘effortless superiority’ – the rules don’t apply to him and that he’s immune to shame. As if recognising this, ‘Rushanara Ali, Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow and a member of the Treasury committee, said Cameron would come out the other side of the Greensill crisis as ‘Teflon man and a great survivor’, while taxpayers would be left picking up a bill of more than £1bn from the collapse of the bank…’. Too true but Ali’s tearing of Cameron to shreds will most likely cut no ice with him.

‘During four hours of intense questioning, by two committees of MPs, Cameron repeatedly refused to apologise for his personal behaviour in launching, what Mel Stride, Conservative chair of the Treasury Select Committee, described as a ‘barrage’ of lobbying messages. Earlier this week it was revealed that Cameron made contact with ministers and officials 56 times via text, WhatsApp, emails and phone in support of Greensill. Angela Eagle asked if he was not ‘a little bit embarrassed’ about the number of messages he sent, which she said was ‘more like stalking than lobbying’.

The Guardian’s John Crace highlighted both Cameron’s neediness (even signing off his texts ‘Love DC’) and his victim card playing. ‘What was hardest to bear was having his neediness exposed. The 56 phone calls, texts, emails and WhatsApps: each one increasingly desperate. The man who couldn’t take no for an answer. Call me, Dave…… He was just a former Prime Minister with too much time on his hands. He had written his memoirs that almost no one had read and had then had a sinking feeling that he was all washed up at 51. So when Lex had suggested he come and work for his bank as an adviser, he had jumped at the chance. It had given him a renewed sense of purpose. All he had ever wanted to do was to help people. To do good. Even now he found it painfully hard to believe that he had been duped into working for an uninsurable bank that had lent money on phantom invoices’.

It’s astonishing Cameron expected the committees to buy his version of the scandal. He stuck firmly to this and refused to disclose what his remuneration had been: ‘Dave reddened and his face developed a sweaty sheen. ‘I was paid generously and I had shares’, he mumbled. Repeated attempts to find out just how generous his remuneration package was were dead-batted. One got the distinct impression that he was scooping up about £1m a year even before share options were taken into account’. It seems the committees were not duped by his story. ‘Dave had not been undone by Greensill. He had been undone by himself. His chilled-out attitude combined with his desperation to get away from his shepherd’s hut had meant he had never bothered to ask himself if Greensill was just too good to be true’. What I always wonder about such situations is the role and attitude of the spouse or partner: did they know what their OH was up to and if so, didn’t they care? Where is their own moral compass? And what about the reputational damage the scandal could inflict on them and their families?

Although such initiatives don’t compensate for the serious underfunding of NHS mental health services, it’s cheering to hear about the growth of interest in fishing and of a mental health project based in a nature reserve have helped people boost their mental wellbeing. Many long term anglers would already have been aware of this but the tv programme Gone Fishing has considerably boosted awareness of the hobby’s mental health benefits and during the pandemic sales of fishing tackle and applications for licences rocketed, including a new interest from women. ‘Taking up a rod and reel is now even available on prescription. Greater Manchester Mental Health Trust has partnered with a local fishing organisation, Tackling Minds, to help patients with problems such as depression and anxiety. The increasing popularity of fishing is part of a general rise in the appreciation of outdoor life and nature during the coronavirus pandemic alongside outdoor swimming, walking and even naturism’.

In a not dissimilar initiative, the WWT London Wetland Centre is pioneering a ‘blue prescription’ scheme with the Mental Health Foundation, whereby people experiencing anxiety and depression can participate in a variety of activities associated with mental wellbeing, such as birdwatching, pond dipping, nature walks and habitat protection work. ‘Previous schemes involving activities such as wildlife volunteering noted clear improvements in mental health. YouGov polling for the Mental Health Foundation found that being near lakes, rivers and the sea – ahead of time spent in gardens, parks and the countryside – was rated the highest by people in terms of having a positive impact on their mental health. Using nature as a therapy is part of a wider movement of social prescribing, where exercise, social activities, home improvements and other interventions are used as effective and often inexpensive treatments’.

It’s not surprising that Health Secretary Matt Hancock has backed such schemes, as he wants to reduce demand on the NHS, but the importance of such projects in prevention is not to be underestimated. ‘Jolie Goodman, of the Mental Health Foundation, said: ‘Many people in Britain get no support for their mental health from the NHS. Projects like blue prescribing are a way for people to protect their own mental health and prevent them needing crisis support’. Research in 2019 found that a two-hour “dose” of nature each week significantly boosted health and wellbeing, even if people simply sat and enjoyed the peace. Volunteers on wildlife projects showed a big boost to their mental health in a 2017 study’.

In contrast, we could well ask if there’s anything retail giant Amazon won’t turn its hand to. It’s already opened its first contactless supermarket in the UK and now its first hairdressing salon is due to open in Spitalfields, a now fashionable part of East London. Its USP seems to be use of technology, for example testing augmented reality systems so customers can see what a style would look like before committing themselves to it. It will be interesting to see feedback – something a consumer news programme should surely include if they haven’t already.

Finally, in what seems a rather counterintuitive venture for Italy, we hear that an entrepreneur in Rome is now selling pizza via vending machine, thought to help those working unsocial hours, for example. The Mr Go Pizza booth serves 24/7 pizzas, kneaded by a machine and served with cutlery, within three minutes of ordering. ‘The concept has been met with a mix of curiosity and incredulity from Roman pizza-lovers in a city filled with street food outlets serving pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice)’.

Feedback has been mixed, but in response to sceptics and defensive traditionalists, Massimo Bucolo is clear that he’s not taking work away from pizza-makers or trying to replicate the traditional Italian pizza. ‘The big mistake is thinking that this is an attack against pizza-makers or that it will send them into crisis. In fact, Mr Go’s final product is not the same as the pizza they make … it is a cross between a pizza and a piadina [a thin Italian flatbread]’. Again, it will be interesting to see how this goes, especially when there’s more choice due to Italy opening up more over the next few months.

Sunday 9 May

News last week, including that a senior Tory, Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross, said Boris Johnson should resign if he breached the ministerial code, has been temporarily obscured from view by the striking results of local elections and the Hartlepool by-election. The ‘catastrophic’ losses suffered by Labour including losing control of 21 councils have already prompted recriminations that these were due to weak leadership by Keir Starmer, fielding a Remainer in a Leave constituency, socialists having been expelled from the Party, a deep identity crisis and insufficiently clear policies but it’s also due to their seeming inability to cut through Conservative cronyism and false promises. Whether we like it or not, the lack of political awareness and education in this country have prevented many from seeing the true nature of the tousle-haired bluster merchant they consider their chum.

Boris Johnson has managed to convince many that, as he repeatedly said last week, his government is focusing on ‘getting things done’, whereas the Labour Party wants to ‘play political games’ (aka subjecting the government to legitimate scrutiny). The fact that Hartlepool was Labour for 57 years before this indeed suggests that voters there don’t care about Tory corruption and the number of Covid deaths on its watch, though it has to be said that the right wing press and some broadcast media have done them a disservice by trivialising issues like the Downing Street flat refurb as ‘cash for cushions’. Johnson has maintained his gung-ho rhetoric, claiming his government is ‘continuing to deliver’, when it’s done anything but in many areas of activity.

His government has wrongly taken credit for the vaccine rollout, has only partially ‘got Brexit done’ (as we see from continuing problems in Northern Ireland and this week’s showdown with French fishermen in Jersey) and the main thing which desperately needs addressing, social care, looks like being kicked down the road again. Despite saying he was ready to ‘bring forward’ social care proposals when first elected, nothing further of substance has been heard and the pandemic can’t be used as an excuse. In a car crash interview during Wednesday’s Today programme, Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment (to use the full title) Nadhim Zahawi tried to fob off the presenter with talk about ‘cross party working’, ‘scaling up’ initiatives in some cities, but apparently social care won’t feature in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech. How much more could have been invested in the NHS and social care had not the government handed out so many billions in contracts to companies linked to the Conservatives? It’s also interesting that, having steadfastly refused cross-party consultation and working during the pandemic, the government tries to implicate other parties on social care and its failures, pretty obviously to share blame which belongs to them alone.

Our PM might enjoy glad-handing locals in Red Wall constituencies but, unlike other political leaders, he carefully avoids being interviewed on programmes like Today. John McDonnell tweeted this week: ‘Johnson’s refused to go on BBC’s Today programme. Same tactics as in general election to avoid detailed questioning. He’s playing the BBC again & getting away with it. The BBC should refuse to accept a substitute, blank Johnson’s stunts and offer their slots to the other parties’.

For all the criticism of Labour, though, we have to remember how the other parties have also struggled over the years to find a suitable leader, someone with the key qualities of charisma, effectiveness and integrity. It’s clear we are producing fewer of them these days, one possible reason being the increasing tendency of ambitious politicians to take the narrow route of public school, PPE at Oxford, then becoming a PPS to an MP before being given the opportunity to stand for their own seat, meaning they’ve never had what some refer to as ‘a proper job’. This surely means they will struggle to understand the challenges of ordinary people outside the Westminster bubble. This point has been made in several quarters, eg Birmingham MP Khalid Mahmood, who recently resigned as a Shadow Defence Minister, citing his belief that Labour had left its traditional voters behind in favour of ‘a London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of brigades of woke social media warriors’.

On Saturday it emerged that Labour campaign manager and party chair Angela Rayner had been sacked, a rather kneejerk bit of scapegoating many Labour supporters are up in arms about. All of these events could increase further public anxiety, partly because it feels as if we have no credible Opposition and we are gradually becoming a one party state to the detriment of democracy. The Guardian analyses Rayner’s performance, citing some errors but many more positive points, making her sacking look a bit like an own goal, maybe one with a sting in its tail. ‘The fact Rayner remains deputy leader is also significant. It is an elected position, which gives her an independent mandate from party members. As Corbyn found out when he repeatedly came into conflict with his deputy Tom Watson, it can be a highly important role from which she can build her own power base’.

Regarding leadership, just think about the records of William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith and Theresa May for the Tories and Tim Farron and Jo Swinson for the Lib Dems, not to mention Nick Clegg, who was thought to have brought his party into disrepute by colluding with the Tories and voting for tuition fees. But it counts for something that Mark Drayford has done well for Labour in Wales, his record leading to 30 seats, with only one more needed for a majority. In contrast to England, Labour held onto all but one of its seats targeted by the Conservatives. Another point in Labour’s favour is doing so well in the mayoral elections, including London, Salford, Tyneside, Liverpool and Manchester, with Andy Burnham now seen as a future Labour hopeful.

Mention of David Miliband’s name reminded me that a few years ago, I wrote a spoof piece for a counselling journal about how a certain mental health service initiative would be viewed in 2025. It quoted ‘Prime Minister David Miliband’ and at least one commentator during the last few days has suggested that Labour won’t be rescued until he takes over.

Only when Boris Johnson saw how well the SNP was likely to perform in Scotland did he decide to wheel out a Team UK initiative, allegedly to help the country recover after the pandemic but clearly an attempt to tame and quell the pesky rebels north of the border. ‘Johnson told Sturgeon in his letter: “I believe passionately that the interests of people across the UK and in particular the people of Scotland are best served when we work together. We have shown that through the vaccine roll-out.”

The vaccine procurement programme was “Team UK in action, and I recommit the UK government to working with the Scottish government in this cooperative spirit,” the prime minister added. The Scottish and Welsh governments are likely to see this as nakedly cynical.’ Not half, when previous overtures for collaborative working made to Westminster by the Scots and Welsh governments have gone unheeded.

Amid all the febrile speculation and debate of the elections’ fallout, the Twitter account of Larry the Number 10 cat adds a slice of perspective: beneath a photo of a serene Larry basking in the sunshine, the text reads ‘Politicians come and go; I’m here to stay’.

Meanwhile, accusations of sleaze continue: it emerged that Boris Johnson’s brother,  Jo Johnson, was made director of Dyson on 18th February 2020, after Covid reached the UK in January and before James Dyson was awarded a ventilator contract on 16th March, which had led to tax regulations being changed in his favour. In an article entitled Britain’s overgrown Eton schoolboys have turned the country into their playground, commentator John Harris traces the trajectory of the UK’s political elite, ‘a story about privilege, and the shamelessness and insensitivities that come with it. More specifically, it centres on the renaissance of an archetype that has been nothing but trouble: the ambitious, dizzyingly confident public schoolboy, convinced of his destiny but devoid of any coherent purpose – and, once gifted with power, always on the brink of letting loose chaos and mishap’. It’s truly alarming how nonchalance and shamelessness have been allowed to gain such traction, based on the Eton ethos of ‘effortless superiority’.

He points how these qualities and behaviours then lead to rules, conventions and consistency being pushed aside. ‘Part of the English disease is our readiness to ascribe our national disasters to questions of personal character. But the vanities of posh men and their habit of dragging us into catastrophe have much deeper roots. They centre on an ancient system that trains a narrow caste of people to run our affairs, but also ensures they have almost none of the attributes actually required. If this country is to belatedly move into the 21st century, this is what we will finally have to confront: a great tower of failings that, to use a very topical word, are truly institutional’.

Some of us have been campaigning for some time against the privatisation of the NHS by stealth, which has gone under the radar during the pandemic. The government’s former Chief Scientific Officer, Sir David King, pointed out that isn’t an upfront transfer as was the case with British Gas or Royal Mail, ‘but rather a gradual hollowing out, a process that has been further accelerated by the pandemic and will continue under the Johnson government. In 2010, for example, the NHS spent £4.1bn on private sector contracts; by 2019, this had more than doubled to £9.2bn’. The government has actively prevented or hindered information about these dealings coming to light, eg blocking FOI requests, thereby limiting legitimate scrutiny. It’s also thought that creating new organisations can be a way of avoiding accountability, for example abolishing Public Health England and replacing it with the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), headed by Dr Jenny Harries (yes, the woman who, as Deputy Chief Medical Officer took part in many Downing Street briefings, very much abiding by the government narrative).

But campaigning organisations We Own It and Keep our NHS Public have been equally concerned about the selling off of GP practices to the subsidiary (Operose) of American insurance giant Centene. This highly likely to lead to cutting corners in order to meet the objective of generating profits for shareholders – not what was ever intended for the NHS. All this is without any scrutiny or patient and public consultation and many patients will unaware that this is even happening. Meanwhile, recent research suggests that the NHS and social care need an extra £102bn to allow services to be rebuilt post-pandemic – fat chance of them getting that.

This week marked a significant change for care home residents, too late for some but reportedly wonderful for others after 14 months of confinement. Residents can now make accompanied visits outdoors without having to quarantine for 14 days. One resident’s son said: ‘You can have as many phone calls and window visits as you like, but it’s incredibly tough to have been separated in this way’, and we know from many accounts the extent of stress caused to residents and their families by the conditions imposed. These would not have been necessary had the government indemnified care homes against potential insurance claims. Needless to say, Care minister Helen Whately tried to abdicate government responsibility by attributing it to individual care homes: ‘We recognise that every care home has a unique layout, physical environment and facilities, and residents have their own individual health and wellbeing needs, which is why care homes themselves are best placed to decide how to enable visiting safely’ Again, needless to say, the Department of Health and Social Care demonstrated its occupation of a parallel universe, saying it is ‘working across government, with care providers and the insurance industry, to understand the breadth and severity of insurance problems and whether there is any action the government should take’.

Many have commented on the media’s apparent obsession with summer holidays, speculating that travel to European countries will be possible at some point, but we can predict that flight prices will be sky high by the time it’s known to be safe to book. Meanwhile, most of the countries on the government’s much-trumpeted green list aren’t necessarily the places people want to go. Falkland Islands, anyone? But some good news comes in the form of the UK’s largest travel operator Tui developing PCR tests costing around £20, far less than they have been hitherto. Good news for tourists but not for the profiteering companies already purveying them.

Again on ‘re-entry anxiety’, a good article by bereavement expert Julia Samuel effectively talks about the mindfulness approach to difficult feelings many will experience on trying to enter post-pandemic life, not aiming to avoid them but tolerating and moving through them. ‘Pain is the agent of change, so allow yourself to feel the sadness, feel the confusion, feel the fear, and then over time your system will adapt to this new reality…then you can take meaning from it and that gives the opportunity for growth… People have been living with structural uncertainty for a year. That anxiety, the not knowing and the invisible health threat doesn’t just disappear because we are told we can do what we want… Some people will be optimistic and longing to see friends, but there will be others who have real anxiety, questioning if they have lost their social identity and way of connecting. The important thing is to be self-compassionate’. It’s great to see such articles, in my view, because although it is increasingly being talked about, there’s still insufficient recognition of this particular kind of anxiety, which we haven’t had to experience en masse before.

The issue of working from home (WFH) has been hotly debated recently, for obvious reasons, as it’s now possible to contemplate a return to the office. For some WFH has been welcome, cutting out commuting time, perhaps re-engaging with the local area and reducing interactions with difficult colleagues, but for others it’s been lonely and/or stressful, many juggling work commitments with home schooling children and needing to find space and sufficient broadband to work with. It seems that while many organisations are downsizing their office space, there’s a tendency to favour a hybrid model of some days at home and other days in the office. There probably is no substitute for the kind of productive interactions ‘at the water cooler’ which could lead to inspiration or at least esprit de corps. Nevertheless, as one commentator in the Times pointed out, WFH has represented a significant transfer of cost from the employer to employee in terms of higher utility bills and extra hours worked. Another commentator, writing in the Daily Telegraph, opined that WFH eventually became ‘a sterile experience’, maybe suitable for creatives but not ‘commercially minded executives’. Goldman Sachs boss David Solomon went a step further, describing WFH as ‘an aberration’. It will be interesting to see how the situation develops over the next few months.

Finally, for those who’ve wanted to get away from the ‘rat race’ altogether, a recent call for applicants to take up residence and help repopulate one of Italy’s deserted villages might have proved tempting. The Sunday Times tells us that ‘Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a walled medieval hamlet perched in the hills of Abruzzo’s Gran Sasso national park, was emptied out by postwar emigration, leaving dozens of empty stone cottages along its winding alleys’. Officials were stunned to receive over 27,000 applications from people fed up with big city life during the pandemic, but many more might have found themselves ineligible. Applicants had to be under 40 and prepared to open a business in the village. Although in return they were promised a fair rent on a house and an annual living subsidy of E8,000, such a venture could still be challenging. For example, it could prove lonely, a long way to travel to necessary facilities and a small village could limit the growth opportunities of the business. But as this is only one of the deserted villages destined for repopulation, it will be very interesting to see how the project goes.